The Rivers of Europe

Published October 15, 2015-Updated July 19, 2020

The rivers of Europe are the veins that run through European culture and geography. They are the main lines of transportation and commerce, they irrigate and feed the surrounding landscapes, but they also serve as natural borders. European rivers are celebrated in songs and poems; they play a major role in the economy as well as in politics. Hundreds of rivers and their tributaries crisscross the European continent, thus connecting many cities and landscapes. Nowadays, tourism booms along these rivers: River cruises offer an easy way for foreigners to travel through Europe and experience many cities and historic places close-up. The following list includes the major rivers, mostly over 600 miles in length.

Danube, Donau

DANUBE: It originates in the German Black Forest and it’s German name is “Donau.” It flows across central Europe and the countries of Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Serbia. It then forms the border between Romania and Bulgaria, turning north across Romania to eventually end in the Black Sea. It is 1,771 miles (2,850 km) long, and one of the most significant commercial waterways on the continent. Since the construction of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal in 1992, the waterway connects the North Sea from Rotterdam to Bulgaria and the Black Sea. The Danube has a long history as a trade route: Ancient Greeks navigated up the Danube from the Black Sea, as far as the Iron Gates (four narrow gorges and three wide basins spread over several miles of the river dividing Romania and Serbia.) Later, the Romans developed river transport, and many cities along the Danube began as Roman military outposts. In medieval times, goods were moved either by boat or barge, or along its banks, which allowed the development and the growth of the Habsburg and Hungarian empires. The Danube River flows directly through many European cities, including four national capitals: Vienna (Austria), Bratislava (Slovakia), Budapest (Hungary) and Belgrade (Serbia).

DNIEPER: Rising in the southwestern part of the Russian Federation, it flows generally south through Belarus, then southeast through Ukraine, ending in the Black Sea. Overall it is 1,420 miles (2,285 km) in length. It is a main commercial transport way for the Ukraine, but it freezes during the winter.

DON: Beginning it the southwestern Russian Federation, to the south of Moscow, it flows southeast towards the Volga, then turns west, ending in the Sea of Azov (a southern extension of the Black Sea). Overall it is 1,224 miles (1,969 km) long.

ELBE: The Elbe River was once a part of the border between East and West Germany. It originates in the Czech Republic, and then it flows north through Germany, ending in the North Sea near Cuxhaven. The Elbe has long been an important route for commerce, linking major cities including Dresden, Prague and Berlin. Many dams along the river help with flood control. It’s 724 miles (1,165 km) in length.

LOIRE: Recognized as the longest river in France, the navigable Loire begins in the foothills of the Massif Central, then flows north and west across the heartland of France, finally ending in the Atlantic Ocean (Bay of Biscay.) It is 634 miles (1,020 km) long. It was a trade route since the Stone Age. The Loire Valley has been called the “Garden of France;” it contains over a thousand picturesque castles that were built along the border between Northern and Southern France.

ODER: Rising in the rugged mountains of the eastern Czech Republic, it flows west and north through south-central Poland, eventually ending in the Baltic Sea. It is 567 miles (912 km) long. After World War II, the Oder and the Lusatian river Neisse (“Lausitz”) formed the Oder–Neisse line, which was designated by the victorious allies at the Potsdam Conference as the new border between Poland and Germany. The German populations east of these two rivers had to evacuate and fled before the approaching Red Army at the end of WWII. After the war, the remaining population was forcibly expelled in accordance with the Potsdam Agreement. East Germany confirmed the border with Poland in 1950, then West Germany, after initially refusing the surrender of so much land, finally accepted the border in 1970. In 1990, the reunified Germany and the Republic of Poland signed a treaty recognizing it as their border.

PO: Italy’s longest river begins in the upper reaches of the Alps, flowing west to east across northern Italy, ending in the Adriatic Sea. It is 405 miles (652 km) long. The river flows through many important Italian cities, including Turin (Torino), Piacenza and Ferrara. It is connected to Milan through channels called navigli, which Leonardo da Vinci helped design. Near the end of its course, it creates a wide delta. The river sometimes creates heavy flooding, and therefore, over half of its length is controlled with dikes. The slope of the Po valley has a low gradient, which means it flows slowly, and feeds approximately 450 lakes. It has a large discharge, because it collects the water from many tributaries that originate on the Southern side of the Alps.

RHINE: Forming in the mountains of southeastern Switzerland, this legendary river flows west, forming Switzerland’s northeastern border with Germany, then runs directly north through western Germany forming part of that country’s border with France, then finally dissecting the Netherlands and ending in the North Sea. Numerous tributaries and branches run in all directions, and its overall length is 820 miles (1,319 km). It is the second longest river in Central and Western Europe after the Danube, with an average discharge of about 2,900 m3/s. The many castles and fortifications along the Rhine demonstrate how important it was as a waterway: it allows the transport of goods deep into Europe, and connects the Alps with the Northern Sea and Great Britain. The Rhine has a long history: About 7000–5000 BP (before present time), a general warming encouraged migration up the Danube and down the Rhine by peoples to the east. This was perhaps encouraged by the sudden massive expansion of the Black Sea, as the Mediterranean Sea burst into it through the Bosporus, about 7500 BP. The Rhine shaped the history of Europe, and today it is a main symbol of German identity and culture. An example for this is Holderlin’s poem “The Rhine.

RHONE: The river originates in the Rhône Glacier, in the Swiss Alps, at an elevation of 2205 meters. This means that it is a fast moving river with strong currents up to 10 kilometres per hour (6 mph), especially when the river carries large quantities of water during spring. It flows into the eastern end of Lake Geneva, then south through south-eastern France, emptying into the Mediterranean Sea near Arles. Small branches run in all directions, and its overall length is 505 miles (813 km).

SHANNON: It is the longest river in Ireland with 230 miles (370 km). Rising in northwestern Ireland, it flows south through a series of lakes, then turns west to eventually empty into the Atlantic Ocean. The river began flowing along its present course after the end of the last glacial period (110,000 to 12,000 years ago.) Vikings settled in the region in 10th century and used the river to raid the rich monasteries deep inland. Salmon breeding and fishing ended there due to the construction of dams in the 1950s.

TAGUS: The Tagus River rises in the central highlands of Spain, flowing southwest across Portugal, then south to Lisbon and the Atlantic Ocean. It is the longest river on the Iberian peninsula, with 626 miles (1,007 km) in length. Several dams and diversions supply drinking water to most of central Spain, including Madrid and Portugal. Dozens of hydroelectric stations create power.

VOLGA: The Volga is the largest river in European Russia in terms of length, discharge, and watershed. It flows through central Russia, and is widely viewed as the national river of Russia. It’s 3,692 km (2,294 mi) long. It flows through central Russia and into the Caspian Sea, and is widely viewed as the national river of Russia. Eleven of the twenty largest cities of Russia, including the capital, Moscow, are in the Volga’s drainage basin. Some of the largest reservoirs in the world can be found along the Volga. The river has deep meaning in Russian culture; it is often referred to as “Mother Volga.” It is widely believed that the downstream of the Volga was a cradle of the Proto-Indo-European civilization, and was later the Huns and other Turkic peoples in the first millennium AD, began to settle the area and replaced the Scythians.

In geological terms, rivers change their course quite a bit – they shape the surrounding landscapes just as they are shaped by them. The German poet Hölderlin expresses this unpredictability in a river-poem called “The Ister“:

But the rock needs engraving

And the earth needs its furrows;

If not, an endless desolation;

But what a river will do,

Nobody knows.