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A river cruise through Europe promises something that those mega ocean liners simply can’t: immediate access to storybook small towns tucked into the nooks and crannies of scenic valleys and vineyards. These hamlets emerge around river bends as excited cruise passengers look forward to meandering quaint streets that aren’t jam-packed with tourists the way larger ports are (looking at you, Santorini, Venice and Dubrovnik). With a river cruise, you can unpack once, settle into your cabin, and prepare to be swept away by small-town ports with names you may not be able to pronounce, but are sure to make you feel like a traveler, not a tourist. Below are just a few under-the-radar towns to inspire your next European river cruise.

RELATED: Go here, not there—6 great alternatives to crowded European destinations

Vineyard & Kaimt Mosel Village, Mosel Valley, Rhineland-palatinate, Germany

Cochem, Germany

River: Moselle
Population: 5,700
Find it here: Viking’s 11-night Europe cruise departing from Trier, returning to Bamberg

Tucked into the vineyard-laced slopes of the Moselle Valley, Cochem is a Medieval town crowned by the dramatic Reichsburg Cochem Castle. It’s perched high atop a hill overlooking a maze of narrow streets and alleyways lined with colorful, half-timbered houses. Wine tasting and wine walks are popular activities here, as the region is world-renowned for its Riesling. There’s also an adorable 200-year-old mustard mill to visit. After a morning of meandering, grab a table at the riverfront promenade and sip amidst the scenery.

Town View & Danube River (Donau River), Krems, Wachau, Austria

Krems, Austria

River: Danube
Population: 24,000
Find it here: Viking’s 7-night Europe cruise departing from Nuremburg, returning to Budapest

Krems is situated in the Wachau Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and home to cobblestone streets that beckon to be wandered. In the atmospheric town center, sample the region’s famous apricot brandy, Marillenschnaps, and explore its local galleries, museums and churches. Göttweig Abbey, a short drive from town, is a working Benedictine Abbey that’s more than 1,000 years old. It offers an expansive feast for the eyes with its walled courtyard, gardens, church, cloister and crypt.

Dom Luis I Bridge and Douro river in Porto, Portugal

Pinhão, Portugal

River: Douro
Population: 700
Find it here: Viking’s 9-might Europe cruise departing and returning to Porto

Pinhão is a sleepy town nestled amidst the rolling green hills along the Douro River—one of Europe’s emerging river cruise destinations that weaves through Spain and Portugal. Pinhão is the epicenter of the valley’s port wine making region, so it provides an ideal gateway to local wine estates (quintas). The town itself, however, is also worth a linger, with welcoming shops, cafes and a historic railway station with beautiful blue-tiled murals depicting the history of Pinhão. While on the water, keep an eye out for the Maria Pia Bridge, a beloved railway bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel—yes, that Eiffel.

ALSO: Sign up for Orbitz Rewards to travel your way to perks like hotel upgrades, TSA Pre✓® and more—it’s free to join!

View of Cathedral of Meissen, Saxony, Germany

Meissen, Germany

River: Elbe
Population: 28,000
Book it here: Viking’s 9-night Europe cruise departing from Decin, returning to Wittenberg

It’s hard to miss the Burgberg rising above the Elbe River as you glide into the town of Meissen. Translating as “castle hill,” the Burgberg is home to two architectural marvels: a grand castle and a Gothic cathedral. Hike or take the panoramic lift to get to the top. Afterwards, savor the delightful Saxony scenery at its base. This includes Meissen’s marketplace, which is home to a playful row of pastel-painted Renaissance houses. Also, be sure to peruse the town’s famous “white gold,” a.k.a. porcelain, at its artisan shops. It’s considered among the highest quality in the world and has been in production in Meissen for more than 300 years.

Overlooking the Rhône River in Lyon from Croix-Rousse

Tournon-sur-Rhone, France

River: Rhone
Population: 11,000
Find it here: Viking’s 7-night Europe cruise departing from Avignon, returning to Lyon

This charming walled city is home to a pedestrian-friendly bridge that links it to Tain-l’Hermitage across the Rhone River—so it’s like getting two villages in one port stop. In Tournon, meander the winding cobblestone streets to its impressive castle and tranquil Le Jardin d’Eden (Garden of Eden). The latter is nestled in the old town fortifications and considered a gem by locals and travelers alike for its lush setting and sweeping valley views. In Tain-l’Hermitage, indulge the palate with a combination of world-famous wine—it’s the birthplace of Syrah, after all—and local chocolate.

German church located high above the Mosel river near Bernkastel-Kues Germany

Bernkastel-Kues, Germany

River: Moselle
Population: 8,000
Find it here: Viking’s 11-night Europe cruise departing from Trier, Bamberg

Bernkastel and Kues are twin towns split by the Moselle River. A quintessential Medieval German setting, Bernkastel-Kues is also known as the “City of Vine and Wine” because it’s home to more than 100 wineries that climb the steep slopes rising from the river. So, if you like your wine and small village atmosphere, you’re in luck here. The most famous (and expensive) is Bernkasteler Doctor, which, according to legend, earned its name after producing a wine that cured a 14th-century prince’s terminal illness overnight. Make time to stroll Bernkastel, slowly, as it consistently wows visitors with its colorful half-timbered houses, charming squares and castle ruins—that latter of which boasts epic views of the river valley below.

Tagged: Europe, Germany, Portugal

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Erica Bray

Erica Bray

Erica is a practical free spirit who loves travel, yoga and ice cream. A Northwestern University-trained journalist with more than 15 years of experience straddling digital and broadcast media, Erica can be found doing handstands everywhere she travels -- even risking arrest in some cases. Learn about her at www.erica.media.

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