Cities to Savor: The Top Pre- and Post-Cruise Destinations in Europe

Basel, Switzerland is a treasure trove of culture, heritage and art. Seen here is the Old Town with Munster Cathedral on the bank of Rhine River.//Photo: Getty Images / Xantana

Luxury river cruisers often book a pre-cruise stay prior to their upscale, pampering river cruise. That gives them time to rest up, relax and check out the city before sailing into the sunset on embarkation day. In fact, a pre-cruise stay in Paris or Venice is often a “must.” Yet, other river cruise embarkation ports also are appealing for pre- or post-cruise exploration.

Basel – Museum Central

Along both banks of the Rhine River, Basel, Switzerland lies within a geographic triangle that includes not only the Swiss Jura, but Germany’s Black Forest and the Vosges in Alsace, France. Many luxury river cruise lines sail from Basel, including Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. This year, the 128-passenger River Queen operates a 13-day “Legendary Rhine & Moselle” itinerary between Amsterdam and Basel. 

We’d go for the top accommodations, the 215-square-foot Suites, Nos. 403, 404, 407 or 408, all on the Rhine Deck. Guests who wish to linger in Basel can book Uniworld’s optional “Basel & Lake Lucerne” Extension; that includes two nights at Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois (or a similar hotel), daily breakfast, all gratuities, service charges, taxes and porterage, a Lucerne walking tour with a Lake Lucerne boat ride, Basel walking discovery tour, an English-speaking expert and all transfers. 

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Also sailing this year and next between Basel and Amsterdam are multiple Viking River Cruise 190-passenger Longships (Viking Einar, Viking Lofn and Viking Hlin, among others) that operate a “Rhine Getaway” itinerary. We like that Viking offers a two-night, post-cruise stay so guests have independent time to explore in a way that appeals to their personal interests; the package includes two nights at Swissotel Le Plaza, two breakfasts, a guided walking tour, services of a Viking host and hotel and ship transfers.

Uniworld River Queen’s 215-square-foot Suite offers handcrafted Savoir of England bed and a built-in closet among other amenities.

Basel is a treasure trove of culture, heritage and art. Did you know it has more than 40 museums, the highest density of those in any Swiss city? The Tinguely museum showcases the works of iron sculptor Jean Tinguely. This year, Kunstmuseum Basel offers two exhibitions by contemporary American artists, Sam Gilliam and Theaster Gates; they run simultaneously now through September 30 and October 21, respectively. For a more fanciful experience, Teddy bears, dolls, doll houses, little old shops and carousels await at the Basel Toy World Museum (Spielzeug Welten Museum Basel); a new service allows travelers to use their own smartphones or tablets as interactive museum guides. 

It’s lovely, of course, simply to stroll through Basel’s Old Town, dating from the 15th century. It’s one of Europe’s prettiest historic centers with winding cobblestone streets, medieval houses, fountains and a large market square that’s home to a red sandstone town hall with frescoes. We’d just wander to browse antique stores, book shops and boutiques. At Lackerli Huus, a Basel institution, sample Basel’s traditional Lackerli biscuits, made with honey, almonds, hazelnuts, spices and peels of oranges and lemons. Not everything in Basel is old or traditional, though, so look up to admire modern architecture by Herzog & de Meuron, Mario Botta, Diener & Diener and Richard Meyer.

To eat and drink just as the locals do, check out “Taste my City,” featuring culinary walks designed by local residents with multiple stops so travelers can pop in and sample a small plate or refreshment. For “Taste My City” tickets and a description of the culinary routes, visit www.myswitzerland.com/tastemyswisscity. For flora / fauna lovers, good activity options are the Botanical Gardens of the University of Basel or the Basel Zoo, which has a renovated Aquarium 34 with South American “flying fish” (freshwater hatchet fish). The zoo’s Etosha theme area also appeals with cheetahs, meerkats, wild dogs, lions and gamgoas. Beyond the city, cruisers can explore impressive Roman ruins at nearby Augusta Raurica, considered by many as the best-preserved Roman town north of the Alps; activities there include everything from baking Roman bread in a wood-fired oven to participating in “gladiator school.” 

Augusta Raurica, a Roman archaeological site and an open-air museum can be explored by cruisers visiting Basel. // Photo by Getty Images / dariya64 

Crystal River Cruises has just launched its 106-passenger Crystal Debussy, now sailing the Rhine and Moselle rivers. On April 29, 2019, that new luxury river vessel operates a 10-day “Splendors of the Rhine” itinerary from Amsterdam (overnight) to Cologne, Koblenz (overnight) with calls at Rudesheim, Speyer and Breisach, all in Germany, plus Strasbourg, France, and ending in Basel (overnight). Crystal Bach also sails from Amsterdam to Basel in 2019. Tauck’s “Romantic Rhine: Basel to Amsterdam” includes a seven-night cruise between Amsterdam and Basel, exploring Köln, Koblenz, Speyer, Heidelberg, Strasbourg, Lucerne and the Alsace.

AmaWaterways’ seven-night 2019 “Christmas Markets on the Rhine” itinerary sails between Basel and Amsterdam; multiple ships will operate these, including AmaPrima, AmaKristina and AmaStella. For those seeking a lengthier cruise, Scenic’s 15-day “Rhine Highlights” operates between Basel and Amsterdam with calls at Veere and Arnhem, the Netherlands; Koblenz and Cochem, Germany; Kehl, Germany and its sister city across the river, Strasbourg, France; and other ports. Avalon WaterwaysVista or Panorama embarks guests in Basel for various cruises, including an eight-day “Romantic Rhine” and Christmas Markets voyages. Other river cruise lines too have voyages to / from Basel.

For those planning a future river voyage with any line and traveling independent, it’s good to know that a new 19-story flagship hotel for Swiss hotel group Movenpick Hotels & Resorts is now under construction. Opening in December 2019 / January 2020, it will offer 264 rooms and suites, each furnished and designed by Matteo Thun. A spacious executive lounge will feature floor-to-ceiling windows and a furnished terrace with park views.

Amawaterways’ Lyon walking tour takes guests to the Lyon Cathedral, a Roman Catholic church located on Place Saint-Jean. // Photo by Getty Images / Alessandro Cristiano 

Lyon – Gastronomic Hub

If global foodies were asked to select a capital city, it likely would be Lyon, France’s third-largest city. Both a gastronomic center and the jumping off point for many Rhone / Saone River Cruises, Lyon has thousands of restaurants, some Michelin-starred, others small Lyonnais bistros or “bouchons.” Local culinary specialties? Among those are andouillette tiree a la ficelle, a French sausage of coarsely cut tripe; quenelle, creamed chicken or fish that’s combined with breadcrumbs; and the cushion-shaped coussin de Lyon, concocted of marzipan and chocolate ganache, and flavored with curacao liqueur.

A “must do” is a stroll through Les Halles de Lyon-Paul Bocuse, an indoor covered market where Michelin-star chefs sample and buy along with Lyon area residents and travelers. Every stall is a treasure, but we’d suggest stopping by Mere Sibilia to sample charcuterie and St-Marcellin de la Mère Richard for savory cheeses. Elsewhere in the city’s seventh district, a trendy new “gourmet incubator” called La Commune has opened on former industrial land. It’s an alternative food court with multiple eateries, a bar, exhibitions, workshops, concerts and a kids’ playground. The goal is to promote local, healthy food and showcase Lyon’s young, talented chefs. 

One savory voyage we like for 2019 is Scenic’s 13-day “South of France” itinerary from Lyon to Nice. Guests will learn secrets from the famous “Australian Women’s Weekly Test Kitchen” onboard; Fran Abdallaoui, food director, and Michele Cranston, food-editor-at-large, will share their culinary experiences. Special inclusions are a dinner prepared onboard by a Macon region chef, a wine and cheese tasting and a Valrhona Chocolate factory visit. While this itinerary officially begins in Chalon-sur-Saone, guests fly into Lyon Airport prior to boarding, so it’s easy to add another day or so pre-cruise. And when the ship calls at Lyon later, guests will be treated to a Scenic Enrich event — a “can-can” spectacular under the big top ashore. 

During 2018 and 2019, AmaWaterways’ 144-passenger AmaCello sails a seven-night “Colors of Provence” itinerary between Lyon and Arles. While the line offers a three-night pre-cruise Paris stay, there is also enough time onboard at the start of the cruise to allow guests to explore Lyon. So, guests have the embarkation day and night in Lyon, plus a second Lyon day. AmaWaterways offers a Lyon walking tour along cobblestone streets to view pink Renaissance apartment buildings, galleries with Tuscan-style courtyards and the Gothic Saint-Jean Cathedral, or alternatively, a Lyon bicycle tour.

 

Lyon is considered a gastronomic center for many Rhone/Saone River Cruises. Shown below is the three-Michelin star Paul Bocuse Restaurant.

What’s new or upcoming in Lyon? Certainly, the biggest development is the colossal Grand Hotel-Dieu redevelopment project that’s creating a new leisure and lifestyle space in the city’s historic core along the Rhone River. It’s being developed within and around Lyon’s former hospital, dating from the 15th century. The iconic building is being totally renovated. Grand Hotel-Dieu has several major “project pieces;” among them are a new shops and restaurant center (half the shops have opened); gardens, courtyards and offices (also open); residences, yet to open; a luxury Intercontinental Hotel slated to open in 2019; and the crown jewel of the project, La Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie (the International Gastronomy Center), opening in spring 2019. It’s part museum, part laboratory and will feature exhibitions and workshops centered around cuisine and well-being. 

For those seeking the ultimate pampering and space on a pre- or post-cruise Lyon stay, we’d choose the Intercontinental Hotel’s Presidential Suite with powder pink shades highlighted by silk and floral patterns. This suite has direct views of the complex’s iconic Grand Dôme. The hotel also has additional suites and duplexes, plus a club lounge, restaurant with terrace in the garden and a bar in the Grand Dome, an iconic Lyonnais architectural feature. 

Cultural buffs often enjoy relaxing at Musee des Beaux-Arts de Lyon (the city’s fine arts museum) or Musée Gadagne for both history and puppetry. We’d suggest shopping fans head for Rue de la République, visit Printemps, the French department store, before crossing l’Argue Passage into the Golden Triangle, a good place to buy everything from high-quality silverware to handmade hats. Along Rue Auguste Comte, gorgeous shops offer interior design and handiwork creations. For example, Arpin’s has been spinning and weaving for two centuries and specializes in luxurious fabrics and cushions. Finally, don’t miss Lyon’s traditional silk district.  

Uniworld’s S.S. Catherine sails an eight-day “Burgundy & Provence” itinerary from Avignon to Lyon, and guests who want the most space should choose the 401-square-foot Royal Suite with an open-air balcony and butler service. Some voyages are designated as Connoisseur Collection cruises with such perks as a wine-pairing lunch at a Burgundy estate, a truffle-hunting excursion and participation in an induction ceremony by Saint Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage Winemakers Brotherhoods.

For families, Tauck’s Bridges program includes a 2019 “Bon Voyage! France Family River Cruise” with time in Paris and a cruise on Emerald from Avignon to Lyon. While that organized family program ends in Lyon, it’s easy for families to tack on a few extra, independent days in Lyon post-cruise. Activities the kids will love include the Lyon Zoo and “Mini World Lyon,” France’s first and largest animated miniature park, opening its fourth recreated miniature world later this year; that new space is dedicated to Lyon and its festival of lights.

In 2019, Abercrombie & Kent’s 11-day “Burgundy and the South of France” itinerary includes a cruise from Lyon on the new 140-passenger Amadeus Provence, which has eight 284-square-foot Suites with an exterior balcony. The ship also has an infinity pool. Avalon Waterways’ eight-day “Active Discovery on the Rhone – Southbound” itinerary begins in Lyon and continues to Arles, while Viking’s “Lyon & Provence” itinerary is a week along the Saone / Rhone with seven included guided tours. 

Also new this year is Hermes II, Lyon’s new boat restaurant on the Rhone / Saone. Menus are based on traditional, healthy and organic products and created by local chef Florian Locher. The outdoor terrace allows passengers to soak up the sun while admiring city landmarks. But for a bird’s-eye perch, ride the recently renovated funicular up Fourvière hill, home to the famous basilica of the same name. 

Relatively new to the U.S. market is Riviera River Cruises, a veteran U.K. operator offering “Burgundy, the River Rhône & Provence River Cruise for Solo Travelers,” departing November 6, 2018 from Lyon on the 140-passenger Lord Byron. On the premium side, Emerald Waterways’ 11-day “Sensations of Southern France & Nice” cruise on the 138-passenger Emerald Liberte sails from Chalon-Sur-Saone to Nice, France, but guests must fly to Lyon, so they can add a day or so onto the beginning of their vacation. CroisiEurope’s 105-passenger Van Gogh, which cruises from Lyon, was recently upgraded this year and has Wi-Fi in staterooms.

The Christmas Market on Vorosmarty Square in Budapest will be a major attraction for Uniworld’s S.S. Maria Theresa guests. // Photo by Getty Images / klug-photo 

Budapest – Danube Star

Luxury travelers often combine a Danube River cruise that begins or ends in Budapest with free time there on an independent city stay. That’s taken up a notch, though, this year, as Viking Cruises debuts its new “2019 Ocean & River Voyages” program. One new 23-day “Grand European & Viking Fjords” combination itinerary begins May 26, 2019 in Budapest. It starts with the line’s 15-day “Grand European Tour” voyage on a 190-passenger river Longship on the Rhine and Danube between Budapest and Amsterdam. That’s then coupled with an eight-day “Viking Shores and Fjords” ocean itinerary, sailing the North Sea on the 930-passenger Viking Sun between Amsterdam and Bergen. Cruisers can also book Viking’s two-night pre-cruise stay at the Hilton Budapest Castle District (or a similar hotel) with daily breakfasts, hotel / ship transfers and the services of a Viking host.

Twice as wide as most European river vessels, AmaWaterways’ new AmaMagna will launch in 2019 on the Danube River between Vilshofen and Budapest. Most accommodations are spacious suites measuring 355 square feet to 710 square feet with full balconies. Highly anticipated are these new features: Jimmy’s Wine Bar Restaurant, named for the line’s late co-owner Jimmy Murphy; the Al Fresco Restaurant, with retractable windows and outdoor seating; a Zen Wellness Studio with a fitness center and two massage rooms; and a Water Sports Platform that opens to reveal a Sundowner boat for river excursions. Special wine cruises (such as AmaMagna’s May 19, 2019 departure) also feature vintners who sail and lead onboard discussions, plus shoreside wine-themed activities.

Amawaterways’ AmaMagma will launch in 2019 on the Danube River. Shown here is the rendering of the restaurant.

When it’s time for independent exploring, we’d visit Budapest’s Castle Hill for spectacular views; take a soothing dip in one of the city’s thermal baths; and pop into Budapest’s cafes or wine bars. One suggestion is the one-Michelin-starred Borkonyha Winekitchen with dozens of wines by the glass, many from local producers. Dishes feature modern style with subtle Hungarian influences such as Wild Boar Tenderloin and Cheek with Carrot.   

Crystal Mozart in Budapest viewed from the deck of Crystal Bach. Crystal has a new itinerary this year operating between Regensburg, Germany and Budapest.

Crystal River Cruises’ new seven-night “Delightful Danube” itinerary this year operates between Regensburg, Germany and Budapest. The line features a pre- or post-cruise extension in Budapest that includes a stay at the luxurious Kempinski Hotel Corvinus Budapest, providing easy access to Chain Bridge, St. Stephen’s Basilica, the Opera House, Parliament building and the Castle District. The hotel is also amid the shopping and gastronomic quarter. Better yet, it’s home to the one-Michelin-starred Nobu.

Uniworld’s eight-day “Danube Holiday Markets” cruise on the S.S. Maria Theresa sails from Budapest to Passau. When boarding the ship, guests can take an exclusive “Do as the Locals Do” walking tour with Christmas market. It includes a metro ride, Fehervari Street market hall visit, tram ride to Szamos Gourmet Palace to sample marzipan, Vorosmarty Square Christmas Market visit and a stroll through Karoly Gardens and Central Market Hall. With many families sailing during the holidays, it’s good to have kids’ options too. New inside the Budapest Zoo is “Once Upon A Time Castle,” a new children’s area with an interactive fairytale castle, close-up animal encounters and playground.    

Many other cruises also sail to and from Budapest. For a 2019 voyage to the Black Sea, Tauck has several operated by Joy. What’s nifty is that a pre-cruise luxury hotel stay is essentially “built into” the itinerary. On Day One, guests receive an airport / train transfer to The Ritz-Carlton, Budapest for a two-night stay; the first night features a welcome cocktail reception and dinner at Festetics Palace. On the second day, guests will have guided Pest sightseeing, including a St. Stephen’s Basilica visit, scenic city views and a stroll through Central Market Hall. Alternatively, they can opt for a bicycle tour. In the afternoon, Tauck also offers an optional tour of Budapest’s Holocaust Memorial Museum. The third day includes Buda sightseeing, including the Hungarian Parliament building, Castle Hill and the Sziklakórház (“Hospital in the Rock”) museum, which recreates Cold War-era facilities in a former secret nuclear bunker under Buda Castle. Then, guests embark their ship.

The Szechenyi Spa Bath in Budapest is one of the largest spa baths in Europe with 15 indoor baths and three outdoor pools. It is popular for its thermal water that has medicinal values. // Photo by Getty Images / boule13 

It’s no surprise that Budapest, Lyon and Basel are increasingly popular for cruise extensions. The cities offer a lot, and luxury cruisers want to take their time and create their own authentic, in-depth local experiences — not simply to board and sail by. 

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