Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, savory. Guests will find all of the culinary flavours, expertly curated and prepared, on European river cruises. Food, wine, spirits - and the influence of the local culture upon those delectable regional tastes - are all integral parts of the experience while plying Europe’s famous rivers.
At ASTA’s 2022 Global River Cruise Expo in Budapest in March, most of the river cruise brands had ships lined up along the banks of the Danube, open for inspections by travel advisors and to sample lunches and dinners onboard. Overall, participants we spoke to at the event were delighted with the cuisine and the service.
All of the major river cruise lines tout meals prepared with local ingredients that reflect the authentic tastes of the regions through which they sail. Beyond that commonality, there are some notable differences. Here is an overview of the culinary offerings on European river cruises, both onboard and during excursions.
Amadeus River Cruises
One of the culinary highlights on Amadeus is the line’s fresh-baked bread, according to a spokesperson. “Every morning, before dawn breaks the horizon, bakers all over Europe begin their day by preparing bread dough and honoring age-old traditions that have been distinctly tied to their region’s heritage for centuries. Bauernbrot. Kaiser rolls. Pumpernickel. Croissant. Brioche. These recipes have been passed from generation to generation, and over the years, very little has changed. Onboard every Amadeus river cruise ship, our bakers are hard at work doing exactly the same … representing our European heritage, customs, and culture.”
Onboard meals are mainly taken in the elegant Panorama-Restaurant, including an impressive breakfast, a lunchtime buffet, and a fine-dining, 5-course evening menu. An alternative light lunch is also offered in the Amadeus Salon. Of note is Café Vienna, daily turning out scrumptious homemade cakes, tarts, and imaginative desserts in a traditional Austrian style. Would you expect anything less from a river cruise line with a patisserie onboard?
During optional shore excursions, Amadeus offers tastings of regional cheeses, wines, chocolates, and beers; as well as seasonal samplings such as gingerbread, gluhwein, or almond cookies during Advent/Christmas.
Chef-guided market adventures are also recommended adventures. “We believe to understand a destination is to experience how their cuisine is shopped for, how it is prepared and eaten, and how it inspires,” said the line’s representative. “Join an Amadeus chef on a unique visit to the local farmer’s market while in some select ports. Get new insight on the importance of choosing the right products and produce, and enjoy sample tastings for some specialties.” These chef-guided experiences are currently offered: Amsterdam Dappermarkt, Vienna Maschmarkt, Nurnberg Hauptmarkt, Budapest Markthalle, Cologne Senf (Mustard) Museum, Cochem Senf (Mustard) Museum, Bernkastel Sausage Walk, and Regensburg Sausage Walk.
A standout feature of the dining experience on AmaWaterways is The Chef’s Table specialty restaurant featuring a multi-course tasting menu. During this intimate, gastronomic experience, guests have the opportunity to join together with fellow epicurean travelers to observe the chef cooking in an exhibition kitchen. Private and secluded from the rest of the ship, dining at The Chef’s Table requires no additional cost, only a reservation.
A multi-course, fine-dining menu is also served every night in the main dining room, while lighter meals are available from the Bistro and Tapas menus offered in the lounge. Exclusive to the revolutionary AmaMagna are two additional dining venues: Al Fresco Restaurant, featuring vegetable-forward dishes enjoyed along with spectacular views of the Danube; and Jimmy’s, a relaxed, family-style restaurant.
“We pride ourselves in offering authentic and personalized culinary experiences that immerse our guests in the flavours and culture of the destinations we sail through,” said Rudi Schreiner, co-founder and president of AmaWaterways. “My wife Kristin Karst – who co-founded AmaWaterways with me in 2002 – and I both originate from Europe and collaborate personally with our dynamic Culinary Director Robert Kellerhals to evolve our exceptional dining experiences incorporating healthy choices and visually stunning presentations. Our award-winning culinary team ensures each onboard meal is prepared with passion and love, taking advantage of the freshest seasonal ingredients sourced from the surrounding local communities.”
Beyond the onboard experience, culinary-inspired guests can choose from a diverse selection of locale-immersive shore excursions that include such experiences as learning how to shape the perfect bretzel (German for pretzel) at a Germany bakery; visiting a local home for a demonstration of making traditional Bulgarian Banitsa pastries; and enjoying a Dutch beer tasting and Belgian chocolate and waffle tasting.
Wine-themed European sailings are also offered, which include special tours, tastings, wine pairing dinners and interactive discussions. More than 60 departures are planned in 2022 for the line’s “Celebration of Wine Cruises” hosted by North American and European wine experts. Guests will enjoy private cellar tours, visits to iconic vineyards, hidden hotspots for tastings, and authentic encounters with local vintners. These enhanced epicurean experiences are included in the price of the cruise.
The Avalon Fresh menu is a distinctive feature on Avalon Waterways. “Turning the table on cruise dining,” it provides guests with heart-healthy artisanal dishes. Brothers Karl and Leo Wrenkh, raised in the first high-quality vegetarian restaurant in Austria and founders of the Wrenkh Vienna Culinary School, created the Avalon Fresh menu so guests can partake in regional delicacies while remaining true the healthy-habits regime they may follow at home.
Restaurants onboard include: The Panorama Dining Room, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner (dinner includes 4- and 5-course meals); The Panorama Bistro, open for dinner and offering a tapas-type tasting menu; and The Sky Grill, open at lunch when sailing and weather permits, offering grilled foods.
On-shore Discovery excursions include such culinary adventures as: Shaking it up at a cocktail workshop in Palais Benedictine where the world-famous liqueur is made; whipping up sweet Chantilly cream at the even sweeter Chantilly Castle; discovering the art of French cooking, sans Julia, in Lyon while learning how to make a Lyonnaise specialty; and enjoying an out-of-your-shell experience at an oyster farm in the Camargue National Park to taste the French delicacy and learn how it is farmed. Avalon also offers beer-, wine- and culinary-themed cruises for dedicated connoisseurs or those wishing to expand their food-and-drink horizons.
CroisiEurope has one restaurant onboard, but it promises to delight its guests with sophisticated French fare.
“CroisiEurope's greatest asset is the fine French gastronomy served onboard. Meals are created by the company's head chef, Alain Bohn, member of the esteemed French association Maîtres Cuisiniers de France, which includes only 250 chefs from all over the world, and the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs since 2013,” said Michael Da Costa, general manager, CroisiEurope North America. “With his team of chefs, he creates each of the menus in the pure tradition of French gastronomy while bringing out the local tastes and flavours of the regions and countries crossed. The wines served on board are specially selected to accompany each meal and menus can be adapted for people with allergies or those with specific dietary restrictions.”
During excursions on CroisiEurope's “All the Must-See Sites on the Rhone” cruise, guests are treated to two meals at restaurants from the iconic French Chef Paul Bocuse: Abbaye de Collonges and Les Halles de Lyon. Beyond these gastronomic highlights, guests on this itinerary discover Valrhona chocolate and lavender honey.
The line also offers a number of culinary-themed cruises, such as: 1)“Grand Gastronomic Cruise on the Rhine” - Enthusiasts of fine dining and wine embark on a cruise with Marc Haeberlin, a 2-star awarded French chef in the Michelin guide (2021), and Serge Dubs, the Alsace-born best sommelier in Europe and the World from 1974 to 1989; 2) “Exceptional Wine Tasting Cruise in Burgundy” - For wine lovers, the Saône offers many wonders including the prestigious Burgundy city of Beaune, the impressive ruins of the Cluny Abbey, and the Beaujolais Route, with the highlight of this cruise being an exceptional evening in Beaujeu to greet the annual release of Beaujolais Nouveau; and 3) “Alsace: Land of Tradition and Gastronomy” - Discover Alsace, the land of tradition and gastronomy, located in the heart of Europe, visiting the must-see places of this charming region while discovering its gastronomic specialties.
Riviera River Cruises
The culinary highlight on Riviera River Cruises is the splendid 4-course dinner served each night in the main restaurant: entrée, soup, main, and dessert, all in the elegant ambience of a first-class restaurant. Toward the end of every cruise, the captain also hosts a Captain's Dinner with an extended menu of six elaborate courses and the chef preparing signature dishes of the countries and regions visited.
In addition, the more intimate Riverview Kitchen is located at the stern and seats no more than 28 guests. On cruises on the Seine and Rhône rivers in France, classic charcuterie, regional cheeses and traditional boulangerie are available; while classic European dishes are served on Rhine and Danube cruises, all accompanied by wonderful vistas.
"Guests aboard our ships will find a variety of fine dining experiences waiting to be savored. These range from the 4-course dinners featuring international specialties and dishes inspired by the countries and regions we're cruising through, to the more intimate stern restaurants with open kitchens, large panoramic windows and al fresco seating, to more lavish dinners hosted by the captain of the ship at the end of every cruise and over the Christmas and New Year's holidays," said Marilyn Conroy, Riviera River Cruises’ executive vice president sales and marketing North America.
As for culinary experiences during excursions, “The Douro, Porto & Salamanca” river cruise includes a port wine tasting in Porto, lunch with a traditional flamenco performance in Salamanca, and a dinner at Quinta da Pacheca (which dates to the 18th century). “The Burgundy, the River Rhône & Provence” itinerary includes a wine tasting in Beaune, Burgundy's wine capital. Also, optional "Personalize Your Vacation" excursions include a wine tasting in the Moselle Valley on the “Rhine & Moselle” itinerary; and a wine tasting and local delicacies at a Slovak chalet on “The Danube's Imperial Cities & Yuletide Markets” river cruise.
Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours
Tom Goetter, Iron Chef finalist and disciple of French Laundry, is Scenic's executive chef and oversees the fleet’s culinary efforts, which boasts a total of 2,500 recipes across all of its restaurants.
This river cruise line gives guests an impressive six choices for dining experiences. Portobello is a 25- to 30-seat fine dining venue, located at the bow of ship, offering 4-course, wine-paired meals, prepared in front of the guests. Table la Rive, a 10-seat chef’s table serving 7-course, wine-paired gastronomic treats, is reserved for X level guests and junior suites. The River Café provides lighter fare for guests wishing to have something quick and easy. Rounding out the offerings are the main dining room, an on-deck barbeque (weather permitting), and 24/7 room service.
Wine tastings are a strong draw for guests during excursions. And nearly every sailing has a shop-with-the-chef, on-shore experience. Plus, most of the ships have a Culinaire, a 6-10 person cooking lesson kitchen where the chefs offer lessons in an assortment of recipes.
Scenic has also partnered with Top Chef favorite Brian Voltaggio for a special, culinary-themed departure of their 11-day South of France river cruise in October 2022. “Spectacular South of France” sails with Voltaggio roundtrip out of Lyon, exploring many of France’s most food-focused regions along the Rhône River.
Every Tauck riverboat features the main Compass Rose restaurant offering fine dining, as well as a second and more casual dining venue called Arthur’s (named after Tauck Chairman Arthur Tauck, Jr.), and barbecue grills on the top Sun Deck for fun cookouts on select nights.
But the culinary highlight for guests on a Tauck river cruise is often a special dinner experience off the ship in a truly memorable venue, such as: the Palais Pallavicini (a private palace in Vienna), the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, the Akademia Club in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest, Lobkowicz Palace at Prague Castle in Poland; as well as numerous other chateaux, castles and palaces across Europe. Guests on one Tauck river cruise enjoy a dinner in a decommissioned subterranean salt mine in Poland. Many of these venues are exclusive to Tauck, and all are included in the brand’s cruise prices.
Some of Tauck’s shore excursions might be expected, from a demonstration and tasting of Belgian chocolate in Brussels to wine-tasting excursions in Burgundy, Alsace and Austria’s Wachau Valley. Other culinary experiences might be more unexpected, such as visiting an Absinthe museum in France; tasting apple cider and Calvados along the Seine; enjoying a banquet of Provencal specialties at a private ranch in the Camargue; and sitting down to a 3-course lunch at Munich’s annual Oktoberfest celebration.
In addition, although it is not technically marketed as a culinary cruise, the 10-day “Savoring France: Paris, Lyon & Provence” itinerary leans very heavily into French cuisine and local culinary traditions in Paris and along the Rhone.
Uniworld recently appointed a new Culinary Director, Robert van Rijsbergen, to manage culinary operations on all of its ships; and assist in the implementation of new food concepts, eco-friendly practices, and menu designs.
Starting this season on select cruises, the brand is enhancing its onboard restaurant offerings with a new one-of-a-kind, 4-course private dining experience in the Captain’s Lounge.
The highlight of the Uniworld culinary experience is the culinary team’s ability to reflect the dining specialties of the surrounding destinations in which they sail. When in Italy, for example, dinner may consist of Prosciutto di Parma pizza and Osso Buco Milanese, with meats and vegetables sourced from just miles away. Or, after a day immersed in Indian culture, Gajar Shorba and Tandoori Chicken Tikka could be offered as the perfect lunch to end the morning.
Guests looking to experience local culinary practices and dive deeper into local traditions can opt for a “Masterpiece Collection” optional excursion, available for an additional cost, offering experiences from tasting cheese with a cheese affineur in Rüdesheim to cruising through the streets of Bordeaux in a retro sidecar.
For foodies and oenophiles alike, Uniworld offers special culinary-themed cruises centered around the finest of French food and wine through the Connoisseur Collection. During these sailings, guests visit famous restaurants, vineyards, orchards, truffle farms, and other French culinary hot spots. In Bordeaux, they experience Libourne’s lively farmers’ market, where the heart and soul of the region is reflected through the freshest fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and breads. In Normandy, they enjoy le dejeuner at a beautiful baroque castle, Château de Champ de Bataille. The collection of themed cruises includes “A Portrait of Majestic France,” “Brilliant Bordeaux,” “Burgundy & Provence,” “Grand France,” and “Ultimate France.”