Choosing my favorite destination from our Viking River Cruise down the Danube feels like a near impossible task. When you’ve got stops in famous capital cities like Budapest and Vienna and days spent surrounded in natural beauty like that of the Wachau Valley, it’s easy to fall in love with everywhere you visit. But if I just had to choose, I’d probably say the best day of our trip was the one we spent in Passau, Germany.
Nicknamed the City of Three Rivers due to its location in Lower Bavaria where the Danube, the Inn River, and the Ilz River meet, Passau is a relatively small city in Germany with just shy of 50,000 residents. Prior to our trip, I’d never even heard of Passau before. To be totally honest, it was actually the stop I was least looking forward to as I read through our itinerary a few weeks before the trip. To arrive and discover Passau to be exactly the sort of town I love exploring the most was such an unexpected and pleasant surprise.
While our previous three days on the Danube had been rather scheduled and busy, our time in Passau was the complete opposite. We skipped the official Viking tour for the day in favor of exploring Passau on our own, and what we found was a lovely Old Town with crumbling alleys, cobblestone streets, and confectionery shops selling heavenly-smelling gingerbread, one of Passau’s most popular treats. Outside of the Old Town, an abundance of quiet spots with scenic river views begged to be photographed and appreciated for their stillness and beauty. Maybe it was the time of year we were visiting (the holidays tend to do this to me) or the fact that the sun finally came out for the first time in four days, but I could not wipe the grin off my face the whole time we were in Passau.
Wandering was at the top of our to-do list in Passau, but we also made sure not to miss some of the city’s best sights while we were there, too!
St Stephan’s Cathedral
One of our stops in Old Town was to visit Passau’s most famous sight – St Stephan’s Cathedral, a Baroque church built in the late 1600’s after a fire destroyed its Gothic predecessor in 1662. If you’ve been following my Danube journey, you’ll know this wasn’t the first church we visited on the trip. It wasn’t even the second or third. It was the fourth. By this time, you’d think I’d be like, Oh, joy, another cathedral! and only give it an obligatory peek before quickly moving on…and I likely would have had this not been such a beast of a cathedral.
From the outside, St Stephan’s Cathedral didn’t look like much, but once we stepped inside and were face to face with row after row of towering columns and sky high painted ceilings, the cathedral got a whole lot more interesting. With its stark white walls and intricate sculptures peering down upon visitors, St Stephan’s Cathedral was almost a little frightening – definitely not what I’d call a cozy place of worship, but still worthy of a visit if only to appreciate its formidable size and design.
The cathedral’s biggest claim to fame is that the world’s largest cathedral organ lives here. During the months of April through October, visitors can attend concerts featuring the famous organ, but in winter when the organ rests its windpipes, all you can do is take a look at the organ which, while massive in size, isn’t admittedly all that fascinating to look at. In my opinion, the ceilings and paintings to either side of the nave are the real scene-stealers here.
The square just outside of St Stephan’s Cathedral is where Passau’s Christkindlmarkt sets up every year in December. So far on this trip, we’d only visited Christmas markets in big cities, so this was our first opportunity to experience the charm of a “small town” Christmas market. (Not that Passau would usually be considered a small town, but in comparison to Vienna, possibly yes.)
We arrived just as the market opened for the day and already families with small children were making their rounds past the treat shops and handicraft stalls. A happy buzz was in the air as people greeted each other with familiarity and children ran from stall to stall, shouting excitedly in German. The Christmas market in Passau, with its intimate setting and less crowded scene, felt decidedly more relaxed and local and was a welcome departure from the exciting, yet also slightly chaotic vibe of the big city Christmas markets we’d seen so far.
We loved Passau’s Christkindlmarkt so much that we ended up returning a second time during the day to grab a bite to eat. We dove into giant Bavarian sausages for our first course (because when in Germany, right?) and had schneeballen for dessert, which sounds a lot like something Dr Seuss or Willy Wonka made up, but is indeed a real food. And a really delicious one at that. People visit Christmas markets for a lot of reasons – the handmade gifts, the glühwein, because it’s tradition. Me? I come for the food.
Click here for 8 Festive Christmas Markets To Visit In Austria & Germany!
Hands down, my favorite place in Passau was the Innpromenade, a paved walkway that runs along the southern edge of the Old Town beside the Inn River. If you walk the length of it, you’ll reach the point where all three rivers in Passau meet. My favorite section of the Innpromenade, however, was the area directly across the Inn from St Gertraud Church. In this spot, the river was almost perfectly still, and even at 11 in the afternoon, hardly anyone else was passing by. We had this whole, quiet section of the river mostly to ourselves. The entire city of Passau was what I’d call peaceful, but if I had to pick its most tranquil spot, this would be it.
We stumbled upon the Innpromenade completely by accident, and just as we approached the edge of the river, the clouds parted and the sun broke through casting gorgeous hazy rays of light over the water. Even if we hadn’t just spent the last four days under perpetual clouds and fog, it would have been a beautiful sight to see, but since we actually had been walking beneath cloud cover for the entire trip, seeing the sun come out was like tasting a bite of real food after a week-long juice fast. We immediately sprung into action and started taking photos like mad, because this was Europe after all and who knew when our next sun sighting might be?
While the scenery in Passau was perfectly lovely at ground level, we also wanted to find somewhere to get up high where we could view the whole town and its three rivers at once, so that’s where we headed next.
The View from Veste Oberhaus
Veste Oberhaus, Passau’s fortress, was once the stronghold of the Bishop of Passau, but is now-a-days a museum featuring tours through its Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque buildings with exhibits on both history and art in Passau. I don’t believe the fortress was open the day we visited, but it didn’t matter seeing as we were there simply for the view!
Veste Oberhaus sits high on a ridge in between the Danube and the Ilz River and offers one spectacular panoramic view of the town and rivers below…if you’re willing to break a sweat to reach it, that is. Getting to the fortress requires a bit of a hike with a steep incline up the side of the hill, but the path is easy to follow and the reward is more than worth the effort.
Once again, it was like the sun had been waiting for us to arrive at our destination before making its entrance, because as soon as we reached one of the fortress’s public lookout points, a beam of light suddenly shone down from the clouds above directly onto St Stephan’s Cathedral. And just then, the hour turned noon, setting the city alive with the resonating sound of church bells calling to each other from all sides of the rivers. It was so beautiful and moving to witness. Definitely one of those rare moments where I felt like I was in the exact place I was meant to be at that particular moment in time. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
A Bavarian Cruise on the Inn River
We ended our day in Passau by heading back to Austria. Well, sort of, anyway.
Shortly after lunch, we hopped on a bus that took us to Scharding, a town in Austria, where we enjoyed the last few hours of daylight on a Bavarian cruise down the Inn River. The Inn runs between Germany and Austria, so as we drifted down a serene stretch of the river, we bounced back and forth between the two depending on whichever bank of the river we were closer to. Our cloud cover was back for the cruise, and with it chilly temperatures, but we toughed it out on the open air section of our small wooden barge anyway. Anything for photos, right? (Although, the warm, cozy interior of our boat was awfully tempting!)
It never stops surprising me how early the sun sets in Europe in the winter. By 3pm, it felt like we were taking an evening cruise down the Inn River, but except for the cold, I didn’t mind. I loved the moody tones the light at dusk cast over the scenery as we passed by. And the stillness of the water made for near perfect reflections until our boat approached, creating ripples in their images.
Cruising down the river on a tiny boat between two beautiful countries, bundled up in blankets and chatting with friends – it was a perfect ending to what had turned out to be a pretty memorable day. At this point, we still had two full days left on our cruise down the Danube, but I was already feeling wistful knowing that this incredible experience would soon be coming to an end!
This post is part of a series. If you’d like to read more about cruising the Danube with Viking River Cruises, just follow the link!
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