Say hello to the world’s best river cruises and new river cruise lines!

In CRUISES by Janice and George18 Comments

best river cruises in the world

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?

River cruises have evolved by leaps and bounds over the years to cater to different guests’ tastes.

best river cruises in the world - AmaWaterways

Bicycling while on a river cruise is becoming increasingly popular (Credit: This and lead image, AmaWaterways)

Like being active? Several river cruise lines pack bikes on their boats for pedaling around the countryside.

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 – debuts this April, 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)


BEST RIVER CRUISES IN THE WORLD:  Hang on! We get to the top river cruises, new river cruise companies and hot new river ships later in this post :-).


But first, let’s travel back to 1883 on a Seine River cruise in France.

Sailing the Seine: One of the best river cruises in the world

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.

Claude Money house in Giverny

Claude Monet’s delightful home and gardens were the subject of many of his famous paintings (Credit: Hakelbudel)

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.

Beyond Europe: There’s a whole world of river cruises!

When you think “river cruise,” Europe probably springs to mind first. And river cruising is indeed hugely popular in Europe.

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.

Separately or together, 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 journey on Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River. It served up a heady mix of champagne cocktail parties, bouncy ox-cart rides and stupendous brick-red and golden pagodas.

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

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? 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.)

Aqua Expeditions

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

piranha

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

So with that intro behind us, here’s our research on the best 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…)

Which companies offer the world’s best river cruises?


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 with Victoria Cruises, and while comfortable, we wouldn’t call that a deluxe cruise.

You might prefer:

*Sanctuary Retreats

*Uniworld

*Viking River Cruises


Egypt river cruises:

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.

Temple of Luxor

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

Currently, the most luxurious Nile River ships are offered by these companies:

*Oberoi Hotels & Resorts – The Oberoi Zahra has glass showers with full-length view windows, a cooling mist system on the sundeck and outdoor restaurant, and a fleet of air-conditioned black Mercedes vans shadowing the ship onshore, ready to whisk you away to see the tombs, temples and 5,000 years of Egyptian history.

*Sanctuary Retreats

Watch out though for the intimate new Viking Ra, coming May, 2018 (from Viking River Cruises). It should give Oberoi and Sanctuary Retreats a run for their money, promising “the ultimate in comfort” on the Nile.

Accommodating just 52 guests, the all-suite ship offers leisurely 11-night cruise tours from Cairo. Suites are spacious (291 squ. ft), and most have two rooms with a full balcony off the living room and a French balcony off the bedroom. 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.

Viking Ra

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


Europe river cruises:

With so many rivers, Europe offers some of the best river cruises. The following are at the top of the list, 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!).

*AmaWaterways

*Scenic Cruises

*Tauck River Cruises

*Uniworld

*Viking River Cruises

AmaWaterways tops Cruise Critic’s list as the best river cruise line overall (in Europe and the world).

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).

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 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)

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


India river cruises:

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.

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 India).

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


Myanmar (Burma):

Belmond was one of the first companies to offer deluxe river cruises in Myanmar. 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. Here are the top river cruises in Myanmar:

*AmaWaterways

*Belmond

*Pandaw Cruises

*Sanctuary Retreats


Namibia and Botswana:

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. (We felt like we were in a National Geographic documentary.)

The Zambezi Queen Collection also includes three smaller Chobe Princesses (two with four cabins and one with five suites).

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)

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


North America:

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

We haven’t cruised either, 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. And UnCruise  offers seven-night river trips on the Columbia and Snake on a replica 1898 gold rush steamer.

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

To sail the Lower Mississippi River, watch for the shiny new American Song by American Cruise Lines. She sets sail this fall, 2018. A departure from the line’s other paddlewheelers that sail 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.

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


South America:

Amazon River cruises tend be expedition-style cruises, where rainforest walks are combined with exploring tributaries in small skiffs, kayaks or dug-out canoes. Check out:

*Aqua Expeditions

*Lindblad Expeditions

*Rainforest Cruises

Amazon parrots

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


Vietnam, Cambodia (and Laos):

See temples, water buffalo working in rice paddies, floating fish markets and local villages in comfort and style with these companies:

*AmaWaterways

*Aqua Expeditions

*Lindblad Expeditions

*Pandaw Cruises 

Luang Prabang monks

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


Photos are © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase (except where noted)


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Here’s a good pin :-).

best river cruises in the world


Updated April 21, 2018:  We’ve revised and updated this post (originally written in 2015) to cover the best river cruises around the world currently offered and new ones coming onstream later in 2018.


Have you taken a river cruise? What floats your boat, and where would you love to go?


Comments

  1. 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!

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

    1. Author

      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 :-).

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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 :)

  6. Giverny sounds like something straight out of a fairytale. I had no idea about Monet’s link to the place but I can see why he fell in love with it! I’ve only ever spent a night on a river cruise boat in Halong Bay, which almost didn’t set sail because of weather conditions but I would be so intrigued to be do the Mekong Delta and am even more tempted by the Belmond Myanmar one!

  7. Your post does a wonderful job of pointing out all the potentials of river cruising—a great way to see cities along rivers and canals with only packing and unpacking once!

    1. Author

      Now THAT would be interesting – to live for a year in Rouen! Would be great for improving one’s French :-). As for a luxury river cruise, you’d no doubt really enjoy it.

  8. I have NEVER gone on a river cruise. I want to so badly. We almost went on our honeymoon then opted for a luxury rail trip to some of our fav European destinations instead. Maybe our 5 year anniversary? (PS: I loved Giverny, too.)

    1. Author

      A luxury European rail trip? Sounds delightful too. But we expect the sleeping cabins would, of necessity, be a little cozier than on a river cruise ship :-). Anyway, with you wanting to do a river cruise, it sounds like we’ll be seeing a post by you on a river cruise some time in the future :-).

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