Aug. 7, 2012 at 9:54 AM ET
From our 2012 Cruise Guide, all-star stretches along five storied European rivers—the Danube, the Main, the Rhine, the Moselle and the Seine.
The second-longest river on the Continent and one of its busiest, the Danube begins in the mountains of Germany’s Black Forest and weaves 1,770 miles southeast through eight other countries and four capital cities to the Black Sea.
Most scenic stretch: Between the Austrian towns of Melk (where you'll find this monastery) and Krems (23 miles).
Don't miss: Vineyards and monasteries line both banks in the storybook-lovely Wachau Valley. In charming Dürnstein, a steep 25-minute hike from the water’s edge leads to the ruins of medieval Kuenringer Castle and fine river views.
One of the Rhine’s largest tributaries, the Main flows through the forests of Germany’s enchanting southwest. The water turns terra-cotta as it passes through the mineral-rich Spessart hills. Foxes, boars and other wildlife are easily spotted beneath the towering oaks onshore. Here, a freighter navigates the tight turning point of the Main river near Wertheim.
Most scenic stretch: The 20 miles between Miltenberg and Wertheim.
Don't miss: Zum Riesen, Germany’s oldest tavern, is in the walled town of Miltenberg. Order a locally brewed Faust beer or a local red wine (Miltenberg’s sandstone turns out velvety reds, including the worthy Portugieser and Spätburgunder).
The 350-mile Moselle intersects with the Main and Rhine in Koblenz before zigzagging its way southwest through Germany, along the Luxembourg border, and into northeastern France.
Most scenic stretch: A 45-mile route between the German towns of Cochem and Bernkastel.
Don't miss: Few Crusader castles are as romantic as Reichsburg Castle, with its cluster of turrets rising dramatically above the town of Cochem, a frequent stop on shore excursions. Lesser known and well worth the trip is Beilstein, just six miles from Cochem and considered the best preserved medieval town in Germany. Note that you’ll need your own wheels to reach it, since most of the river ships don’t stop there.
The twelfth-longest river in Europe and one of the most trafficked, the Rhine flows from the eastern Swiss Alps to the North Sea.
Most scenic stretch: The 41 miles between the German towns of Koblenz and Rudesheim.
Don't miss: This entire stretch was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002 in honor of both its dramatic natural beauty and historic significance. The banks are lined with—you guessed it—castle after castle, about one per mile. Marksburg is among the best preserved (the squeamish might want to skip the torture chamber). Rudesheim, one of the most popular winemaking towns in the Rhine Valley, is perpetually packed with tourists. You’re better off hopping on an open-roofed gondola or a chairlift over the Niederwald recreational area for an unbeatable aerial view of sloping vineyards and the river valley.
Beginning near Dijon, in northeast France, the Seine flows some 500 miles—through the French capital, west to Normandy, and into a pastoral landscape so beguiling that few French painters could resist its charms.
Most scenic stretch: The 16 miles between the French towns of Vernon and Les Andelys.
Don't miss: Monet’s famous gardens at Giverny (ten minutes by bus from Vernon) may be the main attraction, but from there begins an equally canvas-worthy stretch of lush riverbanks studded with roses and orchids in summer. The ruins of the twelfth-century château in Les Andelys, built by Richard the LionHearted to fend off Philippe Auguste, serve as a reminder of Normandy’s history as a contested region between France and England, and are a prime spot for sweeping photos of the Seine Valley.
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