Top 6 River Cruise Destinations (that may surprise you)

If backpacking isn’t your style and you like a little luxury whilst travelling, a cruise is a perfect option.  On a single trip you have the advantage of visiting multiple destinations without the hassle of unpacking and packing; what’s more, the only type of cruising that takes you to the very heart of cities and brings you up close and personal to stunning sites – is river cruising.

If you think that river cruising has a limited choice of destinations, you may be surprised to discover just how many places can be explored on a river cruise.  Yes, the destinations need to be near a river but with 165 major rivers scattered across the world, you are only limited by your sense of adventure.

Here are my top 6 river cruise destinations that may surprise you and leave you thinking about booking a river cruise for your next holiday adventure.

  1. Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay is a breathtaking glimpse at what paradise must look like.  The bay, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, has 1,600 limestone islands and islets just waiting to be explored.  It’s literally like something right out of a film as Halong Bay has been used for numerous films including the most recent Kong: Skull Island.

The beautiful Halong Bay, Vietnam can be visited during a river cruise
The beautiful Halong Bay in Vietnam can be visited during a river cruise

A notable highlight for anyone visiting Halong Bay is its floating villages.  Local fisherman have lived in these villages for generations and fishing is still their main source of income.  You can purchase an array of exotic fruit and vegetables from the floating market, which is a morning treat for tourists.  Arrive before 11.00am to see the market boats.

One of the floating 'shops' in Halong Bay, Vietnam
One of the floating ‘shops’ in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay can be visited from a river cruise to Hanoi, it’s approximately two hours from Hanoi but I feel that this is well worth the transfer time.  Some river cruises will offer an organised excursion that’s included in the cruise fare, which is an excellent way to stay within your budget; this means that there’s no need to spend hours researching separate excursions, saving you time and money.  Emerald Waterways includes a Halong Bay cruise on it’s 23-Day Grand Tour of Vietnam and Cambodia.

2. St Petersburg, Russia

St Petersburg is becoming a popular ocean cruise destination but did you know that a river cruise enables you to experience even more of the city?  Typically, ocean cruises stay overnight in the port (approximately 30 minutes drive from St Petersburg) but a river cruise will stay up to four nights in the Russian city, giving you ample time to see sights like the Winter Palace, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood and the State Hermitage Museum at your leisure without being forced to choose between what you experience and what you miss out.

Travel to the heart of St Petersburg on a river cruise
Travel to the heart of St Petersburg on a river cruise

Perhaps with more time in the grand city you may also like to enjoy a stroll through the Park and Gardens of Peterhof (free entry) or take a moment to gaze at the nine famous Imperial Easter Eggs at the Fabergé Museum (only £5.30 entry, booked in advance).  However you decide to spend your time in St Petersburg, you will know that your river ship will be close by so that you can put your feet up every once in a while.

For anyone visiting another country, I’d always recommend trying the local cuisine.  The best places I’ve found to eat in foreign cities have always been a few streets away from the main tourist areas.  This is where you’ll find the locals eating and prices are likely to be cheaper.  I find that it gives you a more authentic experience of a city.

Russian delicacies are hearty, bowls of comfort food.  Close to the Faberge Museum is Pelmenya, known for serving delicious freshly-prepared dumplings.  Another delicacy to try whilst in St Petersburg is Pirozhki, small-sized buns stuffed with a variety of sweet or savoury fillings.  For a sweet snack I’d recommend trying one filled with apple, cherry or lemon.

The sweet snack of Pirozhki
The sweet snack of Pirozhki

You can soak up the food and culture of St Petersburg on MS Rossia on a Volga River cruise.

3. The Great Pyramid, Cairo

Who’d have thought that you could visit one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World on a river cruise?  Perhaps Egypt doesn’t immediately spring to mind when you think about river cruising but what better way to see Egypt than from the Nile?

The Great Pyramid is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World
The Great Pyramid is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

Cairo is the gateway to the Nile and the pyramids are one of the best preserved wonders of the ancient world.  The Nile was critically important in the construction of these incredible feats of engineering as the blocks of limestone were brought to Cairo by boat.

“With the most thorough security arrangements you can imagine, we really did feel completely safe… we could experience Egypt’s treasures much more intimately than was ever possible.”

TripAdvisor review of Nile cruise on MS Hamees

River cruises don’t need to travel great distances between destinations, which gives you more time ashore to maximise your travel experiences.  Whilst staying in Cairo onboard a Nile river cruise you could take in an evening sound and light show at the pyramids, an opportunity not always possible for people planning to visit on a land-based trip from one of the popular Egyptian tourist resorts.  The light show (available as an DiscoverMORE excursion with Emerald Waterways) brings the story of the pyramids to life, giving you a truly unforgettable experience of your visit to Cairo.

Emerald Waterways DiscoverMORE: Evening light display and entertaining show at the Pyramids (extra expenses)
Emerald Waterways DiscoverMORE: Evening light display and entertaining show at the Pyramids (extra expenses)

4. Bagan Temples, Myanmar

The plains of Bagan are one of the most photographed places in South East Asia and it’s clear to see why; Rudyard Kipling once described Myanmar as ‘unlike any land you know about’.  Originally the site of 12,000 temples, today 2,000 still remain and Bagan is a popular port of call for Irrawaddy River cruises.

Balloon rides over Bagan Temples, Myanmar, photo credit: Emerald Waterways
Balloon rides over Bagan Temples, Myanmar, photo credit: Emerald Waterways

The Bagan Archaeological Site stretches across an area of 13 x 8km and many travellers say it rivals Ankor Wat (also a river cruise destination).

You can explore the temples on an excursion with your river cruise or if you want to do it yourself, full day tours start from as little as £12.00.  In contrast you could always splash out on a once-in-a-lifetime balloon ride over the temples to see a spectacular aerial view of the archaeological site.

The best time to visit Bagan weather-wise is from January to April although this is also when the temples will be the busiest with tourists.  A visa is required for entry into the country and can be purchased for $50.00 online so make sure that this is in place before travelling.

You can explore Bagan during a 19-day Magic of Irrawaddy and Discoverer Cruise.

“The ship itself was exceptional. Service was incredibly attentive – within two days the waiters knew me and my coffee preferences on sight. The cruise director briefed us each night, so we’d know what to expect in terms of activities, local currencies and time changes, menu and was incredibly approachable and knowledgeable.”

Trip Advisor review, Emerald Waterways cruise

5. Moscow, Russia

Home of the iconic St Basil’s Cathedral, The Kremlin, Red Square and Bolshoi Ballet, Moscow is city where you will find history at ever turn.

St Basil's Cathedral, Moscow
St Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow

With so much to explore, it’s good to have a plan of the things you want to see.  A walking tour of the city is a good place to start as it enables you to get a feel for the city whilst taking in the sights; river cruises often include walking tours in their fare and therefore it’s always good to check with the cruise company when booking to help you plan your excursions.

Moscow is famous for being the home of the Bolsoi Ballet
Moscow is famous for being the home of the Bolsoi Ballet

A trip to the famous Boshoi Theatre to watch the ballet or opera is a magical treat for anyone visiting Moscow.  The Boshoi Theatre was opened in 1856 and in recent years has undergone an extensive restoration project to preserve the historic building.  The beauty of staying overnight in the city is that you can enjoy Moscow’s nightlife so after the Theatre why not head to the Time Out Roof-Top Bar at Hotel Peking?

The view from the Time Out Roof Bar, photo credit: Time Out Roof Bar
The view from the Time Out Roof Bar, photo credit: Time Out Roof Bar

A river cruise in Russia during the summer is surprisingly warm and the longer hours of sunlight is fantastic for making of the most of your visit.  Moscow can experience hot and humid conditions with unexpected downpours so it’s useful to pack a lightweight waterproof jacket if you’re planning to visit during the summer.

In terms of visas, you will need to apply for a visa at least one month in advance of your visit.  You will need a ‘visa invitation’ which can be obtained from your travel agent, you can then get a tourist visa that enables you to stay up to 30 days in Russia.

For more information on how to save £1,000 per couple on your river cruise to Moscow visit the Emerald Waterways.

6. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is a cruise port that can be visited whilst on an ocean or river cruise.  The ocean cruise terminal is a commercial port, 90 minutes away from Ho Chi Minh City but river cruises and smaller ships can navigate the Saigon River, taking you much closer to the city.

Ho Chi Minh City by night
Ho Chi Minh City by night

To get a feel for local life, head to Binh Tay Market, located in the heart of Vietnam’s largest China Town district.  It’s an indoor market where the locals go to buy fresh food and here you can sample Vietnamese-Chinese cuisine such as pho noodles, spring rolls and steamed buns.

A popular river cruise excursion whilst in Ho Chi Minh City is the Cu Chi Tunnels tour.  It’s a good organised tour to do as it is situated outside of the city.  The tunnels were used by Viet Cong soldiers during combat in the Vietnam War and can still be accessed by anyone wanting to travel back in time and experience the conditions of the Vietnamese fighters.

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“A fascinating insight into man’s ingenuity, guerrilla warfare and the cruelty of war.
Unbelievable to see how these tunnels were dug out and how they were operated. Worth finding the courage to enter the tunnels. Once you have gone through the shortest it is easier to venture further. Guides very reassuring as the tunnels are tiny. You can actually shoot live ammunition from a variety of serious Vietnam War guns if that appeals at the shooting range. Very weird!”

Trip Advisor review of Cu Chi Tunnel tour

I recommend downloading the UBER app before you travel to Ho Chi Minh City in case you decide to explore on your own.  Don’t get caught out by unlicensed taxis, many tourists have been asked to pay surprisingly high prices when they arrive at their destination, whereas the UBER service allows you to agree and pay the cost of the journey in advance without any cash changing hands.

It is advised not to drink the water whilst in Ho Chi Minh City but the beauty of visiting on a river cruise is that bottled water can be taken with you off the ship.

Emerald Waterways has specifically designed its new Star Ship, Emerald Harmony, to be able to sail straight into the centre of Ho Chi Minh City, allowing you to soak up the city’s atmosphere as soon as you step off the ship.

The new Emerald Harmony Star Ship, designed to be able to sail straight into Ho Chi Minh City
The new Emerald Harmony Star Ship, designed to be able to sail straight into Ho Chi Minh City

Emerald Harmony is due to be completed in 2019 and will fuse contemporary design with authentic Asian style.  There are large glass windows in the public areas so that you can sit back and watch the Mekong go by.  The other stunning feature the ship will have is an infinity pool situated at the rear so that you can relax and look out at the beautiful wake view.

Emerald Harmony infinity pool
Emerald Harmony infinity pool, photo credit: Emerald Waterways

Why choose river cruising to visit these destinations?

When most people think of river cruising, they immediately think of European destinations and although it’s a popular choice for many, river cruising does not stop there.  There are some amazing and exotic destinations that can be visited whilst on a river cruise and will appeal to those in search of adventure and new cultural experiences.

River cruising can take you to many places in one trip without the hassle of unpacking and packing multiple times and if you like a bit of luxury whilst on your travels, the ship is your haven.  Because river ships are small enough to take passengers close to their destinations, a cruise to the places mentioned in this post will typically accommodate anything from 56 to 224 guests.  No overcrowding, no waiting for a table at dinner and no queues at the buffet!

“One thing that always daunted me about the idea of a cruise was getting lost on a huge boat of hundreds of people. I appreciated the fairly small ship and crew/crowd size (I think plus crew it was less than 200 people). I think this allowed both for better service and easier interactions between fellow vacationers at dinners and on excursions.”

Trip Advisor review, Emerald Waterways cruise

You may think that small ships don’t have as much to offer guests, in terms of onboard facilities, but with new ships like Emerald Harmony, being launched in 2019, you can expect features such as a swimming pool, cinema, games area, walking track, restaurants, bars and spa – also found on standard ocean cruise ships.

“My mother and sister had gone on several river cruises but I had not – they always struck me as an over-controlled experience with more focus on the ship than on the places visited. Wow. WOW. First off, you do get to see PLENTY! And one of the wonderful things about Emerald Waterways is that they do all of the planning for you: passes, passport review, tour buses, guides, the works. Emerald also coordinates experiences that going it alone can’t, most notably an in-home visit for a homemade lunch with a Croatian family.”

Trip Advisor review, Emerald Waterways cruise

It’s true that river cruising focuses more on the destinations and that’s a obvious appeal to me as I love to explore new places and make the most of my time ashore.  Many river cruises include shore excursions in the cruise fare, which means less time and money spent on additional excursions.  More time in port gives you the chance to see a city by day and night and to see iconic landmarks like the Egyptian pyramids in the moonlight.

Perhaps this post has changed your perspective on river cruising?  Just remember, there are 165 major rivers scattered across the world, you are only limited by your sense of adventure!

Happy cruising!

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32 thoughts on “Top 6 River Cruise Destinations (that may surprise you)

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    1. These destinations look incredible don’t they? I’ve not taken a Rhine cruise myself but I have family members who have. I hope you had a good river cruise, I believe at the moment the river level is very low which is causing disruption to Rhine cruises.

  1. Great list of options! I haven’t been a cruise yet. I imagine that we will eventually, but our travelers haven’t gone that direction yet! My in-laws recently went on a river cruise in Europe, and it sounded lovely. I would love to visit any of the destinations you listed, but I think my first choice would be Cairo. I haven’t been to Egypt yet and have always wanted to. It looks like a river cruise would be a great way to visit!

    1. That’s pretty amazing, did you visit them by land or by river? I think Halong Bay looks so beautiful and is probably the one I would like to visit the most!

  2. I’m not usually a cruise person but I do love the idea of a River Cruise in particular. I think taking a cruise in Egypt is one of the things that I’ve always thought about doing. I’d love to do a cruise in Russia too, though I’ve already been to both Moscow and St Petersburg. Vietnam is actually at the top of my list right now.

  3. I love cruising. You have listed down such lovely destinations. I hope India also gets added soon. My favorite that I have been looking forward to exploring is St.Petersburg. I dint know that it is becoming a popular ocean cruise destination.

    1. Yes, I have a friend who recently went to St Petersburg on an ocean cruise, which stayed in port overnight so she could explore the city over two days.

  4. I am one of those traveller who is not a fan of backpacking, and cruising is what i will definitely choose. I love the idea of travelling with luxury and comfort and going to many places with less hassle. Vietnam is a place I want to explore either by land, or by cruising 🙂

  5. i have done the Halong Bay and Ho Chi Minh cruises and almost did the St. Petersburg cruise. tHe others have been on my radar but not been to. I would definitely wanna try the russian and cairo cruises.

  6. I have never been on a cruise before and it’s something which am definitely looking forward to do by the next year . You actually gave me a hint of where to travel in a cruise . So thanks to you for inspiring me 😍

    1. I’m so glad I could help, don’t hesitate to get in touch if I can help with any questions or queries.

  7. Yep, definitely found some of these to be surprising! I had no idea you could do a river cruise to see the pyramids, or Myanmar! I always thought most of those types of cruises were in Europe. This is such a great trip alternative to know about though!

    1. Thank you, many people think of Europe when they imagine river cruising so I wrote this post to show people that there are so many exotic places available with river cruising too.

  8. I have never even thought of a river cruise, these look amazing. I especially like Cairo and the Nile. The light show at night is beautiful. I know have one more thing on my bucket list.

  9. Oh, these rides sound really good. I would like to drive the Nile in Egypt. A trip on the Rhine or the Danube should also be beautiful. Let’s see, it works better than a big cruise.

  10. I’ve never been on a river cruise, but think it’s a good option for me as the waters are probably more calm (I get motion sickness very easily). I’ve heard so much about that Cu Chi Tunnel tour and was pleasantly surprised when it was mentioned here as well. Not sure I can go in that tunnel, but the short one I might be able to do 🙂

  11. My parents really want to do a river cruise. We’ve all done several ocean cruises but not a river one. I’ve been to both St Petersburg and Moscow on a cruise (Moscow was an excursion from St Petersburg because the boat stayed overnight) and I loved them. We got around the visa issue because we hired a private car that had a guide. It was cheaper to split the car and go where we wanted than to each pay for an excursion! The place on your list I haven’t been and want to go most is Cairo on the Nile!

  12. You are correct that I had only really thought about river cruises through Europe and had not really thought about cruising to such exotic destinations. This appeals to me so much more than sea cruises. I love the idea of cruising into the heart of Ho Chi Minh city on a brand new ship and sailing up the Nile to see the pyramids!

  13. Stunning photos, Bagan looks like a fairytale, absolutely surreal… I can’t wait to visit Myanmar! Also Halong Bay has been on my bucket list for a while now, I think it’s time to plan some cruises for 2019. Thanks for sharing <3

  14. We’ve had friends tell us about the river cruising in Vietnam and it does sound spectacular. Though for us, our primary goal is exploring the nearby countryside and not being confined to a boat along the way … which is why we have looked at the bike and cruise options with interest.

    1. Some of Emerald Waterways’ cruises allow you to borrow bikes so when you stop at a destination you can explore on your own by bicycle. This sounds like it would suit you.

  15. Wow, these all sound absolutely incredible!! I must admit, I typically avoid cruises (like the plague) because I get so bored on the boat, but I think river cruises would have so much more to offer. Plenty of stops, plenty of sights and not so many hours an hours on end in the middle of the sea. Moscow and H Long Bay would be my top choices!

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