From the incredible Rhine to the endless wonders of the Douro valley, Europe’s rivers offer breathtaking landscapes and culturally rich cities. Nick Dalton selects the best European river cruises 2015

Rudesheim, The Rhine, Hesse, Germany. Image credit: © Sabin Lubenow / AWL Images Ltd

There’s nothing quite like sitting on deck, the sun on your face, as you slip through the heart of Europe. A river cruise is an experience that hypnotises and enthrals with its constantly changing scenery. It’s a revelation how the waterways twist and turn, passing the gorges one moment, the gentle countryside the next. European river cruises span the continent, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, and delve deep into former Eastern Bloc countries.

If you’ve never cruised before, this is a great way to start. You’ll never get bored as there are different places to explore every day, and many excursions are included – think of it as an escorted tour on the water. It’s also a great reason to go if you’re a veteran of river cruising as you can always head off on your own since the ships mostly dock in the heart of a city or town – opposite or near Budapest’s iconic parliament building, for instance.

River cruising has changed dramatically in the past few years, becoming a cutting-edge holiday on elegant ships with contemporary design and fine food, a bit like being in a top boutique hotel. A number of cruises are all-inclusive (and many of the others offer wine with meals) so there’s little extra to pay for.

Cruise companies are falling over themselves to provide new attractions, too, whether classical concerts or dinners with locals, festivals or wine tastings. A river cruise offers the relaxation that no other holiday can. Here are some of the ones to look out for…

Sunrise in Avignon. Image credit: © Danita Delimont/AWL Images

Gallic Style

The perfect way to see idyllic French towns and acres of verdant countryside is to take a cruise on one of Belmond’s spacious luxury floating vessels. Its six-night Belmond Afloat in France Wine Academy cruise, new for this summer, travels from Tain L’Hermitage to Chalon-sur-Saône, through the vineyards of the Rhône and Gevrey-Chambertin regions, with tutored tastings. There are scenic tours to UNESCO-listed Lyon, gourmet lunches and a visit to the famous Château de Pommard estate.
Belmond’s ships are available for private hire, some on a per-cabin basis. A week-long cruise through Burgundy costs from £33,500 based on eight people travelling, including private car transfer from Paris, all meals and drinks on board, private sightseeing and local transfers ( 556 7276).