From New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, to Memphis and its rock ‘n’ roll shrines, a river cruise on the Mississippi has rhythm too. Photo/Getty Images
Do the large crowds and potential big waves of ocean cruises leave you cold? Consider river cruising. Smaller boats glide across calm waters, often stopping to admire the shore’s many cultural and natural wonders. Dip your toe in
– or dive again – on the world’s best river cruise itineraries in 2022 and beyond.
The brightest star in the continent’s river cruise galaxy, this route along the Danube, Main and Rhine is a scenic parade of heritage sites, many of which are recognized by Unesco. The itineraries also offer a mix of languages, cuisines and other intangible cultures with stops in Hungary, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and, in some cases, Slovakia.
Enjoy a taste of elegant historic Vienna, perhaps including St. Stephen’s Cathedral and Schönbrunn Palace. Immerse yourself in the Baroque majesty of Melk Abbey and the lavish Bishop’s Residence in Würzburg, as well as the medieval architecture and rambling layout of Bavarian towns such as Bamberg and Regensburg. Admire the castles overlooking a once strategically important section of the Rhine and the windmills of Kinderdijk. Even without optional excursions, it’s a treat for culture vultures.
When: Departures March-December, but remember to avoid July-August when the ports are full of tourists.
Operators include: Avalon, Emerald, Scenic, Uniworld, Viking
Memphis-New Orleans, USA
At least 150 years before the river cruise boom of the 21st century, Mississippi steamboats were giving tourists a good time. They mainly paddled the usually languid southern stretch of the 3,770 km river, between Memphis and New Orleans, which remains the preferred route. This is a week-long journey through the varied landscapes of the southern United States, including farms and wetlands, and its history.
Itineraries explore the Civil War battlefield of Vicksburg, the heritage towns of Baton Rouge and Natchez, and plantations whose graceful gardens and mansions were only possible because of slavery. From New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, to Memphis and its rock ‘n’ roll shrines, this road has rhythm too.
When: Think twice about summer departures. It can then be uncomfortably sticky in the south, especially at the water’s edge.
The operators: American Cruise Lines, American Queen Voyages, Viking
Early 20th century tourists, including Agatha Christie, who sought a quiet adventure on the Nile, were also ahead of the curve of modern river cruises. With a new film adaptation of her novel Death on the Nile coming out in February, now is the time to beat a likely surge in bookings for ever-popular cruises between Luxor and Aswan. Usually part of package tours with flight connections to Cairo, this relatively short 6650 km section of the river is explored over three to seven days.
The longer the cruise, the more time you will spend at the ancient sites of Egypt. Must-sees include the underground royal tombs of the Valley of the Kings, as well as the imposing stone columns, statues and obelisks of the temples of Karnak and Luxor. In between, sail through timeless scenes of white-sailing feluccas, locals with donkeys and camels on the verdant banks of the Nile and the desert beyond.
When: Avoid the high heat of June-August.
Operators include: Avalon, Movenpick, Scenic, Uniworld, Viking
St. Petersburg-Moscow, Russia
Even at a leisurely pace, this route along the Volga and Svir rivers takes less than a week, but routes usually double that by lingering in port for three to four days at the start and end. Depending on the operator, your bases in St. Petersburg and Moscow will be the cruise ship or the hotels, so if you have a preference, find out before you book.
Rounding out the trip are Russian must-sees, from the Imperial Palaces and the Hermitage Museum’s extensive art collection to the capital’s Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral. In between, see the colorful icons and frescoes of Orthodox churches, the century-old wooden buildings of the UNESCO-listed Kizhi Island Open-Air Architectural Museum, and the Vodka Museum of Mandrogi.
When: Departure only from May to September due to otherwise freezing conditions.
Operators include: APT, Russia Cruise, Emerald, Scenic, Viking
Kampong Cham-My Tho, Southeast Asia
These ports may not ring a bell to you, but the river they overlook has been like a great gong lately, calling cruisers to the lush 4,350km lower reaches of the Mekong. The journey between Kampong Cham in Cambodia and My Tho in Vietnam (or near Ho Chi Minh City for some operators) takes about a week. It is easier to discover it as part of package tours and to visit the must-see Angkor Wat by road.
The highlight of this trip is the riverside Royal Palace of Phnom Penh, whose many traditional and ornate buildings include the Silver Pagoda. The routes also take in French colonial buildings, sites linked to the Vietnam War and Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime, and scenes of everyday life, from floating markets to traditional craft workshops.
When: Some operators do not sail when water levels are low from April to July.
Operators include: Aqua Expeditions, APT, Avalon, G Adventures, Viking
Iquitos and beyond, Peru
The 6,992 km Amazon is so huge that ocean cruisers explore its lower reaches in Brazil, but most of the real river cruise options are in Peru. That’s right, there’s more to Peru than Lima and Machu Picchu. Indeed, two-thirds of this country is the Amazon jungle. Itineraries vary and can include other Peruvian highlights as part of a package, but journeys along this river landscape usually start in Iquitos.
From there, for a few days or a week, set off on a cruise on the Amazon and its tributaries, notably in the Pacaya-Samiria national reserve. This wild, green world is buzzing with life, including monkeys, sloths, piranhas, brightly colored birds and perhaps rare pink dolphins.
When: The dry season from May to November is best for its accessible jungle trails and fewer mosquitoes.
Operators include: AdventureSmith Explorations, Aqua Expeditions, Avalon, G Adventures, National Geographic Expeditions