European cruises are like exquisite appetizers. Your ship gives you a taste of the delicious culture capitals, allowing you to decide which cities and countries are most intriguing and appealing. Each stop on the cruise ship’s itinerary is designed to provide convenient access to the primary attractions, but the cruise ship must maintain a schedule, limiting port calls to 10 hours, occasionally overnight.
For a fuller flavor of any European destination, a few extra days in one of the Continent’s great cities allows you to explore more and get a sense of the rhythms and personalities of the place. To take full advantage of the trip across the ocean, more and more experienced travelers are taking the extra time before or after their cruise, extending their stay in Europe to learn and enjoy a particular place.
Here are some quick descriptions of some of the favorite European cities where cruise travelers are choosing to spend a few extra days, find some favorite restaurants and soak in the local flavors.
A fairly small city, Amsterdam is packed with treasures for travelers. The city’s signature feature – perhaps most beautiful, too – is the network of canals through and around the city.
A canal cruise is a must, whether in an open-top canal boat or a self-pedaled “canal bike,” so that you can see dozens of spectacular Amsterdam sights, including stunning architecture that ranges from medieval to modern, tree-lined neighborhoods and quirky houseboats.
With thousands of bridges, Amsterdam is a great walking city, too. The museums are special attractions here, especially the Rijksmuseum, a Neo-Gothic delight with the finest collection of 17th century Dutch art, and the Van Gogh Museum, devoted to the dotted-and-dashed brush strokes and somewhat troubled life of one of the world’s most-loved European artists.
If time allows, see the Anne Frank House, too, for some poignant memories of that brave girl.
When cruise ships call on Athens, most travelers scramble up the Acropolis, and even if there were no Parthenon, the trip to the Acropolis is worthwhile for the commanding view of Athens and the temples below.
Athens is one of the safest capital cities in the world, so with common sense always at your side, feel free to get out and walk, especially at night.
The extensive collections on display at the National Archaeological Museum in the heart of Athens are captivating. Set aside several hours for a trip through the many centuries of Greek history and culture.
A great afternoon trip from Athens, Cape Sounion and the Temple of Poseidon is as much a favorite with the locals as it is with the tourists. A superb spot for sunsets, it provides a classically Greek moment against the ruined monument along with a terrific sea view.
As the capital of Catalonia and one of Europe’s most captivating cities, Barcelona is a wonderful city to explore on foot, strolling La Rambla through the outdoor markets and the brilliant flowers.
Barcelona is home to the ambitious architecture of Antonio Gaudi, whose stunning and fantastic buildings are scattered all around the city center. Some of the most famous and impressive can be seen along Passieg De Gracia where you will find La Pedrera and Casa Batlló. The Gothic Quarter is famous for its historical landmarks and bohemian atmosphere.
Other popular attractions include the elegant Santa Maria del Mar, the scattered ruins of the old Roman Wall, the Moderniste architecture of Exiample, and the Museu Picasso, which features the artist’s Blue Period.
The restaurants are superb, and live music performances are almost always scheduled for the Palace of Catalan Music, a beautiful building.
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).
Foremost among Copenhagen’s attractions, the Rundetårn is , an observation tower honoring astronomer Tycho Brahe, and Amalienborg Palace, the royal residence, incorporates four Rococo mansions.
Other can’t-miss sights include the Rådhus (Town Hall), with its ornate interior and gilded statue of Bishop Absalon (founder of Copenhagen), and the Royal Library, whose black-granite exterior is a beacon of modernity.
Of course, no feature is more visible than Tivoli, the city’s much-loved amusement park and a destination for culture, sociability, and dining as much as for thrilling entertainments.
A picturesque port city, Lisbon frequently shows up on lists of favorite cities to visit, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s small yet immensely charming, characterized by romantic cobblestone streets, mosaic sidewalks, rolling hills and pastel houses.
It’s also a diverse city, blending the several cultures that collected here when Portugal was a major colonial power. The oldest part of the city, the Alfama quarter, still retains its medieval feel.
But Lisbon is not stuck in just a relic. The city hosted the grand Expo ’98 and was named European City of Culture in 1994.
Visitors can stroll through old, narrow neighborhoods and find themselves at art nouveau cafés, enjoy a scenic ride on an antique wooden streetcar, or take a steep ride up to Bairro Alto in a turn-of-the-century street elevator.
Must-see sites include Belem Tower, Jeronimos Monastery, St. George’s’s Castle, and the impressive Museu Calouste Gulbenkian.
Set along the banks of the Thames, London is Europe’s largest city, boasting more than 7 million inhabitants and deserving of at least several days of exploration.
Its oldest section, where the Romans first garrisoned, is now its business and financial center, referred to as the City, or the Square Mile where you will also find the Tower of London.
Otherwise, tourist matters fall largely to the city’s social and cultural center, the West End, or to the bars, clubs and restaurants of Soho.
The major museums, such as the Victoria & Albert, are in South Kensington. London boasts many beautiful parks. For recreation and pastoral settings, Hyde Park and Serpentine Lake are perfect, but Kew Gardens in southwest London features an enormous collection of plants, landscaped panoramas, and charming greenhouses.
For history hounds, Buckingham Palace, the royal residence, delivers a glimpse of aristocratic life. Plus, venerable Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral serve as time-tested counterpoints to newer sights like the London Eye and the Millennium Dome.
One of the world’s most magical places, where the beaches meet the Alps and modern glamour mingles between French medieval villages, Monte Carlo is the place to enjoy stunning natural scenery and world-class culture.
Of course, you can do your best James Bond at the Casino of Monte-Carlo Casino, or if you prefer more refined pursuits, consider one of the world-class operas or ballet.
During the day, bask on beautiful Larvotto Beach or get tickets for May’s Formula 1 Grand Prix. The Jardin Exotique, home to more than 1,000 surprisingly colorful species of cacti and agave from around the world, is built on the side of a cliff and provides amazing views of Monaco and the Mediterranean Sea.
Not to be missed, the Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium features a collection of exotic marine life, from piranhas to strange sea growths and creatures.
If all roads lead to Rome, then prepare for a wealth of options. Consider the Rome of Augustus and Caesar, filled with ancient structures that are still spectacular. Or Michelangelo and Da Vinci, whose work makes this city an artistic pilgrimage. Explore the seven hills, stop for an espresso by the Spanish Steps, sip a Chianti in a hidden piazza.
Of course, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it’s just as impossible to see it all in a day, or even two. You will have to pick and choose your temples, residences, basilicas, churches, palazzi, piazzi, parks, museums and fountains.
Naturally, the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel top the list. For the most culturally significant sights, consider signing on for a tour, which provides all sorts of useful information and is often entertaining, too.
A large city offering travelers and visitors many events, attractions and activities, Sweden’s capital is a friendly, attractive place built on 14 islands.
Most popular of those islands and receiving more than 10 million visitors each year, Djurgården (translated as Game Park) is an island park right in the middle of Stockholm, perfect for a pleasant two-hour stroll.
At the Vasa Museum, the restored Royal Warship Vasa, which lay at the bottom of the sea for more than 300 years after it sank on its maiden voyage in 1628, is on display with more than 4,000 coins, carpenter’s tools, sailor’s pants, fish bones and other pieces of archaeological interest retrieved along with nearly all of the ship’s 700 original sculptures.
The Nordic Museum contains fascinating exhibits of how people lived in different parts of Sweden throughout the ages, with exhibits encompassing costumes, tools, furnishings and dwellings.
Venice is one of those very special destinations where you can’t go wrong. No matter how much or how little time you have and wherever you choose to go, you’ll find it fascinating.
A vaporetto ride up the Grand Canal is absolutely required. The Venetian canals must not be missed, even if they are somewhat pungent. But that’s to be expected in a city that was built on mudflats and sandbanks. Ignore the myths that the canals are open sewers; the scent is from algae and silt, not sewage.
You could spend a week in the magnificent St. Mark’s Square and Basilica, which also provides access to the noteworthy Accademia art museum. A public space for people, the Piazza San Marco is a special work of architectural art that retains its magnificence even as large crowds move through.
Travel agents! – there are more great port of call reviews and cruise news over on Avid Cruiser. Ralph has spent a lifetime aboard cruiseships and shares his intimate knowledge with you on Avid Cruiser and its sister site River Cruiser Adviser.