Best river cruise ports: Traveller top 10

River ships can dock at the smallest of ports, and float you to less well-trodden cities, including this selection of some of the best and least obvious.

Bridges, locks and the lure of cities, towns and villages will always keep river ships compact, which is why river cruising, unlike its ocean equivalent, is about the destinations not the amenities. River ships can dock at the smallest of ports, and float you off to landlocked cities never visited by ocean liners, such as this choice of some of the best and least obvious.


Country music is king here but these days the Mississippi port town is also acquiring a reputation for rock, thanks to hometown groups such as The Black Keys and Kings of Leon. Nashville's also booming with once run-down districts such as 12South and East Nashville now hip hangouts. The Musicians Hall of Fame has relocated and expanded and a Johnny Cash Museum has opened, providing even more boot-scooting reasons to visit.   See,


Manaus, which sits in the jungle at the muddy, swirling confluence where the Amazon and Negro rivers meet, boomed in the 19th century thanks to the rubber trade. It has a bemusing European style, symbolised by its ornate opera house, grandiose customs building and the palaces of rubber barons. But the brash metropolis still feels like a frontier town: isolated in the rainforest, humid and shabby, crammed with street markets and itinerant traders in a flotilla of river craft. See,


North of Luxor, cruise ships arrive at two barrages across the Nile. You pass through locks as donkey carts and battered vans cross the bridge above and soon arrive at Edfu, a river town known for its sugar and pottery production. Luxor and Aswan are the fabulous bookends to the story of a Nile cruise, but Edfu is a bustling slice of everyday country life. Calash drivers clip-clop the route between river and the town's top attraction, the Temple of Horus. See,


Sail the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers right into Phnom Penh. Golden spires glitter in the sunlight alongside the monstrous new buildings and construction cranes of a city in transition. Cruise ships moordowntown, and if you can stick the heat, you can walk to city sights, but a cycle rickshaw makes it easier. A graceful city centre of wide boulevards soon gives way to sweaty markets and open-fronted restaurants, just the spot for a cold Angkor beer and chicken curry. See,



Few river-cruise ships make it this far up the Ganges, and then only in periods of high water, but 3,000-year-old Varanasi is the world's most extraordinary river port. The arrival, which provides views over a curved sweep of steps (ghats) leading down to a crowded river, is marvellous. Bodies are cremated on the riverbanks and vultures circle overhead but there is beauty, too. The devout pray waist-deep in water, kingfishers hover and unfurled red and orange saris dry on the steps of a hundred ghats. See,


Given that it's sandwiched between Vienna and Budapest on the Danube River, Bratislava has none of the dutiful must-sees of larger cities but it also has only a fraction of the tourists. Ride a clanking, old-fashioned tram through the city centre, much of which is closed to traffic and graced with beautifully renovated Renaissance and baroque architecture. In the evenings, half the population seems to congregate here at cafes and bars where the beer is excellent and microbreweries abound. See,


Its turbulent history is exemplified by its wind-buffeted, Ottoman-influenced citadel and some remaining buildings still pockmarked from the Kosovo War. Don't let that put you off. Party-loving and interesting, resilient Belgrade will change any preconceptions. Cruise ships dock on the Sava River, a tributary of the Danube, right under the walls of the graceful, neoclassical town centre. A flight of steps takes you to shadowy orthodox churches, the shopping along pedestrian Knez Mihailova Street and the live-music bars of bohemian Skadarska quarter. See,


Switzerland's third-largest city is hard-working, industrial and modest, but it has some of Europe's top art museums, outstanding contemporary architecture and a rather good zoo. Avant-garde jazz drifts from its nightclubs, the vibe is youthful and the combined influences of neighbouring France and Germany are  felt in its culture and cuisine. Basel also has a delightful old town that isn't a tourist showpiece but a city centre full of shoppers, clanging trams and street markets as well as quaint architecture. See,


Chongqing is an unlovely city of concrete, summer humidity and dense pollution that sometimes prevents you from even seeing the Yangtze River from its cliff-clinging streets. For many river-cruise passengers its chief attraction is its zoo, which allows you to "ooh" at giant pandas. But Chongqing provides a dramatic, sometimes overwhelming insight into China's breakneck development. One of the world's largest cities, it's jammed, energetic, forward-looking. It also has a terrific, tongue-numbing cuisine. See,,


In the rush to float down the Rhine and Danube, Germany's Elbe River is seldom considered. But it doesn't just take you through the landscape of so-called "Saxon Switzerland" it sails into the city of Dresden, which presents a fabulous frontage from the river. The north bank of the Elbe is the best spot to promenade for views of church spires and grand buildings. The green and yellow baroque city's core was painstakingly reconstructed after World War II bombing. See,