1. Most temperate rivers are heavily regulated and characterised by incised channels, aggradated floodplains and modified hydroperiods. As a consequence, former extensive aquatic/terrestrial transition zones lack most of their basic ecological functions.
2. Along large rivers in Europe and North America, various floodplain restoration or rehabilitation projects have been planned or realised in recent years. However, restoration ecology is still in its infancy and the literature pertinent to river restoration is rather fragmented. (Semi-) aquatic components of floodplains, including secondary channels, disconnected and temporary waters as well as marshes, have received little attention, despite their significant contribution to biological diversity.
3. Many rehabilitation projects were planned or realised without prior knowledge of their potential for success or failure, although, these projects greatly contributed to our present understanding of river–floodplain systems.
4. River rehabilitation benefits from a consideration of river ecosystem concepts in quantitative terms, comparison with reference conditions, historical or others, and the establishment of interdisciplinary partnerships.
5. We present examples from two large European rivers, the Danube and the Rhine, in which the role of aquatic connectivity has been extensively studied. The Danube delta with its diversity of floodplain lakes across an immense transversal gradient (up to 10 km) serves as a reference system for restoration projects along lowland sections of large rivers such as the Rhine in the Netherlands.