Germany's Elbe River doesn't have the fame of the Rhine or the Danube, yet it rivals these better-known routes for beautiful destinations and surroundings. Grand Circle's "Essence of the Elbe" cruise attracted us (along with many fellow "been there, done that" river cruisers), chiefly because this part of Eastern Germany was new territory. The first surprise was the absolutely stunning scenery, starting with the peaks of "Saxon Switzerland" near Bad Schandau, where we boarded the ship. An enticing list of stops began with Prague and included major visits to Dresden, Berlin, Wittenberg and Hamburg. Another highlight of river cruising is discovering small and less-touristed villages, and the Elbe delivers with visits to the charming towns of Tangermunde and Meissen.
One reason fewer lines sail this route is that the Elbe is a shallow river, requiring smaller ships. The intimate size of Grand Circle's River Allegro turned out to be a big plus, making for a very congenial atmosphere onboard. With set meal times and open seating, we soon knew many of the 90 passengers. Having just one lounge meant more opportunities to mingle, and many friendships formed. Informal dress aboard added to the relaxed, friendly ambience.
The enrichment on this cruise was a highlight, with many chances to meet and talk with local people. Another feature we enjoyed was ample time to explore independently. Every day offered a guided tour in the morning (on foot, except in larger cities like Berlin), with afternoons free to follow your own interests.
Here are some highlights of our Elbe River experience.
Photo: Sergey Novikov/Shutterstock.com
Prague, Czech Republic
Our trip began with two nights in Prague. Spared from bombing during World War II, Prague, known as "the city of 100 spires," is an open-air gallery of architecture and elegant squares, spanning seven centuries. First stop was Prague Castle, the fortress atop the city, to watch the changing of the guard and visit the cathedral. The castle vistas were shrouded by fog, but we got photos later from the Charles Bridge, where the vendors and views make for one of the city's most popular stops. Meandering Prague's shop-lined narrow lanes topped off a wonderful afternoon. Many opted for a tour of Prague's Jewish Quarter, dating to the 13th century; it's one of the best-preserved in Europe.
Bad Schandau, Germany
After a long bus ride and a lunch stop, we reached the spa town of Bad Schandau, which we saw first from the spectacular heights of the Saxon Switzerland National Park. Everyone was wowed by the park's fantasy of limestone peaks, including the Bastei, towering 636 feet above the river. The ship was waiting for us in town, looking shiny and new from its recent renovation. The Captain's Dinner boded well for the days ahead: cold roast duck salad, warm sauteed shrimp in lobster sauce, an entree of grilled loin of veal on creamy spinach, generous complimentary wine and creme brulee for dessert. The meals lived up to this promise, and they were a high point on the sailing.
Grand Circle's River Allegro
Onboard River Allegro, we found that the ship's intimate size was a big bonus. The one lounge is where everyone mingled onboard during the day, as well as in the evening. During cocktail hour, the pleasant melodies of our resident pianist often drew couples to the dance floor. Later, seats were set into rows for entertainment. One night, the star of the show was our captain, Juergen Luderer, who was introduced as the "German Johnny Cash." He lived up to the hype, gaining loud cheers for his excellent songs and guitar. In the lounge and throughout the ship, a passenger-staff ratio of 3 - 1 meant outstanding service.
Photo: Eleanor Berman, Cruise Critic contributor
Sailing into sight of the baroque domes and spires of Dresden is an indelible memory. It was even more moving knowing that this city has literally risen from the ashes after being destroyed by Allied firebombing in 1945. Now rebuilt just as it was, with its treasures safely returned from their hiding places, Dresden boasts art, architecture and cultural riches that are amazing for a city of 500,000.The city's Semper Opera is one of the most beautiful in the world, and the Green Vault of Dresden's Royal Palace holds an eye-popping collection of jewels and treasures. Raphael's Sistine Madonna is one of many masterpieces in The Old Masters Gallery, set among the pools and pavilions of the Zwinger complex.
Photo: Konstantin Tronin/Shutterstock.com
Meissen is best known for the hand-painted porcelain that has been there since 1710. Our day began with a visit to a porcelain workshop for a demo. You can't help but admire the patience and skill of the artisans creating these rare pieces of hand-painted porcelain china and decorative sculptures. The town itself is small and quite charming, with a big market square and colorful small shops on the side streets. We bought our souvenir gifts there -- fanciful nutcrackers and hand-carved wooden Christmas ornaments made in the nearby village of Seiffen in the Ore Mountains. We stopped in a bakery for a slice of the local specialty, eierschecke, a cheesecake with custard topping.
Photo: Alena Stalmashonak/Shutterstock.com
The steep hills and terraced vineyards along the southern portion of the Elbe made for wonderful scenery as we sailed. We were lucky with the fabulous October weather, and we enjoyed the views from the spacious top deck of Allegro and from the wide picture windows in the lounge and dining room. We learned a lot of World War II history on this cruise in places like Torgau, where we saw the memorial to the spot where the Russian and Allied troops first met and merged, proclaiming that victory was near. World War II buffs were fascinated by a small museum in town that displayed rare photos and films from that era.
Photo: Marek H./Shutterstock.com
In Wittenberg, we followed the footsteps of Martin Luther. We saw the door where his 95 Theses were posted, challenging the papacy and establishing Protestantism. Then we visited the church where he preached and the monastery where he and his family lived after his excommunication. Later we divided into small groups to visit with local families. Our hostess was one of several people we met during the trip who surprised us by saying she was better off under the Russians, lacking freedom but without the unemployment and hard times they are now experiencing. This changed our perception of today's East Germany.
A bus tour showed us the most famous sights of Berlin -- the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the moving memorial to the Holocaust and the remains of the Berlin Wall, where we had a stop for photos. After lunch, we were on our own to stroll the fine buildings of the boulevard known as Unter den Linden or to visit one of the five museums on the city's unmatched Museum Island. A day was not enough to take in Germany's reborn and booming capital city and its many sights. Future Elbe cruises have a changed itinerary to allow two nights in Berlin.
Photo: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com
A village like Tangermunde is why we love river cruising. Our visit there offered a chance to meander the non-touristy streets of a tiny jewel dating back to 1009. We admired quaint, half-timbered houses, took pictures and stopped in a local pub. Hamburg, Germany's second-largest city, was our last -- and one of our favorite -- stops, with a magnificent harbor, a mix of old and exciting new architecture, plentiful shopping, a lake and promenade in the city center, and 50 museums. But the Elbe becomes shallow approaching Hamburg, requiring a bus ride to reach the city and a stay on land. It has been made an optional pre-or post-trip on future cruises -- one we would highly recommend.
Photo: Jürgen Mangelsdorf/Shutterstock.com
Hits & Misses
Future cruises with two nights in Berlin will correct one problem on our cruise: not enough time in that city. Our other negative was the hotel locations on land. One way Grand Circle keeps trips economical is by using hotels away from the city center, making it difficult to stroll into or have dinner in town. We'd have preferred to pay a little more for convenience. However, the cruise portion on River Allegro was definitely a winner, with interesting stops, a congenial ship, good service and exceptional enrichment. We had many chances to interact with local people and felt we had not just toured but gained unusual insight into the places we visited.
Pictures From an Elbe River Cruise
You May Also Like
Popular on Cruise Critic
The moment you step aboard a luxury cruise ship, a hostess is at your arm proffering a glass of bubbly while a capable room steward offers to heft your carry-on as he escorts you to what will be your home-away-from-home for the next few days. You stow your things (likely in a walk-in closet) and then emerge from your suite to get the lay of the ship. As you walk the decks, friendly crew members greet you ... by name. How can that be? You just set foot onboard! First-class, personalised service is just one of the hallmarks of luxury cruise lines. You can also expect exotic itineraries, varying degrees of inclusivity in pricing, fine wines and gourmet cuisine as well as universally high crew-to-passenger ratios. That being the case, you might think any old luxury cruise ship will do, but that's not quite true. Like people, cruise ships have their own unique personalities -- and some will be more suited to your holiday style than others. Lines like SeaDream might not offer the most spacious suites, but their intimate yachts can stealthily visit ports that large ships can't manage. Regent Seven Seas and Oceania Cruises are owned by the same parent company but Regent offers a completely inclusive holiday experience, while Oceania draws travellers with a more independent streak. Take a look at Cruise Critic's list of best luxury cruise lines and ships to see which one resonates with you.
It's one of the most common cruising questions: When is the best time to cruise Alaska, Australia, the Caribbean, Canada/New England, Hawaii, Europe or the South Pacific? The answer depends on many variables. Autumn -- or "Fall" in North America" -- foliage enthusiasts, for instance, will find September and October the best time to take that Canada/New England cruise, whereas water sports-lovers (and families) much prefer to sail the region in the summer when school is out and temperatures are warmer for swimming. The best time to cruise to Alaska will vary depending on your preferences for viewing wildlife, fishing, bargain-shopping, sunshine, warm weather and catching the northern lights. For most cruise regions, there are periods of peak demand (high season), moderate demand (shoulder season) and low demand (low season), which is usually the cheapest time to cruise. High season is typically a mix of when the weather is best and popular travel periods (such as summer and school holidays). However, the best time to cruise weather-wise is usually not the cheapest time to cruise. The cheapest time to cruise is when most travellers don't want to go because of chillier temperatures or inopportune timing (too close to holidays, the start of school, etc.). But the lure of cheap fares and uncrowded ports might make you change your mind about what you consider the best time to cruise. As you plan your next cruise, you'll want to take into consideration the best and cheapest times to cruise and see what jibes with your holiday schedule. Here's a when-to-cruise guide for popular destinations.
There once was a not-so-savvy seafarer who didn't feel right unless she took two steamer trunks crammed with outfits on every cruise. This, she learned, was not a good idea. Besides incurring the wrath of her male travelling companion, who pointed out that he would have to wrestle with excess baggage through airport terminals and beyond, she quickly tired of cramming her belongings into tiny wardrobes. The now savvy seafarer follows her own packing 101 rule: Thou shalt put into one's suitcase only that which will fit neatly in the allocated storage space without hogging every available nook and cranny for thyself. Following that advice is getting easier these days because, for the most part, cruising has become a much more casual holiday -- even on luxury and traditional lines. Plus, with airlines charging to check bags and imposing extra fees for overweight luggage), it's just more economical to pack light. To do so, you need to have a good sense of what you’re going to wear on a cruise so you don't pack your entire closet. If you're wondering what to bring on your next cruise, here are our guidelines for what you'll need to pack.