Is there a more relaxing experience than kicking back on a boat and cruising downriver? Taking in the scenery, perhaps with a glass of fine wine? We think not. A scenic river cruise is perfect for learning about new places and enjoying time in nature in a very convenient and comfortable way. From the classic beauty of historical sites in Europe to the thrilling depths of the mighty Amazon jungle, there are river tours to suit every taste.
While there are countless quality guided river cruises worldwide, a select few need to be added to the avid traveler's list. These small ship cruises with less than 100 passengers on board offer an intimate experience through some of the most incredible natural landscapes in the world.
River Nile Cruise - Egypt
The Nile is arguably one of the most beloved river cruise locations worldwide. What other river tour offers fantastic desert oasis scenery, enormous crocodiles and the most fascinating ancient historical sites in the world? While several Nile cruises cover various river sections, the ultimate experience is cruising from Cairo to Aswan. This way, you get to see it all, including the world-famous Giza Pyramids and Sphinx in Cairo, and the tombs and temples of middle Egypt, and the Valley of the Kings.
The Nile is the longest river in the world. This section of the river will take about 12 - 15 nights, and this journey through ancient civilization and rural Egypt is well worth it. As temperatures can get pretty high in this part of the world, sometimes peaking at around 105 °F (41 °C), the best cruise time is between October and April to get the most out of your shore excursions to explore the iconic sites between Luxor and Aswan.
Nile River tour options:
- Dahabiya Nile River Cruise, Luxor to Aswan starting at US$1499 for 8 nights
- Egypt Escapes: the Original Long Nile Cruise, Cairo to Aswan starting at US$3,263 for 14 nights
Yangtze River Cruise - China
The Yangtze River is the longest river in Asia and the third-longest in the world. The Yangtze has significantly influenced China's rich history, culture and economy. River cruises are an excellent way to take in the magnificent scenery and culturally significant attractions along the route.
Expect to see everything, from the towering skyscrapers of Chongqing illuminated with psychedelic light shows to the infamous Three Gorges Dam to the picturesque countryside with farming communities. Other highlights include the Ghost City of Fengdu, the Goddess Stream, and Shennong Stream boat trips that snake their way up narrower gorges and small tributaries, some of which feature ancient water towns like Zhouzhuang.
The best Yangtze cruises start in Chongqing, a 90-minute flight from Xian, and they go for 3 - 4 nights. We suggest June to August as the optimal season to cruise the Yangtze.
Yangtze River tour options:
- Century Glory, starting from US$489 per adult for 3 nights
- Sanctuary Yangtze Explorer, prices available upon request for 4 nights
Rhine & Danube River Cruise - Europe
The Rhine and Danube Rivers are the two largest rivers that cut through the heart of Europe. While there are several popular river cruises for each, for the ultimate experience, you should try and combine the two. By doing so, you can travel through 10 different countries: the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria…you’d be hard-pressed to find another river cruise that can beat that!
Expect to indulge all your senses when luxuriating in the scent of fresh tulips in Holland, staring wide-eyed at the grandeur of a 900-year-old castle in Germany, dancing the Viennese waltz and savoring the food and wine of Austria's Wachau Valley. The Viking river ships are renowned for this journey.
Rhine & Danube Rivers tour options:
- Viking Cruises Grand European Tour starting at US $2677 for 15 days through 4 countries with 12 guided tours/shore excursions.
- Ama Waterways Grand Danube Cruise starting at US $6598 for 14 nights in 9 countries with 13 shore excursions.
Mississippi River Cruise - USA
The “Mighty” Mississippi River in the United States is the fourth-longest river globally. It cuts through middle America and boasts some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. The Mississippi became the ultimate symbol of freedom after the publication of Mark Twain's novel Huckleberry Finn, and it can be yours too. The old-fashioned paddle-wheel steamboats make you feel like you are traveling back in time while slowing to a leisurely pace, allowing you to pause, reflect and truly appreciate the serenity of this great river.
We suggest taking Mississippi River cruises from New Orleans, an iconic city brimming with music, arts and culture and worth a visit all on its own. You can book a steamboat cruise from the French Quarter up the Mississippi to the shores of St. Louis. Besides the fantastic scenery, history and culture, expect shore excursions such as Battle of New Orleans sites, plantation homes and Graceland, the home of the king of rock n' roll, Elvis Presley.
Mississippi River tour options:
- American Queen New Orleans to Memphis starts at US$2099 per adult for 8 nights.
- American Cruise Lines New Orleans to St. Louis starts at US$5510 per adult for 11 nights.
Amazon River Cruise - Brazil
The biggest of them all (by volume) is the Amazon River which runs through the world's largest jungle, the Amazon Rainforest. An Amazon River cruise is about as exotic as it gets and one of the world's best places to see wildlife. You can venture deep into the tropical jungle and experience bird watching, piranha fishing, and indigenous local villages.
Although there is the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon, the most accessible cruises are within Brazil. However, a popular option in South America is combining Machu Picchu with a more luxurious Amazon tour from the Ucayali River in Peru.
For Brazil Amazon River tours, you generally fly to Manaus, a city in the middle of the Amazon jungle. From Manaus, several Amazon cruise options take passengers to the famous Meeting of Waters while educating them about Amazonia, conservation and ecology.
Then there's the incredible wildlife. Expect to see anacondas, alligators, sloths and countless bird species, including the iconic and beautiful toucan. You may even spy the famous pink river dolphins if you're lucky.
Amazon River cruises:
- Tucano (Brazil) starts at US$1,750 per person for 5-7 days
- National Geographic Upper Amazon Cruise (Peru) starting at US$7,700 per person for a 10-day cruise.
Norwegian Fjords Cruise - Norway
While the Norwegian Fjords are actually deep water canyons, their similarity to river cruises (and their overall “wow factor”) earn them a spot on this list, as they offer some of the most scenic cruising experiences in the world. The fjords were shaped by glaciers over 2.5 million years, leaving dramatic overhanging cliffs, sky-high rock walls and spectacular waterfalls plunging into the sea
The most stunning fjords are up the small tributaries such as the Aurlandsfjord, the Geirangerfjord, the Lysefjord, and the Nærøyfjord. As such, small ship cruising instead of that on larger vessels is required.
The best time to cruise the Norwegian fjords is June through August for sunny, warmer days and take advantage of the area's many adventure sports. However, if you're out to experience the northern lights, then bundle up and go between October and March. The best base is Bergen, the heart of the fjords. You can fly in or catch the scenically epic train ride, the Oslo to Bergen railway, one of the world's great railway journeys.
Norwegian fjords cruise options:
- Hurtigruten The Classic Roundtrip Voyage starting at US$3442 for 12 days
- Abercrombie & Kent Tailor-Made Norway: Bergen, Flam & the Fjords starting at US$5,995 for five days.
Mekong Delta River Cruise - East Asia
The Mekong River runs through East Asia and SouthEast Asia and is the 12th longest river globally. The Mekong plays a vital role in the lives of many Vietnamese, Cambodians and others in the region. The Mekong Delta region is at the river's end in southwestern Vietnam. It approaches and flows into the sea through a network of smaller distributaries. Several river cruises operate out of Ho Chi Minh, formerly Saigon, which is a fantastic destination in itself.
It’s usually best to find local hosts for Mekong Delta river cruising. They can guide you with a cultural perspective, relay stories and insights, and uncover the region's hidden treasures. The best tours start in a smaller boat, instead of cruise lines, and then take you in a canoe to explore the river's edge and small tributaries (pictured above). You may even get a classic Vietnamese brimmed hat to top off the experience.
Mekong Delta travel services:
- 2-day Mekong Eyes Cruise between Cai Be and Can Tho starts at US$229 per person for 2 days
- Mekong Eyes Explorer 4D3N Saigon - Phnom Penh starts at US$675 for 4 days
- Aqua Cruise 3 nights in Phnom Penh to Saigon starts at US2646 for 4 days
Zambezi River Cruise - Zambia & Zimbabwe
If there is a river cruise wilder than the Amazon, it would have to be that of the iconic Zambezi River in Africa. The Zambezi makes the list for its incredible wildlife, friendly and knowledgeable guides and a wonderful starting point in the world-famous Victoria Falls. The Falls are located on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, and you can view them from either side (just watch out for the baboons!) The cruises launch about 5 kilometers upstream but are well out of danger of going over the falls.
Several types of experiences include an African sunset cruise, fishing trips and photographic safari cruises. This is one of the best regions for eco-tourism. Expect to see plenty of hippos, crocodiles, and elephants by the river banks. It's also possible to see giraffes and incredible birdlife. If you opt for a morning cruise with fewer boats on the river, the peace and tranquility is well worth getting up early. However, nothing quite beats the experience of watching an African sunset while on the river (except perhaps watching it with a “sundowner” in hand).
Zambezi River tour options:
- Heartveld Adventures River Song Sunset Cruise starts at US$68 per person
- Wild Horizons Zambezi Sunset Cruise starts at US$140 per person
Chilean Fjords Cruise: Glacier Alley - Chile
As with the Norwegian fjords, traversing the Chilean fjords is technically not a river cruise, but very similar. The journey to Glacier Alley is an incredibly scenic tour through steep fjords, snow-capped mountains and beautiful glaciers. The Patagonia region of Argentina and Chile is arguably one of the most diverse nature reserves on the planet. Seeing it by sea is equally as impressive as on land. There are a few ways to do it, including starting from the world's southernmost city of Ushuaia (in Argentina) and working your way up through Glacier Alley into Chile or doing the reverse from Castro in Chile.
You will also visit the famous Pio Xi Glacier in Chile and travel through the Chilean fjords and on to Castro, passing through the Torres del Paine National Park, Francisco Coloane Marine Reserve, and the Corcovado Gulf. Expect to spot whales, dolphins, penguins, fur seals and numerous seabird species. There are water activities such as kayaking and zodiac cruising to get a closer look at the wildlife. The best time to cruise the Chilean Fjords is spring and autumn.
Chilean Fjords sea cruises:
- Patagonian Explorer: Ushuaia to Punta Arenas starting at US$1,590 per person for 5 days.
- Luxury and Expedition Cruises Patagonia and Chilean Fjords start at US$6,200 per head for a 14-day cruise.
- Essential Patagonia: Chilean Fjords and Torres del Paine starting at US$12,795 per head for 15 days.
Katherine Gorge River Cruise - Australia
Katherine Gorge is located in the Northern Territory of Australia. This is what is famous in Australia; proper outback country and one of the best nature escapes you can find on the massive island continent. The river cruise will take you along the tranquil Katherine River through Nitmiluk National Park where the varied landscape is ever-changing. Eventually, you will be deep in the ancient gorge, with dramatic red rock cliffs bordering you on either side of the river.
It’s extremely hot out here, but what makes this river cruise next-level are the small patches of pandanus-lined beaches along the way that you can swim in. Don’t worry, there are no 'crocs' here! But do expect to see a variety of wildlife including goannas, cockatoos and wallabies. There are also cultural cruises where experienced tour guides detail the history and culture of the local indigenous people.
Katherine Gorge River cruises:
- NitNit Dreaming Two Gorge AUD $100 for 2 hours
- Timeless Land Three Gorge AUD $156 for 4 hours
- Nabilil Dreaming Sunset Dinner Tour AUD $197 for 4 hours
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