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Riverside Splendor: European Ports Rise in Stature as River Cruises Surge in Popularity

Visit the most stunning port-side sites Europe has to offer.

Basel, Switzerland

The city of Basel hugs the Swiss waterfront.

(Photo: RudyBalasko / iStock / Thinkstock)

Many of Europe’s most celebrated cities owe their greatness to their location – the perfect spot on a navigable river that made trade and transport effortless. Today, these legendary rivers, from the Danube to the Douro, offer a scenic setting for increasingly popular river cruises. Here are 10 European ports I love.

Amsterdam: The Amstel River flows through this multifaceted Dutch city known for its houseboat-lined canals, 17th-century architecture and photogenic bridges – which earned it the nickname the “Venice of the North.” Equally appealing to art lovers (Rembrandts, Vermeers and Van Goghs abound) and history buffs (WWII walking tours are popular), Amsterdam has a free-wheeling ambience that’s infamously intoxicating.

Antwerp:  Enjoying beer – and very strong beer at that – is one of Belgium’s great pastimes and this city on the River Scheldt is an appealing place to get to know a Tripel from a Trappist. Antwerp’s other calling cards are its 16th century square Grote Markt and the Rubenhuis museum, dedicated to all things Peter Paul Rubens.

Basel: The starting or ending point for many Rhine River cruises, this city located where the Swiss, German and French borders meet blends Swiss efficiency with an affinity for high-end watches and modern art (fairs for both are held here annually). Other highlights: a medieval Old Town and Basel Minster, a 12th century Gothic sandstone cathedral.

La Cite du Vin

La Cite du Vin, a wine museum in Bordeaux, France.

(Photo:Photos Anaka / La Cité du Vin / Casson Mann)

Bordeaux: This once-sooty French city on the River Garonne has been magnificently restored, giving it an elegance that now pairs well with the legendary wines produced in surrounding vineyards. Its new wine museum, La Cite du Vin, is a draw for oenophiles, while an antiques market and riverfront promenade invite browsing and people watching.

Bratislava: Located on the Danube near the Austrian and Hungarian borders, the low-key capital of Slovakia is intriguing for travelers interested in its Austro-Hungarian history (there’s a Baroque hilltop castle) and blend of cultures. Hiking and biking beckon the adventurous, while Old Town is home to Christmas markets in November and December and microbreweries year-round.

Hungarian Parliament Building

The Hungarian Parliament Building at sunrise.

(Photo:Gergo Csorba / iStock / Thinkstock)

Budapest: For visual drama, it’s hard to beat cruising past the illuminated Hungarian Parliament Building at dusk as its dazzling gold reflection dances on the blue Danube. Equally captivating are the Chain Bridge (linking Buda and Pest), the Szechenyi Baths (Europe’s largest spa dating to 1913) and the white-marble turrets of the Fisherman’s Bastion.

Dresden: History, Baroque architecture, prized porcelain and beer – this German city on the Elbe River has something for everyone. Home to Versailles-inspired Zwinger Palace and Dresden Castle (with its treasure-filled Green Vault), historic Dresden was mostly destroyed during WWII, but has been splendidly rebuilt. Don’t miss the Procession of Princes mural featuring 25,000 Meissen tiles.

Vienna: Another storied city on the Danube, the Austrian capital is a favorite of art lovers and historians. Famous works by Klimt, Schiele, Durer and Bruegel are on display in palatial museums such as the Belvedere, Leopold and Albertina, while the treasures of the Habsburg empire can be ogled at the Hofburg and Schonbrunn palaces.

Porto: There’s something warm and soothing about Portugal’s second largest city, located at the mouth of the River Douro – a result, perhaps, of the prized port aging in oak barrels along the Vila Nova de Gaia waterfront (a tasting is a must). Other highlights: the Gustave Eiffel-designed Maria Pia Bridge and the Romanesque-style Se Cathedral.

Peterhof Palace

Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia.

(Photo: Leonid Andronov / iStock / Thinkstock)

St. Petersburg: Cruising Russia’s Neva River amid the imperial splendor of this city, founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, is a wonderful way to view the green-and-white facade of the State Hermitage Museum, the kaleidoscopic Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, and the massive Peter and Paul Fortress. Also a must-see: the grandeur of Peterhof Palace.

Have you visited any stunning river-side sites? Share in the comments below.

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