The Rhine River starts in the mountains in Switzerland, running through Germany, France, and the Netherlands before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean near Rotterdam. It is a popular river for cruises – organized group tours, private tours, or individuals using public transportation.
The length, width, and depth make a large part of the river an ideal home to boats of many sizes. The Rhine Falls in Schaffhausen plunge a spectacular 75 feet. North of the falls, in Basel, Switzerland, boats can begin their journeys to the Atlantic.
The Rhine River is joined by the Aare, the Main, the Neckar, and the Mosel. Other large rivers are linked via canal systems. Organizers often set up tours to cruise the Rhine along with the tributaries or connected rivers. The most popular tour company focusing on river cruises is Viking River Cruises, but there are several others.
Cruising the River without a Tour
The largest drawback for me to take an organized river cruise or a private tour is the cost, as most of the prices range from $4,000 to $6,000 or more. My best option, then, is using public transportation to navigate the many miles of the Rhine.
Köln -Düsseldorfer (KD) offers tours and transportation by boat in Germany from Düsseldorf to Mainz. I haven’t done the entire route, but each time I’ve visited the area, I’ve cruised part of the river using KD.
KD offers guided river day tours and, what amounts to, public transportation. The drawback of cruising on your own with KD is that the public transportation cruises offer little narration during the trip, so your own research is needed to be able to identify the high points along the route.
Starting your Tour
It is not possible to travel the entire route from Dusseldorf to Mainz in one day – in fact, although it is almost do-able in three days, you will not be able to stop to see much along the way. One way to split up the trip would be to spend the first day traveling from Düsseldorf to Cologne. The second day would take you from Cologne to Linz. On day three, the boat would go to Rüdesheim. The final leg would from Rüdesheim to Mainz.
There are trains that travel along the same route – cruising is not the only option. Also, some parts of the route are more scenic than others, so careful planning is important. You might want to choose to travel some sections on your current trip, saving others for a later trip.
For €22, you can buy a Hop-On/Hop-Off to get from Dusseldorf to Cologne. This trip would have some narration. The public transportation options (less narration) for Cologne to Mainz range from €3 to €57 per person, depending how far you go. For example, from Koblenz to Bingen or Bingen to Koblenz is €39.80.
Although some tickets can be purchased online, it is easiest to go to the ticket office in the town where you will be departing. The ticket office will be near the KD dock.
In small towns, if no one is in the office, just wait, someone will come. When my daughter and I wanted to purchase tickets, no one came to the ticket office until about ten minutes before the boat arrived. We bought our tickets, watched the boat arrive at the dock and unload passengers who were disembarking, and then boarded the boat ourselves. We had plenty of time.
In larger cities, there maybe someone at the ticket office all the time, so you could purchase tickets ahead of time. It is also possible to buy your tickets the day before or earlier in the day around the time of a different scheduled stop, but it usually isn’t necessary.
It is wise to not wait until the end of the day to travel by the KD boat. If there are not enough people interested in touring at the time you have chosen, the trip may be cancelled.
Most Popular Section
The most popular section of the Middle Rhine in Germany is the area between Koblenz and Bingen – popular because this section is home to over 25 castles or castle ruins. If you are pressed for time, the area between Boppard and Oberwesel cruises past seven castles or ruins and the famous Loreley Rock (€19.20).
If you travel north instead of south, the time on the water will be shorter because the boat will be traveling with the current instead of against it. I find the Loreley Rock is more impressive when approaching from the north, traveling south, but either direction is fine.
Highlights along the River
When visiting the area, Oberwesel, Bacharach, or St. Goar are good home bases. The towns are all small, each with populations of less than 3000 people. All three towns have interesting landmarks, churches, or nearby castles. There are opportunities for shopping and restaurants that serve delicious local cuisine. I have found Bacharach to be especially welcoming.
Of course, the castles are the reason many come to the area. Some castles can be toured, while others have been converted into hotels or restaurants. I wrote about some of my favorites here. In addition, Loreley Info has information about all of the castles along the Rhine.
The Rhine River area is also a popular wine region. Riesling grapes grow on terraces on the slopes of the Rhine Valley. The grapes are grown in poor shale which gives them the full-bodied fruity character Rieslings are known for. In addition to the Riesling grapes, other white and red grapes are grown in the Middle Rhine region.
One of my favorite memories when visiting this region was when I went with my family in May of 2009. We stayed at a small family-run hotel in the town of Bacharach. The hotel had its own restaurant where we ate one evening. In May, spargel, or white asparagus is in season, so we each had a meal focused on this delicate vegetable – spargel with ham, spargel with chicken, or even, spargel with potatoes.
On our first day in the area, we took the boat up the Rhine River to view the castles and vineyards. Unfortunately, jet lag caused many of the family members to fall asleep on the boat. Lesson learned – no boat rides on Day 1.
Do you have memories from the Rhine River area? Share them below.