The Seine is France's second-longest river, extending more than 480 miles from Burgundy through Paris and Normandy before joining the English Channel at Le Havre. A cruise along this great waterway represents one of the world's great travel experiences and offers something for every taste.
Shoppers, art lovers and sightseers get their day in Paris (and more, if they book a voyage with a pre- or post-cruise stay in the French capital). Nature lovers can revel in the beauty of Monet's garden at Giverny and the fabulous gardens of Versailles, while historians will get their fill of museums and visit the Normandy beaches that served as the launching point for the liberation of Europe in World War II.
Don't forget the bijoux fishing town of Honfleur and the historic glories of 2,000-year-old Rouen -- as well as spectacular scenery along the way.
Best Time for Seine River Cruises
They may love Paris in the springtime, but Parisians tend to leave town for vacations in August when it can get too hot.
This is a peak time for visitors, and it's worth considering an August cruise on the Seine because river breezes provide relief from the heat. Though some family-run restaurants and shops close, you get to enjoy the City of Light at a gentler pace, without the day-to-day crowds, blaring traffic and general bustle.
That said, Paris is arguably at its best in the shoulder months when temperatures are moderate and lots of cultural events are taking place. Also, consider a Seine cruise at Christmas, when both Paris and Rouen are in festive spirits.
Seine River Cruise Lines
Not surprising for such a popular itinerary, all the major river cruise lines offer journeys on the Seine.
In 2019, activity on the Seine route is expected to be heavy, as visitors to Normandy mark the 75th anniversary of the WWII D-Day landings. But the perennial appeal of Paris and the lovely Normandy coast continues to keep demand high.
Even ocean cruise operator Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines offers sailings venturing from the French coast along the Seine to Rouen as part of a wider "French Rivers" itinerary that includes Bordeaux Rivers and Nantes, although this is not a full Seine river cruise.
Seine River Cruise Itineraries
There is one main Seine itinerary, running between Paris and Caudebec/Honfleur (gateway to the Cote Fleurie and the pretty seaside resorts of Trouville and Deauville).
Not all river cruises go all the way north to Honfleur proper, so check your line options carefully. Likewise, not all ships are small enough to dock in the middle of Paris so if walking around the city right from your ship is important to you, double check where the vessel docks.
In a region so richly endowed with attractions, shore excursion options vary widely, and operators make changes by adding longer stays in key ports like Rouen and tagging on land stays in Paris at either end of the cruise. So, you could take more than one Seine cruise and do something a bit different each time.
Starting at the Paris end, you first call at Vernon, for tours to Giverny and Monet's famous garden. If you have already done that, you can opt to see Bizy Castle, famed for its imposing 18th century facade and Baroque water gardens.
Other calls include Les Andelys (gateway to Richard the Lionheart's 12th century castle Chateau Gaillard), Conflans (for tours to Versailles, Vincent van Gogh's haunts in Auvers-sur-Oise or Napoleon and Josephine's Chateau de Malmaison) and medieval Rouen, where Joan of Arc met her painful death in 1431.
From Caudebec and Honfleur, you can explore the Normandy beaches or tour the Normandy coast and its Belle Epoque resorts, Deauville and Trouville. It's a longer drive to the beaches from Caudebec; about two hours round-trip.
Seine River Cruise Port Highlights
Paris: This most magical and romantic of cities is wonderful to visit at any time, so bear in mind that the single day allotted to it on most Seine cruise schedules won't be nearly enough. Choose a cruise with additional time in Paris, or make your own arrangements.
A day-long coach tour will show you iconic highlights like the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Louvre Museum, Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysees and Centre Pompidou.
If you've been before, a walking tour through Ile Saint-Louis and Ile de la Cite -- the historic heart of Paris -- is a better bet. Or just take off on your own to explore the artists' district of Montmartre and the Bohemian university district, le Quartier Latin.
Visit in steamy July and August and you can even grab a slice of Riviera style at Paris Plages, a mayoral initiative that turns the banks of the Seine into a series of beachfronts -- complete with sand, palm trees and deckchairs.
Vernon: This commune in Haute-Normandie's Eure department is five kilometers from Monet's house and gardens at Giverny. Vernon is endowed with 12th century half-timbered houses and a fine medieval Gothic church -- but it sees many fewer visitors than its more famous neighbour. Giverny, a lovely little village whose narrow streets are lined with brightly painted houses and cheerful pavement cafes, is obviously the big draw, but Vernon is also the access point for Bizy Castle, which dates from 1740 and is known as Normandy's answer to Versailles, thanks to its spectacular courtyard and water garden.
Les Andelys: Two small fishing villages built around a bend of the Seine -- Great and Little Andelys -- combined to create this charming town, famed as one of the prettiest in Normandy. Don't miss Chateau Gaillard, a ruins site but still impressive cliff-top eyrie built in 1196 to protect the region by Richard the Lionheart, who at the time was Duke of Normandy and king of England. Les Andelys also has the imposing 13th century Notre Dame Collegiate Church, which was built on the site of an even more ancient abbey founded in 511 A.D. But the greatest pleasure there is simply to stroll and enjoy the chalk cliffs and lovely riverbanks. Les Andelys is located in one of the European Union's Natura 2000 Areas, which means its rich flora and fauna and beautiful landscape are protected. So, the views that inspired generations of artists -- including local boy Nicolas Poussin, whose work is celebrated in a nearby museum -- remains largely unchanged.
Honfleur: Alongside Giverny, Honfleur provided much inspiration for the work of Claude Monet, and this pretty coastal fishing town is as glorious today as when he first painted the tall, higgledy-piggledy houses that surround its yacht-filled ancient harbor, Le Vieux Bassin. Tours along the Normandy coast are offered from there, but don't miss out on Honfleur. Make time to explore the absolutely charming town and its narrow streets and picturesque harbor. Look out for Saint Catherine's Church; it dates from the 15th century and is made entirely of wood. Art lovers shouldn't miss the Eugene Boudin Museum, which celebrates the work of the local artist and other 19th and 20th century painters, including Monet, Courbet, Peruse, Dufy and Genres. The composer Erik Satie is another Honfleur resident whose house is preserved in tribute.
Caudebec: This is the main port for touring the Normandy beaches and Jumieges Abbey ruins, which date to the seventh century and is one of the oldest monasteries in the world. It's also a pleasure simply to stroll along the verdant riverbank and explore the medieval town. Explore the ornate 15th century Church of Notre Dame, with its gorgeous stained-glass windows and richly carved facade. Other notable landmarks include a 14th century prison house and 12th century Maison des Templiers, now a museum of local history.
Rouen: With a 16th century astronomical clock, a Gothic cathedral immortalized by Monet, a charming medieval quarter crammed with half-timbered houses and a central marketplace where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431, the capital of Upper Normandy is one of the most historic cities in France. Take a guided walk through its medieval heart to see all the highlights.
When you've had your fill of the main sights, go spook yourself in the macabre district of Aitre Saint-Maclou. In the 14th century, this was a burial ground for plague victims, and its half-timbered houses bear grisly reminders -- in the shape of wood-carved skulls, bones and grave digging tools. The buildings now house a regional school of fine arts.
Conflans: From Conflans (near Paris), you can visit Auvers-sur-Oise, the pretty town where Vincent Van Gogh died. Or you can head for Chateau de Malmaison, set in a large estate purchased by Josephine Bonaparte in 1799 as a love nest for her and Napoleon. The gardens are worth seeing; Josephine's avowed aim was to make them "the most beautiful and curious . . . in Europe."
Seine River Cruise Tips
Make reservations. Paris is not only popular with tourists, but also a top location for conventions and trade fairs (not to mention the annual melee Paris Fashion Week). If you only have a short time in the city and want to make the most of it by visiting a particular restaurant or staying in a favorite hotel, book ahead to avoid disappointment.
Stay flexible. The Seine features many bridges (there are 32 in Paris alone), and when the river is swollen by rain or snowmelt at its mountain source, it can be hard for boats to fit beneath the spans. So, be prepared to be confined to lower decks while the wheelhouse is retracted -- sometimes, you might even have to travel to towns by motor coach.
Bring the right gear. The weather along the Seine is generally hot in the high summer months and can be delightful in spring and autumn, but it's changeable. Always pack a "just in case" small umbrella. And take comfy flat shoes.