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Scenic Route: Delightful Danube

Touching 10 countries as it makes its way from the Black Forest to the Black Sea, the Danube encapsulates much of the romanticism and lore of Central and Eastern Europe. 

The continent’s second longest river after the Volga, the Danube flows for nearly 1,800 miles and has inspired everyone from explorers and composers to landscape artists and winemakers. It’s no less inspirational for the many travelers fortunate enough to follow its ancient and enchanting course.  

Not only is the Danube one of the world’s great river cruise destinations, it’s also an important international waterway with a storied past. With a human history going back much further than the Rhine, the Danube basin is the site of early human cultures dating back to Neolithic times. Alexander the Great reached the waters of the Danube during a conquest in 336 B.C., the Romans used the river as a transportation route and the armies of the Ottoman Empire waged countless battles along its banks from the 14th to 19th centuries. Throughout the centuries the Danube has served as a vital trade route, transporting up to 100 million tons of goods a year by the 1980s. In a milestone hoped for since the days of Charlemagne, the completion of the German Rhine-Main-Danube Canal in 1992 made the river part of a 2,200-mile trans-European waterway that links Rotterdam on the North Sea with Sulina on the Black Sea. 

When it comes to art, music and gastronomy, the Danube has also played a key role. Not only did the river prompt Johann Strauss to pen his most famous Viennese waltz, “The Blue Danube,” but it also inspired “The Waves of the Danube,” a waltz by Romanian composer Ion Ivanovici, and Stories of the Danube, a symphony by jazz artist Joe Zawinul. During the 16th century, a circle of German painters known as the Danube school depicted the Danube valley in exquisite landscapes that are enjoyed in museums throughout the world. Viticulture has long been part of the Danube as well, perhaps most notably in Austria’s beautiful Wachau Valley, known for riesling and gruner veltiner wines.  

For travelers, especially river cruisers, the Danube is the ideal conduit for delving into a fascinating cross-section of European cultures, calling at famous capitals as well as lesser-known gems. Along the way, the river passes through or along Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldovia and Ukraine. Cruises starting in Germany often embark in Passau, an elegant town in Lower Bavaria where the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers meet. Its signature experience is a concert in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a baroque masterpiece with the largest pipe organ in Europe. 

From there, river ships make their way through Lower Austria, calling at ports such as Krems and Durnstein in the Wachau Valley, a region of lush vineyards and important religious sites like Melk Abbey, perched on a rocky outcrop above the river, and the Gottweig Abbey, a working Benedictine monastery for more than 900 years. In Vienna, the Danube is an integral part of the city, much loved by the locals who flock to the waterfront cafes, bathing beaches and pleasure parks of Danube Island just offshore. 

The only national capital to border two countries — Austria and Hungary — Bratislava in Slovakia is an unexpected highlight of many Danube cruises. Watched over by the massive Bratislava Castle with its four stately corner towers, the city invites exploration with its pedestrian-friendly historic center, an enclave of lively bars and cafes, medieval town hall and baroque palaces dating from the Habsburg era. 

Perhaps because 240 miles of the Danube’s length is in Hungary, it’s only fitting that its capital, Budapest, is often called the “Queen of the Danube.” The sight of its spires, bridges and stately Parliament building illuminated against the night sky is especially memorable when viewed from the river. Sailing south along the Great Hungarian Plain, fertile ground for fields of brilliantly red poppies and paprika peppers, the ships call at towns like Kalocsa and Mohacs, places to enjoy paprika-spiced cuisine and local wines, shop for handmade embroidery and witness a traditional Hungarian horse show.

Belgrade, where the Danube joins the Sava River and the plains of Central Europe meet the Balkans, is one of Europe’s oldest capitals and the place to absorb the artistic richness of Serbian culture, especially in Kalemegdan, a vast park along the riverbanks with a fortress, museums, medieval fortifications and gardens. Also lining the riverbanks are numerous splavovi, floating restaurants and nightclubs that are part of the city’s vibrant nightlife.

With Serbia and Romania on either side, the Danube’s most ruggedly scenic stretch awaits at the Iron Gate, a narrow gorge lined with steep cliffs carved between the Carpathian and Balkan mountains. More glorious scenery is ahead as the river makes its way past Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine, morphing into the magnificent Danube Delta before spilling into the Black Sea. Europe’s best-preserved river delta and a UNESCO World Heritage site, the delta is an intricate web of canals, reed marshes and wetlands that provide sanctuary for over 300 bird species, including millions of white Egyptian pelicans who migrate there every spring. Upon reaching mile 0 on the Black Sea coast, the Danube has truly charted a remarkable course through the breadth of Europe.  

Explore the Danube with AAA Preferred Partners like Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, AmaWaterways or Viking River Cruises. Call your AAA Travel Agent at 800-750-5386 and book today!