From the castles along the Rhine to the temples of the Mekong, these are the must-try river cruise itineraries to put on your wish list

Hungarian Parliament building on the shores of the Danube © iStock
THE DANUBE

Glide past the medieval town of Dürnstein, the Danube curving behind and in front, hazy hills of the Wachau Valley giving way to hazier mountains, and you could be in another age, with nothing other than the sleek ship to break the spell.

And one of river cruising’s iconic scenes is the Parliament Building in Budapest, the start or finish of most Danube cruises, many of which concentrate on the stretch to Nuremberg in Germany. The section features Vienna with its elegant centre. You also pass through Regensburg, one of Germany’s best-preserved medieval cities, and Bratislava, capital of Slovakia.

Scenic has an eight-day Gems of the Danube cruise, departing regularly, from £1,895pp, based on two sharing, all-inclusive, including excursions and flights (0808 102 0100; scenic.co.uk).

THE YANGTZE

Pass through the Three Gorges (Qutang, Wu and Xiling) and you pass through China, just as you’ve always imagined it. There’s something about the landscape, the trees… the drama of it all. For 150 miles the Yangtze forces its way through a spectacular series of limestone ridges.

A small boat excursion takes you through the Lesser Three Gorges, canyons flanked by towering cliffs. The natural beauty is complemented by the engineering feat of the five-stage locks of the Three Gorges Dam. The Yangtze is the third longest river in the world but most cruises sail from Chongqing, near the panda sanctuary at Chengdu, to the area around Wuhan.

As you travel, you see sights such as the Shibaozhai Temple, a 12-storey pavilion built in 1650, pagodas, tiered paddy fields and mountains dissolving into an eerie mist. Some longer cruises continue all the way to Shanghai at the coast but many cruises are bookended by overland travel – Viking features Beijing, Xian and Shanghai.

Viking has a 14-day Imperial Jewels of China cruise on 19 November, from £3,295pp, based on two people sharing, all-inclusive, including excursions and flights (0800 319 6660; vikingrivercruises.co.uk).

THE RHÔNE

A glorious river that flows majestically from the Alps to the Med, passing some of the planet’s best vineyards. Many cruises start in Lyon, then sail north to Chalon-sur-Saône, a pretty town snuggled in the Burgundy wine region, before doubling back to call at Mâcon, gateway to the Beaujolais.

Tournon is dominated first by the 16th-century castle and Roman ruins, and then by the craggy face of the Massif Central, France’s third largest mountain range. From here the scenery becomes ever more sun-drenched, with lavender-filled landscapes, before reaching Avignon, a dazzlingly historic town. The final stretch takes you through the wilds of the Camargue to Arles, where the gem is the Roman amphitheatre.

Emerald Waterways has a new eight-day Sensations of Southern France cruise departing regularly from 1 April 2017, from £1,195pp, based on two sharing, including excursions, wine with dinner and flights (0808 159 6422; emeraldwaterways.com).

THE VOLGA

From the military might of the Kremlin to the beauties of the Winter Palace, Moscow to St Petersburg, Russia is like no other country. From classical cities to peasants in far-flung fields, the sheer scope and space is riveting, like scenes from an 18th-century novel. Cruising here links St Petersburg and Moscow via the Volga and the Svir, as well as the Volga Baltic Canal.

The waterways regularly spill out into sea-like lakes – Lake Onega, White Lake and more. On the former, is the picture book island of Kizhi, a UNESCO World Heritage site, home to ancient wooden buildings from across the vast country. On the latter is Goritsy, a village and the Kirillo-Belozersky (St Cyril) Monastery.

The cruise takes you from one city centre to the other with breathtaking sights every day. Excursions include, in Moscow, a visit to the Museum of Cosmonautics with the chance to meet a cosmonaut, and, in St Petersburg, a private ballet concert at the Palace of Prince Vladimir.

Scenic has a 15-day Jewels of Russia cruise on 17 September 2017, from £5,190pp, based on two sharing, all-inclusive, including excursions and flights (0808 102 0100; scenic.co.uk).

THE DOURO

From the time it rises in Spain and drops steadily through the fertile valleys of both Spain and Portugal, the Douro is a river like no other. The scenery has a rare beauty, hills dropping steeply down to the water, lined with row upon row of stone terraces for the sweeps of vineyards.

As well as wine, this is port country. The sun-drenched setting is home to ancient, red-roofed towns, quiet villages and little farms. Tours take you to the wine houses, the quintas, such as the grand Quinta do Seixo for tastings. Marvel at Mateus Palace, the historic house pictured on the shapely wine bottles. And take a tour to the ancient town of Salamanca.

Uniworld through Titan Travel has an eight-day A Week on the River Douro departing from March to November 2017, from £1,999pp, based on two sharing, all-inclusive, including excursions, flights and home pick-up service (0808 149 1400; titantravel.co.uk).

Click here for part two of the ultimate river cruise itineraries.

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