Days 1 & 2 Amsterdam, Netherlands
Everyone has an image of Amsterdam. For some, it’s small boats gliding on the canals and locals two-wheeling on bikes to and from work and, as frequently, to meet friends for drinks. For others, it’s gabled buildings leaning, seemingly precariously, over cobbled streets and cozy taverns illuminated by candles. Still others imagine tulips in bloom and the colors, both muted and vibrant, of the paintings Vermeer, Van Gogh and Rembrandt. All images are true and even more beguiling when experienced in person. Sit a spell in a convivial cafe, explore world-class museums and feel the significance of a unique history—one of a city reclaimed from the sea, rising in prestige and influence as merchants built trade and wealth, and forever known for its attics and attitudes that offered refuge from war. Narrow streets and great manses tell the story not only in images but with the aroma of appeltaart, a taste of the avant garde in newly constructed buildings and a feeling of warmth from the amiable locals.
Two of Amsterdam’s most renowned museums are the masterstrokes of your Crystal itinerary: the Rijksmuseum, displaying 8,000 objects of art and history, including Rembrandt’s The Night Watch and Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, and the Anne Frank House, the 17th-century canal house where Anne, her family and four others remained hidden and silent for more than two years. Today, Anne Frank’s original diary and other exhibits speak volumes about war and persecution.
Day 3 Antwerp, Belgium
What Milan is to Italy, Antwerp is to Belgium, a historic city that is on-trend with a finger on the pulse of fashion, art and entertainment. A dynamic energy fills Antwerp’s old squares, gorgeous with cobbled centers and edged, like a cake with decorative icing, by ornate buildings. High-reaching church towers and fountains with cherubic sculptures add to the feeling of antiquity, while the port—the largest in Belgium and one of the largest in the world—brings a sense of purpose and prosperity. Surely, you associate Antwerp with diamonds. More than 70 percent of all diamonds are traded through this sparkling city, one that also shines under the light of celebrated painter Peter Paul Rubens, who lived and worked in an Italianate city manse, now a museum.
Day 4 Cruising along the Rhine River - Nijmegen, Netherlands
Situated alongside the Waal River near the German border, Nijmegen marries classic waterside scenery with a unique regional history, touched by war. The city’s history is more than a little impressive, as Nijmegen is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands, founded more than 2,000 years ago. A smattering of Roman ruins can be seen in town, including a remnant of the old city wall and foundations of the amphitheater. Major parts of the city itself were reduced to ruins during World War II: Allied bombing in 1944 and subsequent German shelling destroyed many of Nijmegen’s old buildings. Reconstruction brought a chance to introduce new architectural styles, making today’s Nijmegen an interesting amalgam of traditional and modern.
Day 5 Cologne, Germany
A scan of Cologne’s skyline offers a short-hand of a long essay of architecture, varying from the space-needle-type Rhine Tower to the avant-garde buildings along the river to the spectacular spires of the cathedral. One look at the magnificent church and you can’t help but draw a breath of amazement—the structure is enormous and intricately glorious, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Germany’s most visited landmark. Peel your eyes away from the famed Kölner Dom, as it is locally called, to discover other architectural notables, including remains of the Roman wall, a modern museum complex, the contemporary philharmonic hall, cozy beerhalls and the span of the Hohenzollern Bridge, reconstructed after the war.
Take flight to witness views of Cologne from the air, offering breathtaking perspectives on its architectural monuments, including the cathedral, and the river that winds through Germany’s oldest and fourth-largest city. Get a closer appreciation of Cologne Cathedral with a visit that brings to fore its staggering size: The church is Germany’s largest cathedral, the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe and has the largest façade of any church in the world.
Day 6 Cochem, Germany
If a storybook village is to be found on the Mosel River, Cochem certainly is it, with its half-timbered buildings, steep terraced slopes, lush vineyards and a picturesque castle overlooking it all. A riverside promenade allows a chance to savor the atmosphere of the fairytale come to life. Walking along, you’ll take in the beauty of the surrounding hills, sometimes laced with mist, and see bridges spanning the lazy waters of the river. Perhaps you will feel somewhat lazy yourself, reluctant to move too quickly through a town seemingly stopped in time.
Make your way to the hilltop castle of Cochem, a romantic structure originally dating to the 12th century and rebuilt in 1868 by a wealthy German businessman, who fashioned the castle into today’s neo-Gothic masterpiece. Descend into the valley for an exploration of the Mosel wine region, renowned for superb Rieslings and captivating vistas.
Day 7 Koblenz, Germany - Cruising the Rhine River - Rüdesheim, Germany (overnight)
Located where the Rhine and Moselle rivers and three low mountain ranges meet, Koblenz has a leg up in the scenery department. Add to that the city’s 2,000-year-old history, hilltop fortress and squares lined by classic Germanic architecture and you have a place ready made for photographs. You might start by aiming your lens at the Deutsches Eck, or German Corner, where the rivers merge around a corner of land marked by a monument to Emperor William I. Ambling along the river promenade and exploring the town’s narrow lanes, you might encounter medieval churches, flower-filled parks, sidewalk cafes and perhaps a weinstube, or wine tavern, an ideal venue for sipping dry Riesling and drinking in the atmosphere.
If Rüdesheim’s scenic location on the Rhine Gorge doesn’t sweep you off your feet, then the town’s medieval Old Town with its half-timbered buildings and narrow lanes, especially the Drosselgasse overflowing with charming shops and taverns, surely will. Still more that promises to enchant and delight is the region’s renowned Rieslings, produced here for centuries from vineyards dating to Roman times. A glass of white wine or the other local specialty, Asbach brandy, sipped amid historic surroundings can make the heart flutter, not necessarily from the effects of the spirits but from the simple beauty of one of Germany’s, if not the world’s, most romantic locales. Enjoy and evening of libation, enjoying local wines and spirits as you lift your glass at the Drosselgasse, Rüdesheim’s impossibly cute medieval lane where locals and guests come to revel in good company and relish fine wines.
Day 8 Rüdesheim, Germany- Cruising the Rhine River - Mainz, Germany
If Rüdesheim’s scenic location on the Rhine Gorge doesn’t sweep you off your feet, then the town’s medieval Old Town with its half-timbered buildings and narrow lanes, especially the Drosselgasse overflowing with charming shops and taverns, surely will. Still more that promises to enchant and delight is the region’s renowned Rieslings, produced here for centuries from vineyards dating to Roman times. A glass of white wine or the other local specialty, Asbach brandy, sipped amid historic surroundings can make the heart flutter, not necessarily from the effects of the spirits but from the simple beauty of one of Germany’s, if not the world’s, most romantic locales.
Savor exceptional views as you board the cog railway for the ride to the summit of Niederwald Park overlooking the Rhine valley. At the Asbach Distillery, learn about the region’s famed Asbach brandy, produced here since 1892.
With roots as a Roman outpost that helped stand guard over the empire’s far-north territory, Mainz has a rich history. Unfortunately, much of it was obliterated during the bombing of Mainz during World War II, which destroyed most of the city center. What followed, as in much of Germany after the war, was a rebuilding, here relatively slow to allow for considered city planning and the involvement of renowned architects with a vision for urban livability. Today, Mainz is livable indeed, with a pretty location at the confluence of the Rhine and Main rivers and pedestrianized areas that invite leisurely strolls and stops to sample local wines. Architectural highlights include the Romanesque cathedral and the city’s remaining half-timbered buildings. Of course, most visitors associate Mainz with its cultural treasure, an original Gutenberg Bible—one of only a few dozen remaining copies—housed at the Gutenberg Museum.
A walk in Old Town lets you appreciate classic German lanes and buildings, spared from the bombings of World War II. No visit to Mainz is complete without a visit to the Gutenberg Museum to inspect a rare remaining copy of the Gutenberg Bible, famous for the first use of moveable type, along with other tomes dating from the 15th century.
Day 9 Speyer, Germany
Spared the destruction that befell much of Germany during World War II, Speyer is a preserved window on time, looking onto a history that reaches not only to the Roman age but farther back, to the time of settlement by the Celts. Cobbled streets wind through the centuries, passing half-timbered buildings, the remains of a medieval synagogue, fine museums and festive taverns, culminating at the town’s Romanesque cathedral, called Kaiserdom. Enormous both in scale and significance, the UNESCO-listed church dates to 1030 and houses the tombs of eight Holy Roman emperors and German kings. Look at it from any perspective—on the approach to its red sandstone walls, inside its vast interior spaces or within the context of time—and the basilica is a marvel, considered a hallmark of 11th- and 12th-century architecture.
Head to Heidelberg, home to Germany’s oldest university, to explore the charming baroque streets of Old Town and feel the intellectual energy of a city that inspired works of American author Mark Twain and British painter William Turner. In Speyer, take some physical energy to climb the 304 steps of the southwest tower of the magnificent cathedral, Kaiserdom, to admire astonishing views, or simply stand within its grandly vaulted nave to appreciate the sheer size of the largest Romanesque church in the world.
Day 10 Kehl, Germany
When you glimpse the steep-peaked, half-timbered buildings, the placid waters of narrow canals, flowers blooming on balconies and bridges, and old towers standing sentry over the scene, you know you have stepped into Strasbourg—either that, or the very pretty pages of a fairytale. Located just across the Rhine from Strasbourg, Kehl is your access point to the capital of the Alsace region, the seat of the European Parliament and, simply, one of the most photogenic old towns in existence. Strasbourg boasts a breathtakingly gorgeous Gothic cathedral (with the tallest cathedral tower in France), twisting alleyways, a sweet collection of the aforementioned half-timbered buildings and a charm that oozes from virtually every cozy corner of Grande Île, or “Large Island,” the first city center to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Day 11 Breisach, Germany
Situated along the Rhine about halfway between the supremely scenic towns of Freiburg and Colmar, Breisach is the perfect place from which to launch explorations into the surrounding Black Forest. Yet there is much to keep travelers within the embrace of this lively city, including its Romanesque church with late-Gothic altar and cobbled streets lined by pastel-hued buildings. Just a few miles west of Breisach is the remarkable star-shaped fortress town of Neuf-Brisach, or New Breisach, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Days 12 & 13 Basel, Switzerland (overnight)
On the three-border intersection of Switzerland, Germany and France and unfolding in two sections from the banks of the Rhine, Basel has an international flair, a cultural vibrancy and is picturesque besides. A medieval town center invites exploration by foot, while an abundance of museums and galleries suggest an indoor stroll amid works of art and relics of history. The Museum of Fine Arts is home to the world’s oldest art collection accessible to the public. The city itself hosts Switzerland’s oldest university, dating to 1460. Antiquity may be Basel’s strong suit, as it is in much of Europe, but this corner of Switzerland also reveals a more modern countenance: Architects Herzog & de Meuron, best known for the design of the Tate Modern in London and the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, and Frank Gehry of Bilbao Guggenheim Museum fame have contributed their considerable talents to buildings here.
Day 14 Cruising along the Rhine River
Day 15 Frankfurt, Germany
A high-powered international business hub with a bohemian spirit, Frankfurt is a city of contrasts. Although it’s home to futuristic skyscrapers and one of the world’s largest stock exchanges, it also hosts simpler and more traditional charms, like the famed medieval buildings in the Altstadt, or the old town; lush parks, forest areas, riverside pathways and botanical gardens that encompass more than half the city; a renowned collection of museums and galleries; and vibrant cider pubs where revelers from all over the world gather to raise a glass. In fact, Frankfurt is known for its multicultural diversity, with more than 180 nationalities represented among its residents.