An extraordinary week on the Viking Vilhjalm proves why river cruising is quickly becoming one of the most popular vacation choices for Americans.
Photos: Tony & Mary Ann DeSantis
The dream of visiting a different European city every day has appealed to me for years, but the reality of changing hotel rooms every couple of nights always deterred me. Packing and unpacking is no fun—no matter how experienced a traveler you are.
Then, just over 20 years ago, along came Viking River Cruises—as well as an array of other river cruise companies—allowing guests to come aboard and unpack just once for the duration of their trip. Even better, the boats usually dock in the heart of the cities so guests can walk right off the boat and sightsee as much as they want. The popularity of such convenience is undeniable: 5.7 million people took a river cruise in the past three years, a number that has more than doubled since 2009, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.
For my first—and, hopefully, not my last—river cruise, I traveled aboard Viking’s Vilhjalm longship on the Danube Waltz route, a perfect introduction to several European cities along the famed river. The Danube, which is Europe’s second-longest river, is considered to be best for first-time river cruisers, according to Frommer’s Easy Guide to River Cruising. Indeed, my route along the upper Danube included everything travelers to Europe hope to see: historic buildings and landmarks, majestic castles, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and scenic panoramic views.
A Slight Detour
Europe experienced record-breaking heat this summer and by August, the Danube was so low in some places that cruise passengers were bused to the next city. Unfortunately, our first port of call, Budapest, was one of those places. The Vilhjalm had to dock about 45 miles away in Komárom, Hungary.
While it was disappointing to miss the magical glow of Budapest at night, we made the most of the experience by walking across the Elisabeth Bridge over the Danube into Slovakia the next morning and exploring the delightful town of Komárno. The day turned out to be one of the most powerful experiences of my trip, because I literally walked into the country where my maternal grandfather was born. It was much harder for him to emigrate in 1922 than it was for me 96 years later to stroll into a town similar to one where he was a youth. It was a poignant reminder that flexibility and a sense of adventure can result in meaningful, unexpected journeys.
Luckily, we had arrived a few days early to explore Budapest on our own. Most other passengers returned to Budapest for a day in the city before the Vilhjalm set sail for the next stop.
Viking includes at least one daily excursion in the price of its cruises. My husband and I loved the panoramic city tours in the mornings that provided overviews of major tourist sites and allowed time to explore independently afterward.
In Vienna, Austria, the ship does not dock in the city center so Viking provided shuttle buses. After the city tour, some guests opted to stay in town to explore on their own that afternoon and return to the ship by subway (only four stops). We chose an optional excursion to the Schönbrunn Palace, the former royal residence of the imperial Hapsburg family, which allowed us to return to the ship for lunch and then take the Viking shuttles to and from the palace.
Food and Service
Dining on board the Vilhjalm was a culinary delight because of executive chef Siyami Zyuyrap Ali’s expertise in preparing regional cuisine. In Hungary, we had beef goulash; in Austria, we had wiener schnitzel, a breaded Viennese veal followed by apple strudel (which I learned to make during a cooking demonstration with the chef).
For those guests not inclined to taste regional specialties, other options included steaks, hamburgers, and Norwegian salmon. Wine and beer were available at lunch and dinner at no extra charge, and those, too, reflected the countries we were passing through. And, if you bought a wine in town, you could have it served instead—with no corkage fee.
Many friends have asked if river cruises are truly worth the cost. My answer is unequivocally yes, based on the level of service we received. From the moment we stepped aboard, the staff knew our names and made sure we had everything we needed in our stateroom. Every guest we met also mentioned the attentive service they were getting. In addition, Viking made getting to and from the ship seamless, whether it was for an excursion or an airport transfer.
River cruising is an elegant and relaxing way to travel. The only disadvantage is not having time to explore everything you want. However, the one- or two-day port stops give you an excellent overview of cities where you can plan a return trip.
Ports of call for the Danube Waltz Cruise
Budapest: The capital of Hungary is a key destination among European river cruises. The city is rich in history and culture with many world heritage sites on both the Pest and Buda sides. Be sure to book a tour inside the iconic Parliament building.
Bratislava: The Slovak capital is a great walking city. The historic town square is pedestrian-only and is filled with shops and outdoor cafés.
Vienna: There is so much to see in the Austrian capital that one day isn’t enough; however, you get a great overview with Viking’s panoramic tour and time to sample the Viennese coffee culture.
Krems: We disembarked in this picturesque Austrian town to travel to the 900-year-old Goettweig Abbey, where Benedictine monks work and worship on a hilltop overlooking the spectacular Wachau Valley.
Linz: The choice to explore this historic Austrian city or shuttle to the fairytale town of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic was difficult. We opted to take the guided tour to the Bohemian city known for its quaint shops and charming marionette museum.
Passau: This German city was a delightful surprise with its colorful cobblestones in the art district and the 17th-century St. Stephen’s Cathedral, home to the largest pipe organ in Europe. Attending a pipe organ concert in the cathedral was certainly a grand finale for our cruise.
Off the beaten path
As comprehensive as the organized tours were, we still enjoyed exploring a few places on our own. Among my favorites were the following:
Hospital in the Rock, Budapest, Hungary: Carved into the hills of the Castle District, this maze of caves served as a secret hospital from
Shoes on the Danube, Budapest: This small, but extremely poignant monument honors the approximately 20,000 Jewish victims who were brutally shot along the banks of the Danube River in 1944-45 and whose bodies fell into the Danube.
Museum of the Danube, Komárno, Slovakia: This museum and town were unexpected treasures when our ship was rerouted because of the Danube’s extremely low levels of water. The town center was a great place to have an ice cream and relax without hordes of tourists.
Wine Not Wine Bar, Bratislava, Slovakia: Discovering Slovak wines was a surprising (and pleasant) experience. Wine Not in the old town square, which has the largest selection of Slovak wines, including Alibernet.
Café Leopold Hawelka, Vienna, Austria: Books have been written about the Viennese café culture, and it’s a “thing” to wile away an afternoon. The secret is finding a café that is not overrun with tourists. We decided to head down Dorotheergasse, a side street off the crowded—and expensive—shopping district of Am Graben. Café Leopold Hawelka opened in 1945 and has been operated by three generations of the same family. Only later did I learn the café had been a meeting place for Cold War spies, writers, painters and actors, including Peter Ustinov and Andy Warhol.
Gottweig Abbey, Krems, Austria: The more than 900-year old abbey (founded 1083) is not really off-the-beaten path for tourists, but it’s worth an afternoon of exploration to see the art and learn how today’s Benedictine monks are making a difference. Be sure to taste the Wachauer Marille, a special Apricot jam made only at the abbey.
What you need to know before you go on a river cruise
- Arrive at your ship’s departure city at least a day or two in advance if your budget allows. You’ll be glad to have the time to get over jet lag and not have to worry about unexpected flight delays.
- Take more than one-pair of walking shoes. I found it very comforting to switch shoes each day, sometimes more than once a day. For the cobblestone streets, the sturdy pair was perfect, but my feet needed a breather especially in the evenings. I packed three pairs, including Earth Origins walking sandals.
- Don’t rely solely on credit cards. Surprisingly, many restaurants and even a few museums in Eastern Europe did not take credit cards. The restaurants and shops that did accept credit cards insisted on a certain level of spending.
- Reserve popular excursions before you go, but leave some time to explore on your own. Viking River Cruises also offers guests a chance to book excursions once on board.
- Do attend the lectures and briefings on the ship each evening. You’ll learn valuable information about the next day’s destination and about any itinerary changes.
- Avoid traveling in August in Europe, if possible. Crowds are overwhelming, the heat can be as intense as Florida’s, and river water levels can drop forcing river cruises to adjust the itineraries.