Germany is crisscrossed by more than 7.000 kilometres of interconnected rivers, canals, streams and lakes, from the Elbe and Havel in the northeast, to the Neckar and Danube in the southwest. This page provides an overview of the biggest and most famous German rivers.
Rivers in Germany
As well as being key economic arteries for industrial and agricultural regions, rivers in Germany and the beautiful landscapes that surround them are also considered cultural icons. Poets, artists and writers have been flocking to them for centuries to find inspiration in their dramatic beauty, while among tourists they are considered one of the most prominent German sights.
From the marshy flatlands of the northeast to the terraced vineyards, picturesque palaces and castles of the southwest, rivers in Germany are a key part of the country’s diverse geography. Many of most well-known rivers pass through meandering valleys, Roman ruins, national parks and the farmlands that inspired the Brothers Grimm.
Ways you can enjoy Germany’s famous waterways
Here are a few ways you can enjoy Germany’s famous waterways:
One of the most popular ways of taking in the charm of the German countryside is a river cruise. Sipping on a glass of Riesling or a cool German beer while watching the sights slip by has to be one of the best ways to travel. There are countless operators offering cruises up and down Germany’s rivers, with options to suit all tastes and budgets, from cheap and cheerful day trips to luxury multi-day cruises.
Germany is well-equipped with a whole variety of well-maintained cycling routes, many of which meander along the banks of the country’s most famous rivers, with plenty of sights, beer gardens and restaurants along the way. Some of the most popular river cycling routes in Germany include the Rhine Cycle Route, the Elbe Cycle Route, and the Danube Cycle Path. The trans-European EuroVelo routes also link up rivers in Germany with those in the Netherlands, Switzerland, and further afield.
Swimming in rivers
Germany is blessed with more than 2.300 bathing spots that are suitable for outdoor swimming, with approximately 97 percent of bathing waters along rivers and lakes in the federal republic rated good or excellent in terms of water quality. Swimming in natural bodies of water like rivers is one of the most popular recreational activities in Germany, especially when the weather is warm, but care needs to be taken to avoid health risks like polluted waters and strong currents.
You should always swim in a designated bathing area, which can be found up and down the country. Signs that indicate that bathing is prohibited or unsafe in a certain area should be taken seriously.
Fishing in German rivers
Fishing is generally allowed throughout Germany, although there are a few exceptions. All would-be anglers need a fishing licence (Fischereischein) and a fishing permit (for the particular area or fishery they want to fish in) before casting off. In almost all federal states, you need to pass a fishing exam to get your licence.
This involves applying to a local fishing club (Angelverein), and taking part in a set amount of supervised fishing lessons. Fishing permits can be obtained from local fishing shops or clubs and can be renewed on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.
Tourists and visitors to Germany can also apply for a licence. Most federal states do not require tourists to pass the exam. If you fish without a permit or a licence, you could be fined up to 25.000 euros by the police.
Map of German rivers
Below you can see a map of some of the biggest rivers in Germany:
Largest German rivers
The question of which are the largest German rivers very much depends on the criteria you use. Some rivers flow entirely within Germany, while others simply pass through the federal republic on their way to and from other countries. In absolute terms, the Danube River is the longest that passes through Germany, but the Rhine River is the longest stretch of river within Germany, and the Main River is the longest river that is entirely within German borders.
Below are some of the largest and most famous German rivers.
Without any doubt, the River Rhine (Rhein) is the one of the most famous rivers in Germany. From its source in eastern-central Switzerland, the Rhine flows northwest through Lake Constance (Bodensee), around the Black Forest, and then north up towards the Netherlands, where it flows into the North Sea.
The Rhine has a remarkably powerful current, one of the reasons why it’s become the busiest river in Europe, with heavy-loaded barges chugging back and forth between the river’s industrial centres. As well as an important route for transport, it has long been a magnet for tourists and creative types, Its many deep valleys and meandering turns through vineyards and castle-speckled hillsides make it one of Germany’s best beauties.
Starting at the confluence of the Fulda and the Werra, the Weser crosses the North German Plain to enter the North Sea, passing through the city of Bremen before flowing into the ocean near the ports of Bremerhaven and Nordenham.
If the Weser and the Werra are taken together as one river, it is the longest river that flows entirely within Germany. With its picture-perfect vistas looking out across the many villages of the German Fairy Tale Road, it’s said to have inspired the Brothers Grimm.
From its source in the Giant Mountains in northern Czechia, the Elbe takes in much of Bohemia and Germany before flowing into the North Sea at Cuxhaven, 110 kilometres northwest of Hamburg.
The Elbe is a very historic river, having served as an important delineator of European geography as far back as Roman times. In the Middle Ages it formed the eastern limit of Charlemagne’s empire, and between 1949 and 1990 the Elbe formed part of the Inner German Border between East and West Germany. It also takes in its fair share of sights, from tiny wine villages to the “Florence on the Elbe”, the city of Dresden in Saxony.
The longest river to pass through Germany and the river that runs through the most countries in the world (10), the Danube (Donau) rises in the Black Forest and passes through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine before draining into the Black Sea.
Its beautiful scenery attracts millions of tourists each year, while its banks also hold fascinating glimpses of ages gone by. Treasures on offer include Roman remains and Regensburg, the best-preserved medieval city in Germany.
If the Weser and Werra are counted as two separate rivers, the Main is the longest river to flow entirely within Germany. The longest tributary of the Rhine, the Main rises in northeastern Bavaria and flows through central Germany to meet the Rhine by Rüsselheim in Hesse, close to the cities of Mainz and Wiesbaden, a famous spa town.
Flowing through glorious Franconian countryside, the Main takes in Bamberg’s romantic old town - a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a Roman camp at Marktbreit, and the cities of Frankfurt am Main, Offenbach am Main, and Würzburg.
A tributary of the Elbe, the Saale originates in Upper Franconia and travels north through Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt to enter the Elbe just above Barby. Its 413-kilometre route takes in three federal states, a number of historical sites and several famous winegrowing regions.
The Spree is the main tributary of the River Havel - and is actually much longer than it! The main river of Berlin, Brandenburg and Lusatia, the Spree rises in the Lusatian mountains and flows north towards its final, best-known stretch through the city centre of Berlin, where it joins the Havel in Spandau. Museum Island, which houses some of the most famous museums in the German capital, is an island in the Spree.
Flowing 371 kilometres, the Ems River in northwestern Germany flows through North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony before discharging into the North Sea by Delfzijl, a Dutch city. It is lined by several famous cycle routes.
The Neckar is a major tributary of the Rhine and flows primarily in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, with a short section in Hesse. It passses through the cities of Rottenburg am Neckar, Tübingen, Esslingen, Stuttgart, Ludwigsburg and Heilbronn before ending by the famous castle in Heidelberg, where it merges with the Rhine.
One of the primary feeders of the mighty Elbe River, the Havel flows through Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Brandenburg, Berlin and Saxony-Anhalt.
Although it does not technically flow through Germany, the Oder is an important river as it forms the boundary between Germany and Poland and is critical for waterborne freight. It originates in Czechia and ends in the Black Sea.
Surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in Germany, the Moselle is studded with vineyards, crumbling castles, medieval architecture and chocolate-box villages. It rises in the Vosges mountains and flows through northwestern France and Luxembourg to western Germany. It joins the Rhine in Koblenz at the famous monument, Deutsches Eck (German Corner)
Other rivers in Germany
There are hundreds of other rivers in Germany. We’ve listed some of the major ones here, sorted according to where they flow out to sea.
Rivers wholly in Germany
These rivers all flow entirely within German borders, rather than passing through Germany on their way to or from somewhere else.
German rivers draining into the Baltic Sea
German rivers draining into the Black Sea
German river draining into the North Sea
These rivers pass through Germany and Austria.
As well as Germany and Austria, the Inn river also passes through Switzerland.
These rivers pass through Germany and the Netherlands.
The Rur river goes through Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.
These rivers are shared between Germany and France.
The Lausatian Neisse is a German-Polish river.