Why You Should Cruise the Danube River
Updated: April 19, 2023
AAA Travel Editors
Travel Advisor Spotlight
Allison Walker is here to share her tips and insights on Danube River cruising. AAA can help you plan the perfect trip, wherever your dream vacation is. Contact a AAA travel advisor today, or visit a branch to meet with an advisor or take advantage of other travel services.
• Length: 1,727 miles - The Danube is Europe's second-longest river
• Depth: Varies between 3 and 26 feet
• Countries: 10 (Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine)
A Cosmopolitan River
The Danube isn't just the world-record holder for most countries passed through. It also holds the record for the most national capitals passed through, with four: Belgrade, Bratislava, Budapest and Vienna.
The name Danube (commonly pronounced “DAN-yoob” in English) is believed to come from the ancient Proto-Indo-European root danu, meaning “river.” This common root can be seen in the names of other major Eastern European rivers, including the Don, Donets, Dniester and Dnieper.
What to See
Traveling down the Danube from west to east, Regensburg is among the first major towns you encounter. The twin spires of the Regensburg Cathedral and the 1,000-foot span of the Stone Bridge let you know you’ve arrived in the medieval core of the town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
History-inclined travelers can tour the exquisitely preserved Middle Ages architecture, plus one of Germany’s oldest Jewish quarters. A more modern attraction is the city’s BMW auto plant, which offers up-close tours of cars being assembled on the production line. Regensburg also got a boost to its stature when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who taught at the University of Regensburg, became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Travelers can visit many sites related to him, the first German pope since the 11th century.
Wachau Valley (Austria)
This bucolic green stretch of river west of Vienna teems with sights and activities. Most prominent are two ruined hilltop medieval castles, Aggstein and Dürnstein — the latter of which once served as a prison to King Richard the Lionheart. Below the castles are a number of small towns and monasteries, including the famous Baroque Melk Abbey and the iconic blue tower of Dürnstein Abbey.
Travelers can hike to the castles for views of the valley, tour the monasteries and their treasures (Melk Abbey’s architecture and medieval library in particular are must-sees), bike along the river to appreciate the scenery up close, stroll through the towns on foot, and enjoy wine tasting at the valley’s renowned vineyards. Allison advises not to miss the apricots “in more delicious forms than I could have imagined … wines, jellies, strudel, ice-cream. Loved them all!”
Austria’s capital bills itself the “City of Music,” and with good cause: It’s home to such great classical composers as Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, as well as the concert halls and opera houses where their music gained fame. Vienna also offers great examples of architecture through the ages, from Classical and Gothic to later Baroque and Modernist.
Touring the central Ring Road is a great way to see many of the sights. Allison recommends climbing the spire of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the largest Gothic building in Austria. “The way up is a bit dark and tight, but there is wonderful detail on the walls and the views of the tile roof once you are at the top, as well as the views of Vienna, will be worth the effort. Plus it’s a good way to work off the strudel!”
Budapest was once two cities separated by the Danube: medieval Buda and the more modern Pest. In the 19th century, they were joined by construction of the Chain Bridge, one of the city’s most visited landmarks. Travelers arriving on the river will see the bridge, as well as majestic Buda Castle on the Buda bank and the breathtaking Hungarian Parliament on the Pest bank.
The castle and parliament shouldn’t be missed, nor should the Dohány Street Synagogue, the biggest synagogue in Europe; or the Fisherman’s Bastion, a seven-towered rampart with great river views built to commemorate the seven original Hungarian tribes. To really jump into an authentic Hungarian experience, go for a refreshing dip in the extremely popular Széchenyi thermal baths.
As the Danube enters the Balkans, it runs down Croatia’s eastern border and narrowly misses the city of Osijek, the cultural center of eastern Croatia. The town has its share of centuries-old attractions, including the Baroque fortress of Tvrdja and the towering red-stone Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. There’s also more recent history here: Osijek was on the front lines of the Croatian War of Independence in the 1990s, and damage from the fighting can still be seen today.
Danube travelers can go on a walking tour of Tvrdja (don’t miss the Church of the Raising of the Holy Cross, whose plain exterior masks an incredible interior) and also visit “Red Fico,” a beloved local sculpture that inverts a famous wartime incident by arranging a diminutive red Fiat as though it’s crushing a tank.
The Danube enters Bulgaria in Vidin Province, an agricultural area known for stunning landscapes and fine wines. Vidin, the main port town and regional capital, is home to the storied medieval Baba Vida fortress, which visitors can tour.
What really sets the Vidin region apart are the Belogradchik Rocks, red sandstone formations in otherworldly shapes that travelers can spend hours exploring. (Castle-lovers, don’t despair: There’s also Belogradchik Fortress, which dates back to Roman times.) Bridge the gap between Vidin’s natural wonders and man-made sights by visiting Magura Cave, where guided tours make it possible to see real prehistoric pictograms painted on the cave walls thousands of years ago.
Veliko Tarnovo (Bulgaria)
Veliko Tarnovo’s modern status as Bulgaria’s 16th-largest city belies its enormous historical importance. Known as the “City of the Tsars,” it was once the center of Bulgarian culture and the capital of the Bulgarian Empire between the 12th and 14th centuries, a historic rival of the Byzantines.
The main attraction is the Tsarevets fortress and its cathedral, which overlooks the city. It was here that the patriarch of the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church lived until the Ottomans invaded in the 14th century; contemporary sources likened Veliko Tarnovo to Rome and Constantinople. Visitors can tour the town’s many other Eastern Orthodox churches, such as the Holy Forty Martyrs Church, to see how they differ from the mostly Catholic churches of the western Danube.
Though not directly on the river, Bucharest is the last major Danube destination before the Black Sea. It’s the capital of Romania, a country that uniquely blends East and West. (Religiously, most Romanians identify as Eastern Orthodox, but Romanian is a Romance language more closely related to French than the Slavic tongues of its neighbors.)
The National Museum of the Romanian Peasant is a great place to learn about Romania’s distinctive culture. Visitors interested in recent history can visit the Communist-era Palace of the Parliament, the world’s largest administrative building; and the Ceausescu Mansion, the 80-room estate built by authoritarian ruler Nicolae Ceausescu. The truly adventurous can embark north to see medieval Transylvania, which leans heavily into its reputation as the birthplace of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Ready to Explore the Danube?
Allison Walker and other AAA travel advisors can help you plan a trip that’s the right fit for where you want to go, what you want to see and what you can spend.
What to Eat
Bavarian Sausage (Germany)
Bavaria is rightly famous for its beer halls and pretzels, but no less attention should be given to the meat of the region’s cuisine: sausage, or wurst as it’s known locally. Visitors can dig in to authentic German bratwurst, which is still served with its traditional complement of sauerkraut and mustard.
A more specifically Bavarian sausage is weisswurst, or “white sausage.” Weisswurst was historically a breakfast food because it lacked preservatives. Its casing is thick, so one eats it by cutting it open either at the end or the middle and squeezing or sucking the veal and pork filling out, adding sweet mustard as desired.
Chicken Paprikash (Hungary)
Much Hungarian cooking revolves around paprika, including goulash, which is probably Hungary’s best-known dish. Chicken paprikash, a dish travelers may be less familiar with, takes things a step further by deriving its name from the spice and its flavor. It’s creamy, savory and traditionally served with a chicken quarter and egg noodles (similar to Austrian spätzle, but called nokedli in Hungarian), though modern entrees may feature pasta or buckwheat instead.
Stuffed Cabbage (Romania)
Stuffed cabbage leaves aren’t unique to Romania, but Romanians will assure you that they make them best. Known as sarmale in Romanian, they’re beloved as comfort food and packed with minced meat (usually pork) and rice. Recipes vary, but a common Romanian presentation of sarmale is to place them atop mamaliga (cornmeal porridge, like polenta) with a smoked pork fat or bacon garnish and sour cream on the side.
Where to Stay & How to Get Around
Benefits of River Cruising
Traveling by river is easier than traveling over land. Your ship isn’t just a means of transportation — it’s a hotel that floats from city to city. “No pack and unpack, no luggage handling, no early or restricting time schedules,” as Allison puts it. On a cruise, travelers stay each night on the ship; on a cruise tour, travelers also spend some nights in on-shore hotels.
Water transportation also makes for more comfortable sightseeing than over land: All the terraced vineyards, hilltop castles, locks and more can be viewed either from your room or a viewing deck, rather than being confined to a bus or train seat.
Research and Optional Excursions
When a river cruise docks at a destination, the tour often offers several choices for how to spend the day. Some excursions may be simple walking tours, especially for destinations that are right on the water. Others might have a charter bus take a group to a farther-flung attraction, such as Veliko Tarnovo and Bucharest on Danube cruises. Either way, transit will almost always be included with the package.
More ambitious travelers are also free to strike out on their own. “Taking the local tram into the Ring Road in Vienna is experiencing the city like the locals do,” Allison says, providing a more immersive experience.
Dealing with Currency
Of the 10 nations on the Danube, only Germany, Austria and Slovakia officially use the euro. However, euros are widely accepted as cash in the other seven. For destinations where credit card use is common, travelers may not need cash, so there’s no need to exchange anything. In countries that rely more on cash, such as Romania, Allison recommends taking an ATM card to withdraw local currency as needed. “I don’t recommend taking a trip’s worth of cash in your pocket,” Allison says. “It is not necessary to risk theft or loss.”
Allison’s Tip: “You cannot exchange coins back into U.S. dollars when coming home, so use it up first for tips and snacks.”
Other Destinations to Add to Your Trip
A 1,140-year-old castle. A bridge with dozens of baroque statues. A bustling Old Town and Jewish Quarter. Just as bridges from many eras cross the local Vltava river, Prague straddles the boundary between Western and Eastern Europe, as well as the one between past and present. Visitors can tour a cathedral that took more than 600 years to complete, learn how the legend of the Golem was born and trace the steps of Franz Kafka through his native city.
Want to see more of Germany? Many cruise routes head north from Regensburg and enter the Main-Danube Canal, an artificial waterway that connects the Danube to the Main River. The canal itself is fascinating: There are 16 locks along the canal, each one lifting or lowering boats by as much as 82 feet so that the waterway can cross the Jura Mountains.
The Main features two big German cities, Nuremberg and Frankfurt, as well as smaller destinations such as the exquisitely preserved medieval town of Bamberg and the Baroque architecture of Würzburg — both of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Main is particularly popular as a Christmas markets river.
Cruise the Main all the way to its end and you’ll arrive about midway down the Rhine, a storied waterway that flows through Switzerland, Austria, France, Germany and the Netherlands all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
Cruise north to visit German destinations such as the winemaking town of Rüdesheim and the bustling metropolises of Cologne and Düsseldorf, as well as the Dutch cities of Rotterdam and Amsterdam. Or cruise south to Strasbourg, a city straddling the border between France and Germany both geographically and culturally; as well as the Swiss city of Basel, renowned for its art and humanist tradition; and the Alpine microstate of Liechtenstein.
Ready to Explore the Danube?
Navigating all the available options is no small task when considering a Danube cruise. A travel advisor can help find the itinerary that’s right for you, and Allison Walker is just one of our professionals ready to help plan your dream vacation.Get help planning your personalized Danube trip today. Whatever your culinary, historical, artistic and leisure goals, a AAA advisor can recommend highlights and hidden gems to fit your tastes. Contact your to get started.
AAA Travel Editors
AAA Travel Editors are AAA Travel Experts.