Growing up in Europe, my parents would routinely pack us into the car and drive us into the Alps to go skiing in Switzerland or Austria, or herd us all onto the train for a weekend in Berlin or Paris. And though–as a travel writer now living in New York—I’ve continued to traverse the continent over the years via planes, trains, and automobiles, there’s one mode of exploring Europe I’d never tried before: by river boat.

I’ve never been a fan of cruises. The clichés of dining room buffets, massive tour groups, and corny activities had never appealed to me in the slightest. But sometimes, the best stories come from experiences beyond our comfort zone, so when I got the chance to join my mom on a luxury cruise on the Rhine, I decided to take the plunge.

I expected to cringe my way through bland food and cheesy onboard activities, but instead, I fell head-over-heels in love with the experience—especially when gliding along the water, a glass of champagne in hand. With just 95 staterooms, Viking’s Egdir is more like a floating boutique hotel than a cruise ship. Featuring a library, a cocktail lounge, two restaurants—one formal and one casual—the brand-new ship felt more like a luxurious, intimate adventure than the garish floating palaces I had previously pictured.

For seven days and nights, we cruised along the Rhine: stopping in both tiny villages and cosmopolitan cities; enjoying the views from the floor-to-ceiling windows in our staterooms and the lounge; spotting vineyards and castles along the river all the way from the Black Forest to the canals of the Netherlands. Here, find all of the off-the-beaten track highlights, from medieval monasteries to opulent palaces—all rivaling some of Europe’s most famous destinations with their unique, fairytale magic.

A Palace Hotel in a Medieval Town

Europe, Netherlands, Alblasserdam, Kinderdijk, Blokweer Windmill Museum (Photo by: Prisma by Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)Prisma by Dukas/Getty Images

Like a Hans Christian Andersen tale come to life, the town of Kinderdijk, Netherlands looks like a windmill-dotten dreamscape. We had the option to take a boat ride through the canals, admiring the (still active) windmills from the water, but I chose to hop on a bicycle (in true Dutch fashion) for an up-close view of the windmills. Many of them are private homes where tenants receive reduced rent in exchange for keeping the windmills running, but the Blokweer Mill has been turned into an educational center and a tiny museum, where you can step inside the house and see how the windmill keepers might have lived 100 years ago. From Kinderdijk, we sailed on to our last stop, Amsterdam, where we said a final farewell to the ship before spending our last night in one of Europe’s most storied cities.

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