Flowing almost 1,800 miles from the Black Forest to the Black Sea, the Danube River has been the main thoroughfare through central and eastern Europe for millennia. Herodotus called it the "greatest of all rivers" 2,500 years ago, and it still may be. Winding through ten countries, it's like a medieval version of Route 66, except your stops will be at 13th-century Gothic churches rather than diners, and you'll be treated to views of Transylvania instead of tumbleweeds.
Imagine the spires of the palace-bedecked capitals of Vienna and Budapest slowly rising above the trees as your boat glides around a bend. Then picture docking beside Old World towns such as Regensburg, Germany, orphaned by the modern highway system but enjoying a tourism rebirth via the burgeoning number of Danube River vessels.
Back in 1933, as he sat beside the Danube, famed travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote: "I lay deep in one of those protracted moments of rapture that scatter this journey like asterisks. A little more, I felt, and I would have gone up like a rocket." Cruise along this legendary river, and you may feel the same. —Bill Fink
When to Go: Year-round; mid-November through December for Christmas markets in cities such as Nuremberg, Regensburg, and Vienna; November and December, and March and April for lower rates
How to Get Around: Upper Danube cruises typically sail between Nuremberg, Germany, and Budapest, Hungary, passing through Austria's Wachau Valley and Bratislava, Slovakia. Whether you cruise eastbound or westbound, the major stops are the same. Lower Danube cruises commonly sail east from Budapest to the Black Sea, passing through Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. River cruising specialists such as Viking River Cruises, Tauck River Cruising, and Avalon Waterways offer a variety of Danube itineraries.
Where to Stay: River cruising is all about the views. Luxury cruises typically offer only outside-facing cabins and suites. Expand the view by choosing a suite with a French balcony and floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors. Noise can be a factor when docked in bigger cities such as Vienna and Budapest. For a better night's sleep, request a quieter waterside cabin.
What to Eat or Drink: Rates typically include all onboard meals. Menus regularly feature Danube River specialties such as Viennese gabelbissen (potato salad topped with egg or pickled herring), Hungarian goulash (meat and vegetable stew seasoned with paprika), and German Wiener schnitzel. Experience Viennese kaffeehaus culture in the Old World salon of the Demel, an elegant 18th-century confectionery bakery and coffeehouse. The Demel is the place to try the Sacher torte (known here as the Demel torte), Vienna's signature chocolate and nougat cake.
What to Buy: Save Vienna's pedestrian Kärntner Strasse (the main tourist retail hub) for people-watching. Shop instead in the village-like Spittelberg, the revitalized Biedermeier district pedestrian zone with cobblestone streets and secluded courtyards. Local finds here include Das Goldene Wiener Herz ("the golden Viennese heart"), which features designer porcelain mugs and glasses decorated with creative interpretations of classic Vienna images, all in real gold.
What to Read Before You Go: Translated from Italian, Danube: A Sentimental Journey From the Source to the Black Sea (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; reprint edition, 2008) by Claudio Magris is a Black Forest-to-Black Sea portrait of Danube River people, places, and history.
Fun Fact: "The Blue Danube," composed in 1866 by Vienna native son Johann Strauss II, is widely considered one of the all-time favorite waltzes. While the soulful tune is well known around the world, only people who have seen the Danube realize that the river's waters appear more brown than blue.