Day 1 Basel, Switzerland
On the three-border intersection of Switzerland, Germany and France and unfolding in two sections from the banks of the Rhine, Basel has an international flair, a cultural vibrancy and is picturesque besides. A medieval town center invites exploration by foot, while an abundance of museums and galleries suggest an indoor stroll amid works of art and relics of history. The Museum of Fine Arts is home to the world’s oldest art collection accessible to the public. The city itself hosts Switzerland’s oldest university, dating to 1460. Antiquity may be Basel’s strong suit, as it is in much of Europe, but this corner of Switzerland also reveals a more modern countenance: Architects Herzog & de Meuron, best known for the design of the Tate Modern in London and the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, and Frank Gehry of Bilbao Guggenheim Museum fame have contributed their considerable talents to buildings here.
Day 2 Strasbourg, France
When you glimpse the steep-peaked, half-timbered buildings, the place waters of narrow canals, flowers blooming on balconies and bridges, and old towers standing sentry over the scene, you know you have stepped into Strasbourg – either that, or the very pretty pages of a fairytale. The capital of the Alsace region and seat of the European Parliament, Strasbourg is simply one of the most photogenic old towns in existence. It boasts a breathtakingly gorgeous Gothic cathedral (with the tallest cathedral tower in France), twisting alleyways, a sweet collection of the aforementioned half-timbered buildings and a charm that oozes from virtually every cozy corner of Grande Île, or “Large Island,” the first city center to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Day 3 Mannheim, Germany
In 1885, “driving a Benz” meant operating a three-wheeled, open-air carriage glorified by the world’s first purpose-built, rear-mounted internal combustion engine – the brainchild of Karl Benz, innovator and engineer extraordinaire. The name Benz is still synonymous with automotive innovation, of course, and the city of Mannheim is where this legacy began. It is still home to Daimler, the automotive giant with whom Mercedes-Benz eventually merged. Also born in Mannheim was the “man-powered running machine” (better known as a bicycle), the Lanz Bulldog tractor and first rocket-powered aircraft, firmly establishing Mannheim as the place for innovation and industry. Mannheim is actually the place for many things. A university town on the banks of the Rhine and Neckar, Mannheim is alive with hubs of diverse food, drink and shopping, as well as a thriving art and musical culture.
Day 4 Rüdesheim, Germany; Koblenz, Germany
If Rüdesheim’s scenic location on the Rhine Gorge doesn’t sweep you off your feet, then the town’s medieval Old Town with its half-timbered buildings and narrow lanes, especially the Drosselgasse overflowing with charming shops and taverns, surely will. Still more that promises to enchant and delight is the region’s renowned Rieslings, produced here for centuries from vineyards dating to Roman times. A glass of white wine or the other local specialty, Asbach brandy, sipped amid historic surroundings can make the heart flutter, not necessarily from the effects of the spirits but from the simple beauty of one of Germany’s, if not the world’s, most romantic locales.
During the holidays, the Rüdesheim Christmas Market takes center stage. Try some deliciously made Rüdesheim Coffee, locally made with Asbach Uralt Brandy and whipped cream, exclusively offered during the season. With more that 100 kiosks and stalls offering local wares and seasonal gifts, there is much to see at this annual event—from local Rüdesheim coffee to global flavors like Finnish specialties and even Mongolian food fare.
Located where the Rhine and Moselle rivers and three low mountain ranges meet, Koblenz has a leg up in the scenery department. Add to that the city’s 2,000-year-old history, hilltop fortress and squares lined by classic Germanic architecture and you have a place ready made for photographs. You might start by aiming your lens at the Deutsches Eck, or German Corner, where the rivers merge around a corner of land marked by a monument to Emperor William I. Ambling along the river promenade and exploring the town’s narrow lanes, you might encounter medieval churches, flower-filled parks, sidewalk cafes and perhaps a weinstube, or wine tavern, an ideal venue for sipping dry Riesling and drinking in the atmosphere. Overnight in Koblenz.
Day 5 Koblenz, Germany
Day 6 Cologne, Germany - Cruising the Rhine River
A scan of Cologne’s skyline offers a short-hand of a long essay of architecture, varying from the space-needle-type Rhine Tower to the avant-garde buildings along the river to the spectacular spires of the cathedral. One look at the magnificent church and you can’t help but draw a breath of amazement—the structure is enormous and intricately glorious, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Germany’s most visited landmark. Peel your eyes away from the famed Kölner Dom, as it is locally called, to discover other architectural notables, including remains of the Roman wall, a modern museum complex, the contemporary philharmonic hall, cozy beerhalls and the span of the Hohenzollern Bridge, reconstructed after the war.
Days 7-8 Amsterdam, Netherlands
Everyone has an image of Amsterdam. For some, it’s small boats gliding on the canals and locals two-wheeling on bikes to and from work and, as frequently, to meet friends for drinks. For others, it’s gabled buildings leaning, seemingly precariously, over cobbled streets and cozy taverns illuminated by candles. Still others imagine tulips in bloom and the colors, both muted and vibrant, of the paintings Vermeer, Van Gogh and Rembrandt. All images are true and even more beguiling when experienced in person. Sit a spell in a convivial cafe, explore world-class museums and feel the significance of a unique history—one of a city reclaimed from the sea, rising in prestige and influence as merchants built trade and wealth, and forever known for its attics and attitudes that offered refuge from war. Narrow streets and great manses tell the story not only in images but with the aroma of appeltaart, a taste of the avant garde in newly constructed buildings and a feeling of warmth from the amiable locals. Overnight in Amsterdam on Day 7; disembarkation in the morning of Day 8.