Here's your quick guide to sailing through the classic destinations of Europe.
A cruise through Europe will explore one of two main regions: Northern Europe, which is further divided into the British Isles, the Baltic and Scandinavia; and the Mediterranean, which is separated into Eastern, Western and Southern regions. The vast majority of cruises last one to two weeks and depart from ports including Barcelona, Civitavecchia (for Rome), Venice, Piraeus (for Athens), Istanbul, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Southampton/Dover/Harwich (for London).
The British Isles
Enjoy the contrast of ancient fortresses and castle ruins along with the natural, melancholic beauty of heather moorlands, rolling green hills and dramatic seaside cliffs as you skirt the rugged coastlines of Scotland, Ireland and England. A typical British Isles itinerary is 12 to 14 nights and sails round-trip from Southampton or Dover in southern England, including England's Guernsey Islands.
St. Petersburg, Russia, is the draw on Baltic cruises, with its Hermitage museum (itself a collection of historic buildings) stuffed with the riches of Russia's imperial past, from paintings to sculptures and jewelry. Most itineraries will include a two- or three-day stay to give passengers enough time to explore. Other ports on typical itineraries include the ancient walled city of Tallinn, Estonia, and Helsinki, Finland, birthplace of the world-famous composer Jean Sibelius.
Scandinavian cruises visit Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with most itineraries focused on the long, gorgeous fjord-cut coastline of Norway, with its waterfalls, fishing villages and snowcapped mountains.
These routes focus on the Greek Isles, Turkey and sometimes the coast of Croatia as well. The ancient cities in this region have survived thousands of years of war and famine, and the vestiges of their empires are still sights to behold. Seeing 2,000- and 3,000-year-old Corinthian columns and giant stone stadiums will blow you away. These ports also offer popular beaches and delicious cuisine focused on fresh seafood and vegetables, as well as excellent local wines.
Shorter cruises often depart from Istanbul or Piraeus (Athens) and visit mainly Greek Islands and two or three Turkish ports, such as Izmir, Ephesus and Antalya, while longer sailings may also incorporate ports in Italy, Israel and Egypt.
Voyages here follow the European coastline, roughly between Lisbon, Gibraltar and Barcelona toward Marseille and Monaco along Italy's western shores. Ruins of ancient Roman empires coexist with the pointy arches and flying buttresses of the medieval era and the opulent palaces and elaborate fortresses of European royalty through the ages. The art museums of Barcelona, Paris, Florence and Rome are the best in the world, and the food and wine are reason enough to visit.
The mystical, mythic and historically rich ports of Egypt, Israel and North Africa frame the southern edges of the Mediterranean. Cruises to the "Holy Land," as they are termed, include the Israeli ports of Haifa and Ashdod, while the ports of Alexandria and Port Said lead to the chaotic metropolis of Cairo. From there, you can sign up for once-in-a-lifetime tours to the ancient royal tombs and chambers of Luxor's Valley of the Kings.
Mention Casablanca, in Morocco, and it's hard not to think of Bogie and Bacall. Nearby is Tunisia, where you can explore the capital city Tunis and its ancient medina.
No matter which Europe itinerary you choose, the sites and experiences will leave a lasting impression. From ancient history to gorgeous natural features, from classic wines to modern cuisine, Europe at all points of its compass promises a diverse, intriguing and memorable cruise for all walks of life.
Top 5 Cruise Experiences in the Mediterranean
- The ancient tombs of Egypt's Valley of the Kings
- Rome's Coliseum, where Gladiators once battled
- In Barcelona, the fanciful architecture of Antonio Gaudí
- In Athens, the Parthenon of the Acropolis
- The hill towns, like Eze, of the French Riviera near Villefranche
Tip: The best cruise fares, plus extras like reduced airfare and onboard credits, can be found in the spring or fall. You'll need a sweater and an umbrella, just in case, but you'll have none of the tourist crowds and sweltering heat of summer.
Tip: Even though the Northern Europe cruise season is relatively short — late April through September — daylight hours in the Land of the Midnight Sun are nice and long.
Top 5 Cruise Experiences in Northern Europe
- A stroll through the old-world bling of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg
- A drive to the 5,000-foot summit of Dalsnibba, near Geiranger in Norway, to peer down at the gorgeous Geiranger fjord
- A visit to the golden Baroque-era Peter and Paul Cathedral, which is not only jaw-droppingly opulent but is the resting place of all of Russia’s pre-revolutionary leaders, including Peter the Great
- A hike across the top of Flo Mountain in Hellesylt, Norway, which affords breathtaking views of farmland, snow-capped mountain peaks, rivers and lakes
- An afternoon at Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens amusement park, a charming mid-19th-century time warp
Tip: The Hermitage is a definite must, but keep in mind it is packed in July and August, so consider skipping the Gold Room (it takes a lot of time and you're literally locked into the room while a guide gives a detailed explanation of dozens of gold items, from hat pins to thimbles) or think seriously about paying extra for "private viewing" tours.
Tip: Visiting St. Petersburg during the "White Nights" in June means it never really gets dark, due to the city's northerly location, giving you more time to see the gorgeous city and in romantic lighting to boot.
Tip: Bring lots of layers and rain gear for British Isles cruises. Summertime temperatures can range from the 50s to the 80s, and rain is not uncommon.