Jane Archer takes an in-depth look at the Danube.

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It’s the gateway to five capital cities and the only river in the world with a waltz named after it. And if you have now started humming The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss, take a bow.

There are a few other things for agents to know about the Danube if they plan to increase river cruise sales, not least that it is the easy way for clients to visit many of the countries that were once trapped behind the Iron Curtain, and which, 25 years since it collapsed, are still unknown to most people.

In the space of just a couple of weeks, passengers can travel from Germany to the Black Sea, sailing through or between Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania, passing beautiful valleys and narrow gorges, visiting pretty towns, villages and capital cities.

No wonder the river is the second-most popular waterway with UK customers, attracting 24,400 British passengers in 2014, according to Clia UK & Ireland.

A Tale of Five Cities

The capital cities of Vienna and Budapest are the headline attractions along the Danube, famed for their outstanding sights, centuries-old history and culture. Indeed, there is so much to see and do in Vienna that a few companies start itineraries with a couple of nights in the city, so clients have time to see the sights before setting off on their cruise.

First-time visitors to the Austrian capital should take in the Hofburg Palace, from where the Habsburgs ruled the Austro-Hungarian empire, tour the Schönbrunn Palace, the royal family’s summer residence, and join an evening excursion to a concert.

Those more familiar with the city can ride the Prater Ferris wheel, made famous in the film The Third Man (it’s within walking distance of where most river cruise vessels dock) or visit the famed Lipizzaner white horses.

But be aware that tickets for the actual performances need to be booked well in advance. Clients feeling adventurous can borrow a bike – several river cruise lines carry them – and cycle the city’s grand boulevards.

The centre of Vienna is a short metro ride from the dock, but in Budapest, clients need only step off their boat to be in the city, which is bisected by the river. Highlights include the Fisherman’s Bastion lookout point in hilly Buda, and Heroes’ Square, the Jewish synagogue, St Stephen’s Basilica and the opera house in Pest.

As well as walking and cycling tours, clients can go sightseeing by Segway or on an amphibious bus that drives around the streets then plunges into the river. There are also plenty of spas in which to relax.

Most itineraries also include a half-day call in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. The historic old centre is small and easy to explore alone – it is just across the road from the river – but river cruise lines offer walking tours and communist-themed excursions to the Soviet war memorial outside town.

Clients sailing beyond Budapest to the Black Sea visit Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, and Bucharest, the capital of Romania, where tours visit the palace built by communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

The second-largest building in the world after the Pentagon in Washington, it was only two-thirds finished when Ceausescu and his wife were executed in December 1989, so they never moved in.

Along the River

Wachau Valley, Austria

Other highlights include Passau, in Germany, where walking tours visit St Stephen’s Cathedral and potter through the cobbled streets.

Moving into Austria, in Melk there are tours to the ornate Benedictine abbey that overlooks the river, and in Dürnstein, clients will hear the tale of Richard the Lionheart, who is said to have been imprisoned in the castle above the town.

From Linz, there are tours to Salzburg, the home of Mozart and The Sound of Music, or the beautiful town of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. Whichever clients choose, the coach ride is about two hours each way.

The attractions beyond the former Iron Curtain are less well known and can usually be reached only on a coach trip. Favourites include tours to fresco-filled churches and the town of Veliko Tarnavo, the capital of Bulgaria when the Ottomans ruled the region, from Ruse.

From Vidin, also in Bulgaria, there are tours to Ottoman rock fortress Belogradchik; from Kostolac in Serbia, passengers can visit the ruins of the former Roman city of Viminacium; and from Vukovar in Croatia, tours go to the old city of Osijek.

Among the Danube’s natural highlights are the beautiful Wachau Valley in Austria (pictured above) and the Iron Gates Gorge – actually four gorges that stretch for 83 miles, narrow to 150 metres at one point and divide the Carpathian and Balkan mountains.

Days Ashore

The top-end river cruise companies include tours in the price of the holiday, while they are an optional extra with the likes of CroisiEurope, The River Cruise Line and Shearings.

These companies argue it is easy for independent-minded passengers to go ashore alone in most ports, so they don’t necessarily want to go on – or pay for – tours. Of course, it also allows them to keep their prices down.

Scenic Tours and Tauck include concerts in Vienna in their prices, while other lines offer them as an optional extra.

Day trips often involve a walking tour of the local town or city, but Scenic Tours, Emerald Waterways, AmaWaterways and Avalon Waterways are among a few lines that offer a choice of complimentary excursions at selected ports to cater for clients visiting for a second or third time.

In Vienna, for instance, there might be an alternative visit to the Spanish Riding School, while in Budapest, Scenic offers a guided city tour, a spa visit or an excursion to the city’s Hospital In The Rock.

Vienna Spanish Riding School - Image Credit: Osterreich Werbung
Image credit: Osterreich Werbung


There are numerous Danube itineraries, including two-week cruises between Amsterdam and Budapest (these also sail the Rhine, Main and Main-Danube Canal), one-week round-trips from Passau in Germany, or between Budapest and Passau or Nuremberg on the Main-Danube Canal.

Viking River Cruises’ eight-day Romantic Danube cruise between Budapest and Nuremberg costs from £1,345, including flights and transfers, for departures on November 14.

Instead of Passau, which is so busy that boats often have to moor side-by-side, AmaWaterways starts and ends cruises in nearby Vilshofen, using the same flight gateway of Munich.

Several companies link a seven-night Danube cruise to three nights in Prague either at the start or end of the itinerary. AmaWaterways offers three nights in Munich as an alternative to Prague. The 10-night package starts at £2,242 excluding flights, departing November 9.

Tauck’s Danube Reflections sandwiches a seven-day cruise from Regensburg in Germany to Vienna between two nights in Prague and two nights in the Austrian capital. Cruise-only prices start at £3,145 for departures on July 15, including excursions to a clutch of art and music museums, and a dinner and dance in a Viennese palace.

Saga Cruises combines a seven-night cruise from Budapest to Passau and back to Vienna with three nights in the Austrian capital. Prices start at £1,599, including flights, transfers and half-board accommodation in Vienna, departing October 14.

The River Cruise Line has introduced a cruise-and-stay option that adds three days in Budapest to a five-day Danube cruise from Passau to the Hungarian capital. Prices start at £849, including flights and transfers. A 10-day option with travel by train starts at £979, including a night’s accommodation in Frankfurt and Munich.

Shearings’ new 10-day Three Cities of the Danube holiday takes passengers from Linz in Austria to Budapest and back to Passau. Prices start at £1,369, including coach travel from the UK and a night in a hotel in each direction.

There is also plenty of choice for clients who want to cruise the lower Danube, including seven-night voyages between Hungary and either Bulgaria or Romania, as well as cruises all the way from Amsterdam to Romania for those with three weeks to spare.

APT has an eight-day Voyage through Eastern Europe, from Budapest to Ruse in Bulgaria from £2,450, including flights and transfers, departing April 13. Amadeus River Cruises has a 10-day Musical Journey from Bucharest to Vienna with classical concerts on board and ashore.

Cruise-only prices start at £2,116, including eight excursions, for departures on June 4.Uniworld’s new 19-day Grand European Explorer adds two nights in Prague and two in Bucharest to the start or end of a voyage between Nuremberg and Giurgiu (about 90 minutes from Bucharest). Cruise-only prices start at £5,518, departing April 27