If any particular region of the world is best suited for cruising, it’s Europe. Whether you want to tour the Mediterranean or Northern Europe, cruising is the mode of transportation that provides the greatest exposure to destinations while eliminating logistical challenges. And no matter where your ship takes you, your lodging will be consistently comfortable, and dining will be sumptuous, plentiful and familiar.
Such ease perhaps explains why there are more ships scheduled to cruise Europe in 2009 than ever before. Moreover, with a cruise, costs are known and controlled in advance, which is particularly helpful when budgeting for your travel.
On a cruise, you’re isolated from much of the expense of Europe, as your accommodations, meals and some shore excursions included in the price you pay for the cruise in U.S. dollars before you leave home.
Convenience and value aside, the destinations are the reasons to cruise Europe, and there are three primary destinations to consider: the Mediterranean, Northern Europe and the Continent’s rivers.
The major cruise lines offer an assortment of itineraries to both the Mediterranean and Northern Europe, often referred to as Baltic or Scandinavian cruises. Itineraries to the Med or Northern Europe provide excellent access to many of the great cities and cultural capitals. River cruises take travelers for a closer look at the inland cities, villages and landscapes.
The Med actually has two cruising subsets. Eastern Mediterranean itineraries often depart from Civitavecchia (the port for Rome), Athens or Venice. These sailings typically will visit the sun-drenched Greek isles as well as Istanbul and Ephesus, Turkey, one of the most significant sites in the early days of Christianity.
The Western Mediterranean is loosely defined as Italy’s western coast, France’s southern rim, the entire ring of coastal Spain and on up to Lisbon. These cruises frequently end or start in Barcelona or Monte Carlo, both great cities to spend an extra day or two.
If you’ve got the time and the budget, there are extended cruises that cover both the eastern and western end of the Mediterranean, or you can do a so-called back-to-back cruise, either on the same ship or on different ships.
If you have any concerns about being a tourist-on-the-go day after day, then it may be reassuring to look for a cruise on one of the larger cruise ships that offer more shipboard amenities should you opt not to go ashore for a day or two.
The Eastern Med
Because it is on the east side of the Italian boot, Venice is included in both western and eastern itineraries. If you select a cruise that calls in Venice, you’ll want to experience the canals and St. Mark’s Square. Begin with a vaporetto ride up the Grand Canal, followed by a few hours exploring the back streets, then spend an hour in St. Mark’s Square and Basilica, and take a tour of the Accademia art museum.
If your cruise starts or ends in Venice, do yourself a favor and stay a few extra days. While you can get a taste of this special city in one day, a full serving will be more rewarding.
The Eastern Mediterranean, covering the territory ranging from Italy’s east coast to the Adriatic and the Greek Isles to Turkey and sometimes Egypt and Israel, is growing in popularity among cruise travelers because it blends ancient histories and antiquities along with gorgeous beaches and charming villages.
Providing yet more diversity, Baltic cruises are growing fast as people learn more about the region’s kaleidoscope of artistic traditions, cultures and histories, not to mention the fjords and staggering natural beauty.
Cruise lines offer itineraries that range from Northern Europe’s greatest hits, often with St. Petersburg as the two-day highlight, to more exotic ports where smaller ships are required. Many of these itineraries will start or end, or both, in Copenhagen, where you’ll want to spend an additional day or two. A beautiful and eminently livable city, Scandinavia’s largest city was originally a fishing village that evolved into a major port of trade and is now a jewel of Northern Europe.
Despite massive 18th century fires, Copenhagen retains its charming medieval layout with plenty of Old World appeal, even as it modernizes. There are still great buildings and 1,000 years’ worth of history to explore here, including 17th century landmarks such as the Rundetårn (Round Tower) and the Børsen (Stock Exchange).
For a truly up-close-and-personal view of the European interior, river cruising and barging provide plenty of time for contemplation and relaxation. Just as big-ship cruising has been growing steadily, sometimes spectacularly, European river cruising has been riding a healthy wave as well. Appealing to seasoned travelers, river cruising is a slower-paced vacation that provides a closer more relaxed look at the passing countries and cultures.
A river cruise carries you beyond the major cities and introduces you to a country’s regions in charming and intimate ways. Along the waterways, you’ll enjoy the beauty of the countryside. Shore excursions provide opportunities to visit small villages and perhaps even mingle with someone other than souvenir hawks and tour operators.
River cruises work their way down key European rivers, passing through one or more countries and making stops in the center of larger cities like Budapest or Cologne. A river cruiser features cabin space to accommodate up to about 200, and they typically feature all the amenities – including restaurants, lounges, perhaps a library and scheduled entertainment in the evening. River cruisers also generally have large decks, where you’ll enjoy time watching the landscape as you float along the river.
While there is no set order, generally speaking, travelers will cruise the Mediterranean first, then take on a Baltic cruise. River cruises are enjoyed most by seasoned travelers who understand and appreciate the rhythms of the river. The thing is, though, once you start, you get hooked. The beauty of cruising in Europe is that there is so much variety and so much to be explored and appreciated — all from the deck of a ship.