The continent is by far the most popular cruise destination for serious cruisers in search of a kaleidoscope of cultures in relatively close proximity. Here we include everything minus the ports along the Mediterranean, covered in a separate category. Cruises around the British Isles range from visits to large cities such as London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Dublin, to charming smaller ports with local flavors in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands. The Norwegian fjords are a draw as well as the capitals of the Baltic States. River cruises dominate the scene in The Netherlands, Germany, Austria and countries along the Danube, and many regions of France. Russia has its waterway cruises bracketed by stays in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
The Danube, passing through Austria from Germany to the Black Sea, offers the beauty of the Wachau Valley, a popular wine growing area, the monumental Benedictine Abbey at Melk, a lovely castle rising high over Durstein, and of course Vienna, the country’s capital and center of culture.
Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Denmark enclose the Baltic Sea and together form one of the most varied cultural itineraries for a summertime small ship cruise. The most recognizable ports are St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Stockholm, Gothenburg and Copenhagen but don’t overlook Tallinn (Estonia), Riga (Latvia) and Gdynia (Poland), Visby (Gotland Id. Sweden) and Lubeck (Germany).
Bilingual (French/Flemish) Belgium’s principal attractions are all short drives inland to the medieval cities such as well-known Brugge, larger and less reconstructed Ghent, and more recently the outstanding cultural city of Antwerp, its port once the immigration gateway of the world. Brussels, further inland, is less visited on a cruise.
England, Scotland, Wales
Circumnavigating the British Isles is a summertime favorite from England’s south coast ports north to Edinburgh, Inverness, the off-shore Shetlands and Orkney, famous castles and lochs on Scotland’s west coast, the varied landscapes of Inner and Outer Hebrides, Welsh castles on the west coast, then Tresco Gardens in the Isles of Scilly off Cornwall, and the Channel Islands, favorite retreats for retired British subjects.
The French coast offers Normandy’s ports and connections to World War II, rugged Brittany’s coastline and resort ports, and the Atlantic port of Bordeaux leading inland to its wine country. As a river cruise destination, there is choice of the Rhone and Soane accessing outstanding Burgundy villages, vineyards and countryside, Avignon, French impressionism ports, and Roman ruins, while the Seine cruises embark in Paris and call at Monet’s Giverny Gardens, cathedral city of Rouen and ports at the river’s mouth on the English Channel.
One of the world’s most famous rivers, the Rhine, flows south to north through the heart of the country past major cathedral cities, picturesque villages, and castles perched on high. Flowing into the Rhine are the sinuous Mosel winding through steeply sloping wine country, while the Main, near Frankfurt links into the Danube via the Main-Danube Canal. Lastly, the Elbe river cruises usually start at Berlin, include Potsdam, and then sail up river past Dresden and Meissen into Saxon Switzerland.
The country’s two largest cities are popular cruise ports — Amsterdam, for its museums, canals, bicycles and street life, and Rotterdam for its post-war rebirth as a modern city with some outstanding architecture. River cruises ply waterways that wind through the lovely Dutch Countryside, especially during its springtime floral season.
Ireland, Northern Ireland
The combination of these two separate states shares lots of attractions – charming small ports such as Cobh, the principal emigration port; colorful Kinsale; and the West Coast’s Galway. The major cities of Dublin, a lively, sophisticated university city and Belfast with its famous shipbuilding past (Titanic) are popular draws as are the Irish themselves.
Cruising first started with mid-19th century steamers heading from English ports for Norway’s majestic fjords, rugged coastline and lovely wooden towns. Small ships can penetrate the country more deeply than the big liners and will take you to remote beauty spots that would be hard to reach any other way.
Its capital, Lisbon, reflects the atmosphere of major cities before they became highly commercialized, while lovely-sited Oporto leads to the Douro River valley, recently becoming a popular river cruise destination. The Algarve in the south is Europe’s seaside playground from the busy, busy resorts to the smaller ports that have kept much of their original charm.
A landlocked country where the only place that attracts cruises is the Rhine river city of Basel located close to the border with both Germany and France. Popular pre- and post-river cruise stopovers are Lucerne, Zurich, and Geneva.
Small ship cruises visit Russia from four directions: the most famous, St. Petersburg on a Baltic cruise or when taking a river cruise from there through Mother Russia to Moscow; visiting Black Sea ports such as Odessa, Sevastopol and Yalta; and the really obscure Russian Arctic ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk and the Northeast Passage across the top of Siberian Russia.