There’s something quite magical about waking up in a different city every day.
At 28 - and with a past propensity for seasickness - I admit I had never really considered a river cruise. I’ve always preferred a "march to the beat of my own drum" kind of travel. The kind that lets you immerse and enchant yourself with local stories, that lets you explore all of a grand old city’s nooks and crannies on foot - finding little, out-of-the-way restaurants - where you can try to eat like a local.
But as it turns out, there are plenty of opportunities to do that on a river cruise too. After a recent sojourn down the blue Danube, I couldn’t help but think what fun the experience what a shame it was that more people my age didn't consider river boat cruises when looking to city-hop around Europe - with most of my fellow passengers probably in the 60 and over age range.
While you’re more than welcome to join any of the pre-arranged tours showcasing the highlights of any given stop, you’re also free to go it alone, taking the opportunity to really explore destination cities like Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Linz and Salzburg yourself - so long as you’re back before your ship sets sail.
The Blue Danube River Cruise
The riverboat itself - in this case the MS Thomas Hardy operated by Riviera Travel - was impressive in its resemblance to an actual hotel, albeit a floating one. The 135-metre vessel slept 169 guests and 44 staff, and was so steady it barely felt like you were on the water at all.
The onboard amenities were impressive, with two restaurants on board (and decadent multi-course meals with decent vegetarian options included in your ticket), and a panoramic bar serving late-night cocktails.
On sailing days you could sun yourself on the open top deck or take in the scenery from the little rooftop pool, overhead below deck to the gym or spa area, with offerings including affordably priced yet expert massages, and even a nail salon.
Moreso, the onboard staff members were just lovely. Hailing from all corners of the globe, they were so kind and welcoming, and happy to share a joke, a laugh, or a story at any given moment.
Budapest - the pearl of the Danube
Cruising the Danube is a fantastic way to see the highlights reel of cities like Budapest. From the water itself you can take in the domes and spires of the Hungarian Parliament Building; Buda Castle, the historic seat of kings standing over the river like a watchful sentry; and Gellert Hill.
The hill is named for a Catholic bishop who the stories say was rolled down it in a spiked barrel to his death, during a pagan uprising a thousand years ago. It’s now famous for its impressive cave system and thermal baths, and the iconic Liberty Statue near its peak. With her arms, bearing a palm leaf, stretched skywards, she was built in the aftermath of the Second World War, and honours all of those who sacrificed their lives for Hungary’s independence.
Budapest is a fabulous, walkable city, with so much to do and see in easy reach of the river. There’s great shopping available everywhere you turn - I was particularly taken by a pirate-themed candy shop, where a grinning skeleton beckoned you through its doors to a jaunty tune, only to reveal hundreds of local treats artfully displayed in barrels.
When the shopping bags start to weigh you down, there are plenty of places to stop for a breather. Check out Budapest’s famously graffitied ruin bars, or the For Sale Pub - which encourages visitors to leave their mark on its paper-lined walls and ceiling.
I found a gorgeous little teahouse called 1000 Tea, based in a quiet, cobblestoned courtyard down an unassuming alleyway, this was a great spot to unwind with a fragrant local brew.
Make sure you swing by the Great Market Hall if you’re moored on the Pest side of the river. This neogothic building, easily recognised by the decorative orange and green Zsolnay roof tiling, is Budapest’s largest and oldest indoor market. As well as a range of fresh and local meat and produce - including pork products from its famously sheeplike Mangalica pigs - it also has stalls catering to tourists, selling travel-safe, giftable bags of local favourites to take home with you (did anyone say paprika?)
Europe’s magical little villages
Perhaps one of the best things about Europe’s great rivers are the charming little towns and villages found along their meandering banks. Travelling by land, you're unlikely to encounter these quirky spots speckled along the way, but a cruise takes you drifting by.
A stop in Esztergom - Hungary’s former capital and one of the oldest settlements in the country - revealed a treasure trove of winding, cobblestone streets, flanked by a rainbow of brightly painted shoebox houses. Its crown jewel is the Esztergom Basilica.
The already impressive basilica is currently undergoing extensive restoration work, but if the sight of its famous copper dome once again glittering in the morning sun is anything to go by, it will be well worth it. Just a short hike up from the Danube, you can look forward to being dwarfed by the presence of its impressive altarpiece - the largest painting in the world on a single canvas - depicting the Ascension of Mary, by Italy’s Grigoletti.
You can also head downstairs and wander the hallowed halls of its crypt, the final resting place of archbishops like József Mindszenty. Mindszenty was famous for his opposition to both Nazi and Communist rules, and based on the hundreds of flowers, ribbons, and candles that adorn his grave still, a treasured part of Esztergom to this day.
If you happen to wander past a convenience store in Hungary, look for a túró rudi. These candy bars are incredibly popular with the locals, but not the sort you’d usually find in the UK. Coated in a crisp shell of dark chocolate, the filling is a mild, pleasantly sweet cheese curd - sure to divide opinion among your travelling group. You can spot them by their red and white polka-dotted wrappers.
Sustainability on board
Environmental sustainability is factoring more and more into the decisions people make when they’re choosing how to travel (It's certainly something that I try to take into consideration) and riverboats have a lot to offer in that sense - certainly a greener option than jet-setting from city to city.
Riviera, for example, has taken a raft of measures onboard its ships to help reduce their environmental impact, with a priority being to stop any potential contaminants going into the river. The vessels have special systems to separate and condense sewage, so it can be offloaded on land and disposed of by local authorities.
Food waste, paper, metals and plastics are also separated out as they come back from the dining room so they end up where they need to be, and the vessels even produce their own electricity onboard.
They have taken aim at tackling smaller wastages as well - with initiatives like offering complimentary drink bottles in guests’ rooms that they can take home with them, saving thousands of single-use plastic bottles from landfill. The company was planning on changing to metal ones soon too, so even the small amount of plastic already in use would be faded out.
Prices for a standard lower deck cabin for Riviera Travel’s Blue Danube River Cruise aboard the MS Thomas Hardy, departing 18 April 2024, start from £1,779 per person. You can book online here.