VACATION IDEAS

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 Colombia River played a pivotal roll in the western expansion of the U.S.

(Alptraum / Dreamstime.com)

Trace the great rivers of the world and you'll find you're tracing much of human civilization. Throughout the ages, these watercourses have provided sustenance for crops and have kick-started exploration, enterprise, and even empires. Of course you've heard of these rivers before—they've shaped the world as we know it and played a starring role in stories, songs, and spiritual beliefs along the way. But did you know that even today one of the best ways to learn about a region is to start with the nearest river? These waterways not only linked major cities and remote villages, but they also hold the secrets to everything from the local culture to the local cuisine. We've also outlined 12 incredible river cruises that will reveal their secrets to you. These trips might not come cheap, but they will take you on a once-in-a-lifetime journey through some of the most pivotal places on earth (plus meals and drinks are usually included). Read on and discover the rivers that have made the biggest splashes in the history of mankind.

TAKE A PHOTO TOUR OF THE RIVERS

Amazon

The longest river in South America, the Amazon winds its way through six countries,  three time zones, and an incredible 4,980 miles. The 300-feet-deep "river sea" also boasts the world's largest reservoir of fresh water—approximately one fifth of the planet's running water, and an incredible abundance and diversity of flora and fauna. Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana was the first person known to navigate the length of this gushing goliath in the 1540s, looking for the "Land of Cinnamon." Instead, he found turtle farms, advanced settlements with complex irrigation canals, and the fierce fighting women that subsequently gave the river its name.
River cruise: Follow in Francisco's wake on the five- to 10-day Amazon Dream river cruise through the Brazilian Amazon on board the 18-passenger M/Y Tucano, a traditional wooden riverboat. Round-trip from Santarem, Brazil, 727/498-0234, rainforestcruises.com. From $1,295 per person for a five-day cruise.  

Mississippi

The Big Muddy is mighty: It boasts the second-largest watershed in the world, covering more than 1.2 million square miles, plus tributaries from 33 states and two Canadian provinces. Its banks have been home to humans for 5,000 years and have witnessed history in the making, from Civil War battles to Civil Rights milestones. Explorers, fur traders, and settlers battled their way up and down this occasionally cantankerous river, changing the face of America as they went. The advent of the steamboat in 1812 cranked these changes up several knots and cut travel time between Louisville and New Orleans from as much as four months to just 20 days.
River cruise: American Cruise Lines' 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi paddlewheeler journeys along the river, stopping at historic sites including Civil War battlefields and antebellum mansions. Round-trip from New Orleans, 800/460-4518, americancruiselines.com. From $3,995 per person for a seven-night cruise.

Nile

Egypt sits amid the most desolate desert on earth, the Sahara. But the 4,225-mile-long Nile turned this area into an oasis. The Egyptians became a rich agricultural society and the wonder of the ancient world by controlling the waters of The River and building the Valley of the Kings, the Ptolemaic Temple, and the Pyramids of Giza on its banks. By the year 3,100 B.C., this rich Nile Valley and Delta society had become the world's first large nation state. Today, Egypt remains one of the most important African countries.
River cruise: Sonesta's six luxurious river boats ply the waters of the Nile with cruises taking in temples, tombs, and ruins. Round-trip from Luxor, 800/766-3782, sonesta.com. From $500 per cabin per night for three- to seven-night sailings in 2013 on the St. George I.

Yangtze

Asia's longest river flows south from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea, watering more than 700 tributaries along the way. The river has seen human activity along its banks for millennia, and acted as a border between warring kingdoms and as a transportation and commercial thoroughfare for centuries—it's essentially China's east-west highway. Imperial palaces, cities of canals, and intricate temples dot its banks. Its most famous sites include the incredible Three Gorges and the gargantuan Three Gorges Dam.
River cruise: See the Three Gorges—25-mile-long Qutang, 25-mile-long Wu and 49-mile-long Xiling—and this mindboggling feat of engineering from Victoria Cruises' 268-passenger Victoria Anna on the eight-day Three Gorges Explorer. Round-trip from Chongqing, 800/348-8084, victoriacruises.com. From $1,820 per person for a seven-night cruise.

SEE THE RIVERS!

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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