You only have to travel a short distance in western Europe to find yourself in a completely different environment. From the language, streetscapes, streetfood, music and fashion to the climate. As well as the rhythm of daily life, there's an astonishing diversity in this compact area that's easily accessible thanks to it's fantastic transport network.
- Bruges, Belgium
- Cherbourg, France
- La Rochelle
- Le Havre
The Netherlands’ historic capital, once the premier commercial centre of Northern Europe, is a delightful city of 90 islands linked by 60 miles of serene canals and 1200 bridges, all overlooked by the city’s distinctive gabled 17th and 18th-century townhouses.
There are some top-class museums and galleries here, notably the Rijksmuseum and the Vincent Van Gogh Museum, plus a wealth of interesting architecture dating from the 15th to the 17th centuries, including the royal palace which stands in the main square in the centre of the city, plus an even older historic church, the Oude Kerk, dating from 1300.
Aside from its cultural attributes, Amsterdam’s famed for its lively social scene, with lots of interesting bars, cafes and restaurants. A canal cruise is a good way to appreciate the city, and other shore excursions may include visits to see the archetypal Holland of windmills, clogs and cheese, or to the tulip fields at Keukenhof during the spring season.
This is the second-largest city in Belgium with a beautiful, historic city centre dating back to the Middle Ages.
Key landmarks include the magnificent 14th and 15th-century Gothic cathedral which houses several paintings by Rubens, the 16th-century town hall and Gothic church of St Paul, as well as the many medieval guild houses that still line the marketplace.
The city has several museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts which has works by several of the Flemish masters, and if you are hankering after a bit of green space, the Stadspark is close to the city centre, as is the zoo and zoological gardens.
The city is also famous as a diamond centre, with its Diamond District supporting thousands of traders, cutters and polishers. You will usually be offered a tour of the city as a shore excursion option, or visits to other Belgian towns like Bruges (if this is not part of your cruise itinerary), Brussels or Ghent.
Bruges’ compact medieval centre is picture postcard-perfect, like something Hans Christian Andersen might have dreamed up; picturesque, cobbled streets and peaceful canals with an abundance of ornate pinnacled, spired and step-gabled architecture.
Photogenic squares include Burg square where the 14th-century Gothic Stadhuis (Town Hall) resides, and the Markt square dominated by an 83-metre belfry, though everywhere you look there are visually arresting buildings, from ancient churches to colourful merchants’ houses, 13th-century guild halls and old whitewashed almshouses.
Bruges is particularly known for its lace, and of course for Belgian chocolates, so you’ll find plenty of these as you shop in the bustling centre where there are also lots of tempting restaurants and cafes. Ships for Bruges dock at Zeebrugge, and Bruges tours will be offered as part of your shore excursion programme, or make your own way there by public transport and simply explore under your own steam – if ever there was a city made for wandering, this is it!
Cherbourg is located right at the tip of Northern France’s Cotentin Peninsula, and is a long-established military, fishing and commercial port, with a more modern marina and of course berthing for cruise ships.
There’s a large, well-regarded nautical museum next to the cruise terminal, La Cité de la Mer, which includes submarines and an aquarium, or otherwise the old town is around 3 km from the port.
Shore excursions may include a tour of the city with a visit to the stunning 16th-century Chateau Ravalet, a visit to magical Mont Saint-Michel or a look at the Normandy beaches.
Despite being 70 miles inland on the banks of the mighty River Elbe, Hamburg’s maritime heritage is evident wherever you go in the city; even the shrieking of the gulls is a constant reminder that you’re near the water.
It’s Germany’s second largest city, its prosperity founded in the Middle Ages as part of the Hanseatic League, and later through international maritime trade in the 19th and early-20th centuries.
It’s a cosmopolitan city too, with lots of cultural opportunities, modern and ancient architecture, parks and canals, plus great shopping, dining and nightlife.
Shore excursions usually include a hop on-hop off bus tour of the city, sometimes with add-ons like a cruise on nearby Lake Alster or a visit to the suburb of Blankenese and the infamous Treppenviertal (staircase district).
Le Havre is a port city at the mouth of the Seine, on the English Channel (French: Manche) in the region of upper Normandy in France.
Le Havre is French for "the harbour". Historically, Le Havre has always been the harbour for Paris, with goods transferring there between ocean-going vessels and barges which go to Paris via the Seine.
Le Havre was heavily bombed during the Battle of Normandy. The reconstruction of the town was undertaken by August Perret using reinforced concrete. This project has led to the city being added to the UNESCO world heritage list.
This Basque town on Spain’s northern Atlantic coast is the most important port in Spain. The Basque heritage is well preserved in the old quarter and can be seen in the16th-century Gothic Barrio, and notable landmarks like the 14th-century Cathedral of Santiago, the Plaza Nueva and the Renaissance churches of San Antonio, Santos Juanes and San Nicholas.
Bilbao’s most recent world-class acquisition is the new modernist Guggenheim Museum, housing some of the world’s greatest works of art including pieces by Picasso, Matisee, Miro and Chagall. The Museum of Fine Arts is also worth a visit. Bilbao’s cruise port is situated in Getxo, 20 kilometres away, and Bilbao may be accessed from the port by shuttle bus, metro or taxi.
This elegant port city is on the River Garonne in southwestern France. It’s a city of two halves; the ‘newer’ part of the city sports wide boulevards, restored 18th-century buildings and a high-tech public transport system.
Then, as you enter the higgledy-piggledy streets of the UNESCO-listed old quarter through Port Cailhau, the 15th-century city door, you’ll find lots of interesting little shops and eateries perfect for watching the world go by.
Places of interest to visit in the city include the 11th-century cathedral, the 18th-century Porte de Bourgogne city gate, the Hôtel de Ville and a selection of galleries and museums.
The area is of course best known for its world-renowned wine, and excursions beyond the city may include visits to the vineyards of St Emilion and Medoc, or to the seaside town of Arcachon, famed for its oysters.
Any amateur geographer will tell you that Lisbon’s not on the coast, but fortunately the mighty River Tagus is so broad and deep as it passes the city that it can accommodate modern cruise liners, allowing access for hundreds of ships every year.
It’s a lively, captivating capital with a character shaped by a procession of different rulers over the centuries and by a cultural melting pot of nations who have settled in the city from Portuguese colonies all over the world.
There’s a whole host of interesting things to see within 20-30 minutes’ walk of your ship, including the unique 19th-century Santa Justa lift which transports passengers from the lower streets to the higher ones, the 12th-century cathedral and São Jorge Castle, where the panoramic view encompasses the old city and the impressive suspension bridge spanning the river.
The old Moorish Alfama district (near the cruise terminal) where haunting Fado music - described as ‘the musical expression of the Portuguese people’- can be heard, is also worth a look.
Other famous sights are the medieval Belém Tower, and a statue of the Christos, on which the more famous statue in Rio de Janeiro was based; you’ll see these as the ship sails up the Tagus to the cruise terminal. Shore excursions may include tours of the city or days out further afield, for example to the elaborate, flamboyant 19th-century town of Sintra, or the catholic shrine of Fátima.
Pretty Honfleur sits on the northern French coastline on the estuary of the River Seine, opposite Le Havre.
The peaceful riverside setting has attracted numerous artists and writers over the years, notably the Impressionists, and it was also an important departure port for exploratory expeditions in the 16th and 17th centuries – Palmier de Gouenville set sail from here to Brazil, as did Champlain and La Salle who discovered Quebec City and the Mississippi state of Louisiana respectively.
The old harbour (Vieux Bassin) is a particularly picturesque part of town, where tall, narrow houses and myriad cafes and restaurants line the harbour, overlooking yachts and fishing boats. Don’t miss the Musee Eugene Boudin for Impressionist paintings, or if you want to explore further afield shore excursions may include destinations like Monet’s Garden at Giverney, the Normandy landings beaches, Bayeux, home of the world-famous tapestry, and even Paris, depending on the amount of time you have in port.