The Rhine, one of Europe’s great rivers, brings to mind wine, beautiful landscapes, leisurely cruises, and bewitching riverside towns. From its origins in the mountains of Switzerland, let’s follow it 820 fascinating miles (1,320 km) to Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands.
A Long and Important History
The Rhine was crucial to Julius Caesar, the Frankish and Carolingian empires, and the Holy Roman Empire. As power changed hands, the river played a significant role as a border, and because it is so navigable, also as transportation route. Thanks to this history, today you can visit numerous castles and fortifications along the banks of the Rhine.
Born of two tributaries joining in the Alps, the Rhine separates Switzerland and Austria. It then feeds into Lake Constance, situated between Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, and at Basel, divides France and Germany. The Rhine becomes a German waterway at Karlsruhe until it passes through the Netherlands and disappears into the North Sea.
The Rhine in Switzerland
In the Graubunden region of Switzerland where the Rhine (Rhein in German) begins, it tumbles through rocky gorges. In addition to hiking and other mountain sports, how about panning for gold in the Upper Rhine Valley?
Emerging from Lake Constance, the Rhine plunges 75 feet (23 m) to create the Rheinfall, Europe’s largest waterfall, in Schaffhausen. In summertime, it scintillates with fireworks on Swiss National Day (August 8th), and in wintertime is equally breathtaking when it sparkles with ice.
Round out your Swiss Rhine tour by exploring Basel, located at the “elbow” where Switzerland, France, and Germany meet. The Old Town’s wending streets and tempting boutiques are charming, and more than 40 museums offer a wide range of artistic delights.
All around Lake Constance you can relax and enjoy the scenery, or have fun with all the water sports that the third largest lake in Europe can provide. There are major cultural attractions as well, such as the Bregenz Festival in Austria, a summertime event with musical performances on multiple stages.
Scenery along the Rhine in Germany is superb: castles on high hilltops overlook terraced vineyards and charming towns nestled between cultivated fields. The Middle Rhine Region is of such historic and scenic value that UNESCO has designated it a World Heritage Site.
Beware the Loreley! This legend symbolizes the river’s allure and danger: a beautiful nymph mesmerized sailors with her singing until, lovesick herself, she plunged to her death from her aerie above the river’s dangerous rocks.
Between Bingen and Koblenz is one of the highest concentrations of river valley castles in the world. Built to protect locals from invaders, they also sheltered bandits and were profitable customs houses as well. Intact or in ruins, these ancient buildings are always fascinating to explore.
Can you think “Rhine” without thinking “wine”? The river makes an essential contribution to the climate responsible for nurturing the grapes that give us those well-loved wines, predominantly Rieslings. Germany’s wine route is an enchanting way to experience history, natural beauty, and gifts from the vineyards.
The Rhine continues past many cities worth a stop; if you’re a music lover, make a pilgrimage to Bonn, birthplace of Beethoven. Musts: visit the wonderful art museum and sample one of the divine cakes served at the inviting cafes in the center.
Cologne has loads of attractions: the UNESCO World Heritage-listed, high-Gothic cathedral, excellent museums exhibiting everything from Roman antiquities to modern art, and terrific Christmas markets. Cologne (Köln) is the origin of the English word “cologne”, from the famous eau de cologne or “Kölnisch Wasser”. The fragrance was invented in the 18th century and later named “4711” for the factory’s address.
The Rhine in Holland
Entering Holland, the Rhine (Rijn in Dutch) divides into many distributaries that together comprise the enormous Rhine Delta.
Visit charming towns and sample Dutch hospitality: the Romans founded Nijmegen above the Rhine and Waal rivers; enjoy its cafes or visit the National Liberation Museum. Arnhem is famous for its importance at the end of World War II - the movie “A Bridge Too Far” tells the story. Both of these towns are located amidst beautiful green parks that beg for walking and cycling excursions.
The Delta Works are such an amazing feat of hydraulic engineering that they are considered the 8th Wonder of the World. DeltaPark is a fun place for people of all ages to learn how this system controls the flow of river and seawater to keep the Netherlands on solid ground.