Bicycle along castle-studded river banks. Eat local. Burrow inside underground Egyptian tombs.
Maybe even dance the night away at a “silent disco” in a neon-lit ice bar?
The best river cruises have evolved by leaps and bounds in recent years to cater to different guests’ tastes (in the same way as new ocean-going cruises have been revolutionized).
Some are going high-tech too. One of the newest river cruise ships setting sail in 2021 is the ms Andorinha, featuring a pop-up restaurant which rises on hydraulic lifts for alfresco dining (more on this ship later under the European river cruises section).
Best river cruises
So, which river cruise line is the best? That depends.
Like being active?
Several river cruise lines pack bikes on their boats for cycling cruises where you go pedaling around the countryside, exploring medieval villages and riverbank trails.
Enjoy being pampered?
Some river cruises are ultra-luxurious, like Crystal River Cruises (think all-suite butler service and music concerts in palaces and monasteries).
Under 45? Got you covered too.
U by Uniworld (U River Cruises) was the first cruise line to cater to millenials, with trendy black ships featuring funky pod-like bunk beds with private TVs, bartending classes and rooftop ice bars. Then came the Amadeus Star (2019) from Amadeus River Cruises – it woos millennial cruisers with yoga and a social media “celebrity influencer” on each cruise.
Finding the best river cruise for you involves figuring out, one, where you want to go, and two, which cruise line suits your style as a traveler.
In general, though, river cruises are more intimate than ocean cruises. Ships are smaller (usually between 75 and 200 passengers), and it’s easy to get to know fellow passengers. Typically, you spend lots of time ashore.
As well, river cruise rates are all-inclusive. Along with cruise accommodation and meals, fares include shore excursions, alcohol (sometimes just wine and beer at lunch and dinner) and cruise gratuities.
One of the best European river cruises?
No, it’s not a Danube River cruise. Or a Rhine River cruise. (Though those are popular, for good reason.) Or even a Douro River cruise in Portugal. (Though those European rivers are popular, for good reason.)
It’s a Seine River cruise in Normandy, France.
Let’s travel back in time to France. The year is 1883.
Claude Monet was clickety-clacking on a train through the quaint village of Giverny when he spotted a charming two-storey house through the window. He instantly fell in love with its pink crushed-brick façade and jaunty green shutters – and moved in.
Here he gardened and painted, and in time created his celebrated water-garden. It served as the inspiration for his series of masterpiece Impressionist paintings on water lilies.
For some 40 years (until his death in 1926), Monet continued to live and paint in this enchanting little slice of Normandy.
Monet picked well.
We too were enchanted by Giverny when cruising the Seine River – one of the best river cruises in the world for a destination-rich itinerary.
A world of river cruises beyond Europe
But, of course, the world is larger than just Europe.
When you think “river cruise,” Europe probably springs to mind first. Europe is, in fact, the biggest destination for river cruising.
Yet it’s also possible to drift on inland waterways in many different countries, including in Egypt (and elsewhere in Africa), China, the U.S., India, the Far East and South America.
You can sail on everything from a six-person luxury barge to a floating river hotel.
We’ve been fortunate to enjoy several of the world’s best river cruises – in China, Egypt (twice), Namibia, Myanmar (twice) and our most recent, in France on the Seine River (with Scenic Cruises).
Indeed, ever since our first river cruise, we’ve been hooked on meandering slowly along rivers, soaking up some of the world’s most historic and cultural sights.
We’re pretty sure that once you take your first river cruise, you too will be seduced by river cruising.
Don’t miss! See our ultimate Cruise Guide – you’ll find boatloads of cruise reviews (from a Star Clippers sailing cruise to luxury cruising on Seabourn)
The world’s best river cruises?
So with that introduction behind us, here are the top-rated river cruises in the world – including the scoop on some fabulous new river cruise ships.
1) Top-rated European river cruises
With so many rivers, Europe offers a wide variety of itineraries. Perhaps you’d be interested in a “Danube Waltz” cruise itinerary from Passau to Budapest?
You certainly won’t lack for choice when it comes to luxury Europe river cruises!
Best river cruises in Europe
The following lines serve up the best Europe river cruises, as rated by both Mundy Cruising and Douglas Ward, a veteran cruise writer and author of the Berlitz guide on “River Cruising in Europe.” (We met him once on a cruise – very nice, and dapper!)
- Crystal River Cruises (more below)
- Scenic River Cruises
- Tauck (more below)
- Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection
- Viking River Cruises
Crystal Cruises (River):
Crystal River Cruises made headlines with its first river ship (Crystal Mozart) in 2016. And it’s definitely done a good job at elbowing the competition out of the way in the luxury river cruise category in Europe.
The river cruise line now has five all-suite ships cruising the Rhine, Danube and Main Rivers in Europe.
Expect large public rooms, high staff-to-guest ratios, sparkling marble bathrooms, bathrobes and kimonos, iPads, fine wine and a complimentary dining experience ashore in a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Travel+Leisure puts Crystal River Cruises at the top of the “World’s Best” list of river cruises. We’ve cruised on the line’s reimagined ocean-going Crystal Serenity – luxury is definitely a Crystal hallmark!
Tauck River Cruises:
We mentioned the new high-tech ms Andorinha earlier.
Specifically designed for Tauck to cruise Portugal’s Douro River, she debuts in July, 2021.
As well as its unique pop-up alfresco restaurant, the ms Andorinha has canopied Balinese day beds for lounging, a large infinity-style pool and a soaring glass-ceiling atrium. The décor features Portuguese tiles for a real sense of place.
There are only 42 cabins for 84 guests; most are 225 square feet in size.
Barging in Europe:
For floating on a river barge in France, we’d add Belmond to the list of companies offering the best river trips in Europe. They offer barge trips on seven luxurious barges. Activities include truffle hunting and hot air ballooning – though you may be perfectly content simply to watch the countryside drift by.
European Waterways also offers luxury barge cruises.
2) North America river cruises
Unlike Europe, North America only has two navigable rivers for river cruising – the Mississippi and the Columbia (plus the Snake and Willamette tributaries).
American Queen Steamboat Company:
If you’d like to cruise closer to home, the American Queen Steamboat Company is one of a handful of river cruise companies operating in the United States.
Their newest ship is the 245-guest American Countess, which debuted in March, 2021.
A former gambling boat, she was almost totally rebuilt.
The main dining room has floor-to-ceiling windows so you can enjoy panoramic riverside scenes while noshing on USDA prime beef and Southern favorites like Louisana shrimp creole. And while still a paddlewheeler, the cabins are more modern than those in the line’s other ships (American Queen, the all-suite American Duchess and American Empress).
With the company’s trademark red paddlewheel at the stern, the American Countess offers Mississippi River cruises between New Orleans and Memphis, where bourbon tasting, Mark Twain river tales and Ragtime piano performances are all part of the onboard experience.
UnCruise – known for their adventurous small ship cruises – offers seven-night river trips from Portland on the Columbia River and Snake River. The ship? The S.S. Legacy, a replica of an 1898 gold rush steamer, wtih
Like the name of the cruise line suggests, don’t expect a typical cruise on an UnCruise trip! You’ll be hiking, white water rafting, kayaking and wine tasting on the Pacific Northwest “Rivers of Adventure and Wine” cruises.
American Cruise Lines:
Then there’s the shiny new American Jazz by American Cruise Lines, which debuted in October, 2018. She started her inaugural season on the Lower Mississippi River in March, 2021.
A departure from the line’s paddlewheelers that ply American rivers, this new riverboat is modern in design, with a five-storey glass atrium, a glass-walled observation lounge and spacious cabins with furnished balconies.
3) Nile River cruises in Egypt
Feel like Cleopatra (or Julius Caesar) on the Nile when you journey down the same river where they honeymooned on the Egyptian queen’s royal barge.
But they no doubt would be jealous of the vessels you can cruise on today.
Put a Nile River cruise on your bucket list! The tombs and temples of ancient Egypt are eye-popping
Oberoi Hotels & Resorts:
Some of the most luxurious Nile cruises are offered by Oberoi Hotels & Resorts.
The Oberoi Zahra river ship has glass showers with full-length view windows and a misting system to keep you cool on the sundeck and outdoor restaurant.
And get this. A fleet of air-conditioned black Mercedes vans shadows the ship onshore. When the ship docks, they’re waiting and ready to whisk you away to see the tombs, temples and 5,000 years of Egyptian history.
For this company’s Egypt holidays, see their website.
Viking River Cruises:
Viking River Cruises is a giant in the Eurpean river cruise industry. Now they’ve built a ship specifically to cruise the Nile. Meet the Viking Osiris – brand new and setting sail in 2021.
It should give Oberoi and Sanctuary Retreats a run for their money, promising to be “the most upscale ship in Egypt.”
Accommodating 82 guests, the ship offers leisurely 11-night cruise tours from Cairo (with seven nights of cruising).
Staterooms and suites are spacious (the smallest are 232 square feet). Large veranda suites are 409 square feet and have separate sleeping and living areas, a full step-out balcony and another French balcony.
The décor blends the serene Scandinavian design characteristic of Viking ships with geometric Arabic patterns.
On deck, “sail shades” inspired by the dhows that ply the local waters provide shade from the sun. And there’s a pool at the stern.
4) River cruises in Vietnam, Cambodia (and Laos)
See temples, water buffalo working in rice paddies, floating fish markets and local villages when you cruise on the Mekong River, which flows through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
The newest Mekong River ship is Uniworld’s gorgeous 68-passenger Mekong Jewel, which launched in January, 2020. The all-suite ship has a pool plus two restaurants (one an alfresco venue on the upper deck).
Later in 2021, the new 80-guest Viking Saigon is slated to debut.
From Viking River Cruises, she was purpose built for the Mekong River.
5) Namibia and Botswana
Zambezi Queen Collection:
Want to spot mud-splattering elephants and grunting hippos from your king-size bed?
There’s nothing quite like a river safari on the Zambezi Queen (often chartered by AmaWaterways). She potters along the Chobe River between Namibia and Botswana.
The Zambezi Queen Collection also includes three smaller Chobe Princesses (two with four cabins and one with five suites).
Recommended reading: Wow! We felt like we were in a National Geographic documentary on our Zambezi Queen river safari
Also check out CroisiEurope.
It recently launched the new 16-passenger African Dream to sail along Chobe National Park.
6) China river cruises
Yangtze River cruising has changed since the river’s first flooding in 2003 by construction of the Three Gorges Dam.
But the Yangtze still offers scenic cruising through the spectacular Three Gorges and five-stage locks of the Three Gorges Dam.
You can ride in a sampan up a tributary as Tujia boatmen pole.
And, if you peer hard, you can make out a couple of mysterious 2,500-year-old coffins wedged in holes in the cliffs (most of the ones that once hung suspended above deep canyons are now housed in museums).
Years ago, we cruised in China with Victoria Cruises, and while comfortable, we wouldn’t call that a deluxe cruise.
(Mind you, their new Victoria Sabrina – the world’s largest river vessel – could change our minds on that. It debuts in 2021 for the Western market.)
7) India river cruises
Kerala with Oberoi:
In India, you can meander along the jungly backwaters of Kerala on a deluxe motor vessel operated by Oberoi Hotels & Resorts.
The Overoi Vrinda has eight king-sized cabins; service is unobtrusive.
Excursions include rides on smaller boats to explore life along the narrow canals in the “Venice of the East.” Local dancers also come onboard for cultural performances.
Ganges River cruises:
Longer six-night cruises on the Ganges River from Kolkata (Calcutta) are offered by Avalon Waterways. Think temple sightseeing by rickshaw, touring gold and silversmith workshops, and visiting flower markets and Mother Teresa’s home.
These cruises are paired with various India land tours.
Uniworld also packages seven-night Ganges cruises on the beautiful Ganges Voyager II with exploring the Golden Triangle cities of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur (in total, 11 to 12 nights in India).
8) Myanmar river cruises
Belmond was one of the first companies to offer deluxe river cruises in Myanmar (Burma).
We’ve sailed the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy River) with them twice now – first between Bagan and Mandalay, then more recently from Yangon to Bagan. (Some day, we’d also like to cruise on the less explored Chindwin River.)
With Myanmar rapidly gaining in tourism popularity, other leading companies now also offer deluxe river cruises.
Read next: Bagan is home to thousands of ancient pagodas, but these 9 temples in Bagan are the most beautiful
9) South America river cruises
Amazon River cruises tend be expedition-style cruises, where rainforest walks are combined with exploring tributaries in small skiffs, kayaks or dug-out canoes.
Have you taken a river cruise?
What floats your boat, and where would you love to go?
Photo credits: 4, 12, 19 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase