Updated October 10, 2019
With so many rivers taking on cruise ships in recent years, it's hard to know where to start. Luckily, we have the solution. Just take a look at how you spend your spare time.
If you like adventurous cuisine and high-quality wine...
You Should Sail: The rivers of Bordeaux, France, which include the Gironde, the Garonne and the Dordogne
Why? If you're a gastronomic adventurer, you'll love the classically French cuisine and outstanding wines of Bordeaux. Arguably the world's most famous wine region, Bordeaux is chock-full of historic chateaux, many of which you'll visit during your river cruise for tastings and special events. Indulge in Instagram-worthy dishes like escargot, frogs' legs and canele, special rum-and-vanilla cakes only found here.
Hidden Gem: It's worth spending several days before or after your cruise in the city of Bordeaux itself. The old part of town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with more preserved buildings than any city in France, save Paris. Plus, the Cite du Vin museum, housed in a Frank Gehry-designed building, will prep you with all the wine knowledge you need to make the most out of your trip.
If you like castles, fairytales and history...
You Should Sail: The Rhine River, which winds its way from Switzerland down to Amsterdam, passing through Germany's Black Forest and Rhine Gorge, as well as France's Alsace region
Why? The Rhine is often considered one of the best river cruises for first-timers, for good reason. That's mostly because of the Rhine Gorge, a 40-mile stretch of the river that boasts castles on either side of the river. Most river cruises take full advantage of this segment of the river by scheduling "scenic sailing," with special commentary as passengers ping-pong from one side of the ship to the other, snapping photos. The high point of the day is passing by the Lorelei, a treacherous rock that inspired the legend of a woman so beautiful, she lured sailors to their doom. Beyond the gorge, excursions on a Rhine cruise take you to Heidelberg, with a ruined castle, and the Black Forest, known as the center of German folklore.
Hidden Gem: Strasbourg may lie in France now, but its history has been tied up with Germany, making the city a mix of both cultures. What it means for you: Culinary specialties, such as flammkuchen (a very thin-crust type of pizza), that you can't find elsewhere in France; outstanding examples of timber-framed architecture in Petit France (the oldest area of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and excellent shopping, particularly during the Christmas Markets.
If you like art and architecture...
You Should Sail: The Seine, which runs through the heart of Paris and also takes in small-town haunts of impressionist painters like Monet and Sisley
Why? First off, cruises begin and end in Paris, where you have some of the world's best museums, including the Louvre, the d'Orsay and the Pompidou Center, among others. Almost all Seine cruises include a day trip to Versailles, the extensive palace and gardens of the extravagant Sun King, Louis XIV. And finally, lovers of impressionism must stop in Giverny, the small Normandy town where the artist Monet lived and painted.
Hidden Gem: Look for itineraries that include the charming coastal town of Honfleur, a fishing village that was often painted by French impressionist artists. The seafood is spectacular here, too; fresh salty oysters with a crisp French white are among life's great culinary experiences.
If you like to be active...
You Should Sail: The most commonly cruised portion of the Danube, which traverses Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, offering a mix of major cities and country villages
Why? Another favorite for first-time river cruisers, the Danube lends itself to a wide variety of activities, including hiking, biking and canoeing. The banks along the river are flat and many stretches have trails that you can use to bike between ports; the section through Austria's Wachau Valley, a noted grape-growing region, is particularly known for cycling. Almost every stop has a hillside castle or ruin to hike to, and cultural capitals like Vienna and Budapest offer city bike tours. The Danube is less industrialized than many other European rivers, meaning you're never far from fresh air and great views.
Hidden Gem: Cesky Krumlov, in the Bohemia region of the Czech Republic, is not only a walkers' paradise, but it's absolutely adorable, with a red-roofed old town that's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A day trip here is usually offered from Linz; don't miss it.
If you crave something different...
Why? River cruising in Asia might not be the most obvious vacation. But it's a safe way to immerse yourself in a region of the world where it might seem overwhelming to plan your own trip. River cruises in Asia often bring you to small villages and hidden temples that might not be on a normal itinerary. Local guides and an onboard focus on the country's culture make these cruises a true learning experience; you'll come back a more informed world citizen.
Hidden Gem: Only a handful of river cruise lines sail the Upper Mekong, which takes you into less-traveled Laos. Here, the French Colonial influence still remains in towns such as Luang Prabang and Vientiane, although the bulk of your time will be spent floating past small villages that rarely see mass tourism. If you're truly looking for something exotic, this is your river cruise.