River cruising in Europe is a more authentic and slower way to experience Europe’s major cities than traditional cruising. However, not many travelers know that there’s a style of cruising that goes even slower than your standard river cruise, one with even fewer people on board. Instead of major rivers like the Seine and the Danube, you travel down canals and small rivers and instead of a ship, you travel by barge.
What are holiday ships today, were once working barges that transported goods along smaller European waterways. These renovated hotel barges offer travelers a more intimate and much slower-paced style of cruising. Typically, you’ll find these ships on man-made canals or less busy rivers, which allows you to explore the nooks and crannies of a destination’s countryside, not just the big cities.
In Europe, barge cruising began on French canals and often has an emphasis on gourmet dining and wine tasting, but France isn’t the only place where you can hop aboard a barge. Here are some of the dreamiest destinations in Europe that are best seen by barge cruise.
Canal du Midi, France
The Canal du Midi might be unheard of to travelers who are unfamiliar with cruising in France, but in the world of barge cruising, it’s one of the top destinations. Winding through the Languedoc Region (now a part of Greater Occitania) from Toulouse to the Etang de Thau, this canal is the perfect way to experience the sunny side of France, located just north of the Pyrenees mountains. The region is the largest wine-producing area in the whole country, which means you’ll be passing by plenty of vineyards, with abundant opportunities to hop off for a tasting. You’ll also be able to experience many of the unique villages nearby, including the ancient-walled city of Carcassonne, the small town of Capestang, and Pezenas, a haven for shopaholics.
Caledonian Canal, Scotland
When it comes to appreciating the wild beauty of Scotland, it doesn’t get any better than an easygoing barge cruise along the Caledonian Canal. Along the route, you can visit iconic castles like Eilean Donan, walk through highland battlefields, and stop by the Glen Ord distillery for a whiskey tasting. Certain barge ships like the Spirit of Scotland, even offer specialized itineraries for golfers to play on famous courses in the region, including the Royal Dornach, which dates back to the year 1616.
With a capital famous for its canals, it’s no surprise that Holland offers a splendid opportunity to take a pleasure cruise aboard a barge. Whether you choose to start your cruise in Amsterdam or elsewhere, a cruise along Dutch waterways is a great way to dig into the Netherlands’ history and visit attractions like the vibrant Keukenhof Gardens. Delve into the Netherlands’ artistic history with an excursion to the town of Haarlem, which is home to a collection of Dutch Master paintings in the Frans Hals Museum, or the town of Leiden to visit the birthplace of Rembrandt.
Burgundy is the most popular barging region in all of Europe, and with 600 miles of waterways, it’s the destination to cruise if you’re looking for the most options. In Northern Burgundy, barge cruisers will find plenty of activity, including walking through the colorful villages and biking along the canal. Southern Burgundy offers an opportunity to enjoy more natural scenery and chateau visits. There are also three different canals in Burgundy popular for barge cruising: the Canal de Bourgogne, the Canal du Nivernais, and the Canal du Centre. Whichever route you choose, you can count on tasting some of the finest wines in the world.
Mosel River, Germany
A barge cruise in the Mosel River Valley near Germany’s western border offers the opportunity to explore the small Mosel River and the castles, forests, vineyards, and villages that make up this region. A Mosel River barge cruise gives opportunities to visit Trier, the oldest city in Germany; and Eltz Castle, a beautifully preserved castle that looks like something ripped straight from the pages of a fairytale.
A barge cruise in Champagne shows you so much more than tasting the world-famous bubbly drink in its namesake region. When you travel down the Canal de L’Aisne or the Canal du Marne et Saone, you’ll pass through royal cities like Reims, where French kings were once crowned, and military landmarks like Belleau Wood, a famous battle site from World War I. Champagne’s proximity to Paris also makes it the perfect destination for a traveler looking to stay close to the capital during a barge cruise. Some cruise itineraries even begin in Paris, sailing the Seine before cruising toward Champagne.
The River Thames, England
For a convenient place to start your barge cruise, look no further than the River Thames. On this vital river, you can travel from London to Oxford in luxury while visiting royal residences like Hampton Court and Windsor Castle, as well as picturesque cities like Cookham, the home of Sir Stanley Spencer, one of England’s greatest artists. Fans of the Royal Family should look for cruises that have special royal-themed itineraries. Beginning in 2019, Downton Abbey fans can even look forward to a special route, which includes a stop at the castle where the hit show was filmed.
It can be hard to decide between France and Germany for your barge cruise, but Alsace-Lorraine is the perfect compromise that blends German cross-timbered architecture with French joie de vivre. A barge cruise will take you through picturesque scenes along the Canal de la Marne or the Canal du Rhone, stopping in Strasbourg, Saverne, and Nancy, a city best known as the birthplace of the Art Nouveau movement. Another unique feature on the Alsace-Lorraine route is the Arzviller Barge Lift, a boat elevator that allows barges to traverse the Vosges mountains.
River Po and The Bianco Canal, Italy
In Italy, you’ll find barge cruising along the River Po and the Bianco Canal, with most itineraries leaving from Venice. On an Italian barge cruise, you’ll enjoy visits to villas and small art-filled cities like Chiogga, Ferrara, and Mantua. Like any visit to Italy, you can expect plenty of art history, but a barge cruise includes off-the-beaten-path stops like villas famous for hosting poets and well-persevered palazzos in undiscovered locales.
Shannon River, Ireland
Far from the busy crowds of Dublin, a barge cruise down the Shannon gives travelers a slow and easy way to see and savor the Irish countryside. With stops in small hamlets and villages like Killaloe, larger cities like Galway, and visits to ancient castles and monasteries, there’s plenty of interest for history buffs. However, the biggest highlight of a barge cruise on the Shannon is the chance to stop at the Kilbeggan Distillery, the world’s oldest licensed distillery. This route also offers the unique opportunity to moor next to the 6th-century monastery at Clonmacnoise, where you can literally step right off your barge and into history.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 10 Scenic River Cruises Anyone Will Love
- 8 Reasons You Should Go on a River Cruise
- 9 Secret European Islands
Jamie Ditaranto visited the Canal du Midi aboard The Athos courtesy of Barge Lady Cruises. Follow her on Instagram @jamieditaranto.
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