But, riverboats have, at least until recently, been mired in a traditional rut. Too small to offer the plethora of big-ship options -- Las Vegas-style entertainment and gambling, vast sun decks and kids clubs -- riverboats serve more as floating hotels than as destinations in their own right. The boats are built long, sleek and low-slung, designed out of the necessity to squeeze under stout ancient and medieval bridges and through narrow canal locks. Typically the ships, carrying as few as 100 and as many as 200 passengers, each feature one restaurant (where all passengers dine at the same time), few onboard activities (save for daytime enrichment) and evening entertainment that's inspired by the cultures of the ports visited.
However, times are changing on Europe's rivers, as operators like Avalon, Uniworld, Tauck, Viking River, AmaWaterways, Scenic and others are investing in new boats that incorporate more of today's contemporary features. These new-builds feature amenities like spacious two-room suites, cabins with full balconies, Wi-Fi, alternative eateries, gyms, spas, swimming pools and museum-worthy art collections.
Beyond the hardware, what makes a river cruise so different from an ocean cruise is the intense emphasis on the places visited. Every day a new port is featured (no "river" days here), guided tours are included, and no one opts to spend a day enjoying the boat when they could be out exploring. With this focus, it's nice that river itineraries in Europe feature a diverse mix of sophisticated metropolises -- such as Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam and Budapest -- and picturesque villages like the Rhone's Provence, the Danube's Durnstein and the Rhine's Cochem.
Intrigued? Need more convincing? Here are eight essential reasons to take a European river cruise.
If you have a river cruise experience to share, we'd love to see your photos and read your stories in Cruise Critic's River and Canal Cruises forum.
--by Dan Askin, Senior Editor; updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief