River cruising is a wonderful way to experience Europe – for many many reasons. Immersing yourself in the heart of the country, visiting iconic cities, quaint towns and villages, experiencing new foods…. All true on every river cruise in Europe. And visiting UNESCO sites are always weaved into the itineraries.
What is a UNESCO World Heritage site?
It is a landmark or area with special cultural, natural, historical or scientific significance, outstanding value to humanity. Designated sites are intended to be conserved for posterity and are recognized as protected zones. These sites are often top experiences because of their significance to the region.
A cruise along the Upper Danube is filled with UNESCO sites. Following are 9 fantastic sites you can experience.
Budapest is a fascinating city with incredible history as far back as the Roman times. At one point part of the Ottoman Empire, later the Austria-Hungary Empire and more recently under communist rule, the city offers a treasure trove of historical experiences, including the following three World Heritage districts:
The Buda Castle District
The Buda Castle district, perched above the river on the west side, includes the Buda Castle (a complex built in 1265 used by Hungarian kings), 700 year old Matthias Church, Fishermans Bastion and Buda Palace, home to the Hungarian National Gallery and National Szechenyi Library. Wondering around the district you will see examples of medieval, baroque and 19th century buildings. If time allows, check out the labyrinth in Buda Castle, and later pop into the Hilton Hotel. Built on the ruins of a Dominican monastery, the ruins were incorporated into the building – quite interesting!
The Banks of the Danube
This area stretches between the Liberty Bridge and Margaret Bridge, up to Gellert Hill (and the Citadel) and the imposing Parliament building. The Danube Promenade, on the left bank (Pest side of the river), is one of the best places to take a stroll (day or night) in Budapest, with its beautiful views of the Danube, the famous Szechenyi Chain Bridge and the Buda Castle. Not to be missed is the Shoes on the Danube Bank monument in honor of the Jews who were massacred during WWII. Budapest is often referred to “Paris of the East”, and a walk along the promenade in the evening is especially memorable.
Andrassy Avenue is one of Budapest’s prettiest districts, especially the elegant mansions built in the 19th century. Other must see sites include the Budapest Opera House and Heroes Square, a Millennial Celebration monument that pays tribute to Hungary’s history.
Vienna Historic City Center
Vienna was the de facto capital of the Habsburg empire. Vienna’s city center is architecturally rich, with a number of famous landmarks: St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the grand buildings lining the famous Ringstrasse and Habsburg era Baroque castles and gardens. During free time, enjoy a coffee at one of the historic cafes. Café Ritter is one of Vienna’s oldest and elegant; Café Demel, once the cafe of the Habsburg family, has been serving confectionary art since 1786.
The 1440 room Schönbrunn Palace was the magnificent summer home of the Habsburg Dynasty. The original structure, a hunting lodge, was built by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II in 1569. The palace, originally designed to rival Versailles, was added between 1638-1643. Empress Maria Theresa, the only female ruler of the Habsburgs, completely remodeled the palace in the 1740-50’s, the results of what you see today. The palace became the property of Austria when the last emperor, Karl I, signed his abdication in 1918, ending the 600 year rule of the Habsburgs.
Located between Melk and Krems, this picturesque valley is famous for its terraced vineyards, historical villages, castle ruins, wines and apricot orchards. Popular stops in the valley include Durnstein, a medieval village known for the Durnstein Castle, where Richard the Lionheart was held prisoner for several months, and Melk Abbey, a working Benedictine monastery. A guided tour through the abbey, a UNESCO site in its own right, and its famous library with 16,000 ancient books, is an amazing experience. A popular activity for anyone seeking something active is a guided bike tour through the valley or a hike up to Durnstein Castle.
Salzburg is often an optional tour on a Danube cruise. Made famous in “The Sound of Music”, Salzburg was also the birthplace and residence of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The UNESCO historical center has retained most if its original townscape and street pattern. A town where Italian and German cultures met, you’ll find buildings from both Baroque and Gothic periods.
Photo credit: Avalon Waterways
Like Salzburg, Cesky Krumlov is often an optional tour o a Danube Cruise. The town was created around the castle of the Lords of Krumlov around 1253. Old Town, with its narrow cobbled streets and well preserved historical buildings, became a UNESCO site in 1992.
Founded back in 179 AD by the Romans, Regensburg is one of Germany’s oldest medieval towns. Largely left untouched by Allied bombings during WWII, the Old Town is the best preserved medieval town in Germany. Filled with character and history that spans 2 millennia, you’ll walk past buildings of varied architecture – Roman, Romanesque, Gothic and 11th-13th century design that still defines the character of the town. The Stone Bridge, a masterwork of medieval construction, was built in the 12th century, linking Regensburg with the old town of Stadtamhof. Be sure to check out the old Sausage Kitchen, believed to be the old continuously open restaurant in the world. The food is quite good.
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