Cruising the Rhine (Rhein, in German) River may be the perfect antidote to a Type-A lifestyle. There’s nowhere to go. There’s nothing to do. Your simple choice for the day: upstream or downstream.
And hopefully, somewhere between the steep, vineyard-covered slopes, hilltop castles, and nestled, medieval villages, you’ll release a big sigh of tension into your glass of Pilsener or Riesling. All of a sudden, that slow travel movement sweeping across Europe will begin to make a lot of sense.
“We believe that we can add meaning to life by making things go faster. We have an idea that life is short — and that we must go fast to fit everything in. But life is long. The problem is that we don’t know how to spend our time wisely. And so we burn it.” – Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement, Fast Company, April 2000
Like its sister, the Slow Food movement, Slow Travel is the practice of staying longer, moving slowly, interacting with the local population, and overall making decisions that sustain rather than disrupt the local culture.
Are you tempted to rush through four top museums in a day in order to say you’ve “seen” Paris before returning to a hotel that’s a carbon copy of those in other world capitals? There is no chastisement nestled in my sarcasm: That was me as a college student, determined to make the most of my Eurorail Pass. For dinner in the City of Lights, I settled for the only hot food I could afford: a Whopper! Sad, but oh-so-true. Later, I couldn’t remember much about the cities I visited, and felt like the American tourist who was mocked in the movie A Room With a View: “Guess Rome was where we saw the yellow dog.”
Instead, how about spending a few days getting lost in the neighborhoods while staying at an apartment or family-run guest house? In an age of increasing globalization, low-impact travel is as essential to preserving the concept of “local” as conservation efforts are to preserving our animal species.
And the Rhine River is a great place to try it out!
(For more on this topic, see the text box in my post on Italy’s best travel secret.)
Here are some tips for getting the most out of your German travel on the Rhine:
Where should I go?
The Upper Middle Rhine Valley, otherwise known as the “Middle Rhine,” “Romantic Rhine,” or “Rhine Gorge,” is considered the most picturesque part of the river. The 65-kilometer stretch between Koblenz and Rudesheim (near Mainz) in Germany is one big UNESCO World Heritage Site. See this map of the Rhine River to help get your bearings.
Consider staying at a town somewhere in the middle so you can explore both directions on a river boat. (Yes, I’m a big fan of “floating away your stress.” Check out the post I wrote raving about the houseboats on the backwaters of Kerala, India.) Our choice was a town called Oberwesel.
Do Rhine River cruises cost a lot of money?
The short answer: no. It’s true that a quick search for Rhine cruises returns thousands of expensive results. And the destination is so popular that people continue to pay high figures for cruises that sell out far in advance. But if you follow the locals, you’ll see there’s another way.
Hop-on, hop-off Rhine River boat cruises allow infinite flexibility and an entire day of sightseeing for under 30 euro (via the KD Rhine Pass, but you can also book shorter voyages separately for greater savings: schedules here). You’ll find choices ranging from triple-decker sightseeing catamarans to old-fashioned steamships (the “Goethe”), and all offer food and drink on board. Most provide recorded, bilingual information about the most famous landmarks along the way for a complete river tour. We were there midweek in September and never needed advance reservations.
*Tip: To increase the distance you can travel in a day, consider taking a train for your (faster) return journey.
They even offer special Christmas market cruises, where you float from village to village enjoying the unique offerings of the season. Imagine kicking back with a blanket and some gluewein, and watching the castles light up at night! It’s a surefire way to feel merry in no time.
Where should I stay?
Rhine hotels are plentiful, ranging from luxe castle lodging to overnight cruises to – yes – Best Westerns. If you’ve got your heart set on any of those, definitely book it for a night. But to get the most out of your experience, do what the locals do.
Staying at a guest house, or gasthaus, is the best way to experience local life in Germany. They’re charming, usually family-run, and often serve delicious homemade meals. True, you’ll give up certain conveniences (Germans don’t use washcloths, they usually have very firm separate twin-size beds instead of king beds, and you’ll likely need to check your big, old-fashioned room key at the front desk when you leave). What you’ll get in return is a warm welcome from people with extensive knowledge of the area, the chance to meet more German guests, a very clean room with traditional perks (think warm, fluffy duvets), and a chance to glimpse how the locals think and vacation.
Our top recommendation? Gasthaus Stahl on the outskirts of Oberwesel, which is well-positioned for cruises on the Rhine River in both directions. A working winery (weingut) and guest house run by the same family since 1859, it’s filled with quirky antiques. Their wine cellar, free and open 24-hours a day for guests, has top-quality Rieslings and other local varietals with price tags under 5 euro. And just a two-minute walk away, past houses offering boxes with apples free for the taking, you can stretch your legs in the vineyards themselves and get to know a piece of God’s country.
What’s more, meals here are an event. Our Rhine cruise package included half board, and we wished we could have stayed longer just to sample everything on the menu. If you don’t get a chance to stay here, definitely stop by for a meal. All of their dishes are homemade from local ingredients, and many of those come from their own farm (like homemade bratwurst). While you’re sound asleep, a new cake is being made each morning, in time for breakfast. In typical German style, they’re not too sweet, and filled with custard or whipped cream rather than frosting. Something about the taste was so fresh and luscious that I repeatedly complimented the baker. “It’s all in the eggs. They come from happy chickens,” she told me modestly.
What can I expect?
About 40 castles, dazzlingly vertical vineyards, clustered villages filled with half-timbered buildings, and more than enough revelry to go around. (Don’t think Germans are typically gregarious? Just find one on vacation.) For an especially festive atmosphere, check out the accordion bands on the Drosselgasse in Rüdesheim.
But for something equally cute but less overwhelmingly touristy, float downstream a few towns to Bacharach. You will see other tourists here – don’t get me wrong – but there’s also room to breathe. The ruins of an ancient wall ring the town and its several churches, and the town center is one of the oldest and best-preserved in the region. Sit at an outdoor cafe, enjoy the history surrounding you, and then look almost straight up to the vineyards rising above you.
Help! I’m going stir-crazy!
Can’t quite make a cold-turkey adjustment to slow travel? Feel the driving need to “do” something, at least for a day? No worries – there are plenty of options here:
- Hike through vineyards to towns and landmarks. Trails are clearly marked. Read up on some hiking options here.
- Take a miniature train through the hills near St. Goar to the Rheinfels castle.
- Ride a gondola lift from the towns of Rudesheim or Niederwald for an aerial view.
- Day trip to Germany’s gem capital, Idar-Oberstein, to see the church in the rock.
- Tour the plentiful castles and museums.
- Explore the picturesque town of Bacharach or the thriving cities of Mainz or Koblenz.
- Visit a German spa (see tips on my post about one of Germany’s most famous spas, the Friedrichsbad)
- Sipping a local wine or beer aboard an open-decked river boat
- A meal or kaffe mit kuchen (coffee with cake) at the Gasthaus Stahl
- The 14th century buildings of Bacharach
- A walk through the gently sloping wine country above the gorge
- If life gives you grapes- make Wine!!! (thebullockbus.wordpress.com)
- The best Christmas river cruises (telegraph.co.uk)
- Rüdesheim Christmas market: of legends and gingerbread men (telegraph.co.uk)
- See great Rhine scenery in our photo gallery
The Rhine flows from Grisons, in the Swiss Alps, to the North Sea in the Netherlands. Along the way, it forms the border of Lichtenstein and Austria, and passes Basel, Strasbourg, Mainz, Koblenz, Bonn, Cologne, Utrecht and Rotterdam.
- Day-cruising Germany’s Rhine River from Oberwesel to Rudesheim. Not a cloud in the sky; perfect for the open sun deck (14 euro each way)
- The Rhine is flanked by vineyards, w evidence of winemaking since Roman times. By 11am, looks like we’re the only ones not drinking
- This trip brings you back to a slower pace (about 14km in 2hrs). Another hillside castle around every bend guarding UNESCO heritage villages
- Today’s rundown: Bacharach is worth visiting, while Rüdesheim is overdone. Viewing it all from the water as castles drift by: priceless
- The 200yr-old Gasthaus Stahl, our inn in Oberwesel, is a working winery that serves up delicious, farm-raised meals and family hospitality
- Perfect jumping-off point for Rhine explorers + half-board package deals. What a steal! The food and wine alone is worth the price