Intrigued by river cruising but not sure which cruise is right for you? This relaxing and indulgent mode of travel has grown in popularity over the past decade as Americans have discovered how river ships, generally accommodating 100 to 300 guests, combine exceptional onboard dining with easy access to some of the world’s most captivating locales. Bottom Line Personal travel expert Donna Heiderstadt takes a look at the best river cruises in Europe and the US, all bookable now for 2023…
Europe’s culture-rich countries—from Germany in the north to Portugal in the south—are the heart and soul of river cruising. Modern ships become a home away from home as you enjoy guided walks of old towns, panoramic bus tours and culinary adventures centered around cheese, truffles, chocolate—and, of course, wine.
Tulip time: If you’re looking to avoid summer crowds, stroll vibrant gardens and sip fabulous beer, consider an April sailing during Belgium and Holland’s tulip season. Board in Brussels or Amsterdam, after a visit to the spectacular gardens at Keukenhof (Keukenhof.nl), and experience the windmills of Kinderdijk, the charming Dutch city of Maastricht and atmospheric old Belgian towns in Bruges and Antwerp. Sailing options include “Holland & Belgium at Tulip Time” with Uniworld (Uniworld.com), from $3,399 per person…and “Belgium & Holland in Spring” with Tauck (Tauck.com), from $4,290 per person.
French feast: May and June are ideal for cruising France’s Rhône River, where sailings stop in history-and-art–rich cities such as Arles, Avignon and Lyon where you can sip Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Burgundy wines, snack on sweet apricot tarts and savory pâtés, visit Roman ruins and explore the realms of artist Vincent van Gogh and 14th-century Popes. Sailing options include “Essence of Burgundy & Provence” on AmaWaterways (AmaWaterways.com), from $4,199 per person…and “Sensations of Lyon & Provence” on value-focused Emerald Cruises (EmeraldCruises.com), from $2,395 per person.
Vineyard views: Escape the summer by sailing through Portugal’s Douro Valley, where a dramatic landscape of terraced vineyards is the setting for tastings of the region’s powerful red wines. Pre- or post-cruise time in Porto also offers a chance to explore this photogenic city’s historic port cellars and landmarks. Scenic (ScenicUSA.com) offers “Delightful Douro” sailings round-trip from Porto, from $4,495 per person.
Castles and cathedrals: Early fall is prime time on the Rhine and the Danube with itineraries that begin or end in Germany. Fans of fairytale-style castles and crisp Rieslings can call on postcard-perfect ports such as Rüdesheim am Rhein and Koblenz in Germany and Strasbourg in France on a “Romantic Rhine” sailing with Avalon Waterways (AvalonWaterways.com), from $3,599 per person. Danube cruises that sail from Regensburg, Germany, or Budapest, Hungary, are ideal for travelers interested in history and architecture, with visits to regal Vienna and baroque Salzburg in Austria. Check out “Romantic Danube” sailings on Viking (Viking.com), from $2,799 per person.
Venetian Splendor: Large cruise ships are banned from entering Venice Lagoon—but not river vessels, which can serve as a base for exploring its photogenic islands and venturing up the Po River to Polesella. A luxurious option is Uniworld’s (Uniworld.com) “Milan, Venice & the Gems of Northern Italy” sailing aboard the lavishly appointed S.S. La Venezia, from $3,999 per person.
You don’t have to cross the Atlantic to have an exceptional river-cruise experience—US ships are impressive, too, with new vessels on both the Mississippi in the South and Midwest and the Columbia and Snake Rivers in the Pacific Northwest. Regional cuisine and storied landmarks headline itineraries spanning seven to 14 nights.
Mississippi dreaming: America’s most celebrated river is the backdrop for cruises from New Orleans to Memphis (October to June) visiting Natchez and Vicksburg in Mississippi…and St. Louis to Minneapolis (June to September) calling on cities in Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Or cruise the entire 2,350 miles over 14 days. Book “Heart of the Delta” aboard the new Viking Mississippi (Viking.com), offering access to the historic landmarks of the Lower Mississippi in Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, from $3,999 per person…or “St. Louis to Minneapolis” aboard American Queen Voyages’ (AQVoyages.com) grand paddlewheel riverboat American Duchess, from $2,799 per person.
Pioneering spirit: From March to November, explore a section of Lewis & Clark’s historic route—from Astoria, Oregon, to the rugged plateaus of Clarkston, Washington—on a cruise along the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Highlights include the stark volcanic landscapes of Mt. St. Helens and the wineries and eagle aeries of The Dalles. Consider American Cruise Lines’ (AmericanCruiseLines.com) “Columbia and Snake Rivers Cruise,” from $4,505 per person.