Silver Travellers who regularly read my articles will know that I recently shared tips for some of my favourite cities, looking forward to the time when we are all free to travel again and need a city break fix. But I’ve also explored fabulous cities as part of a river cruise, including some real gems that feature on itineraries from Silver Travel Advisor’s new partner APT River Cruises.
Arriving by river delivers passengers right to the heart of the action. Step onto the quayside and you will usually find yourself with a short walk of the key attractions. So all you have to do is choose between a guided tour with a local expert or the freedom of exploring independently.
Here are a few of Europe’s riverside cities that have inspired me in recent years, all offered by APT’s 5-star luxury itineraries:
I’ve long had a soft spot for Lyon, a city that is all too often overlooked by car drivers whizzing down the motorway to the Riviera. You could spend a week in this UNESCO-listed metropolis and still not see it all. The Romans recognised the strategic potential of a town where the Rhône meets the Saône and their twin theatres still stand on Fourvière hill above the confluence. Visit the Renaissance Old Town with its hidden courtyards and passageways; stop off at the 19th century Basilica beside the Roman excavations; and follow the trail of extraordinary trompe l’oeil paintings.
Heading south, the Rhône passes historic Avignon with its extensive Papal Palace, home to the 14th century Popes and the biggest Gothic palace in the world. Close by, stands the famous half-bridge of St Bénezet, destroyed by floods and later immortalised in the song we all learned at school. You can buy a ticket to walk on it, but the best view is from the water or riverbank.
South of Avignon, I’d recommend a day in beautiful Arles with its impressive Roman arena which once held more than 20,000 spectators – almost half the population of the Roman town of Arelate. Walk through the ruins of the Roman theatre; explore the ruins of the Baths of Constantine; or maybe take a tour of the underground galleries beneath the ancient Forum. Don’t miss St Trophime Church, a 12th century gem with a double-decker cloister, and be sure to follow in the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh, who arrived here in 1888 and painted 300 works in just 15 months.
Portugal’s famous vineyards hug steep terraces above the meanders of the Douro as it passes through deep locks and past modest towns. But cruises start in Porto – mistakenly called Oporto by early foreign traders – a beguiling, bustling city where colourful facades splash the steep slopes of its many hills. The big Port brands have their warehouses on the opposite bank at Gaia – a must-see for first-time visitors – and I loved the traditional boats that bob prettily on the water outside.
This is a fabulous city to explore on foot with its tiled facades, tempting small streets, and intriguing buildings, and if you don’t fancy all the hills, you can take a funicular to the cathedral square or hop on a tour bus. Don’t miss the lavish interior of the Bolsa Palace, formerly the Stock Exchange, or the tiled atrium of San Bento station.
I’ve travelled to almost every corner of France but Strasbourg had somehow eluded me until last year, when I was bowled over by its beautiful buildings, fascinating history, and unmistakeable blend of French and German cultures. Swap your river cruise boat for an excursion boat with commentary to see the picture-postcard-pretty old town from water level.
Strasbourg is a city renowned for its half-timbered houses decked with floral window boxes, but also a city of sleek modern buildings, amongst them the Council of Europe and European Parliament. And don’t be surprised to see the grand mansions and spacious parks of the Neustadt, built as a showpiece district during the German annexation of 1871 to 1918. Crowning the city centre is the magnificent Gothic cathedral, its façade like lacework in stone. Victor Hugo described the church as ‘a giant and delicate marvel’ and you can’t help but agree with him.
Whilst Strasbourg sits on the French bank of the Rhine opposite Germany; Cologne – or Köln – is well and truly German, but shares a magnificent cathedral heritage. There’s a Roman archaeology museum too, a modern art museum, and the House of 4711, but best of all in my book, is the riverside Chocolate Museum. Expect demonstrations, tastings and a shop bursting with products by Lindt, Milka and Germany’s leading brand, Hussel. Yum!
Who can resist Vienna, the epitome of European elegance with its magnificent Baroque buildings, Art Nouveau architecture, and tree-lined Ringstrasse, known as the world’s most beautiful boulevard? There’s a Gothic cathedral here too and seven other impressive churches, packed with history and art. Maybe take in a performance by the famous white horses of the Spanish Riding School, or visit the Schönbrunn Palace, lavish summer residence of the Hapsburgs. You won’t manage to do them all from your cruise boat, but you will be able to earmark some for a longer city break!
Then there’s Budapest, a city that entrances me every time. I first visited during the Christmas market, when the streets and squares of flat Pest were filled with stalls selling quality merchandise. The neo-Gothic parliament building, modelled on our own, was bathed in golden floodlights from late afternoon onwards, and locals and visitors took to temporary ice rinks as the whole town dressed in its festive best.
But the Hungarian capital delights in any season. Take the funicular up the steep cliff to hilly Buda to wander the historic old town, take in the river and city views from Fisherman’s Bastion, and enjoy the painted interior of glorious Matthias Church. And if time permits, take a ride on the Children’s Railway, staffed by friendly young volunteers but, fortunately, always driven by an adult!
Silver Travel Advisor recommends APT River Cruises.