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Nashville Skyline along the Cumberland River, Nashville, Tennessee, USA (Photo: OFFFSTOCK/Shutterstock)
Nashville Skyline along the Cumberland River, Nashville, Tennessee, USA (Photo: OFFFSTOCK/Shutterstock)

7 Cumberland River Cruise Tips to Know Before You Go

Nashville Skyline along the Cumberland River, Nashville, Tennessee, USA (Photo: OFFFSTOCK/Shutterstock)
Nashville Skyline along the Cumberland River, Nashville, Tennessee, USA (Photo: OFFFSTOCK/Shutterstock)
Jason Frye
Assistant SEO Editor
Marilyn Borth

Last updated
Feb 5, 2024

Read time
5 min read

Cumberland River cruises are enchanting, laidback experiences that usually start or end in Nashville. The "Music City" deserves a day or two to explore and even longer if you're a country music fan. Otherwise, your Cumberland River cruise will likely take you to small towns that you've never heard of in Tennessee and Kentucky.

A cruise in this region is fabulous for foodies, history buffs and even spirit lovers. Shore excursions and on-your-own port explorations may take you to see tobacco fields or production facilities, to moonshine or whiskey distilleries, or to breweries.

The entire Cumberland River cruising experience is one of underestimated merit. Here are our seven top tips for your Cumberland River cruise so you can enjoy it to the fullest.

1. Choose the Best Time for a Cumberland River Cruise

The Cumberland River is navigable all times of the year, but you should be aware of what to expect in terms of weather during each season to gauge which could be best for you.

In general, the weather can be quite unpredictable in the Cumberland River region. In spring and summer, thunderstorms can pop up with little advance notice. Fall and early spring can bring surprisingly cold or surprisingly warm days. In winter, the temperature is fairly consistent, but you can get days that are downright frigid.

2. Pick from Just Two Cumberland River Cruise Lines

Only two companies currently sail the Cumberland River: American Queen Voyages and American Cruise Lines.

American Cruise Lines runs between Nashville and St. Louis (and vice versa). American Queen Voyage runs several itineraries along the Cumberland: Nashville round trip, Nashville to Chattanooga (and vice versa) and Nashville to Memphis (and vice versa).

3. Familiarize Yourself with Cumberland River Cruise Itineraries and Choose the Right One for You

American Queen Steamboat Company's American Empress
American Queen Steamboat Company's American Empress (Photo: Indigoiris/ Shutterstock)

There's a reason why Cumberland River cruises are so often referred to as Nashville river cruises. Their itineraries mostly depart from/arrive in Nashville, but sometimes they also leave from or arrive in the Mississippi River (St. Louis, Missouri or Memphis, Tennessee) and Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Cruises running round trip from Nashville stay almost entirely on the Cumberland River, but they do touch the Ohio River at Paducah, Kentucky, the turnaround point. Stops along this sailing typically include Dover, Tennessee and Paducah, Kentucky.

Itineraries departing from Nashville heading to the Mississippi River typically terminate at one of two ports: St. Louis, Missouri, or Memphis, Tennessee. Along these routes, ports you'll visit include Ashport Landing, Tennessee; New Madrid and Cape Girardeau, Missouri; Chester, Illinois; Paducah, Kentucky; and Dover and Clarksville, Tennessee. These cruises are typically offered as departing from Memphis or St. Louis and terminating in Nashville.

American Queen Voyages offers cruises between Nashville and Chattanooga along the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. Ports of call on these sailings include Dover and Savannah, Tennessee; Florence and Decatur, Alabama; and Paducah, Kentucky.

4. Prepare Yourself for Your Cumberland River Cruise by Knowing the Port Highlights

Bars and venues line Broadway in downtown Nashville, Tennessee (Photo: Scott Heaney / Shutterstock)
Bars and venues line Broadway in downtown Nashville, Tennessee (Photo: Scott Heaney / Shutterstock)

Nashville: Nashville's moniker -- Music City -- is well deserved when you consider its landmarks like The Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Johnny Cash Museum and famed honky-tonks like Tootsie's, and Nudie's and Robert's Western World.

Taking in the city's musical past and present is only one part of a trip here; the other part is the exponentially expanding dining scene, which spans culinary genres from Southern favorites like biscuits and barbecue to Nashville-to-the-core dishes like hot chicken to bold international restaurants to adventurous chefs redefining Southern cuisine.

Paducah: From the beautiful, 50-piece mural the depicts the history of Paducah from settlement to today, to the National Quilt Museum and the concentration of art studios and galleries, this tiny town near the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers surprises visitors with its focus on art and the variety of mediums expertly represented across town.

Clarksville: Clarksville is proud to show off their creativity and history, and a visit to the Customs House Museum and Cultural Center will introduce you to a good dose of both. Its exhibits cover the town's past, notable residents and area artists. Downtown, boutiques and galleries sell contemporary artworks, chic clothing, home goods and antiques.

Dover: Civil War sites dominate the landscape in Dover, where you can stand on the walls of Fort Donelson and imagine ironclads steaming down river as the cannons around you boomed. A National Cemetery shows the aftermath of this, among other conflicts, and the Surrender House museum tells the story of General Buckner's surrender and the end of the conflict in the region.

5. Cumberland River Weather Can Be Fickle, So Pack Appropriately

While thunderstorms are beautiful to watch roll in, they're much better from a distance than up close and personal, so pack your choice of rain gear -- raincoat, umbrella, galoshes -- just in case.

In the shoulder seasons, bring a shirt or two that are lighter than you expect to need and a jacket or sweater that you can layer on to keep you warm. Trust us when we say that you won't regret packing layers.

6. Brush Up on Your History Before Your Cumberland River Cruise

After a couple of ports, it can start to run together but if you brush up on your history -- particularly Civil War history -- and familiarize yourself with this small slice of Tennessee and Kentucky, you'll find those forts along with facts and stories well-informed docents tell make a lot more sense.

Getting a little refresher course on Civil War history will do little to prepare you for the avalanche of townie tales some smaller museums recite. When you find yourself in a grand home now chocked full of photos, maps and displays, take your time and ask plenty of questions.

7. Come Hungry (and Thirsty) on Your Cumberland River Cruise

The Cumberland River region offers much more than you'd expect to find in the way of food and drink, so open your senses and come hungry. Cities like Nashville offer up their own endemic specialties like Nashville hot chicken (perfectly fried chicken coated in a mild, hot or emergency level spicy batter and barbecue flavors and styles ranging from whole hog barbecue in vinegary, sweet and spicy sauces or Texas-inspired cuts and sauces).

In towns like Paducah you'll find a related, but noticeably different, type of barbecue if you're in for a little compare and contrast. Don't forget: this region is rich in history, and that includes moonshine, whiskey and tobacco, so you'll have the chance to sample each.

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