River cruises: delights of the Danube

The Danube is not just one of the world's great rivers. It's a waterway that's gloriously lined with some of the most striking and enchanting cities anywhere in Europe.

Exploring cities on the river Danube © Zechal - Fotolia.com
Exploring cities on the river Danube © Zechal - Fotolia.com

Cruise the Danube: if you're planning a cruise in 2020/2021, don't miss the latest offers on the River Danube sailings with TUI River Cruises*, which has a variety of itineraries. Find out more about the best time to go and what weather to expect.

It can be tempting to just relax in the cosseted world aboard of sumptuous food and drink when you take a river cruise. Make the effort, though, and you will be rewarded the moment you get off by cities that will live long in your memory. Here are half a dozen that you simply should not miss.

Linz, Austria

Austria's third largest city beckons with the ghosts of Mozart and Beethoven, who both penned symphonies in Linz.

It's easy to sightsee on foot. Start your explorations on grand Hauptplatz and then ease your way around streets adorned with palaces, mansions, churches and townhouses, with a swathe of ornate Baroque architecture to admire.

Continue the cultural trip by dropping into Linz's striking riverfront City Hall, museums and art galleries. The Ars Electronica Center hails itself the 'Museum of the Future'. This museum of electronic arts tackles climate change head-on and also features an interactive eight projector 'deep space' multimedia experience.

Fans of The Sound of Music won't want to miss the chance to travel through to the Salzburg region where you can follow 'The Sound of Music trail'. It's possible to book a themed excursion aboard - highlights include the church where Captain Von Trapp married Maria and the Mirabelle Gardens from 'Do-Re-Mi'.

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Vienna, Austria

Your brain, your soul and your stomach will thank you for getting off in the Austrian capital. Your stomach can savour the comforting delights of the deliciously sweet Sacher Torte and the savoury smack of Wiener schnitzel.

Your soul will enjoy strolling amidst Vienna's abundance of greenery in parks laden with sculptures of famous composers, which leads neatly on to your brain.

There is nothing quite like hearing a grand opera or epic symphony performed at one of the grand venues in the 'City of Music' where it was written, such as the epic State Opera House.

The capital of the once all-powerful Hapsburg Empire is awash with the legacy of its imperial past, with some of the continent's most grandiose architecture. The Hofburg Palace is the largest and perhaps the grandest of any royal palace complex in Europe.

Built around the old 18th-century stables of the Hapsburgs the MuseumsQuartier is now one of the largest cultural complexes in the world.

Beside all the grand classical venues is a new flurry of funky art galleries and museums specialising in new media and alternative views of what constitutes art and culture.

Summer evening in the MuseumsQuartier, Vienna © Hertha Hurnaus - courtesy of Austrian National Tourist Office
Summer evening in the MuseumsQuartier, Vienna © Hertha Hurnaus - courtesy of Austrian National Tourist Office

The MuseumsQuartier, or MQ, is extremely popular with the locals and visitors alike. Built around the old 18th-century stables of the Hapsburgs it is now one of the largest cultural complexes in the world.

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Bratislava, Slovakia

The capital of Slovakia has really come into its own since the 'Velvet Divorce' of 1993 from Czechoslovakia. Get off to discover its revamped old town, a burst of new restaurants and bars, plus a palpable sense of confidence.

Bratislava enjoys an enviable setting, straddling the banks of the mighty Danube River on the fertile plains that stretch towards the Carpathian Mountains. The city is at the heart of Europe, both geographically and politically.

Hanging omnipresent above the cobbled streets is Bratislava Castle, somewhat unfairly derided by the city's self-deprecating citizens as the 'Upturned Table'. A castle has stood on the site since the 15th century and today the central courtyard that is housed inside four corner turrets is home to part of the Slovak National Museum.

The epicentre of old Bratislava is the old town square, which is dominated by the Old Town Hall. Since the 15th century, this gothic expanse has borne witness to lively markets, civic gatherings, festivals, and even to public executions.

Look out for the new face of Bratislava, too, with its mushrooming glass and steel skyscrapers. Don't miss cruising under the city's famous 'UFO Bridge'.

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Budapest, Hungary

The Hungarian capital of Budapest is often eulogised as the 'Paris of the East'. It boasts the air and appearance of a truly grand European city with a wide sweep of the Danube cutting a swathe between its old (Buda) and new (Pest) districts.

Buda is the hilly old core with its rambling cobbled streets, riverside ramparts and museums, and is every bit as impressive as any of the historical quarters in other eastern European gems like Prague and Krakow.

Don't miss sprawling 18th-century Budapest Castle and the selfie-friendly Fisherman's Bastion. Ambling around here feels like leafing through the musty pages of a historical novel.

The Hungarian Parliament in Budapest © Milan - Fotolia.com
The Hungarian Parliament in Budapest © Milan - Fotolia.com

The Pest side of the river, accessible over a sprinkling of attractive bridges, may be flatter and more modern, but its most striking building, the Hungarian Parliament, instantly reminds many visitors from the UK of something a bit closer to home: the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.

The Hungarian version, fittingly for a people who embrace the theatrical, is far more ornate with dreamy spires and lavish décor touches that Disney can only dream of. Pest is also home to many of the city's famous thermal baths and spas. If you are in town, later on, make sure to head to one of the remarkable 'ruin bars'.

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Vukovar, Croatia

Any visit to Vukovar since 1990 is a sobering one that shines a light (and darkness) on some of the best - and worst - parts of European history.

Until then, this Croatian city was a baroque beauty idling by the Danube, home to Croats, Serbs and many other Yugoslavs.

Then came the brutal Serbian siege, which decimated swathes of the city and cost thousands of its residents and defenders their lives. Today Vukovar is back in Croatian hands and rebuilding has resurrected many of its architectural beauties.

A visit to Vukovar may just turn out to be the most intense and rewarding of your whole cruise.

However, the community is still very much fractured and all tourists are welcome with the money generated used to help with rebuilding and reconciliation efforts.

You can book a walking tour aboard that delves into the war history and takes you to the battered 50m-high water tower, which has been left (like other parts of the city) as a stark reminder what man did to man here.

A visit to Vukovar may just turn out to be the most intense and rewarding of your whole cruise. Make sure to pick up Vukovar's most popular souvenir - a ceramic dove that symbolises peace.

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Belgrade, Serbia

Compared to the other cities on a Danube itinerary the Serbian capital is no great looker. What this buzzing city does offer is a real earthiness, lack of pretension and sense of vibrancy.

This comes across in the city's ubiquitous pavement cafés and bars, where the city's youthful population likes to gather. There are floating restaurants and bars, known as 'splavovi', to enjoy, too.

Belgrade does have its own slices of historical architecture as well as the socialist era architecture. There is also its grand Belgrade Castle to check out.

The Church of St Sava Temple in Belgrade © Dudlajzov - Fotolia.com
The Church of St Sava Temple in Belgrade © Dudlajzov - Fotolia.com

The prevailing religion here is Orthodox Christian with the massive dome of the Church of St Sava Temple one of the most striking Orthodox places of worship in the world.

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Best time for a Danube river cruise

If you're heading for the Danube, Germany, Austria and Hungary all experience their warmest and sunniest weather in July and August. Daytime highs reach the mid-twenties most days and there's a good seven or eight hours of sunshine a day.

South of Budapest, into Croatia and Serbia and along the border between Romania and Bulgaria, it's a lot warmer than on the upper stretches of the Danube.

The best warm weather covers the four months from June to September with up to nine hours of sunshine per day at times and temperatures touching 30°C on some days.

Danube river cruise weather

You can cruise the Danube almost any time from the beginning of March to the end of October. In March, the weather can be cold and rather variable along the river's full length with cloud and rain at times, and temperatures generally not rising much above 10°C.

In April and May conditions improve dramatically. Daytime temperatures only reach the low twenties at best, but seven hours of sunshine per day are possible.

June, July and August deliver sunnier more settled weather with increased hours of daylight although summer is also when afternoon thunderstorms can threaten.

In Vienna, July is the warmest sunniest month; in Belgrade, both July and August are even sunnier and warmer than Vienna with moderate heat and humidity.

However, from the beginning of September cooler conditions slowly creep in with more cloud though not necessarily more rain. By the middle of October, Vienna has only four hours of sunshine per day and temperatures only touching 15°C at best.

Discover the Danube: if you're tempted to book a cruise along the River Danube and visit these historic cities and more, check out the latest deals and itineraries for 2020 from TUI River Cruises or more top offers on river cruises.

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Robin McKelvie

Robin McKelvie

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