by Aaron Saunders

Imagine walking into your favorite store one day, only to discover their selection of products has suddenly quadrupled. That's what's happening with river cruises right now, as these calm, luxurious journeys enjoy an unprecedented renaissance not only in Europe, but around the world. We break down some of the most popular lines and routes.

Avalon IlluminatiCourtesy of Avalon Waterways

Five years ago, most people would give you a blank look if you suddenly exclaimed, “I’m going on a river cruise!” Today, river cruises are a household buzzword; the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry. But while river cruises are synonymous with European rivers like the Danube and the Rhine, the fact remains that river cruise companies are quietly spreading their wings to include destinations like Cambodia’s Mekong, China’s Yangtze, and Myanmar’s Irrawaddy. You can even sail up the Amazon, if you’re so inclined. Nowadays, the hard part isn’t deciding to take a river cruise; it’s deciding where to do it.

The Danube

Uniworld_DanubeCourtesy of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection

The quintessential European river cruise is one of our favorites for a number of reasons. First, every river cruise line in Europe offers sailings along the Danube, meaning you get the absolute best pick of ships and itineraries. AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, Emerald Waterways, Scenic, TauckUniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection and Viking River Cruises all maintain a strong presence here, with Viking arguably offering the greatest number of departures aboard their beautiful (and ubiquitous) Viking Longships.

“The Danube”, however, isn’t just limited to a single itinerary: Avalon Waterways offers voyages as short as five days in length, while Viking features an absolutely massive 23-day European Sojourn that will whisk guests from Amsterdam along the entire length of the Danube (and the European continent) to the Black Sea, eventually coming to a conclusion in Bucharest, Romania.

AMA Waterways_bicyclesCourtesy of AmaWaterways

Weeklong itineraries are just as varied, with departures from Nuremberg, Germany to Budapest, Hungary being most common – though plenty of other embarkation and disembarkation ports are available, including voyages beginning or ending in Passau (Germany), Vienna (Austria), and even Frankfurt, which itself is located further up along the Main River.

Besides the superb ship selection, you can’t beat these ports of call: Budapest. Vienna. Nuremberg. These are all capitals of culture and history in their own right, and even the smallest town (Melk, Austria comes to mind, with its imposing Melk Abbey) has something unique to offer.

There are also plenty of opportunities to jump off and head further afar: guests calling on Linz, Austria might be able to hop on an excursion to nearby Salzburg; while a post-cruise extension in Munich is an easy possibility for guests ending their voyage in Passau and the gorgeous city of Prague may be offered before or after a Danube cruise with a 2 or 3 day land extension.

If you’re a first-time river cruiser, the Danube is an easy and rewarding choice.

Tulip Time in the Netherlands

Keukenhof GardensCourtesy of Keukenhof Gardens

One of the most popular river cruises in Europe is also one of the most restrictive. Every cruise line offers so-called “Tulip Time” voyages through Belgium and the Netherlands – but only between mid-to-late March and early May.

The limited number of departures for these Tulip Time cruises occurs because they are timed to coincide with the famous bloom of the tulips in the Netherlands. An explosion of colour and fragrance, they pop up in mid-March, and are completely gone by early May. Even some of the attractions you’ll visit – such as the famous Keukenhof Gardens that are located not far from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport – only open for two months out of the entire year.

Tulips_WindmillsCourtesy of Keukenhof Gardens

Flanders FieldsCourtesy of Flanders Fields Museum

Do you have to love flowers to enjoy these sailings? Of course not; these itineraries are filled with some of Europe’s most beautiful and vibrant ports of call, like Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the Netherlands, as well as Brussels and Bruges in Belgium. Out of the way ports include the UNESCO World Heritage site of Kinderdijk, famed for its collection of wooden windmills; and Ieper, Belgium – known for its association with the In Flanders Fields museum and World War I.

The only issue with these itineraries is that they book up – fast. So be sure to book well in advance.

The Rhine

Uniworld_RhineCourtesy of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection

Ah, the Rhine. At first blush, it doesn’t seem nearly as impressive or glamorous as its famous cousin, the Danube. But unlike the Danube, which has a bit of a superiority complex (Strauss got it wrong – it’s far from being blue), the Rhine is filled with some of Europe’s most beautiful, real and raw towns and cities.

Most voyages run between Basel, Switzerland and Amsterdam, Netherlands and last one week in duration. Every cruise line sails the Rhine, but it’s a focus run for AmaWaterways, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, Tauck and Viking River Cruises, so expect frequent departure dates on all of the above companies. Like the Danube, many lines tend to place their latest-and-greatest ships on this run, so chances are good you’ll be sailing on a vessel that’s newer than your own car.

StrasbourgBy Didier B (Sam67fr) - Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1097240

While Basel isn’t much, other ports offer plenty of attractions. Strasbourg, France is a curious blend of French and German traditions, owing to the fact that Germany lies just across the Rhine (the river forms the natural border of France and Germany for most of its length). Strasbourg also has one of the best-preserved medieval town centers in Europe, which makes it worth a visit on its own.

Cologne, Germany – frequently referred to as the more “un-German” city because of its inhabitant’s laid-back attitudes – is a mixture of gothic architecture and grey, postmodern buildings owing to the fact that the city was nearly levelled during World War II. But, like many cities in Europe, there are enough historic sights mixed in with contemporary ones to ensure a good time. The beer here is particularly good, brewed in the Kolsch style native to Cologne.

If you love scenic cruising, this is the run for you: the Rhine contains more castles than the Danube, and features a notorious S-curve with a rocky outcrop known as “The Lorelei”; the passage of which is usually celebrated or commemorated in some way out on deck.

France

Emerald_AvignonCourtesy of Emerald Waterways

Do you like wine? Good food? France is about as close to a religious experience as culture aficionados can get. AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, Emerald Waterways, Scenic, Tauck, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection and Viking River Cruises have all set up shop here, operating weeklong roundtrip voyages from the beautiful cities of Paris, Bordeaux, Avignon and Lyon.

As with Italy’s Po River (see below), the distances covered on these itineraries aren’t so great; there are maybe a dozen or so kilometres separating ports of call. If you’re a fan of lazy mornings filled with scenic cruising, like those found on the Danube: you’ve been warned. But what France lacks in lazy days of scenic cruising onboard your river cruise ship, it makes up for on land.

Bordeaux TerracesCourtesy of Bordeaux Tourism

Expect a heavy focus on wine, with a daily visit to some of the region’s best vineyards for demonstrations on how the grapes are grown, produced, and eventually turned into wine. Also expect to taste the wine at nearly every opportunity. Our takeaway: there’s not really a bad wine in Bordeaux; even the less expensive labels are pleasant.

Other fun diversions here include hunting for the delicious white and black truffles and, for guests sailing with Viking through Bordeaux, taking in the chance to produce, mix and blend your very own bottle of cognac at the Camus cognac visitor’s center in – surprise – Cognac, France.

But France is more than just wine. There is, of course, the City of Light – Paris. Paris acts as the turnaround port for river cruises along the magical Seine River, which take guests to places like the ruins of medieval Chateau Gaillard; the town of Giverny, where Monet created some of his most beautiful works of art; and the sombre cliffs of Normandy, where World War II’s pivotal turning point took place.

Eiffel TowerBy Benh LIEU SONG - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6926930

Guests can also sail through the heart of Burgundy and Provence from Avignon to Lyon, or even take part in a more comprehensive journey. Uniworld, for example, offers an Ultimate France itinerary that travels from Paris to Avignon. Spanning 21 days in length, it includes three separate river cruises leaving from Paris, Bordeaux and Avignon.

Italy’s Po River

BuranoBy Saffron Blaze - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15341094

One of the most often-overlooked rivers is Italy’s notoriously-shallow Po River. Only Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection sails here, with the line’s intimate 130-guest River Countess. This route isn’t about distance (you don’t sail terribly far), but instead, about history and culture: a pre-cruise tour begins in the stylish city of Milan before setting out by train for Venice, followed by tours of places like Burano, Lido Beach, Bologna, and the medieval walled city of Padua. If you want to experience Italy without the hassles of choosing a decent Italian hotel, this is the one for you.

Christmas Markets in Europe

Christmas MarketsCourtesy of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection

One of the absolute best times to take a river cruise to Europe is also one of the least-likely. Offered between November 23rd and December 24th, Christmas Markets voyages are available on nearly every river in Europe, by every river cruise line out there. They’re designed to celebrate and highlight the magical Christmas Markets that pop up annually throughout France, Germany, Austria and Hungary. These are held primarily outdoors, in all weather conditions, and represent a tradition dating back hundreds of years that is said to have begun in Nuremberg, Germany.

In addition to the many sights and sounds of Europe, half the fun of these voyages is indulging in the foodie options here, from spiced (and spiked) German mulled wine known as gluhwein to traditional gingerbread and warming potato soup and hot salted pretzels, these voyages are a foodie’s heaven.

Portugal’s Douro River

Douro ValleyCourtesy of Douro Valley/Visit Douro

The epicenter of port wine production in the world is also one of Europe’s most emerging river cruise destinations. Portugal’s Douro River Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site, serves as the backdrop for cruise tours that typically begin in Lisbon and carry on to the hilly town of Porto, which serves as the embarkation port for voyages sailing up the Douro.

Just as Bordeaux is a wine-lover’s paradise, so too is Portugal’s Douro River. But the real export here is port wine: a sweet, delicious dessert wine that has been made in this region for centuries. Voyages make a special point of offering comprehensive tasting and production tours of big-name port producers like Sandeman and Taylor Fladgate, while history buffs will delight in Portugal’s storied (and sometimes conflicting) background. Most voyages also take a detour into Spain in order to visit the picturesque city of Salamanca.

Once offered by only a few lines, voyages to Portugal’s Douro River Valley are now offered by AmaWaterways, Scenic, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, and Viking River Cruises.

The Mekong: Vietnam and Cambodia

Mekong DeltaCourtesy of Viking River Cruises

If you’re looking for something more exotic, these next three voyages are ones you can’t go wrong with. AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, Emerald Waterways, Scenic, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection and Viking River Cruises lead the way on the Mekong, with multi-week cruise tour options available alongside weeklong voyages that tend to begin and end in either Siem Reap, Cambodia or Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Angkor WatBy sam garza - originally posted to Flickr as Angkor Wat, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7709377

Many of the towns you’ll visit are small – very small. What you get, however, is an authentic, local experience served up alongside larger ports of call like Siem Reap (famous for its Angkor Wat UNESCO World Heritage site) and the once war-torn city of Phnom Penh, where the cruel aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime can still be seen at the Killing Fields Memorial.

A cruise along the Mekong is a completely life-altering experience.

The Irrawaddy: Myanmar

YangonCourtesy of AmaWaterways

Take the Mekong River and wind the clock back 30 years. No, make that 50 years. That’s Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River in a nutshell; a place so remote and so untouched by tourists that you’ll feel like Rudyard Kipling.

That’s not to say that tourists don’t come here; Bagan – with its thousands of Buddhist temples as far as the eye can see – is no stranger to travellers from around the world. But even the big cities here, like Yangon and Mandalay, feel like turn-of-the-century, industrial revolution-style places with modern amenities like spotty cell service and a handful of English newspapers.

Mandalay TempleCourtesy of AmaWaterways

AmaWaterways was first on the scene with their gorgeous AmaPura, but the line is far from the only game in town. Avalon has also committed to the region with the launch of the line’s all-suite, 36-guest Avalon Myanmar in 2015. Luxury operator Scenic has also introduced a new 14-day Mystical Irrawaddy itinerary that operates between Yangon and Mandalay.

This is river cruising’s newest destinations – and it could very well be one of the best.

Once confined to the European continent, river cruising is a worldwide affair; one that gets more diverse – and exciting – with each passing season.

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