Cruising the Rhine River

Sail through history and legend on an unforgettable river cruise.

Rhine River in Basel, Switzerland Masterfile

The journey starts in Basel, Switzerland, with a rumble of engines and a toot of the ship’s horn. Passengers stand on the deck, shading their eyes. The river beckons, heading north and west, past charming villages and hilltop castles, for more than 500 miles to Amsterdam.

This is the Rhine River. Since the Middle Ages, it has become a major trade route between central Europe and the North Sea. It’s also been the inspiration for some of Germany’s greatest writers: Goethe was entranced by its beauty, Heine wrote poems dedicated to the Rhine, and its shores are said to be the home of the legendary Nibelungen people of Wagnerian opera fame. One of the best ways to take it all in: a river cruise. Gliding along the Rhine offers a glimpse into the region’s storied history.

On this particular cruise, the ship is barely across the Swiss border when it pulls into Breisach, Germany, beneath a hilltop church whose terraces provide views across the Rhine into French fields beyond. Passengers leave the boat and load into buses, winding through vineyards into the Black Forest, which might make anyone believe in Hansel and Gretel.

The next day, the ship docks at Kehl, Germany, for a jaunt to Strasbourg, just across the Rhine bridge in France. It’s a pretty, flower-filled city surrounded by canals and packed with restaurants. The cathedral is a staggering wonder that looms over gabled houses.

Sailing farther north, passengers are transported visually from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance and baroque eras. Soon, the boat pulls into Mannheim, Germany, and it’s a short motor coach ride to Heidelberg, the country’s oldest university town—buzzing with student life and cafes, all in the shadows of an iconic, red sandstone castle.

It says much about the Rhine’s cultural richness that the journey so far is an overture to the main event: a sail through the Middle Rhine between Rudesheim and Koblenz. This section, appropriately called the Rhine Gorge, is the river’s heartland. Here, the river narrows into a series of gorges, interspersed with rolling vineyards and immaculate villages. Lovely, medieval Rudesheim comes alive on weekends as brass bands take to the streets.

As the ship travels downriver, cliffs and crumbling castles dot the shore. Even their dilapidation is splendid; the town of Oberwesel still has 16 of its original 21 fortified towers, each truncated and battered with the passing of armies and time.

History and legend are barely distinguishable around here. Just before the island-fortress of Pfalz, the river valley narrows dramatically. So many boats were once wrecked here that legend attributed the danger to a beautiful maiden who lured sailors to their doom with her singing. The cruise ship, though, passes safely onward as waters swirl and gurgle.

Marksburg, a 700-year-old fortress, is one of the Rhine Gorges’ final castles. Passengers visit its craggy heights and gape at its display of weapons before taking a stroll through the medieval-style rose garden.

By morning, the ship is gliding past the fields of the Netherlands and docks at Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage site famous for its 17th-century windmills. The miller explains how the 19 windmills—the largest collection in the world—helped shape the Dutch landscape over 500 years. Visitors enter a still-working mill, where cogwheels turn and groan.

It seems appropriate that Amsterdam, a city defined by water and maritime trade, is the final destination. Gabled houses are reflected in water at every turn, and locals sip coffee, listen to jazz music and shop along canal banks. This city’s modest, understated scale makes for a refreshing change from the opulent palaces and sweeping boulevards of other European cities. Flower markets spill across barges, bridges supply delightful photo vantage points, and the city’s famous Rijksmuseum is packed with seascapes—a fitting end to a great river journey.

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