Five European Cruises For First-Time Cruisers

Hallo, Europe!

Silver Spirit docked in Katakolon, Greece
Silver Spirit docked in Katakolon, Greece. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

Europe can be a fantastic cruise for beginners, particularly if long-distance travel doesn’t put you off. However, Europe requires a lot more “travel savvy” than, say, the Eastern Caribbean.

In Europe, it can be beneficial to have at least a rudimentary grasp of the local language. You’ll also have to deal with the issue of foreign currency in a way that you simply don’t have to in the Caribbean or Mexico, both of which readily accept U.S. Dollars.

There’s also the issue of the higher costs of flights, the logistics of transiting major European hubs like Frankfurt or London Heathrow, and the relatively higher vacation cost in general.

But all of these things can result in a cruise experience that is immensely fulfilling and astonishingly fun. They’re also excellent learning and growth experiences that will make you a better, more confident traveler. Plus, there are few who travel to Europe and don’t come away completely bewitched by the multitude of countries, customs and cultures present here.

While there are more itineraries and places to explore here than you could ever reasonably do in a lifetime, here’s five of our favorite experiences for first-timers cruising to Europe:

The British Isles

Hallo, London! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Hallo, London! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

As a first-time cruise destination, a voyage around the British Isles is one of the best ways to ease yourself into European culture. There’s little in the way of language issues (though those who have been to parts of Scotland may disagree!), and currency matters are easy to handle. It’s also one of the more scenic and historic cruises you can take, thanks to the proliferation of ports of call in this relatively small area.

Technically encompassing the United Kingdom, Scotland and Ireland – as well as outlying islands like the Isles of Scilly, the Isle of Man and Guernsey, many British Isles voyages will focus solely around these countries, while others can stretch further afar into the fjords of Norway, the Faroe Islands, northern France, or even circumnavigations of Iceland.

The Giants Causeway in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders
The Giants Causeway in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

The real draw here? Castles and culture. Many British Isles cruises leave from the historic port of Southampton, England – homeport of the ill-fated RMS Titanic. From there, the rolling hills of Ireland can be accessed with ease, as well as the lochs of Scotland. You might, for example, find yourself strolling the cobbled streets of Edinburgh, or admiring the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Legend has it that the giant Finn MacCool was challenged to fight by the Scottish giant, Benandonner. He constructed the causeway – which is actually formed of basalt columns – to accept the challenge.

County Connemara, Ireland. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders
County Connemara, Ireland. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Perhaps the biggest surprise for those sailing to the British Isles is just how diverse it is. No two cities are like. No two countries, for all their ties, are entirely alike. And while it can be wet, the summer months can be gorgeous here, with temperatures that rival the Mediterranean.

With the number of direct flights from around the world to either London Heathrow or London Gatwick airports, it’s also one of the most readily-accessible cruise destinations in Europe for North Americans looking to limit their time in the air.

Norway’s Fjords

Bergen, Norway as seen from Mt. Floyen. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Bergen, Norway as seen from Mt. Floyen. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

A cruise through the fjords of Norway is an undeniably beautiful experience. Towering cliff faces and meandering fjords give way to small villages and towns nested at the end of fairy-tale meadows. This is a cruise you take as much for the scenery as it is for the gorgeous towns, villages and cities you will experience along the way.

In Bergen, visit the traditional Hanseatic district known as Bryggen. Only a few blocks of these old timbered Hanseatic houses survive in this, Bergen’s most traditional of trading centers. Today, it still functions as a source of commerce, geared towards tourists with a multitude of souvenir and craft shops.

Celebrity Equinox sailing the Geirangerfjord on her maiden voyage. Photo © Aaron Saunders
Celebrity Equinox sailing the Geirangerfjord on her maiden voyage. Photo © Aaron Saunders

In the small village of Flam, you can ride the Flamsbana – dubbed the most beautiful train journey in the world. It’s also one of the world’s steepest: over 80 percent of the track features a grade, or incline, of 5.5 percent or greater. In just one hour, the train whisks guests from sea level to the station at Myrdal, some 2,831 feet above the ocean.

Alesund, Norway - seen here on a brisk February day. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders
Alesund, Norway – seen here on a brisk February day. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The multitude of Norwegian ports of call gives these voyages some of the highest repeat factors in Northern Europe. There’s Alesund, with its art nouveau styling. Trondheim, and its gothic Nidaros Cathedral – the only such gothic example in all of Scandinavia. Some cruises even call on the Norwegian capital of Oslo, where ships dock within steps of the iconic Akershus Fortress.

The French and Italian Riviera

On a Hidden Venice tour. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
On a Hidden Venice tour. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

People often say that they’d like to cruise to “the Mediterranean”, but that’s a massively large area that tends to get lumped in to one overly-ambitious category. The Mediterranean, as cruise lines know it, technically includes southern France, Italy, the Greek Islands, Malta, Gibraltar, Croatia, Corsica, and even parts of Turkey. That’s a lot to choose from! So we like to narrow it down a bit and sail to a few of our “go-to” ports in the French and Italian Riviera.

The number of ports you can visit in France and Italy is astonishing. From Cannes to Nice in France to Rome, Sorrento, Sicily, Naples and Venice, there is enough to see and amaze here to keep even the most jaded traveler happy.

Crystal Serenity Aft
Bathed in evening sunlight in Monte Carlo, Crystal Serenity, where dining innovations safe taking place inside. © 2014 Ralph Grizzle

Most cruises will begin in larger locales like Civitavecchia (the port for Rome), Venice, or even Athens. If you’re on a smaller, more luxurious ship you might find yourself embarking in Nice or Monte Carlo, Monaco.

While it might be more involved to get here from North America (though a few gateway cities do offer direct connections to places like Rome), the rewards are manifold. Italy is steeped in culture and tradition, with a passion for friends, family, wine and food. Ditto for France, where the concept of culinary excellence is taken very, very seriously.

Cannes, France. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders
Cannes, France. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Though English is readily spoken by most of the younger generation, these two countries will allow you to test out your French and Italian language skills; a simple “Bonjour!” can go a long way to establishing rapport with the locals.

Like the Caribbean, the Mediterranean – in all its many parts – tends to attract the latest-and-greatest cruise ships that many lines have to offer. If you absolutely must sail on the newest ships afloat, you’ll find them sailing these crystal-blue waters during the summer months. The weather’s not half, bad, either!

The Greek Islands

Mykonos, Greece is one of the most iconic of the Greek Islands. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia / Creative Commons
Mykonos, Greece is one of the most iconic of the Greek Islands. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia / Creative Commons

Made famous throughout the world for their distinctive architecture and idyllic surroundings, the Greek Islands are paradise typified. Most Greek Islands voyage depart from Piraeus, the port city for Athens. But if departure from Piraeus is the one common link each voyage has, that’s where the similarities end: there are simply so many islands that ships can go to.

The most famous of all the Greek Islands is Santorini, which was re-introduced into popular culture when it played a starring role in the 2008 movie, Mama Mia! featuring Pierce Brosnan and Meryl Streep. But Santorini isn’t the only idyllic island paradise to woo travellers from around the world.

Mykonos is just as beautiful, with its white-washed buildings, famous windmills, and narrow, cobblestone streets. It’s earned itself a reputation as a party-paradise in recent years, but don’t let that fool you: there’s still plenty of quiet nooks and crannies on this island for you to get lost in. In fact, it’s one of our favorite islands, period.

An excellent tour visiting Olympia (Greece) and the Archaeological Museum on a Silver Spirit shore excursion. @ 2013 Ralph Grizzle
An excellent tour visiting Olympia (Greece) and the Archaeological Museum on a Silver Spirit shore excursion. @ 2013 Ralph Grizzle

Smaller cruise ships will call on some more off-the-beaten-path islands, like Patmos with its imposing Monastery of St. John. You can easily hike up to the monastery from your dock (or tender dock, if your ship is anchored off in the Aegean), and the views from here are unparalleled, particularly at sunset.

In Rhodes, the historic Old Town with its medieval wall that still encircles the harbour has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Rhodes is also famous for The Colossus of Rhodes, listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Despite being such a small island, Rhodes is listed as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe  – and the best way to see it is by cruise ship.

Heraklion, on the island of Crete, is another popular port of call for Greek Island voyages. Famous for the Palace of Knossos that dates back to the Bronze Age, Heraklion has an impressive amount of Medieval Venetian influence thanks to a complicated deal that actually saw Heraklion sold to the Venetians in the year 1204. Accordingly, it’s one of the most unique Greek Islands.

Crystal Serenity © Ralph Grizzle (18)
Climbing the 999 steps to The Fortress of Palamidi in Nafplion, Greece on Crystal Serenity © Ralph Grizzle

Typically voyages around the Greek Islands will also duck over to Turkey, calling on either Kusadasi or Izmir in order to allow guests to visit one of that country’s most historic sites: the ancient ruins of Ephesus, with its imposing – and equally-famous – Library of Celsus.

This is one trip you don’t want to miss!

The Danube

A river cruise along the Danube is a great choice for first-time cruisers. Shown here is Emerald Waterways' Emerald Star, docked in Durnstein, Austria. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
A river cruise along the Danube is a great choice for first-time cruisers. Shown here is Emerald Waterways’ Emerald Star, docked in Durnstein, Austria. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Can first-time visitors to Europe take a river cruise? You bet! In fact, a river cruise along the Danube is one of the best ways to see a substantial part of Europe without having to give up the unpack-once mentality that makes ocean cruising so popular.

Along the Danube, there are a multitude of different itineraries that range in length from just a few days to an entire month. Every river cruise line worth their salt offers multiple Danube sailings on all the newest river cruise ships.

Part of the appeal of river cruising: your stateroom, with panoramic views of the ever-changing Danube. We guarantee a few sleepless nights; you won't want to miss anything! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Part of the appeal of river cruising: your stateroom, with panoramic views of the ever-changing Danube. We guarantee a few sleepless nights; you won’t want to miss anything! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

So where can you go? Two of the most popular voyages are Amsterdam-Budapest (or reverse), which typically lasts 14 days and can include port calls in the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary. The other popular run is shorter at just a week in length, and runs between Nuremberg-Budapest or reverse. It’s worth noting, though, that there are too many different voyages to list here; our sister-site, River Cruise Advisor, can tell you all you’ll ever want to know about sailing the Danube. We’ve done it dozens of times now – and we’ve never once tired of it.

River cruises have a number of advantages for first-timers. Firstly, they’re nearly all-inclusive, meaning that most will throw in a selection of shore excursions along with beer, wine and soft drinks with lunch and dinner. Some have inclusive hotel stays, and nearly all river cruise lines will throw in transfers to and from the airport if you book your airfare with them.

Miltenberg, Germany - with the oldest inn in the country. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Miltenberg, Germany – with the oldest inn in the country. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

They’re also great if you like to tour (guided walking tours are offered in every port of call), but a river cruise can be a fantastic vacation choice for  those who want to be more independent, too. You can easily set off on your own to explore cities like Budapest or Passau, and many (but not all) river cruise lines offer complimentary bicycles for guests’ enjoyment ashore.

A river cruise is a decidedly personal, intimate experience. Note the crew of the Viking Vidar, holding banners that say "Welcome Home" as guests return from a long day ashore. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
A river cruise is a decidedly personal, intimate experience. Note the crew of the Viking Vidar, holding banners that say “Welcome Back” as guests return from a long day ashore. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

If you want to see as much of Europe as you can possibly cram into two weeks, a river cruise is the way to go – and it makes a great trip for first-timers!

Join the Conversation

garfeimao says:

How did you miss Barcelona as a major player in Med cruising, especially those Western Med itineraries that include the French and Italian coasts?

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