River Cruising: Black Sea to Black Forest

(No) Regensburg, Germany will be the port of embarkation or disembarkation for Viking River Cruises’ eight-day “Romantic Danube” itinerary in 2021. Shown here is Viking Tor in Regensburg.

Carving a path through central European landscapes, the legendary Danube River flows from the Black Forest in Germany southward toward the Black Sea region. Many travelers think of this storied waterway in terms of the “Blue Danube,” a famous musical waltz composition by Johann Strauss II and Johannes Brahms.

But, more notably, this storied river is the water gateway to fairytale villages, storied capital cities, cliffside castles, forests, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, cultural sites and culinary delicacies. While river cruises in the region were “on pause” at press time, cruising is expected to resume sometime this year or next, varying by line. So, what can luxury travelers expect? Here’s our summary of top Danube River cruise happenings for 2021 or 2022. 

New Embarkation / Disembarkation Port: Starting in 2021, the eight-day “Romantic Danube” itinerary, one of Viking River Cruises’ most popular voyages, will use a new embarkation / disembarkation port. Previously, this itinerary operated between Budapest, Hungary and Nuremberg, Germany with a call in Regensburg, Germany. Next year, though, it will begin or end in Regensburg, founded by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval cities with an impressive Stone Bridge and Imperial Castle.  

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Sailing to ports in Hungary, Austria and Germany, 190-passenger Viking Long Ships, including Viking Tor, Viking Jarl and others will sail this route between May 28 and December 19. Why the change? Now, guests can spend an overnight in scenic Regensburg, plus take advantage of two new 2021 pre- and post-cruise extensions. 

A new two-night Nuremberg extension will give guests time to view medieval sites and walk the largely pedestrianized, cobblestone streets in the heart of Old Town (Altstadt Sankt Lorenz), home to lovely half-timbered houses, Gothic churches and fountains. Old Town is within the city’s medieval city walls, with some sections still intact. The Imperial Palace of Nuremberg survives from the 11th century.  

After touring, we’d pop into Nuremberg’s casual Behringer’s Bratwursthausle, a traditional eatery just off the main market square. The specialty is Nuremberg sausages (bratwurst); here, they’ve been grilled over a beechwood fire in a tradition dating to the 14th century. Behringer’s soft pretzels and hot soup (perfect on a cool fall day) also are yummy. Guests can also order a glass of local wine, a brew or a schnapps in their choice of cherry, raspberry, pear, sloe and plum flavors.

For cruisers desiring to delve into 1930s history and the World War II era, Nuremberg has many draws. At the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds, visitors can learn about the rise of the National Socialists in the 1930s, their parade rallies in Nuremberg history, and how the city became the seat of Nazi propaganda. Later, Nuremberg also was the place of punishment for war criminals, and travelers can often visit the courtroom (still used for trials today) where those post-war trials were conducted. 

A second new pre- or post-cruise extension for 2021 is Viking’s four-day “Nuremberg & Prague” land trip. Cruisers can head out to see Prague’s medieval sites and stroll along narrow streets in the old Jewish Quarter. History buffs who’ve explored the Nazi historical angle in Nuremberg can further learn why Prague was key to Hitler’s plans for world domination.  

Five guided tours are included and other shoreside options, too, are available for Viking’s “Romantic Danube” guests. One touring highlight is an exclusive “Privileged Access” excursion offered to Austria’s 900-year-old Gottweig Abbey, a hilltop Benedictine abbey in the Wachau Valley. Guests will be admitted to the cellar and see the working abbey where monks worship and work. Neoclassical in style, it’s ornate, has a grand Imperial Staircase and a gorgeous ceiling with frescoes.

New Danube Itineraries: In 2022, Crystal River Cruises will offer a new seven-night “Treasures of Southeast Europe” itinerary on the Danube River. The 106-passenger Crystal Ravel will sail on a route that features two maiden port calls, including Vidin, Bulgaria and Giurgiu, Romania. Vidin, an ancient city that’s today a regional center of agriculture and trade, has an eclectic mix of architectural styles. 

It sits atop an ancient Celtic settlement that eventually became part of the Roman and Ottoman empires. Top things to do? We’d suggest taking time to view the frescoes at the 17th-century St. Panteleimon Church and to explore the medieval Baba Vida Fortress overlooking the Danube. 

Another maiden call for Crystal in 2022 is Giurgiu, Romania, located about 40 miles south of Bucharest, Romania. River cruisers shopping in this and other Romanian ports will find lovely gifts to take back home to family and friends; these include hand-crafted eggs, ceramics, women’s traditional blouses or hand-crafted wooden products, including jewelry boxes or spoons. 

Every Crystal River Cruises itinerary has at least two overnight stays — some as many as four — so guests have plenty of time for land exploration. While Crystal Ravel is docked in Belgrade, Serbia, Crystal’s guests have the choice of four different included excursions. For active travelers, we’d suggest two tours rated “extreme” on the line’s activity level. One is a bike tour of Belgrade, a great way to see the city via pedal power, or travelers can paddle along the Sava and Danube rivers on Crystal’s “Belgrade Kayak Safari.” 

Alternatively, cultural buffs can take Crystal’s Belgrade city tour with insights from a local archaeologist, or head out for a foodie fun excursion at Il Primo cooking school. We’d opt for the latter hands-on “Serbian Cooking Class” with the chance to create and taste such local favorites as cheese pie, leek salad with sour cream, or “Cvarci” (pork cracklings) pâté with pickles, shallots and eggs.  

Also new for 2022 is Crystal’s new nine-night “Joyous Danube Holiday” voyage on the 106-passenger Crystal Mahler. Sailing roundtrip from Vienna, it departs December 24, 2022 for the holiday period sailing. 

Crystal also has introduced a new Advance Purchase Savings program applicable to dozens of seven-night voyages and 10 different itineraries between March and December 2021, some of which are on the Danube. With this program, travelers can access a new nonrefundable fare that offers a 50 percent savings off the normal fare and they’ll also receive the best available suite at time of booking. 

In addition, guests have the flexibility to change their embarkation date to another applicable sailing with no penalty, should they choose to do so before December 31, 2020. Travel advisors will receive a $250 gift card for each booking and full commission payout once payment is received within seven days of booking.  

Ships Rejoining the European Fleet: In 2021, the 161-passenger AmaBella and AmaVerde will rejoin the AmaWaterways’ European fleet; previously they were on charter to an outside partner. Returning to the line’s itinerary offerings, they’ll begin sailing in spring 2021 in the Netherlands and Belgium before heading south to the Danube River. 

So, for example, AmaBella will operate a seven-night “Legendary Danube” itinerary on a May 19, 2021 sailing between Nuremberg and Budapest, while AmaVerde will operate a December 26, 2021 holiday Danube cruise. Both vessels also will operate the seven-night “Gems of Southeast Europe” itinerary throughout 2021 between Budapest and Giurgiu. We like that on this specific itinerary AmaWaterways offers a three-night Istanbul, Turkey, pre- or post-cruise stay. 

Separately, this year, AmaWaterways offered a new seven-night “Magna on the Danube” itinerary between Budapest and Vilshofen, Germany. But since the 2020 sailing season was “paused” right before the voyages were slated to begin, guests booked in spring and early summer were, obviously, not able to check out the itinerary. So, what’s the draw if guests rebook for 2021 or beyond?

“Magna on the Danube” itinerary is tailored to the 196-passenger AmaMagna. Twice as wide as other European river vessels, AmaMagna launched on the Danube in 2019.

First, this new “Magna on the Danube” itinerary’s features / inclusions were personally curated by Rudi Schreiner, the line’s president and co-founder, who was born in Vienna. Second, the new itinerary was tailored to the 196-passenger AmaMagna, twice as wide as other European river vessels and launched on the Danube last year. The new vessel has spacious venues, alternative dining and a 710-square-foot Owner’s Suite and four 474-foot Grand Suites. 

Voyages feature port calls at Bratislava, Slovakia; Vienna, Krems and Linz, Austria; and Passau, Germany. Pre- and post-cruise land programs are available, and throughout the cruise, AmaWaterways’ guests have a choice of many “included” excursions and optional ones, too. 

For example, in Budapest, guests can take the “Queen of the Danube” sightseeing tour or a more active “Castle Hill hike.” At Krems, travelers can head out on a walking tour or, instead, indulge in apricot brandy and chocolate tasting, hike to the Durnstein fortress or pedal from Durnstein to Spitz during a bike tour. In Linz, one option is the “UNESCO City of Media Arts” walking tour, another more active yet enriching “Cultural Mile” bike tour, or guests can take the line’s full-day Salzburg excursion, an Austrian Lake District excursion, or a half-day visit to Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. 

During its time in Vilshofen, Germany, AmaWaterways also offers its complimentary Oktoberfest, a fun, pierside celebration with local brews, soft pretzels and live oom-pah and polka music and dancing. Luxury Travel Advisor experienced this last year on AmaMagna and it was a hoot, with many guests purchasing traditional Bavarian outfits in advance (either via mail at home before departing for the cruise, or after boarding at the ship’s boutique); the entertainers also danced with guests eager to soak up the celebratory fun. 

Separately, one themed option we like is the line’s extensive line-up of Wine Cruises. For example, on the April 14, 2021 departure of “Magna on the Danube,” tapped as a Wine Cruise, Mark Jessup, owner of J Gregory Wines in California’s Napa Valley, and Chef Bob Hurley, also from that region, will be onboard hosts. Another Wine Cruise on this same itinerary is scheduled for March 20, 2022. 

New Two-Week Itinerary: Some travelers may wish to sail a longer itinerary that includes both the Rhine and upper part of the Danube. One new option is Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s 15-day “Rhine, Main & Danube Discovery,” debuting in 2021 between Amsterdam and Vienna with port calls at UNESCO World Heritage sites, quaint villages and wine destinations.

This new itinerary is a combination of the line’s “Authentic Danube” and “Classic Germany & Amsterdam” itineraries. The first voyage will be April 30, 2021 on the 128-passenger River Princess. Sailing the Rhine and Main rivers before / after the Danube portion of the cruise, depending on sailing direction, this itinerary has a robust German destination lineup, so guests can explore Cologne, Rudesheim, Miltenberg, Wurzburg, Volkach, Bamberg, Nuremberg, Regensburg, Straubing, Deggendorf, Vilshofen and Passau. 

During the Volkach call, one highlight is Uniworld’s “Heart of Franconian Wine Country” Village Day; guests choose from four touring options. They can bike past vineyards en-route to “Wine Island;” paddle through the Mainschleife Nature Reserve by canoe; meet local vintners and learn about winemaking in Volkach while sampling house wines; or enjoy a chocolate-paired wine tasting at the “Art of Chocolate” factory.

On the Danube in Austria, the ship calls at idyllic Weissenkirchen, where guests have the choice of a village walking tour with wine tasting or a trip to Melk Abbey, famed for its perch above the Danube, its magnificent Baroque architecture and a storied library with more than 80,000 works printed before 1800. In medieval times, the abbey’s monks created more than 1,200 manuscripts, sometimes spending their entire lifetime hand-lettering a single volume.  

If travelers desire to sail in 2021 with kids and teens in tow, Uniworld offers family-friendly “Generations Collection” voyages on select dates. For example, on its week-long “Authentic Danube” sailing on July 9, 2021, families can head out on special programming such as Nuremberg forest climbing or a Passau treasure hunt. 

The cruise also calls in Vienna, and one Generations Collection shore excursion there is the “Magical History Tour,” taking guests to explore history via the interactive multimedia venue Time Travel Vienna with a “5D” cinema, animatronic wax figures, rides and multimedia shows with sound and light effects. That’s followed by a humorous, expertly guided city walk to the St. Michael monastery. 

Good to know: Kids typically love to play “dress up” as a prince or princess and during “Schonbrunn Royal Experience,” another Generations Collection shore excursion in Vienna for families. At the Schonbrunn Palace’s children’s museum, kids will pretend they’re Hapsburg royalty as they learn the secret language of fans, play with Imperial-era toys or, perhaps, set the table for a grand dinner.  

Uniworld's 128-passenger River Princess will debut the 15-day “Rhine, Main & Danube Discovery” itinerary in 2021.

New Danube Ports and Itineraries: Avalon Waterways has unveiled three new 2021 European itineraries on the Danube that feature Croatia, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria, plus five maiden port calls at Ilok, Croatia; Golubac, Serbia; Constanta, Romania; and Ybbs and Hainburg, Austria. 

As the easternmost Croatian town, Ilok is home to a medieval fortress and, with a wine-growing culture that dates to medieval times, is surrounded by vineyards. Another new port of call, Golubac, also has a medieval fortress perched high above the Danube just outside the so-called Iron Gates; cruisers can delve into the castle’s historical ties to the Hapsburg Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire. 

Lying on the Black Sea, Constanta offers sweeping seaside views. For those seeking culture and heritage enrichment, though, we’d recommend spending time at the city’s Natural History & Archeological Museum for a glimpse into early Romanian cultures. It houses 430,000 objects from Paleolithic to modern times. Be sure to see the Glykon Sphinx, a stellar piece reflecting a deity in Romanian mythology from the second century A.D., and check out the museum’s gold ornaments, stones and carvings. 

Avalon Waterways’ maiden calls in Austria are the village of Ybbs, which serves as the entry point for the Danube to lower Austria, and Hainburg, not far from Bratislava and with a strong Hapsburg history; guests can choose to explore wetlands, a castle and the region’s Roman past. 

Avalon Waterways’ new 2021 Danube itineraries, including those featuring the new ports above are: Nine-day “Balkan Odyssey” from Bucharest to Zagreb, Croatia; nine-day “The Danube from Croatia to the Black Sea” from Zagreb to Bucharest; and 16-Day “The Danube from Germany to the Black Sea” from Deggendorf, Germany to Bucharest. 

Guests can combine the cruises with more time ashore to explore. For example, the new “Balkan Odyssey” has two nights pre- and post-cruise in Bucharest and Zagreb. All cruise itineraries sail on Avalon Waterways’ signature Suite Ships with two decks of 200-square-foot, Panorama Suites featuring open-air balconies and beds facing the “view.”  

New Five-Night Itinerary: Shorter voyages can be even more in-depth than expected. A good example? Scenic will introduce two departures of a new five-day “Tastes of Imperial Europe” itinerary between Vienna and Budapest for 2021. The luxurious 163-passenger Scenic Amber sets sail on April 25 and sister Scenic Jewel will sail this itinerary on May 1, 2021.

Look for a strong focus on the medieval period as guests head out to view Baroque palaces, ancient castles and Imperial treasures. Guests spend two days in Vienna, one day in Bratislava and one day plus an overnight in Budapest, before disembarking on the fifth day.  

In Vienna, Scenic’s included Freechoice excursions range from a city tour to a guided tour of Schonbrunn Palace, the primary summer residence of the Hapsburg family that ruled Austria for hundreds of years, or a guided tour revolving around Viennese “coffee culture.” 

In Bratislava, Freechoice options for Scenic’s guests include either a city tour with a local guide; a home visit with a local family to gain an insight into the everyday Slovak lifestyle while enjoying coffee and cake; or an exploration of Bratislava’s communist-era history during a guided tour. 

In Budapest, guests can join a guided tour of Buda and Pest, the two urban enclaves that comprise the Hungarian capital city. Or, active travelers can hike up Buda Hill. With Scenic Enrich, guests can delve into Budapest’s Imperial past by attending an exclusive private classical music concert at the Royal Palace of Godollo, the world’s second largest Baroque palace. It was once one of the favorite residences of Queen Elisabeth of Hungary and has a symmetrical white façade. 

Golubac has a medieval fortress perched high above the Danube. Avalon Waterways will make a maiden port call to this Serbian port in 2021.

New Danube Itinerary: The Danube remains a favorite destination for Tauck’s guests and new for 2021, the company will offer a week-long “Heart of the Danube: Budapest to Bavaria” itinerary. With departures between April and October 2021, this cruise-only trip between Munich and Budapest is expected to be a good vacation option for first-time visitors to the Danube region.  

Guests will sail in comfort and luxury on either the 130-passenger Savor or Joy. One-third of the cabins are 300-square-foot Tauck Suites. 

This new itinerary will visit Regensburg and Passau in Germany, and with the latter port call guests will also have a chance to visit Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. Plus, they’ll also explore Bratislava, Slovakia, as well as Grein, Durnstein and Vienna, all in Austria.

What’s special? Guests will enjoy a Tauck exclusive – an “Imperial Evening” at a private Vienna palace with dinner and entertainment by classical performers. In the village of Weissenkirchen in Austrian wine country, cruise guests will be treated to a wine tasting event. 

In Grein, they’ll have a choice between a tour of Grein or visit to the poignant Mauthausen Memorial (and museum) at the former World War II-era Nazi concentration camp. And in Vienna, art buffs will have a choice of world-class museums to explore, including the Haus der Musik or House of Music; it has many interactive exhibits and digital options while touring.  

Themed cruises continue to be sought after by potential river cruisers. Luxury Travel Advisor suggests travelers check out Tauck’s “Danube Automotive Heritage: Budapest to Frankfurt,” a 12-day river cruise on Savor or Joy; 2021 departures are April 6, April 13, June 1 and October 19. Auto buffs will likely salivate over this voyage that explores the high-tech automobile production processes and central Europe’s contributions to automotive history and culture. 

Guests will visit automobile factories, vintage car collections and museums and racing facilities. For example, cruisers can visit Bratislava’s Volkswagen plant, opt for the excursion to the Ferdinand Porsche Experience in Mattsee, tour the nearby BMW Factory near Regensburg or even head for a Formula One track and facility — the Hungaroring Motorsports Complex outside Budapest.

Other upscale lines, including Riviera River Cruises, are looking to be back on the Danube soon. For those guests wishing to put 2020 behind them, Riviera has a five-night “New Year on the Blue Danube” cruise, departing roundtrip on the 169-passenger William Wordsmith from Budapest on December 28, 2020. Guests visit Bratislava and Vienna, plus enjoy New Year’s Eve onboard by ringing in the new year with drinks and canapés at midnight. Other onboard highlights include a classical musical recital, a Hungarian folklore show and a New Year’s Day brunch. Guests depart the ship on January 2, 2021.

Certainly, many travelers are looking forward to the resumption of European river cruising and, fortunately, there are many new and enticing luxury river cruise options on the Danube River for 2021 and beyond. 

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