Choosing a river cruise: The best destinations to see via river ships

There are some who consider all rivers to be the same but do rivers not have riverbanks? Rivers have for centuries been crucial arteries of trade and transport, throwing up entire civilisations in an effervescence of cathedrals and castles, vineyards and markets, university towns and pulsating cities. Each river is as different as the culture, music and architecture that arose along its banks. Throw open your cabin curtains on the Nile River and see orange desert, frothing palm trees and muddy buffaloes labouring beneath brooding ruins. Step on deck on the Main River and see riverside taverns of raucous students, smug skyscrapers and museum-lined promenades. Sail through the Wild West on America's Snake River, the lavender-scented south of France on the Rhone River, the burly-burly megacities of the Far East on the Yangtze River.

Yet river cruising isn't just about looking, either. Unlike ocean cruises with their days at sea, guests access the shore every day, usually all day, and often into the evening. No matter your tastes, you ought to be satisfied if you choose the right cruise and shore excursions, many of which offer more than just whistle-stop tours. Take a cooking class, pedal a bike, attend a classical concert, visit temple monks or village schoolchildren, or investigate the engineering marvels of Dutch dykes and Chinese dams.

The problem lies not in the sameness of rivers, but their variety. Yet some rivers are better suited to certain travellers than others. If you're an enthusiast of cool climates, fine wines and gargoyles then you'll be sadly disappointed (and very hot) on the Mekong, but delighted by the Moselle, a compact and utterly lovely tributary of Germany's Rhine River. Shoppers should avoid the Amazon, foodies can forget the Columbia River and fashionistas needn't bother with Bordeaux cruises, yet all three would be satisfied on the Seine, where ships dock in the middle of Paris. Here, then, are river recommendations to suit a variety of traveller types.

THE SEINE, FRANCE

Seine

GOOD FOR ... Arty types

THE RIVER The Seine is short – cruises sail from Paris to Honfleur and back – but for centuries was central to French commerce and history. The river is lined with mighty cathedrals, old towns, castles and countryside made famous in art history. Sailing into Paris is a thrill.

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT Art aficionados – or wannabes – are spoiled here. Monet frequently painted his gardens at Giverny and the cathedral facade in Rouen; many Impressionists worked in pretty port Honfleur; and a shore excursion takes you in Van Gogh's footsteps around Auvers-sur-Oise, where he spent his final months.

THE CRUISE U by Uniworld's eight-day Seine Experience cruise for 21 to 45-year-olds, return from Paris, visits Normandy capital Rouen, Vernon (for Giverny) and old fishing village Caudebec-en-Caux. There are Normandy beaches, Seine kayaking and Versailles excursions.

SAIL AWAY From $2699pp, five departures between April and October 2018. See ubyuniworld.com

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THE YANGTZE, CHINA

GOOD FOR ... Landscape lovers

THE RIVER Great stretches of one of the world's longest rivers can be navigated, but river cruises focus mostly on the Three Gorges, a 250-kilometre length of emerald waters and plunging, misty scenery scattered with temples and lauded in literature since ancient times.

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT Splendid cliffs roll past on this slow-paced float, with nice touches such as tai-chi lessons on the deck in Xiling Gorge, and a sampan ride on tributary Shennong Stream with traditional Tujia boatmen. Live commentary ensures you don't miss passing temples, peaks and villages.

THE CRUISE Sanctuary Retreat's four-night Yangzi Explorer cruise from Yichang to Chongqing sails through the Three Gorges and visits the massive Three Gorges Dam and venerable river town Fengdu. On-board activities include tai chi, dumpling cooking, traditional Chinese painting and mah-jong.

SAIL AWAY From $US1235pp, multiple departures between March and November 2018. See sanctuaryretreats.com

THE DORDOGNE & GARONNE, FRANCE

Garonne

GOOD FOR ... Foodies

THE RIVER These two rivers (and the Gironde estuary) make for a meandering, back-tracking cruise round-trip from Bordeaux, one of France's loveliest cities, where ships tie up on elegant quays downtown. The landscape is flat, but gourmet treats are epic.

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT A cruise will take you through some of the world's most famous wine regions, including Sauternes, Saint-Emilion and Medoc. Other foodie experiences include visiting a caviar estate, browsing the markets in Libourne and an on-board cheese tasting. You can also visit a cooperage to learn how wine barrels are made.

THE CRUISE APT's eight-day Grand Bordeaux cruise return from Bordeaux visits Cadillac, Pauillac, Blaye for its 17th-century citadel, and fabled wine town Saint-Emilion. A shore excursion to Cognac offers a tasting at a Cognac house.

SAIL AWAY From $5295pp, six departures between April and September 2018. See aptouring.com.au

THE MEKONG, INDOCHINA

Mekong

GOOD FOR ... Adventure seekers

THE RIVER The sluggish, wide Lower Mekong is explored by cruise ship between My Tho (near Ho Chi Minh City) and Cambodian port towns from which passengers are taken by coach to Siam Reap. Floating villages and markets, royal palaces and temples are highlights.

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT Cambodia and Vietnam make for more adventurous destinations than Europe, and passengers can explore villages by oxcart, bird-rich wetlands on small boats, and backstreet handicraft workshops on walking tours.

THE CRUISE Travelmarvel's eight-day Majestic Mekong cruise starts at Siem Reap near Angkor Wat and embarks at Prek K'dam, finishing in Ho Chi Minh City. It visits former royal Cambodian capital Oudong, capital Phnom Penh, rural villages and colonial town Sa Dec. Take a small-boat excursion on Mekong tributaries and a rickshaw tour of Vietnamese town Tan Chau.

SAIL AWAY From $2495pp, five departures between July and September 2018. See travelmarvel.com.au

THE RHINE, EUROPE

Keukenhof Gardens

Keukenhof Gardens.

GOOD FOR ... Shopaholics

THE RIVER Cruises between Amsterdam to Basel focus on Germany and a nibble of France. Hearty doses of culture and history, plus the glorious Rhine Gorges, make this a popular cruise river. The Rhine has fabulous shopping potential, from the funky fashion boutiques of Amsterdam's hipster Jordaan district to Cologne's store-lined pedestrian streets.

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT There's no better place to Christmas shop than Germany, renowned for its Christmas markets, which provide a traditional, atmospheric alternative to shopping malls with (if you're lucky) added snow. Great buys include wooden toys, hand-blown decorations, gingerbread and handicrafts.

THE CRUISE Scenic's eight-day Rhine Christmas Markets cruise between Amsterdam and Basel visits Cologne, Koblenz, wine village Redesheim, Mannheim and Strasbourg, where a shore excursion provides ample time to plunder the Christmas market, one of Europe's biggest.

SAIL AWAY From $4670 per person, departures on December 5 and 12, 2018. See scenic.com.au

THE AMAZON, PERU AND BRAZIL

GOOD FOR ... Eco-warriors

THE RIVER With millions of square kilometres of dense rainforest cut through by mighty, muddy rivers, this is one of the world's true wildernesses and great eco destinations. Most cruises focus on the Peruvian Amazon, though some sail in Brazil.

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT The world's largest rainforest has its environmental issues yet remains home to sloths, monkeys, macaws, hummingbirds and rare pink dolphins. Small ships – some carry fewer than 30 passengers – provide an intimate encounter with the environment. An expedition team aids with wildlife sightings.

THE CRUISE Lindblad Expeditions' 10-day Upper Amazon Aboard Delfin II cruise is bookended by Lima in Peru and sails roundtrip from Nauta, spending most of the time inside Pacaya-Samiria Reserve. There are daily explorations by skiff or kayak and on foot, plus encounters with riverside communities and subsistence farmers.

SAIL AWAY From $US6990 per person, departures every month except April 2018. See expeditions.com

THE UPPER DANUBE, EUROPE

Danube

GOOD FOR ... Culture vultures

THE RIVER Navigable from Regensburg in Germany to Budapest in Hungary and taking in Austria and Slovakia, the Upper Danube blends Germanic, Italianate and Central European cultural influences and also provides lovely landscapes, particularly in the vineyard-terraced, castle-dotted Wachau Valley.

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT This river flows through two cities rich in music and architecture (Vienna and Budapest) and near a third, Salzburg, visited on a full-day excursion. Notable towns such as Linz and Passau also provide ready pickings for enthusiasts of cobblestoned history, baroque churches and European history's curious corners.

THE CRUISE Uniworld's 10-day Enchanting Danube and Prague cruise from Budapest to Passau visits Bratislava, Vienna, Melk Abbey and Linz or Salzburg. A Vienna Morning with the Masters shore excursion, led by an art historian, highlights the Kunsthistorisches Museum's paintings and treasures.

SAIL AWAY From $5599 per person, multiple departures between May and November 2018. See uniworld.com

THE LOWER DANUBE

GOOD FOR ... River-cruise novices

THE RIVER The Lower Danube flows from Budapest to the Black Sea, though most cruises finish at Rousse near Bucharest. Scenic highlights are the Iron Gates gorges and snow-capped Bulgarian mountains, while the changes, challenges and youthful energy of Eastern Europe provide plenty of interest.

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT Although cruise novices generally opt for the Rhine or French rivers, the Lower Danube demonstrates river-cruising's convenience, taking you in comfort and ease through countries you might never think of visiting on your own.

THE CRUISE Viking's 11-day Passage to Eastern Europe cruise from Bucharest to Budapest visits five countries. Highlights include the Bulgarian old towns of Veliko Tarnovo and Vidin, Serbian capital Belgrade, and Osijek in Croatia. Two nights in Budapest further highlight the ease of river cruising compared with ocean cruising, with ships docking right in the city centre.

SAIL AWAY From $4495 per person, multiple departures between May and November 2018. See vikingrivercruises.com.au

THE MISSISSIPPI

GOOD FOR ... Music lovers

THE RIVER The Mississippi highlights the history of the Deep South and its culture, from Huckleberry Finn to Elvis Presley. Riverbanks feature bayou, cotton fields, plantation houses and towns that gave rise to the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Ike Turner.

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT This journey with soul usually sails between New Orleans – which has river-cruising's best nightlife – and either country-music capital Nashville (on the tributary Cumberland River) or rock-n-roll town Memphis, right through the heartland of jazz, blues and soul country.

THE CRUISE American Queen Steamboat Company's nine-day Music of America cruise sails from Memphis to New Orleans. Ports include antebellum towns Vicksburg and Natchez; Louisiana capital Baton Rouge; and Indianola, BB King's hometown, where a BB King Museum and Delta Interpretive Centre cover blues history.

SAIL AWAY From $US1999 per person multiple departures between March and December 2018. See americanqueensteamboatcompany.com

THE NILE

Nile

GOOD FOR ... Romantics

THE RIVER The mighty Nile is the lifeline of Egypt, feeding an eruption of greenery, palm trees and ancient temples amid the red rocks of the desert. Cruises sail between Luxor and Aswan on a section of river dense with ancient monuments and tombs.

WHY YOU'LL LOVE IT Drift through dramatic landscapes and a staggering history on one of the world's most romantic journeys, made for honeymoons or special anniversaries. A sunrise hot-air-balloon ride over Luxor's ancient monuments, or a felucca ride on the Nile at Aswan, might provide a will-you-marry-me moment.

THE CRUISE Viking's 12-day Pharaohs & Pyramids cruise journeys return from Luxor and as far as Aswan stops at the Dendera temple complex, Kom Ombo, Edfu and Esna. There are also three nights in Cairo, including a camel ride at the Pyramids.

SAIL AWAY From $7795pp, multiple departures between April and December 2019. See vikingrivercruises.com.au

RIVER PORTS NOT TO MISS IF YOU'RE INTERESTED IN …

ARCHITECTURE

Budapest (Danube River, Hungary) will give you a crick in your neck thanks to its gorgeous buildings. Its art nouveau architecture is particularly fabulous, with a bold, exuberant style influenced by local folk art. See budapestinfo.hu

ARCHAEOLOGY

Bagan's plains (Irrawaddy River, Myanmar) feature 2200 venerable, magnificently ornate pagodas – some crumbling ruins, some active village temples – for your Indiana Jones moment. You'll encounter passing monks and waving schoolchildren. Vivid sunsets are magical. See tourism.gov.mm

CRAFT BEER

Portland (Columbia River, US) is America's beer capital with craft breweries, seemingly on every corner, producing a wide range of beer styles. The city's lively, alternative nightlife also makes for a great night out. See travelportland.com

CLASSICAL MUSIC

The musical heritage of Vienna (Danube River, Austria) is highlighted in composers' houses, museums and its leading opera house and concert venues. Hear the Vienna Boys' Choir in full flight, or attend a Strauss concert at the Kursalon. See wien.info

CYCLING

From both Cochem and Bernkastel-Kues (Moselle River, Germany), riverside cycle paths meander past castles, vineyards and half-timbered villages seemingly straight from the pages of a fairytale. Several cruise companies carry on-board bicycles or e-bikes for guest use. See mosellandtouristik.de

FASHION & STYLE

Cologne's excellent shopping (Rhine River, Germany) is an easy walk from river-cruise docks. Hit Hohestrasse for department stores, Schildergasse for shoes and handbags, Ehrenstrasse for youthful fashions, and the quirky Belgian Quarter for alternative labels. See cologne-tourism.com

FOOD

Ho Chi Minh City (Mekong River, Vietnam) has some of the world's best food, served at street stalls and neighbourhood restaurants alike. Tuck into banh khoi pancakes, bowls of pho or multi-course seafood extravaganzas. See vietnamtourism.com

NIGHTLIFE

Frankfurt (Main River, Germany) is one of Europe's coolest party cities whose lively nightlife runs from back-slapping riverside beer taverns to great live jazz bars and a hot techno scene in opulent clubs. See frankfurt-tourismus.de

CULTURE & RELIGION

Varanasi (Ganges River, India) sits at a confluence of Hindu energy lines on a holy river lined with ghats and many-armed gods. Cremations, early-morning devotions and the mutterings of wandering sadhus are all part of a confrontational experience. See uptourism.gov.in

WINE

The huddled houses, blue-tiled patios and innumerable churches of Porto (Douro River, Portugal) perch on a rocky gorge. Across the multi-bridged river, ships dock at Vila Nova de Gaia, where cellar doors offer port wine tastings. See visitporto.travel

FIVE REASONS TO TAKE A RIVER CRUISE

CONVENIENCE

As a way of getting about, river cruising is unbeatable. Cruise ships provide comfortable floating accommodation and reliable, quality meals. You unpack once, generally dock in town centres, and never have to worry about finding transportation, hotels or restaurants.

ACCESS

While many people associate river cruising with "tame" Europe, you can in fact explore places difficult – if not impossible – to access on land, such as the Amazon rainforest, West Africa's Gambia River or remote, church-studded Kizhi Island on vast Lake Onega in Russia.

SCENERY

You see splendid vistas rolling past rather than open ocean. River ships offer 360-degree panoramic views from open decks, and some landscapes are at their best from midstream, such as the Rhine Gorges, the Danube's Iron Gates and the Yangtze's Three Gorges.

CUISINE

River ships are better than ocean ships at providing regional food and wine, whether you're after Cambodian curries, wiener schnitzels or French cheeses. Many also sail through famous wine regions and have gourmet-themed shore excursions to cellar doors, local markets and food producers.

BUDGETING

Expect river cruises to cost between $200 and $600 per person per night. But no matter your budget, most river cruises beat nearly all ocean cruises by being fully inclusive. You can set your budget before departure, and won't have to spend a cent extra.

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