Rhine Journeys: New River Cruise Itineraries and Tips

In Strasbourg, France, cruisers will visit La Petite France district, whose traditional half-timbered houses are a sight to behold.// Photography: Getty Images/Xantana

Sailing the Rhine River between Amsterdam, The Netherlands and Basel, Switzerland, or alternatively, sailing from German ports to Basel has many rewards. In Amsterdam, cruisers can tour world-class art museums; while in Strasbourg, France, a city with both French and German influences and home to the European Parliament, they can touch Alsatian culture. 

Throughout the region, there are tasting options, including fine Riesling wine or the famous “Rudesheimer Kaffee” (a sweet concoction that includes coffee, Asbach Uralt brandy and sugar cubes). Several destinations, most notably Cologne, Germany, have magnificent cathedrals that miraculously survived World War II. Plus, luxury travelers can simply head to their private balcony to see an array of historic Rhine Gorge castles.

Icing on the cake? Well, that’s an opportunity to explore Swiss heritage and culture or visit the Alps from Basel. Or, this region also has some of Europe’s top Christmas Markets. Here’s a look at some new itineraries and a few tips on what to see and do. 

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“Looking the Part” for Oktoberfest: Combining a Rhine sailing with Munich’s Oktoberfest is Tauck’s new 10-day “Autumn Along the Rhine…Munich’s Oktoberfest” itinerary. In fact, it’s proven so popular that it’s sold out this year. The good news is that Tauck is bringing this new Amsterdam-to-Basel option back in 2020 with sailings on the 130-passenger Inspire and Grace

Among ports of call are Dusseldorf and Heidelberg, Germany and Strasbourg. For beer fans, this voyage also includes a beer-paired German lunch in historic Heidelberg with the brew master of an award-winning brewery, as well as a “Beers & Bites” Old Town walking tour in Amsterdam. After the ship docks in Basel, another highlight is an excursion to the base of the 7,000-foot Mt. Pilatus and a walking tour of Lucerne; at the covered Chapel Bridge, guests can marvel at the interior Renaissance paintings. 

After disembarking their river boat, cruisers will travel through Switzerland and Germany to Munich for a two-night hotel stay, where the journey concludes with a full day at the city’s Oktoberfest celebration. This in-depth Oktoberfest experience includes complimentary transportation and reserved seating in one of the festival’s exclusive brewery tents.

Guests will be treated to a three-course lunch and traditional Bavarian live music, including the traditional Ein Prosit toasting song. Guests will definitely “look the part” and surely snap fun selfies as Tauck will loan them traditional Bavarian lederhosen and dirndls to wear. 

New Rhine Ship: In June, a new Rhine River ship, the 156-passenger AmaMora, will begin sailing several itineraries between Amsterdam and Basel. A sister to AmaLea and AmaKristina, the new ship has 78 staterooms, almost all with the line’s signature twin balconies and many “connecting” accommodations designed for ultigenerational family groups. Onboard AmaMora, guests can dine on regional cuisine in the Main Restaurant or the more intimate Chef’s Table Restaurant (with a tasting menu), plus enjoy an all-day tapas menu and afternoon tea.

Tauck guests who head to Munich for Oktoberfest celebrations will be treated to a three-course lunch and traditional Bavarian live music. 

During AmaMora’s “Enchanting Rhine” and “Captivating Rhine” cruises between Amsterdam and Basel, cruisers can choose from a menu of up to 20 complimentary tours. Also look for several special interest tours, such as an unusual Lahneck Castle visit by candlelight. One tried-and-true highlight, though, is the scenic Rhine River Gorge day cruising — during which castles and cute towns emerge around every bend. 

For the first time this year, AmaWaterways will offer an optional pre-cruise land extension for every cruise. AmaMora also will sail the festive “Christmas Markets on the Rhine” itineraries (Amsterdam to Basel) between November 25 and December 23. 

More About Strasbourg: Many lines, including Crystal River Cruises, Scenic, Tauck, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, Viking River Cruises and others call at Strasbourg for the day. For example, on that recent AmaWaterways holiday sailing, we took the line’s guided Strasbourg walking tour excursion to see the lovely La Petite France district (dating from the 16th century), on the western end of Grand-Ile, an island in the city’s historic center.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is beloved for its cobblestoned streets, canals, half-timbered houses and Ponts Couverts with three historic bridges and four towers. Walking through this district toward the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, it’s fun to window shop or pop into small stores selling clothing, crockery, wine, cheeses and specialty teas. 

Seeking a cute souvenir? Well, that may be something “stork-like.” Large white Alsatian storks spend summers in the city and winters in North Africa. Visit at the right time and you’ll see them in trees, on rooftops and chimneys. We didn’t see the storks, but did see their nests. We bought red-and-white-stork holiday ornaments as small gifts.

Soaring hundreds of feet above the city center, the city’s Gothic-styled cathedral dates from 1015 (its spire from the 1400s), has a façade with hundreds of sculptures and was adeptly described by author Victor Hugo as a “skillful combination of monumental size and delicateness.”  

Year-round, check out this cathedral’s beautiful stained-glass windows and be sure to go inside to watch a performance of the Renaissance-era astronomical clock. Late in the year, the cathedral anchors one of Europe’s largest Christmas markets.

Throughout Strasbourg’s downtown area, be sure to sample local dishes in the “winstubs” or small Alsatian wine bars. One specialty is choucroute à la strasbourgeoise, or pickled cabbage (sauerkraut), salted pork, Strasbourg sausage and ham. Another is tarte flambee or flammekueche, a thin circle of dough topped with fromage blanc or crème fraiche, thinly sliced onions and lardons (strips or cubes of fatty bacon). As for wine, local favorites are Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris. 

Abercrombie & Kent gives guests a chance to view the Alps and Lake Lucerne from top of Switzerland’s Mount Pilatus. //Photography: Getty Images / xbrchx

A focal point for designer shopping is Rue de la Mesange, with such names as Cartier, Christofles, Hermes, Louis Vuitton and more — and surrounding streets have many enticing boutiques, too. Check out www.mystrasbourg.com for a city shopping guide.  

Rudesheim and Beyond: A new 2020 itinerary, Avalon Waterways’ “Rhine & Moselle” cruise sails from Amsterdam to Basel. At Cologne, cruisers can choose from a walking tour or a specialty Jewish heritage walking tour. Other port calls on this new itinerary include Koblenz (at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers) plus Remich (Luxembourg), and Bernkastel, Cochem and Trier, Germany, all on the Moselle.

For Roman history buffs, Trier is a treasure with several Roman baths, an amphitheater and the gigantic stone Porta Nigra (or black gate), which once anchored the town’s Roman walls. Be sure to take a look inside Aula Palatina, the Basilica of Constantine, commissioned by Roman Emperor Constantine I in the fourth century. Today it’s a church and one of multiple UNESCO World Heritage Sites within Trier. Its Constantine throne room is the largest room structure from Roman times. Avalon nicely offers both a Roman Trier tour and a regular Trier tour. 

If the munchies hit while touring, we’d head for Weinstube Kesselstatt, a casual wine bar with tasty German food. Check out the cheese selections, including a farmer’s cheese from Mannebach and a regional sour milk cheese from Mainz; plus, travelers can order sausage specialties, salads, fish, bread, soup / stew of the day, and even wild boar ham. 

Elsewhere on the Rhine, the port of Ludwigshafen offers a chance for Avalon Waterways’ guests to head to Heidelberg for either an included guided tour of the Heidelberg Castle or a hike up Philosophers’ Way. 

This year, Avalon Waterways’ new 11-day eastbound “German Grandeur” itinerary sails from Basel to Munich with departures May 22 and August 14 on the 128-passenger Visionary. The latter departure is also a beer-themed voyage. Among its calls is one at Rudesheim am Rhein, Germany, a quaint (although heavily touristed) wine-making destination. Still, it retains its charm. 

In Rudesheim, a “must see” for those new to the port is Siegfried’s Mechanical Musical Instrument Museum. Visitors often can’t believe what they are seeing — such as self-playing violins and other automated musical instruments. It’s a hoot. That museum also is at the upper end of town, so after the tour, walk the local streets in the environs. 

Drosselgasse is a popular 15th-century lane in Rudesheim, Germany brimming with shops, taverns and restaurants. //Photography: Getty Images / kmn-network

Most famous is Rudesheim’s Drosselgasse, a 15th-century lane brimming with shops, taverns and restaurants. Pop into any venue for a glass of wine, check out the cheeses or just enjoy the people watching. That said, in summer, this pedestrian-only lane can become crowded. So just head up, down or over a street or two; it’s easy to find your way around Rudesheim, by using the river, the cable car and the sloping downtown (leading to the river) as wayfinders. 

On a lovely spring, summer or fall day, it’s also fun to ride the cable car ride above the town’s vineyards to the Niederwald Monument, which was built in the late 19th century to commemorate the unification of Germany. It offers a bird’s-eye perch of the Rhine River and town.

Since luxury travel is all about “the destination,” for 2020, Avalon Waterways is introducing a new “Your Way” program. How does it work? Cruisers can book their 2020 cruise and add on: An Avalon Waterways land extension with guided sightseeing; a Monograms independent vacation package with hotel accommodations, city sightseeing and services of a local host; or a Globus escorted vacation with included sightseeing, hotel accommodations, transportation, a coach driver, tour director and certified local guides.

Gastronomic Adventures: Crystal River Cruises’ 106-passenger Crystal Debussy will bring gastronomic adventure to the Rhine during its 10-night “Splendors of the Rhine” sailing from Basel to Amsterdam throughout this summer. It also sails seven-night “Legendary Rhine” cruises. 

Guests enjoy a highly inclusive product (think butler service for every suite). In addition, what’s nice about these two itineraries is that they give guests several overnight stays on each itinerary — in such ports as Koblenz, Amsterdam and Basel. For guests going ashore during the day, Crystal also has set up savory gastronomic adventures. 

In Strasbourg, luxury cruisers can head out on the optional “Strasbourg Foie Gras & Wine tasting” excursion. First, cruisers will sample foie gras at the restaurant, La Table d’Edouard, and then taste the vintages at the historic cellar of Hospices de Strasbourg. Check out the historic barrels, including one from the 15th century. This “moderate activity” walking tour lasts about three hours. 

In Mannheim, Germany, cruisers can take Crystal’s complimentary gastronomic adventure, “Mannheim Walking Tour and Sweet Treats.” Known as the City of Squares, Mannheim has streets laid out in grid patterns; it’s similar to a chessboard with 144 squares or blocks. The blocks extend outward from the Mannheim Baroque Palace. On this two-and-a-half-hour tour, cruisers will view some major city sites, and then sample such local delicacies as spaghetti ice cream, which only resembles its name and Mannemer Dreck, a tasty almond confection.

Avalon Waterways’ 128-passenger Avalon Visionary is seen on the Rhine as it goes past the Rheinstein Castle, near the town of Trechtingshausen, Germany. //Photography: Avalon Waterways

Exploring Basel & Beyond: Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection offers several appealing itineraries this year and next between Basel, Switzerland and Amsterdam. An 11-day “Remarkable Rhine & Historic Holland” itinerary is on the 130-passenger River Empress, while an eight-day “Castles Along the Rhine” itinerary is operated by the 152-passenger S.S. Antoinette; for maximum space, we’d opt for the Antoinette’s 391-square-foot Grand Suite. 

We’d definitely suggest cruisers head out on the line’s “Do as the Locals Do” shore excursion in Strasbourg with visits to “La Petite France” and the Strasbourg Cathedral, and also a chance to stop for a taste of Butchers Sausage, gingerbread, flammekueche or a chocolate-and-liquor tasting.  

In Basel, Uniworld’s active travelers can fasten their helmet, mount their bike and pedal (accompanied by a cycling guide) along the Wiese River to Fondation Beyeler, a museum designed by Renzo Piano. Nestled within a park in Riehen, it features 250 or so impressionist and modernist works collected by Ernst and Hildy Beyeler. What’s nifty is that paintings by such artists as Monet, Van Gogh or Warhol are viewable under Piano’s ingeniously designed glass roof, adjustable to let in more (or less) natural light, as needed. 

The Beyeler’s special exhibitions are noteworthy. If travelers are arriving this April or much of May, we’d suggest seeing “The Young Picasso – Blue and Rose Periods,” now through May 26. Next up is a special contemporary exhibition, “Rudolf Stingel,” which runs from May 26 through October 6.

Or, when the Uniworld ship docks at Germersheim, we’d opt for the line’s walking tour of nearby Speyer, Germany, with a magnificent 11th-century Romanesque cathedral, historic Jewish area (with vaulted ritual baths still remaining) and lovely Old Town perfect just for strolling. During the Christmas Markets season, there is also a market near the cathedral to explore. 

While the walking tour is certainly rewarding, die-hard airplane, motorbike, train or aeronautical technology buffs can arrange for a private car to take them to Technik Museum Speyer. One can’t miss it, thanks to the gigantic, authentic Lufthansa Boeing 747 atop its roof! The cargo hold of that jet can even be entered by visitors and the left wing can be climbed. 

A New, Smaller Vessel: This year, Riviera River Cruises is deploying the new 132-passenger George Eliot, a smaller class of vessel, as one of several ships sailing an eight-day Rhine itinerary from Cologne, Germany to Basel, Switzerland; it’s also offered on some dates in reverse.

In Germersheim, Uniworld guests can opt for a walking tour of nearby Speyer, Germany, which has a magnificent 11th-century Romanesque cathedral. //Photography: Getty Images/meseberg

In Breisach, Germany, guests can head out for a Black Forest excursion and visit to the idyllic, lakeside village of Titisee. In Rudesheim, Riviera’s guests are offered such activities as a visit to the Mechanical Musical Instrument Museum or cable car ride. As with other sailings, a cruise through the Rhine River Gorge is a big draw for those in search of castle views. 

In Strasbourg, cruisers will explore via a guided visit to La Petite France district and the Gothic Cathedral. Through May 26, independently minded travelers who love art can head for Strasbourg’s Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, which presents FAILE, a special exhibit that’s pop, monumental and anti-consumerism in line with the works of Hamilton, Warhol and Lichtenstein. From April 6 through October, the museum presents “Damien Deroubaix Headbangers Ball.”

George Eliot is outfitted in an elegant blend of sustainable hardwoods, brass, copper, glass and wrought iron. It has a panoramic observation lounge, main restaurant, wellness area, boutique and sun deck, plus a second, smaller restaurant. Diamond and Ruby Deck cabins and suites offer French balconies, while the Diamond Deck’s Deluxe Balcony Suites offer sliding doors that open onto a small private balcony. 

Basel lends itself well to exploration of Switzerland’s Alps. Riviera also is offering a new four-day Glacier Express Extension (for select departures), traveling from Basel to Chur, Zermatt and Zurich, Switzerland. Guests will first take an InnerCity train from Basel to Chur and then board the legendary Glacier Express as it passes along precipices and through mountain tunnels. After a day for guests to explore Zermatt and admire Matterhorn views, cruisers will head by train to the Zurich airport for flights home. 

More Rhine Options: If travelers are seeking a Christmas Markets cruise late in the year, Scenic has an appealing 12-day option between Zurich and Amsterdam with an eight-day Rhine cruise departing December 4. Guests can soak in the aroma of gluhwein and roasted chestnuts, plus browse small stalls with souvenirs, music boxes, holiday ornaments, local crafts and more. 

This itinerary begins in Zurich and travels to Basel, where guests board their river vessel. Then it’s on to Strasbourg, Baden-Baden, Mannheim, Koblenz, Cologne and Amsterdam (overnight). As part of the Scenic Enrich program, guests will enjoy a private evening concert at a Baroque palace in Baden Baden. 

With Scenic Freechoice, during a port call in Koblenz, guests can explore the historic city’s Christmas market with more than 100 cottage-style stands and sample “Lebkuchenherzen,” traditional gingerbread hearts. Alternatively, they can opt to visit medieval Cochem and its Reichsburg Castle.

Viking River Cruises is launching six new Longships on the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers this year, plus a smaller Douro vessel, too. Viking’s eight-day “Rhine Getaway” itinerary sails between Amsterdam and Basel and offers six “included” guided tours. For 2019, guests can also extend their river cruise vacation with Viking’s pre- or post-cruise stays; depending on the itinerary, they’re offered in Lucerne, Amsterdam, Basel, Italy’s Lake Como or Oxford & Highclere Castle in the United Kingdom.

Scenic is offering a 12-day Christmas Markets cruise on the Rhine that will take guests to Basel, Switzerland. Photography: Getty Images / sanniely

New this year, Abercrombie & Kent offers an 11-day “Switzerland & the Rhine” itinerary from Amsterdam to Basel, giving guests a chance to view the world’s largest flower auction in the Netherlands, take in the scenery of the Alps from the top of Switzerland’s Mount Pilatus, and sample local cheese in Edam, the Netherlands, beer in Cologne, wine in Rudesheim and Strasbourg, and chocolate in Zurich.

Most intriguing for art buffs? At the Douwes Fine Art gallery in Amsterdam, cruisers will learn how old paintings are restored. In addition, guests will stay in boutique hotels in Amsterdam and Zurich, and sail in premium cabins with French balconies or full balconies on Amadeus Silver II or Amadeus Silver III.

Solo travel? Vantage Deluxe World Travel, which owns and operates a fleet of six river vessels globally, is adding dozens more solo accommodations (all supplement-free) to its vessels in 2020. Launched in 2016, its 176-passenger River Voyager, which sails 14-night “Heart of the Rhine and Moselle” and other itineraries, has a 355-square-foot Deluxe Owner’s Suite, eight solo cabins and new interactive features including ship-wide Wi-Fi, U.S. TV channels, GPS tracking and on-demand entertainment.  

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