Looking to experience the charm and variety of Germany without working too hard at it? You may want to consider a river cruise. Just sit back, relax, and watch thousands of years of history glide by.
The Elbe River runs from Hamburg, through Magdeburg to the Czech border
It’s a typical case of the traveler’s blues: Your feet hurt from tramping around too many medieval churches. A bus tour? Too claustrophobic. And cycling would be too much like hard work. Lucky for you there's another way to visit Germany: floating along on its waterways.
Germany has more than 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles) of interconnected rivers, canals and lakes whose waters are plied by barges and sailboats, cruise ships and kayaks. The quaint tourist centers people visit today grew up along those routes centuries ago, but the Rhine and Elbe rivers are still busy transport waterways, crucial to German industry and agriculture.
Rhein mit Loreley in St. Goarshausen
One of the great pleasures of the cruise experience is sitting back and taking it all in – sipping a Riesling or Pilsner while watching the scenery go by. But a river cruise doesn’t need to be an entirely passive experience. There are plenty of chances to stop and visit the castles, palaces and vineyards dotting the banks of the main tourist rivers: the Rhine, Weser, Danube, and Mosel.
River of painters and poets
Hands down, Germany's most famous river is the Rhine. Although it has inspired painters and poets for centuries, the Romantics of the mid-19th century drew particular inspiration from its dramatic beauty. They made the Legend of the Lorelei – based on a towering cliff along the Rhine – into one of their key symbols. According to the myth, a maiden named Lorelei sat upon a cliff at the river’s narrowest, deepest and swiftest point. She combed her golden hair and bewitched the hearts of sailors with her singing. When they looked up at the irresistible siren, their boats would crash and sink.
Should your modern-day cruise ship manage to get past the Lorelei unscathed (chances are better these days, since the once-dangerous passage is now clearly marked with buoys) it's worth taking some time to explore the sides of the valley.
At Frankfurt an der Oder, visitors can cross the Oder River to the Polish town of Slubice
Long stretches of the Rhine’s banks are covered with terraced vineyards, and picturesque castles perch on hilltops. The valley’s footpaths and trails offer magnificent views, including well-marked ‘tourist roads’ such as the winding Lorelei Castle Road and the Rhine Wine Trail.
The area is a wine lover’s dream, with endless opportunities to tour wineries, attend tastings, and take courses on the wines and foods of the regions. A busy tourist area, the Rhine Valley has some of the best-appointed hotels in the country – and fine restaurants to go with them.
Gateway to history
If you are as interested in history as you are in wine, you might prefer a trip down the Danube. The Danube (which, just to make things clear, isn’t blue) is Europe’s second-longest river. It doesn't have the dramatic scenery or castles of the Rhine, but it's worth exploring for its own quiet charm and the traces of its varied, exotic history.
The Romans left their mark there, and a trip down the river can take you from Germany’s best preserved medieval city, Regensburg, to Passau, which lies at the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers. From there you slip downstream beyond the German border to Vienna and Budapest, past the castles, palaces and vineyards of central Europe.
Nature and Culture
The Spree River in Berlin runs past the Museum Island with the Bode Museum and the Pergamonmuseum
The river Oder is Germany's easternmost river, and to travel along it is to tread the line between Germany and Poland. The Oder Valley’s isolation under the GDR left it nearly undisturbed by human activity, and today it is known for its marshes and lakes dotted with untouched villages that are unlike anything in western Germany. You pass through wildlife-rich natural parks like the Lower Oder Valley National Park and the Oderbruch marshlands.
Of course, the Polish border region is also a must for World War II buffs – the place where the Russians broke through the German lines to start the final assault on Berlin.
If you're feeling really ambitious, and you have a lot of time, you can take a cruise on the Elbe from Magdeburg to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. The Elbe is the most important river linking southeastern Europe with northeastern Europe. From its birthplace in the Czech Republic to the point where it sinks into the North Sea, in Hamburg, the Elbe is over 1,000 kilometers long.
The Elbe passes through varied and distinct landscapes, starting with a sandstone massif and running through vineyards to end up in meadow lowlands. Located on the banks of the Elbe are towns like Dessau, home to the famous Bauhaus school of architects; Luther's former home Wittenberg, and Meißen, famous for its porcelain. The baroque city of Dresden (photo), capital of Saxony, also lies on the banks of the Elbe.
Meeting up with the Brothers Grimm
Fans of German fairy tales will get a lot out of cruising the Weser, the birthplace of the Brothers Grimm and inspiration for some of their best-known stories. Germany’s ‘Fairy Tale Road,’ with its half-timbered towns and castles, follows the course of the river. Travelers can check in with childhood friends such as Cinderella (in Polle), Hansel and Gretel (in Höxter), and the Pied Piper of Hamelin (Hameln).
Dresden on the Elbe River is one of Germany's architectural gems
After flowing through wide stretches of farmland, the Weser reaches Bremen, a Hanseatic port city (which was also the destination of choice for the four hopeful characters in the Grimm story The Bremen Town Musicians. Despite fierce competition from Hamburg, Bremen has been able to hold its own among German North Sea ports, albeit on a smaller scale.
City river tours
Of course, if you don’t have several days to let the country float by you, a short day cruise might be more to your liking. Most of Germany’s big cities are perched on the banks of a river: Hamburg on the Elbe, Cologne on the Rhine, Munich on the Isar, and Berlin on the Spree (photo of Museum Island). They all offer short jaunts up and down the waterways, past historical sites and beautiful landscapes. And most can be booked for an hour or two, just long enough to allow you to sit back and rest your weary feet, take in a refreshing summer breeze, and enjoy seeing Germany from a different perspective.