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Going with the flow while exploring Europe’s major rivers

Going with the flow while exploring Europe’s major rivers

Most of us have had that exciting experience of flying into a city and following the aquatic artery that cuts through it. We see how the river takes its twists and turns, and how a metropolis, towns and villages have clung to its banks for generations. It’s a great snapshot of how communities have evolved, how water, and its vital infrastructure has drawn us closer over the years. Europe’s major rivers still draw us close for different reasons now, with adventure trails having been developed along many of the greats. Sometimes we don’t realise just how great they are until we zoom out on our digital maps or, as you will see from our top river holidays below, just how long, or how many countries you can explore while following them. 

River Danube

The Danube just seems to keep going on and on and on, through a colossal 10 countries in fact, creating centres for four national capitals. It is the longest river in the EU, and it has the most superb collection of cycling trails, which you get to explore on our bike and boat holidays. Or if you want to keep your legs waltzing on land only, here are our cycling holidays. Whichever way you choose, you’ll see that Strauss nailed it when he called his famous composition the Blue Danube Waltz, or An der schönen blauen Donau, as it really is one massive, beautiful, blue space. If you want to get to grips with how widespread it is, here are its names in different languages: Dunăre în Romanian, Donau in German, Dunaj in Slovakian, Duna in Hungarian, and Dunav in Serbian or Bulgarian.

The MS Swiss Crown is the beauty that guides you through six countries of the Danube’s course.

The River Inn

The River Inn is actually a tributary of the Danube, which cuts its way through Switzerland, Austria and Germany. Lesser-known than its Rhine relation, it’s also one of Europe’s best kept secrets for cycling, following the Inn Cycle Path for 520km. This section of the Inn Cycle Path is perfect if you want to be enveloped by the Alps but not exhausted by them, travelling between St. Moritz in Switzerland and Innsbruck in Austria, on an easy to moderate trail. 

River Rhine

The Rhine (Rhein in German) is like a rippling ribbon that connects northern and southern Europe, with its source in the Swiss Alps. It then flows through Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France and finally the Netherlands into the North Sea. It has been used as an artery since Roman times, and you’re never far from ancient cultural wowzers as you journey along it. 

The Rhine Cycle Path

One of our most popular cycling holidays is along part of the Rhine Cycle Path between Strasbourg, France and Mainz in Germany. Also known as the EuroVelo 15 route, this section follows UNESCO protected riverside paths, where majestic medieval castles cling to cliffs, and vineyards ripen royally. 

The Rheinsteig 

The Rheinsteig is one of our top walking holidays in Germany, a 320km walking trail that hovers above the great river, allowing you to enjoy its twists, turns, ravines and, vitally, Rieslings. It also links the cities of Bonn, Koblenz and Wiesbaden. One 65km section of it, known as the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, is even a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thanks to its proliferation of castles, ancient towns and vineyards. Explore the Rheinsteig on our five day Rheinsteig holiday or eight day Rheinsteig tour, both starting in Rüdesheim. It’s worth noting that the River Moselle is a tributary of the Rhine, and you can mosey along its Moselle Trail to explore one of the oldest wine-producing regions in Germany. 

Overlooking the River Rhine while walking along its iconic Rheinsteig.

Rhine Falls

If you want to experience the Rhine at its most raucous, it creates the most spectacular waterfalls in Switzerland before it enters Germany. One of the largest falls in Europe, it’s 150m wide and 23m high, and it’s a dramatic diversion on this cycling holiday around Lake Constance. 

River Rhône

This river has a glorious USP in that it flows from the mountains to the Med, its icy source being the Rhône Glacier in the Swiss Alps. It gives sustenance to an array of vineyards en route, and it’s the birthplace of one of France’s most underrated and classic cities, Lyon. It’s also the perfect adventure artery for cyclists, the Via Rhôna cycle path covering 815km in total. 

We break it up into sections on our holidays, so you can do one at a time, or just go for it and combine a couple. The longest section, over 13 days, starts in Geneva in Switzerland, and takes you all the way to the ancient town of Orange in France, stopping at Lyon en route. You can also opt to just go as far as Lyon, although you still spend a whole week rocking the Rhône. You can then come back another time and spend eight days cycling from Lyon to Orange. Last but not least, we’ve got a chilled, six day adventure cycling from Orange to Sête which is the perfectly Provençal part. 

When in season, the lavender can almost hide the River Rhône in Avignon. On the Via Rhôna between Orange and Sête.

River Elbe

Although it’s not as well known as the Danube or the Rhine, the River Elbe is one of Europe’s major rivers, and it’s definitely one worth digging out your Atlas for. Its source is in the Krkonoše Mountains in Czechia (formerly Czech Republic) and it winds its way north through eastern Germany all the way to the Wadden Sea, which is part of the North Sea. It has a long commercial heritage, with prestigious ports along the way including Dresden and Hamburg. Its industrial heritage is now slowly but surely being regenerated into a sustainable tourism one, the most famous usage being along the Elbe Cycle Path. Our eight day cycling holiday starts and finishes with its two historic and handsome cities of Prague and Dresden, and the first five days are spent cycling through Czechia. You then cross the border into Germany’s Saxon-Bohemian region, where the Elbe’s sandstone mountains and impressive rock formations start to take centre stage. 

We have many other exquisite Elbe sections to explore on our cycling holidays, the longest being between Hamburg and Dresden, which takes in pretty much all of the German section of the cycling path, and you can do it in eight days, or a more relaxed 13 days. You can even experience an electric Elbe, as all our tours on the cycling path have an option to rent an e-bike. And to make it an even more eco Elbe, they are all accessible by rail. 

The Malerweg Way

Although the Malerweg Way doesn’t cling to the River Elbe, it does take you through its elevated environs over 115km. Malerweg actually means ‘painters’ way’ and it’s named after the 18th century artists from the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts who immortalised the river’s landscapes in their work. 

Cycling along the River Elbe in Dresden, Germany.

River Douro

It is thought that the name of the River Douro comes from the word ouro, which is Portuguese for gold. It certainly produces liquid gold in the form of wine, and its glittering waters and vineyards attract visitors like magpies. The Douro is the third longest river on the Iberian Peninsula, and you can imbibe its fruits on several of our holidays. This walking holiday, for example, starts and ends in the famous city of Porto, where you can jump into learning about Portugal’s wine history by visiting one of the port wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia. Continue into the heart of the Douro Valley, walking alongside the western slopes around Pinhão, and climb to the hillside villages of São Cristovão do Douro and Provesende on a veritable vineyard voyage. 

River Ebro

If you want to explore Spain via one of its most generous riverfronts, then the River Ebro is the way to go. The second longest river in Spain, this 960km beauty flows through the regions of Catalonia, Aragon, Navarre, Basque Country, La Rioja, Cantabria, Castile and León. You don’t cover them all on this eight day Ebro excursion, but you do get to experience a wide variety of its biodiversity. It’s also an easy to moderate tour, starting in Campoo, close to the river’s source in the Cantabrian Mountains, and then cycling through the famous La Rioja Wine, the Valderredible Valley and Montes Obarenes Nature Park. 

Say hello to the River Ebro.

River Po

The longest river in Italy, this is definitely one of Europe’s major rivers and yet still relatively unknown. It rises just a few hundred metres inside the border with France, in the Alps, and flows east to the Adriatic, just south of Venice. It’s the beating heart of the four regions of Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Veneto, and our bike and boat holiday, from Venice to Mantua, touches on many of its natural wonders. Highlights include sailing from St. Mark’s Square to Murano Island, famous for its historic glass factory, and cycling in and around the wetlands of the Po Delta. The Po, like many of Europe’s major rivers, isn’t without its ecological concerns, however. If you’d like to read more about this great river that dissects northern Italy, read The Po: An Elegy for Italy’s Longest River by Tobias Jones, published by Bloomsbury

River Adige

The River Adige is Italy’s second longest river and is another northern soul, journeying for 410km from the Upper Vinschgau in the South Tyrolean mountains. It then travels south to its Adriatic exit point at Rosolina Mare, which is 40km south of Venice. It’s also home to one of Italy’s longest cycle paths, and this holiday covers around 300km of it, taking in both Austria and Italy. This really is a breezy Adige trip, and one of our favourite ‘easy’ cycling holidays, taking you through chocolate box villages, vineyards and Tyrolean tradition. You get to take on a more southern section on this holiday, cycling from Bolzano to Venice over eight days, with Verona and Lake Garda two of the other Adige adventures en route. 

How the River Adige shapes Verona in Italy.

If travelling by water is your go-to for sustainable adventures, then you may also enjoy the following blogs: Our top lesser-known lakelands in Europe, Best coastal walking tours, Our best coastal cycling tours and A deep dive into the Fishermen’s Trail. And we will leave you with these words from Fluent, by Irish poet, John O’Donohue, in his book, Conamara Blues: “I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.”