The advent of Europe's river cruises

Budapest to Amsterdam remains the classic European river cruise - then and now

The start of European river cruising is often attributed to Rudi Schreiner, then the president of AmaWaterways. Mr Schreiner has said that the newly finished Main-Danube Canal opened up a 4820km river network between the North Sea and the Black Sea in 1992, and although it was built for freight ships, he realised it could also be used for passengers. He dreamt up a 14-night scenic cruise between Amsterdam and Budapest and planned the itineraries. And today Amsterdam to Budapest remains the “classic” river cruise in Europe.

Very quickly there were new and purpose-built river cruise ships on European waterways.

By comparison with spacious modern ships, the first were rather squat, low and cramped, with small rooms.

The experience for guests was taken rather more from barge holidays than what had been learnt by touring or ocean cruising companies.

The food on board was generally struggling to be as good as that found on shore.

Culinary options at the time were severely limiting and often not as good as you would find ashore. But things started changing in the later 1990s.

Ocean cruising had continued to develop, and river cruise operators took a cue from this.

New ships were built with better design, giving more space, and with improved amenities and services.

Uniworld were early pioneers and Viking River Cruises date back to these early days. Founder and chairman Torstein Hagen bought the first four ships in 1997.

And Hagen brought plenty of experience to them, having led ocean cruising’s much loved Royal Viking Line during the 1980s.

He brought to Viking River Cruises the service and amenities that had earned Royal Viking such a strong reputation.

He began in Russia, with four Russian ships that were bought outright — a moment that changed the course of river cruising.

Hagen soon announced a series of new-build ships, which began sailing in 2001.

Suddenly a race was on to build more luxurious ships. Though the length, width and height of ships is defined by locks, bridges and regulations, just how much space and amenity could be brought out of this tight brief?

Australian company Scenic started building river cruising ships in 2008 — and the race continues.