Viking River Cruises recently received its ninth win as the "Best Overall Cruise Line" for River Cruising by the TravelAge West and was awarded "Best Luxury River Cruise Company" by Luxury Travel Advisor. It was also declared "Best River Cruise Line" in 2014 by Cruise Critic’s discerning international team of editors. Having just returned from a fantastic cruise with them, I’m also now a fan of the award-winning brand.
My journey was the Danube Waltz, a seven-night cruise on the new Viking Gullveig from Budapest, Hungary to Passau, Germany, with four additional stops in Austria and one in Bratislava, Slovakia. The ship sails mainly at night so you’re able to spend all day, and often a full evening, exploring the sights. Here is a look at each stop along the way and tips on what to experience in each city:
If someone had only told me beforehand how much fun this captivating Hungarian capital is (light years removed from the cold war Communist city it once was), I would have definitely signed up for the two night, Viking pre-tour package. While strolling through Pest’s unique neighborhoods, you’ll find palatial Ottoman-era hotels, Neo-Baroque palaces and historical beauties such as the Szechenyi Spa. There is also an abundance of elegant historical coffee houses rubbing elbows with ruin bars. You can easily spend a sensory afternoon at the historic Central Market, built in 1897 and still one of the grandest European food halls. Take a coffee break at Auguszt Cukrászda (opened in 1870) for a slice of their famed Dobos, a seven-layer Hungarian sponge cake layered with chocolate butter-cream and topped with caramel.
We adored this appealing capital city with its medieval Town Hall, picturesque Gothic cathedrals, and lovingly-restored Baroque city palaces. After taking us to the major sites, our guide led us to an intersection to point out his favorite bit of local color, Rubberneck, a bronze statue sticking out of a manhole. Be sure to jump ship for an enlightening wine tasting at the Grand Cru Wine Gallery which has a vast collection of surprisingly excellent Slovakian wines.
Vienna, once the center of the powerful Habsburg monarchy, still exudes its imperial glamour. On the tour we drove by some outrageously-opulent buildings, including the world-famous Opera House, St. Stephan’s Cathedral and Hofburg Palace, as well as the Ringstrasse, which encircles the medieval Inner City. Definitely sign up for the evening Mozart and Strauss Concert, where their illustrious Vienna Residence Orchestra (Rudolf Nureyev was once a guest director here) performs selections by Mozart and Strauss, accompanied by singers and dancers in period costumes.
Photo Credit: Bäckerei & Konfiserie Schmidland
Dürnstein & Melk, Austria
The picturesque walled-town of Dürnstein is located in the heart of the Wachau wine-growing region. The terraced hills are filled with apricot orchards, which is why Dürnstein’s cobblestone streets are lined with charming shops selling a wide variety of apricot- based products. Since you don’t have much time in here, dart into Bäckerei & Konfiserie Schmidland to order some hot-from-the-oven Wachau Laberl, locally-revered crusty rolls invented by Rudolf Schmidl in 1905. Tell them you’ll pick them up in 30 minutes (and don’t forget to add a jar of their homemade apricot preserves) after you hoof it up to the top of the hill for incredible views from the ruins of Kuenringerburg Castle. Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned here in 1192 following an altercation with Leopold V.
Linz & Salzburg
Our next pit stop was Linz, although our real destination was the Old Town of Salzburg, another UNESCO Cultural Heritage site. Salzburg is wildly popular to music lovers since not only is it Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birthplace but The Sound of Music was also filmed here. Stop in to see Mozart's birthplace—the memorabilia includes his first violin, given to him at the age of six—which is on Getreidegasse, Salzburg's most renowned shopping street. Before getting back on the bus, pop into one of the gorgeous candy shops and buy a few bags of Mozartkugel (Mozart Balls), a beloved chocolate, pistachio and marzipan confection invented by the Salzburg confectioner Paul Fürst in 1890.
Photo Credit: Hotel Wilder Mann
Dating back to the 8th century this lovely medieval town a.k.a the "Gate to the Black Sea" is uniquely situated at the confluence of three rivers: the Danube, Inn and Ilz. The walking tour showstopper here is the magnificent Cathedral of St. Steven with its three characteristic, green onion-domed towers. Afterwards visit the Glass Museum to see the world’s largest Bohemian glass collection, we’re talking over 30,000 pieces! Then, head next door to the Hotel Wilder Mann, which opened in 1844. Ask to take a peek at one of the historical suites to see the original nuptial bed of the Bavarian King Ludwig II.
Photo Credit: Viking River Cruises
Viking Longship Gullveig
Our home-away-from-home for this trip was the elegant Viking Longship Gullveig. The Gullveig is comfy, cosmopolitan and ever so convenient! The first thing you notice is how sparkling clean it is. Then you’re struck by its brightness, with floor-to ceiling windows providing unobstructed views of the riverscape. Viking’s streamlined longships are all cut from just about the same high-quality cloth. No matter which vessel you’re on, you can bank on the fact that your sophisticated stateroom will be airy and generously sized (most have verandas and French balconies). Rooms come with hotel-style beds, a private bathroom filled with a generous supply of L’Occitane products, plush robes and slippers, roomy closets and plenty of storage space. Other features include a sun deck with 360-degree views, an organic herb garden, complimentary Wi-Fi, a putting green, walking track and a cookie and espresso bar.
The specifics may vary a bit between the different ships but you will always receive Viking’s world-class, hospitable service. Everyone onboard kept commenting on “how warm and friendly the entire staff was,” which seemed to be a Viking trademark.
Photo Credit: Viking River Cruises
Meals kicked off with an early riser’s breakfast or a full breakfast buffet between 6:00 and 9:00 a.m. The buffet lunch includes a soup and sandwich bar, pasta, a variety of salads and desserts in both the main dining room or on the Aquavit Terrace. The slightly more formal, multi-course dinner, where fresh flowers graced the crispy white tablecloths, was served from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. We loved the open-seating format, so we could chat up a bunch of different travelers (the overwhelming majority were repeat customers which says a lot), or keep to ourselves if we wished. The chefs are all Swiss-trained so you’re assured of gourmet cuisine with a welcome focus on regional specialties, such as assorted German sausages pretzels and mustard, Austrian tortes, local beers and liquors.
Now the only problem I’m left with is which Viking River Cruise to pick next: Wine tasting along Portugal’s River of Gold, The Imperial Jewels of China (which includes a visit to Xian’s Terra Cotta Army), a Magnificent Mekong itinerary which covers Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, or who can resist the lure of the exotic Myanmar Explorer?