The Danube River and the Main-Danube Canal

Among the most celebrated rivers in the world, the Danube is the quintessential river-cruise destination in Europe, serving up a glorious voyage into the history, cultures, and traditions of old empires and new territories.

The Danube

Providing some of the most breathtaking scenery in Europe, the ‘Blue’ Danube wends its way through immense cultural, historical, and visual diversity. The longest river in the European Union and the second longest on the continent after the Volga, the Danube stretches from Germany to the Black Sea, serving as a natural delineator between the cultures of the West and the cultures of the East. Originating in the hills of the Black Forest at the Fürstenberg Palace in Donaueschingen, where the Breg and the Brigach rivers join, the Danube flows for approximately 2860 km (1777 miles) and eventually drains into the Black Sea via the Danube Delta. The Danube has been an important and vital international waterway throughout history and its existence has significantly marked the empires, cultures, and people along its track. Known to have been one of the long-standing northern frontiers of the Roman Empire, the Danube also aided the Crusaders find their path to the Near East, and conversely, facilitated the arrival of the Turks into the European heartland. More recently, the Danube played a strategic role in World War II and the Serbo-Croatian Wars of the 1990s. The historical and cultural significance of the river has left behind a blend of Roman ruins, fairy-tale fortresses, countless castles, ancient vineyards, hanging cliffs, heart-breaking battlegrounds, humble villages, medieval marvels, and royal palaces.

The Danube currently passes through or forms a border with the countries of Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine, taking in many important Central and Eastern European capitals along the way. The Upper Danube flows from its source across Eastern Bavaria through Austria to the Carpathian basin near the Slovakian border, called the “Hungarian Gate”. The Middle Danube stretches across the Hungarian Plain to the “Iron Gates” at the Serbia-Romania border. The Lower Danube becomes wide and marshy as it crosses the Wallachian Plain and into the delta by the Black Sea. Danube river cruises are many and they can last from 7, 10, 12, to 14 days, depending on the particular itinerary chosen. Some of the most well-known ports of call on this major and musical river include the Roman and medieval gem of Regensburg in Germany; the attractive Passau, deservedly referred to as ‘Bavaria’s Venice’; Melk, known for its hilltop baroque monastery; Vienna, the incomparable center of classical music; Bratislava, the colourful capital of Slovakia; Budapest, the grand city of Hungary, spanning two sides of the river; Belgrade, the capital of Serbia; and Sofia in Bulgaria. From start to finish, the Danube serves up an enticing, colorful, and heady mix of culture, architecture, tumultuous history, diverse cuisine, enchanting music, and captivating scenery.

The Main-Danube Canal

Wending its way through northern Bavaria and connected to the Upper Danube is the Main-Danube Canal. Opened for navigation in 1992, the canal was first envisioned by Charlemagne back in 793 AD, when he dreamed of connecting the Main and Danube rivers. The 170 km (106 mile) canal has 16 locks and flows into the Danube at Kelheim, making navigation and transportation possible between the Rhine Delta on the coast in the Netherlands with the Danube Delta at the Black Sea. Some cruise itineraries include the navigable part of the Upper Danube as well as the Main-Danube Canal, taking in the rolling hills of Bavaria.

Destination Highlights on the Main-Danube Canal

Bamberg, Germany

Known for its smoked beer, Bamberg is the seat of the Archbishop of Bamberg and a medieval city with narrow winding streets and Baroque Patrician houses. The city was among the very few in Germany which were left virtually intact after World War II, so the historic center is a well-preserved feast for the eyes. UNESCO declared the Altstadt (Old Town), the 11th century Bamberger Dom (Bamberg Cathedral), and the Bamberg Reiter (Bamberg Rider) as a World Heritage Site. The historic Old Town contains the Baroque Rathaus, which was originally a seminary. The strangest town hall in Germany, the Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall) is a Gothic-Rococo structure covering an island in the middle of the Regnitz river, accessible by two bridges. Bamberg’s main hill is crowned with the cathedral and ecclesiastical palace, called Domstadt (Cathedral City). The square in front of the cathedral, Domplatz, presents a magnificent spectrum of architectural styles, including Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque. One of the best-known architectural monuments in Germany, the Bamberg Cathedral (Bamberger Dom St. Peter und St. Georg) is Romanesque, with four imposing towers. Originally founded as a cathedral site in 1004, the present structure has some Gothic and late-Romanesque elements and was consecrated in 1111, receiving its final touches in the 13th century. A treasure of the Cathedral is the equestrian statue of a horseman, the Bamberg Rider, approximately dating from 1225 to 1237.

Nuremberg (Nürnberg), Germany

Bavaria’s second largest city and the capital of Franconia, Nuremberg is remembered as the scene of the 1945-1949 War Crimes Trials, which took place in the Palace of Justice, and the scene for Nazi Rallies. Long before then, Nuremberg was reputed for things of a more cultural nature. Strategically located on the nexus of key trade routes, the city greatly expanded from 1050 to 1571. At that time, the city was nicknamed the ‘unofficial’ capital of the Holy Roman Emperor because the imperial courts used to meet at Nuremberg Castle. Frederick II declared Nuremberg a Free Imperial City in 1219. Famed for its bell and candle makers, woodcarvers, and glass painters, Nuremberg was also known for its precision scientific instruments, painting, and sculpture. As such, Nuremberg was the cultural center for the German Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries. As a result of these various passages through time, there is now an odd mixture of old and new architecture present in the city.

The medieval historical quarter, Altstadt, is comprised of half-timbered houses, Gothic churches, cobbled squares, and intricate spires, which please the eye and inspire the heart. The Tiergärtner Tor is one of the four gates in the wall encircling the Altstadt. Across the square from the Tiergärtner Tor is the Albrecht Dürer Haus, which was the home of Germany’s original Renaissance Man and painter. The center of town is the Hauptmarkt (Main Market), the site of a bustling open-air market. The Renaissance Altes Rathaus is at one of the edge of the square and the ornamented, filigreed Gothic-spired attraction Schöner Brunnen (Beautiful Fountain) at the other end.

North of the historical section on a sandstone hill is the Kaiserburg (Emperor’s Buildings), which gives the city its skyline of stone blocks and odd towers. The Kaiserburg affords a view of the red roofs and medieval town. Comprised of several different structures, built up over time, there is also the Burgrave’s Castle on the eastern side. Dating from the 11th – 12th century, which was a fortress belonging to the Salian Kings and then the Counts of Nuremberg. On the western spur is The Imperial Castle, which was a seat of the Hohenstaufen Royals in the 12th century. The Hohenstaufens were an influential and powerful bloodline, who provided several Holy Roman Emperors from 1138 to 1254.

The largest museum of its kind, the German National Museum of Art and Culture (Germanisches Nationalmuseum), founded in 1852, houses an impressive collection of items relating to German culture.

Kelheim, Germany

Sleepy Kelheim is the gateway to the mythical Danube Gorge and is situated at the confluence of the Danube River and the Altmühl, part of the Main-Danube Canal. The town is mainly Baroque, with a round citadel and wide cobbled streets leading to a market square. The Archaeological Museum displays Neanderthal remains and exhibits relating to the historical artifacts unearthed during the building of the canal.

The yellow-colored Classical Hall of Liberation, commissioned by King Ludwig to commemorate the Wars of Liberation, is nestled in the hills above the river.

The town is typically used as a disembarking point on river cruises for an excursion to the Weltenburg Abbey (Kloster Weltenburg). The abbey is poised in an idyllic setting on the sandy banks at the Donaudurchbruch (Danube’s Cleft), where the Danube makes a tight loop and slices through a narrow gorge of thickly-forested limestone rocks, resulting in bizarre shapes. Here the monks have been brewing dark beer for centuries and their haunting Gregorian chants resonate through the walls of the complex.

The Danube Gorge

The Danube Gorge begins just beyond Kelheim as the Main-Danube Canal enters the Danube river. Declared a European Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the scenery is spectacular. There are some amazing cliff formations and rock outcroppings shaped as the Danube pushed and forced and carved its way through Jurassic chalk and limestone mountains. Some of the cliff formations have descriptive names, such as “The Beehive” and “The Bavarian Lyon”.

Destination highlights on the Danube

The Upper Danube

Ingolstadt, Germany

Located between Ulm and Kelheim amongst green meadows on the banks of the Danube, the university town of Ingolstadt is dominated by St. Mary’s Minster. Having played an important role in the history of Bavaria, Ingolstadt was the seat of ducal power, evidence of which can be seen throughout the old town. Ingolstadt figures in the literary work of Mary Shelly’s Dr. Frankenstein, is the place where beer purity laws originated, and is home to the car manufacturer Audi.

Regensburg, Germany

Originating as the Celtic settlement, Ratisbona, Regensburg grew into a bishopric in the 5th century and became the capital of Bavaria in the 6th century. Lovely Regensburg is the oldest town on the Danube and one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe. Colorful Patrician houses, distinctive churches, and attractive monuments populate this charming town, making it a highlight on Danube River cruises. Wealthy trading families inhabited the city, evidenced by stately mansions lining the river banks. The view to Regensburg from the opposite shore or from a boat is truly magical.

Presiding over the town is the cathedral, Regensburger Dom, located in the center. A cathedral has stood on that place since the 8th century, though it has been burned and rebuilt many times; the present cathedral is a superb example of German Gothic architecture. The medieval old town center, Altstadt, is virtually intact, with tiny cobbled alleyways, interesting shops, and charming squares. Neupfarrplatz is the true heart of the city and has seen an immense assortment of activity throughout history; for example, it has been home to Roman officers, took a turn as the Jewish quarter, transformed into a lively marketplace, and sadly witnessed the burning of books by the Nazis. To this day Neupfarrplatz is where demonstrations and riots continue to take place. An impressive sight in the historic town is the Goliath House, which has an enormous fresco of David fighting against Goliath from 1573.

The town is reached via a picturesque stone bridge, the Steinerne Brücke, built from 1135 to 1146. At the town entrance of the bridge, which was mentioned in Goethe’s Faust, is the rose-colored Bridge Tower with an enormous clock. The Jacob Gate (Jakobstor), a Gothic gate complex, is the other ancient entrance to town, consisting of two semi-circular flanking towers from the former fortifications.

Regensburg is the honorary home of Pope Benedict XVI and was the real home of Oskar Schindler before his emigration to Argentina.

A short distance from Regensburg, built as a copy of the Parthenon in Athens, stands the pillared edifice, Valhalla (Walhalla). Built in the 19th century by the romantic Ludwig I, the ‘German Parthenon’ is home to busts and plaques honoring champions of German culture, such as Goethe and Kant.

Passau, Germany

As the river flows toward Passau, the scenery is that of pretty Bavarian villages, rolling hills, dense forests, and the ruins of medeiavl castles. As the starting point for many Danube cruises, attractive Passau marks the border between Germany and Austria. Situated at the confluence of three rivers, the Ilz, the Inn, and the Danube, Passau is called the City of Three Rivers (Dreiflüssestadt) and is sometimes referred to as the Venice of Bavaria. At the top of the town is the magnificent Baroque masterpiece, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which houses Europe’s largest pipe organ, and 1857 was the year that Liszt wrote his Hungarian Coronation Mass for the cathedral. The picturesque Old Town (Die Altstadt) has the fine Town Hall Tower, Gothic and Baroque buildings, plenty of nooks and crannies, and pleasant squares, with a lively market in front of the cathedral on Tuesdays and Fridays. Passau was a bishopric for 1,200 years and dominating the town is the Veste Oberhaus, a fortress that served as the seat for the bishops. From this point to Vienna, there is a popular cycling path along the river.

Linz, Austria

The capital of the province of Upper Austria, Linz has a long history dating to Roman times and Celtic settlements. The many Baroque buildings are reminiscent of the prosperous trading times, when the strategic location of the town on the old trade route was a key element in trading with Slavic and Oriental merchants, and the source of its wealth. Habsburg Emperor Friedrich III spent his last years here, making it the most important town in the Empire at that time until his death in 1493. At the heart of the town is the lavishly decorated Trinity Column (Dreifaltigkeitssäule), also known as the Plague Column (Pestsäule), which was erected as a memorial to those who perished during the plague epidemics. The city’s mid 18th century landmark, Pöstlingberg Church, with its pilgrimage basilica, is perched high on a rise surveying the town. Linz’s most important concert hall is the Brücknerhaus, named for composer Anton Bruckner. Linz is home to Austria’s largest cathedral, Neuer Dom, with colorful stained-glass windows. Spanning the river from the main square, the Nibelungen Bridge was used as a sort of ‘Check-Point Charlie’ Linz-style after World War II, when the Danube served as the border between Russian and American troops in that particular section of the river.

Mauthausen, Austria

Dating back to the Neolithic Age, the area of Mauthausen has been settled for many centuries and figured as a crossroads during the Roman Empire, as well as a toll station for ships at the end of the 10th century. More recently, the small market town of Mauthausen attained notoriety as the site of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp complex during World War II. Part of the complex houses a museum and it is possible to visit some of the rooms, huts, and quarters, making the suffering and inhumane conditions very real indeed. It is a moving and haunting place.

Mauthausen may be used as a stopping off point on a river cruise, for an excursion to nearby Burg Elz, perched on a hill in the romantic, wooded setting of the Moselle Valley.

From the river vessel you can see the 14th century Habsburg Wallsee Castle, which presides over the river.

Melk, Austria

Poised dramatically on a high bluff, the ochre-colored abbey, Stift Melk, can be seen from far, far away. Founded by Leopold II in 1089 and originally built in the Benedictine Age, the current abbey, Stift Melk, was re-designed and built in the Baroque style in 1700 after being ravaged by several fires. Stift Melk is now considered as Austria’s most magnificent Baroque abbey. Inside the abbey is the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul, with an impressive ceiling fresco and grand altar figures of the apostles for which the cathedral is named. The glorious imperial rooms of the abbey have accommodated such illustrious individuals as Emperor Charles VI, Maria Theresa, Pope Pious VI, and Napoleon. A venerable organ is on hand for concerts, which has the distinction of having been played by Mozart in 1767. From the terrace of the abbey or even outside the front gates, there are delectable sweeping views to be had over the valley and the river below. Located in the shadow of the abbey is the village of Melk, which can be reached by a quaint footpath. A pleasant pedestrian street is the main thoroughfare, with friendly shops and cafés, as well as several cozy alleyways branching off from it. The Rathaus (Town Hall) in the Rathausplatz (Town Hall Square) was built in the 16th century, and has an elaborate wooden door. A Gothic parish church dominates the church court. Considered as one of the highlights in Austria, Melk is a stop for all Danube river cruises.

Outside the village is the Renaissance Schallaburg Castle, which counts as one of the most beautiful Renaissance castles in Lower Austria, featuring some remains of medieval Romanesque and Gothic styles.

Dürnstein, Austria

Entering the beautiful Wachau Valley, the Danube slices its way through steep slopes, terraced-vineyards, and densely forested hills. Idyllically nestled amidst this stretch of river is the picturesque village of Dürnstein, and its characteristic sky-blue Baroque tower of the Pfarrkirche church. The town center is a quaint area with cobbled lanes and narrow alleys, with another Baroque silhouette, the Stiftskirche (Collegiate Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Above the village are the ruins of the Künringerburg Fortress, where the Babenburgs imprisoned the English King, Richard the Lionheart, from December 1192 to March 1193. The ruins can be reached by a steep climb from the village and afford superb views to the valley below. The Wachauer wines of the region enjoy a great reputation and Dürnstein is home to many Heurige (Wine taverns), where wine coming directly from the vineyards can be enjoyed and sold. The key to knowing if the wine tavern is open is to look for the bough or branch, which will be suspended outside the front door, they are ready to welcome you into their establishment and get you acquainted with their special Wachauer elixir.

Krems, Austria

Situated at the eastern end of the Wachau wine-growing area, the pleasant town of Krems is surrounded by green rolling hills and steeply-terraced vineyards. Regarded as a particularly outstanding example of restoration after the war, Krems was an affluent city in the 11th and 12th centuries, due to the iron and grain trade, and at that time it even rivaled Vienna. There are many beautiful town houses, courtyards, and fine churches. The city center is a UNESCO World Heritage and remains of the original town walls are still visible. Krems has a Renaissance town hall, a vast 13th century palace, Gozzoburg, and the earliest Baroque church in Austria, the Veitskirche. Krems’ star attraction is the imposing late-Gothic Piaristenkirche, with a beautiful Baroque altarpiece.

Klosterneuburg

The small town of Klosterneuburg, just outside of Vienna, was once the main seat of the Babenberg rulers. The imposing Augustinian Monastery (Stift Klosterneuburg) was built by Margrave Leopold III in the early 12th century when he built his castle. Crowned with a dome in the shape of the Imperial Crown, the monastery is magnificent, with a Romanesque-Baroque church. Housed in the burial chapel of Leopold II is the treasure of the town: the altarpiece by Nicolas of Verdun, which consists of 45 gilded and enameled tiles, depicting scenes from the Bible. As the river approaches Vienna, the terrain flattens out as it reaches the Hungarian Plain.

Vienna, Austria

Romantic, elegant, sophisticated Vienna; there is really no place quite like it on earth. Strategically located at a significant crossroads between Hungary and the Alps (East – West routes) and the North Sea to the Adriatic (North – South routes), Vienna holds a position of distinction and has done for centuries. Vienna was the home of the Babenberg Dynasty, seat of the Hapsburg Dynasty, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the core of culture, science, and cuisine. The unequivocal center of music, Vienna was the birthplace of Schubert and the home of Mozart, Beethoven, and Strauss. Originally surrounded by city walls, the vibrant old historic center is the true heart of the city, with a treasure trove of sights, sounds, and history. Though the center district dates back to the 13th century, many churches and buildings were re-fashioned in the 17th and 18th centuries according to the powerful Hapsburg monarchy, resulting in an eclectic mix of medieval alleys, bourgeois town houses, and monumental Baroque structures. Lively Kärntnerstrasse, with its chic boutiques, cafés, and casino is the main pedestrian street in the city center, from which there are many alleys corners and squares to explore, especially in the areas on the other side of Stephansplatz by the cathedral. Horse-drawn carriages are at the ready to give guided city-tours like in the olden days. Dominating Stephansplatz and the very soul of the city is Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral), with its 137-meter (450 ft) tower (Steffel) and its distinctive, colorful tiled roof. Taking the stairs up the Steffel offers fantastic views of the city. Vienna has a deeply entrenched coffee culture, said to have dated back to 1683 when the Turks retreated hastily from the city and left behind sacks of coffee beans. The center of town has numerous places to enjoy some delicious coffee, delicious pastries, or even some of the famous Sachertorte, a dense and intense dark chocolate cake, originally created by the Hotel Sacher.

The original town walls, encircling the historic old town center, were razed in 1857 to expand the city and merge with the surrounding villages. The prestigious Ringstrasse took the place of the city walls and an amazing collection of public and private buildings, palaces, monuments, and parks now line its path. A trip around the Ring affords some of the most wonderful sightseeing in the city, such as the Town Hall (Rathaus), the Imperial Court Theatre (Burgtheater), the University of Vienna, the Parliament, the Museum of Natural History (Naturhistorisches Museum) and the Museum of Fine Art (Kunsthistorisches Museum) at Maria Theresien-Platz, the Opera House (Staatsoper), and the Imperial Palace (Hofburg). The Rathaus is an opulent Neo-Gothic building that is the seat of the Administration. The Burgtheater is one of the most important German Language theaters in the world. Inaugurated in 1869 with Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Vienna’s magnificent Neo-Romantic Opera House (Staatsoper) was the first building erected on the prestigious Ringstrasse by Franz Joseph I, and has seen countless influential composers and musicians. The Hofburg was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, the residence of the Hapsburg Dynasty, and now serves as the official residence of the Austrian Federal President.

Karlsplatz, a metro station, is home to some of Otto Wagner’s work The two pavilions facing each other are resplendent with patina-green copper roofs and ornamentation, which compliment the Karlskirche just beyond. The tallest Baroque church in Vienna, Karlskirche is an eclectic building, with a Neo-Classical giant dome, and two columns, inspired by Trajan’s column in Rome.

Designed in the Jugendstil style and built for the Secessionist artists, the Secession Building is an unusual sight with a large golden filigree dome. The building was created as a showcase for the Secessionists, among them Gustav Klimt, Kolo Moser, and Otto Wagner.

Belvedere is a Baroque palace complex, built as the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy at the beginning of the 18th century. The palace was designed by Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt, who was one of the most important architects of the Austrian Baroque. There are lovely formal gardens, linking the two palaces, with fine sculptures and sweeping views down to the city.

Memorable things to do in Vienna include visiting the world-renowned Spanish Riding School and catching a performance of the Vienna Boys Choir. Additionally, the Prater is a type of amusement park and vast green expanse toward the river, with a giant Ferris Wheel (Riesenrad). The ferris wheel was immortalized in 1949 with the film, The Third Man. It is also pleasant to have a walk in one of the many green spaces and parks in the city, as Vienna is known as the capital city with the largest quantity of green space in Europe.

Venturing out a little from the inner city is the majestic Schönbrunn Palace, the former residence of the Empress Maria Theresa. Built at the tail end of the 17th century, intended to rival Versailles, the Palace has been the scene for many historic events and has seen quite a collection of guests, such as Napoleon.

Scattered among the vineyards and charming streets of the Vienna woods is Grinzing, the city’s wine area. There are plenty of Heurigen inns (Wine Taverns), where guests can drink, eat, and enjoy themselves until the wee hours.

he Middle Danube

The Hungarian Gate

As the river leaves Vienna and meanders east, it enters the easternmost province of Austria, Burgenland. Ottoman Turks once occupied the area and now it is the site of a thriving wine-growing industry. Approaching the low hills of the Carpathian Basin is the Hungarian Gate (Devin Gate, Porta Hungarica, Deviner Tor, or Pressburg Gate), which is a hill marking the end of the Upper Danube and beginning of the Carpathian Basin at the frontier between Austria and Slovakia. The scenery is flat, with meadows of birch and alder trees, and some rare traces of the ancient Turkish or relatively recent Eastern Bloc presence. Just before the is the castle, Burg Theben, which is perched on a summit overlooking the river.

Bratislava, Slovakia

As the river approaches Bratislava, one of the most distinctive sights will be the bridge across the river Danube (Novy Most Bratislave), with an enormous UFO-like tower standing guard. Formerly known as Pressburg to the Germans and Pozsony to the Magyars, Bratislava has been the capital of Slovakia since 1993, and is the political, cultural, and economic center of Slovakia. The city has undergone an ambitious transformation and restoration project since its emergence as the capital of a new country, and is developing into an elegant, thriving, and modern capital city. The city is overlooked by the sturdy, broad 16th century Bratislava Castle (Castle Hrad), squatting on the high rocky hilltop of the Little Carpathians, visible from afar. Residents fittingly call the castle and ‘upturned table’. The cobbled lanes, and jagged streets of the picturesque Old Town (Staré mesto) are huddled together around a low hill, at the end of which is the 14th century medieval St. Michael’s Gate with a Baroque top, the only remaining of the original town gates. Presiding over the Main Square (Hlavné namestie) is the Old Town Hall, a fascinating eclectic combination of styles. The Magnificent pink palace, Primate’s Palace, was completed in 1781 and was the site of the signing of the ‘Treaty of Pressburg’. Historically significant as the coronation church for the Kings of Hungary, St. Martin’s Cathedral is the biggest and finest church in Bratislava. Completed in 1297 and re-designed over the years, the Church of the Annunciation, or the Franciscan Church, is one of Bratislava's oldest churches and has the body of a saint behind glass in its Gothic chapel. The Opera House of the Slovak National Theater is a Neo-Renaissance theater building on the vast Hviezdoslav Square (Hviezdoslavovo namestie) near the Carlton Hotel, itself a beautiful building. Known as a city of music, some notable things in the world of classical music took place in Bratislava: Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis was played for the first time at the cathedral; Joseph Haydn presented many of his works at the impressive Rococo Grassalkovich Palace; Bratislava is the birthplace of J.N. Hummel and his 18th century house still stands; 9-year-old Liszt played his first concert at the De Pauli Palace; and finally, six-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart performed at the Baroque Palffy Palace (Palffyho Palac) in 1762. Bratislava has a long tradition of wine-growing; the Celts, Romans, and Slavs all participated in the activity. Wines from the Little Carpathian region outside of Bratislava were favorites of Royalty.

Esztergom, Hungary

Gathered at the foothills of the Pilis Mountains, the royal and sacred city of Esztergom juts up against the Slovakian border. The city had the distinction of being the capital and royal residence until the 13th century and is the place where St. Stephen was baptized. The hallmark of Esztergom is its Italian Renaissance cathedral, St. Adalbert Basilica, which was modeled after St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome when it was rebuilt in the 19th century. The enormous cathedral is considered to be the most beautiful and impressive church in Hungary and its large dome can be seen for many miles. Esztergom was and is the center for the Catholic Church in Hungary. Castle Hill has the remains of the castle. The Baroque Primate’s Palace houses the Treasury, which has a breathtaking collection of jewels, gold, textiles, and ceremonial robes. The Keresztény Muzeum (Christian Museum) has a rich collection of medieval art and textiles, as well as western European paintings and handicrafts.

The Danube Bend, Hungary

Considered to be the most beautiful stretch of the Danube in Hungary, the scenery after Esztergom flowing past Szentendre is filled with small farming communities, attractive vacation homes, castle ruins perched on steep forested hills, and a magnificent gorge between the Börzsöny hills and the Pilis mountain range.

Visegrad, Hungary

The splendid 13thcentury castle ruins in Visegrad are often featured as an excursion from Esztergom. The castle, built in 1249, was considered to be the finest of its kind at the time. The castle ruins feature a citadel, sitting high on a crag above the river, which showcases the history of Visegrad as well as the Angevin kings, who resided in the castle. The Turks destroyed the structures, but the citadel has been carefully restored.

Szentendre, Hungary

A small town across from the Szentendre Island in the middle of the Danube, Szentendre is filled with cobbled lanes and pastel-colored houses nestled around the Orthodox Church. The tall spires of the church are the landmark of Szentendre and can be seen from afar. Though a bit touristy and very popular as a day trip with the residents of Budapest, Szentendre is an excellent place to wander and shop for Hungarian crafts, or even to take a break at one of the cafés at the river’s edge. The town has the Hungarian Open Air Museum, giving guests a chance to experience country life from the 18th century to World War I. The town also has the Margit Kovacs Museum, displaying some marvelous ceramics from the famous Hungarian ceramic artist.

Budapest, Hungary

The view as the river approaches Budapest is stunning and this capital is always a highlight of Danube cruises. The sublime Neo-Gothic Parliament Building seems to float on the Pest side of the river as the old town of Buda clings to a steep hillside on the other. Originally three separate cities, Budapest is a grand capital and part of the former Habsburg realm. The city is the cultural heart of Hungary and has a breathtaking collection of majestic buildings, royal architecture, romantic streets, fascinating museums, and international flair.

UNESCO declared the Buda Castle District as a World Heritage Site in 1988 and it is filled with historic streets, buildings, churches, and a fortress. The Palace of Buda dominates the hilltop and is the home of the Hungarian National Gallery. The most important and cherished church in Budapest is the Matthias Church (Matyas Church), with its roof of colored-tiles and the splendid Holy Trinity Column at its center. During the Turkish occupation, the church was the High Mosque, and its current shape, like many churches in Europe, is a combination of different styles added over the centuries. Near the church is the Fishermen’s’ Bastion, which is the section of the old ramparts facing Pest across the river. It is located above the ancient fishermen’s village and fish market, which still takes place next to the church, and affords remarkable views of Pest and the surrounding area.

There are several notable rivers across the Danube, and the most famous is the Chain Bridge, guarded by stone lions on either end, which was the first permanent bridge to cross the Danube connecting Buda and Pest.

In the middle of the Danube is Margaret Island. Though the medieval settlements have disappeared, the island was the sight of a Dominican Convent in the 13th century. Now it is the home to the Grand Hotel and a favorite place for leisure or sporting activities.

One of the most famous sights on the Pest side of the Danube is the Parliament Building, resembling Westminster palace in London, which is an unforgettable image day or night. Venturing further into the inner city, lively Vaci Utca, the pedestrian main street, has for centuries been the center of commercial trade and is lined with shops, cafés, and clubs. The Great Synagogue is Europe’s largest and still operating synagogue, built from 1854 – 1859. The Byzantine-Moorish Synagogue has two towers, a rosette window above the main entrance, and is made of red brick. Neo-Classical St. Stephen’s Basilica is the largest church in Budapest. The Neo-Renaissance Opera House, opened in 1884, is a masterpiece, with frescoes and allegorical paintings adorning the interior. Completed in 1896, the Market Hall is a covered Neo-Gothic with large towers, providing a popular shopping spot for locals or visitors. Designed by Gustave Eiffel’s company, the Western Railway Station is the site where of the first Hungarian railway station, and much of the iron structure was cast in Paris. Built for the 1000th anniversary of Hungary’s existence, Heroes’ Square is a vast parade ground with semi-circular colonnades and the Millenary Monument topped by the winged Archangel Gabriel at its center.

Budapest is the ultimate Spa City, with numerous thermal baths and spas. Some of the most historical of these are the Gellért Baths at the legendary Gellért Hotel, the eclectic Széchenyi Medicinal Bath in the City Park, and the Kiraly Bath in its typical Turkish building, and the Rudas Bath on the site of 21 abundant hot springs of the Gellért Hill.

Kalocsa, Hungary

Beyond Budapest, the scenery becomes rather bleak as the river flows across a broad marshy plain, with several tributaries and oxbow lakes. An oil refinery nearby accounts for much of the commercial river traffic carrying freight and the numerous tourist barges hale from Russia, Romania, and Bulgaria.

River cruises often include a coach excursion to the pretty Baroque town of Kalocsa situated on a terrace overlooking the Danube. Located in the productive Puszta region, provincial Kalocsa is famous for its paprika, or “red gold”, and the area comes alive with celebrations and festivities during the harvest. The main cultural sight is the 18-century Archbishop’s Palace, which displays ecclesiastical relics and treasures. South of the Palace is the high building of the Archbishops Cathedral in the middle of Holy Trinity Square; a pearl of the town. Kalocsa is home to several museums, such as the House of Folk Art Museum, the Karoly Visky Museum with typical colorful local paintings, and the Paprika Museum, the world’s only museum dedicated to the history of paprika production in Hungary.

Mohacs, Hungary

As the river flows from Kalocsa to Mohacs, it passes the Gemenc Forest, which forms part of the Danube-Drave National Park. The protected forest area is comprised of unspoiled meadowland, woods, lakes, and dead river tributaries, and is home to a variety of flora and fauna and rare species of wildlife.

The last town in Hungary the river passes is Mohacs, the setting of two famous battles. The Battle of Mohacs in 1526 and the Battle of Mohacs in 1687 define the beginning and end of the Ottoman domination of Hungary.

Croatia-Serbia Border

Hungary, Croatia, and Serbia meet at this point of the river, forming a type of T-junction or crossroads. Croatia and Serbia made up the bulk of the former Yugoslavian Federation, which was torn apart in the Serbo-Croatian war from 1991-1995. From here the Danube forms the border between the two countries, then flows south into Croatia for a bit, then rejoins the border after the Croatian town of Vukovar, which was the scene for some heavy and vicious fighting in the recent war. This section of the river is dotted with islands scattered across the wide river valley.

Novi Sad, Serbia

Located just north of Belgrade on the left bank of the Danube, Novi Sad is an important transit port and Serbia’s second largest city. The area of Novi Sad has been settled since the Stone Age and it was the capital of Serbian culture in the 19th century, earning the nickname ‘Serbian Athens’. The town was the target of in the 1999 NATO bombing campaign, destroying the three main bridges of the city. The Matica Srpska is the oldest cultural-scientific institution of the country. The city has some lovely Neo-Gothic, Baroque, and Iconostasis churches, some fine squares and pleasant streets. The oldest building in Novi Sad today is the Kod belog lava (At the White Lion’s), built in 1780.

Overlooking Novi Sad is the Petrovaradin Fortress, built on the ancient Roman fortress of Cusum, with a cornerstone dating back to 1692. The fortress was built as a military stronghold and is one of the largest fortifications in Europe, earning the title “Gibraltar on the Danube”. Now housing an art academy, artists’ studios, and museums, the Petrovaradin has been used as a barracks and storage facility, and there are several interesting underground passages.

Belgrade, Serbia

Situated at the confluence of the Danube and the Sava rivers at the southern end of the Carpathian Basin, Belgrade is the capital of Serbia. Belgrade has a long history, with the first settlements in the area dating back to prehistoric Vinca in 4600 BC, becoming a Celtic settlement in the 3rd century BC, before eventually becoming the Roman settlement of Singidunum. From Roman times until the Second World War, the city has been conquered, destroyed, and rebuilt countless times.

Belgrade’s turbulent past and the effects of Communism and the wars of the 1990s are evidenced in an eclectic mix of architectural styles. The historic center is home to Skadarlija, a somewhat colorful and Bohemian pedestrian area with elegant and well-known restaurants, shops, and art galleries. The principal pedestrian street is St. Michael’s Street Knez Mihailova ulica), which is protected as one of the oldest and most valuable monuments in Belgrade, and a popular meeting point for locals. Terazije is the central square and urban neighborhood of the city. Founded in 1844, the National Museum on Republic Square is the oldest museum in Serbia. Also on Republic Square is the National Theatre, which was built in the Renaissance style in 1869, but has since been changed into a mock-Renaissance style with very modern features and a lot of glass.

Located in the city center on Nikola Pasic Square in front of Pioneer’s Park is the Parliament Building. King Peter I laid the first cornerstone for the building in 1907. Another main attraction, which houses the City Assembly of Belgrade, is the 19th century Old Palace, a former Royal residence.

Definitely the hallmark of Belgrade, the Kalemegdan is a vast citadel complex with Orthodox churches, Turkish baths, Muslim tombs, and large parkland. The Belgrade Fortress was once a military stronghold but is now encircled by the Kalemegdan parkland. Also located within the complex is the symbol of Belgrade, Pobednik (The Victor). This monument was erected after World War I to commemorate the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by the Kingdom of Serbia in the Battle of Cer.

As the river continues beyond Belgrade, the Serbian town of Veliko Gradiste is often a river cruise stop. The town is nestles amidst the hilly Djerdap National Park, where the river widens to become the Srebrno Jezero (Siler Lake), before leading to the Iron Gates.

Iron Gates (Serbian – Romanian border)

The formidable Iron Gates were considered by mariners to be the trickiest and most dangerous stretch of the river to navigate, hence the inspiration for numerous legends. The original and ‘true’ Iron Gates refers to one breathtaking gorge of the river, but nowadays the name commonly refers to the entire beautiful stretch of the river, flanked by towering cliffs, incorporating several gorges, the Golubac, the Gospodin Vir, and the Kazan. The Golubac gorge is also the site of the Golubac Castle ruins perched high on an overhanging cliff, considered to be among the most beautiful ruins on the river. The highlights of any Danube cruise; river vessels typically spend a day cruising the Iron Gates. Since its completion in 1972, the dam complex of the Djerdap Hydroelectric Power Station has tamed the river, making navigation less risky and stressful, yet the rising water levels wiped out a few villages along the river, such as the Turkish island enclave of Ada Kaleh and the old town of Orsova. Located at the eastern edge of the Iron Gates, the power station is actually comprised of two power stations, belonging to Serbia and Romania respectively.

Turnu Severin (Drobeta-Turnu Severin), Romania

The former headquarters for the Roman Emperor Trajan, Drobeta-Turnu Severin was an important Dacian and Roman settlement. Originally called Drobeta, the town became Turnu Severin (North Tower) because of the tower on the north bank of the Danube built by the Byzantines. Though now a modern town, some medieval elements and enduring landmarks from ancient times remain. The ruins of Trajan’s Bridge and the Roman Fort guarding it, dating to the beginning of the 2nd century AD, are leftover from the town’s Roman conquerors, as well as a Roman Bath. The remains of the Severin Medieval Fortress, built in stages from the 13th to the 15th centuries, can be visited as well as he 14th century Metropolitan’s Basilica. The Heroes’ Monument overlooks the river from its perch and affords splendid views. Due to the many rose gardens in the town, Turnu Severin is sometimes dubbed the “Town of Roses”, and there are plenty of opportunities to by pure rose essential oil at good prices.

Beyond Drobeta-Turnu Severin, the Lower Danube begins, forming the border between Bulgaria and Romania. Set between the Carpathian Mountains and the Danube River is the region of Wallachia, Romania. This is Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Tepes) territory, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula. The story goes that Vlad Tepes, son of Vlad Dracul, was known for the gruesome way he executed his enemies, which involved impaling them in the middle section using a type of sharp stake, lifting the stake upright, and then letting gravity do the trick of slowly pulling the body downward while Vlad watched.

Vidin, Bulgaria

Positioned at a big bend in the river, Vidin is situated on the site of the old Celtic settlement, Duononia. The town dates back to Roman times, making it one of Bulgaria’s oldest towns. Though the Communist Era had a hand in the construction of ugly concrete blocks, the town retains some of its former beauty with some minarets, towers, and domes. The striking Baba Vida Fortress is the best-preserved medieval fortress in Bulgaria, looming dramatically on the river bank. Dating from Turkish times, the most precious monument is the St; Pantaleimon Church from 1634. The Town Historical Museum is one of the richest museums in the country and well worth a visit. Many tours of the Baba Vida Fortress also pay a visit to Belogradschik, a village forged directly into a sandstone rock.

Orehovo, Bulgaria

As the river continues along the border between Bulgaria and Romania, the small town of Orehovo on the Bulgarian side comes into view. The town is set amidst a picturesque countryside of vineyards and agricultural fields and is an important trading point for wine, grapes, grain, and coal.

Rousse, Bulgaria

Situated on the right bank of the Danube at the mouth of the Roussenski Lom river, the Baroque Rousse is Bulgaria’s most important river port. During Roman times it was a garrison of the Roman Danube fleets and was called Sexaginta Prista (Sixty Ships). Due to the architectural similarity to the Austrian capital, it is dubbed “Little Vienna”. Rousse is the cultural capital of the region and there are over 200 historical and architectural buildings making up the heritage of the city. The symbols of Rousse are the Profitable Building (Dohodnoto Zdanie) with its winged Mercury on the roof, which is the old theater, and the Monument to Freedom (1908). The School of Music and the Catholic Church are also considered to be outstanding examples of the city’s past, plus there are preserved ruins from the Konu Kapia Gate and the Levent Tabia Fortress.

There are many attractions outside of the city, such as the Roussenski Lom National Park, and the cosmic Ivanovo Rock Monastery, where, from the 11th to the 14th century, hermit monks dug churches, chapels, and cells out of the rock. Many tours often include the fortified hilltop town of Cerven, with its pretty medieval center, and the nearby Basarbovo Monastery, imposingly sprawled on the top of a hill.

The Giurgiu-Rousse Bridge of Friendship spans the Danube river, connecting Rousse on the Bulgarian south bank of the river with the town of Giurgiu (Gyurgevo) on the Romanian north bank. One of the longest bridges in Europe (2,224 meters or 7,296 ft), the Friendship Bridge serves as the border crossing point between the two countries, currently the only bridge so doing, as other transfer points are made by ferry. Though not usually a port of call, the industrial town of Giurgiu can be see from the river vessel. Set amidst mud flats and marshes, the area around Giurgiu was densely populated during Dacian times and is now the site of prominent Romanian oil transfer point, as a pipeline connects to the Ploiesti oil fields.

Bucharest, Romania

Not located on the river, the capital city of Romania is visited as a coach excursion from the river ship. Most well known in recent times as the home of the detested dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, whose redevelopment program wiped out a large swathe of cherished and historic sections of the city, Bucharest is a sprawling city of paradoxes. Bizarre combinations of ancient and modern structures exist side by side, with the mind-boggling occurrence of Byzantine gems surrounded by enormous ugly communist apartment blocks. During the period between the two World Wars, Bucharest earned the nickname “Paris of the East” or “Little Paris” (Micul Paris) due to the city’s elegant architecture and the sophistication of its elite. One of the landmarks of the city, Paris-style is Triumphal Arch (Arcul de Triumf), which was originally built in wood in 1878 after Romania gained its independence. The current arch was inaugurated in 1936. A Ceausescu version of the Champs Elysées but slightly wider, Bulevardul Unirii leads out from the prominent, imposing, and grandiose Palace of Parliament.

The Palace of Parliament is the epitome of Ceausescu’s megalomania and Romania’s most popular tourist attraction. Constructed on the site of the Spirei Hill, which was razed to make way for the structure, the Parliament Palace is gargantuan in size, second only to the Pentagon. The plan was to house all the branches of government in one central place, with apartments of high civil servants, Communist Party offices, ministries, and the like. The colossal building has 12 levels (4 underground), 1100 rooms, 4500 chandeliers (11,000 were planned), and lavish decorations of gold leaf and marble. Before adopting its current name, the building was called the “White Elephant” or the “Madman’s House”. It is difficult to really grasp the magnitude of the project, the size of the building, the horror and the tragedy befalling the 100,000 or so displaced residents, the quantity of wealth and riches used in decorating the interior while people starved outside its walls, but, after a 45-minute guided visit, things start to come into perspective.

The heart of the city and the setting for most of the major sights consists of the two squares, Piata Revolutiei and Piata Universitatii and the historic north-south axis, the Calea Victoriei. The former Communist Party Headquarters, with the famous balcony where Ceausescu gave his last speech, dominate the Piata Revolutiei in a Stalinist monolith, now used for government offices. The most imposing building surrounding the same square is the former Royal Palace, a sprawling brownstone edifice. The Historic Quarter is nearby, with small cobbled lanes lined with lovely, but run-down buildings with wrought-iron balconies and colorful façades. The remains of the original Citadel are located within the charming quarter. The city’s most beautiful building is the magnificent Neo-Classical Roman Athenaeum, a concert hall, which opened in 1888. The building is crowned with a lovely, elegant ornate dome and is home to the George Enescu Philharmonic.

There is an assortment of churches in the capital, each with varied pasts and unique architecture. The Patriarchy Church, built from 1656 to 1668 houses the relics of Saint Dimitrie Basarabov, holy patron of Bucharest. Founded in 1724 by the Greek monk, Ioanichie, the small Stavropoleos Church is one of the most beautiful monuments of Bucharest. The Cretulescu Church was founded by the daughter of Prince Constantin Brâncoveanu and her husband, which has important preserved fragments of the original painting. Blending elements of Roman and Gothic architectural styles, the Roman-Catholic Cathedral has a unique red-brick and white stone exterior and a sober interior with special copper paintings.

Bucharest has some truly interesting museums, such as the Village Museum, which is the largest open-air museum in Europe. A trip to the museum is a voyage across Romania with a staggering array of wooden structures and houses bought here from all over the country. The superb collection of buildings is typical for the regions from which they come and it is a marvelous and picturesque visit. The
Museum of the Romanian Peasant a truly informational and educational visit, with historic artifacts from all over the country. The peasant museum is housed in the building that used to be the home of the Museum of the Communist Party, and the basement has a collection of busts, drawings, and paintings of communist leaders. The museum has a great gift shop, where visitors can buy some of the cherished handicrafts of Romania, such as the brightly and expertly painted eggs, embroidered shirts, or painted wooden boxes.

There is no shortage of green spaces and parks in the capital, such as the tranquil Cismigiu Gardens in the very heart of the city or the vast oasis of greenery, Herastrau Park, which has a variety of walking paths and a placid lake.

Just outside of Bucharest in a lake is Snagov Island, the site of a monastery. The remains of Vlad Tepes, better known as Vlad the Impaler, are buried there minus the head, which was reportedly perfumed, wrapped, and sent as a gift to the Sultan. It is possible to rent a boat, row out to the island, and visit the tomb in front of the church.

Giurgiu, Romania to Izmail, Ukraine

Though most river-cruise vessels do not stop until Constanta on the Black Sea, there are some interesting things to note along the river. The agricultural port city of Braila, Romania, with its monumental buildings, has a distinctly Italian feel. The city had a prosperous period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as an important port, but has declined since the Revolution of 1989. The major river port of Galati, Romania is an important iron, steel, and shipbuilding center, which was rebuilt in 1960 after the destruction wrought in World War II. Further down from Galati is Ukraine’s largest Danube port of Izmail. Having changed hands several times since the 14th century, Izmail became part of Independent Ukraine in 1991, and is now an important shipment port for cargo.

Constanta, Romania

Romania’s principal port, Constanta is a busy riviera town on the Black Sea Coast at the site of the ancient Greek colony, Tomis. The Greeks settled here in the 6th century as an annex to Histria. The attractive lively town is settled next to the sea and is comprised of Greco-Roman remains, Turkish mosques, modern boulevards, and several museums. Situated at the place where new and old meet are the ruins of Tomis. The most prominent remains are the Butcher’s Tower and the defensive walls from the 3rd and 4th centuries. As the center for Islam in Romania, there are some significant mosques in town. The Mahmudiye Mosque has a 50-meter minaret that dominates the skyline and affords marvelous views to the Sea, the Delta, and the town. The small Giamia Hunchiar Mosque sits opposite the Ethnographic Museum in a square dominated by dingy coffee and kebab houses.

Constanta is home to some nice churches, such as the Church of the Transfiguration, which was built in 1865 when the Greeks were finally given permission from the Ottoman rulers to erect their own church. Also, the fancy Neo-Byzantine Orthodox Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul is an attractive sight. In memory of the 13th and 14th century mariners who tried to revive the port, the Genoese Lighthouse was erected in 1860 overlooking the water.

There are several interesting museums, such as the Museum of the Romanian Navy, which showcases Greek as well as Romanian Naval history and vessels. The Archaeological and National History Museum has an excellent collection of Roman statuettes, mosaics, and representations of deities.

The Danube Delta, Romania and Ukraine

The Danube River separates into the three branches or “arms”, Kilia, Sulina, and St. George, and flows into the Black Sea via the Danube Delta. Having the distinction of being the largest and best-preserved of the European deltas, the Danube Delta is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Covered with marshes, forests, pastures, desert dunes, and water, the vast Delta is a haven for all types of wildlife, among them boars, wolves, otter, mink, and others. The Danube Delta is home to one of Europe’s largest pelican colonies; hence the symbol for the region is a pelican.