Travelling on the world's great waterways can take tourists to the heart of iconic landmarks, says Chris Leadbeater.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the constraints of river cruising — narrow, meandering waterways at the tips of their bows, following a precise direction dictated by the currents — limit sightseeing. Far from it.

Many of the world's greatest inland cities, from Paris and Budapest to Moscow and Cairo, owe their location and fame to the river on which they were founded. River cruises are conduits for holidays that take in the world's most feted places, putting passengers on a floating course for encounters with Far Eastern temples, South American jungles and African archaeological treasures.

A river cruise can be a fine way to see them, allowing time for exploration where you know your room for the night is docked at the heart of the matter.

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Here are a few examples — prices are based on double occupancy and do not include flights, unless stated otherwise.

Budapest
The lovely Danube is abuzz with capital cities, from the elegance of Vienna in Austria, with its sophisticated cafe culture, to the less-hailed joys of Bratislava, Slovakia, a short journey downstream.

The Danube, flowing through Budapest. Photo / Getty Images
The Danube, flowing through Budapest. Photo / Getty Images

But it is arguably Budapest that sings most sweetly to tourists. Hungary's urban hub boasts the photogenic dome of St Stephen's Basilica and Szechenyi Chain Bridge, which spans the river to connect the two halves of the city (Buda and Pest).
Crystal has a seven-day Danube Serenade cruise from Budapest to Vienna departing April 13. From $10,990pp.

Monet's garden
The Seine is urban beauty encapsulated as it flows through Paris and a French workhouse when it reaches the sea at Le Havre, but the river is at its most inspirational where it slips through the fields of Normandy. It certainly had a galvanising effect on Claude Monet, whose former home (fondation-monet.com) is situated in Giverny, on the river's right bank. It was here that the Impressionist painter lived and worked between 1883 and 1926, creating some of his most celebrated artworks, including the Water Lilies series of oil paintings that defined his genius.
Ama Waterways sells a seven-night Paris and Normandy cruise that pays its respects to Giverny. From $3633pp, with regular departures from March to November.

Claude Monet's house in Giverny. Photo / Getty Images
Claude Monet's house in Giverny. Photo / Getty Images

St Petersburg and Moscow

The interlinked network of waterways that spreads its fingers across western Russia (including the Neva and Moskva rivers, which are connected to the Volga, Europe's longest) means visitors to this huge country can enjoy seeing its two most famous cities on a single cruise. St Petersburg is a metropolis of fantasy architecture, fanning out around The Hermitage — the former royal palace that is now arguably the world's finest art gallery — while Moscow is swarthier, but no less fascinating, awash with history in the Kremlin complex.

Viking River Cruises

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offers a 13-day Waterways of the Tsars voyage between the two cities. From $7711pp, with departures from May to October. Book before March 31 and flights are included in the price (unless sold out prior).

The Three Gorges
Our perceptions of China tend to be dominated by its vibrant cities and the 21,197km shadow of the Great Wall, but it also offers an equally spectacular attraction along the middle section of the Yangtze river. The Three Gorges — the Qutang, the Wu and the Xiling — are one of the main reasons to tour the country by boat. Towering cliffs rise on both sides of the river, while a hydroelectric dam that fuels the world's largest power station only emphasises the scale of the scenery.
APT offers a regular 13-day Best of China odyssey that spends five days sailing the Yangtze, from $8795pp.

Yangtze River. Photo / Getty Images
Yangtze River. Photo / Getty Images

America's music cities

Take a journey along the Mississippi river and a place of musical significance will greet you at every bend. New Orleans is the spiritual home of jazz and perhaps the most evocative of the United States' great cities, where melodies spill from the late-night bars of the French Quarter and venues such as Preservation Hall, which attracts fans from all over the world. Upstream, Memphis is the birthplace of the Blues, baring its emotions on Beale St, while many cruises also take in Nashville

(on the Cumberland river), where the country stomp never stops.

The American Queen Steamboat Company

has a nine-day Jewels of the Lower Mississippi cruise, from Memphis to New Orleans, or vice versa, from $3052pp.

Paddlewheel steam boat on the Mississippi River. Photo / Getty Images
Paddlewheel steam boat on the Mississippi River. Photo / Getty Images

The Pyramids

No country is more entwined in the image of its great river than North Africa's playground of history. Egypt is the Nile and the Nile is Egypt — the civilisation that sprouted on its marshy banks. Nearly every prime sight in the country is found on the edge of its waters, from the Aswan Dam to the Valley of the Kings. The most famous structures visible via a river cruise? Almost certainly. For many, the star attraction will always be the Pyramids, looming out of the dust where the chaos of Cairo gives way to the ancient yesteryear of Giza.

Uniworld

sells a 12-day Splendours of Egypt and the Nile cruise, which starts and ends in Cairo. From $7599pp.

The Balkans

Such is the length of the Danube (2850km) that Budapest can be a starting point to go east into a region that, in European terms, is relatively unexplored. The river crosses the Balkans via Croatia (the rarely seen city of Vukovar), Serbia (Belgrade) and Bulgaria (Ruse, with its neo-Baroque homes) — before pouring its soul into the Black Sea. Some cruises end with time in Constanta, the Romanian port.

Tauck

has five 12-day eastbound cruises from Budapest slated for May, June, July and August. From $10,165pp.


Angkor Wat
There is a persuasive argument for Angkor Wat being the most formidable religious site in southeast Asia. This epic 12th-century Hindu-turned-Buddhist temple is a seductive spectacle, especially at sunset, when its domes are silhouetted against the sky. And yet, it is just one of the structures that made up the "lost"city of Angkor (the Ta Prohm temple is also unmissable). Thanks to its proximity to the Mekong river, it can easily be viewed via a cruise that takes in Cambodia's other essential moments, such as the capital, Phnom Penh.
Avalon Waterways has Angkor Wat on its 18-day Heart of Cambodia and Vietnam break. From $9317pp, with departures from February to April, and July to December.

Angkor Wat complex, Cambodia. Photo / Getty Images
Angkor Wat complex, Cambodia. Photo / Getty Images