Travel & Leisure

Waterside View: The Return of the River Cruise

A river cruise offers smaller ships, fewer crowds, boutique experiences, and access to places larger vessels cannot reach. No wonder river cruises are proving popular

After a two-year pandemic-related slump, cruise lines are seeing higher demand and fleets are ramping up, with some boasting record-breaking bookings. But with COVID-19 still fresh in travelers’ minds, many are turning to river cruising for its smaller ships, fewer crowds, and boutique experiences such as sommelier-led tastings, Michelin-inspired cuisine, and impeccable service.

Carrying up to 200 guests, a river cruise provides a more intimate and immersive approach to cruising, allowing guests to explore charming towns and cities that many larger vessels simply can’t reach. A smaller capacity can mean more attentive and higher-quality service, from the dining and entertainment options to the opportunities to relax and recharge.

Our guests really appreciate the insider access we provide—whether it’s preferred admission to popular attractions, intimate onshore dinners at elegant chateaux and castles, or visits to lesser-known, off-the-beaten-path sites—Jeremy Palmer, Tauck River Cruises

Viking River Cruises ship on the Danube in Budapest
Take a cruise that includes a journey on the Danube, where you can visit Budapest’s Castle District and cross under the famous chain bridge (pictured above). You’ll also visit Austria, including Salzburg and Vienna. Courtesy: Viking River Cruises

Unlike other major cruise lines, Viking River Cruises is unusual in that it operates both ocean and river ships, and guests must be 16 and older to travel. This year Viking christened eight new river cruise ships—four of which are Scandinavian longships built for the Seine River, which makes them better able to dock in places like the heart of Paris near the Eiffel Tower.

Viking is launching a new river cruise ship this summer on the Mekong River and two ships on the Nile River by the end of this year. Its Seine River itineraries will also be launching a new, culinary-themed extension that includes croissant-baking classes at a local cooking school, and wine and cheese tasting sessions with a sommelier.

When luxury is the goal, Tauck River Cruises averages far fewer passengers than other lines, paving the way for spacious, 300-square-foot (28 sq m) suites. “With far fewer guests aboard, we’re able to provide more roomy public areas and ensure a more exclusive and intimate onboard ambiance,” says Jeremy Palmer, Tauck’s chief operating officer. “What really sets Tauck apart is the exclusive experiences that would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for independent travelers to arrange on their own.”

Sun deck and pool on the top of a river cruise ship
Built in 2020 for cruising along Portugal’s Douro River, M.S. Andorinha has spacious accommodation for just 84 guests. Some cabins feature floor-to-ceiling windows and French balconies. There are two restaurants and a sun deck (pictured) to relax on. Courtesy: Tauck River Cruises

From an after-hours visit to the Louvre in Paris to a private, pre-opening tour at the home and gardens of Impressionist painter Claude Monet in Giverny, France, these one-of-a-kind experiences are unique. “Our guests really appreciate the insider access we provide—whether it’s preferred admission to popular attractions, intimate onshore dinners at elegant chateaux and castles, or visits to lesser-known, off-the-beaten-path sites and attractions that help bring the destination to life,” Palmer says.

Palace visits are also included in some itineraries. In Vienna, Austria, the company offers a visit to a private Viennese palace featuring dinner and an evening of classical music, opera, and dance from performers in period dress, and in Bucharest, Romania, an exclusive private dinner and evening at the Palace of Parliament.

Sailing North America

Steamboat American Empress is an iconic paddleboat pictured on the Mississippi River
American Queen Voyages has four iconic steamboats that take you on a journey into history. Each one features staterooms, suites, restaurants, and spacious decks to enjoy the views from. Courtesy: American Queen Voyages

For U.S. travelers who aren’t yet ready to go abroad, American Queen Voyages offers nine- to 16-day family-friendly cruises in North America on majestic paddlewheel boats that include unlimited guided tours in every port, bars, lounges, and live entertainment every day. “We also offer a free pre-cruise hotel stay for every cruise,” says Isis Ruiz, chief commercial officer at American Queen Voyages.

Longer than a football field, towering six decks in height, and laced with fanciful gingerbread trim, the line’s namesake, the American Queen, is the largest, most opulent riverboat in the world. “Her journeys through the heartland offer a unique perspective on America’s history, culture, and landscape, with departures from river port cities such as Memphis, New Orleans, and St. Louis,” Ruiz says.

Other American Queen Voyages vessels include the American Empress (pictured above), which travels through the Pacific Northwest; the American Duchess, which travels down the Mississippi River; and the fleet’s newest, the American Countess, which sails the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee rivers.

A swimming pool on board the S.S. Sphinx, which sails in Egypt
Beatrice Tollman, founder of Red Carnation Hotels, and her team create a feeling of boutique luxury on each of the 10 ships within the Uniworld fleet, which offer itineraries throughout Europe, Egypt, Asia, and Peru. Courtesy: Uniworld Boutique River Cruises

See Europe from the Comfort of Your Cruise Ship

For a truly unique river cruising experience, Uniworld offers voyages in Europe as well as Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Peru, and Egypt along a total of 17 rivers in 26 countries. “Our ships feature lavish staterooms—all with a river view, Asprey of London bathroom amenities, and plush Savoir Beds of England, as well as suites with dedicated butler service,” says Ellen Bettridge, president & CEO of Uniworld.

“Our ship designs are also top-notch, featuring world-famous artwork such as Pablo Picasso’s only 24-color lithograph, “Le Picador II,” on the S.S. Beatrice, and two signed Hollywood portraits of Faye Dunaway and Elizabeth Taylor taken by iconic photographer Terry O’Neill on the S.S. Catherine,” she adds.

An Itinerary to Suit Every Type of Traveler

Uniworld also works with local design houses to bring the destinations to life onboard. “One of our newest Super Ships, the S.S. La Venezia based in Venice, was designed to embody Italy’s timeless beauty influenced by local Venetian design house Fortuny,” Bettridge says. “Onboard, guests can find fine Fortuny fabrics throughout the ship, along with Murano glass and gilded accents that pay homage to popular Venetian aesthetics of the early 20th century.”

Averaging just 120 passengers, with the highest staff-to-guest ratios on the rivers at 2.4 to 1, the line is known for being both intimate and luxurious—while also welcoming children on some of its itineraries. ”We offer family friendly cruises with special family excursions; food and wine-focused trips throughout France; holiday sailings to the beloved European Christmas markets, and even mystery cruises for those looking for a surprise vacation,” Bettridge says.

Uniworld's S.S. Sphinx in Egypt has a swimming pool, massage room, and 42 suites. The ship features décor by local artists with materials sourced regionally, including Egyptian cottons, marble, and hand-carved blonde wood. Courtesy: Uniworld Boutique River Cruises

In 2023, Uniworld will be launching its first-ever “Rivers of the World” cruise, a 46-night trip that will whisk travelers to nine countries aboard five luxury Super Ships combining both cruise and land. “We’ll also be rolling out exclusive evening “Nights Out” experiences across all of our Europe itineraries in 2023,” Bettridge says.

“These private evening experiences are co-curated with our local connections and include experiences such as an after-hours visit to St. Mark’s Basilica, where guests can explore sans crowds and learn the fascinating history behind the 19th-century church led by an expert art historian,” she says.

Banner image: Douro River Valley, Spain. Courtesy: Tauck River Cruises