Gone are the days of river cruising being merely a passive pastime. Today, nimble boats ply inland waterways on active itineraries that large ocean liners can’t manage, whether hour-long sightseeing cruises or overnight adventures. For ultimate immersion into local life and nature, here are 11 stunning river cruise destinations offering immersive experiences.

Li River, China

Originating in southern China’s Guangxi region, the Li River winds south from Guilin—passing dramatic karst peaks, steep cliffs, and dense vegetation—before meeting the Xi River in Wulin. A full-day cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo offers spectacular vistas plus the chance to browse bustling markets and take in rural life along the river: locals working the rice paddies, fisherfolk on the water, children at play, and more.

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Danube River, Austria and Hungary

There’s no better way to explore the heart of central Europe than to ply the continent’s second-longest river. Take in the UNESCO World Heritage–listed Danube banks on an evening cruise from Budapest, complete with live music and a 4-course dinner. Or sail the Danube’s Viennese waters, spotting riverfront sights like the Danube Tower and Millennium Tower before an elegant dinner followed by a classical music concert at the Schonbrunn Palace Orangery.

See all Danube River cruises from Budapest, Hungary

Mekong River, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam

The world’s 12th-longest river acts as a natural boundary between several Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and China. To cruise its waters is an epic cultural immersion, as countless residents sustain life along the river through fishing and agriculture, predominantly the cultivation of rice. (The Mekong Delta is often referred to as “the rice bowl of Vietnam.”) From Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, head out on a Mekong Delta day trip or a deep-dive 2-day riverboat tour, which takes you to less traveled sights such as the Cai Rang floating market. If staying in Phnom Penh in Vietnam, consider a sunset dinner cruise.

See all Mekong River cruises from Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Mississippi River, USA

Stretching from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River flows more than 2,000 miles (3,220 kilometers) through 10 states. There are countless ways to experience Ol’ Man River, but one of the most popular is on the Steamboat Natchez in New Orleans. This historic steamboat departs from the French Quarter for brunch, dinner, and harbor sightseeing cruises, many featuring live jazz music.

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Nile River, Egypt

Rising from below the equator up through northeastern Africa and into the Mediterranean Sea, the Nile—arguably the world’s longest river (in competition with the Amazon)—is as geographically impressive as it is historically significant. Post up in Cairo to ply the Nile waters by night or embark on a 4-day journey from Aswan to Luxor with professional Egyptologists who take you through the temples of Philae, Luxor, and Karnak—with plenty of crocodile, bird, and fish sightings in between.

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Amazon River, Brazil and Peru

The longest river in South America stretches some 4,000 miles (6,440 kilometers), and the territory it flows through—Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia—is nothing short of awe-inspiring. If you want to get up close to indigenous Peruvian wildlife, book a luxury 4-day cruise from Iquitos, or stick to the Brazilian Amazon, where you can visit the Meeting of the Waters on a day cruise from Manaus.

See all Amazon River cruises from Iquitos, Peru

Zambezi River, Zambia and Zimbabwe

The grandiosity of nature is on full display along Africa’s mighty Zambezi. The continent’s fourth-longest river—which, together with its tributaries, drains an area of more than 500,000 square miles (1.3 million square kilometers)—connects the Central African Plateau with the Indian Ocean. Whether you explore the river on a sundowner dinner cruise or settle into a luxe lodge along the shore, expect to be awed by the Zambezi’s power and beauty.

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Murray River, Australia

Australia’s principal river forms most of the boundary between New South Wales and Victoria, cutting through high cliffs, narrow mountain passageways, and wide-reaching floodplains. Don’t miss the Murray’s unmatchable tranquil landscape when in Adelaide, whether you have just enough time for a scenic half-day cruise or can explore all of the river’s nooks and crannies on a multi-day riverboat experience.

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Colorado River, USA

Spanning some 1,450 miles (2,330 kilometers) from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, the Colorado River runs through seven states—Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and California—as well as the Grand Canyon. A white-water rafting expedition from Las Vegas offers a one-of-a-kind thrill, while a leisurely jet boat tour from Moab, Utah, allows you to slowly take in the scenery of the American Southwest.

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Ganges River, India

Despite being one of Asia’s shortest rivers, the Ganges remains one of the world’s most sacred bodies of water to Hindu worshippers. The ancient city of Varanasi serves as a home base for travelers look to traverse the river—wake up early for a sunrise boat tour to watch golden light shine on the city, home to the Golden Temple (Kashi Vishwanath). Alternatively, a full-day sunrise and sunset combo cruise takes in famous Hindu temples, museums, and a traditional Ganga Aarti ceremony, in which worshippers make offerings to the river by releasing floating lamps made from candles and flowers.

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Rhine River, Germany

With its towering castles, historic villages, and centuries-old vineyards, Germany’s Rhine River Valley is a storybook come to life. It remains predominantly unchanged thanks to a traditional way of life and one 40-mile (65-kilometer) stretch’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From Frankfurt, embark on a day cruise aboard an old-school steamboat to explore the natural surrounds, or combine a Rhine River cruise with a Frankfurt highlights tour to see top attractions such as as the Cathedral of St. Bartholomew (Dom St. Bartholomaus), Romer Town Hall, St. Paul’s Church (Paulskirche), and Goethe House.

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