Thinking about booking a river cruise but not sure what to expect? Here’s the Cruise International expert guide

Sailing serenely along the Rhine River, there are little villages on gentle hillsides, then moments later there are medieval castles breaking a craggy skyline. The ship makes a long, swooping turn and then you’re into the Rhine Gorge, with rock walls towering above your head.

“On a river cruise you can sail through tumbling vineyards such as the Wachau Valley, Burgundy and Provence, you can step on shore straight into the heart of fairy tale fabled cities, immerse yourself in culture and learn about the history of towns along the world’s greatest rivers and sit on the top deck sipping a chilled martini as you gaze over glorious landscapes,” says Jamie Loizou, Sales and Marketing Director for AmaWaterways. “And with AmaWaterways all tours and excursions are included and cater for all preferences, from late-riser walking tours to active discovery tours on onboard bikes.”

There’s a constantly changing picture window in front of you as you sit in the usually chic lounge of your river cruise ship. And on sunny days there’s a deck on the roof where you can take up residence on a lounger and drift through the heart of a country or even a continent.

But there’s never a whole day when you’re travelling; there’s always somewhere new to visit and something truly special to see and discover.

River cruising is a perfect, gentle introduction to cruising of any kind if you think (probably wrongly) that you wouldn’t like onboard life at any length. With fewer guests on board, you quickly find that you start to recognise people and make new friends with your fellow travellers, who share your interests.

“What I love about river cruising is the fact that you’re sailing into the heart of destinations,” says Liz Jarvis, Editor of Cruise International. “You can see villages, temples or even palaces as you sail, so it’s a fascinating experience.”

The classic image of river cruising is the sight of the grandiose Hungarian parliament building in Budapest on the Danube. And, indeed, the Danube is perhaps the place to start, a journey that takes in the wonders of Vienna with extravagant Austrian sights such as Melk Abbey. The Rhine is up there, too – timeless central European scenery to entertain every moment.

“European river cruising grows in popularity and guests are increasingly looking for new ways to see the culture and sights of the cities they visit,” says David Winterton, UK Brand Manager for Emerald Waterways.

“Since we set sail in April 2014, we have provided a range of innovative features to keep guests active while on board: a heated indoor pool, running track on the sun deck and complimentary bicycles.

“We’ve now created EmeraldACTIVE with a range of included guided hikes (such as in the Black Forest mountain range in Germany) and bike rides, which promise to showcase even more of what Europe has to offer.”

The ambience of a river cruise is comfortable and familiar, rather like being on an escorted tour by ship rather than coach. And, of course, you’re travelling in a sleek, discreet hotel. Most river ships carry fewer than 200 passengers, many far fewer than that. And these days many ships are new as interest in river cruising grows; Viking River Cruises alone has launched 65 sleek, Scandi-designed award-winning Longships since 2012.

“There is still a misconception that river ships are inferior to ocean ships, with few public areas and limited facilities, but nothing could be further from the truth, with large staterooms and suites (each one with a view or veranda), ample deck space and outdoor eating venues,” says Neil Barclay, Head of Sales for Viking Cruises.

“It’s also easy to budget with included excursions, wine with meals and travel from the UK – all you need is your spending money. Early bookers get the best deals – and because river ships take on average 200 guests, they fill extremely quickly.”

Read part two of Guide to River Cruises.

If you’ve been inspired to take a cruise, use our Cruise Finder to find your perfect voyage.