The Danube is a river steeped in history, the banks of which have seen countless empires ebb and flow. With it sources in the German Black Forest, and its churning headwaters at the Romanian Black Sea coast, the Danube runs 2800 kilometres and spans the full length of Europe’s architectural, linguistic and culinary diversity.
Once a long-standing Roman frontier and now brimming with bathers and boat tours, Europe’s second-largest river has a wealth of stunning destinations. So grab a paddle and join us as we visit four of our favourite cities of the Danube.
Our first stop is Regensburg. Once the medieval capital of Bavaria, and now a city replete with bratwurst and beer; its gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage town centre is home to Europe’s finest Gothic marvels. Sights include the medieval masterpiece, Dom St. Peters, the stately villas of Bavarian princes, and a charming 12th Century bridge, once crossed by crusading Teutonic knights on their way to the Holy Lands.
Formerly a juncture of North-South trade and today one of Germany’s most dynamic economies, Regensburg is a compact introduction to Bavarian culture and competes admirably with its larger, more well-known sibling, Munich.
Once the seat of the sprawling Habsburg empire, Austria’s majestic capital is a pinnacle of baroque and neoclassical achievement. The extravagant Schönbrunn and Belvedere palaces are breathtaking, but it’s the leafy open streets and the eccentric Austrian character that give this city an identity wholly separate from its German relatives.
Behind the columns and State Operas of an imperial capital, now enjoying its retirement, you’ll find schnitzels so large they flop off the plate, and dank old Coffee Houses with piles of newspapers and whipped cream everything. At the Spanish Riding School crystal chandeliers hang above trotting dressage horses, while on the islands of the Danube beer drinking nudists pace the parks and beaches. As a confluence of art and empire, Vienna is plush with mansions and monuments, but the rollerblading, pram-bound mothers and the indecently sweet strudels make the stately pomp and grandeur all the more charming.
Downstream from Vienna, on the banks of the Danube, is the achingly romantic Hungarian capital, Budapest. Castles and palaces crest the rolling hills of Buda, while in pot-holed Pest, sprawling all-night ‘ruin-bars’ rise from the rubble of communist neglect.
Once too a powerful imperial centre, you’ll find a Gothic Parliament that rivals Westminster, ornate thermal baths, and the enormous St. Stephen’s Basilica. Now somewhat worn, Budapest’s chipped facades and grubby streets are thoroughly alive; the food is rich and cheap, and at every turn is a pop-up market or hipster boutique. When night falls and the landmarks are lit up, their reflections shimmer on the darkened Danube, and as you cross one of Budapest’s proud old bridges, it is a view that’s hard not to fall for.
Our last stop is the ancient city of Belgrade. For centuries at the seam of two opposing empires, Serbia’s capital is a unique and vibrant blend of eastern and western influence. Grand Orthodox churches of Byzantine flare, sit beside stoic Ottoman minarets while the rustic eastern cuisine is served before western facades.
As the former capital of communist Yugoslavia, Belgrade was for decades the centre of discord and conflict in Europe. Happily, today Serbia welcomes tourists with open arms. There’s an endless array of crumbling parapets, socialist monuments, and blustery museums to explore; one of which houses a downed American stealth bomber and Stalin’s jewel-encrusted sabre. With a character that’s charmingly quaint and streets that are rich in history, Belgrade is well worth a visit.