Thank you to AmaWaterways for hosting our cruise so we could provide this detailed review of our experience.
This AmaWaterways river cruise has become a popular way for active travelers to easily see multiple places, with daily excursions to cities, countrysides, and local landmarks.
We cycled into Melk, Austria, exhausted but deliriously happy, completing a 17-mile bike ride along the Danube River – passing by small medieval churches, castles, monasteries, gravesites, and fruit orchards. We whirred alongside vineyards, by corn fields, and through cobblestone villages, admiring perfectly arranged flower boxes in the stunning Wachau Valley, A UNESCO World Heritage Site and region known for its natural beauty. The ride felt like therapy as we were distracted in a good way after the recent passing of my father-in-law.
Our dream bike trip was one of the active excursions available on AmaWaterways, our “floating boutique hotel” that whisked us from Budapest to Vilshofen for 7+ nights and beyond the typical tourist paths to venture deeper into Old World villages along the Danube – the second largest river in Europe. The ship brought us through five countries and enchanting towns we could never imagine easily getting to like Bratislava, Slovakia; Austria’s Linz, Mondsee, and Salzburg (where the hills come alive with the Sound of Music); and the German villages of Passau and Vilshofen. The regal journey, including a small pool and walking track on the Sun Deck and rooms with French and outside balconies, had us cruising through the Austrian Lake District and the Strudengau Valley and since we were already deep in Europe, we easily extended our voyage with a half-day trip to the fairytale town of Cesky Krumlov, en route to Prague.
The beauty of these river cruises is not just the intimacy, with fewer than 150 people aboard our ship, but the ability to choose your own adventure. In each port, guests can decide on the level of activity they are comfortable with for the day – such as biking, hiking, or walking tours (at gentle, regular, and active paces). While “bike and barge” tours have been around for years, AmaWaterways was the first luxury river cruise line to include a fleet of new comfy 7-speed bikes and introduce a Wellness Program on its European cruises. Last year my mom and I cruised the Seine from Paris to Normandy with Viking, but bikes were not available.
As we glided along the Danube, we slipped into a new location each day where local guides greeted us for biking, hiking, and city walking tours (some with culinary components) to dive deeper into each landscape. While we were cycling through the Wachau Valley, friends we met onboard hiked in Durnstein to the Keunringer Castle, the famous ruins where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned. Other guests chose to invest their time touring the impressive Benedictine Abbey of Melk while others walked the town of Durnstein to sample apricots, sweets, and local wines.
Biking: Heighten your senses
The freedom of biking to explore new regions was exhilarating to us as we knew it wouldn’t be easy to replicate this experience on our own. We took advantage of the biking options and created a collection of unforgettable travel memories, choosing to cycle in three ports for around 15 miles at each destination. There were fewer than 10 bikers on each excursion, which made each cycling jaunt pleasurable.
In the Wachau Valley, we met several other passengers who were just as eager to view the Austrian countryside on two wheels. Our local guide made sure we didn’t get lost and also helped unveil the history and secrets of the journey with intriguing stops to take in the stunning viewpoints, learn historical information along the way, and point out natural features we might otherwise miss. Five to six-hundred-year-old villages that sprung up during the Middle Ages are still thriving along the Danube and feature unique points of interest – like a romantic little Gothic church from the 1500s, fortified with a tower since the town couldn’t afford a wall. We scaled the tower to admire the interior covered in a 3D mural due to a layered colored painting technique called ‘scrafitti’ where they scratch the layers away – similar to fresco paintings 500 years ago.
In each town, we noticed markings high on the walls where measurements are reminders of how the Danube can rise at an alarming rate – flooding twice in the last 13 years instead of the historical hundred-year event. Flood protection barriers have since been built in certain areas where metal sheets can be slid in to meet up to 25 feet of water.
Later that day we rested our weary bodies on our stateroom balcony – admiring the passing picturesque setting over local beer available on the ship as we snaked along the green Strudengau Valley. In Grein, the 500-year-old residential Greinburg Castle once owned by Queen Victoria of England (by way of her husband Albert) loomed above the town waiting for us to admire its lowkey grandeur and splendid courtyard. A private tour later wowed us with the castle’s diamond-cut ceiling in the music room and Sala Terrena (Stone Theater) crafted entirely out of pebbles from the Danube.
In Vienna, we opted to peddle through the buzzing city with a local guide who gave us a nice overview for afternoon and evening exploration on our own. We zipped along the riverside embankment by miles of graffiti art, with monumental buildings and soaring cathedrals leading us to the famous Ringstrasse, then on to admire architecture in Graben square and peruse Kohlmarkt with its luxury shops. The ride took us by hidden corners of Vienna, spiraling through one of the oldest amusement parks in the world with its popular Ferris wheel and into a city park to the golden statue of John Strauss II (“King of the Waltz”) playing his violin. In the city center, we came across a regal military procession with music in front of The Hofburg, the former 13th-century imperial palace of the Habsburg dynasty, and then stopped to witness Vienna’s town hall with its contentious balcony still in existence, where Adolf Hitler conducted one of his most infamous speeches.
In Passau, Germany, we felt motivated to bike again as this jaunt took us along the scenic shores of the Inn River through wooded hills and beaches of poplars, where we gaped at the cobblestone town’s pastel-hued Baroque buildings. A pedestrian bridge brought us across the river (and border) to Wernstein, Austria where we cycled along more woods, corn fields, churches, castles, and pubs, and observed village life before returning to the old town of Passau, known as the “City of Three Rivers” because the Danube, Inn and Liz rivers all converge here.
More biking excursions are available in many other river cruise destinations, such as Cologne’s Old Town, the medieval city of Rouen, St. Emilion’s wine estates, and the idyllic village of Kinderdijk in the Netherlands, a UNESCO World Heritage Site renowned for its historic windmills. For even more active experiences, adventure travel leader Backroads partners with AmaWaterways to host intense biking tours for experienced cyclists.
Hiking: Get high for the best bird’s eye view
Opportunities abound for those who prefer hiking or want to mix up their exercise on a trip, as the beauty of Europe not only lies in its architecture and landmarks but also in its abundant nature. Most of the ports we visited included hiking to a hilltop castle and opportunities to go off the beaten path with hikes (and extended city walks) ranging from two to ten miles. In Budapest we scaled side streets to the Castle District, beginning with a walk along the Pest embankment to remember the Jewish lives lost at the Shoes Memorial before exploring the Matthias Church and fairy-tale-like Fisherman’s Bastion perched high on a hill above the Danube.
In Slovakia, a brisk hike to the Bratislava Castle was a warmup for a power walk to the towering UFO Building, up to the observation deck and restaurant to watch the sunset from soaring heights above a hanging bridge along the Danube. In Salzburg, we got high again atop Monchsberh hills above the roofs of the old town as the Salzburg Modern Art Museum has a scintillating restaurant perch to admire this Austrian city with its medieval and baroque buildings and eastern Alps.
Walking: Take it all in
Need an alternative to an aggressive day of exercise while on vacation? No problem, choose a walking experience at your preferred speed. We loved getting to know Bratislava with a walking beer food tour to sample various suds and regional treats (like cheeses, meats, and even tongue) at a local brewery. With a guide or on your own, walking the streets of a quaint medieval European town is a trip through a rich and storied past.
Activities: Golf, Pickleball, and Bespoke Wellness Programs
While you might think of a cruise as a crowded bonanza where the most common exercise is a walk to the nearest buffet, river cruises make it possible to keep your fitness goals going while on vacation. Our ship had a professional wellness coach who facilitated active excursions in port and daily fitness classes such as core strengthening, resistance band workouts, and sunrise stretching.
Some ships offer tailored wellness programs featuring yoga, Tai Chi, guided meditations, and an introduction to the traditional way to make organic teas for detoxifying, healing, and re-energizing. Others boast pickleball courts on the deck, juice bars, massage rooms, and beauty services like hair and nails. Some even offer concierge golf programs to experience prestigious courses in Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic.
Dining Options: Stay healthy or splurge
After an active day, it’s rewarding to indulge in sit-down meals in the waterside restaurant – created by expert chefs with daily elaborate multicourse menus featuring traditional and regionally inspired cuisine made with locally sourced fresh ingredients, including bread baked onboard overnight. Complementary wines selected from the surrounding areas are chosen by acclaimed European sommeliers and presented at each meal.
As a huge food fanatic, dining and discovering new dishes is an important part of my travels as in the past I have learned food can make or break a trip. AmaWaterways was the first river cruise to be inducted into the La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs and Tableset Auberges – two of the world’s most prestigious culinary organizations. Dishes were always presented so beautifully that it was shocking how artful the chefs could be in a tight galley. Each meal started with 4 mini appetizers and ended with dessert options – featuring ingredients and impressive options from the regions we were visiting.
Some of our favorite meals included a Bavarian carving station with pork knuckle and pork belly and gnocchi with wild mushrooms but we also appreciated veering off now and again from the region’s hearty dishes for fish and chips and a build-your-own Pho bowl. Also, guests are invited to a night at the Chef’s Table for a multicourse grand affair, and it is one we will never forget as we slipped by Budapest’s Parliament Building in all its glowing gold magic (pictured above). Vegetarians will be easily satisfied too as the daily menus include a special multicourse meat-free option along with menu items that can accommodate dietary restrictions and preferences like gluten-free or low-sodium.
On days we raced to morning biking excursions, I appreciated the grab-and-go breakfast options in the lounge as an alternative to the full-service restaurant while my husband loved the post-activity Sip & Sail daily cocktail hour with complimentary wine, beer, and spirits.
AmaWaterways far exceeded our travel exploration expectations. They make it easy to enjoy a healthy and vigorous lifestyle while on vacation and have now made river cruising our new favorite way to explore Europe.
–Hotel Review: The Regina Isabella Resort in Ischia, Italy
–48 Hours in Rome and Our Stay at the Rose Garden Palace Hotel
–Fast or Slow Ferry to Ischia, Italy? You Might Be Surprised–10 Things You Never Knew About Italy
–What It’s Like To Take the Fast Train From Rome to Naples, Italy