Cruising the Main is to immerse yourself in Germany’s quintessential heartlands, on a journey through picture postcard landscaped of castles, rolling hills and chocolate box villages. The Main itself is the longest tributary of the River Rhine, and longest river flowing entirely in Germany, rising in the Fichtel Mountains of north-eastern Bavaria and flowing 525km though central Germany to meet the Rhine. A Main river cruise is often combined with a Rhine or Danube cruise, but most focus just on the Main waterway. Highlights of a Main river cruise include Frankfurt, Wurzberg and historical Nuremberg, along with Mainz – in the heart of Germany’s winelands.
Why cruise Main
Cruising the Main is a fantastic experience, and cruise lines offer Main cruises or cruise combined with the Rhine, Moselle or Danube. Fred Olsen River Cruises and Tui River Cruises offer budget Main cruises, while Riviera Travel, Avalon Waterways and Viking offer premium sailings. For a luxury Main sailing, opt for Emerald Waterways, Uniworld or Scenic. The Main also passes through 34 locks, so you can imagine it’s a pretty fantastic river cruise destination.
Countries of the Main River
The Main runs entirely though Germany, a country brimming with history and heritage, home to castles, comfort food and storybook villages surrounded by luscious hills and valleys. Following a tumultuous history in the 20th-century Germany has emerged as a European powerhouse and country rich in culture, so also expect incredible museums, galleries and trendy artist colonies.
Ports of the Main River
Würzburg is without a doubt one of the prettiest cities on the Main, if not the whole of Germany. Located in mountainous Bavaria ad the northern terminus of the Romantic Road, the city is known for its lavish baroque and rococo architecture, but also its buzzing going-out scene with a large student population and bounty of wine bars and cellars. The grandest of sights is the 18th-century Residenz palace – one of the country’s finest baroque buildings with a huge fresco and ornate rooms – and a host of Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals. As the centre of the Franconian wine country, make sure to wander Würzburg’s cobbled streets, sit in a square and order a glass of Riesling.
Sitting on the banks of the Rhine, an easy trip from the Main, Mainz is the capital of the Rhineland-Palatinate region. The city is known for its fascinating old town with medieval market squares and half-timbered buildings, and top sights include the Marktbrunnen renaissance fountain with red columns and the Gutenberg Museum honouring the invention of the printing press with the first printed Bible. Mainz pumps with energy due to its large student population, and its pedestrian precincts are lined with half-timbered taverns serving up local Franconian wine. Make sure to visit the skyline dominating colossal Martindsom cathedral – a six towered 12th-centruy piece of German Romanesque architecture.
Miltenberg is a beautifully preserved medieval village in the Franconia region of Bavaria, a labyrinth of charming cobbled alleys and quintessentially German architecture that wouldn’t look out of place in a storybook. Referred to as the ‘Pearl of The Main River’, Miltenberg sits on the bend of the Main by the eastern peaks of the Odenwald range, so you can imagine the scenery is pretty fantastic. This tiny town is perfect for a day trip, filled with fachwerk houses once home to wealthy merchants and inns once visited by Holy Roman Emporers and Napoleon. Simply wander its old town to see 100 listed half-timbered houses, cafes, shops and wine cellars.
Foodies, history lovers and architecture fiends will all love Bavaria’s second-largest city Nuremberg – the hub of Franconia. This charming medieval city is like something straight out of a fairy-tale, located off the Main-Danube Canal and dating back almost 1,000 years. Nuremberg has always held a place in history, be it the preferred residence of German kings or the grounds for fanatical Nazi party rallies, the shaping of the heinous Nuremberg Laws and the subsequent stage for the Nuremberg Trials. But Nuremberg is more than the site of such infamous events, and the city glows with beer halls, hipster coffee shops and wine bars serving up Franconian fare. Christmas time sees the city transform into a Christmas snow globe, as the famous Nuremberg Christmas market lights up the city’s cobbled streets and draws visitors from across the globe.
Some would say Rothenburg is like an open-air museum, a lost-in-time town in northern Bavaria best known for its medieval architecture and half-timbered houses. Passing through the imposing old town walls with its gates and towers, travellers step into a world of Gothic churches – like the impressive St Jakob’s – said colourful half-timbered houses with red roofs once filled with grain and corn and cobbled boulevards lined with handicraft stores and fountains. Wandering through Rothenburg truly feels like you’ve stepped into a film set and is perhaps Germany’s most storybook and well-preserved medieval town. Make sure to walk under the covered walk away and climb to the Town Hall tower for cinematic views.
There’s a reason Unesco declared the whole of Bamberg a World Heritage Site, as it is without a doubt one of the prettiest towns in the whole of Europe. Located where the Regnitz and Rhine meet and sprawled over seven lush hills, Bamberg is best known for its preserved old town, a maze of half-timbered buildings dating between the 11th and 19th-century. The town was fist planned by Emperor Heinrich II to emulate the grandeur of Rome itself, and prettiest sights include the multi-spiralled cathedral and the muraled Altes Rathaus (town hall), which sits on an island in the middle of the river connected by bridges.
Among the medieval towns and preserved villages of the Main lies one of the glossiest mega metropolises in Germany – Frankfurt. Frankfurt’s skyline is dominated by gleaming glass, steel and concrete skyscapers, home to ‘Mainhatten’ – a high-powered business hub – and the HQ of the European Central Bank. Frankfurt oozes glamour and wealth, with its designer ships, fancy restaurants and beautiful Palmengarten botanic gardens, however, it’s not all glinting buildings and banks. Frankfurt also has its own stunning medieval old town, a gingerbread village home to the 600-year old city hall Römer. Come Christmas and the old town’s square lights up with the world-famous Frankfurt Christmas market.
Wertheim is a town on the banks on the confluence of the rivers Tauber and Main, located in the state of Baden-Württemberg and famed for its stunning hilltop medieval castle and historic town centre with colourful quintessentially German architecture. The main attraction is the ruined castle, which offers spectacular views across the river and has a restaurant and beer garden, while down in the storybook town there’s the Pointed Tower and winding streets of boutique and handicraft shops and the famous Fritz Frischmuth bakery serving up pretzels. A designer outlet called Wertheim Village lies just outside the town, with a free shuttle from the town centre.
Best things to do on the Main
Visit a castle
Being solely in Germany, the Main river has some incredible historic castles on its banks. Check out the ruins of the Reichsburg Castle, the opulent Würzburg palace and the two princely palaces: the Old Court (or Alte Hofhaltung) and the New Residence in Bamberg.
Sample German fare
The Main runs right through Franconia, one of Germany’s biggest winemaking region, and also food-loving Bavaria. Make sure to dine on Bavarian food like Spätzle, Müncher Weiβwurst, Spaetzle (Bavarian pretzel) and try rauchbier, the local smoke-flavoured beer.
Explore an old town
The Main has some of the best-preserved half-timbered old towns in the whole of Germany, like charming Miltenberg, Rothenburg and Bamberg.
Visit a Christmas market
There’s no doubt about it, the Germans do Christmas markets best. Some of these incredible markets are found on the Main, like Nuremberg – with over 200 stalls – and Frankfurt – offering arts, crafts and seasonal food and drink.
Explore a vineyard
Franconia is one of Germany’s most famous wine regions, and the epicentre is Würzburg. Top wineries to visit include Buergerspital Winery, Weingut Juliusspital and Weingut am Stein, Ludwig Knoll.
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