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Natural beauty. Fairytale villages. Vienna. Salzburg. The Danube.
If we didn't know better, Austria seems almost like a movie-set!

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River cruising in Austria, along its incomparable stretch of the Danube River, is hands-down the most rewarding, relaxing and worry free vacation anyone could take. It’s ideal for those who enjoy architectural gems, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, extraordinary countryside and remarkable regional cuisine and wines. These cruises appeal to both first-time river cruisers and those who have cruised before.

A Danube cruise is truly awe-inspiring, and provides a myriad of itinerary choices ranging from 8 to 15 days right up to a 27-day trip that begins in Amsterdam and ends in either Bucharest, Romania or in Istanbul, Turkey. That’s about 2,000 river miles! River cruising in Austria can be enjoyed at any time of the cruising season as the weather is moderate from late spring, summer and throughout fall, with May and September dates most in demand.

If this is your first river cruise, we suggest considering something in the 8-15 day range that would enable you to take in a majority of the highlights along the Danube. Eight day trips usually begin Nuremberg or Vienna and sail to majestic Budapest [or reverse trip], one of the most interesting cities in Eastern Europe. I just have to say that is one of our favorite, personal places for an early Sunday stroll across the “chain” bridge with a fresh pastry and coffee in hand.

Longer 15-day Danube cruises, such as Uniworld’s extraordinary Eastern Europe Explorer begin in Vienna and travel almost the entire length of the Danube culminating with a 2-day stay in charming Bucharest. If your schedule permits, this is an ideal itinerary for either first-time or experienced river cruisers who want to explore Eastern Europe in depth via river cruise ship. Highlights include Vienna for a very enjoyable 2-day stay [One of the great things about river cruising is that you spend much more time in a port, thus allowing you to truly explore the destination.] and Budapest [also for two days], Bratislava, Belgrade and other wonderful places like Rousse, Varna and Vidin. Similar itineraries are also operated by Avalon, AmaWaterways, ScenicTours and Viking River Cruises.

So, now you’re thinking... Will I enjoy a Danube River cruise? Will it fulfill our needs? What are we looking for in a river cruise vacation? Well, while the answer is not short, it’s also not too complicated. It’s kind of like asking: Where do we want to go for dinner... Italian, Thai, Chinese, or something else? When it comes to the enjoyment of a Danube River cruise we find it best appeals to those who enjoy a wide swath of history, an incredible array of varied architecture encompassing Roman ruins, medieval towns and villages, intriguing Baroque castles, and last [and maybe least] modern sky-scrapers.

Beyond the “places” there is the constant, ever changing natural beauty that awaits you around every bend of the river. If you live in the city as do my wife and I, the Danube is like the proverbial “bit of fresh air.” For those lucky enough to sail, it is both a celebration and reflection of Eastern Europe‘s incredible natural beauty ready to be painted on your own personal canvas. The Danube is a fairytale brought to life. It is both romantic and full of mystical stories and legends of a time when the world was a simpler [and possibly a more enjoyable] place. For several hundred years, the Danube was at the heart of almost everything of importance in Eastern Europe.

As for the number of wonderful destinations you’ll visit that depends on the length of your trip. Most 8-day Danube cruises begin or end in Budapest, and provide a wonderful overnight stay in Vienna. One of the most important 19th century cities in the world, Vienna was the seat of power for the Hapsburg dynasty that ruled Europe for a hundred years. Among all the treasures in Vienna, perhaps none of them rival St. Stephan’s Cathedral, one of the world’s most ornate and well-preserved cathedrals.

While you won’t mistake the Danube for the Grand Canyon, many believe that it contains the most stunning display of natural beauty on any river — Austria’s vineyard-lined Wachau Valley. This stretch of river is renowned for its shoreline filled with beautiful, fairytale-looking medieval towns and villages and, if we didn’t know better, almost appears to be a movie set. Along the way you’ll also spend delightful time in the remarkable little village of Durnstein where Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned during the Crusades. While there, if you close your eyes, you can almost imagine being whisked back to that remarkable era as it’s actually changed very little. Nearby [and a great bicycle ride] are Melk and its ever present Melk Abbey.

Most cruises provide a side-trip off the river to medieval Salzburg, one of those storybook towns we’ve all read about and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Ladies, also found in Salzburg, is one of the best shopping streets in the world — Getreidegasse, which is also the street that Mozart lived on as a small boy. [On a personal note, we found some of the best pastry shops in the world in Salzburg, too, and we tried almost all of them.] If you’re reading this article and thinking about a Holiday Markets river cruise [mid-November to mid-December], Salzburg and its exhilarating Holiday Market is among the best. Salzburg in winter can be summed up by only one word — remarkable!

Almost every stop on the Danube is a UNESCO World Heritage location including Wurzburg, and one you’re sure to love: the village of Regensburg — a small, unspoiled heritage site famous for its 12th century Stone Bridge and Roman ruins – yet another wonderful photo op.

You’re probably getting a clear picture that a river cruise that traverses Austria is a sensational, relaxing and most interesting vacation. If you’re into food and wines then this fits right into your lifestyle, too. Austria has produced some of the finest chefs in the world, and their Riesling and other white wines are among the finest produced.

By the way, if food and wine is an integral part of your life’s pleasures, we strongly suggest spending time perusing the Themed River Cruise section, paying particular attention to Uniworld River Cruises’ Epicurean Adventure river cruises. On these designated cruises, Uniworld has enhanced the food and wine experience with special tours and events along with very unique wine tastings and vineyard visits throughout the cruise.

To wrap up this article, we thought you’d like to know that one of Uniworld’s ships, the River Queen was just voted 2011 “Best River Cruise Ship in the World” by the readers of Condé Nast; the River Beatrice was the runner up.

Austria and the Danube finish first in our book, too!

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