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The best European river cruises to take this summer

See a new side to the continent on one of these elegant sailings

Europe’s coastlines can get overcrowded in the summer as everyone flocks to the beach – so one alternative is to head on one of the numerous European river cruises instead. From less-travelled sections of major rivers to cruising the waterways around beautiful cities such as Venice and Amsterdam or taking a deep dive into regions like Normandy or Andalusia, these are the best adventures to book now.

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Many visitors to Paris take a whistlestop boat ride on the Seine, marvelling at landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame from the water. But this eight-day round-trip European river cruise from the French capital offers the chance to delve into Normandy too properly – from exploring magnificent chateaux (like opulent Chantilly) to strolling Rouen’s botanical gardens and a visit to the quaint seaside town of Honfleur (history buffs will want to sign up for tours of the Bayeux War Cemetery, Museum of the Battle of Normandy and the Landing Museum in Arromanches). On the return leg, you’ll have the chance to see incredible abbeys and Monet’s former residence in Giverny. Evenings onboard Scenic Gem revolve around the five-course tasting menu of regional dishes paired with local wines at L’Amour restaurant.

Itinerary: Normandy & Gems of the Seine
Dates: Throughout summer

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Only a few cruise companies offer itineraries in Andalusia, making this voyage onboard the traditional MS La Belle de Cadix special. It pairs the Guadalquivir, one of the longest rivers in Spain and a great jumping-off point for the area’s golden triangle – Seville, Cordoba and Granada – with the Guadiana River which runs along the Spain-Portugal border (to connect the two, the ship sails the Atlantic, close to the coastline). The onshore activities are everything you would hope for, from coastal hikes and impressive cathedrals to tapas city tours and a visit to the Alhambra Palace.

Itinerary: Enchanting landscapes and cultures in Spain and Portugal
Dates: Throughout summer

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Amsterdam’s waterways

Immerse yourself in the local culture on this round-trip from Amsterdam through the inland waterways of The Netherlands. From the Kroller-Muller Museum in the De Hoge Veluwe National Park, which is home to one of the largest collections of paintings by impressionist Vincent van Gogh, to a private after-hours visit to The Mauritshuis in The Hague, where some of the most famous paintings of the Dutch Golden Age (including Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring) are on display, the art is sensational. A bicycle ride through Volendam's windmill and canal-laced landscapes and discovering the pretty villages along the Ijsselmeer are equally memorable.

Itinerary: Cruising the Dutch Waterways
Dates: May, July and August

Venice and the Swiss Alps

This trip combines a four-day train ride from Zurich on the Golden Eagle Danube Express with eight days in Venice as part of Uniworld's slow travel cruise and rail programme. Since 2021, large ships have been banned from sailing in the Giudecca Canal meaning small vessels such as the S.S. La Venezia, which was revamped three years ago with interiors that pay homage to its surroundings (locally handmade Fortuny fabrics, Murano glass, gilded accents), are the best way to explore on the water. Excursion options include visiting the Veneto region’s Unesco World Heritage Cities, Vincenza and Padua; cycling along the beaches of Chioggia, one of the islands in the northern lagoon; and a private, after-hours peek inside St Marks Basilica.

Itinerary: Venice and The Swiss Alps
Dates: September

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Berlin to Prague

Bookended by overnight stays in offbeat Berlin and bohemian Prague, this Elbe River cruise on the Viking Astrild winds its way through Germany from the university town of Wittenberg to the spa town of Bad Schandau. There are masses of creative, cultural outings along the way – a tour of the Meissen factory, which has been producing fine porcelain by hand since the 1700s, a visit to the Green Vault in Dresden Castle for a glimpse of the dazzling jewels and emeralds, a classical music concert at the baroque-style Zwinger Palace – and stunning nature too. On the final day onboard, don’t miss the towering Bastei rocks, formed by water over a million years ago and connected by a footbridge, which offers epic views of the Elbsandstein Mountains.

Itinerary: Elegant Elbe 
Dates: Throughout summer

Budapest to Bucharest

Stretch out the summer until October on one of these eight-day European river cruises with AP Touring from Budapest to Bucharest. Many cruises along the Danube stick to the section that flows through Germany and Austria but this stand-out itinerary ticks off port calls in Hungary, Croatia, Serbia and Romania (sailing through the famous Iron Gate, the gorge that connects the latter two countries is spectacular). APT’s trio of custom-designed Travelmarvel ships launched last year, each with sleek interiors (splash out on the Owner’s Suite), a rooftop garden and bar, and a heated jacuzzi. Highlights include learning about the brewing process of slivovitz (plum brandy) in a local’s home in Belgrade, wandering the cobbled streets in the charming city of Pecs and discovering the belle epoque architecture and manicured garden squares in Rousse.

Itinerary: Balkan Adventure
Dates: October