Whichever river you choose to follow, you'll find it has its own special magic.
ROAMING ON THE RHINE
It's easy to see why so many first-time river cruisers opt for a journey along the Rhine. This mighty waterway runs some 1230 kilometres through six European countries and its dramatic scenery, magical castles and turbulent history have inspired artists for centuries.
Cruises generally sail between Amsterdam and Basel over eight days, taking in the 65-kilometre Rhine Gorge, which boasts more than 40 castles and fortresses between Koblenz and Bingen in Germany. While there are shorter itineraries – for example, a five-day cruise starting and ending in Strasbourg that visits the historic towns of Koblenz and Rudesheim – and longer cruises that include trips along waterways connecting to the Rhine, the Amsterdam-Basel route has plenty of highlights.
Starting in Amsterdam, you'll need at least a full day and night to explore this vibrant, fascinating city. The next stop, Cologne, is one of Germany's biggest cities. Its twin-towered Gothic cathedral dominates the skyline, and in the streets of the Old Town you can sample traditional beers in atmospheric bierkellers.
In Koblenz, where the Mosel meets the Rhine, a walking tour of the town is the best way to discover its 2000- year history. Or take the exhilarating cable-car ride to the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress for panoramic river views.
Next, sit back and enjoy the unfolding spectacle of the Rhine Gorge on the leisurely cruise to the medieval town of Rudesheim. Some ships call at Mainz or Heidelberg, but picturesque Strasbourg, close to the border of Germany and France, is the next major port. Don't miss a canal cruise there around the medieval La Petite France district.
Use Breisach as a base for tours of the Black Forest or Alsace wine regions, before the cruise finishes in Basel. Or starts there, depending on your itinerary – for me, a day spent exploring this sophisticated Swiss city was an unexpected delight.
THE BLUE DANUBE
Cruises on the Danube range from five to 23 days, with the most popular running between Budapest in Hungary and Passau in Germany over seven or eight days.
The Danube divides the enchanting city of Budapest into Buda (the west, hilly bank) and Pest (the city side). Eight bridges connect the two and ships often dock in front of the beautiful parliament building, within easy walking distance of the city's must-visit sites and wonderful thermal-spring spas.
A day and night in Vienna usually follows, with the option to visit Slovakia's nearby capital, Bratislava. The charms of Vienna are many and well-known – exceptional experiences include attending a private classical concert in a Viennese palace. Bratislava is less polished but offers an intriguing glimpse into its imperial and communist past.
Austria's lush Wachau Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site dotted with ancient churches and castles and flanked by vineyards and orchards, is arguably the most scenic stretch of the Danube. Ships stop at the attractive towns of Dürnstein and Melk (for the 11th-century abbey), and you can cycle 30 kilometres between them for an unforgettable perspective.
At Linz, you can either spend the day in town, which features a mix of baroque, art deco and ultra-contemporary architecture, or head to Salzburg, where Mozart was born and many scenes from The Sound of Music were filmed. Salzburg is packed with historic houses, palaces and streets full of shops and cafes – it's a tough choice.
Passau, where the Inn and Ilz rivers meet the Danube, is the start or end point of this cruise, and is about 220 kilometres from the Czech capital of Prague. So many wonderful places to see, so little time.
Cologne’s skyline is dominated by its twin-towered cathedral. Photo: Adobe Stock
THE GOLDEN DOURO
The Douro, Portugal's "river of gold", offers a different type of cruise experience. It is only navigable for about 200 kilometres between Porto and Vega de Terron (on the Spanish border), so itineraries are shorter, ships are smaller and the river less crowded. And while it's incredibly scenic, tours are more about local quintas (traditional wine estates) than monuments.
Having said that, the old city of Porto is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Like Budapest, Porto is divided by the river, with Vila Nova de Gaia on one side, and Ribiera, the medieval centre, on the other. Porto oozes character and is the perfect place to start learning the finer points about port wine.
Ships pass through five dams, including at Carrapatelo: the water level change is 35 metres, making it one of the world's deepest locks. Over about six days you'll visit the small ports of Régua, Pinhão and Barca d'Alva before either turning around at Vega de Terron or heading to the Spanish city of Salamanca, which has hosted a university since the 12th century, if you're on a Lisbon–Madrid itinerary. Day tours of Salamanca from Vega de Terron are another option.