Have you ever wanted to experience a river cruise before? Below I share my first ever experience on a Viking River Cruises.

A review of my first ever Viking River Cruise. This focuses on the Grand European Tour itinerary.
Starting off the river cruise on the top deck enjoying the sights.

The very first cruise I ever went on was a four-day jaunt on board the Carnival Sunshine with my mother and brother from Long Beach, California to Ensenada, Mexico at the age of 22. I think I’ve been on about 20 cruises since then and it’s a bit funny to think about where it started. That’s definitely not meant to poke fun at my first trip, but instead to take stock. I don’t think I ever would have guessed just how many different kinds of experiences there were to be had aboard a cruise ship back then, let alone that I would be having them. I’m not going to describe cruises like snowflakes (because, frankly, that would be weird), but there are so many different kinds out there, it’s kind of crazy.

This past August I went on a river cruise that was almost unquestionably the exact opposite of my inaugural. Where that was a short, casual trip through the ocean in my backyard with 2500 other people, this one was a two-week journey up a river running through the heart of Europe with just 200. And where the former had its main focus on cramming as much fun as possible into each and every hour, the latter was more about breezily gathering experiences and thoughtfully taking in each moment. As you can see, completely different animals. In fact, I think I’ll leave comparing them behind right here.

The Trip & the Ship

Once my wife, Sarah, and I had decided that a Viking River Cruise was something we wanted to do, we were a little overwhelmed by our choices (but in the best way). Did we want to spend 20 days going from Shanghai to Beijing? Yes, absolutely. Maybe check out the wineries for a week in Portugal? That sounded wonderful. Or perhaps 12 days in Egypt seeing the pyramids? Umm, that would be awesome as well. Ultimately, we deferred to our schedules and narrowed it down to the Grand European Tour—15 days over the Danube, Main and Rhine Rivers from Budapest to Amsterdam.

The Itinerary

Days 1 & 2 – Budapest, Hungary

Days 3 & 4 – Vienna, Austria

Day 5 – Melk, Austria

Day 6 – Passau, Germany

Day 7 – Regensburg, Germany

Day 8 – Nuremberg, Germany

Day 9 – Bamberg, Germany

Day 10 – Würzburg, Germany

Day 11 – Wertheim, Germany

Day 12 – Koblenz, Germany

Day 13 – Cologne, Germany

Day 14 – Kinderkijk, The Netherlands

Day 15 – Amsterdam, The Netherlands

For our trip, we sailed aboard the Viking Villi—one of the many award-winning longships in the Viking River Cruises fleet. Of course it was unlike anything we’d traveled on before, but what surprised us was how they thought of every detail. The windows didn’t just offer a spectacular view, but they were everywhere you looked and basically all floor-to-ceiling. There was a perfect mix of both indoor and outdoor seating, including a private veranda on every room. Solar panels lined the side decks to keep the water we were traveling on as clean as possible. There was an herb garden, walking path, and putting area up top, along with a bridge that could retract to fit beneath the lower bridges. Obviously there was much more to the ship, decor that wonderfully complimented the scenery for example, but I’ll let you check it out in the video below.

River Cruise Ports

I don’t know if it determined our favorite ports, but the difference between being bused for an hour to a destination and being there with a simple step off of the ship is pretty substantial. With the Grand European Tour, the latter was the entire trip. Sure, there were still busses involved, but it was only for driving tours around a city or transportation to a specific place nearby. For the most part, our days would begin some kind of short early-morning tour followed by a couple of hours wandering whatever incredible story-book town we’d been brought to (maybe a lunch of all the sausage, sauerkraut, and beer a person could want as well). So, on any given day, we were off to a good start.

As for the stops themselves, it’s hard to narrow down any favorites. Honestly, even an inclusive highlight reel would cover almost every stop. But hey, why don’t we at least try?

Budapest Statue of Liberty
There was the Liberty Statue and fantastic view on the Gillért Hill in Budapest
St. Peters Church in Vienna
St. Peters Church in Vienna
Cafe Maria Theresia Vienna
Cafe Maria Theresia in Vienna. Photo: Milk and Flowers
Shooting photos on thee top deck of the Viking Vili
Shooting photos on thee top deck of the Viking Vili
Castle ruins spotted on the Danube River
Castle ruins spotted on the Danube River
The largest pipe organ in Europe at the Cathedral of Passau.
The largest pipe organ in Europe at the Cathedral of Passau.
The stunning Melk Abbey
The stunning Melk Abbey. Photo: Milk and Flowers
Sausages in Nuremberg
Sausages in Nuremberg
Amsterdam Belgian Fries
A must try while in Amsterdam: Belgian fries!
Würzburg Residenz and wine bridge
The Würzburg Residenz and wine bridge with the gorgeous views in Würzburg
We found the coolest family owned bakery in the center of Wertheim, Germany.
Enjoying a fresh pretzel at a family owned bakery in Wertheim

Full—yet Relaxing—Days

I know the long list (that far from covered everything) may make it seem like we were going nonstop, but this is far from the case. It’s true, over the course of two weeks, we saw loads of different places and did a lot of different things. Still, this was easily one of the most relaxing trips the two of us have ever taken. As I mentioned above, the passenger list only came to about 200 people. And, while you never felt cramped by any means, the size of the ship and recreation choices reflected this. Now, before you misunderstand, let me say that it was totally refreshing. I’ll explain how by breaking my promise and reiterating a comparison to larger, ocean-faring vessels. You see, on the larger ships, you’re often bombarded with various things to do at any given moment. Again, don’t get me wrong, this can be really great. However, when you’re in this kind of environment, FOMO is absolutely real. Most of the time, you end your trip thoroughly entertained, but exhausted. With our Viking River Cruise, it was like being given permission to quietly enjoy our time. If that meant thoughtfully sipping a glass of wine on the top deck while castles passed by, great. If it meant putting on Downton Abbey and taking a rejuvenating nap, that worked too. Aaaand if you happened to be a journalist that usually stresses about getting work done on a review trip like this, guess what? Not this time.

So you can get an idea about what our days were like for those two weeks: A lovely seated breakfast, tour/exploring time, then lunch in town or on the Aquavit Terrace, leisure time probably featuring one of the three things listed above, lecture hour, cocktail hour, dinner with a different lovely group each night, evening entertainment, and a BEAUTIFUL early bedtime. I honestly feel relaxed just writing about it now.

Final Thoughts

Before I go, there’s one final aspect of the trip I wanted to mention that made it so incredible: the people. On a ship that small, you have to work pretty hard to not know the names of most passengers and staff by the time you disembark. We tried to get to know as many different fellow travelers during our trip, and we’re so glad that we did. I can’t tell you how many great stories we heard and conversations we had. The staff wasn’t any different. However, their service was so amazingly good that it wouldn’t be right to lump them in without mentioning it too. You wouldn’t be delusional for expecting more tailored service on a smaller vessel, but everyone we came across went above and beyond what you’d think. This trip absolutely wouldn’t have been what it was without everyone (and I’m not talking about a ghost-ship situation).

From before we even stepped off the river cruise ship, Sarah and I have been planning our next trip with Viking. Perhaps the Amazon? We’ll see. Wherever we choose to go, I have to imagine that it’s going to be as awesome as the trip we just had. I can’t wait!