A kaleidoscope of color bursts above the Rhine River as flotillas of brightly lit boats ply the storybook setting. The crowd goes wild. The fireworks display, called Rhine in Flames, is one of many annual festivals along the ancient waterway. But there’s always been great fanfare in this European region whose spectacular scenery has fueled generations of poets, painters and composers.
This major European border river — whose Celtic name Renos means “raging flow” — spills into the North Sea from its source, a glacier in the Swiss Alps. Roughly 820 miles long, the nautical lifeline winds through Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands as it tugs at visitors’ heartstrings through a string of historic cities.
Cradled in a landscape mired in mountains, plateaus and terraced viniferous slopes, this chunk of Europa is molded as much by manmade forces as by nature. The wondrous scenery encompasses some of the Continent’s oldest wineries, fortresses, ancient castles and medieval villages. No river in Europe is richer in legends and myths than the Rhine.
No wonder a young Beethoven drew inspiration from its ebb and flow at his home in Bonn, Germany. The Middle Rhine from Bonn to Mainz courses 760 miles past medieval castles and villages, while the Upper Rhine Valley affords an easy way to visit Switzerland, France and Germany.
So kick back and get a feel for the Rhine. Experience romance and nostalgia in guided or self-guided tours via a scenic river cruise, culinary and wine tours, or cycling if time permits. Any major hub like Frankfurt, Basel, Strasbourg or Düsseldorf serves as a good launch pad for the legendary Rhine excursions.
The Neo-Baroque sculpture Father Rhine and His Daughters in Düsseldorf makes a fabulous introduction to the Rhine-Romantic Route, a 364-mile stretch from Düsseldorf to Mainz linking Germany’s best-loved tales. Stop in Bonn to visit the Beethoven-Haus museum. Listen to an audio guide of Beethoven recordings as you view manuscripts and mementoes. In autumn, music fans gather for the annual BeethovenFest Bonn, which heralds an international ensemble of acclaimed performers.
As you pass by the craggy Siebengebirge, myths come alive. Learn the story of how the dwarves digging up lakes and throwing the dirt over their shoulders created the “seven mountains.” The natural beauty of rugged cliffs and steep slopes holds a commanding sight as you enter the narrows of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley.
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2002, this 35-mile section between Koblenz and Bingen is the most popular Rhine sightseeing spot with a patchwork of 40 castles of the 12th to 15th centuries. Meshed between quaint villages and crumbling ruins, this protected area boasts the most castles and palaces in the world. Tour Marksburg Castle, the only intact castle in the Rhine Valley, and Burg Rheinstein, a symbol of Germany’s Romanticism period.
Some 20 million visitors wander the Upper Middle Rhine Valley every year. Explore quaint villages like St. Goar for cuckoo clocks and beer steins, then ascend the hillsides to fairy-tale places. High atop a cliff looms the Rhine’s largest castle, Burg Rheinfels, open for tours. In Koblenz, ride the cable car for stunning panoramas across the river to the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress. Nicknamed “The Guard of the Rhine,” the Prussian-built structure built in 1817–1828 overlooks the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers.
Around the river’s narrowest point rises the Loreley, the rock named after a legendary mermaid whose song caused innumerable shipwrecks that still captivates those who pass by. At the Loreley Valley Visitor Center get information on nature, hikes and wine tasting tours. In summer, enjoy a concert at the Loreley Open-Air Theatre.
Ever since the Romans introduced grapevines here, oenophiles have enjoyed extraordinary vintages. In the Middle Rhine, one of Germany’s famous wine regions, sample fruity, tart Rieslings at the Weingut Bastian in Bacharach and meet eighth-generation winemaker Friedrich Bastian, known as the singing winemaker.
Sightseers flock to the round-trip river cruises from Bingen and Rüdesheim for enchanting Loreley and castle-themed tours at the UNESCO southern gateway to the Upper Middle Rhine Valley. Bingen is laden with quaint cobbled streets and vine-growing slopes, while neighboring Rüdesheim boasts castles, regal residences, churches and eclectic museums. Diners retreat to quaint taverns for local delicacies and to sip Asbach brandy, produced in Rüdesheim since 1892.
In the Upper Rhine Valley, which attracted 20 million visitors in 2013, rolling hills rise gently on both sides of the river to the German Black Forest and French Vosges. Bound by Germany, Switzerland and France, this area remains rich in traditions, history, wine and food. Enjoy some of the finest cuisine in a region the size of Tuscany, and save room for the luxurious spas where the Ancient Romans once indulged.
The world-renowned hot springs around Baden-Baden once attracted guests like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy for the healing qualities of the thermal spas and the gaming tables of the casino. Entertainment remains a common pastime in this playground of the rich and famous. Head to Germany’s oldest casino, Casino Baden-Baden, built in 1824, or watch an opera at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Germany’s largest opera house. Exquisite private art collections are on display at the Fabergé Museum and the Richard Meier-designed Museum Frieder Burda.
In a 120-mile strip of land in northeast France bordering the Rhine and the Vosges Mountains lies Alsace, France’s smallest region. The hilltops possess 400 castle ruins, Europe’s richest region of feudal castles. By the forest of Sélestat rises the fabled Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg, a restored fort that remains one of the most frequently visited in France.
Blessed by fertile soils and a good climate, Alsace’s white wines are highly sought after along the flat-lying Route des Vins, where Sylvaner, the most widely grown grape, produces a light and sparkling wine. Many winemakers offer wine tours and free tastings. The charming town of Colmar, the capital of Alsace wines, boasts the nickname “La Petite Venice” because of the half-timbered houses lining the canals. It carries another big claim as the birthplace of Auguste Bartholdi, the designer of the Statue of Liberty. Visit his nascent home to view personal mementoes and models.
Along the Franco-German border lies the Alsatian capital of Strasbourg. The historic town center of Grand Île is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg is currently celebrating its millennial anniversary. The Gothic structure, once the world’s tallest building, is situated in the lively Cathedral Plaza. Stroll by a warren of tightly woven cobbled streets in the quarter La Petite France with its whimsical, half-timbered buildings and stop by the waterways replete with fine taverns and shops. Sightseers can easily walk across a bridge linking Germany and France to watch the sailing ships.
Foodies, meanwhile, hone in on the thriving culinary scene as 66 Michelin-starred chefs dazzle the Upper Rhine Valley. Strasbourg, one of France’s great gastronomic cities, boasts such institutions as Au Crocodile, renowned for its fine Alsatian fare. Baden-Baden lures culinary highbrows to its newly anointed Michelin 2-star Brenners Park Restaurant.
Wherever in the Rhine region, visitors discover quaint taverns and cafés around for generations that have their own charm and rightfully need to be sampled, one spoonful at a time. The profusion of customs, tastes, sights and sounds along these fabled riverbanks will no doubt make any visitor kick back and stay awhile.
Rhine Info to Go
You can explore the Rhine River Valley from several hubs. To start a Rhine River cruise, regular train service runs from Frankfurt Airport (FRA) to towns along the Rhine. Rüdesheim, Bingen and Koblenz are popular port towns for day cruises.
Where to Stay in the Rhine
Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa Offering unparalleled luxury, this legendary spa hotel from the Belle Époque situated by the green-fringed Lichtentaler Allee features exquisite amenities with fine service. 4-6 Schillerstrasse, Baden-Baden, Germany $$$$$
The Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois Overlooking the Rhine River by the Old Town in Basel, one of Europe’s oldest 5-star hotels boasts 110 luxurious guestrooms and a bevy of famous guests. 8 Blumenrain, Basel, Switzerland $$$$$
Hôtel des Berges Along the tranquil L’Ill River in Alsace, this 5-star family-run hotel between Colmar and Strasbourg blends opulent romance with a ravishing Romeo and Juliet suite. 4 Rue de Collonges au Mont d’Or, Illhaeusern, France $$$$$
Restaurants in the Rhine
Auberge de l’Ill At one of the oldest 3-star restaurants in France enjoy a menu inspired by acclaimed founding chef Paul Haeberlin with handpicked wines by the “best sommelier in the world,” Serge Dubs. Hôtel des Berges, 4 Rue de Collonges au Mont d’Or, Illhaeusern, France $$$$$
Au Crocodile Legendary Michelin 3-star chef Emile Jung has left the building, but this temple of gastronomy still conjures the finest Alsatian fare with Chef Philip Bohrer’s classic French cuisine. 10 Rue de l’Outre, Strasbourg, France $$$$$
Stübers Restaurant Enjoy an extraordinary farm-to-table experience overlooking the Rhine. Celebrity chef Andreas Steuber celebrates the world heritage region in his locally infused menu. Rhein-Hotel Bacharach, 50 Langstrasse, Bacharach, Germany $$$$$
There is something magical about sipping a glass of local wine while watching the sun slip into the Aegean Sea as the afterglow tinges traditional, white-washed Cycladic houses with glorious shades of rose, purple and gold. Ancient Greeks believed Helios, the Sun God, caused sunsets by driving his fiery chariot into the sea. Standing at water’s edge in Mykonos, watching the sky slowly turn from purple to inky black, you almost believe it.
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