The Main River
About the Main River
Main River Cruises
View river cruise deals & offers
Find a Main river cruise
The lands along the Main River are the epitome of German history and culture—medieval villages, quaint cottages and ancient castles line the slopes of this peaceful, wandering river. Winding across Central Germany, the Main River is formed by the joining of the Red Main and the White Main, meeting the Rhine River at the town of Mainz. A marvel of modern engineering, the Main-Danube canal stretches for a length of 106 miles from Bamberg to Regensburg with a total of 16 locks, making it possible to travel via river cruise ship from the North Sea to the Black Sea.
- Country: Germany
- Source: Upper Franconia
- Mouth: The Rhine River
- Length: 329 miles
Watch & Learn About the Main River
The Main (pronounced "mine") flows through the German states of Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and Hesse. The river begins near Kulmbach at the joining of its two headstreams, the Red Main and the White Main. In its upper and middle section, it runs in valleys of the German Highlands. In its lower section, it crosses the picturesque plains before meeting up with the romantic Rhine River. Major tributaries of the Main are the Regnitz, the Fränkische Saale, the Tauber and the Nidda. Since 1992, the Main has been connected to the Danube via the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal and the highly regulated Altmühl River.
Although the heyday of the Main River region wouldn't come until much later, Celtic architecture dating back to 1000 B.C. can be found along its shores. By the time of the Roman Empire, settlements along the Main were flourishing. Mainz was established as early as 13 B.C. with other cities popping up along the river's shores in the 1st century A.D. As time wore on, the Main River would rise in status as a critical trade route for the expanding Empire. Charlemagne even left his mark here, investing in canal construction and erecting the mammoth Würzburg Cathedral in the eighth century.
The Main would prove to be the springboard for inventions and political advances in use to this day. The Frankfurt Trade Fair, unique in its time, was first mentioned in 1150. Johannes Gutenberg invented his world-changing printing press in 1436 in Mainz. The seat of German democracy, Frankfurt, was where kings and emperors were elected from 855 to 1792.
During World War II, the cities along the Main were especially hard hit. On March 16, 1945, about 90 percent of the city of Würzburg was destroyed by some 225 Lancaster bombers in 17 minutes by a British air raid. Frankfurt's expansive medieval city center was completely ruined and Mainz lost 80 percent of its buildings. Bamberg is one of the few cities in Germany that was not destroyed by World War II bombings because of a nearby artillery factory that prevented planes from getting near it.
The Rhine-Main-Danube Canal
Projects for connecting the Danube and Rhine basins by canal have a long history. In 793, Charlemagne ordered the construction of a canal called the Fossa Carolina. Ultimately failing, it was not until 1836 that the Ludwigskanal, named for King Ludwig I of Bavaria, was built between Bamberg and Kelheim. This narrow, cumbersome canal was finally abandoned in 1950, due to damage it suffered during World War II.
In the early 1900s, many legislative bodies began calling for a way to connect commercial navigation on the Rhine and Danube Rivers. Several plans emerged, but two major world wars would interrupt these plans. After the Second World War, work on the canal began. By 1962, the Main's channel had been expanded as far upstream as Bamberg. The last section to be built, between Nuremberg and Kelheim, became politically controversial in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly because of the 21-mile section through the beautiful Altmühl valley. On September 25, 1992, after centuries of plotting, planning and political maneuvering, the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal was complete.
It's no wonder that a canal that connects to the Blue Danube and, eventually, the Black Sea would be surrounded by colorful cultures and landscapes. The Main-Danube Canal passes through intriguing locks and dozens of charming villages. One of the shoreline cities along the canal is Nuremberg. Famous internationally for the postwar Nuremberg Trials, travelers here can experience the softer side of the town, with traditional gingerbread goodies, tasty sausages and handmade toys.
Leaving the canal, the first stop on the Main River is medieval Bamberg, a breathtaking town that was chosen in its entirety as a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site. Discover the city's grand cathedral, the Old Town Hall straddling the River Regnitz, and serpentine streets lined with charming houses and 18th-century mansions.
Known as the "Pearl of the Romantic Road," Würzburg is surrounded by sloping hills covered with vineyards. The magnificent Bishop's Residenz is a classic example of Baroque architecture and was dubbed the "nicest parsonage in Europe" by Napoleon.
Journeying on toward the Rhine, delight in Wertheim, whose overlapping half-timbered houses are grouped along winding streets. Glassblowers have a long tradition in this town and, especially in winter time, they produce decorations that hang on Christmas trees all over the world.
Miltenberg is a picturesque Bavarian village that thrived on income from river traffic. Its cultural wealth and affluence are reflected in the beautiful medieval and renaissance houses and the gothic splendor of the Merchant Hall.
The dynamic town of Frankfurt is a study in contrasts, with its modern skyline overlooking centuries-old historic sights. Enjoy the Kaiserdom and Paulskirche and then stop by a local beergarden for a stein of local brew.
At the confluence of the Rivers Rhine and Main, the city of Mainz sparkles. The Old Town has many interesting shops, tea rooms, and restaurants, and a fountain on the Schillerplatz is decorated with scenes of the famous carnival held here every year. Johannes Gutenberg, the father of modern printing, was born here, so it's fitting that a visit to Mainz would leave an indelible impression.
A journey down the River Main is an enchanting addition to any central European discovery. Idyllic castle-dotted hillsides and quaint Bavarian villages will capture the heart of nature-lovers, history-lovers and romantics alike. The quintessential German experience, heritage groups may enjoy tracing their lineage along these waters. Whatever calls travelers to the Main, everyone will come away with a new understanding and awe for life in Europe during western civilization's formative years.
Did You Know?
- The source of Frankfurt's namesake is not, in fact, a hot dog. It was an early Franconian settlement established on an ancient ford—called a furt—on the Main River. So Frankfurt is literally "ford of the Franks."
- Some 2.3 billion Euros ($2.75 billion) were invested in the construction of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal from 1960 to 1992. Almost 20 percent of that went for environmental protection projects.
- Peter Henlein made watches in Nuremberg at the beginning of the sixteenth century commonly called Nuremberg eggs. This name originated as a mistranslation. Mr. Henlein mentioned little clocks (ueurlein) to French writer Rabelais and the translator mistook this for eierlein—little eggs.
- Nuremberg was a hotbed of astronomical inventors. Notable among these was navigator and geographer Martin Behaim, who made the first world globe.
- Nearly one of every three people living in cosmopolitan Frankfurt does not hold a German passport.
Main River Cruises
View river cruise deals & offers
Find a Main river cruise