Emerald Cruises has itineraries that span the world, but we found one of their more unique river cruises to be just our speed. We had an amazing adventure on their Enchantment of Eastern Europe itinerary that took us to Bucharest, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary. It was a magical river cruise on the Danube, and these are some of the best excursions and activities we experienced on our travels.
*Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means we may receive a commission if you click a link and purchase something we have recommended. Please check out our disclosure policy for more details. Thank you for your support!
**We were guests of Emerald Cruises for the purpose of this review. As always, opinions are 100% our own.
Table of Contents
Enchantment of Eastern Europe Favorite Activities Along the Danube
1. Bucharest City Tour
Our first activity with Emerald Cruises was a Bucharest city tour before boarding the ship. We started on a bus, with our tour guide narrating the stops along the way.
One of our stops was the massive Palace of Parliament, the world’s second-largest parliament building, constructed during the reign of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. It is also the heaviest building in the world. You have to see it to believe it.
After this, we headed to the Spring Palace, which was the home of Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena. The mansion is essentially a time capsule stuck in 1989, the last time the couple was in the home before their execution.
Rooms are quite bizarre, ranging from downright ugly to magnificently opulent. You’ll find gold and marble throughout the house, and it’s hard to miss the irony since Romanian citizens were living in poverty during the family’s reign.
Our final stop was Bucharest’s Old Town, a beautiful area that looks straight out of Paris. In fact, there are many nods to French architecture in Bucharest, as the city embraced all things French in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (language, fashion, and food included). After that time period, it was often referred to as the “Paris of the East”.
We had free time for shopping and eating in Old Town before heading to the cruise ship.
2. Going back in time in Bulgaria
Our ship departed from Giurgiu which sits on the Danube across from Bulgaria. The first morning we had to choose our excursion for the day, either a visit to the churches of Arbanasi (with a choir concert) or a guided hike to the rock churches of Ivanovo.
We opted for the tour to Arbanasi which I thought was fascinating. The town dates to the 15th century and was home to wealthy craftsmen and merchants. What’s surprising is that many of the buildings from that time have survived.
Our first stop was Konstantsaliev House, an ethnographic museum built in the 1600s that shows how the people of the region would have lived.
After this, we visited two churches, the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. It’s hard to put into words what we saw since I had never seen anything like this before.
On the outside, the buildings are nondescript brick with red tile roofs, but the inside is magical. Both are richly decorated with painted frescos depicting scenes from the Bible. The images date to the 16th and 17th centuries and are extremely well preserved.
While at one of the churches we enjoyed a choir of two women and a man singing. I would say it was similar to Gregorian chants. It was moving and a truly memorable experience.
Other guests on our Emerald Cruise chose to visit the Ivanovo rock churches. These were carved in the 12th century and featured murals dating to the 14th century. The pictures looked fabulous and I don’t think you could go wrong with either excursion.
3. Drinking wine in Vidin
The following day we visited a vineyard near Vidin where we sampled local wine at Dos Alamos vineyard. It was interesting learning about the local varietals and meeting the owners.
Other cruise ship guests chose to take a guided hike to Belogradchik Fortress which was built by the Romans in the 3rd century AD. It is quite an imposing complex and again, the pictures looked like a place I would visit on another trip to the region.
4. Cooking with a local: the highlight of our Eastern Europe Itinerary
Perhaps my favorite excursion on our Eastern Europe itinerary was our DiscoverMORE excursion (this has an additional fee) visiting the home of a local couple. In the afternoon, a small group of us (I think there were 12), were driven to a family’s home to learn how to make Banitsa, a traditional Bulgarian pastry.
The process included yogurt, eggs, and cheese mixed together and used as filling for phyllo dough which was then put in a circular pan and baked. After the hostess gave a demonstration, our group was invited to participate and make our own banitsa. It was such a wonderful experience and I highly recommend it if you have the chance!
We were able to sample our creation and everyone went home with a copy of the recipe. When we were finished in the kitchen, the husband took us out back to show us his amazing yard where he grew just about every fruit and vegetable imaginable. The entire day was something we will be talking about for years to come.
5. Crossing the Iron Gates into Serbia
Our next stop was Serbia, but not before passing through the Iron Gates, a gorge separating Romania and Serbia. I woke up early to see what it was all the hype was about.
The Iron Gates is the largest hydropower dam and reservoir system on the Danube River. There are impressive rock cliffs on both sides of the river and massive machines in place to transport ships from one side to the other.
Along the way to our next adventure, there were a few interesting sights on both sides of the river. There is a giant stone face of King Decebalus, who was a Dacian ruler around 100 AD. It took 10 years to create (in the late 1990s) and it’s the largest stone sculpture in Europe.
Another attraction is Trajan’s Tablet which marks the location of the Roman Emperor Trajan’s bridge that crossed over the Danube in 103 AD.
This also happens to be a beautiful part of the river so don’t miss an opportunity to see the gates in action and the stunning scenery.
6. Exploring Golubac Fortress
After passing through the lock system, we stopped at Lepenski Vir, an archaeological site and museum. The area was first inhabited over 12,000 years ago and in the 1970s it was excavated. It’s a fascinating look at the civilization that once existed in this area.
The highlight of the day however was a visit to Golubac Fortress. A massive complex on the Serbian side of the Danube, this 14th-century castle is one of the best-preserved fortresses in Europe.
We were able to explore on our own, and there is a wonderful museum about the history of the castle in one of the towers. (Use Google Translate to read the plaques). There is also a ton of green space outside for walking around and daydreaming about what life would have been like in this castle.
7. Admiring Belgrade’s magnificent church
I have to be honest, I wasn’t a fan of Belgrade. We took a city tour to Belgrade Fortress (which isn’t much of a castle, as it’s mostly in ruins), walked through a park, and ended at the Church of Saint Sava. The church was the highlight of our day in the city.
The Church of Saint Sava isn’t just any old church, it’s the second-largest Orthodox Church in the world. This church is the equivalent of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona as it started construction in 1935 and still isn’t complete.
The building’s interior is a magical sight with religious art, chandeliers, and golden mosaics in every corner. It will hold over 10,000 people inside when it is complete and I believe it!
8. Learning about Croatian history
I have been to Croatia before, but only to the coast. The interior of the country is quite different. We had the opportunity to take a walk through the town of Vukovar. The town was the site of a major battle during the Croatia War of Independence in the early 1990s.
During that time, several thousands were killed and 81% of the city was destroyed. Train tracks to the town have not been rebuilt, so the only access to the city is by car or bus (or boat). The city’s damaged water tower has been preserved (damage and all) to symbolize the battle and rebuilding and buildings throughout the town still bear shrapnel scars.
After our brief introduction to the area’s history, we had a Croatian lunch with a local family where we heard their story of survival during the siege. They lived for months without water and power and many residents were forced into exile. It was a very emotional experience and another highlight of this Eastern Europe itinerary.
9. Unique events in Hungary
Our stops in Hungary included the town of Kalosca, known for its paprika production and festival, and a ranch where we watched a Puszta horse show (Puszta is the Great Hungarian Plain). Kalosca was a nice place to visit, but the horses really stole the show.
The performance was wild, with whip tricks, men standing on horses, and horses lying on the ground. Watching the Magyar Cowboys was truly one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen, but it was extremely entertaining.
10. Nightime cruise along the Danube – Budapest
Cruising the Danube River at night is fabulous near any big city, but the lights of Budapest never disappoint. We arrived in the city at sunset, allowing us to take pictures of the city’s landmarks with the perfect light.
Once it was dark, we were dazzled by the opulent display of the buildings glowing along the river. It was the perfect way to end our wonderful Emerald river cruise.
Conclusion: Enchantment of Eastern Europe Itinerary
If you are considering the Enchantment of Eastern Europe itinerary, I wouldn’t hesitate to book this trip. In addition to all of the fabulous food and hospitality on board, you can see they plan some amazing excursions.