Cruise Down the Rhine: 5 UNESCO Sites in 7 Days

A Rhine River cruise from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Basil, Switzerland immerses travelers in history with five UNESCO Heritage Sites in three countries.

Photos by Thomas M. Mueller

There are a number of significant sites along the Rhine River and the cruise we took with Viking River Cruises was an excellent option to comfortably experience history and culture (and for a good value). The cruise started in Amsterdam, Netherlands and traveled down the Rhine to our final destination in Basel, Switzerland.

Along the Rhine

We took our family of six on the cruise of the legendary Rhine from Aug. 26th to Sept. 2, 2012. Our thought was that the contained environment of the ship would draw everyone together — and it did. We ate lunch, dinner and most breakfasts as a family. In addition, what we did was predetermined and without stress to us since the crew saw to the details. Our only job was to enjoy ourselves.

The ship was pleasant, the tours interesting and the food excellent. Even the wine offered at dinner and lunch for no extra charge was respectable, and the beer was like an upgraded Heineken — superb.

Sunday — Netherlands

Boarding was easy. Porters met us at the dock to help us with our luggage. We were able to look at our rooms and have lunch on the ship if we chose. The afternoon of departure was free to further explore Amsterdam if desired.

Kinderdijk

Monday — Netherlands

After an onboard dinner, the ship made its way overnight to Kinderdijk, a village known for its windmills, some of which date from 1740. It is a UNESCO Heritage Site.

Since there were less than 200 passengers on our boat, we debarked quickly and were able to enjoy the demonstrations and tour without waiting in a line. Our surroundings were green with the water in the canals gently flowing; the experience was like going back a century.

Cologne Cathedral

Tuesday — Germany

The very next day we saw our next UNESCO Heritage Site, Cologne Dom (or cathedral). It was built over seven centuries, having been started in 1248 and completed in 1880. Our guide made the point that it is easy to remember the date of origin — start with one and double it for each of the next three numbers, 1248.

An interesting feature of the cathedral is the stained glass. It has been replaced out of necessity over the centuries. The original glass has a rich warm tone. The later substitutes are bright, even brassy. The difference stems from the fact that early stained glass was just that: stained throughout. Later, the glass was colored on the outside, giving an entirely different visual impression.

Ludwig Museum at night

Our family also enjoyed our visit to the Applied Arts Museum (Museum für Angewandte Kunst) near the cathedral; however, my husband went independently to the Ludwig Museum that exhibits modern art and said it was the blockbuster. The latter is easy to find as its entrance is just to the right of the main doors opening into the cathedral.

For those who have a sweet tooth, there is also the Chocolate Museum. Our two granddaughters went there with me. It was educational and we did learn that making good chocolate is no easy feat. Also, I had some of the best, fresh chocolate that I’ve ever tasted. But, it was crowded, so be aware. Also, there is an entrance fee, which was quite a surprise in that everyone who visits the museum must buy at least 10 or 20 euros worth of sweets at the end. The girls, age 10 and 13, certainly did after considerable deliberation.

Marksburg Castle on the Rhine

Wednesday — Germany

This was my favorite day because we saw Marksburg Castle on the Rhine, which was an unexpected treat. The castle is on a high hill and largely intact from the date it was built back in the 12th century. Other castles along the Rhine were destroyed during various wars but not the Marksburg. In the afternoon we passed through the most scenic area on the Rhine designated a UNESCO Heritage Site.

The student prison in Heidelberg

Thursday — Germany

Heidelberg, the student city, was our next attraction. A charming part of the university history is the student prison where the well-to-do scholars were held captive in style — at least for the time. This happened after protests by locals about their behavior, a kind of town-gown conflict. The students were evidentially proud of being held captive, a badge of honor of sorts among their peers. The prison is said to have started as early as the 16th century. After changing locations several times, it was shut down as recently as 1914.

The Heidelberg Castle

Other outstanding features that we saw on our ship organized tour included the Heidelberg community library and the castle. The former dates from 1421 and is the oldest in Germany. The Heidelberg Castle was started earlier, before the 13th century, and has been added on to ever since. Though part of its multiple components is in ruins, it is well worth seeing for a time-line of architecture. That this city is remembered as the center of Romanticism in Germany is no surprise.

Lastly, the Speyer Cathedral was our UNESCO Heritage Site for the day, which we could explore on our own or just admire from the ship.

The Strasbourg Cathedral

Friday — France

Strasbourg has political and historical clout. Not only is it the seat of the modern European parliament, but the ancient part of the city dates back to pre-Roman times. The city center is so important that it is a UNESCO Heritage site. We saw both on a morning tour.

In the afternoon we were on our own and chose to visit the Rohan Palace, which consists of a decorative arts, fine arts and archeological museum, each on a different floor. It is to the right of the front doors of the Strasbourg Cathedral, which is where the morning tour ended. The palace dates from the first half of the 18th century and initially was the home of a Bishop Prince. The decorative and fine arts were of more interest, in part because they were not sequestered in a basement like the ancient objects. Also, the signage for the latter was not in English.

Late in the day we even had half an hour for the history museum in the city’s old slaughterhouse. It was included on our ticket for the Rohan Palace. The free audio guide was in English and frankly the self-guided tour was a lot of fun.

The tile roofs are consistent with Colmar's medieval buildings.

Saturday — Germany and France

Seeing Germany’s Black Forest, even in the mist, was striking. It was something I would not miss, but by necessity we did have to stop at a tourist trap for 45 minutes (this was the only one on our entire trip). The guide told us why. The rest was required by German law for the bus driver, so we had to partake as well.

The afternoon in Colmar, France was a contrast in that we could walk around and had options, unlike our morning bus trip. We spent the time in central Colmar, a delightful medieval city. Just walking around was such a treat that my husband and I did not even go to the Unter Linden Museum with its Isenheim Altarpiece.

Our daughter and family went to the Bartholdi Museum and enjoyed it. Bartholdi was the French sculptor who designed the statue of Liberty.

Positives

• Purchased on a two-for-one sale, so good value; the sale continues

• Tours well planned and interesting with guides excellent to above average

• Food outstanding

• Accommodations comfortable; we only had to pack/unpack once

What to be aware of

• Children must be nine or above to go on the trip

• Our son-in-law was in a room where the air conditioning did not seem to be working adequately. This suggests that it might be better to choose a spring or fall cruise where comfort is not 100% dependent on temperature control in the room

• To my knowledge, the Rhine Cruise that we took is the only Viking Cruise with five UNESCO Heritage sites on it; the other tours Viking offers may be just as interesting, but not have this heritage stamp of approval

• Internet access was both slow and spotty