Rolling along the Rhine: top cities to visit on a river cruise

The River Rhine has been one of Europe's key transport arteries since the days of the Roman Empire.

View of the mighty Rhine just north of Rudesheim © Adrian72 - Fotolia.com
View of the mighty Rhine just north of Rudesheim © Adrian72 - Fotolia.com

It is a mighty waterway that makes its way across almost 800 miles, snaking from the Swiss Alps and curling across Germany, skipping along by France and then enjoying a dramatic denouement in the Netherlands.

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You could just idle on-deck while cruising the Rhine, admiring the riverside vineyards and UNESCO World Heritage-listed castles, but there are plenty of remarkable places to tempt you to get off.

We're talking cities and towns that are very popular destinations in their own right. Make the effort to hop off on your Rhine cruise and you will be amply rewarded.

Rotterdam, The Netherlands

The second largest city in the Netherlands is no longer content to play second fiddle, so get off and delve into a thrilling, dynamic city.

Rotterdam, a massive port city and historic gateway to the Rhine proper, has been on the up since its wildly successful stint as European City of Culture opened the new millennium in style in 2001.

Orientate yourself at the landmark Euromast Tower and you'll appreciate its size and the scale of recent rebuilding work that has seen a slew of new glass and steel buildings built or renovated.

You can still trace echoes of a much older Rotterdam at the 600-year-old St Lawrence Church, pretty much the only building left standing in the old quarter after WWII.

You'll be in good company in Rotterdam's superb galleries with local luminaries Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

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Cologne, Germany

It's worth getting off the ship for the Dom alone. This voluminous UNESCO World Heritage-listed edifice is one of Europe's largest cathedrals, a gothic expanse known as the 'mother of all German churches'.

Floodlit Cologne Cathedral in the summer twilight © Tobi87 - Wikimedia Commons
Floodlit Cologne Cathedral in the summer twilight © Tobi87 - Wikimedia Commons

Cologne is a city that began life 2,000 years ago as a Roman settlement on the banks of the Rhine.

The river has always been the city's lifeblood, but these days the heavy industry and cargo barges have been joined by the new technology and media companies that have given Cologne an unmistakable buzz.

There are still oompah bands and bratwurst in the beer halls, but the city's large student population and the influx of media types prefer the funky fusion restaurants and the painfully hip bars.

Wherever you savour it, the local Kolsch beer is almost as famous as the Dom itself. The old town is a rambling warren of cobbled streets, an atmospheric venue for a spot of aimless wandering with plenty of cafés and bars on hand.

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Koblenz, Germany

If a city were judged by its setting Koblenz would be up there with anywhere in Europe.

The city strides proudly out at the confluence of the Rhone and Moselle rivers, nestled beneath mountains with surrounds that are peppered with vineyard-clad terraces.

Fairytale castles lie sprinkled over surrounding hills like fairy dust - this is the Rhine you've seen on postcards.

Make sure to be on deck to cruise in and out of Koblenz to appreciate the scenic wonders of the Rhine Gorge.

Taking the cable car up to the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress is the ideal way to appreciate the city and its spectacular setting, while a visit to Stolzenfels Castle sees you walking in the footsteps of Queen Victoria.

You can book a handy excursion before you arrive that includes a tourist train around the city and culminates with a wine tasting.

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Rudesheim, Germany

If you like wine you'll love Rudesheim, which lies right in the heart of Germany's wine country. It lies within the 65 km long Rhine Gorge and handily it offers a pretty backdrop to wine tasting with its waterfront lined with 16th-century Gothic buildings.

You can try the famous local wines all over town and head further out to check out some of the most illustrious names in German wine.

For a bird's eye view of it all take a gondola ride up the 100-year-old Niederwald Monument, which offers epic views.

Quiet spot near to the Niederwald Monument in Rudesheim © Fokke - Fotolia.com
Quiet spot near to the Niederwald Monument in Rudesheim © Fokke - Fotolia.com

More cerebral experiences await in the local museums dedicated to toys, musical instruments and wine, plus a smattering of castles.

Wine connoisseurs won't want to miss a wine tour, which you can book aboard. You'll be whisked off in the Winzerexpress and taken up to the family-owned Weingut Adolf Storzel to taste some of the wines that have been produced here since 1647.

You tour the cellars and, of course, get the chance to snare a few unique bottlings to take home as the perfect souvenir.

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Frankfurt, Germany

So 'Bankfurt' or 'Mainhattan' is a dull financial hub laden with skyscrapers and not much else? Think again.

One of Germany's most cosmopolitan cities, Frankfurt (officially Frankfurt am Main as it sits on one of the Rhine's largest tributaries, the River Main) overflows with some of the liveliest nightlife in the country.

Then there is the longest stretch of museums in Europe (a whole mile), as well as a rambling old town and a restaurant scene that boasts everything from Michelin starred fine dining temples through to cider taverns.

In a city of skyscrapers there is only one place to start - the Main Tower and its impressive viewing platform. Scoot 56-floors and 200 m above it all and take in a panorama that includes the Romerberg historic quarter and the entertainment district of Sachsenhausen across the lifeblood River Main.

Back down at ground level head for Romerberg Square. Virtually blasted off the face of the planet by Allied bombing at the end of WWII the main square has been impressively restored.

The southern bank of the Main is also home to that famous 'Museum Mile' with the likes of the Communication Museum, City Art Institute and the Museum of Ancient Sculpture.

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Want to know more about river cruising? Read our complete guide to river cruising, and give our river cruise finder a whirl to choose between itineraries and companies worldwide, from the Rhine to the Ganges, Nile to the Yangtze.

Basel, Switzerland

It's into Switzerland now for a city blessed with an Alpine backdrop. Basel, a swish, well to do hub, sits very close to the borders of France and Germany and swathes of cultural and culinary influences from both pervade its streets.

Old town of Basel, Switzerland with the twin towers of Basel Cathedral © Balakate - Fotolia.com
Old town of Basel, Switzerland with the twin towers of Basel Cathedral © Balakate - Fotolia.com

The medieval old town is a real hub still overlooked by a 16th-century red-brick town hall - if you're here on a weekend look out for the farmers' market.

The most striking building in the city is the twin-towered 12th-century Gothic cathedral, which rises above the lifeblood River Rhine. It's a great place to enjoy the views and take the pulse of Basel life from 250 steps up.

Whilst here make sure to check out too the tomb of the 16th-century Dutch scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam before you head off to relax in one of the riverside cafés and bars.

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Ready to roll along the Rhine? Don't miss the latest great value deals from TUI River Cruises, which has a number of itineraries including these cities and many more or browse even more top offers on river cruises.

Robin McKelvie

Robin McKelvie

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