The Elbe and the Vistula

The central European Elbe and Vistula rivers flow across the North European Plain emptying into the North and Baltic Seas, respectively. The Elbe has been a major waterway for trade and tourism in Europe for hundreds of years, whereas the Vistula is a relative newcomer on the river-cruise scene, though its role as an important trade route from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea has endured since ancient times. Both rivers offer a splendid array of history, culture, magnificent ports of call, and remarkable scenery.

The Elbe

A jewel in the crown of major European rivers, the Elbe has been an important delineator of European geography since Roman times. The 1,165 km (725 mile) river originates in the northwestern borders of the Czech Republic, flows west then north across much of Germany, and eventually enters the North Sea. Having formed the border between what was East and West Germany, Elbe River cruises offer historically interesting, unique, and magnificent ports of call to explore. In the Czech Republic section of the river, the ports of call include Prague, a gorgeous city, boasting diverse architecture and a titillating array of sights; Litomerice, know as the ‘Garden of Bohemia’. After flowing through the Czech Republic, the Elbe enters Germany near the health and holiday resort of Bad Schandau, then winds its way through the outstanding cultural landscape of the Dresden Elbe Valley and the distinctive Elbe Sandstone Mountains. Alighting at spectacular Dresden, the capital of Saxony and a major center of culture and the arts, the river continues through Meissen, touches Torgau, meanders past Magdeburg, whereafter the river is connected to Berlin, the capital city of Germany, via a canal system including the Elbe-Havel canal. Many Elbe River cruises operate between Prague and Berlin, though some continue north to experience the elegant and free-spritied city-state of Hamburg, and may even continue on and take in the coast and the islands of the North Sea.

Destination highlights on Elbe River Cruises

Prague, Czech Republic

Situated on the Vltava River (a tributary of the Elbe) in central Bohemia, Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic, commonly known as the ‘city of a hundred spires’ and the ‘golden city’. The historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Prague is easily one of the most beautiful and well-preserved cities in Europe. This area has been settled since the Paleolithic Age and in more recent centuries, has provided inspiration to such musical heavyweights as Mozart and Dvorak. The variety of architectural styles contributes to the fairy-tale atmosphere of the city and consists of Art Nouveau, Baroque, Cubic, Gothic, Neo-Classical, Renaissance, and Ultra Modern. The major attractions are included in the four main sections of the city, the Castle District, the Lesser Quarter, the New Town, and the Old Town.
One of the most visited places is the 10th century Prague Castle, the largest castle in the world, situated on a hill, reached by a quaint series of steps, with splendid views of the city below. Inside the castle is the gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, the most important church in the country, housing tombs of many Bohemian kings.

The picturesque Charles Bridge is another main attraction, which provided the only connection between the Old Town, the castle, and the surrounding areas from its inception in the 15tgh century until 1841. Old Town, the site of the original settlement, is truly the most historic and picturesque part of the city, with its Old Town Square and the unique medieval Astronomical Clock (Prague Orloj) mounted on the Old Town City Hall, which shows the Walk of the Apostles every hour.Josefov, the Old Jewish Quarter is a moving place and is well known for Old Jewish Cemetery, the oldest in existence, and the Old New Synagogue, which is Europe’s oldest ‘active synagogue’.New Town, which was founded in the 14th century, is another wonderful place to wander and has the bustling Wenceslas Square, originally a horse market which is now a center for commerce and tourism.

Litomerice, Czech Republic

One of the oldest towns in the Czech Republic, Litomerice was established in the 10th century at the place of a medieval Slavic fort. A former royal city, Litomerice is located amidst the ‘Garden of Bohemia’ or Zahrada Čech, which has a climate ideal for growing fruit, grapes, hops, and corn. The major attractions in the town consist of the 11th century St. Stephen’s Cathedral, (Katedrala Sv Stephan), the oldest church in town, and the old Market Square, one of the largest in Bohemia, surrounded by Baroque, Biedermeier, Gothic, and Renaissance buildings.

Decin, Czech Republic

Surrounded by craggy cliffs at the meeting point of the Elbe and Ploučnice rivers, Decin is often used as the disembarkarking point for Prague, though it is a considerable distance away. The town itself is actually composed of two towns straddling the River Elbe, with the Old Town situated on the left bank. The main sites include the imposing Decin Castle, the Renaissance Bridge, and the Holy Rood Church.

Bad Schandau, Germany

Situated just 4 km from the Czech border in the center of Saxon Switzerland National Park, the spa town of Bad Schandau is a beautiful place in a magical setting. The town served as an important trading point for grain, salt, and timber, which was floated down the Kirnitzsch River, and became a center for ‘healthy tourism’ after the discovery of an iron-containing spring in 1730 and the creation of a bathing establishment in 1799. The town serves as a center for hikers and walkers wishing to explore the numerous walking trails in the mountains. Alternatively, it is possible to hop aboard the Kirnitzschtal Railway and venture into the mountains, all the way up to the Lichtenhainer Waterfall.

Konigstein, Germany

The section of river from Bad Schandau to Konigstein is truly magnificent. The Elbe carves its way through the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, revealing imposing cliffs, mysterious rock towers, overhangs, pinnacles, canyons, and a multitude of shapes and structures. After the spa town of Rathen, the impressive medieval Konigstein Fortress comes into dramatic view. River cruise ships typically dock here providing passengers an opportunity to visit the fortress as well as the workshop of Friedrich Böttger, located inside. Böttger was an alchemist who, in 1709, discovered the secret of making true porcelain, which was to become an important industry for nearby Dresden and Meissen. From Konigstein, the Elbe continues past Lillenstein, an enormous monolith and then passes the lovely town of Pirna, the northern gateway to Saxon Switzerland that served as an important trade center in the Middle Ages as it was a convenient place to cross the river.

Dresden, Germany

The very attractive city of Dresden, the capital of Saxony, has had a long history as the residence and seat for the Saxony Kings. The city is a highlight on Elbe River cruises, featuring a wealth of cultural, architectural, and artistic splendor and world-renowned precious art and jewel treasures left behind from Saxon royalty. Situated in a valley on the River Elbe, and lining both banks of the river, Dresden has been the victim of numerous floods, some raging fires, and the target for some very heavy and controversial bombing at the end of World War II. The city was left in ruins after the bombing, but has undergone impressive and extensive reconstruction. The city center is an exact replica of its former self and there are many important and significant attractions to visit and admire.

The Town Hall Tower is the tallest building in town and will always be, by law.

The Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) is the largest church in Dresden and is considered to be the greatest cupola building inCentral and North Europe. Built in high baroque style, the Hofkirche (Church of the Court) was left in ruins after the bombing of World War II. It has undergone some important renovation and is the site where the heart of Augustus the Strong is buried. The oldest church in town (built in 1215), the Kreuzkirche, was known as Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church) in the 13th century and then re-consecrated as the Kreuzkirche in the 14th century.

A major German landmark is the Zwinger Palace; an exceptional baroque construction originally started by Augustus the Strong. It has wonderful courtyards and gardens and some lovely sculptures, including the Nymphenbad. Additionally, the palace is home to the Old Master’s Picture Gallery and a stunning Porcelain Collection, the largest and most valuable in the world.

The Semper Opera House was built in the gardens reaching from the Zwinger to the Elbe, and is the State Opera House, an important cultural monument.

The Dresden Castle, which houses the Green Vault (Grünes Gewölbe), home of the royal treasury (Schatzkammer) is a splendid place to visit and admire. There are numerous and breathtaking treasures from the Saxon princes on display, including jewelry, ivory, precious stones, coral, and crystal.

Meissen, Germany

Originally a Slavic settlement, Meissen is a lovely town occupying both banks of the Elbe River, now famous for the production of porcelain. Dominating the city center is the impressive 15th century Albrechtsburg Castle, which was the first castle on German soil to be built as a residence and not a fortress. Located next to the castle is the 13th century gothic Meissen Cathedral. Both provide wonderful views of the old town and old-town rooftops below. Situated in the old market place is the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), which has an imposing tower and a great landmark for exploring the narrow medieval lanes, steep steps, quiet squares, and Patrician houses of the old town center.

Meissen, specifically the Albrechtsburg Castle, is the site where the first European porcelain was manufactured in 1710 by the Royal Porcelain Factory. With its crossed-sword logo, the porcelain from the Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Meissen GmbH, is known the world over, and visits can be made in town to the workshop.

Torgau

Located in an area that flattens out into a plain, the town of Torgau became famous for being the place where US and Soviet forces met in World War II. The historic old center is filled with meandering streets lined with 16th and 17th century patrician houses. It is here where you can find the oldest pharmacy in Saxony and also the oldest toy shop in Germany. Katharina von Bora, the wife of Martin Luther, died here when involved in an accident while attempting to flee from the plague, and her remains are buried in St. Marien.

Overlooking Torgau is the early Renaissance Hartenfels Castle, which is considered to be the most important palace of this style in Germany. Brown bears are still kept in the moat of the castle.

Wittenberg, Germany

First mentioned in 1180 by Flemish colonists, Martin Luther and the dawn of the Reformation give the sleepy town of Wittenberg its historical significance and lifeblood. Dr. Martin Luther was a monk, priest, philosopher, theologian, and professor, who is not only credited with starting the Protestant Reformation, but also helped to standardize the German language with his translation of the Bible. His life and works helped to shape the end of the Middle Ages and the transition into the modern era of western civilization. The Augustinian Monastery, where Luther dwelt (Luther’s House), has a museum considered to be the premier Luther museum in the world, with artifacts, portraits, and paintings by the Cranachs. The 14th century St. Mary’s Church is where Luther preached from the carved wooden pulpit. The Castle Church has the famous ‘Thesis Door’ where Luther nailed his ‘95 Theses’. The castle and municipal churches are included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.

Dessau, Germany

Situated at the junction of the Mulde and Elbe rivers, Dessau is located on an ecologically very important stretch of the Mulde, a tributary of the Elbe, which is home to boggy woodlands, a variety of bird life and other wildlife, such as beavers. The town is famous for the Bauhaus Architecture College, where many famous artists, such as Walter Gropius, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky lectured. Destroyed during World War II, the sites in Dessau mainly consist of Bauhaus architecture, some of which are included in the UNESCO World Heritage. Additionally, there is the Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm (Dessau-Wörlitzer Garten Reich), commissioned circa 1750 by Prince Leopold III of Anhalt-Dessau, which is the largest garden of this type in continental Europe.

Magdeburg, Germany

Having been one of the most important medieval cities in Europe, Magdeburg is now the capital of the Saxony-Anhalt Bundesland in Germany, lying at the strategic junction of six railway lines and seven arterial roads. Magdeburg was first mentioned in the Diedenhof Capitulary of 805 AD, in which Charlemagne secured the small fishing and trading port. Magdeburg is linked to Berlin by the River Oder via a system of canals and to the River Rhine by the Mittelland Canal, including the Magdeburg Water Bridge, Europe’s longest water bridge. Generally speaking, this is either the starting or finishing point for Elbe cruises that do not continue on to Potsdam. The landing site is located in the center, very close to the Old Town (Altstadt) and the impressive twin-spired 10th century Cathedral of Saints Catherine and Maurice, where Emperor Otto is buried. The monastery Unser Lieben Frauen (Our Beloved Lady) contains the church of St. Mary and a museum for Modern Art. The Magdeburger Reiter, dating from 1240, is considered the oldest equestrian statue north of the Alps, and most probably depicts Emperor Otto I. Also in the center, there are several examples of Stalinist neo-Classicist buildings.

Tangermünde, Germany

Nearly 1000 years old, Tangermünde was a valued member of the Hanseatic League on the River Elbe. The small town has a protected historic area and many examples of enchanting medieval fortifications and fine Gothic brick architecture. The unique ambiance of the town is also attributed to the city walls, towers, fortified gates, the castle complex, and a multitude of half-timbered houses. The surrounding areas consist of picturesque meadows, marshes, and meandering white cows.

Potsdam, Germany

Friedrich Wilhelm made this insignificant Slavic fishing town famous with his opulent castles and palaces in the 17th century. Located southwest of Berlin on the Havel River, Potsdam is the capital city of the federal state of Brandenburg. The city is comprised of a series of interconnected lakes and offers unique cultural landscapes with palaces, parks, and gardens. Sanssouci, now a World Heritage Site, is the most famous of Potsdam’s palaces and is offered as a coach excursion on river cruises. Another major attraction is the Glienicke Bridge, where spies were exchanged during the Cold War. Dominating the city center, or Alter Markt (Old Market Square), is the classicist Nikolaikirche (St. Nicolas Church) and the 18th century Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall), with its characteristic curcular tower and gilded Atlas. The Dutch Quarter is another major landmark of the city, featuring the two-street ensemble of buildings built in the Dutch style using red bricks.

Berlin, Germany

As the capital of Germany, Berlin is a city of museums and history, and a true meeting point for East and West. A virtual island of The West during the Cold War, Berlin was the unique setting of the Berlin Wall, Check-Point Charlie, ghost underground stations, espionage, and an off-beat haven for artists, musicians, and travelers. Since the reunification in 1990, the city has undergone immense change and developed into the thriving, buzzing, chic and elegant capital city. Based on the gateway to the Acropolis in Athens, the Brandenburg Gate is an archway that has symbolized different things to different peoples in different eras since Napoleon marched through them on his way to conquer Russia. There are many neo-classical buildings along Unter den Linden, extending from the Brandenburg Gate, and a prime example is the Italian Renaissance Reichstag Building, a very symbolic structure that was restored to prominence when the government moved back to Berlin in 1999. Museum Island is definitely one of the most impressive museum complexes, offering a stunningly diverse collection of artifacts and art, and classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Inspired by the Champs Elysée in Paris, the Kurfurstendamm (Ku’damm) is a shopping mecca and a place for exclusive hotels and cafés, as well as the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedachtnis Kirche, which was bombed by the British in 1943 during World War II, has been left as a reminder of the terrors or war and a memorial to those who perished.

Hamburg, Germany

Located on the River Elbe, the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg is the second largest city in Germany and the second largest port city in Europe. Though it has a reputation for its nightlife and the notorious Reeperbahn red-light district, where the Beatles got their start, Hamburg is in all reality an elegant and dignified city. Crossed by numerous canals, Hamburg offers many green spaces and tranquil hamlets, unexpected in a city of this size.

The things to see include the neo-Renaissance Rathaus (City Hall) on the inland lake, Binnenalster and the grand church of St. Michaelis or the Michel, the landmark of Hamburg and the most famous church in town. It is pleasant to take a cruise and visit the Warehouse District and the Landungsbrucken. Additionally, the Kunsthalle museum has one of the finest collections of art in Germany. Shopping is great in Hamburg, with a variety of great boutiques as well as major department stores located on the streets of Jungfernsteig, Monchebergstrasse, and Spitalerstrasse. The Fischmarkt is an exciting and noisy place, especially on a Sunday morning, when the marketplace bursts into life and everything from fish to clothes to trinkets can be found.

The Vistula

The Vistula

Holding its place as Poland’s longest river (1,047 km or 678 miles), the Vistula (Wisla) flows from its source in the Beskidy Mountains of southern Poland through Pomerania and over the vast Polish plains before finally emptying into the Vistula Lagoon and Gdansk Bay of the Baltic Sea. Passing through nature reserves, castles and palaces, historic monuments, towns and cities, the Vistula wends its way north through Poland, offering an area of great natural beauty, unspoiled sights, varied wildlife, and proud historic towns and cities. The Vistula used to make up part of one of the most ancient water trade-routes, the Amber Road, which connected the Black Sea, the Dnieper, the Vistula, and the Baltic Sea. Though the Vistula River flows past Krakow in the south near the Carpathian Mountains and Warsaw, located in central Poland, the Vistula cruises usually operate only about 30 km from the Hanseatic city of Gdansk on the Baltic Sea to Bydgoszcz, due to limited navigability. Warsaw is usually offered as a coach excursion, and Vistula trips often include cruising on the Baltic Sea and taking in the Curonian Spit. Cruising on the previously little-known, but up-and-coming, Vistula River provides an opportunity to explore historic cities and capitals, unique towns and villages, and visit the Amber Coast.

Destination Highlights on Vistula River Cruises

Gdansk

Gdansk (Danzig) is the oldest city in Poland, the maritime capital of the Pomeranian province, the world capital of amber, and an important center of economic life, culture, and science. Thanks to its Hanseatic tradition, Gdansk has played a major role in the commercial and trade relations between Northern and Western Europe and the Central and Eastern European countries. Throughout history, countless invading forces have occupied Gdansk, ranging from the Teutonic Knights, who virtually wiped out the city’s population, to the Prussians, and finally, the Nazis. Paradoxically, Gdansk (Danzig) was the setting where the first shots of World War II were fired and the base for the Solidarity movement, which triggered the eventual downfall of Communism in Europe. The city was virtually destroyed during World War II, but has been painstakingly rebuilt, stone by stone. One of the main tourist attractions is the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the largest brick church in the world, and its 15th century Astrological Clock, which shows phases of the moon and zodiac constellations. Surrounding the cathedral is Oliwa Park, and the well-known Neptune’s Fountain. The Lenin Shipyards are significant as the place where Lech Walesa started Solidarity, depicted in the Solidarity Museum, and the Maritime Museum, depicting hundreds of years of shipping and navigation. Long Market Street is a good place to take a stroll and the nature reserves of Sobieszewo Island are a haven of tranquility. Gdansk is the gateway to the ‘Kashubian Switzerland’ district located inland; an area with rolling hills, pro-glacial lakes, ponds, and peat moors.

Torun

One of the most beautiful towns of Poland, Torun is medieval and picturesque and the birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473). The Old Town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the town itself contains many buildings from the Middle Ages. Torun boasts the largest number of preserved Gothic houses in Poland, giving a sort of fairy-tale atmosphere. Due to its location on both banks of the Vistula River at a strategic trade-route intersection, the town has been culturally and intellectually linked to Europe via its associations in the Hanseatic League. Some of the most important sites include: the Church of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, the unique Old Town Square (Strawoka), with the 13th century Old Town Hall, and the 13th century town fortifications.

Warsaw

The capital of Poland and the country’s largest city, Warsaw has been the site of many historic battles. On Vistula river cruises, Warsaw is usually offered as a coach excursion in order that visitors can admire the sights, witness the bustling economy, enjoy the great shopping opportunities, and take a walk into history. Divided into two parts by the Vistula, most of the main attractions are located on the left side. The most-renowned places are the 13th century Old Town and 14th century New Town, the Royal Castle (Zamek Królewski) at the entrance to the Old Town; the Presidential Palace (Pałac Koniecpolskich), the romantic Lazienkowski Palace and Park, with sculputred gardens, Krasiński Square, and the elegant Krakowskie Przedmieście street. Many foreign tourists also wish to visit the museum at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. Worth a visit is also the Powązki Cemetery (Cmentarz Powązkowski), the oldest and most famous cemetery in the city, which is a necropolis of several connected cemeteries, a variety of mausoleums, statues, and graves of those who fought in the ill-fated Warsaw uprising.

Elblàg

Located on the Elblàg River, approximately 60 km (37 miles) southeast of Gdansk, Elblàg is reached via a cruise on the Vistula Lagoon. An important seaport serving the Vistula River Bay on mediavl Baltic Sea trade routes, the ancient town was founded by the Teutonic Knights, and has severl Baroque, Gothic, and Renaissance houses. The sites to see are the monumental 13th century gothic St. Nicholas Cathedral; the 14th century Old City Gate (Brama Targowa) and the reconstructed Old Town, and St. Mary’s Church. Elblàg is also the meeting-up point for the scenic Elblàg Canal. The 81 km (51 mile) canal connects the Vistula Estuary to the Mazurian lake district in the south at Ostroda, via a series of remarkable locks and tracks.

Frombork

Located on the Vistula Bay, Frombork, formerly known as Frauenberg, was founded as a defensive stronghold on an Old Prussian site and is the former residence of the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. Though badly damaged in the Second World War, the town has been meticulously reconstructed. The most famous attraction is the Nicolaus Copernicus Museum, housed in a former 14th century Gothic-Baroque palace on Cathedral Hill, as well as the 14th century Cathedral itself. The town also has several monuments, especially the monument to Nicolaus Copernicus and the monument to the Red Army Soldiers.

The Curonian Spit

The Curonian Spit is a unique area of mighty dunes and unspoiled nature, created by the sea, wind, and man. Belonging partly to Russia and Lithuania, the Curonian Spit is a narrow strip of sand, which separates the Vistula Lagoon from the Baltic Sea. Most river cruises offer a coach excursion here as well as visits to the numerous amber mines, where visitors can buy more amber than ever thought possible.