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Scenic Route: Europe’s Majestic Rhine

A cruise along the Rhine River is a journey through the very heart and soul of Europe.

Western Europe’s longest waterway, and among its most storied, the Rhine River meanders for close to 800 miles through six countries. It rises from mountain brooks in the Swiss Alps, flowing past Lichtenstein and Austria, forming a natural border between France and Germany and makes its way through the Netherlands where it forms a vast delta before emptying into the North Sea. Along the way, the river is watched over by medieval castles and fortresses, terraced vineyards yielding crisp white vintages, storybook towns, bustling port cities and much more. 

The ancient Romans were quick to capitalize on the Rhine’s location, establishing a city at what is now present-day Cologne, Germany, around 50 A.D. With the Rhine serving as a border, the Romans established a string of other cities along the river, which they used as a major shipping route to transport goods throughout their expanding empire. The importance of the Rhine as a vital conduit for trade throughout inland Europe only grew stronger over time. Many of the romantic castles along the Middle Rhine that so enchant visitors today were actually fortresses built for the unromantic purpose of exacting tolls from merchants moving their wares up and down the river. 

During World War II, the Rhine served as a formidable border for Germany against Allied troops and was the scene of fierce fighting throughout the war. A famous battle over the bridge at Arnhem in the Netherlands was immortalized in the book and film A Bridge Too Far. Today, the Rhine is home to over 50 million people along its banks. It remains an important transport hub — not only for goods, but for those seeking to experience the very essence of Europe. 

Highlights

The stretch of the river most steeped in lore and spellbinding scenery is the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, a deep gorge between the German cities of Mainz and Koblenz often called the Romantic Rhine. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the 36-mile route is marked by turreted castles looming high above rocky cliffs at nearly every turn. A number of the castles, including such gems as Schonburg Castle overlooking the medieval town of Oberwessel, date from the 10th and 11th centuries and have been beautifully restored. One such castle, Reichenstein Castle, houses a museum with original artifacts that document its long history. The Romantic Rhine’s most famous natural landmark is the Lorelei, a soaring rock named for the siren said to have lured sailors to their shipwrecked doom when they heard her seductive call. 

While the Romantic Rhine is the river’s most scenic section, it’s only one of many intriguing facets. Some of central and northern Europe’s most culturally rich destinations lie along the banks of the Rhine. An especially grand and convenient way to experience them is on the wide assortment of Rhine cruises available, some offering seven-day or longer itineraries that frequently start in Basel, Switzerland and conclude in Amsterdam. Not long after leaving Basel, where a visit to the Basel Museum of Fine Arts is a great introduction to the history and art of the region, the hillside vineyards of France’s Alsace region come into view. On the French side of the river is Strasbourg, with its half-timbered houses and canals, while the German side brings the opportunity to explore the historic spa town of Baden-Baden and the Black Forest.

Heading down river and deeper into Germany, ports steeped in history include Speyer, site of a stunning double-domed cathedral and the innovative Technik Museum, and Heidelberg, a lively university town spreading below the magnificent ruins of Heidelberg Castle. Others are Koblenz, with its medieval old town and cozy wine taverns, and Cologne, where its cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a Gothic masterpiece that took six centuries to complete. Amsterdam, with its wealth of art museums and colorful canal houses, awaits as the Rhine turns west and enters the Netherlands. Here the river divides to form a number of waterways, creating the largest delta in Europe.

Cruise Options

There are many ways to experience the Rhine by boat, everything from short excursions through the Upper Middle Rhine Valley to multi-day itineraries from Switzerland to the Netherlands. The cruising season is generally from April through October. In March through early May, tulip time cruises are a popular option in the Netherlands, where flower fields along the river delta put on a spectacular display. During the winter holidays, several companies offer Rhine cruises focusing on the Christmas markets of Germany.  

AAA Preferred Partners like Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, AmaWaterways and Viking River Cruises provide varied itineraries to choose from. Call your local AAA Travel Agent at 800-750-5386 to book your Rhine River adventure!