Viking’s Rhine River Cruise Top Shore Excursions
Note: This post was updated in September 2023 from the original 2017 report.
In May 2017, we sailed a Rhine River cruise from Basel, Switzerland north to Amsterdam with Viking River Cruises, a classic European river cruise. Amazingly, this Rhine cruise was our fifth river cruise, fourth with Viking, and we were still surprised at how much we enjoyed the river cruising experience.
What we appreciate about river cruising is the combination of onboard relaxation and interesting shore excursions. Viewing the world from the unique perspective of the river is always alluring. (It reminds me of canoeing the Mississippi when I was young, marveling at how familiar places became suddenly exotic seen from the water surface.) But it’s this blend of easy-going life on the ship with charge-ahead discoveries on shore that makes this type of travel appealing.
Viking’s river cruise ships offer very pleasant accommodations in both private and public areas. Spacious and well-designed staterooms all have verandas, and guests revel in their moments gazing at the natural beauty along the river, the storybook towns, or far-off medieval castles towering over picturesque wine country. The public spaces are great for leisure time. A second dining area on the top deck is a casual alternative to the main dining room and can double as a morning fitness area to supplement the fitness room onboard. Large lounges are great for meeting friends or tucking into a corner with a book. The lounge space is used, too, for first night introductions or featured local performers or artisans.
While you may want to have more free time to explore local towns and customs, river cruising has the advantage of being able to restock local foods and wine daily. Viking staff enjoyed offering us local cuisine, their best selection of fine wines, and samples of local cheese. Yum.
Table of Contents
Choosing your Shore Excursions
Viking’s Rhine Getaway Cruise was a good example of shore excursions done right. The day trips and walking tours might introduce guests to a new destination or impart new information about places visited before. The challenge of any river cruise itinerary is offering enough substance along with enough free time, offering plenty of options without distracting from the the primary story about local culture and history. We appreciate the informative introductions to small towns along the way, and imagine that we can return to the most intriguing places at another time to dive deeper.
The Viking Rhine River cruise touches on four countries: Switzerland, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Maybe for this reason, the Rhine River Getaway offers more shore tour selections than other cruises we’ve taken. Most shore excursions are included, some are available for an additional cost. In this case, we even needed to make some tough decisions between conflicting opportunities.
It’s recommended you book your excursions in advance and, yes, the process of pre-selecting day tours is part of the fun. But we like to leave room for flexibility. Viking cruise ship program directors provide more detail each evening about the next day’s tours, and it’s usually quite easy to add or change tours if desired. One guest, with the help of the friendly crew, arranged a bike tour to enjoy the countryside on his own. Personalize your day tours if you wish.
Here are favorite tours we took and want to recommend to you.
Basel (four days on our own)
We don’t generally book the extension tours, but we do love to arrive a few days early and explore on our own.
The Basel airport allows you to exit to France or to Switzerland, so choose your ATM machine accordingly. We stayed at an AirBnB in Basel for four nights, walked and walked, made good use of the trams and buses, and took in the Town Hall, the Museum of Fine Arts, and a couple good meals. A highlight for us was enjoying a sunny spring day along the river with tons of people doing the same. Check out the helpful Basel tourism site before you go, get the worthwhile BaselCard City Pass, and you’ll have an easy time getting around. (Hotels offer transit passes, too, at no charge.)
Tip: if at all possible, arrive early and be rested in the proper time zone before your cruise starts.
Some of our choices from the list of Viking River Cruises optional excursions:
Breisach, Germany (walking tour on our own)
This historic town of Breisach on the German side of the Rhine was one of the little surprises we’d never have discovered outside this cruise approach. Check out Tom photo essay of our morning in Breisach. While we enjoyed our stroll, most others went on an included bus tour to the Black Forest.
Colmar Pocket (optional WWII tour)
Also from our dock in Breisach, an afternoon excursion to the town of Colmar (France) was included. Instead of the Colmar city tour, we chose the more off-the-beaten-path day trip to Colmar Pocket. We’d visited the historic town before and we knew Tom’s Dad had fought and been wounded in the long battle at Colmar. Our local guide, Malcolm, was exceptional, both knowledgeable and passionate. It was especially impressive to see the vast landscape of the valley, and understand that soldiers were totally exposed in the open winter landscape. The villages, just a couple kilometers apart, are still marked by church spires that served as the lookout and sniper perches. We visited the site of Audie Murphy’s one-man stand and spotted children playing in a park nearby as our guide described the details of that heroic event. It wasn’t lost on anyone that we were being treated to this history on Victory in Europe (VE) Day, May 8.
US Army Lieutenant Audie Murphy won the Medal of Honor for his heroic one man stand against a German counter attack at Colmar. He went on to become a movie star, based on the popularity his medal garnered him after the war.
If you haven’t been to this part of the world, do take the guided tour of Colmar and enjoy the half-timbered houses and, if you are lucky, the Christmas markets.
Strasbourg (included walking tour plus optional Alsatian Wine tour)
One of our favorite European cities, we didn’t mind retracing our steps to see this town center again. The cathedral is one of the world’s best and our tour guide here was very good, walking us through interesting streets while narrating the historic importance of the Alsatian city here on the border of France and Germany. For those who wanted more free time on their own, shuttles ran between the ship and center city throughout the afternoon.
Of the two optional tours in Strasbourg, I chose the Alsatian Winery visit, and was educated and enticed by the tasting at Robert Blanck winery, details here. Good choice, Kris, and a simple one since we were in the midst of a world class wine region.
Tom took his typical cathedral tour in Strasbourg, and I have to say that on this visit, and a previous one, he came away with some pretty good photos. Don’t miss the crazy astronomical cuckoo clock in the Strasbourg cathedral.
Heidelberg and Rüdesheim: Our Day Off (we skipped this included tour)
Guests reported they’d have liked more time on their own to walk the old town. It’s a gorgeous city, but we’d visited recently, so we took the day off and enjoyed the views from the river while catching up on work. Later, in Rüdesheim, we disembarked to stretch our legs. (Others had opted for special wine tasting dinner choices on shore, reserved in advance.) Nothing on our Rüdesheim stroll tempted us, so we returned to our ship for dinner and were then treated to a glass-blowing display on board by a local artisan. Yes, I made a purchase, how convenient.
Tip: Don’t feel you have to do it all. Skip out of shore excursions for at least half a day and enjoy the ship. Treasure your free time. Watch a movie, read a book, or sit on the sun deck and do nothing.
Middle Rhine (scenic cruising, plus optional Romans Along the Rhine tour)
After checking out the various castles along the middle Rhine as we sailed, we opted to visit the Roman Mine at Meurin.. It’s a recent addition to Viking’s menu of options, so it may not be sufficiently annotated in your brochure. But it’s a really cool Roman mining site, partially excavated to show how and where Romans quarried building materials in the time of Augustus up through the Middle Ages. Hands-on exhibits demonstrate the mechanics devised for heavy lifting and everyday life: pulleys, cranes, construction and finishing tools, and mills. Recommended.
Others opted to visit the Marksburg fortress or walk around Koblenz.
Cologne (included city tour; optional palace tour)
We were excited to visit Cologne for the first time, and again our Viking shore excursion guide was top notch. While Tom stayed around the ship and river banks of Cologne in the afternoon, I visited the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Brühl Palaces, an optional tour of the 18th Century Augustusburg Palace and Falkenlust hunting lodge. I learned a thing or two about falconry, and enjoyed the country air, if not the Bavarian Rococo style.
Cologne has all the vibrance of a top university city, because it is. Based on our introductory tour, I hope to visit Cologne again next time I’m in Germany. There’s more Kolsch beer to sample and more museums to visit, always. The landmark Cologne Cathedral was photographed like crazy by passengers as we slipped away from the old town after dark.
The Netherlands (included UNESCO Kinderdijk windmills tour)
By now our cruise was making its way through the canals, though it’s hard to discern where managed rivers end and canals begin. This included tour of windmills exceeded expectations, as we could go inside the mills and see how the family/operators lived.
I’m sorry to have missed the optional Dutch Cheese Making tour. By all accounts it was a great tasting and a wonderful opportunity to chat with local producers.
We finished by spending a few days on our own in Amsterdam.
Like other good river cruises, this Rhine Getaway by Viking offers great experiences on shore and well as on board. A variety of scenery, cities big and small, special selections of food, wine and beer tastings, and a range of cultural experiences: that’s what we like–and why we keep coming back. We’ve been introduced to the Rhine and we’ll draw on on these shore excursions as we plan future travel.
We were joined on the Rhine River cruise by a handful of other travel writers, bloggers, photographers and videographers. It’s fun to see what everyone else brings to the party! We got a kick out of their company, and hope you’ll enjoy their takes on Viking’s Rhine River Cruise Getaway:
by Monte Mathews, Chewing The Fat
by Nancy Monson, More Time to Travel
by Sandra Gordon, Second Chance Travels
Albert Stumm, AAA Northeast (use zipcode 11530)
by Sher, Sher She Goes
Maarten Heilbron, YouTube Video
Lynne Harty, et al Vimeo Video
Note: We were hosted on this cruise by Viking River Cruises who did a fine job keeping us happy on board and ashore. Opinions expressed here are the authors’ alone, and have not been reviewed, approved nor edited by Viking or any of these venues. Also, we extended our trip, starting in Amsterdam, with train travel to Germany and back to France provided by our friends at Eurail.
You can also get more Lowdown on Travel with Eurail here.
And you can read about our Russian river cruise with Viking, too.
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