Sailing through Europe along the Danube River is akin to travelling through the pages of a history book. This mighty waterway - the second-longest in Europe after the Volga - brings alive the past glories of the powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire and the famous Hapsburg dynasty who ruled many of these lands.

In ancient times, the Danube formed the frontier of the Roman Empire while in more recent years, its route behind the Iron Curtain through Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary served as a fascinating insight into Communist rule. Forever immortalised by Johann Strauss in the Blue Danube Waltz, this vital artery is a treasure chest of cultural riches, where statuesque palaces and historic castles vie for attention with charming medieval towns and unforgettable views.

From its source in Germany’s Black Forest across central and eastern Europe to the Black Sea, the Danube is acclaimed as the world’s only river to flow through four capital cities: Vienna (Austria), Bratislava (Slovakia), Budapest (Hungary) and Belgrade (Serbia) – and this all adds to its cruising appeal.

Sailing past Budapest’s impressive Gothic parliament building and the distinctive towers of the Fisherman’s Bastion lookout is one of the highlights of Danube voyages, while the night-time view of the city’s illuminated skyline has to be one of the best sights on any river cruise.

Vienna is regarded as the jewel in the crown of the Danube, a fitting title that reflects its graceful streets full of imperial architecture, headed by the extensive Hofburg Palace that was the seat of the Hapsburg rulers, and the Spanish Riding School with its famous white horses. A short distance outside the city is the Schönbrunn Palace, the former summer residence of the Hapsburgs and a vision of imperialist Baroque splendour with its elegant façade and manicured grounds.

Melk is another Austrian gem. Sitting in the picturesque Wachau Valley, this town is dominated by its impressive Benedictine monastery that blends beautifully with the surrounding landscape. Nearby is the town of Dürnstein, famous as the place where Richard the Lionheart was incarcerated in Kuenringer Castle, whose ruins overlook the town. Take time to wander along the narrow cobbled streets and enjoy a glass of locally-produced wine from the many vineyards dotting this region.

Bratislava, with its delightful old town and beautiful classic buildings is a delight to stroll around as the river is just a few minutes away, generally making it a short walk from where the passenger boats dock. Nicknamed the Pearl of the Danube, the first sighting of the Slovak capital is unmistakable as you approach by river with the distinctive Bratislava Castle framed against the skyline.

Then there is the medieval splendour of three classic German cities. While not strictly on the Danube, as it sits on the Main-Danube Canal, Nuremburg is famous for its wartime history, including the Nazi war crime trials following World War II, but today its atmospheric old town is the main draw for visitors. Regensburg, located at the northern end of the Danube, is one of Germany’s oldest towns with wonderful Gothic architecture to match, while Passau boasts its fair share of beautiful buildings and is also the gateway to the Austrian city of Salzburg. This adds yet another flavour to a journey that promises rich rewards for travellers wanting to sample the contrasting tastes of Europe’s past and present. 

- Sara Macefield