12 Most Iconic Rivers on Earth

There's a reason you know the names of these rivers—the Nile, the Mississippi, the Amazon—they've inspired exploration, legend, religion. Discover the waterways that shaped the world—and the cruises that reveal their secrets.


The 1,557-mile Ganges gushes from a Himalayan ice cave, coursing eastward through the heart of Northern India to the Bay of Bengal, providing water for farming, industry, energy, transportation, drinking, bathing, and religious ceremonies from baptisms to burials. Sacred to Hindus who consider the river a goddess, its banks are home to pilgrimage sites, funeral ghats, yoga ashrams, and holy cities such as Varanasi and Allahabad.
River cruise: Assam Bengal Navigation's Holy Ganges river cruise spends six nights following the Ganges on the ABN Sukapha, 24-passenger expeditionary ship. Patna to Calcutta, 714/556-8258, From $295 per person per night for the six-night cruise.


The world's 11th-longest river runs through 3,000 miles of Chinese, Burmese, Lao, Thai, Cambodian, and Vietnamese rice paddies, fish farms, and orchards. Its delta has been the site of countless battles—during the Vietnam War, the Indochina War, and the fight against the Khmer Rouge. Today, the peaceful, fertile 15,000-square-mile Mekong Delta is confettied with river galleys and slender sampan boats, carrying cargo from rice to potbellied pigs.
River cruise: Avalon Waterways' 14-day Fascinating Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Mekong River Cruise visits the Angkor temple region, tunnels left by the infamous Viet Cong, and provincial Cambodian capital Siem Reap. Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City, 877/797-8791, From $3,269 per person including a seven-night cruise and hotel nights in Bangkok, Siem Reap, and Ho Chi Minh City.


The Danube has been a trading river since at least the 7th century, when Greek sailors did brisk business along its course. Before that, the Romans used the "Danuvius" as the northern boundary of their empire, building settlements such as Vindobona (Vienna), Aquincum (Budapest), and Singidunum (Belgrade) on its banks to keep out the barbarians. This once-vital medieval trading route can also claim responsibility for the rise of two great empires, the Austrian and the Hungarian. From its source in Germany's Black Forest, the Danube flows to the Black Sea via Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria.
River cruise: Ama Waterways' 12-day Legendary Danube trip includes three nights in Prague before you embark on a cruise along the Danube from Nuremberg to Budapest. Prague to Budapest, 800/626-0126, From $3,089 per person.


Tumbling 1,200 miles from the Canadian Rockies to the Pacific Ocean in Oregon, the Columbia is best known for its part in Lewis and Clark's 1805 expedition westward, for the gold rush of the 1860s, and for being such a formidable obstacle for pioneers on the Oregon Trail. Today, the Columbia divides Washington and Oregon for its final 309 miles, reaching Astoria, Oregon, at the treacherous Columbia Bar, once known as the "Graveyard of Ships". Wineries abound on both sides of the torrent and midday winds from the craggy Columbia River Gorge power a busy windsurfing scene on the river at the city of Hood River.
River cruise: Take to the water on American Cruise Lines' seven-night Columbia and Snake river cruise on the Queen of the West, a 120-passenger paddleboat. Portland, Ore., to Clarkston, Wash., 800/460-4518, From $3,695 per person for a seven-night cruise.


Sometimes known as the "heroic Rhine" for its fairytale castles, terraced vineyards, and dramatic cliffs, this historic river flows from the mountains of Switzerland, through Western Germany to the North Sea near Rotterdam. The Rhine's central location has caused it to be fought over and used as a border since Roman times—Julius Caesar himself crossed the Rhine in 53 B.C. Today, its stunning scenery and spectacular wines make it a popular tourist destination.
River cruise: Get your fill of castles, cathedrals, and canals on Uniworld's 164-passenger Super Ship Antoinette with the Castles Along the Rhine cruise.  Basel to Amsterdam, 800/733-7820, From $2,349 per person for a seven-night cruise.


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