Days 1-2 Budapest, Hungary
Cast your eye over the Budapest skyline, and you’ll see all the makings of a world-class city and striking photograph: domes and spires, bridges and lampposts, splendid architecture in the foreground, rolling hills in the back, and the Danube River placidly curving through it, providing a reflective surface for sunsets and city lights. Look closer, and the treasures of Budapest—Hungary’s capital and the largest metropolis—really come to light. Castle Hill is at the top of most visitors’ lists, a UNESCO-listed district hosting Buda Castle, Trinity Square, Matthias Church and Fishermen’s Bastion. The area is also residential, with 18th-century houses, cobblestone streets and few cars, thanks to a strict vehicular ordinance, giving you a real sense of what the city must have been like ages ago. Budapest is full of history, originally a Roman settlement, formed as a unified city when Buda and Pest joined in 1873, overtaken by various invading forces over the centuries, and today an interesting goulash of local culture and foreign influences. Take a seat in a Turkish-era bath or savor rich Esterházy torte in a genteel coffee house to experience the many sides of a city that charms from both sides of the Danube. Overnight in Budapest on Day 1; depart Budapest in the evening of Day 2.
Day 3 Bratislava, Slovakia
Slovakia’s capital city may be the country’s buzzing political and economic center, but it is also a historic gem that stirs the imagination. A maze of narrow, cobblestone streets wind around colorful 18th-century buildings, and shade-covered sidewalk cafes beckon weary—or simply hungry—travelers to linger over a meal and enjoy people watching. Museums, cathedrals and palaces are edifying locales to spend some time, while photography buffs will want to snap images of the medieval castle that looms over the city with a majestic grace. For those looking for more contemporary sights, Bratislava boasts a pulsating modern art scene, as well as some outstanding examples of Communist-era architecture.
Days 4-5 Vienna, Austria
Layered and elegant, with elements of cozy and grand, musical and visual might be the best way to characterize Vienna—or one of many ways, as this imperial city surely can inspire endless lines of poetic descriptions. Once the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and forever known for its distinguished roster of composers who either were born or lived and worked here—including Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, both Strausses, Liszt and Brahms—Vienna finds itself at the very center of European culture, even as it sits near the border of the Czech republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Turn to a blank page to memorialize your own impressions of this grand city, remarking on its manicured gardens, ornate architecture—especially that of the famed Ringstrasse—intimate bistro pubs called beisln and a certain flourish that can only be called Vienna.
Day 6 Dürnstein, Austria; Melk, Austria
Considered as one of the most visited tourist spots in Wachau Valley, Dürnstein is a robust wine-growing region that sits perfectly alongside the Danube river. Durnstein Castle, the region's famous architectural highlight derives its name from duerr meaning "dry" and stein meaning "stone". This landmark sits atop a rocky mountain, high above the damp conditions of the Danube at its base as it overlooks the town. With its picture-perfect scenery, Durnstein's beauty is enhanced by verdant forests, rolling hills, and thriving vineyards that ensconce the town. Take in the sights, sip some of the region's local wines and simply enjoy a leisurely day in this classic, postcard-worthy European town.
Best known for its fortified baroque Benedictine monastery, Melk Abbey, the town of Melk boasts an assortment of smaller gems. Among them, the city’s riverside location, serene and regal with a ribbon of wooded groves giving way to the lovely village. Cobbled lanes and a petite size make for a pleasant stroll with a chance to discover its 16th-century Town Hall, or Rathaus, in the center of town, and Haus am Stein, or House at the Rock. Built in the 15th century, the vine-covered abode is Melk’s oldest building.
Day 7 Passau, Germany
At the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers, Passau is also situated at a meeting of cultures. The town began as a Roman settlement, enjoying the rising tide of influence as the largest bishopric in the Holy Roman Empire and enduringly vibrant as a hub for various trade and manufacturing pursuits, including salt, swords and ideas. Experience Passau’s charm as you the wander the cobbled streets of Old Town, gaze upon arched bridges and Italianate manses and encounter magnificent St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the New Bishop’s Residence.
Days 8-9 Regensburg, Germany
Situated at the northernmost bend of the Danube and boasting a well-preserved medieval center, Regensburg finds itself not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site but also a traveler’s favorite destination. This charming town came through World War II unscathed, with its 1,400 or so ancient buildings standing as regal testament to days gone by. In fact, Regensburg can trace its history to the Celtic age. Other pages of its interesting story include chapters as a major trading hub in Roman times and, in the centuries following, a flourishing city that displayed its prosperity and confidence with embellished churches, stately homes and sturdy towers to protect it all. Today, nothing can shield Regensburg from the admiration of visitors who develop an enduring fondness for this riverside treasure, complete with elaborate cathedral, quintessential clock tower, multi-arched bridge and multi-faceted personality.
Day 10 Nuremberg, Germany
Although this Bavarian city dates to the 11th century, Nuremberg is probably best known for a more recent history centered on the Nuremburg Trials, the military tribunals that took place after World War II. Much of the city was destroyed by Allied bombs, but many of the buildings, including the medieval Nuremberg Castle, have been painstakingly restored—using the original stones, no less. Nuremberg today is a joyous city, famous for its bratwurst, dark beer and spectacular Christmas Market. In fact, it’s Christmas all year long at the popular Handwerkerhof, or “crafts yard.— Here in the shadow of the city’s half-timbered buildings and old walls and towers, artisans craft toys, glassware and holiday trinkets to the delight of visitors naughty and nice.
Day 11 Bamberg, Germany
Unfolding over seven hills, each crowned by a church, Bamberg is often called “Franconian Rome.” Locals often reverse the phrase, playfully claiming that Rome is the “Italian Bamberg.” However you look at it, Bamberg’s medieval beauty is unrivalled, with the entire Old Town listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Wandering the impossibly cute cobbled lanes, aim your camera at half-timbered buildings topped by steep roofs and bordered by the waters of the river, in places whooshing around buildings’ very foundations. Arched bridges and summer-blooming flowers add to the storybook charm, while the town’s famed Rauchbier, a smoked beer first brewed in 1536, lends a celebratory air. If you prefer sampling Bavarian suds to snapping pictures, you’re in for a treat: Bamberg has more breweries than Munich.
Day 12 Würzburg, Germany
In a mere 20 minutes, nearly 80 percent of Wurzburg was destroyed by a World War II bombing raid, rendering to rubble much of this old and lovely city, for centuries a showcase for the wealth and influence of the resident prince-bishops. While thought was given to leaving the ruins where they lay as a tribute to the once-flourishing city and painful reminder of war, a fortuitous second thought prompted rebuilding. Now restored, Wurzburg tells the interesting tale of its founding in the 10th century, subsequent rise in prominence, enduring connection to the Main River and long-held traditions in winemaking. Impressive architectural wonders include the Residenz, one of the most splendid palaces in Europe, and the town church, one of the oldest in Germany. But many will tell you that the true highlight is time spent rubbing elbows with the locals, who are likely to be part of the large student population making worthwhile study of keeping Wurzburg lively and looking to a bright future.
Day 13 Miltenberg, Germany
Most medieval towns are well preserved not because they’ve enjoyed centuries of uninterrupted peace and prosperity, but because they’ve been reconstructed after a fire or similar devastation—here in Germany, devastation most likely a result of World War II bombing raids. Miltenberg has escaped the damage of both roaring flame and raging war, remaining authentically historic in its full, fairytale bloom. This rose of the Romantic Road is also blessed to be off the beaten track, a curious position given the town’s charming and truly ancient timber-framed buildings, fortified walls, forested glades, cobbled streets and hilltop castle built by the archbishops of Mainz.
Day 14 Koblenz, Germany
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.
Day 15 Cologne, Germany
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 16-17 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 16; disembarkation in the morning of Day 17.