7 of the World’s Best Waterways for River Cruises

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River trips are appealing for many reasons, but one of the biggest is the large swathes of countries and even continents they allow you to explore. You can go on river cruise holidays to diverse parts of the world, too. Choose from the temples and culture of river tours in Asia, castles and wine of cruises in Europe, or the animals and natural beauty of bucket-list spots in the Americas. Take a look at some of the world’s best destination for river trips below.

Yangtze River, China

Cruising the Yangtze River will show you a magical side of China as you cut through the heart of the country. The world’s third-longest waterway is lined with densely forested, mist-shrouded mountains, and it features sights such as the dramatic Three Gorges, the shrines, temples and monasteries of Fengdu Ghost City, and the evergreen beauty of the Shennong Stream. Add to that Tai Chi, Mahjong, plenty of pot-stickers and tea, and this is a cruise that’s bound to leave you feeling Zen.

Why go: To experience the striking scenery of rural China.  
When: Year-round, but spring and autumn are particularly pleasant.
How long for: Between three and 11 days.

Yangtze River. Credit: Bernd Thaller | CC BY-NC 2.0

Rhone and Saone Rivers, France

If the idea of a trip to France to visit celebrated wine regions such as Beaujolais, Burgundy, Provence and the Rhone Valley appeals, then a cruise along the Rhone and Saone rivers delivers. Travelling this way will allow you to tick off some of the world’s best vineyards and most romantic countryside at once. Visit Vincent van Gogh’s Arles, the Roman ruins in Avignon, drink chardonnay in Macon and eat all of the cheese – all while floating past olive groves, lavender fields and tidy rows of vines in between.

Why go: To traverse the world’s most hallowed wine regions.
When: March to December, but September is when the wine harvest and its associated festivals happen.
How long for: Between eight and 14 days.

Pont d’Avignon. Credit: Bernhard Huber | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Douro River, Portugal and Spain

Unlike the flashy attractions of other European waterways, the joy of a spin on the Douro is in its rugged beauty and incredible quiet. You’ll pass through the Douro Valley, the famous home of port and one of the oldest wine regions on Earth. Feast at charming markets, bakeries, cafes and restaurants in Porto. And walk under the sandstone archways of Salamanca’s impressive structures. These are just a handful of highlights from the Douro River’s World Heritage-listed sites, wilderness and wildlife.

Why go: To explore the glorious quintas, mountains, villages and cities along the Douro. And to drink port!
When: March to November, with spring and autumn featuring milder weather and events such as the wine harvest.
How long for: Between six and 15 days.

Douro Valley. Credit: Marco Varisco | CC BY-SA 2.0

Irrawaddy River, Myanmar

This complex and ancient place is full of wonder and will feel worlds away from more established destinations. That’s a large part of its charm – the country once known as Burma presents the chance for a real adventure. It can be a more challenging place to travel, however, and a river cruise could be a great way to experience its sights with a little guidance. Set sail from the cities of Mandalay and Yangon, where temples and teahouses abound, dip in to see the thousands of centuries-old stupas in Bagan, and cruise past the dancing fishermen of Inle Lake.

Why go: For an intrepid trip featuring temple-swept landscapes, peaceful fishing villages, monasteries and meditation centres.
When: Year-round, but the dry season (November to February) has cooler temperatures.
How long for: Between two and 14 days. 

Irrawaddy (or Ayeyarwady) River. Credit: David Stanley | CC BY 2.0

Amazon River, South America

The world’s largest waterway, which in some parts is as wide as a sea, is worthy of a place on any river cruise bucket list. This thriving ecosystem is teeming with wildlife, both in the water and the rainforest lining its shores. Brazil and Peru are the main ports of call, but for a more off-the-beaten-track experience with fewer crowds, setting sail from Peru is the way forward. Swim with pink river dolphins, spot rainbow-feathered parrots and macaws, meet shamans and villagers, and kick back with pisco sours on-board. 

Why go: To witness the incredible biodiversity of one of the world’s most extensive waterways.
When: December to May.
How long for: Between four and 18 days.

Amazon River, Peru. Credit: Global Water Forum | CC BY 2.0

Columbia River, North America

The natural beauty of this section of North America is familiar from novels and films, and many people pass the Columbia River on pilgrimages through the surrounding mountains. Going on a river cruise, however, will cut out the legwork and blisters and still bring you to highlights such as the Bridge of the Gods and towering Columbia River Gorge. As well as the perspective-giving wild, there is also wine country, with opportunities to indulge in Oregon’s world-class pinot noir. And cruises typically kick off in Portland, where there’s plenty of fun to be had.

Why go: For natural beauty, cool-climate wine and quirky culture.
When: April to October.
How long for: Five to 11 days.

Columbia River. Credit: David Negstad | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Danube River, Germany to Ukraine

What is a round-up of river trips without mention of the Danube? Europe’s second-longest river winds its way through no less than 10 countries, beginning in Germany and then flowing into the Black Sea from Ukraine. A river cruise along the Danube can see you travel through Hungary, Austria, Serbia, Bulgaria and more. As such, the possibilities when it comes to booking a Danube river cruise are bountiful. Sail between some of Europe’s most glittering capital cities – Budapest, Vienna, Bratislava – and make port in smaller, yet no less charming, towns along the way.

Why go: To experience a mix of beautiful bustling cities and picture book-perfect small towns.
When: April to October.
How long for: Three to 15 days.

Danube River, Bratislava. Credit: Miroslav Petrasko | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Hero image: Porto, Portugal. Credit: Peter Horensky | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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