It's been called the queen of Europe's great rivers, a title the Danube proudly bears. After all, the waterway connects 10 countries, including four capitals, and it's as enchanting as it is murky.
The Danube might not boast the glistening blue you've always envisioned. But that doesn't mean it's less worthy of a visit, especially when you make the journey on a river ship, which is what I did aboard Viking Cruises' Delling on a "Romantic Danube" voyage. The eight-day sailing gave me access to three countries and six cities, including two capitals, and the experience was enough for me to get hooked on river cruising.
--By Karen Asp, Cruise Critic contributor
This walled city played a key role in World War II and its aftermath, namely being the site of the Nuremberg trials. Nuremberg is also home of Zeppelin Field, site of the former Nazi party rally grounds, which is often a stopping place on ship tours. Old Town, though, is where you should spend most of your time. You can explore top attractions like the Toy Museum, the DB Museum which tells the story of Germany's railway history, and Schoner Brunnen (Beautiful Fountain) with its four rows of 40 stone figures. You can also sample a red beer, the traditional beer of Nuremberg, at Hausbrauerei Altstadthof.
Tip: As early as the 1300s, Nuremberg was a thriving brewery capital. Brewers stored their beer in cellars below the city, which you can tour. Later, during World War II air raids, residents often sought shelter in these beer cellars.
You are bussed into Old Town in Nuremberg, but you can hop right off your ship and walk into Regensburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From that point, you can see the Stone Bridge, one of the city's main attractions. Stroll across the centuries-old structure and look back on the city for amazing views. From there, let your feet wander through charming Regensburg, which once specialized in spices; you'll find a plethora of spice shops.
Tip: Don't forget to look up because the city is dotted with numerous towers. In the Middle Ages, residents held bragging tournaments about how tall their towers were: The richer you were, the higher your tower.
Passau experienced an epic flood in 2013, and you can still see the effects. One of the city's main claims to fame, though, is the largest cathedral organ in the world, which resides in St. Stephen's Cathedral. You can sit in on 30-minute concerts to hear this world-famous instrument. Cafe Simon is another hotspot. Specialties include gingerbread and a gold-capped praline -- a handmade chocolate with caramelized almonds, hazelnuts, liquor-soaked apricots and an edible 23-carat gold-leaf coating.
Tip: If you're up for a hike, head to the Veste Oberhaus, the 13th century fortress that overlooks the Danube, and take the well-marked footpath to the top. It's a somewhat steep ascent that should take you less than 30 minutes. (You can also take a bus up and down.) Once you get to the top, you'll be rewarded with intoxicating views of the city.
Melk Abbey, a monastery more than 900 years old that's still active, is the city's biggest attraction. Benedictine monks and hundreds of monastery students worship there. The library, which is filled with almost 100,000 books, is one of the abbey's most important rooms and makes you feel as if you've walked into a Harry Potter movie. Spend time during your tour exploring the outside grounds of the abbey, too, for wonderful views of the city. From the church, walk into the small city, perhaps stopping at a cafe for an espresso and pastry.
Tip: Melk is known for its apricot products -- think apricot candies, jam, wine, schnapps and juices -- so as you're wandering the city, check stores for these items. Some shops even offer tastings.
Austria's capital is also known as the world's music capital and has been home to scores of legendary composers. The Vienna State Opera, in fact, is one of the world's most famous, featuring a large repertoire of performances that changes almost daily. It also hosts a children's opera.
Tip: Vienna is an outdoor lover's paradise. More than half of Vienna's metropolitan area is made up of green spaces. The city boasts around 2,000 parks, so make sure you plan time to enjoy Mother Nature. Two favorite green spaces include Stadtpark and the Volksgarten, where 400 kinds of roses blossom in spring.
Visit the Hofburg Imperial Palace, one of the city's largest complexes, and the Spanish Riding School where you can catch the Lipizzaner horses with their stunning white coats in action. Wander through the city center, where you'll find St. Stephen's Cathedral, one of the most important churches in central Europe. You can even climb the 343 steps to the top. Got an itch to shop? Veer toward Mariahilfer Strasse, the city's longest and most lively shopping street. Round out your day with a visit to the Naschmarkt, featuring 100-plus market stands and restaurants.
Tip: Vienna is famous for sachertorte, chocolate cake with apricot filling topped with whipped cream. (The cake is dry, so don't be shy about loading up on cream.) The "official" sachertorte comes from Hotel Sacher, and you'll pay a little more there than you will at Demel Cafe, another famous coffeehouse. Truth is, they're both delicious, although the edge might go to Demel only because you can watch pastry making in process.
Get up early as you sail into Budapest so you don't miss the unique view of this enchanting city from the river. You'll then have a better idea of how Hungary's capital is laid out. The Danube splits the city into two sides -- Buda and Pest -- and they're connected by eight bridges. The most famous is the Chain Bridge, and your ship will probably dock close to that. From there, you can explore both sides, either via foot or public transport (trolleys run regularly). On the Buda side, you'll find the Castle District, Matthias Church, and many of the city's most popular bath houses. Budapest, after all, has been called the "city of baths" for its rich thermal waters that are said to have healing qualities.
Tip: Take a free walking tour of the city-offered by Free Budapest Walking Tours (triptobudapest.hu). They offer several tours, including a Communism walk, Jewish District walk and pub tour.
On the Pest side, head to tree-lined Andrassy Avenue, considered the Champs Elysees of Budapest. If you're interested in learning about Nazi and Soviet crimes, visit the House of Terror, an eerie but eye-opening place. Another must-visit is Market Hall, where you'll find paprika, a staple in the Hungarian diet, and goulash cream, which many residents use to save time when making goulash, one of Hungary's well-known specialties. Venture to St. Stephen’s Basilica, the city's largest church and the spot where the right hand of St. Stephen, founder of the kingdom of Hungary, is kept.
Tip: Grab an outdoor spot on your ship at night so you can gaze at Budapest's night lights. Many of the major attractions, including Chain Bridge and the House of Parliament, are illuminated at night.