Songs have been written about it. Wars have been fought on its banks. The Danube River flows through ten countries and more European capital cities than any other river in the world. Before the pandemic, I was lucky enough to set sail on The Danube Waltz with Viking Cruises. Once it is safe to get back to travel again, these small ships offer a great advantage to exploring the countries from the comfort of your own cabin, in luxury, and with a small group of fellow passengers. Come sail with me on my Danube River Cruise as I share some “wow” moments from this bucket list trip I enjoyed with Viking Cruises.
Exploring Budapest Along the Danube River
I arrived in Budapest after dark and was welcomed by my first wow experience of the trip, the Szechenyi or Chain Bridge. There are many bridges crossing the Danube but this is the oldest and the most beautiful bridge. Completed in 1849, it was the first bridge to span the Danube thereby connecting Buda and Pest. While it is wonderful to see in daylight, at night the lights of the bridge are reflected by the water, casting a magical glow.
Explore the Buda Side of Budapest
Be sure to take a walk across the bridge whether day or night for an alternate perspective of the city. The best views of the city are from the Castle district on the Buda side of the river. There’s also plenty of history to discover; plan to spend at least a half-day—but you could easily spend several days depending on your interests.
Buda Castle is where the kings of Hungary lived, and the original castle was constructed in the 13th century. In the 15th century, under Hungary’s King Matthias, Budapest experienced a boom period.
You’ll also want to visit the church named in his honor. Like many of the important historical buildings in Budapest, it has been rebuilt and added to over the centuries.
The interior is quite exotic and appropriately it was the coronation church for the Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elizabeth.
Matthias Church is located in Trinity Square where you’ll find the Fisherman’s Bastion, a popular spot for photos of the Danube with the gothic-style Parliament Building in the background. The Fisherman’s Bastion was built to honor the 1000 anniversary of the Hungarian State.
Today, aside from the historical buildings on Buda Hill, the architecture you see is mostly Baroque, built under Habsburg rule. Actually, almost everything was reconstructed after being destroyed more than once, but the last time was World War II. It’s a beautiful area with wide shady streets, quaint cafes, and inviting restaurants.
Budapest’s Dark Past
Don’t miss the Shoes on the Danube Bank, a moving sculpture and tribute to the Jewish residents who died on the banks of the Danube during World War II. During the war, more than 3,500 people—including 800 Jews—were shot on the banks of the Danube by the Arrow Cross Party, part of the Fascist Hungarian militia. The sculpture, created in 2005 on the Pest side of the Danube, is a moving reminder of the darker history of this city of light on the river.
Discover More About Budapest
One of the best ways to prepare for a Viking Cruise along the Danube River is to read up on the places you visit. Here are some recommendations for exploring the history of Budapest:
Wandering Vienna Along the Danube River
Vienna is best known for the beauty of the historic center and the variety of architecture spanning many periods. Since the 16th century, Vienna has also been famed as the music capital of Europe. As you explore Vienna, nearly everything revolves around the history and legacy of the House of Habsburg, Vienna’s royal family for hundreds of years.
Exploring Vienna History
With famous residents like Mozart, Beethoven, Shubert, Freud, and Klimt, I couldn’t wait to see Vienna. To prepare, I read Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs by Greg King and Penny Wilson. This is a history of Crown Prince Rudolph and what is referred to as the Mayerling Affair. While the topic is quite dark, it gave a very enlightening look into the political climate of Vienna at the time and a deep insight into the personality of the Crown Prince. It also helped me to place many of the buildings I saw in the historic center of Vienna in time.
Here are some of the books we recommend that you read before a visit to Vienna. It definitely helps to have some historical knowledge of the city before exploring.
Exploring the Streets of Vienna
Vienna is a magical city. It is impossible to see everything on a quick trip. If you can arrange more time to spend in the city, here are suggestions for more things to see and do in Vienna.
If, however, you are in Vienna for a brief stop as you cruise along the Danube as I was, I recommend that you get acquainted with Vienna by walking along the Ringstrasse or Ring Road, built during the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph. It is easy to imagine what it was like in the days of the Imperial family when, if you were a normal working-class citizen of Vienna, it was typical to wait outside the gates of the palace or walk the Ring Road hoping for a glimpse of the Royals. Not unlike watching the British royal family today, though probably on television.
We also visited the Volksgarten Rose Garden, adjacent to the Imperial Palace and open to the public since the 1800s. Many of these historic buildings today house museums, government offices, and private residences. The city and its history are accessible to all.
Be sure to stop into one of the many Vienna coffee houses for a cup of coffee and to soak up the ambiance. Here is a guide to a few of the best coffeehouses in Vienna, but even small local shops are great for the true Vienna coffee experience.
Wine in Vienna
Vienna is the only city in the world with a significant number of vineyards within the city limits. During harvest, locals flock to the wine taverns called Heurigen. We went to the Grinzing district for wine, food, music, and a lot of laughs on a night that turned out to be one of the most wow of the entire week.
White wines are dominant in Austria with varieties like Gruner Veltliner and Riesling but we also tried a red wine called Zwiegelt. It was chilly outside so we sat indoors but traditionally the locals have a picnic outside with views of the vineyard. Of course, every good glass of wine in Vienna pairs beautifully with Wiener Schnitzel. You can find plenty of great Wiener Schnitzel on your Danube River Cruise.
Off the Danube to Experience Cesky Krumlov
While it's not on the Danube, we were able to head off the river for a day to visit Česky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. A visit to the town is an included excursion offered by Viking on the Danube Waltz itinerary. Česky Krumlov is the quintessential small medieval European village.
It’s a fairytale town complete with a 13th-century castle, tower, and cobblestone streets. Everything is wonderfully preserved in time. The castle and tower are located on a hillside, perfect for spotting potential invaders before they can get too close.
After exploring the castle and grounds our group walked downhill into the town. Look up and admire the beautiful frescoes on the facades of the buildings. These were covered up in the Baroque period but are now being restored. The historic center of Česky Krumlov is a UNESCO Heritage Site.
A highlight of my time in Česky Krumlov was simply enjoying lunch at a small restaurant on the river. The restaurant specialized in local food and described it as the food eaten by peasants. It was a sausage and cabbage soup, so delicious I’ve tried numerous times to replicate it at home.
Reading More About the Danube
The Danube River is the second largest river in Europe (second only to the Volga), so it has played an important part in the culture, history, economy, and life of Central Europe. We recommend these great books if you want to understand the impact of the Danube—past, present, and future—before you embark on a journey.
There is so much to see on the Danube, I am sure a lifetime could be spent exploring the elegant cities and enchanting scenery. Taking a Danube River cruise is one of the best ways to experience life and culture along this mighty river. Be sure to read more on Wander about Austria, Germany, and Hungary. We also offer great information about this and other Viking River Cruises.