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Say hello to the world’s best river cruises!

Please only travel when it’s safe to do so.

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 over the years to cater to different guests’ tastes.

best river cruises in the world
River cruises are a lovely way to see a slice of Europe (Credit: Ama Waterways)

Best river cruises

Like being active?

Several river cruise lines pack bikes on their boats for pedaling around the countryside.

Best river cruises? They include AmaWaterways
Bicycling while on a river cruise is becoming increasingly popular (Credit: AmaWaterways)

Enjoy being pampered?

Some 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 – 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 – debuted in 2018.

new river cruises - U by Uniworld
The ice bar on top of the two new ships from U by Uniworld collapses down when going under bridges (Credit: U by Uniworld)

And in 2019, the Amadeus Star from Amadeus River Cruises also set sail.

It woos millennial cruisers with yoga and a social media “celebrity influencer” on each cruise.

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.)

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.

Claude Money house in Giverny
Claude Monet’s delightful home and gardens were the subject of many of his famous paintings

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.

Best River Cruises in the World

A world of river cruises beyond Europe

When you think “river cruise,” Europe probably springs to mind first. Europe is, in fact, the biggest destination for river cruising.

But it’s also possible to drift through the countryside on inland waterways 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.


The river barge La Belle Epoque cruises the tree-lined Burgundy Canal, past yellow rapeseed fields (Credit: European Waterways)

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).

Before our Seine trip, we delighted in an eight-night Belmond cruise on Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River.

Bagan temples
Once a magnificent kingdom, the plains surrounding Bagan (a highlight of our Myanmar river cruise) are studded with more than 3,000 temples and pagodas

It served up a heady mix of champagne cocktail parties, bouncy ox-cart rides and stupendous brick-red and golden pagodas.

And a few years back in Egypt, we were agape upon seeing all the tombs and temples along the Nile River that have wowed visitors for centuries.

We toured the Temple of Philae at sunset on our Egyptian river cruise on the lovely Oberoi Zahra

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 now searching around for what we’d like to experience next.

How amazing would it be to spot elusive Indian tigers and rhinos on a Brahmaputra River cruise in India! Or maybe we could explore the Mekong River in Cambodia and Vietnam?

Amazon River cruise with Aqua Expeditions
Cruising on a small deluxe riverboat is one of the best ways to explore the Amazon (Credit: Aqua Expeditions)

Tasting port along Portugal’s river sounds enticing too, as does visiting the beautiful chateaux in the Loire Valley.

We could possibly even fish for piranha from a dugout canoe on an expedition-style cruise of the Amazon River’s mighty tributaries! (Not sure about the piranha part though.)

Amazon River cruise: piranha
Who wants to go piranha fishing in the Amazon? (Credit: Rainforest Cruises)

Don’t miss! Check out 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’s our research on the top river cruises you can take around the world – including the scoop on some of the newest river cruise ships.

(And with blessings from the travel gods, one or more of these might just be in our future…)

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.

Yangtze River cruise
Three Gorges scenery

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.)

River cruises in China

For Yangtze River cruises, check out:

Nile River cruises in Egypt

You see the Temple of Luxor on a Nile River cruise
Dating back to 1400 BC, the Temple of Luxor is just one of many ancient monuments you see on a Nile River cruise

Feel like Cleopatra (or Julius Caesar) on the Nile, journeying 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.

Sanctuary Retreats:

For this company’s Egypt holidays, see their website.

Viking River Cruises:

Built to navigate the Nile, the new Viking Osiris’ one-week Nile River cruises are packaged with four nights in Cairo (Credit: Viking River Cruises)

Also check out the Viking Osiris from Viking River Cruises. Brand new and ready to sail in 2021, it was specifically built to cruise the Nile.

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.

Staterooms and suites are spacious (the smallest are 232 sq. ft.). Large veranda suites are 409 sq. ft. and have separate sleeping and living areas, a full step-out balcony and another French balcony. 

Stateroom on the sleek new Viking Osiris
Stateroom on the sleek new Viking Osiris (Credit: Viking Cruises)

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.

Recommended reading: The Viking Star has been hailed as the “world’s best new cruise ship”

Top-rated European river cruises

The Hungarian Parliament building is one of the top things to see in Budapest
Over 100 years old, the Hungarian Parliament building is one of the top things to see in Budapest

With so many rivers, Europe offers a wide variety of itineraries. (A “Danube Waltz” cruise itinerary from Passau to Budapest has caught our interest.)

You 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!)

For active types, AmaWaterways, Uniworld, Scenic and Tauck carry bikes onboard each ship so you can go bicycling ashore (Scenic’s are custom-made electric bikes).

Do you like to be active when cruising? Go two-wheeling on the best ocean and river cycling cruises!

Crystal River Cruises:

Crystal River Cruises is a newish contender which made headlines with its first river ship (Crystal Mozart) in 2016. And it’s definitely elbowing the competition out of the way in the luxury river cruising 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 and one 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.

Crystal Bach pool
Take a dip in Crystal Bach’s “resistance” pool then savor farm-to-table dining onboard (Credit: Crystal River Cruises)

Barging in Europe:

For floating on a river barge in France, we’d add Belmond to the list of best river trips in Europe.

European Waterways also offers luxury barge cruises.

Bonus:

Many Europe river cruises take in major Europe capitals like Paris, Zurich and St. Petersburg, which are great European destinations to visit in summer.

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 MV 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:

People living alongside the Ganges bathe in and worship by the river, considered holy in Hinduism (Credit: Ron James)

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).

Myanmar river cruises

Temples of Bagan on a Myanmar river cruise
Exploring some of Bagan’s temples (more than 4,000) is a highlight of an Irrawaddy River cruise

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

River cruises in Burma

For Burma river cruises, see:

Namibia and Botswana

Zambezi Queen Collection:

Zambezi Queen boat excursion
You get up-close-and-personal views of elephants and other wildlife on included small boat excursions (Credit: 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

CroisiEurope:

Also check out CroisiEurope.

It recently launched the new 16-passenger African Dream to sail along Chobe National Park.

North America river cruises

Unlike Europe, North America apparently only has two navigable rivers for river cruising – the Mississippi and the Columbia (and the Snake and Willamette tributaries).

UnCruise Adventures:

North America river cruises with UnCruise Adventures
Wine? White-water rafting? Take your pick on the S.S. Legacy on the Columbia River (Credit: UnCruise Adventures)

We haven’t cruised on a U.S. river.

But we’ve sailed several times with UnCruise Adventures in Hawaii (snorkel with manta rays!), Alaska (fabulous glacier hiking and kayaking) and, most recently, from Costa Rica to Panama.

UnCruise offers seven-night river trips on the Columbia and Snake on a replica 1898 gold rush steamer.

Recommended reading: Yikes! We saw snakes, sloths and spiders on our UnCruise Costa Rica trip

American Song:

Then there’s the shiny new American Song by American Cruise Lines, which debuted in October, 2018. She sails the Lower Mississippi River.

A departure from the line’s other paddlewheelers that ply American rivers, this new riverboat is modern in design, with a four-storey glass atrium, a glass-walled observation lounge and spacious cabins with furnished balconies.

American Duchess:

Also look into the American Queen Steamboat Company for an old-fashioned experience (the all-suite American Duchess is their flagship).

South America river cruises

Amazon parrots
You’ll see lots of colorful parrots on an Amazon River cruise! (Credit: Rainforest 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.

Amazon River cruises

Check out:

Vietnam, Cambodia (and Laos)

Luang Prabang monks
Monks collect alms in Luang Prabang, visited on some Mekong River cruise itineraries (Credit: Pandaw Cruises)

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 early 2020.

The all-suite ship has a pool plus two restaurants (one an alfresco venue on the upper deck).

Outdoor dining lounge on the Mekong Jewel (one of the best new river cruise ships)
The outdoor dining lounge on the Mekong Jewel (Credit: Uniworld)

Mekong River cruises

You’ll travel in comfort and style with these companies:

More cruising inspiration!

Read our cruising posts on:

French Polynesia | Cruising French Polynesia is as romantic as it gets. And it’s one of the best ways to discover this beautiful island nation.

Gratuities | What’s the deal with gratuities on a cruise? How much should you tip?

Morocco | Snake Charmers? Harems? What’s a Morocco cruise like?


Photo credits: 8, 9, 13, 18 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase


Have you taken a river cruise?

What floats your boat, and where would you love to go?


About the authors:

Janice and George Mucalov

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George are the owners and founders of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, luxury hotel reviews, insanely useful travel tips and more!

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Mary

Friday 11th of May 2018

What a terrific and helpful post! My husband and I will be taking our first ever river cruise this fall – Crystal Mozart on the Danube – and enjoyed reading about your river experiences and recommendations!

Janice and George

Friday 11th of May 2018

Thanks for your kind words! You'll no doubt love the "Crystal Mozart" :-). Enjoy!

Jina

Monday 30th of April 2018

Excellent experience, great pictures and article you have shared with us! I would go for a long river cruise; that would be my dream.

Janice and George

Friday 4th of May 2018

We prefer longer cruises too :-). Many river cruise itineraries are for 14 days -- hope you get to realize your dream in the not-to-distant-future :-).

Amit Mind

Sunday 29th of April 2018

I really admire your photography and informative blog that explores beautiful river cruises around the world. This information helps visitors to take themselves out on rivers.

Janice and George

Friday 4th of May 2018

Thank you :-). River cruising is certainly one of the best ways to explore a concentrated region in depth :-).

Rekha Rajan

Wednesday 21st of October 2015

Beautiful stuff guys. in fact, i also love the rivers...and was looking for a river cruise in India (only yesterday). The good thing about river cruises is that you don't need onboard entertainment. Whats the point of going on a cruise and then being indoors!

Suzanne

Wednesday 9th of September 2015

What a wonderful selection of cruises. I've not been on a river cruise before and all of these look appealing - especially the Belmond Cruise to Myanmar. I'm ashamed to say I've not visited Normandy yet, despite living just across the water on the Sussex coast. I should think about putting that right next summer :)

Janice and George

Saturday 12th of September 2015

Oh yes, so easy for you to hop across the channel and do a French river cruise :-). No jet lag either...