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.
The best river cruises in the world
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.
One of the best European river cruises? Normandy
Let’s first travel back to 1883 on a Seine River cruise in Normandy, France.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
For China river cruises, you might prefer:
Egypt – Nile 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.
Currently, the most luxurious Nile cruises are offered by these companies:
Oberoi Hotels & Resorts:
The Oberoi Zahra river ship – operated by Oberoi Hotels & Resorts – 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.
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.
Top-rated European river cruises
With so many rivers, Europe offers some of the best river cruises. (A “Danube Waltz” cruise itinerary from Passau to Budapest has caught our interest.)
The following lines serve up the best river cruises in Europe, 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).
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.
Barging in Europe:
For floating on a river barge in France, we’d add Belmond to the list of best river trips in Europe.
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:
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).
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:
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).
Also check out CroisiEurope.
It recently launched the new 16-passenger African Dream to sail along Chobe National Park.
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.
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).
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:
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:
Photos are © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase (except where noted)
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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?
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We’re Janice and George Mucalov, professional award-winning travel writers, sharing tales of luxury travel with a twist of adventure.