Our Viking River Cruise on the Danube was the perfect introduction to the lovely cities, towns and villages that line the banks of the river.
It was a chilly, rainy afternoon when my husband and I boarded the Viking Freya in Budapest, Hungary, for an eight-day cruise along the Danube River to Nuremberg, Germany. After arriving from the U.S. a few days earlier to tour the city, we finally had adjusted to the time change.
We also had discovered that the namesake of Johann Strauss’ “Blue Danube Waltz” isn’t really blue. Far from it: The river that separates the city into two parts, Buda and Pest, is so muddy it’s reminiscent of New York’s East River. Yet we would discover that the magnificence of this water highway, the second-longest river in Europe after the Volga, is better judged by its rich history than its color and by the beauty of the castles, churches, medieval walls, stone bridges, tiny towns and capitals lining its banks.
The rise of riverboat cruising
Riverboat cruising has exploded in popularity over the last decade, especially in the U.S. and Europe. New ships and itineraries are rapidly being introduced in response to the growing number of baby boomers filling their cabins.
“Boomers are active travelers who tend to enjoy the experiential nature of travel, which lends perfectly to river cruising,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief at Cruise Critic.com.
Fleets for AMAWaterways, American Cruise Lines, American Queen Steamboat Co., Avalon Waterways, Paul Gauguin Cruises, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises and Viking River Cruises have all grown last year and this year.
Like larger oceangoing vessels, riverboats offer the convenience of packing and unpacking once, sleeping in the same bed for an entire stay and effortless transport between cities, generally overnight. In one week (the typical length of most river cruises), passengers can visit multiple cities and cross national borders as they are introduced to new foods, languages, customs and cultures.
Most river cruises are all-inclusive, covering meals and snacks, shore excursions, lectures and entertainment, and complimentary wine or beer with dinner. Some lines include airfare and airport transfers, gratuities, Wi-Fi and unlimited alcohol. Most boats hold fewer than 200 passengers, making this an intimate form of travel that hugs the shore and brings passengers up close to the destinations they visit.
“Passengers are able to disembark directly from the ship to the center of the action,” Brown said.
What’s more, riverboat passengers don’t overwhelm ports like the hordes descending from giant ocean liners. Viking River Cruises owns and operates 53 river vessels, the largest such fleet in the industry, and is adding 12 more in 2015. Viking Freya is one of 30 longships the company has introduced over the last three years, a design known for its shallow draft.
At 445 feet long and three stories high, Freya has the feel of a diminutive ocean liner, with a glitzy atrium lobby and chandelier. The layout is easy to master, with most public rooms, lounges and dining rooms at the bow; cabins are toward the aft.
We were assigned to a 205-square-foot (Category A) stateroom with sliding-glass doors opening to a veranda. The cabin had all the comforts of a luxury hotel: queen-size bed, contemporary furnishings, ample closet and storage space, an electronic thermostat, refrigerator, safe, multiple dual-voltage outlets and a 40-inch flat-screen TV.
The bathroom had a full-size stall shower, radiant heated floor and L’Occitane bath products. Flicking a switch changed the glass-enclosed shower (separating the sleeping area from the bathroom) from clear to opaque privacy.
With open seating (no reservations), an informal dress code and surprisingly decent dinner wines (often local ones), meals were relaxed. We sat at tables of 8 to 10 people, adding to the air of conviviality and to the sharing of secrets, such as the location of the shower privacy switch. Large windows throughout public areas afforded lovely views of passing scenery.
Serve-yourself coffee, juice and pastries were available in the lounge at 6 a.m. for early risers. The informal Aquavit Terrace offered an alternative to the cooked-to-order, order-as-much-as-you-want breakfasts or lunches in the dining room.
At dinner, along with international options, the Bulgarian chef introduced us to specialty foods from each port. In Budapest, a Hungarian goulash and dobos torte were on the menu; in Vienna, Wiener schnitzel. Heading into Germany, we were treated to a buffet with sausages, pretzels and local beers.
Daily tours and excursions
Each night, the Viking Daily placed on our bed outlined the next day’s excursions and evening activities, as well as some historical and geographical information about ports. Our program director also held evening briefings in the lounge.
The group was encouraged to self-identify as either regular or “gentle” (slower) walkers, and assigned to knowledgeable, English-speaking local guides. When we needed buses, the cruise line had its own spiffy Mercedes buses waiting at each port. Itineraries offered a perfect mix of being led by a guide and being on your own.
But unless you stayed up through the night, there was no spare time to curl up with a book. We traveled to six cities and three countries, through 25 locks, mostly at night, waking up each day to explore a new destination.
With a crew of 49 for 175 passengers, we always felt coddled. Every logistical detail was seamless: Buses, tours and sailings were on time or earlier. As we readied for one lecture, my husband quipped, “With this group, if you’re on time, you’re late.”
Compared with ocean cruising, riverboats are far slower. We traveled at about 7 mph. Though this may sound like a leisurely way to travel, taking a river cruise is like hopping on a train and getting on and off at every station. We could sleep in, but each port offered something irresistible to see or discover; after dinner, live music, dancing or lectures were available.
Bottom line: If ocean cruising bores you, your ship — a small one — may have just come in.
IF YOU GO
Viking River Cruises: 800-304-9616
Check with your travel agent for information on the different offerings of various river-cruise operators.
[This article was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on July 13, 2014 and reprinted in other Tribune papers including the Daily Press (Hampton Roads, Virginia), Sun Sentinel (Florida), the Courant (Hartford), The Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania, Orlando Sentinel, Carroll County Times (Maryland) and the Baltimore Sun.]
See our accompanying photoessay – City Highlights of a Danube River Cruise.
Previously on More Time to Travel:
- Best of Budapest: Four Seasons Gresham Palace
- Great Cocktails: Elderflower Martini at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace
- Original Sin: Tasting Sacher Torte in Vienna
- Three Ways to Experience Hungarian Cuisine in Budapest
Disclosure: Our cruise was hosted by Viking River Cruises but any opinions expressed in this post are our own.
BobJuly 15, 2014 at 1:44 am
Thank you for your blog on the Viking Freya… it’s very interesting reading!
We are going on Rinda in December-first Viking River Cruise ever.
I love the design of this blog.. what program is used to create it? I make a similar one for personal travel but haven’t been able to have a comments section such as the very one I’m using here.
Irene S. LevineJuly 15, 2014 at 7:16 am
The blog is on Wordpress with a custom design.
You are so lucky to be anticipating your cruise. Hope you enjoy the experience as much as I did!
Anne WoodyardJuly 21, 2014 at 10:22 am
What a relaxing and beautiful way to enjoy this part of the world!
Irene S. LevineJuly 21, 2014 at 10:36 am
Especially for a first-timer!
Michele PetersonJuly 21, 2014 at 10:30 am
So true about the Danube being a mighty water highway – I was truly astonished to see how wide and fast-flowing it was. Definiately not a river you coudl fall into and expect to climb back out of in a hurry. I took a Christmas market river cruise with my mother on Avalon and loved how easy it was to just step off the boat and be in the heart of a historic village – no buses, no tenders or waiting in line. It truly is the way to see Europe.
Irene S. LevineJuly 21, 2014 at 10:37 am
It’s a great way to explore small towns, many of which are only in walking distance from where you dock.
Donna JankeJuly 21, 2014 at 10:30 am
I get brochures in the mail about European river cruises and lately have found myself reading them more closely. Your post has made me even more interested. Sounds wonderful.
Irene S. LevineJuly 21, 2014 at 10:38 am
Hope you have the opportunity. It’s a great way to travel, Donna!
santafetrave;erJuly 21, 2014 at 11:15 am
Would love to do one of these- looks great, but I can’t do boats. Didn’t know you wrote for some many publications. VERY impressive, Irene!!
IreneJuly 21, 2014 at 6:51 pm
Thanks, Billie. If you don’t do boats because of seasickness, riverboats are pretty peaceful without strong currents.
The GypsynestersJuly 21, 2014 at 12:32 pm
We took this cruise (going the opposite direction) last December to visit the Christmas markets along the way. It was fantastic and the crew was great!
IreneJuly 21, 2014 at 6:52 pm
We loved the crew and our program director, too!
ShelleyJuly 21, 2014 at 3:17 pm
I would love to try a river cruise like this some day! Thanks for sharing.
IreneJuly 21, 2014 at 6:53 pm
Hope you have the opportunity! Definitely worth writing (home) about~
Betsy Wuebker | PassingThruJuly 21, 2014 at 4:12 pm
Aloha Irene, I’m going to share this with a friend who is taking this cruise next Spring. Looks like a lovely experience. Definitely on our list as we loved Budapest, so now we are conflicted between the Rhine and the Danube. Maybe we should go twice? Congrats on the Chicago Trib and other newspaper syndication. 🙂
IreneJuly 21, 2014 at 6:54 pm
Haven’t been on the Rhine but I don’t think you can go wrong!
Doreen PendgracsJuly 21, 2014 at 8:15 pm
This is one trip we’ve been wanting to do for a very long time. What’s not to like!
Irene S. LevineJuly 21, 2014 at 8:20 pm
JohannaJuly 21, 2014 at 8:16 pm
What an awesome cruise 🙂 We contemplated a river cruise but instead booked on a cycle cruise in Croatia. Next year though I think a river cruise will be on my must-do list. Thanks for some great information 🙂
Irene S. LevineJuly 21, 2014 at 8:21 pm
Sounds like you had two good choices!
Nancy ThompsonJuly 22, 2014 at 1:47 pm
Great post! I think small ship (boat?) cruising is a great way to go. We’ve looked at Viking a couple of times but went on to do something else completely. Your post has enticed me back for a more serious look. Thank you.
Irene S. LevineJuly 22, 2014 at 2:06 pm
Check out some of the river cruise catalogs. There are so many great itineraries to explore!
Anita @ No Particular Place To GoJuly 22, 2014 at 2:21 pm
Riverboat cruising along the “blue” or brown Danube sounds incredibly romantic! The towns lining the river are very picturesque and I would love to go on a riverboat cruise someday.
Irene S. LevineJuly 22, 2014 at 3:31 pm
Each one is so different with a personality of its own. A riverboat tour allows you a “once over” so you know which ones you would like to return to.
Suzanne StavertJuly 22, 2014 at 6:46 pm
Your photos really gave me a great sense of the ship. I loved seeing what a room would look like. The food looked amazing as well. My husband says “He won’t do a cruise.” But never say never! Thank you for the virtual cruise!
Irene S. LevineJuly 22, 2014 at 7:23 pm
My husband started out thinking he would never go on a cruise…until he went on one!
Carole Terwilliger MeyersJuly 22, 2014 at 8:19 pm
I want to go! My destination of choice right now is Russia, though the news is changing my interest.
Irene S. LevineJuly 22, 2014 at 8:37 pm
Earlier this evening, I was lamenting about how many places seem to be “off the map” this week.
A Cook Not Mad (Nat)July 23, 2014 at 3:51 pm
Cruising doesn’t really appeal to us but I remember seeing the ships lined up on the Danube and thinking, this I could get into. Thanks for sharing.
Jackie SmithJuly 24, 2014 at 10:54 am
You’ve made river cruising seem very tempting Irene! Someday maybe we’ll give up the oceans and head to the rivers. . .great information here.
Cathy SweeneyJuly 25, 2014 at 6:57 pm
Although I’ve never been very tempted by the idea of an ocean cruise, I’ve been very open to river cruising — just haven’t had the right opportunity yet. I especially think the Danube would be ideal, especially if it stops in Budapest, a city I’ve come to love. Your stateroom looks nice and would be large enough (I think) as long as it’s as nicely appointed as yours was.
Irene S. LevineJuly 25, 2014 at 7:02 pm
If I hadn’t taken the cruise, I might never have fallen in love with Budapest:-)
Cathy mooreMay 19, 2015 at 8:00 am
I want to go on the 8 day cruise-romantic Danube in Sept. My mom is 89 years old and is pretty good but does have some trouble walking and stairs! What do u think? I am scared this might be too much! Thank u!
Irene S. LevineMay 19, 2015 at 9:09 pm
It depends on your mom’s health, mobility and agility. Even if she doesn’t participate in every excursion, there are many aspects to the cruise she may enjoy, both on the ship and ashore. Viking does a nice job of making special groups for “gentle walkers.” My best advice is to call the cruise line and be candid about your concerns and get their input. They may suggest accommodations that will allay your concerns.
DavidAugust 18, 2016 at 9:00 am
Great post, we just finish up two viking river cruises the Elegant Elbe and Russia. Two great river cruises a little slow but good stuff. I would do the Elegant Elbe again however Russia was way to touristy.