The great Winnie-the-Pooh once said, “Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there someday.”
WHEN TO GO
Try to time your cruise with local events, such as Tulip Time in the Netherlands, Christmas Markets in Germany, or Carnival in Colombia. Note that European cruise companies take a winter hiatus throughout January and February, resuming in mid-to-late March.
It changes depending on wherever the river takes you.
English is the lingua franca on most cruise ships.
COMPANIES TO CONSIDER
AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, Viking River Cruises, American Queen Voyages
That teddy bear was on to something, because rivers flow in one direction with great patience and temerity. While they come in all sizes, the notable ones stand out. They surge from the past and into the future, through cities that were born on these banks and that grew to become modern wonders of the world.
The things that venture on rivers—fallen leaves, lost branches, feathery birds and the occasional human—are in for a ride, for mankind has always been attracted to rivers, raising civilizations and tilling the earth next to them to take advantage of the mobility and irrigation waterways provide. As a result, rivers are packed with intriguing scenes that consistently draw your eyes to their shores—hilltop castles built centuries ago, rolling estates filled with ancient vines, sun-beaten villages where children splash in the shallow waters and animals come to drink. These scenes unfold blissfully and unhurriedly when you embark on a river cruise.
Why River Cruising Rules
To most, the word “cruising” conjures up images of ships the size of city blocks, ports filled with tourists, and endless views of an endless sea. River cruising is another creature altogether. On smaller ships designed to go under bridges and through locks, you’ll visit bustling cities one day and charming towns the next.
In both cases, your ship will dock in the heart of the destination. You can walk out of your stateroom and, within minutes, find yourself surrounded by street vendors selling fresh fruit, colorful locals sipping aromatic coffee in outdoor cafés, and colorful flowers blooming in the city square. Often you wake up already docked at this destination and don’t set sail again until midnight, giving you the time you need to explore the culture in depth, using your ship as a home base to jump on and off as needed.
Exploring is not only easy but often encouraged when river cruising. It’s not a race off the ship to find the closest beach, as is often the case while island hopping across the Caribbean. Instead, the cruise line regularly includes a selection of shore excursions at each port in the cruise fare. These are designed around different activity levels, so some passengers can opt to visit the regional highlights with a local guide while others can hop on tour-included bicycles and pedal to wherever your wheels take you.
Back on the ship, the pace is easy and eye-opening. With no more than 300 guests, finding space to relax is a breeze. And while ocean-going vessels are constantly adding new experiences to vie for your attention, like go-kart racing and puzzle rooms, river cruises do not need to offer anything. The ever-changing view is the main draw—a constant parade of breathtaking scenery that you can enjoy from just about everywhere on the ship.
If you need something more than the view, something that connects with you personally, then a themed cruise may be the icing on the cake. These special-interest cruises are tailored to certain passions, such as wine appreciation, beer tasting, Christmas markets, jazz, nature and photography. These voyages include onboard experiences around the theme, along with itineraries that visit the great vineyards of France or beer gardens of Germany.
While nearly every country in the world can be explored through its rivers, a few destinations stand out in the river cruising world. At the top of this list is the historical grand dame of destinations: Europe. Storied waterways crisscross the continent, making it easy to visit several bucket-list countries in one seven-day voyage.
It all depends on which river calls your name. Sail down the Rhine, and you can begin your journey in the Swiss Alps, following an idyllic path through the likes of France, Germany and the Netherlands before finishing in the North Sea. More of the southeastern French countryside is uncovered with a voyage on the Rhône, where you can feast on Valrhona chocolate, fresh goat cheese and wine in Tournon-sur-Rhône or partake in a truffle hunt in Arles.
Threading through the heart of Europe, connecting the Black Forest in Germany to the Romanian shores of the Black Sea, the Danube may be the biggest star of the river world. A typical river cruise down this watery highway will have you starting in the Hungarian capital of Budapest and ending in the quaint German town of Vilshofen. Along the way, the baroque palaces of Bratislava, the delicious strudels of Vienna, the Benedictine abbeys and medieval castles in Melk, and the year-round spirit of Oktoberfest in Passau await.
You’ll find the popular riverways of Asia offer a different kind of experience, but they are just as riveting. The Mekong River is a popular choice and for good reason. On this journey through Cambodia and into Vietnam, you can travel back in time to explore historic pagodas, bow before sacred temples, hike to Buddhist monasteries, and barter in colorful markets where locals still practice timeless traditions. Itineraries often include a stop in Ho Chi Minh City, once known as the “Pearl of the Orient,” with its distinctive architectural heritage.
Any other major river you can name will most likely be accessible via river cruise. Along the Nile, ancient wonders—like the Pyramids of Giza, the Temple of Luxor and the Valley of the Kings and Queens—are unforgettable stops on your itinerary. Experience the colors and spectacle of Carnival on a well timed trip down the magical Magdalena River in Colombia or immerse yourself in the riotous, untamed rainforests of Peru on the amazing Amazon.
Let’s not forget about America, home to some of the mightiest of rivers. On a cruise along the Mississippi or Ohio, you can discover the musical roots of rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, soul and the blues in Memphis and New Orleans, dive into bourbon and barbecue in Kentucky towns like Owensboro and Louisville, and see a major Civil War battle site in Vicksburg. And the wild coastline, beautiful wine country and rich native American history of the Pacific Northwest is on full display while steaming down the Columbia and Snake rivers.
The history and the beauty of the world is never far away from a river. Cruising down these celebrated waterways, slowly, in “no hurry,” is a wonderful way to fall in love with a destination and form an intimate connection with different cultures that other forms of travel fail to create.
River cruises are popular with foodies because you get to try so many authentic foods while you’re in the different towns and cities. Here’s a smattering of delectable morsels you could try in the regions where they originated.
Goulash > Enjoy this thick meat and vegetable stew with a broth that’s heavily seasoned with paprika while you cruise through Hungary.
Sauerkraut > In Austria, this shredded cabbage delicacy is crunchy and delightfully sour, and it often includes apple and caraway seed to give it a nice flavor.
Pastéis de Nata > On a cruise down Portugal’s Douro River, you’ll find these custard-filled sweet pastries that were originally made by Catholic monks in Lisbon.
Falafel > You’ve never had a falafel (aka taamiya) like the ones in Cairo, which are made with fava beans and herbs, resulting in a bright green center.
Pho > This Vietnamese staple combines soft rice noodles in a soup broth, normally prepared with either bo (beef) or ga (chicken), both of which are extremely delicious.
Colombian Coffee > In the country known for producing the best coffee on Earth, drinking freshly brewed java at its source may ruin every other roast in your future.
Europe’s ocean-facing cruise ports—Barcelona, Santorini, Copenhagen, Dubrovnik, Venice—are regularly regarded as the crème de la crème of the cruising world. Yet its river-only ports are just as fascinating, just as historic, and just as worthy of exploration. Here are five of its best.
Budapest, Hungary > The Great Synagogue, Parliament House and the Fisherman’s Bastion are equal parts regal and picturesque, but you’ll find the city’s soul in its numerous thermal baths, such as the Rudas Baths built in the 16th century, as well as the Ruin Pubs, drinking establishments that have blossomed in the ruins of dilapidated buildings.
Bratislava, Slovakia > The country’s capital has a compact old town filled with charming streets and an unrivaled outdoor café culture. Wherever you wander, be on the lookout for brass statues leaning on benches, peeping around corners, and emerging from manhole covers.
Würzburg, Germany > Much of this architecturally rich city, which straddles the Main River, was destroyed during World War II, but it has mostly been restored to its former glory. Visitors often take the nearby “Romantic Road” to Rothenburg, one of the last walled medieval towns in Germany.
Strasbourg, France > The largest port on the Upper Rhine, Strasbourg is home to a unique blend of French and German cultures. Be sure to visit the iconic Strasbourg Cathedral, which, for a 200-year span that ended in 1874, was the world’s tallest building.
Cologne, Germany > One of Germany’s most important cultural centers, Cologne is teeming with beautiful Gothic Romanesque churches. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, the Cologne Cathedral is the most visited landmark in all of Germany.