Easily the most popular river for cruising, the Rhine has its source in the Alps, becomes navigable at Basel, in Switzerland, and runs north – in parts serving as a border between France and Germany – to meet the North Sea near Amsterdam. Sections of the river flow through steep-sided, sometimes vine-clad valleys; a delightful experience made even more special by the perched castles lining the route. The Unesco-listed Rhine Gorge section is especially dramatic. At eye level medieval towns and villages hug the banks.
Waterside Strasbourg is the largest city on the route. Its old town is a World Heritage Site, though it does not feature on all cruises. Speyer’s 11th-century Imperial Cathedral is magnificent, while Rudesheim delights visitors with its museum of self-playing musical instruments and aristocratic architecture.
At Koblenz, you can climb the statue of Kaiser Wilhelm to view the confluence of the Moselle and Rhine.Some cruises conclude (or start) at Cologne, while others continue through the lowlands to Amsterdam. If you find yourself with a few hours to kill in Cologne, the striking Gothic cathedral and many chocolate shops are fine diversions.
Tauck (see below) includes a visit to the Porsche Museum on its Rhine, Swiss Alps and Amsterdam holiday. The museum, at Stuttgart, has more than 80 cars from throughout the brand’s history.
Several towns on the river hold wine festivals in summer or autumn. The one at Boppard (September 25-29) takes place in the market square. On five occasions between May and September a fireworks spectacle, the Rhine in Flames, takes place – some cruise lines offer special departures.
What to book
Something new: Riviera Travel (01283 742300; rivieratravel.co.uk) has a week-long Rhine Cruise to Switzerland on its new ship Jane Austen, which costs from £1,199 per person, with Eurostar travel from London. Includes a tour through the Black Forest.
Something romantic: Sailing primarily on the Rhine, Avalon Imagery II (0800 668 1801; avaloncruises.co.uk) accommodates just 128 passengers. Its eight-day Romantic Rhine cruise between Amsterdam and Basel costs from £1,291 per person, departing on July 16 and including chauffeured pickup.
Something special: Tauck (0800 810 8020; tauck.co.uk) includes a visit to the Porsche Museum on its 10-day Rhine, Swiss Alps and Amsterdam cruise, from £3,287 per person. Also included are a two-night hotel stay in Bern, an exclusive reception at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, and dinner and entertainment at Ehreshoven Castle.
Telegraph Tours: Play bridge in the Rhine Valley with Tom Townsend
The Main, Moselle and Neckar
The Rhine has several major tributaries that feature on a wide range of river cruise itineraries.
From the German town of Mainz, the Main travels east through Germany to meet a canal that connects the Rhine and Danube. This route is used for longer-distance cruises of two weeks or more.
The Moselle travels west from Koblenz and past Luxembourg before turning south through Metz, in France. The Neckar extends a short way east from Mannheim. Both are navigable for shorter distances and well worth the effort.
Settlements along the Main feature handsome half-timbered architecture and picturesque squares off cobbled streets. Like the Rhine, the river is lined with castles. Miltenberg can claim Germany’s oldest royal inn, situated on the town’s Old Market Place; Bamberg’s town hall has exquisite frescoes; and Nuremberg is enveloped by 700-year-old city walls.
The big draw along the Moselle valley is Trier. Said to be Germany’s oldest city, it has a collection of Roman remains, including the Porta Nigra city gate and the foundations of an amphitheatre.
Further south at Mannheim, the Neckar splits, conveniently, for the brief cruise to Heidelberg, whose Renaissance castle commands spectacular views.
For more active cruisers, Emerald Waterways offers a hike up to the turreted Wertheim Castle on its Legends of the Moselle, Rhine and Main cruise (see below). There are excellent views of the Main from the ramparts.
Wine and beer festivals are held at towns along these rivers through the warmer months. A popular event is the Middle Moselle Wine Festival at Bernkastel (August 3-7). Nuremberg has a street-food market on the first Thursday of each month.
What to book
Deco delight: Titan (0800 988 5800; titantravel.co.uk) is offering an eight-day Magical Main and Lower Rhine cruise from Nuremberg to Amsterdam aboard the Royal Crown from £1,749 per person, including home departure service and regional flight transfers. With its art deco-style cabins and elegant period décor the Royal Crown recalls the golden age of Thirties cruise travel.
Cruise and stay: On AmaWaterways’ AmaDante (0808 256 8422;amawaterways.co.uk) passengers can bookend a seven-night Europe’s Rivers and Castles cruise along the Moselle, Rhine and Main with three-night stays in Paris and Prague. From £2,829 per person.
Get active: Emerald (0808 231 2706; emeraldwaterways.co.uk) offers anall-inclusive Moselle, Rhône and Main cruise from Nuremberg to Trier which includes a guided cycling tour and, as part of its Emerald Plus excursions, the chance to watch a cooking demonstration in a family-run Gasthof in the Black Forest. From £1,695 per person, departing July 5.