Traveling Along the Rhine River in Europe

The Rhine River, Europe’s premier waterway, flows from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea through Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

Boats in Rüdesheim

Traveling along and on the Rhine River has long been popular. Europe’s premier waterway has been very important for commerce in the pre-industrial era, and although the Rhine is now less vital for trade, the river is still very much used commercially. The Rhine is also very important for tourism. Boat cruises – from short day-trip excursions to multiple-day cruises – are very popular. The banks of the Rhine are also popular with hikers and cyclists while simply driving through parts of the Rhine Valley is most enjoyable too.

Rhein / Rhine / Rijn in Switzerland, France, Germany, Holland

Map of the Rhine
© Ulamm / Wikimedia Commons

The Rhine River is around 1,230 kilometers (760 miles) from its source in the Alps in Switzerland to the North Sea in the Netherlands. It is navigable from Basel on the Swiss-French-German border all the way to the North Sea.

The Rhine River is Der Rhein in German, Le Rhin in French, and Die Rijn in Dutch. Various further names are used in regional dialects. In Latin, the Rhine is Rhenus.

The Rhine River is often divided into distinct geographical regions: the Alpine Rhine in Switzerland that flows into Lake Constance, the High Rhine forming mostly the border between Switzerland and Germany, the Upper Rhine in Germany and France, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Middle Rhine in Germany, and the Lower Rhine in Germany, and finally the Delta Rhine in the Netherlands.

The Rhine of folklore and castles is mainly the Middle Rhine between Rüdesheim and Koblenz, especially the Loreley Valley where the Rhine Valley is narrow and the river at its most dangerous to boating.

Alpine Rhine in Switzerland

Confluence of the Rhines in Reichenau with railway bridge
© Kabelleger / David Gubler / Wikimedia Commons

The origins of the Rhine River are Swiss. The source of the Rhine River is in the Swiss Alps, and although several streams contribute and have Rhein in the name, the two initial main tributaries are minor Alpine streams known as the Vorderrhein (Anterior Rhine) and Hinterrhein (Posterior Rhine). From the confluence of these two streams at Reichenau, the river is simply known as the Rhine.

The Rhine flows from the Alps northwards and forms the borders between Switzerland and Liechtenstein and Switzerland and Austria on the way to the Bodensee (Lake Constance). A modern canalization system takes the Rhine for a short distance through Austria only before it flows into the lake — the border still follows the curve of the original Old Rhine.

Lake Constance and the “Lake Rhine”

Boat arriving in Konstanz on the Bodensee
© Achim / Wikimedia Commons

The Alpine Rhine flows into Lake Constance (Bodensee) at the Swiss-Austrian border and the High Rhine flows out as part of the Swiss-German border. The Seerhein (Lake Rhine) is a 4km stretch of river that connects the main lake (Obersee) with the smaller Untersee which is 30 cm lower.

A bridge over the Seerhein in the lovely historic city of Constance (Konstanz) in Germany is point zero for Rhine distance markers. All downstream Rhine markers measure the distance in kilometers from this bridge.

Lake Constance is a very popular vacation region for Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Apart from the natural beauty of the area, it also played a major role in historic events, especially during the middle ages. Reichenau island has three Unesco World Cultural Heritage-listed Romanesque churches.

High Rhine — a Swiss-German Border River

Rhine Waterfalls with SBB Swiss Train
© Kabelleger / David Gubler / Wikimedia Commons

The river draining Lake Constance is known as the High Rhine (Hochrhein) up to the Swiss city Basel at the border with both France and Germany. It mostly forms the border between Germany and Switzerland although both countries have small enclaves on the “wrong” side of the river. (Drivers should watch out, Swiss customs checks are often made, especially on weekends, to catch shoppers who try to buy meat and other products cheaper in Germany.)

It is possible to cruise from Kreuzlingen and Konstanz to Schaffhausen via beautiful Stein am Rhein and visit the nearby Rhine waterfalls (Rheinfall), Europe’s largest waterfalls.

French and German Upper Rhine River

Basel Münster seen from the Rhine
Basel © Lucazzitto / Wikimedia Commons

At the Swiss border town Basel, the Rhine makes a sharp northwards turn — often referred to as the Rheinknie (Rhine Knee) — and is navigable all the way to the North Sea. The Rhine used to be one of the most important trade routes in Europe and even in the present era, the Rhine is still busy with commercial traffic as boating remains a particularly cheap way of transporting heavy goods.

The river is known as the Upper Rhine (Hochrhein / Rhin Supérieur) from Basel to Bingen (across from Rüdesheim).

From the Swiss city Basel past Mulhouse and Strasbourg in France to near Karlsruhe in Germany, the Rhine River forms the border between France and Germany. Roads and important highways run parallel to the Rhine but are generally not within sight of the river allowing outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy the river here in relative peace and quiet. Much of the Rhine here is canalized with older oxbow sections of the river often called the Old Rhein (Alte Rhein).

Speyer, Worms, and Mainz were very important cities during the Middle Ages. Much of their importance and wealth can be attributed to the presence of the Rhine. All three of these cities have important cathedrals. The Dom in Speyer is pure Romanesque and the largest Romanesque building in Germany. The cathedrals in Mainz and Worms are Romanesque in origin but both have strong Gothic elements too.

The Neckar River (with the lovely university town Heidelberg) and the Main River (with the commercial giant Frankfurt) are the two main rivers that feed into the Rhine to make it a truly big river.

German Middle Rhine with Loreley Valley

Burg Katz and the Loreley Rock
© Alexander Hoernigk (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Middle Rhine (Mittelrhein) from Rüdesheim and Bingen to Bonn is probably the most picturesque stretch of the river. Especially the section from Rüdesheim to Koblenz is the Rhine of castles and myths. The Rhine Valley is here at its steepest and narrowest and a castle or castle ruins can be seen every two kilometers. During the Middle Ages, this section of the Rhine was the largest source of tax income in Europe.

The Middle Rhine is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. No bridges cross the Rhine between Mainz and Koblenz although car and passenger ferries are available.

Aerial image of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley
© Carsten Steger / Wikimedia Commons

The Middle Rhine valley is at its steepest and the Rhine River at its narrowest at the treacherous Loreley Rock. Here, according to legend, a singing mermaid drew captains and crews to their death. Although the treacherous rapids have largely been tamed with the help of dynamite in the nineteenth century, navigating the fast-flowing Rhine here still requires skill.

North of Koblenz, where the meandering Mosel (Moselle) joins the Rhine, the Rhine Valley is much wider and less spectacular. However, the Siebengebirge with the Drachenfels (Dragon Rock) near Bonn are notable exceptions and are also popular for day-trip boat excursions from Cologne.

The Rhine is a 450 m (1,480 ft) wide, slow-flowing stream at Mainz and Wiesbaden. At the Loreley Rock, the Rhine narrows to 130 m (420 ft) and flows at a rapid 10 km/h (6 mph). After the Loreley, the Rhine once again slows down and continues to flow at a more sedate pace.

The Middle Rhine is the most popular part of the Rhine to visit on day trips. The best parts to see on a day-cruise excursion are the Loreley Valley between Rüdesheim / Bingen and St Goar / St Goarhausen.


The German Lower Rhine

Cologne Cathedral in evening
© Emmanuel Gill / Wikimedia Commons

The Lower Rhine covers the stretch of the Rhine from Bonn to the Dutch border. Generally, the main attractions from here northwards are cities rather than the river and nature.

Cologne (Köln), with just less than a million inhabitants, is the largest city on the Rhine. The famous Kölner Dom Gothic cathedral and several Romanesque churches provide a distinct panorama that can easily be enjoyed from the Hohenzollernbrücke that spans the Rhine right next to the Hauptbahnhof.

The skyline of Düsseldorf is thoroughly modern. From here, the Rhine flows through heavily populated areas including the industrially very important Ruhr region. The Rhine is particularly important for commerce from here downstream – Duisburg is the largest inland port in Europe. Weeze Airport here is popular for low-cost flights to European holiday destinations.

Delta Rhine in the Netherlands

Map of Flow of Rhine in the Netherlands
© Wikimedia Commons

The Rhine River flows into the Netherlands at Emmerich. Shortly before the Rhine splits into different rivers and deltas in the Netherlands, the Rhine River’s average discharge is 2,260 cubic meters (79,823 cubic ft) per second.

In the Netherlands, the flow of the Rhine has changed course throughout the centuries. Presently, the largest body of water flows down the Waal River while the Lower Rhine (Nederrijn) is a much smaller river. The Rhine itself does not make it to the North Sea anymore. A few streams still have Rijn in their names but no actual water from the present Rhine River.

The Rhine is very important for tourism. Luxury multiple-day cruises are very popular while shorter day-trip cruise excursions are particularly popular in the Loreley Valley and from Bonn near Cologne.

More on the Rhine River in Germany

Day-Trip Excursions and Pleasure Cruises on the Rhine River:

Tips and Savings on Day-Trip Rhine Cruises

Henk Bekker in armor

About the author:

Henk Bekker

Henk Bekker is a freelance travel writer with over 20 years of experience writing online. He is particularly interested in history, art, and culture. He has lived most of his adult life in Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark. In addition to, he also owns a travel website on the Lake Geneva region of Switzerland and maintains statistical websites on car sales and classic car auction prices. Henk holds an MBA from Edinburgh Business School and an MSc in Development Finance from the University of London.

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