Europe, with its many small countries strung together, is like a giant theme park – chock full of E-ticket attractions in some of the most picturesque cities on the planet. And the cities lining the Danube are among the most spectacular of all. You won’t find many costume characters or churro booths, but they’ll wow you with architecture and history and glamour. And whether you’re taking one of our annual Danube river cruises or heading to Europe on your own, there are four special cities on or near the Danube that you won’t want to miss.
Prague was spared from bombing during WWII – so its cobblestone streets, gothic cathedrals, and astounding palace complex (the largest in the world) resemble a storybook come to life. You’ll feel like you should braid your hair and skip down the street. (This goes for the women, too.) Be sure to walk across the Charles Bridge at sunrise or sunset. One of Prague’s most photographed landmarks, it features 16 arches and three towers and is outrageously romantic. The tower on the Old Town side is considered to be one of the most astonishing gothic buildings in the world. And gracing both sides of the nearly half-mile long bridge are 30 statues that practically beg for a selfie. Prague’s Old Town is insanely charming. And in the middle of it is the renowned Astronomical Clock, a huge, medieval tower erected in 1410 with a timepiece that resembles a giant Bavarian cuckoo clock. Every hour on the hour, the clock performs a wonderful show that draws hundreds of spectators. Prague is not actually on the Danube, but it’s typically used as the beginning or end point for river cruises, because of its close proximity to Passau, Germany, where the cruises depart.
Vienna is probably the grandest city in all of Europe. The buildings are gorgeous, the people are even more gorgeous (you kind of want to slap them), and everyone dresses like they’re walking a runway. The Ringstrasse is the wide, splendid boulevard that surrounds the center of Vienna. Most of the major sights – and there are many, including the Vienna Opera House, the Imperial Palace, Parliament and many more – are found on this boulevard, which makes much of the sightseeing a snap. With all this elegance, Vienna is, naturally, no slouch in the palace department. Sights like Schonbrunn Palace and the Imperial Palace give Versailles a run for its money. Our favorite moment: a gay guy pointed to a giant chandelier in the ballroom of Schonbrunn and exclaimed, “Oh my God, we have that same one!” At night, Vienna lights up with productions at venues like the State Opera (also known as the Vienna Opera House), the Kursalon and the Spanish Riding School, where the Lipizzaner Stallions perform. The Vienna Opera House is flat-out one of the most stunning theatres, inside and out, that you will ever see. People dress to impress here – you’ll often see lots of formalwear (although it’s certainly not required). The Kursalon is a smaller theatre, but with an equally amazing pedigree – and is also a gorgeous venue to behold. Both offer classical concerts (the Opera also offers ballet). Tickets to the State Opera are expensive; unless you’re a major opera fan, you may want to opt for the Kursalon, instead, which offers a still-wondrous and more reasonable alternative. The Spanish Riding School is the home of the Lipizzaner Stallions, who are trained within an inch of their lives to do incredibly intricate “dressage” (very controlled, stylized jumps and movements). This is yet another stunning venue – even if the stage is dirt – with chandeliers and lots of beautifully dressed patrons. You can get standing room tickets here for $25-30.
Many river cruises (including Brand g’s) stop in Linz, Austria, from which you can take an excursion to Salzburg, the birthplace of Mozart and home to the sights used in The Sound of Music. Salzburg’s Old Town is a photographer’s wet dream in itself; then add the Sound of Music tour (which gets 4.5-4.75 stars on the various review sites) and you have an extraordinary full-day excursion. (You can, of course, book this tour on your own if you’re traveling to Salzburg on your own land vacation.) Even if you’re only a mild fan of the musical, you’ll come away from this experience wanting to twirl on a mountaintop. Bone up on your SOM songs; you’ll be singing along to them on the tour bus!
Budapest is, of course, two ancient cities – one known as Buda, the other Pest (pronounced with an “h”, as in “Pesht”) – that were joined together in the late 1800’s. Conde Nast Traveler calls Budapest “the world’s second-best city”, and for good reason. It has incredible Art Nouveau architecture, amazing food (a lot more than just goulash), and hot mineral springs that fuel the wildly popular Turkish baths. One of the great joys of Budapest is floating down the Danube past the stunning museums and government buildings. Brand g’s Danube cruises include a nighttime sail that gives you a chance to capture fabulous photos of the brilliantly-lit buildings. And those baths. (Minds out of the gutter, please.) “Taking the waters” has been a favorite pastime here since Roman times. You can take your choice of bathhouses, from medieval, Turkish-era baths to Art Nouveau baths that are incredibly palatial, to modern, contemporary spas with amazing water slides. As you can see, there’s a reason why so many people elect to take a river cruise on the Danube – it’s a convenient way to cover a lot of sightseeing ground. But whether you cruise or do your own land tour, don’t miss these incredibly memorable sights. You’ll be dining out on them for months!