Immortalized in Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz, the Danube River is full of surprises for those who embark on Continental Europe’s most popular river for cruising. Flowing through six countries, the Danube meanders for nearly 1,800 miles — from Germany’s Black Forest through Austria into the Balkans before ending in the Black Sea. Many elegant ships offering a variety of itineraries cruise the legendary river and take you to some of Europe’s most fabled cities along the way.
Your journey includes Nuremberg, Germany. The infamous center of the Nazi Party in the 1930s, Nuremberg was virtually destroyed during World War II. However, the city has been restored and today, you can visit WWII historical sites, tour the medieval city, or if you visit in December, attend the world’s largest Christmas Market, a truly magical event.
Dating back nearly 2,000 years to Roman times, Regensburg, Germany, is the oldest city on the Danube. The Roman gates, Porta Praetoria, built in 179 A.D., are still standing. The city also lays claim to Germany’s oldest restaurant, Alte Wurstküche, a small sausage kitchen and dining room situated right on the river, perfect for a beer and bratwurst! And don’t miss the Cathedral that dates back to the 13th century; it is regarded as one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in Europe.
Still in Germany, Passau serves as a jumping off point for passengers wishing to take the optional excursion to Salzburg, birthplace of Mozart and of course the setting for the “The Sound of Music.” However, Passau itself is a great destination to explore, especially St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which features the world’s largest church organ with some 17,774 pipes!
Flowing past vineyards, castles and ruins, the stretch of river along Austria’s Wachau Valley is short, less than 20 miles, but is generally regarded as one of the most beautiful parts of the Danube. In this area, many river cruises call on Durnstein, dominated by the ruins of Kuenringer Castle, where King Richard the Lion-Heart was held prisoner, and Melk, home to the beautiful 18th-century Melk Abbey with it’s magnificent courtyard and terrace views. On a clear day, you can see the breathtaking Austrian Alps.
Characterized by beautiful parks, legendary coffee houses and Baroque palaces, Vienna was home to the Habsburgs, one of Europe’s principal sovereign dynasties from the 15th to the 20th centuries. A visit to the Schönbrunn Palace, built between 1696 and 1713 as the imperial summer palace of the Habsburgs is a must. You’ll also want to visit the 15th century Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral, one of Europe’s most impressive Gothic structures), along with the Imperial Chapel (to see the famed Vienna Boys’ Choir) and the Spanish Riding School. And don’t leave Vienna without stopping in the Hotel Sacher, where the famous Sacher Torte was first baked. Most notable of all, Vienna is the city where Mozart, Beethoven and Strauss composed their greatest operas and symphonies.
Slovakia’s capital Bratislava was a “capital in exile” for Hungary’s kings and archbishops during Turkey’s occupation of Hungary and most of the middle Danube basin from 1526 to 1784. Bratislava is dominated by an enormous castle that stands sentinel over the Danube. The castle dates back to the 9th century, though it was razed in 1811 and rebuilt in the 1960s. Stroll the city center, and stop in one of Bratislava’s charming cafes for coffee and cake.
Situated on opposite sides of the Danube, Buda and Pest were united in the 19th century to form the Hungarian capital Budapest. The beginning or ending point for many Danube cruises, Budapest was once referred to as the “Queen of the Danube,” because of the city’s cultural significance at a time when Hungary was three times the size it is today. On one side of the Danube, hilly Buda retains much of its Middle Age charm. Its cobbled streets and Gothic buildings have been well preserved. On the other side of the river, Pest is the thriving city center. Walk the pedestrian shopping street, and be sure to visit the Great Market Hall for local foods and unique souvenirs.