Aerial view of Halong Bay

The history of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal


Connecting the continent, the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal is one of Europe’s greatest man-made passageways engineered to allow seamless travel from the North Sea to the Black Sea. 

The Rhine, Main, and Danube rivers are natural wonders in their own right, but together, they create one of the foremost river routes in the world. Since the early 1990s, these illustrious waterways have provided effortless passage across the breadth of the continent, with river cruise guests able to travel from the Netherlands to Romania uninterrupted thanks to the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal. 

But what exactly is the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal? What is its history, and how has it affected tourism and trade on the rivers of Europe? Here, we’re taking an in-depth look at this engineering marvel, from its origins to the highlights you can look forward to seeing on a cruise along its waters.

What is the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal?

The Rhine-Main-Danube Canal is a man-made canal in Bavaria, Germany. It’s a system that links the Rhine with the Danube to create a navigable route between the Rhine Delta and Danube Delta. The canal in its current form was completed in 1992, though various construction efforts and routes had been in planning since as early as 793AD under Emperor Charlemagne. 

How long is the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal? 

The canal spans for 106 miles (171km), running from the city of Bamberg to the town of Kelheim via Nuremberg. By no means a straight passage between the two destinations, the canal meanders through the German landscape, with 16 locks in place to account for the extreme difference in height above sea level between the two rivers. 

How does the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal lock system work? 

image of barge in lock
Over the course of the passage, the locks lift ships up to 406 metres above sea level, with some of the largest gateways requiring a transit time of around 30 minutes to raise or lower the ship to the required height. Negotiating the lock systems of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal is challenging, with some of the narrowest gateways leaving just centimetres to spare on either side of the vessel. 

The locks work like those of any other canal, except on a much larger scale. As an example, Emerald Cruises Star-Ships sail into the lock, move into position, and set the engine to idle. Then, the remote-control lock gates are engaged, sealing the ship within the lock chamber. 

From here, it’s a case of letting water drain into or out of the lock, depending on which direction the ship is travelling in. Floating guides help to keep the ship stable as the water flows into or out of the lock chamber, a process which can take a couple of minutes or up to half an hour depending on the scale of the gate. 

When the water reaches the required level, the lock gates re-open, and the ship can make way. Due to the complexity and the time it takes to pass through each lock, traversing the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal can take a full day of travel, though this is broken up with stops, giving cruise guests the opportunity to explore the area.

The history of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal

Hoi An skyline at sunset

The idea of a continental canal linking the Rhine, Main, and Danube has actually been around for over 1,000 years. Records show that Emperor Charlamagne first ordered the construction of the canal in in the 8th century. 

The Danube, Rhine, and Main rivers have been an essential part of European trade since the Roman Age. For centuries, these waterways acted as frontiers between warring nations, as well as vital passageways to transport goods across the continent. 

Generations of rulers, inventors, and engineers pained over the task of linking these three passageways with very little luck. Accomplishing this feat would have a profound impact on trade routes across the continent, affecting not just Germany but nations from the North Sea to the Black Sea. 

However, the dream to connect these waterways went mostly unfulfilled up until 1992. In 1846, the Ludwig Canal (named after King Ludwig I of Bavaria) was completed, which joined Bamberg and Kelheim together. That said, the canal was very quickly made redundant due to its narrow channel, complicated lock system, and advancing construction of the German railway system. 

Concrete plans for the modern canal were first laid out in 1938, but the destruction caused by World War II put an end to the proposal. The project was reintroduced during the early to mid-1960s to reinvigorate the German economy following the war, with work ongoing throughout the 1970s and 1980s – though not without controversy. To complete the canal, it meant cutting through the Altmühltal nature park, which sparked some backlash from conservationist groups. 

From beginning to end, it’s estimated that €2.3 billion was spent on the project with 20% going towards environmental protection projects.

What is there to see along a Rhine-Main-Danube Canal cruise? 

Dau be Island Halong Bay

The peaceful German town of Kelheim lies at the most southerly and easterly end of the Rhine-Main-Danube canal, and it’s here where the canal finishes and the Danube begins. While most of our river cruise itineraries don’t designate a whole lot of time to exploring Kelheim, highlights to look out for as you pass through the town include Weltenburg Abbey, the Danube Gorge and Liberation Hall. As part of a daily excursion in the nearby city of Regensburg, you’ll have the chance to visit the Kuchlbauer Brewery in Abensberg, a small town within the province of Kelheim. Here, learn about Germany’s love of wheat beer from passionate experts, before raising a glass to the end of your German adventure on the remarkable Rhine-Main-Danube canal.

Our Splendours of Europe river cruise gives you the chance to see Abensberg and visit its esteemed brewery.

Explore the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal with Emerald Cruises 

Given how much there is to see when traversing these three joined waterways, the best way to take in all the sights is with an all-encompassing cruise that begins at the very start and finishes at the very end of the canal. Take a look at our Emerald Cruises Epic Voyages, and our itineraries throughout the Rhine, Main, and Danube rivers to learn more about the experiences you can enjoy as you sail the breadth of the continent. 
Entranced by the engineering prowess and heritage highlights of the Rhine-Main-Danube canal? Join us on one of our many award-winning European river cruises and experience this spectacular waterway for yourself. For more information or to book, visit the homepage or call us on 0808 163 8030.