An AmaWaterways ship passes Passau, Germany

The World's Best River Cruises—Which One Should You Choose?

Updated August 2, 2023

River cruises are a hot vacation choice for good reason. You ride along calm waters to discover the interior of countries in Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere, often docking right in town (or in world-class cities). Views from your ship might include castles and chateaux and hilltops covered in vineyards, or, on Asian itineraries, such sights as water buffalo, rice paddies, and houses built on stilts.

It’s slow, casual travel, with intriguing shore excursions and plenty of languid afternoons on deck as you drift along with the current. But not all ships and itineraries are created equal. We’ve compiled our favorites in several categories to help you pick the best one for you.

For a fuller rundown, check out Frommer's EasyGuide to River Cruising, available—along with all of our other travel guides—in our online store.

Bon voyage!
A river cruise ship on the Danube in Budapest
Viking Cruises
Best European Itinerary
For first-time river cruisers we heartily recommend the Danube. You really can't go wrong with an Upper Danube cruise featuring the blockbuster cities of Vienna and Budapest (pictured)—and Prague if you do the optional add-on. The Upper Danube itinerary offers something for everyone, including castles, beer and wine, and opera. If you have the time, do both the Upper Danube and Lower Danube, from Germany to Romania, and explore highlights of both Western and Eastern Europe, including Romania's Dracula haunts.
The American Queen paddle-wheeler on the Mississippi River
American Queen Steamboat Company
Best Stateside Itinerary
When it comes to the U.S. there are two main destinations for river ships: the Mississippi River in the middle of the country and the Columbia and Snake Rivers in the Pacific Northwest. Of the options, we've got to go with the Lower Mississippi because you hit the fun-times city of New Orleans, and, in some cases, also Memphis, the "Birthplace of Rock 'n' Roll."
A river cruise ship navigates the Mekong River, which passes through Vietnam and Cambodia
Haimark Travel
Best Asian Itinerary
A cruise on the Mekong through Vietnam and Cambodia is both thrilling and educational, an opportunity to observe the fascinating culture and explore the often tumultuous history of a river that is an important lifeline to many. The ships are as comfortable as anything in Europe, and your itinerary includes time to explore bucket-list attractions such as the mysterious ruins of Angkor Wat and rapidly developing Ho Chi Minh City.
Diners enjoy a meal on deck a Viking longship during a European river cruise
Viking Cruises
Best Mainstream Ships
The reference to historic Viking ships notwithstanding, Viking River Cruises, with its 190-passenger "longships," immerses guests in a wonderful contemporary Scandinavian environment. Light fills the two-deck atrium, you can dine with views whether indoors or out, there are cabins and suites with real balconies, and these ships even have green features including solar panels (helping fuel the hybrid engines) and an onboard herb garden. They are both pretty and wicked smart.

Viking also does well by passengers on its smaller ships, which are inspired by the long ships, like those that ply the shallow Douro River in Portugal, and carry just 106 passengers; the all-suite Viking Osiris which sails on the Nile in Egypt; and Viking Saigon, an intimate ship carrying just 86 passengers on voyages in Vietnam. On the other side of the spectrum, Viking launched the five-story, 386 passenger Viking Mississippi in 2022. Thanks to smart styling, this American vessel never feels crowded. It also offers the most sophisticated journey available on the Mississippi by a long shot.

The Emerald Sun sails by Budapest
Emerald Waterways
Best Budget Ships
Value-focused Australian line Emerald Cruises brings a surprising "cool" factor to river cruising with its 182-passenger "Star Ships." No, there's no Star Trek tie-in but there is a bit more nightlife than you'll find on most river ships, thanks to fun loving Australians onboard—when the DJ puts on Olivia Newton-John the crowd goes wild. And we can't say enough about the wonderfulness of the infinity-style indoor pool.
Opulent marble interior of Uniworld's Maria Theresa river-cruising ship
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection
Best Luxury Ships
Uniworld's SS Maria Theresa (pictured) and SS Catherine are the beauty queens of the river cruise industry—spectacular floating palaces with over-the-top décor. You'll find marble, lush upholstery, Murano chandeliers, baroque antiques—heck, even the window treatments are fab. In the fall of 2021, the line launched spectacular new vessels in Egypt (S.S.Sphinx) and Portugal (S.S. São Gabriel).
We’d be remiss if we didn’t also mention Scenic’s options, especially the Scenic Jasper, Opal, and Amber. Upscale cruisers with a more modern aesthetic will greatly appreciate these crafts’ sleek, clean lines and midcentury modern furnishings. 
We’re giving Tauck a shout-out, too, for the overall experience, focusing as much on wowing guests off the ships (how do they find all those cool castles and chateaux for exclusive events?) as onboard.
A three-toed sloth, resident of the Amazon region in South America
Carol Schaffer
Best for Families
AmaWaterways is a top pick for family cruises, thanks to its parnership with Adventures by Disney. Select cruises on the Seine, Rhine and Danube feature kids' activities and Disney guides.

Families looking for an ultra-luxury option should choose Tauck, which introduced multigenerational river cruising with its brand Tauck Bridges way back in 2008. Kid-friendly activities include scavenger hunts in the Louvre in Paris, nature hikes where you might spot creatures like the three-toed sloth (a resident of the Amazon region) pictured above, guided cycling in Austria, and interactive cooking demonstrations.
Prawns with tumeric, one of the dishes served aboard the Aqua Mekong river cruising ship
Aqua Expeditions
Best for Cuisine
The food on AmaWaterways ships puts emphasis on high-quality ingredients and is above standard river cruise fare—so much so that the line has been recognized as a member of La Chaine des Roisseurs, the prestigious culinary organization. Foodies will also be pleased with what they are served on Uniworld ships, especially if your tastes include such extravagances as foie gras, fresh oysters, and hard-to-find regional cheeses.
A violinist and guitarist perform aboard an Avalon Waterways river cruising ship
Avalon Waterways
Best for Onboard Activities
Avalon Waterways does a particularly good job in historical and cultural immersion, with lectures by experts—for instance, a World War II historian comes onboard cruises to Normandy. The line also has a large calendar of special interest sailings with experts onboard focusing on such topics as Jewish heritage, Impressionist art, European history, opera, jazz, wellness, and even craft beer.
Performers ham it up during an old-timey music hall show aboard the American Queen Mississippi River cruise
American Queen Steamboat Company
Best for Entertainment
Every line brings on visiting local acts, mostly singers or musicians or folk dance troupes, but Tauck offers live shows and concerts both onboard and on shore. Deserving props, too, is American Queen on the Mississippi, with its Dixieland jazz, old-timey music hall performances (pictured), and occasional Elvis impersonators. You won’t find that on the Danube.
A winding, narrow street in the Bordeaux village of Saint-Emilion
Frédéric de Villamil
Best for Included Shore Excursions
Australian luxury line Scenic goes a step further than the standard, escorted tour, giving passengers the option of a GPS gizmo that lets you head off on foot or bike to hear commentary that’s automatically activated when you reach a point of interest. Avid bicyclists, meanwhile, will applaud all of AmaWaterways’ biking excursions, a program it is constantly growing and enhancing.

But winning the prize for most immersive, expertly-run shore excursions is Tauck, which unlike most of the other lines, only uses its own guides onshore (rather than simply picking up guides from the local pool). Tauck also creates bespoke experiences at castles, wineries, and other venues along their routes.
Hot air balloons fly over the temples of Bagan in Myanmar
Yannick Serrano
Best for Pre- and Post-Tour Extensions
Tauck and Avalon Waterways are both owned by established tour operators—and it shows. They make it easy to extend your trip before or after you hit the water by letting you combine a land tour, special excursions (such as a hot air balloon ride in Myanmar, pictured), or even a small ship ocean cruise (head from your Rhine cruise to the Baltic, for instance).