You could be forgiven for thinking that the constraints of river cruising — narrow, meandering waterways at the tips of their bows, following a precise direction dictated by the currents — limit sightseeing. Far from it.
Many of the greatest inland cities on the planet, from Paris and Budapest to Moscow and Cairo, owe their location and fame to the river on which they were founded.
River cruises are conduits for holidays that take in the world’s most feted places, putting passengers on a floating course for encounters with Far Eastern temples, South American jungles and African archaeological treasures. A river cruise can be a fine way to see them, allowing time for exploration where you know your room for the night is docked at the heart of the matter. Here are a few examples to help you spend your next holiday sailing away.
The lovely Danube is abuzz with capital cities, from the elegance of Vienna in Austria, with its sophisticated cafe culture, to the less-hailed joys of Bratislava, Slovakia, a short journey downstream. But it is arguably Budapest that sings most sweetly to tourists. Hungary’s urban hub boasts the photogenic dome of St Stephen’s Basilica and Szechenyi Chain Bridge, which spans the river to connect the two halves of the city (Buda and Pest).
The Three Gorges
Our perceptions of China tend to be dominated by its vibrant cities and the 21,197km shadow of the Great Wall, but it also offers an equally spectacular attraction along the middle section of the Yangtze river. The Three Gorges — the Qutang, the Wu and the Xiling — are one of the main reasons to tour the country by boat. Towering cliffs rise on both sides of the river, while a hydroelectric dam that fuels the world’s largest power station only emphasises the scale of the scenery.
The Amazon jungle
Brazil’s mighty rainforest may appear to be an impenetrable mass of greenery, but the 6,400km river that shares its name acts as a natural motorway, making the region more accessible than you might expect. One moment you can be gazing at howler monkeys in the canopy, the next strolling the streets of Manaus, the regional capital that is home to the Amazon Theatre, one of the world’s best opera houses. Nearby is the natural attraction of the Meeting of Waters, the point on the edge of the city where the light and dark rivers Solimoes and Negro merge, like cream into coffee.
Germany is rarely more beautiful than in the giant form of the Lorelei, the 433ft bluff that towers above the Rhine at the town of Sankt Goarshausen. German literature has it as the home of a siren who, sitting on the lip of the abyss, combing her golden hair, has long lured sailors on to the rocks. It is an engaging tale, although the Lorelei needs no assistance to charm visitors. Nor do nearby landmarks such as the 12th-century Marksburg Castle, whose medieval grandeur has helped elevate the Rhine Gorge to Unesco World Heritage status.
The Seine is urban beauty encapsulated as it flows through Paris and a French workhouse when it reaches the sea at Le Havre, but the river is at its most inspirational where it slips through the fields of Normandy. It certainly had a galvanising effect on Claude Monet, whose former home (fondation-monet.com) is situated in Giverny, on the river’s right bank. It was here that the Impressionist painter lived and worked between 1883 and 1926, creating some of his most celebrated artworks, including the Water Lilies series of oil paintings that defined his genius.
America’s music cities
Take a journey along the Mississippi River and a place of musical significance will great you at every bend. New Orleans is the spiritual home of jazz and perhaps the most evocative of all the great cities of the US, where melodies spill from the late-night bars of the French Quarter and venues such as Preservation Hall, which attracts fans from all over the world. Upstream, Memphis is the birthplace of the Blues, baring its emotions on Beale Street, while many cruises also take in Nashville (on the Cumberland river), where the country stomp never stops.
Port in production
So synonymous with its second city is Portugal’s fabled fortified beverage that they share a name. A visit to Porto is always an opportunity to drink in the magic and mythology of this ruby nectar — not least in the lodges on the opposite side of the Douro river, in the city of Vila Nova de Gaia. A cruise can also be instructive, taking you upriver, past valley slopes where vineyards sway in the wind, and on to towns such as Regua, where the Igreja Matriz church rears tall above the riverbank. Plus, getting there is much easier now as Emirates has announced it will launch Dubai-Porto flights from July 2.
St Petersburg and Moscow
The interlinked network of waterways that spreads its fingers across western Russia (including the Neva and Moskva rivers, which are connected to the Volga, Europe’s longest) means visitors to this huge country can enjoy seeing its two most famous cities on a single cruise. St Petersburg is a metropolis of fantasy architecture, fanning out around The Hermitage — the former royal palace that is now arguably the world’s finest art gallery — while Moscow is swarthier, but no less fascinating, awash with history in the Kremlin complex.
No country is more entwined in the image of its great river than North Africa’s playground of history. Egypt is the Nile and the Nile is Egypt — the civilisation that sprouted on its marshy banks. Nearly every prime sight in the country is found on the edge of its waters, from the Aswan Dam to the Valley of the Kings. The most iconic structures visible via a river cruise? Almost certainly. For many the star attraction will always be the pyramids, looming out of the dust where the chaos of Cairo gives way to the ancient yesteryear of Giza.
There is a persuasive argument for Angkor Wat being the most formidable religious site in south-east Asia. This epic 12th-century Hindu-turned-Buddhist temple is a seductive spectacle, especially at sunset, when its domes are silhouetted against the sky. And yet, it is just one of the structures that made up the “lost” city of Angkor (the Ta Prohm temple is also unmissable). Thanks to its proximity to the Mekong river, it can easily be viewed via a cruise that takes in Cambodia’s other essential moments, such as the capital, Phnom Penh.
If Angkor Wat is the must-see temple in south-east Asia, the shrines and stupas that decorate the fertile plains of the Mandalay region of Myanmar are a close second. More than 10,000 Buddhist temples were built in the ancient city of Bagan between the 11th and 13th centuries and more than 2,000 of them can still be seen today, peeping through the tree line. Their beauty is underscored by their picturesque position on the edge of the Irrawaddy — the river that dissects this often mysterious country as it wends its way 2,200km to the Andaman Sea.
Such is the length of the Danube 2,850km that Budapest can be a starting point to go east into a region that, in European terms, is relatively unexplored. The river crosses the Balkans via Croatia (the rarely seen city of Vukovar), Serbia (Belgrade) and Bulgaria (Ruse, with its neo-Baroque homes) — before pouring its soul into the Black Sea. Some cruises end with time in Constanta, the Romanian port.