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Danube River Cruise: Where past, present, music and art meet on the Blue Danube

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The Danube River is the second longest river in Europe (after the Volga River), and it’s the longest river of the European Union. It starts in Germany and flows through several countries (Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Romania) before emptying into the Black Sea.

The Danube slices four European capitals (Vienna, Austria; Bratislava, Slovakia; Budapest, Hungary and Belgrade, Serbia), the most of any European river. If you’re attracted to capital city culture, a European river cruise on the Danube will satisfy you with a fair dose of history and culture, art and architecture, nightlife and nature.

Since the Danube River is so long, there are several ways to see it all. This article focuses on a river cruise that runs the gamut of experiences, from Budapest to Nuremburg. You will visit ornate capital cities and quaint villages, marvel at baroque cathedrals, enjoy gothic and modern architecture, stroll ancient cobblestone streets and savor the authentic dishes of the regions you visit.

You start your European River Cruise by visiting Hungary’s capital, Budapest. This vibrant city straddles the romantic Danube and is arguably the most beautiful city in all of Europe. The Buda hills to the west make for gorgeous walks and sunsets. Here, you get a taste of the capital’s more traditional side as well as the historic Castle District. Don’t miss the spectacular views on the way up the hill to Fishermen’s Bastion and Matthias Church.

Crossing the river via one of several stunning bridges boasts couples embracing above the flowing river, and leads you to the more cosmopolitan Pest. Walk along Andrássy Avenue to marvel at mansions, the National Opera House and the Parliament Building. Take a break in Heroes’ Square, and learn more about Hungarian history. Then explore the shops and cafes in the pedestrian thoroughfare, Váci Utca.

Budapest offers visitors an architectural feast, with baroque, neoclassical, eclectic and art nouveau buildings to overload any camera. Food and wine are delicious, abundant and reasonably priced (and portions are large!). Élvez!

Next you’ll visit Vienna, Austria’s illustrious capital, which easily glides between past and present. Spending some time here allows one to realize why the “Blue” Danube inspired such composers as Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, Strauss, Brahms, Mahler and Schönberg.

Ride along the beautiful Ringstrasse to enjoy the beautiful Opera House, Stadtpark and Hofburg, home of the Habsburg rulers. Within steps of the Hofburg, discover the vast square of museums, the MuseumsQuartier, housing some of the world’s most provocative modern art.

Beyond all the amazing architecture and history is a beautiful sense of green. Nearly half Vienna consists of parkland. A bike and pedestrian path sidles up to the Danube, as it carves out a path from the historical center and the Wienerwald, or Vienna Woods, making this a capital city that revels among green open space and natural beauty.  

After visiting these two lovely capital cities, you will enjoy some smaller towns along the way, including Passau, in northern Austria, which straddles the confluence of three rivers, the Danube, Inn and Ilz. Mosey through the narrow streets of Old Town, visit the Oberhaus Fortress and dwell in the ornate baroque interior of St. Stpehan’s Cathedral. If you’re lucky, you will be able to enjoy an organ concert played on the 17,000 pipe organ, considered Europe’s largest church organ.

In the well-preserved medieval town of Regensberg, Germany, you can see one of the largest groupings of church spires and towers from the 13th and 14th centuries.  Walk in antiquity along the 12th century Old Stone Bridge and explore idyllic courtyards. This is a town blooming with history, so make sure you slow down your pace and take some time to enjoy the ancient cobblestone streets, buildings etched into the original walls of Regensburg's Roman fortress, erected all the way back in 179 AD, or visit Germany’s oldest restaurant, the Alte Wurstküche.

Finally, you will arrive to picturesque Nuremberg, Germany, the place to sip very dark beer. Here, you will probably want to visit the Palace of Justice, historic home of the Nuremberg Trials, the site of the Nazi War Crime Tribunals after WWII. Don’t miss a stroll around the imperial castle grounds, visiting artist Albrecht Dürer’s House, and be sure to check out the beautiful gothic fountain in the Main Market Square.

The Danube has a lot of something for everyone. Capital cities, ancient culture, medieval, baroque and modern art and architecture, intense nightlife and vivid green nature all conspire to attract visitors. If you explore these beautiful places once, there’s no doubt you’ll be drawn to return.