Many of the world's great cities were built along rivers, making them easily accessible for trade and exploration. Today, riverboat cruises remain one of the most alluring and efficient ways to tour them. Like ocean liners, riverboats resemble floating hotels, but instead of carrying 2,000 passengers on the high seas, riverboats rarely hold more than 150 passengers, and they sail past fishing villages and vineyards to dock right in the heart of towns or medieval cities. In Europe, the Rhine and Danube are the hottest waterways for touring. Tauck organizes a 24-day Grand European Cruise through nine countries—including Germany, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania—to the Black Sea. Passengers awaken in a new city each day without the hassle of packing and unpacking. They stop long enough to walk to the ruins of a hilltop castle where Richard the Lion-Hearted was imprisoned in Durnstein, Austria, and study the architecture at the private library at the bishop's palace in Kalosca, Hungary (from $8,790; tauck.com).
The new eight-night Epicurean Adventurer Program from Uniworld starts in Marseille and goes through seven cities, ending in Lyon with an excursion to a Valrhona chocolate factory. The ship itself is luxuriously appointed, with spacious cabins, a hair salon and a masseuse on board (from $2,059; uniworld.com).
Sea Cloud—the Ritz Carlton of riverboats, with a Michelin-starred chef on board—traverses some of the same waterways but in a totally different style. On the 10-night Classic Rhine Golf Cruise, passengers schedule tee times all along the riverbanks, including at courses such as the Bickenbauer Golf Club near Munich and Pannonia Golf & Country Club between Vienna and Budapest (from $10,300). The seven-night Johann Strauss Waltz Music on the Danube cruise allows passengers to travel in the company of the famous composer's great-grandnephew, with stopovers for private concerts in opera houses along the way, as well as wine tastings at private chateaus owned by dukes and princesses. The company will even arrange to pick up guests' luggage in advance and have it waiting onboard when they arrive (from $3,700; seacloud.com).
AMA Waterways sails along the Volga-Baltic from Moscow to St. Petersburg, with stops in the golden ring cities of Uglich, Kostroma and Yaroslavl. Highlights include home visits and meals with Russian families, and a private ballet performance at St. Petersburg's Hermitage theater (from $2,899 for 12 nights; amawaterways.com).
In July, Pandaw will become the only river cruise to send boats into the rainforest of Borneo. The company's colonial-era teak steamers will share the Rajang river with crocodiles and local boat traffic coming from coal mines deep in the jungle. The expedition stops at only one city en route, Sibu, leaving eight nights of expeditions through headhunter villages where passengers can visit with the Iban tribespeople (from $3,255; pandaw.com). Pandaw has another new cruise in the works; after years of negotiations with India, the company's boats will in September begin heading down the holy Ganges for 14 nights, just in time for the Festival of Lights that marks the Hindu New Year (from $9,990).
In Portugal, Douro Azul explores the port wine country along the Douro River Valley. Passengers can sit in lounge chairs on the boat deck, listening to history lectures as they sail through three UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the historical center of Porto and Guimarães. "Throw a rock from anywhere on the deck and you'll hit a grapevine," says the company's chief operating officer, Alberto Alebarte. Travelers are also invited into the living rooms of the owners of small family vineyards where bottles for sale are on display in the kitchen window (seven nights from $1,100; douroazul.com).
The relaunch this August of the Orient-Express Road to Mandalay cruise along the Ayeyarwady in Burma is short in distance but travels back far in time. Passengers cruise past 2,000 temples dating back to the 11th century, as well as monks in red robes and farmers with straw hats plowing the fields (from $2,220 for a minimum of three nights; orient-express.com). They can climb the shrines, which are quite steep, and then relax back onboard and let the river carry them away.