From the Sun Deck of Viking Hermod it was an intimate, unscripted traveler’s dream, sharing the waterway with kayakers, fishermen, swans and children splashing and waving to us from the water. Vineyards climbed the hills around the Rhône River, with chateaux and villages lined along the river’s edge. Gliding down this river somewhere south of Vienne, France, I realized how much I loved this pace of sightseeing, a real luxury in a hurried world.
In this piece, I’ll look at what it’s like to take a river cruise for the first time, how it differs from ocean cruising, and tips for getting the most out of this unique experience. Whether you’re a lifelong cruise lover or a first-timer, a Viking river cruise will deliver a quintessential European adventure that will have you ready to book your next river cruise as soon as you get back home.
The iconic destinations are undoubtedly the stars of the show in river cruising, and the best cruises show them off at every turn. While river ships don’t have the myriad of entertainment found on many ocean vessels, Viking is known for bringing the region’s culture onboard with tastings of local specialties, music performances, and engaging presentations. It’s a thoughtful supplement to what you’ll experience on shore.
Spend some time before sailing getting to know your destination and the excursions. Viking offers a complimentary tour daily, but with overnights in many ports, there is time to enjoy additional captivating options. Tasting the different types of cuisine as you pass through each region is an absolute highlight – cutting through a double-cream, truffle-layered cheesecake next to the farmer’s dog who found the truffles was one of many hyperlocal experiences possible with a river ship’s small groups and full-day tours. It was certainly my most delicious.
A river cruise lends itself to spontaneity with direct access to destinations. There are no tenders or cities an hour from where you dock. In Lyon, France, the riverside park full of picnickers, cyclists, and bocce ball players right outside the ship compelled me to step out, grabbing a city map on the way off the ship. The afternoon spent lingering in the medieval alleys and Renaissance streets I first spotted on the earlier tour with Viking during the Lyon & Provence itinerary had me hooked on river cruising.
It wasn't just Lyon. I stepped directly out into ancient Roman ruins in Vienne, a castle's sycamore-lined square in Tournon, and the sun-washed walls of Avignon. Make sure to get out and explore on your own. Whether you find a new favorite pastry shop, return to the interesting street from your tour, sample a glass of local wine and watch the world go by, you'll make delightful and unexpected memories. Just remember to pack good walking shoes.
Long and lean river ships maximize space for their guests, and one difference between river and ocean cruising is that there are fewer dining areas and seating times on the river. At first, my natural introversion went on high alert as I realized there were no tables for two in the restaurant. Yet, over the course of my eight-day journey, I encountered delightful fellow travelers with enthralling stories.
Embrace the conviviality of the more intimate setting with a smaller group of guests on river cruises. Get to know your tablemates, and don't be surprised if, at the next dinner, you're looking for faces who were strangers a few days ago, hoping to dine together again.
If you do want a more private dinner or simply to dine al fresco, the tables on Viking's Aquavit Terrace seat two or four. Just arrive promptly; they go fast.
I expected that forsaking the size of ocean vessels meant losing space and comfort, particularly in the staterooms. Yet that is not the case on Viking ships. Design elements like precise utility from every surface and Scandinavian aesthetic, make staterooms feel more spacious. Viking’s Longship fleet also has off-set corridors that create a tremendous selection of stateroom classes, comparable to or even larger than many ocean rooms on larger vessels. Most rooms on Viking’s signature Longships have either a floor-to-ceiling French balcony or a walk-out veranda, letting light fill the space. Viking also has some of the largest suites sailing European rivers.
As delightful as Viking’s Longship was, I wasn't ready for how river ships occasionally dock tightly side-to-side, allowing more than one ship to use port. The only impact is that at some destinations your view may be into another room, otherwise blocked by the sister ship. River cruising pros and new dinner friends quietly shared this sworn-by secret: call ahead when reserving and ask the booking specialist to put you on the side least likely to snuggle up with other ships throughout the journey.
• Want to know more about first time river cruising? Check out our comprehensive guide.
There is no better view on a river cruise than the panoramic Sun Deck, especially when sailing. My heart-swelling moment waving to the children on the river bank was one of many on the ship's top deck that pulled my attention away from any attempt to read. Happily, Viking provided plenty of chairs, so there was no need for the frantic rush to snag or save seats.
However, the deck is not always available, as passing under low bridges is sometimes a game of inches. Even when it is not restricted, there are times when the crew fold the canopies down, and you must remain briefly seated for low bridges. Grab a drink, sunglasses and relax. Just make sure to pay attention to the crew's clear instructions when approaching bridges.
Sailing through a system of river locks is an unusual and mesmerizing experience unique to river cruising. These ingenious engineering feats allow boats to climb upstream or descend downstream with manufactured "steps'' in the river. I was astonished watching the midday sunlight fade as our ship lowered in the lock, my fingers grazing the green algae on the now towering concrete walls less than a foot from the ship's side. I wasn't the only one. When the metal barrier creakily raised to release us and massive gates swung open, another passenger called out that it was like being in a medieval-period movie.
This raising and lowering ritual has one lesson you must learn. As the metal gate that sealed the lock rises, water will pour off in a brief torrent as you pass under. If you're out on the Sun Deck or Aquavit Terrace, you and your belongings may get wet unless you take cover. Viking crew distributed red umbrellas in anticipation, and there were always chuckles amongst the passengers as we ducked under. On the river everything is an adventure.
Too often in my travels I’ve scurried about, checking a sightseeing box only to be left wanting more later. River cruising with Viking slowed things down, allowing me to enjoy the nostalgic journey down one of Europe’s great waterways, sailing in understated luxury. Yet, I was surprised by how much river cruising opens up the destinations – both the iconic cities and smaller towns. With more time in ports and Viking’s diverse cultural, adventure and culinary tour options, I came away with personal stories and a real sense of place.
Only my feeling of wanting more was incurable and even heightened by the pleasures of river cruising. I found myself nodding along with a table of women next to me on Viking’s Aquavit Terrace. Strangers just a week ago, they were plotting their next river cruise, with or without spouses. I knew I wouldn’t be the only one scrolling through river options on the way home.