One of the most popular rivers to cruise along, the Rhine rises in the Swiss Alps and flows north across Germany to the Dutch coast, featuring along its length some unbeatable views, famous cities and camera-snapping sights. Not to be missed in the upper reaches are Lake Constance, Basel and Strasbourg. The cities of Mannheim, Mainz, Koblenz, Bonn and Cologne straddle the middle section which runs through the Rhine Gorge, famous for its landscapes and ancient castles.
There's a lot of history here, from the Romans' greatest disaster since Hannibal to the rise of the Franks under Clovis and Charlemagne and the making of modern Europe. And here's a completely useless fact - the Rhine was officially 90km longer than its real length due to a clerical typo in 1932, the mistake only being discovered in 2010.
Amsterdam has an astonishing variety of official and unofficial museums devoted to almost anything you can imagine, and probably several you can’t. There’s one for Anne Frank of course, another for Rembrandt, and a wide array of cultural, city, war and maritime museums, but also museums for houseboats, the history of sex, fluorescent art, marijuana, miniatures, bags & purses, tattoos, pianolas, vodka, medieval torture, pipes, a secret ‘attic’ church, and many other esoteric interests.
'Bahl' if you're French, 'Bahzle' for Germans, this city straddles the borders of France, Switzerland and Germany with its hinterland spilling into all three. Basel was an early centre of printing, the craft brought to the city by apprentices of Johann Gutenberg in around 1460, and today boasts the world's oldest extant publishing business, Schwabe, founded in 1488. It also hosts Switzerland's oldest university, with alumni including Erasmus, Paracelsus, Nietzsche and Carl Jung. Museums are a particular speciality with collections including natural history, cartoons, Roman open-air archaeology, music, architecture, paintings, paper and even teddy bears.
A principal town in this wine-making part of the Black Forest, Breisach boasts one of Europe's largest wine cellars, the Badischer Winzerkeller. There's a museum here, and an impressive Romanesque cathedral which managed even more impressively to survive the almost complete destruction of the town during the Second World War. The town's name means 'breakwater' because until the Rhine was straightened in the 19th century, Breisach was an island in the middle of the river.
Home of the famous Eau de Cologne, this is also the only city which can fairly claim to have once been, albeit temporarily, the capital of Germany, France, Britain and Spain simultaneously. Established as a Roman colony (hence the name Colonia) and headquarters of the Rhine legions, Cologne became the capital of the Roman province and later, in 260 AD, capital of the short-lived Gallic Empire which spanned western Europe including Britain and Spain.
As is well-known, this ancient and beautiful city suffered terribly in the Second World War, described in 1945 as the 'world's greatest heap of rubble, with 95% of its centre destroyed including its 12 first-millennium Romanesque churches. These and many other historic buildings were lovingly rebuilt from the ground up, creating along with more modern structures a uniquely mixed cityscape.
Miraculously, despite 14 bombing hits, the 13th century cathedral survived the war and today is a World Heritage Site and pilgrimage centre for those visiting the Shrine of the Three Kings, said to be the reliquary of the Biblical Three Wise Men. Cologne boasts over 30 museums and innumerable art galleries, and other sights to see include the three remaining medieval city gates, the 12th century city hall, the rebuilt Gürzenich and the Overstolzenhaus.
This town lies across a river bridge from Strasbourg and is a de facto suburb despite being across the Rhine border, making it one of the main links between Germany and France. There's a 38m high observation tower (with 210 steps) giving panoramic views of the river, a new suspension bridge for pedestrians, and a museum of medieval artefacts on Friedhofstraße.
Built at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers, this town is full of historic buildings, cosy lanes and romantic squares, all overlooked by the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress.
Located where the Rhine meets the Neckar, the home town of tennis legend Steffi Graf is also known as the 'city of squares' due to its unusual grid layout. Worth seeing is the magnificent Mannheim Palace, now a university, the old City Hall, a beautiful Baroque Jesuit church topped with cupolas, and the 212m high telecom tower which includes an observation deck and revolving restaurant.
Close by and not to be missed is Luisenpark, said to be one of the loveliest parks in Europe and featuring a gondoletta boating lake, an arboretum, greenhouses, a Chinese garden with tea house, a rose garden, a butterfly house and a sculpture trail.
Rüdesheim is a picturesque town with lovely streets including the charming, cobbled Drosselgasse, packed with wine taverns, restaurants and half-timbered buildings.
Well-known as one of the key political and juridical centres of the European Union, Strasbourg is slightly less famous as the home town of Arsène Wenger, Louis Pasteur, Marcel Marceau, Gustave Doré and Marie Tussaud among others.
There are lots of medieval streets and buildings here, and several medieval churches. Look out for 'Little France' aka the Tanners' Quarter, full of canals, cobbled streets and half-timbered houses. Some of the city's medieval defensive walls remain, and there are 4 'covered' bridges over the river (they're not covered anymore) on each of which stands a medieval defence tower.
If you want a quick art-fix head to the Palais des Rohan which includes three museums devoted to archaeology, decorative arts and fine arts, with works by Delacroix, Rubens, El Greco, Goya, Courbet, Botticelli and many others.
The chief attraction is probably the stupendous Gothic Notre Dame cathedral, founded in 1277. Victor Hugo and Goethe both raved about this pink sandstone giant which, at over 450ft high, was until 1874 the world's tallest building.