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The view from the Danube

A cruise along the Danube, Europe’s second-longest river, offers the chance to see Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and Prague from a new perspective. By Gillian Thornton.

There’s something intensely relaxing about seeing the world from water level. It’s the chance to enjoy a duck’s-eye view of wildlife, to observe the comings and goings of boating folk and to glide quietly into the bustling heart of a city or three.

Disembarking in Budapest, make your way to Fisherman’s Bastion. Built at the turn of the 20th century, this hilltop monument with its seven towers, sweeping staircases, pillars, porticoes and elegant arches commemorates the medieval fishermen who once trudged up the steep slope to Buda’s fish market. Today, Fisherman’s Bastion is one of the must-see sights of the Hungarian capital, which combines lofty Buda on the left bank with the unchallenging terrain of level Pest across the river.

Behind Fisherman’s Bastion is Matthias Church, with its coloured roof tiles and elegant spires. Wander Buda’s ancient streets and head along Castle Hill to the Royal Palace, now home to the city’s History Museum and Hungarian National Gallery.

Back down at river level, the newer city of Pest offers attractions of its own. You can’t miss the flamboyant Hungarian Parliament building, modelled on our own Houses of Parliament. Take a guided tour by day, but be sure not to miss the sight of its intricate riverside façade bathed in golden floodlights after dark.

Explore the design boutiques of buzzing Fashion Street; stroll the quaysides of the Danube; or follow the tree-lined boulevard of Andrassy Avenue to Heroes’ Square with its magnificent statues of legendary leaders. And before you step back on board, relax over a scrumptious Hungarian cake in a Budapest café such as Gerbeaud or Szamos.

From the Hungarian capital, the Danube winds westward into Slovakia and the capital city of Bratislava. The borders with Austria and Hungary are both within ten kilometres of the city and you can see three countries from the hilltop castle. From 1536 to 1783, Bratislava was also capital of Hungary, later falling within the Eastern Bloc from 1948 to 1993. You’ll find joining a city tour is a great introduction to the fluid boundaries of Central Europe. Enjoy the grand Habsburg architecture, quaint cobbled streets and Gothic-style cathedral.

Heading west again, the Danube threads its way through pretty villages and vineyards to Vienna, capital of modern Austria and base for the mighty Habsburg Empire for six centuries. The city’s famous Ringstrasse is a broad avenue encircling the historic heart and passing many of Vienna’s most famous buildings. There’s more cake here too, with cafés around every corner.

The Schönbrunn Palace is the last word in 17th-century bling. In 1683, Turkish forces destroyed the original medieval hunting lodge and Emperor Leopold I commissioned a new summer residence modelled on Versailles.

These three very different capital cities are highlights of most Danube cruises, but ports of call vary and a holiday on the water can also be combined neatly with a short city stay. Capital of the Czech Republic, Prague is just a four-hour coach transfer from the port at Nuremberg.

Prague combines many different styles of architecture, and more great high-level views. The hilltop castle complex includes St Vitus Cathedral as well as pretty Golden Lane, once home to medieval goldsmiths and now to cottages and craft boutiques. Stand on the castle terrace for sweeping views across the meanderings of the Vitava to the rooftops of the Old Town.

The first stone bridge was built across the river in the 12th century and the broad arches have been repaired several times after flood damage. Pass beneath its twin gateways to enjoy imposing statues, lively street entertainers and pavement artists. Then discover Prague’s fabulous Art  Nouveau heritage; its Bohemian craft traditions and the legend of Good King Wenceslas, leaving time to linger in Old Town Square, one of Europe’s best public spaces with its elegant buildings and flamboyant churches.

Here the astronomical clock on the wall of City Hall makes a great photo opportunity, but don’t get sidetracked and miss one of Prague’s most memorable views. The nearby door leads to the lift that takes visitors to the narrow terrace round the bell tower for a panoramic view of rooftops and gables, domes, turrets and towers. The perfect counterpoint to all those close-up views from water level.

Explore the Danube on a Saga river cruise

Join us on a Danube river cruise and discover these delights for yourself.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.