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

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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).

Tauck's deluxe new ms Andorinha is a high-tech new river ship debuting in Portugal in 2021.
Tauck’s deluxe new ms Andorinha is a high-tech new river ship debuting in Portugal in 2021 (Credit: Tauck Travel)

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.

Many of the best river cruises in Europe offer bicycling excursions.
Many of the best river cruises in Europe offer bicycling excursions (Credit: AmaWaterways)

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.

There's a cool ice bar on top of the U by Uniworld river ships, which collapses down when going under bridges
There’s a cool ice bar on top of the U by Uniworld river ships, which collapses down when going under bridges (Credit: U by Uniworld)

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.

Contents: Top river cruises in the world

Discover the best river cruise lines operating in the following river cruise destinations around the world.

One of the finest European river cruises? A Normandy river cruise

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

1) Europe river cruises

2) North America river cruises

3) Nile cruises

4) River cruises in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

5) Namibia and Botswana river cruises

6) China river cruises

7) India river cruises

8) Myanmar river cruises

9) South America river cruises

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.

Claude Monet’s delightful home and gardens were the subject of many of his famous paintings.
Claude Monet’s delightful home and gardens were the subject of many of his famous paintings

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

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

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?

Best River Cruises in the World

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 Cruises (River):

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

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:

One of the best new river cruise ships is Tauck's 84-guest ms Andorinha.
One of the best new river cruise ships is the 84-guest ms Andorinha (Credit: Tauck Travel)

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.

Bonus: European river cruise destinations

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

Barging in Europe:

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

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

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:

The American Duchess is a beautiful boutique-style paddlewheeler offering American river cruises.
The American Duchess is a beautiful boutique-style paddlewheeler offering American river cruises (Credit: 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 Adventures:

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

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

We’ve sailed several times with UnCruise in Hawaii (snorkeling with manta rays!), UnCruise in Alaska (fabulous glacier hiking and kayaking) and, most recently, UnCruise in Costa Rica and Panama.

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

Dating back to 1400 BC, the Temple of Luxor is just one of many ancient monuments you see 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 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.

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.
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)

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. 

Stateroom on the sleek new Viking Osiris
Stateroom on the sleek new Viking Osiris (Credit: Viking River 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.

Interested in Viking Ocean Cruises? The Viking Star was hailed as the “world’s best new cruise ship” (or see our Viking Sea review for an adults-only Caribbean cruise)

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).

The outdoor dining lounge on the Mekong Jewel
The outdoor dining lounge on the Mekong Jewel (Credit: Uniworld)

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.

Mekong River cruises

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

5) 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.

6) China river cruises

Yangtze River cruise
Three Gorges scenery on a Yangtze River cruise

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.)

River cruises in China

For Yangtze River cruises, check out:

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:

People living alongside the Ganges bathe in and worship by the river, considered holy in Hinduism.
People living alongside the Ganges bathe in and worship by the river, considered holy in Hinduism

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

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

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:

9) 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:

Have you taken a river cruise?

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

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.

Canary Islands | Hike UNESCO-listed parks, explore one of the most beautiful villages in Spain and taste sweet Malmsey wine. See the secret side of the Canaries on this Canary Islands cruise.

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


Photo credits: 4, 12, 19 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase


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 publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, luxury hotel reviews, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, cruise reviews and information, 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...