From the Kapuas to the Moselle, these unheralded rivers all have something special to offer.
All over the world, rivers help connect us. Cities and civilizations first began along rivers like the Nile, the Tigris, and the Euphrates, and even today, many of the world’s greatest cities lie along rivers. Rivers have helped bring fresh water to people and animals and kept goods moving from port to port. Water from rivers helps power all of our lights, appliances, and phone chargers, and in some parts of the world, rivers still help take waste away from the areas where people live.
This is to say that rivers are incredible and deserve far more appreciation than they often get. Hopping onboard a river cruise is a great way to visit amazing locales and become familiar with the landscape that a river has created. While many of us know the biggest river cruises—your Danubes, Rhines, Seines, and so on—there are hundreds more rivers around the world where cruises operate, all running through interesting and eye-opening parts of the world. Here’s our guide to some of Earth’s lesser-known (but amazing) rivers.
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The Kapuas River
Running through about 700 miles of Indonesian Borneo, the Kapuas River is full of hot springs, jungles, waterfalls, and even indigenous tribes. Rainforests along the river are some of the only places in the world where you can still see the endangered Borneo orangutan. Kapuas River cruises let travelers spend hours gazing at beautiful mountains, spotting an incredible range of fish and wildlife, and even dipping into cities like Tayan and Lanjak.
The Elbe River
Everyone knows the Rhine or the Danube, but the 680-mile-long Elbe River runs through much of the same central European area as those rivers and yet remains overlooked. Originating in the mountains of northwest Bohemia, the Elbe runs through the Czech Republic and into Germany while passing through cities like Dresden, Wittenberg, and Meissen. Medieval towns, beautiful castles, and gothic cathedrals dot the landscape along the river and make for great excursions when travelers look to step away from the ship. It’s worth noting that many Elbe cruises begin and end in Berlin and Prague, which aren’t actually on the Elbe but are close enough to make great endpoint destinations.
The Saône River
Another overlooked European river, the 300-mile-long Saône, flows through France and Switzerland before flowing into the Rhone. Along the Saône’s banks, travelers will find picturesque little villages, rolling vineyards, and lush farmland. Passengers who undertake a cruise of the Saône will be struck by the region’s serenity and history. Stops often include the ancient city of Macon and beautiful little towns like Chalon-sur-Saône, Toumus, and Villefranche-sur-Saône. Cruises often begin or end in France’s third-largest city, Lyon, where the Saône meets the Rhone.
The Brahmaputra River
You might not have heard of the Brahmaputra River, but it’s so big that the Apollo astronauts could still spot it on Earth all the way from the moon. The river begins in central Tibet before flowing into northeastern India and Bangladesh. At points, the Brahmaputra can be up to 20 miles wide, especially during monsoon season, and travelers aboard Brahmaputra river cruises get to gaze out at a wilderness that’s vastly untouched by people. All kinds of wildlife live in or around the river, including elephants, tigers, rhinos, water buffalo, and various bird species. Cruises often stop at nearby Shiva temples, as well as fishing villages and farm towns along their route.
The Sava River
Want to check out Eastern Europe but don’t want to be forced to choose between destinations? Consider a cruise on the Sava, which runs through Croatia alongside Bosnia and eventually meets up with the Danube in Serbia. Cruises on the Sava often run for about a week and a half and visit small towns in Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia before merging into the Danube to check out towns like Belgrade and Budapest. Towns like Brčko in Bosnia are full of great examples of the collision of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian architecture. Touring the Sava region is a great way to look at how global forces shaped its culture over time.
The Guadalquivir and Guadiana Rivers
Running through Andalusia, Spain, the Guadalquivir, and Guadiana Rivers are often included on the same cruise packages, though they don’t actually meet up. (The cruises generally dip into the Mediterranean to go from river to river.) Both rivers play host to amazing, beautiful Spanish cities like Cadiz, Seville, Granada, and Cordoba, and Andalusia is generally known for its amazing food, delicious wine, raucous bullfighting, and lively flamenco music. Any cruise through both rivers would also undoubtedly also go through Donana National Park, an expansive salt marsh housing hundreds of thousands of migrating birds that’s been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Red River
Anyone interested in the history and people of Vietnam should check out a cruise along the country’s Red River. Originating deep in the mountains of southwest China, the Red River flows through Northern Vietnam before blending with other rivers like the Thai Binh and spilling into the Gulf Of Tonkin near Nam Phu. Along the way, it passes through Hanoi, which straddles the river. Red River cruises are great for anyone interested in the culture of northern Vietnam or the history of the Vietnam War, and stops typically include nearby mountain towns, Buddhist temples, Ba Vi National Park, and Duong Lam, an ancient rural village that’s been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Senegal River
Running along the border of West Africa’s Senegal and Mauritania, the Senegal River winds past old trading posts, bush villages, and incredible wildlife. Cruises typically start in Saint-Louis, where the river meets the Atlantic Ocean, and meander to Podor, at the western end of the Sahara desert. (Some journeys begin with a little time in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, as well.) Along the way, cruisers will glimpse French colonial architecture, little villages, and the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary. Travelers interested in cruising the Senegal can go aboard the Bou El Mogdad, a ship that’s been cruising the route, bringing food, mail, and water to villagers for over half a century.
The Po River
Anyone wanting to dip into authentic Northern Italian culture should seriously consider a Po River cruise. The river stretches about 400 miles from Pian del Re to Venice, running through cities like Verona—shoutout Romeo And Juliet—Bologna, Ravenna, Polesella, Ferrara, and Turin along the way. Indeed, most Po River cruises begin in Venice, giving travelers ample time to check out the gondoliers, canals, and sights for themselves. Once on the river, travelers can spy baroque palaces and fishing villages, and expeditions on board often give cruisers the option to do everything from bike trips to cheese tasting and mussel harvesting.
Though the Douro begins in Spain, much of the river’s 557-mile journey is through Portugal. Douro cruises typically begin and end in Porto, a city known for its port wine, historic architecture, and beautiful bridges. While on the Douro, cruisers can expect to stop at castles, mansions, and monasteries—that is, when they’re not winding their way through vineyards and rocky landscapes. Steep cliffs often line the Douro, though some Medieval villages can be seen peeking out over the walls. There are some restrictions to traveling on the Douro—ships can’t sail at night, and boats have to be small enough to make it through some of the river’s twisting locks—but cruise companies have figured out ways to entertain their passengers along the there-and-back trip, doing things like offering chances to sample regional delicacies and busing passengers to a local flamenco show.
The Moselle River
Beginning in France before passing through Luxembourg and Germany and meeting up with the Rhine around Koblenz, the Moselle River can be a popular cruising destination for passengers who might want the Rhine experience but with a twist. The Moselle is often considered to be one of Europe’s most scenic rivers, as it sits in a lush valley dotted with rolling hills, idyllic towns, and vineyards full of Riesling grapes. Cruises often make stops in Cochem, Bernkastel, and the aforementioned Koblenz, though they typically start in either Luxembourg or Trier in Germany.
Some cruise companies have even gotten creative with their Moselle ventures, including the river as part of their ventures between Paris and Prague or Paris and Budapest. Other companies tack on a few days in Paris before the cruise starts, giving passengers the option to live the cosmopolitan city life before dipping into a sleepy country adventure.