Cruising the Danube

It’s no secret that the Danube isn’t blue, despite the name of Johann Strauss’ popular waltz. (It’s more of a murky gray.) Still, there is a fascination and draw to the mighty river that has been the heartbeat of central Europe for centuries. River cruising is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the travel industry, and drifting through the tiny towns and villages of HungaryAustria, and Germany is a dream trip for many.

You can pinpoint the year when leisure cruising on the river began to grow, because in 1992 the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal was completed, the fruition of an idea put forth by Charlemagne in the 8th century. The long-awaited canal raises ships via locks over 1,300 feet over the Continental Divide in Bavaria, allowing ships to sail from Amsterdam to the Black Sea.

Earmuffs and scarves are required, but cruising the Danube during the Christmas market season is wonderfully festive.

Over Thanksgiving, my longtime beau and I took a river cruise on one of Viking’s sleek new Longships. Proving that river cruising is here to stay, Viking will have launched 16 of the new ships by the end of 2013. We did the “Romantic Danube” itinerary, which started in Budapest and deposited us in Nuremberg just as the Christmas lights were coming on. While many stretches — like the vineyard-dotted Wachau Valley in Austria — are picturesque, there are some areas that are simply industrial.

shopped in Budapest, and ate Original Sacher-Torte in Vienna, but here’s what I loved most (and least) about the other ports of call along the way:

Melk, Austria

Nearly all Danube river cruises will include a stop at Melk Abbey, a historic monastery that is now also a good-sized school. The tour can’t be missed, but for us, the highlight was walking back to the ship and stopping at the poinsettia-festooned bar at the tiny Hotel-Restaurant Zur Post for an afternoon pick-me-up. At around 4:00, groups of Austrian men began to pour in, downed espressos, told a few jokes, and went about their day. It was a slice of real Austrian life amidst the otherwise touristy throngs.

Passau, Austria

In beautiful, Baroque Passau, the Christkindlmarkt is set against the backdrop of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, home to the largest organ in Europe. I loved the warm Cafe Simon, fully decked out for the holidays and serving flaky, sweet apple strudel and gingerbread to take home. But the best thing we did was rent a bike for a few hours. Within five minutes, you’re on the Danube Bike Trail, which would take you to Linz and on to Vienna if you kept at it. On the return route to Passau, cyclists are treated to a great panoramic view of the “City of Three Rivers,” where the Danube, Inn, and Ilz rivers converge.

Regensburg, Germany

Here’s a hot tip: load up on sweet mustard in Regensburg. Next to the city’s famous Old Stone Bridge you’ll find the 900-year-old Wurstküche (“Sausage Kitchen”), where small jars of their famous mustard are ONE Euro each. Stocking stuffers found! And the mini sausage sandwiches, topped with sauerkraut and mustard, are the perfect snack. The hidden passageways and courtyards are beautiful, and Christmas markets are staged in the squares. So take my advice and skip the tourist-trap shop across the street selling Bavarian cuckoo clocks, and go for the mustard.

Nuremberg, Germany

Millions of people descend upon the Old World Christmas market on Haupmarkt square here each year. Though people will tell you that Nuremberg’s lebkuchen, or gingerbread, is the best, I found it had more in common with cardboard. If you do partake, skip the high-end bakeries and head straight to the grocery store on the main square, Norma-Rodi, where lebkuchen is more reasonably priced.

By the time we got to our last port of call, we were so sick of sausage and pretzels that we ordered huge salads and soups at local favorite Cafe Lucas. And, of course, a trip to Nuremberg wouldn’t be complete without a tour of the WWII sites with a knowledgable guide. Andreas Clemens was one of the best guides I have ever had. My entire group wanted to hear more, even after 4 hours.

Side Trip! Though I didn’t stop here on this cruise, I have to mention another favorite of mine: a beautifully preserved Medieval town an hour from Nuremberg called Rothenburg ob der Tauber. I love climbing to the top of the town hall for the best view and walking the length of the old city wall. And for some of the best Christmas shopping anywhere, nothing can beat Käthe Wohlfahrt, open year-round for handmade ornaments and other trinkets.

Annie Fitzsimmons is Intelligent Travel’s Urban Insider, giving you the dish on the best things to see and do in cities all over the world. Follow her travels on Twitter @anniefitz.