In recent posts, I gave a port-by-port account of my Viking Danube cruise this spring. But while you got a first-hand look at places like Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest, what cruisers really want to know is: what was it like? So now that the dust has settled a bit, here’s my review of my Viking Danube cruise, from stem to stern.
This was my second European river cruise with Viking; in 2015, I travelled the Moselle, Rhine and Main rivers on the Cities of Light cruise, starting in Paris and ending in Prague. And while this year’s cruise was similar – the ships were sisters, and both cruises explored Central Europe – there were some real differences. Overall, though, I enjoyed it just as much the second time around.
My home on the water this time out was the Viking Freya, one of the original Viking longships — like the Viking Odin, on which I sailed the Rhine. That means the two ships were pretty much identical, so if you want a good look at a longship, you can get one in this post on the Odin, which I published last year. There’s even a video tour showing most of the ship.
If you’re new to river cruising, however, you need to know that these ships are long and lean, made to ply rivers that can get shallow in a dry season. And they’re relatively low – only three decks – so they can fit under bridges.
These ships don’t have all the features you’d expect on an ocean ship – there isn’t room, and with only 190 passengers aboard, that’s just not on. There’s a nice atrium, with a computer nook and miniature library above, a dining room, and a lounge for drinks and entertainment. Up top there’s the sun deck for scenic cruising (and for smokers), and at the bow of the ship, there’s the Aquavit Terrace for dining al fresco and watching the ship slide down the river.
I got almost the same veranda stateroom on this cruise as I had for my first one. These cabins are a comfortable place to spend a week, with a big bed, a sitting area, a little veranda and a decent amount of storage space. They also have a big flat-screen TV, but who needs it with a floor-to-ceiling window to watch the river go by?
Viking longships also have suites, as well as “French balcony” staterooms with a look-out instead of a real veranda. And if you want to save some money, there are “standard” staterooms on the first deck that have a smaller, horizontal window. I got a look at one of these on this trip; they’re not fancy, but still comfortable, and they do have the window, unlike inside cabins on ocean cruisers.
As I said, the Freya is a sister to the Odin, but every longship is slightly different, and this one had a surprise when I checked out the bathroom. I’ll let you discover it (and get a look at the room) in this video clip. I don’t know who thought of this feature, and frankly, I don’t see a big future for it, but it’s fun.
And if you were wondering who drives the ship, it’s done from a wheelhouse on top that drops down to get under bridges. Here’s a word from the captain, as he explains a few things at the helm.
My 2015 Rhine cruise started with a couple of days in Paris and ended with a couple of days in Prague, with fairly long bus rides connecting both cities to the ship. This cruise, called the Danube Waltz, was much more straightforward. We met the Freya in Passau, Germany, and cruised the Danube right into Budapest on the other end.
And while I remarked that we spent a lot of time on buses during the Rhine cruise, that wasn’t the case this time around. In most ports we docked right at the foot of town, and it was possible to walk to or from the ship. Sometimes we were bused to the local attraction – a blessing for those who aren’t up to long walks – but were given the choice to walk back if we liked.
As well, the ports were relatively close together, so we were kept busy, awaking in a new town or city every morning. There was a good mix of destinations on this itinerary, from smaller places like Dürnstein and Melk, Austria to major cities like Vienna and Budapest. Passau was interesting but unspectacular (at least, in my view), but all the other ports had some great sights, like Melk Abbey and Cesky Krumlov castle in the Czech Republic.
For me, the highlight of the trip was Budapest, a captivating city where we spent the last two nights of the cruise. Since we arrived late at night and some passengers missed the show, Viking put on an after-dark cruise-by the next night to show off the city’s amazing waterfront, all lit up and glowing.
And of course, there was a guided tour in each port, included in the basic fare. This time, Viking offered a new wrinkle – an Up Close tour, which takes you around town on foot or via the transit, like a local. These small-group tours are intended for the able-bodied, so you need to be a good walker. I took the Up Close tour in Budapest and loved it. (For those who don’t relish a lot of walking, Viking also offers an “easy” version of the daily tours.)
There are also optional excursions in each port, at an extra cost. I took the winery tour near Dürnstein, the musical evening at a historical theatre in Vienna and the Magyar horsemen show in Budapest. All were good experiences.
Of course, food is one of the big attractions for many cruisers, and once again it was excellent — after a slow start. The Freya’s new young chef tried a bit too hard on the first night, serving steaks as the featured dish: in a word, tough. After that, though, the food was consistently good, at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
As on ocean liners, the left side of the menu offered new dishes each night, while the right side featured tried-and-true standards like roast chicken and salmon. There were vegetarian choices, plus some regional dishes, and the food was artfully presented, like this prime rib entrée. As you see, the portion sizes were more European than American-sized, a good thing all round.
And if you haven’t cruised with Viking, beer and house wine with your meals are included in your fare — so have another glass. As with the Rhine cruise, I found the house white wine crisp and refreshing, while the red was a little light for my taste, though very drinkable.
Food sensitivities leave me out of the dessert competition for the most part, but I’m a fan of the delicious sorbet Viking offers – a new flavour every night, usually with chunks of fruit in it. The rest of the selection ran from Linzer Torte (though not in Linz, for some reason) to a banana split that even I found tempting.
And despite the lack of a casino or an ice rink, there was some good evening entertainment in the lounge. Most nights it was the ship’s piano player, but Viking brought in professional performers to add some local culture, from Austrian folk singers with an accordion to some light opera.
The last word
Full disclosure: my cruise was provided by Viking, which could colour my judgment. But I’m a lifelong journalist who values honesty, and I honestly enjoyed this cruise. My cabin was very comfortable, the ship was lovely, the crew was friendly and professional and the itinerary went smoothly, with no major bumps along the way.
As usual, the guides in each port were local people with a good knowledge of the city and its attractions; some were better than others, but none were substandard. The major downside to our port visits was the weather, which turned bitingly cold once we got under way, but that’s April for you. It recovered by the time we got to Budapest, but I still want to see Vienna in nice weather before I die.
The downside? I would have preferred a second day in Vienna rather than an extra day in Passau to start the trip (to be fair, one was arrival day). As well, the lounge could get uncomfortably crowded when everyone turned up for a briefing or a show. And I’d like to see some tables for two in the dining room, even though I had no problem dining with other passengers as a solo cruiser. Finally, the free wi-fi on the ship (another river cruise perk) could be good, bad or indifferent, depending on the hour and day. A more dependable system needs to be found.
As for the cost, river cruising is not cheap by any means. However, good deals are often available — especially true this year — and the included excursions and drinks go a long way toward bringing the overall cost closer to ocean cruising levels. The passengers I spoke to on the cruise all said they thought it was worth the money they paid.
All told, the cruise was great experience, a fascinating look at a side of Europe many travellers never see. I’d do it again. And now Viking has taken its cruising style to the high seas, with the launch of a new line of ocean cruisers. That’s an experience I’d like to try one of these days.