The Best River Cruises To Try Right Now
If you thought all cruises were the same, you haven’t taken a river cruise. While the basics are comparable to an ocean cruise—you pay once and get lodging, meals, and activities bundled together—these ships are designed with the width of the river and the height of the bridges in mind. As a result, passengers will see smaller vessels and passenger counts: usually just under 200 guests. Less space means you won’t likely find onboard rock climbing walls or zip lines (think: the 6,780-guest Harmony of the Seas, from Royal Caribbean) though you’ll find the experience is more intimae and inclusive. River cruisers often enjoy complimentary, guided walking tours of ports, free Wi-Fi, and wine with lunch and dinner.
Because you won’t find hot nightlife or sprawling, floating casinos, the appeal of a river cruise is simple: You unpack once, and get to see an immense swathe of countryside without having to navigate train schedules or rent a car. In addition, most river cruises (save for select holiday and summer sailings) are adults-only. River-sailing ships tend to attract a more sophisticated—and yes, older—crowd, though young travelers shouldn’t be deterred if they’re more concerned with destinations than with onboard parties.
Most travelers associate Europe with river cruising (dozens of new cruise ships recently launched in this region), with barges navigating every imaginable waterway, from the Danube to the Moselle). But there are rivers all over the world, like the Chobe in Africa and the famed Nile, that can be explored by boat, on vessels designed to reflect the style of the region. Take a trip on one of the best river cruises in the world to see the charming, riverfront villages you’d otherwise miss. No matter where you go, we promise you’ll find it impossible not to unwind and relax.
While Crystal has six custom-built river ships on order, the line just christened the Crystal Mozart in July. This rehabbed ship (the largest on the rivers it sails) debuted in 1987 and previously belonged to the Peter Deilmann fleet. With gorgeous public spaces and chic staterooms, it’s easily the most elegant choice in the region.
Where You Can Go: The ship sails the Danube, and will remain there, as the other rivers in Europe are too narrow for its passage.
Most Notable: The roof deck includes a retractable (and quite literal) pop-up bar that can be lowered when the ship passes beneath bridges.
ZQ Collection Zambezi Queen
The 28-passenger Zambezi Queen is akin to a floating houseboat. The ship docks daily, allowing passengers to explore Botswana’s Chobe National Park, safari-style. Passengers are led on tours by guides in search of the Big Five Game: lions, elephants, buffalo, leopards, and rhinos.
Where You Can Go: This ship only sails on the Chobe River in Africa
Most Notable: Africa-inspired décor like leopard-spotted pillows and zebra-striped wall prints. There’s also a gorgeous white whirlpool tub on the bow — the perfect spot to watch for animals on the shoreline.
Tauck MS Joy
The 130-passenger MS Joy was christened in June, and while she’s the smallest of the company’s vessels, she’s the same length as the line's larger 135-meter ships. On deck, you’ll find a putting green and a plunge pool, but it’s the cabins that stand out: The ship has nearly two dozen, 300-square-foot suites: the most suites of this size on any ship in Europe.
Where You Can Go: This vessel sails the Danube, offering special Christmas market cruises at the holidays.
Most Notable: We suspect the beds may be the most comfortable on these rivers, with goose down pillows, 400-thread-count sheets, and pillow-top mattresses.
Nour El Nil’s Meroe
Tours of Egypt’s iconic pyramids, temples, and tombs are highlights for passengers on the elegant 20-passenger river ship. Staterooms boast floor-to-ceiling windows with panoramic views from every bed and chair, and the brightly colored textiles evoke regional handicrafts.
Where You Can Go: This vessel only sails the Nile in Egypt, but passengers get the opportunity to swim in the river: something you can’t do on most river cruises in other parts of the world.
Most Notable: On deck, there’s a couch against almost every balcony, offering more than enough space for every single passenger to stretch out, sunbathe, and admire the scenery.
Uniworld’s S.S. Antoinette
The 154-passenger S.S. Antoinette was Uniworld’s first big upgrade. Inside you’ll find Brazilian marble floors, a 19th-century Venetian glass mirror, and a 10-foot sapphire-studded Strauss Baccarat chandelier that once hung in New York City's Tavern on the Green. Even the cabins (which have 100 percent Egyptian cotton sheets and European-style feather-filled duvets) are lined with French toile fabric.
Where You Can Go: Look for the “Castles Along the Rhine” itinerary, which features the otherwise difficult-to-access homesteads of European royalty.
Most Notable: This is the rare river ship to offer an onboard, indoor movie theater—a blessing on rainy days.
Beds on this 138-passenger ship face the massive cabin windows, giving you views of Eastern Europe’s wineries and lush green hillsides from the moment you wake up in the morning.
Where You Can Go: The nine-day itineraries sail back and forth from Linz to Budapest.
Most Notable: While some cruises may feel too sedentary for active travelers, this river option is the best of both worlds. Guests can bike, hike, and canoe along the Danube, or check out ice caves and underground salt mines, or mountain climb.
Launching in spring 2017, this new eight-passenger barge will focus on the Champagne region of France. Onboard, the French country details, from timber wood furnishings to marble bathrooms, Parisian duvet covers, and wrought ironwork, reflect the distinct charm of the region.
Where You Can Go: The vessel sails between Meaux and Chalons-en-Champagne, stopping at small wine towns for tours of museums and gothic cathedrals along the way. Guests also enjoy countless tastings of locally produced bubbly.
Most Notable: Watch the vineyards pass by from the heated swimming pool during the day, and enjoy jazz performances after dark.
Aqua Expeditions’ Aqua Mekong
The 40-passenger Aqua Mekong was designed specifically for the Mekong River in Southeast Asia, and the décor and cuisine reflect the region. Guests enjoy mango salads, chili-crusted prawns, sautéed catfish with plenty of ginger, curries rich with coconut milk, and savory rice noodle dishes onboard.
Where You Can Go: Each cruise focuses on Vietnamese and Cambodian temples and markets, with notable visits to Buddhist monasteries.
Most Notable: Aqua Expeditions asks passengers to bring school supplies for local children, so they have something to hand out in small villages during the trip.
Designed in partnership with Adventures Disney, AmaWaterways’ 158-passenger ship hosts family-friendly tours with designated Disney-hired guides and special kid-friendly activities several times a year.
Where You Can Go: This ship sails the Danube, with opportunities for bike trips along the banks and castle tours for the whole gang.
Most Notable: While cocktail lounges are usually a quiet, social spot for grown-ups, kids take over on these special sailings. During the day, there are classes in strudel making for children and Sound of Music- themed tours of Salzburg.
The 44-passenger Aura was designed with Myanmar in mind, and the Asian décor onboard is simple and modern, with spare gray guestrooms brightened with elegant touches: live orchids, floor-to-ceiling windows, and Thai silk pillows.
Where You Can Go: The ship sails Myanmar’s Irrwaddy River from Yangon to Pagan, visiting temples in Mandalay, the monasteries of Sagaing, and the floating temples of Inle Lake along the way.
Most Notable: While this ship has a small passenger count, it also has more amenities and services than most large vessels, including a pool, complimentary laundry, 24-hour room service, and an open-air movie theater.
Viking Longship Forseti
All of the Viking Longships are identical, and they all use modern Scandinavian design to provide a clean aesthetic. Best of all, cabins have thoughtful (and modern) conveniences like bedside USB ports and heated bathroom floors.
Where You Can Go: The ship sails eight-day cruises in France’s Bordeaux region, traveling the Dordogne, Gironde, and Garonne rivers. Passengers have the opportunity to tour the chateaux and participate in wine, cognac, and oyster tastings.
Most Notable: The ship’s sun deck has solar panels, an herb garden, and a putting green, too.