“Go with the flow” could be the motto of river cruisers, the fastest growing segment of the cruise market.
Unlike oceangoing ships that carry as many as 5,000 passengers, most river cruise ships accommodate around 150 guests, for a more intimate experience. Balconies, floor-to-ceiling windows, and open-air viewing are features of most river cruise ships, and some even offer pools, spas, fitness areas, and jogging tracks.
Guests are kept busy (if they wish to be) with daily shore excursions, and most cruises offer several options depending on interests and activity levels. Bikes and walking tours are available in most ports, or guests can choose a leisurely day in a comfortable lounge enjoying the passing scenery. Several cruise lines even offer all-inclusive cruises, so you never have to think about paying for anything once you step on board.
European cruises can be a great way to see the continent's best sites from the comfort of your ship's cabin. See the French coast on a Mediterranean cruise, or pass stunning capital cities on a trip along the Danube. Europe’s rivers are among the most popular and varied with ancient cities, historic landmarks, charming towns, and spectacular scenery. These are some of the best European river cruises.
Related: Guide to cruise vacations
Viking River Cruises
Perhaps the best known of the river cruise companies, Viking promotes their “longships,” which include large suites and inviting verandas for outdoor dining. Guests enjoy Viking’s destination-focused dining while viewing the scenery along the rivers. Viking offers a variety of staterooms and itineraries with a wide range of prices.
Viking’s 10-day “Portugal’s River of Gold” cruise begins in Lisbon with a walking tour through its ancient streets before heading to Porto, home of the country’s traditional wine, to board the ship and begin the cruise along the Duoro River. Guests can explore Baroque palaces, vineyards, and lush scenery along the way, arriving in the World Heritage city of Salamanca, Spain on Day 7. The itinerary includes visits to Portuguese villages in Pinhão and Régua to sample local foods and wines before returning to Porto.
Uniworld River Cruises
Uniworld’s one-of-a-kind vessels are inspired by the locales they visit, making their luxurious ships a destination in themselves. Billed as “the world’s only authentic boutique cruise line,” Uniworld provides L’Occitane and Hermes bath amenities, in-suite butler service, and world class cuisine.
Their eight-day “Enchanting Danube” cruise aboard the S.S. Maria Theresa begins in Budapest with a choice of touring by bicycle or walking. A stop in Vienna includes a Mozart and Strauss concert at a Viennese palace, city tour, and a taste of local delicacies. The cruise ends in Passau with a choice of bicycling, walking, or hiking to explore the city and a special Captain’s Farewell Reception and Dinner.
Already established as a top-quality ocean cruise line, Crystal is a newer entry in the luxury river cruise market. Its fleet of all-suite, all-balcony, butler-serviced ships includes the Crystal Bach and Crystal Mahler launched in 2017, and 2018’s Crystal Debussy and Crystal Ravel.
Their seven-night “Legendary Rhine” aboard the Crystal Debussy takes guests from the medieval town of Basel to Strasbourg with its gorgeous Gothic cathedral, to Rüdesheim in the Rhine Gorge, and to picturesque Cologne. Guests pass castles, vineyards, and ancient towns along the way before arriving in Amsterdam to explore its narrow streets, canals, gabled buildings, cozy taverns, and local cuisine.
This family-owned and operated cruise company focuses on excellent food and wine, tasteful décor, stateroom views, and innovation in their luxurious fleet. Fares include shore excursions with various options, including bicycle tours in several destinations, and all dining onboard, including The Chef’s Table specialty restaurant. New ships debut each year, and the spacious AmaMagna, nearly twice the width of traditional European cruise ships, launched in May 2019.
Wine lovers will want to experience their seven-night “Taste of Bordeaux,” featuring visits to iconic chateaux, timeless vineyards, and delicious wine tastings while cruising the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers. Excursions include a tour of a medieval castle and tasting of Sauternes, a stop in Pauillac, gateway to the Medoc wine region, and a Saint-Emilion tour and tasting. Returning to Bordeaux, guests will explore this UNESCO World Heritage Site and capital of the wine world.
Avalon’s “Open-Air Balcony” features wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling windows for ultimate views from their suites and staterooms. Large private bathrooms include full showers and L’Occitane bath amenities. Their deluxe beds and luxurious linens provide sleeping comfort in spacious, quiet quarters with ample closet space. Many shore excursions include “leisurely,” “traditional,” or “independent” choices for exploration.
The “Burgundy and Provence” cruise along the Rhône and Saône Rivers begins in the Burgundy region of France in St. Jean de Losne. From there, guests sail south to their final destination of the Cote d’Azur, with stops along the way at Mâcon, Lyon, Avignon, and Arles. Highlights include chardonnay and Beaujolais tastings, medieval cities, Roman ruins, and a night on the French Riviera.
Started as a New England motor coach tour company, Tauck is now a global travel firm with a fourth generation of Taucks involved. Their award-winning European river cruises are praised for their personalized service, exclusive destination experiences, luxurious cabins and suites, fine dining, and professional, caring staff.
“Impressions from the Seine: Paris to Normandy,” a new eight-day cruise, features stops in historic small villages and towns, a visit to the D-Day beaches of Normandy and the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach, and an evening at a palatial private residence where guests will enjoy dinner, music, and a tour of World War II artifacts. A private visit to the home and gardens of Claude Monet at Giverny and a visit to the Impressionist Museum will please art lovers. Other highlights include a guided visit to Versailles, Louis XIV’s magnificent palace and gardens, the Cathedrale de Rouen, and Joan of Arc Square.