Ok, so obviously I’ve not visited every cruise port in the world, however, I have been to over 65 countries, which includes countless more ports, so I reckon I can give this ‘Top 10 Cruise Destinations’ a good shot and be experienced enough to have some authority on it!
When I tell people that I travel full time, and that I’ve worked in the Travel Industry for as long as I have, particularly the Cruise Industry, the first question I get asked is “what is your favourite city?”. Which is totally understandable, yet also so damn hard to answer, especially on the spot! So I umm and I errr and usually throw out several random places before they get bored and change the subject…! So, I finally put some time into thinking about this question, and figured I’d share it with you, because I’m nice like that (and you can stop asking me the same damn question all the time…jokes!).
I don’t know that I can put them in order of preference, as I love them all for different reasons, so the numbering is purely aesthetic and to help this post flow…
1. Barcelona, Spain
I can’t even count the number of times I’ve had the privilege to visit this awesome Spanish city. In my days working for Royal Caribbean in their UK office, I would often host weekend ship inspections with clients in the summer, which meant driving to the airport, valeting my car, jumping on a plane to BCN, taxi to the port to meet the clients, tour the ship, lunch on board, taxi to Las Ramblas for a sangria or 2, then onto the airport, fly home, pick up my car and be back in time to shower, change and meet my friends for a drink that night! Not a bad way to spend a day! However, these fleeting trips aside, I’ve also cruised in BCN many times and spent weekends here, and I honestly never get bored.
You know how some places you go to you literally feel the buzz from them? This is one of those. And I’m not just talking about the crowds of tourists, because they are not my favourite part of city. But there is an awesome vibe from the people, the cafes, the beaches, the bars, the markets, it’s so vibrant.
I recommend you stay well away from La Rambla, particularly for your accommodation, because it’s pretty wild at night-time and not somewhere you want to be. If you amble into the next neighbourhood of Born, or El Gotica, or Ribero you will find a much nicer atmosphere, a lot quieter and a lot more of a ‘local’ feel.
The top things to do there (in my opinion) include:
- Visiting as much Gaudi as you can, with Sagarda Familia obviously being key.
- Camp Nou is a must for any football fan, the home of Barcelona FC.
- Enjoy a traditional hot chocolate (it’s super thick!) with a pastry or churros for breakfast, at a pavement cafe.
- Catedral de Barcelona, it may not be Sagrada Familia but it certainly holds its own in terms of impressiveness.
- La Boqueria, one of the oldest markets, started in 1217 off La Rambla, is today party for the senses! (not recommended for Vegetarians or Vegans as it’s predominantly a meat market).
- The magic fountain of Monjuic, check the times for the nightly light displays for this fabulous fountain.
- Dine at El Nacional – a massive hall of gastro deliciousness! Expect to be wowed from the moment you enter, and feel free to move around each of the eateries for a full experience.
- Do a Sangria crawl through El Born and El Gotica, you don’t have to go far between bars and they are mostly tiny, cute little places offering local snacks.
Check out my previous blog 30 Fun Facts About Spain
2. Greenwich, London
OK, so I may be a little biased with this one, being that it’s my home city, but still, it really is one of the best cities in the world! Only the smaller ships can actually get through the Barrier on the Thames to dock in Greenwich though, so if you’re on a larger cruise ship you’re more likely to be docking in Southampton and can just get the train straight up in to London.
There’s no doubt about it, London is a big bustling and fairly hectic city. It’s population is larger than the whole of Australia! However, as much as the locals grumble, the transport system is pretty awesome and efficient. The Underground network is one of the first and largest in the world, and has been continually improved. You will rarely wait more than 3 minutes for a train, and in central London this will take you within a 10-minute walk of your destination.
My top things to do in London include:
- London Eye – if you’re not scared of heights, this is an awesome way to see the city from above and get your bearings
- St Paul’s Cathedral, it’s just beautiful and iconic, it needs to be seen
- St Katherine’s Dock, a beautiful area filled with cafes and bars and home to a local’s favourite pub, The Dicken’s Inn, built in the 18th Century and is so full of flowers, it couldn’t look any more English!
- Camden Market – for you alternative folk out there, you definitely need to visit Camden. And even if you’re not, you will appreciate the vibrant atmosphere in this eclectic suburb.
- Borough Market is a must for all you foodies. Your taste buds will be tantalized by the fresh produce, the hung meats, and more so the countless hot food stalls selling every type of cuisine, as well as cheese, cakes, teas, you name it.
- Covent Garden is always a favourite spot for locals to catch up with friends or grabbing a bite before a theatre show. Spot the street performers amongst the market stalls, shops, restaurants and bars.
- Watch a theatre show at the West End. You can get great last minute tickets in Leicester Square on the day, especially for matinee showings.
- Feed the squirrels or ducks in St James’ Park. It’s a beautiful park which deserves as much recognition as Hyde Park. Spot the Palace amongst the greenery when standing on the bridge.
- Walk through the legendary Carnaby Street for some shopping, or enjoy an Afternoon Tea at the Ritz or Savoy (yes, sneaking in 2 for one here!).
3. Sydney, Australia
Another slight bias here as Sydney has been my second home for over ten years, but I reckon most regular cruisers will agree that the sail-in to Sydney Harbour is amongst the best in the world. Whilst the secondary port, White Bay, isn’t as convenient as the Overseas Passenger Terminal, these guests host get the added thrill of sailing under the Harbour Bridge after passing the Opera House, which is pretty cool.
If you are at the OPT, you have the advantage of being able to walk straight into the city from your ship, you are literally docked in the heart of the city. With access to ferries, buses and trains within 500m you really can get anywhere with ease. From a tourist perspective, you have the oldest suburb, The Rocks merely steps away. This is a lovely part of the city to wander through and take in the history. At the weekends they have a great market to muse too. The Opera House is also a short walk away, so you can tick that box in your first hour of arriving!
One of the things I love most about Sydney is that every neighbourhood has its own personality. Just wandering through the main business/shopping district won’t give you a proper overview of the city, it’s worth travelling a little further to see more.
My recommended things to do:
- Walk through the Botanical Gardens and if it’s summer, catch a movie at the outdoor cinema
- Visit Darling Harbour for it’s plethora of bars, restaurants, shops, water fountains, kids play areas and admire the yachts
- Climb the Bridge if you’re brave enough!
- Take a ferry over to Manly for the day, enjoy this beach town atmosphere and grab an ice cream.
- Visit the Fish Markets in Pyrmont and enjoy the freshest seafood whilst sat by the water.
- Get lost in the backstreets of Paddington, stop in a cafe for coffee and cake and enjoy the boutique clothes shops all around.
- Get the ferry from Circular Quay over to Taronga Zoo. If you have time, host the Roar and Snore overnight program, it’s awesome!
- Head up into the Hunter Valley for a wine tasting day. There are plenty of mini buses or coaches offering day trips, so you don’t have to worry about the driving, just focus on the wine and cheese!
- Enjoy the rides at the iconic Luna Park and take in the magnificent views.
4. Stockholm, Sweden
Stockholm is another magical city to cruise into with it’s archipelago of islands guiding you into the main city area. I don’t know what I expected when I first sailed in, but whatever it was, it was completely exceeded in reality. So many cute boat houses sitting on the waters edge, kids playing in the water, gorgeous main houses behind them, and islands with just one or two homes on them, a perfect escape from the city (one inhabited by Tiger Wood’s ex Elin Nordegren to hide from publicity).
The Swedish people are tall, beautiful, elegant and friendly. The city is a mix of modern stylish, grand history and boho, with an incredible old town, Gamla Stan, where you will smell waffles and cinnamon buns on every street. Strangely, one of our favourite Italian restaurants is located here! It’s an easy city to get around by foot, or you can hire one of the hundreds of scooters to zap around faster.
My favourite things to do in Stockholm:
- Visit the ABBA museum! They will have you singing and dancing along to the classics in no time, a great way to wile away a few hours.
- After the museum, walk a few hundred metres to the amusement park, Grona Lund which you will probably be able to see from your cruise ship. It’s even better in the evenings, all lit up, plus ticket prices are reduced
- Go for ‘Fika’, a coffee break. Try a cinnamon bun from Brod & Sal, these are one of my favourites anywhere!
- Visit the Vasa Museum. The Vasa was a 64-gun warship which didn’t even accomplish it’s first sailing, going down in 1628. It remained here until 1961 when it was lovingly restored, piece by piece and now gives us a wonderful view of life in the 17th Century and some of the first pieces of nautical engineering.
- Take a canal cruise. This is truly one of the best ways to get a perspective on all the islands and to admire the different neighbourhoods and grand buildings.
- Have lunch at Ristorante Paganini, one of our favourite Italian restaurants and a great spot for people watching in the old town
- Visit one of the best open air museums in the world – Skansen. Built to educate future inhabitants what life was like pre Industrial age, some of the best attractions here include the fabulous wildlife, including wolves, lynxes and gray seals.
- Enjoy a cocktail at the Pharmarium, a very chilled bar specialising in all kinds of weird and wonderful creations with equally fabulous names!
5. Copenhagen, Denmark
We often put Copenhagen and Stockholm on a par as two of our favourite Baltic cities. They are big cities which are easy to get around (walking distance from cruise ports) and offer loads to host. I find Copenhagen to be a little more intimate than Stockholm. It’s fairly compact city, with the main strip being pedestrianised. You can walk past canals, parks, shops and historical buildings all within 30 minutes.
Nyhavn is one of the most photographed areas of the city, the gorgeous bright coloured buildings along the canal, filled with boats. It’s definitely worth a visit, but be warned that if you stop for a snack or drink, you will pay a crazy price for it!
If you’re looking for the main area of the city, filled with shops, restaurants, cafes, street performers etc then head to Strøget which seems to go on forever! At the very top of the strip you will eventually find the famous and fabulous Tivoli Gardens, which, even if you don’t want to go into, has a fantastic food court anyone can use, offering every type of food at reasonable prices (for Copenhagen!) and also has insanely fast free internet (spot the crew members downloading movies!).
Things to do:
- Champagne breakfast at Cafe Norden – grab a table upstairs to watch the bustling streets below. Good free internet here too.
- Tivoli Gardens, even though I visited on my own and didn’t care for the rides, I absolutely loved this place. Such a great vibe, go for a wander or get a coffee and take in the green tranquility, hidden from the bustling city.
- Take photos at Nyhavn, even though I don’t recommend eating there, it still has to be seen as it’s absolutely beautiful.
- Visit the Little Mermaid. You will be surprised at how small she really is, and be overwhelmed at the number of tourists scrambling all over her, but if you get there early you can get a good snap.
- Watch a movie. There are a lot of cinemas in the city, we went to two of them and they were both fab, (Grand Teatret is one of the oldest and really quaint). You can take alcohol into the theatres in Copenhagen too, which we loved!
- Enjoy a local lunch of Smørrebrød, a dark rye bread open-faced sandwich, topped with cold cuts or meat and fish.
- Climb to the top of the Church of Our Saviour for fabulous views of the city.
6. Stavanger, Norway
I would completely understand if you’ve never heard of this one, I hadn’t until my first visit either. However, being fortunate enough to have now docked several times, I absolutely love this quaint little seaside village. It’s one of the richest towns in Norway due to the mining, which is apparent from the gorgeous homes and high end boutique shops.
On one side of the harbour is the main shopping district with cozy cafes and bars and on the other side is the well-preserved original white timber housing built on picturesque narrow lane ways, so traditional to Norway. You need to see them both, which is easy enough, the town isn’t that big and easily walkable.
Take a look in the water when you’re there, the last couple of visits it was absolutely teeming with little jelly fish! Very cool to watch – just don’t fall in!
My favourite things to do:
- Enjoy a hot chocolate and Guinness cake at Bøker og Børst, a cozy cafe filled with board games for guests to enjoy (I should be on commission, they number of people I’ve sent there!).
- Wander through Gamle Stavanger, the gorgeous old town, filled with local crafts and flower-filled lane ways.
- Take a boat trip along the Lysefjord and see the famous Pulpit Rock, where Tom Cruise scaled the side in Mission Impossible – Fallout. It’s also a great scenic trip, usually featuring a stop for pancakes and coffee along the way!
- Visit the Norwegian Petroleum Museum, built as a replica of an oil platform. This interactive museum gives you an insight to the industry which pulled Norway out of poverty and to become one of the richest in the world.
- Take a stroll through Breiavatnet, a small but pretty park with a lake and fountain in the middle. There are some beautiful pieces of artwork to admire as you wander through.
- Learn all there is to know about tinned sardines at the Canning Museum! Being a fishing village, the sardine industry was big for this town and they needed to be canned for transportation. This is fun interactive museum depicting the marketing campaigns through the years and samples are usually on offer.
For more info on Norway, check out my blog, Weird & Wacky things to do in Norway
7. Venice, Italy
Venice will always have a piece of my heart, because this is the city my husband and I got engaged! He arranged everything for the few days away, a beautiful hotel, the restaurants to eat and a magnificent romantic proposal, with the help of his good friend he trained down from Rome…but that’s a story for another day! Venice is truly one of the most romantic cities on the planet though, even without my personal bias!
My best advice is to simply get lost, which as my regular readers will know, is very easy for me with my zero sense of direction, but anyway… Every lane you turn into will have you reaching for your camera, for the hundredth time, it really is all just so beautiful. Try to avoid peak summer months though as it does get pretty crazy during this time and with the lanes being so small, they become crowded very quickly. Your days here should involve walking aimlessly, stopping regularly for a Bellini and grazing on delicious pastas and seafood.
That said, you need to do these things:
- Take a gondola ride – yes, they’re expensive, but hey, you’re in Venice, and they’re really fun!
- Take a ferry to Murano and Burano. Murano because it’s famous and you should host it, then Burano because the glass is SO much cheaper and it’s just a really beautiful place to walk through, with bright coloured houses on the canal
- Take a photo/selfie on Rialto bridge. It will be hectic and you may have to wait to get a decent spot, but it will give you a good memory to look back on in years time.
- Have lunch/dinner at Trattoria Alla Madonna seafood restaurant. It’s all local cuisine and the seafood is as fresh as it comes. Being in a little alleyway, off the usual tourist track, means you won’t be paying excessive prices for it either.
- If you can’t afford to stay (it’s top end) then at least have lunch at the Gritti Palace. The dining area overlooks the canal and the food is fabulous. Take a wander through the hotel afterwards to check out the photos of all the celebrities who have stayed here – it’s an impressive list!
- Head to the top of T Fondaco Dei Tedeschi shopping mall to Venice’s only viewing deck…it’s free! They host a pretty awesome afternoon tea on the ground floor of the mall too.
- Enjoy an evening at the Venice Jazz Club. The owner/host/pianist is friendly, talented and funny, and the musicians when we were there were all fabulous. It’s cozy, as the best jazz clubs are, and the entry charge includes your first drink.
- Spend an evening at Venice’s famous progressive opera, Musica Palazzo. I’m not an avid Opera fan, but the format of this, moving you from room to room for each act, was fantastic (as was the champagne in the interlude!).
8. Warnemunde, Germany
Most people only know Warnemunde as the gateway to Berlin when cruising, but there is so much more to this gorgeous little town if you stay local. You can get into town within a 10-minute walk from your ship, which will take you under a railway line and over a bridge. The town is set on a river, with lots of boat trip options for you to take, or you can continue along the river to the fabulous beach.
There are so many great cafes, bars and restaurants, many of which are two storeys, giving you great views of the river, and you won’t have to go far to get a schnitzel or sausage! There are also plenty of boutique shops, selling mostly clothing, hats and tourist souvenirs, but it’s a pretty walk as you browse. Take the lane that runs parallel with the river to see the really quaint streets and buildings, or head left away from the crowds into the local streets to admire the beautiful bright coloured homes. Whichever direction you take, you’ll love it!
Further afield, head into Rostock, a larger town with more commercial shops and wonderful historic buildings, or venture to Rostock Zoo, a massive expanse of land homing just about every type of animal you can imagine. Their canteens host great local food too (did I mention schnitzel and sausages?).
Things to do:
- Try Currywurst from the little stall in the main centre, chopped hot dogs in a curry sauce, served in a bread roll…delicious!
- Visit Rostock Zoo, a huge interactive zoo which kids and adults will love.
- Relax on the beach, or participate in one of their many sporting competitions held throughout the summer
- Sample the local beers in one of the many bars along the river.
- Climb the Lighthouse for fabulous views of the town and ocean. Cost just 2 euros when I was there about 6 months ago.
- Visit Berlin – I guess I should put that in here, as it’s an option, but it does take about 3hrs on the train each way, and not all the trains are air-conditioned… (I say from experience).
- Have lunch or a drink at the Teapot building, next to the Lighthouse and overlooking the beach, it’s a funky little place with cute throne-style wicker chairs.
- Explore the historic town of Rostock, home of Germany’s oldest University. Accessible by ferry or train, or there are always taxis by the port, it’s about 30 mins away.
9. Cozumel, Mexico
I’ve never been to mainland Mexico, but I absolutely adore Cozumel! It’s a fairly undeveloped large Mexican island in the Caribbean, with stunning beaches and clear turquoise sea, perfect for diving or snorkeling. You can’t help but feel relaxed as soon as you arrive, the people are so friendly and it’s an easy-going way of life here. Forget any fears you have of Mexico, Cozumel is one of the safest places you can visit, they have very low crime rate, unlike their mainland counterpart.
Established on the majority of cruise lines’ Caribbean itineraries, Cozumel has really tapped into the tourist industry with regard to the activities and excursions it offers. My favourite was a boat trip out to the reef to see Stingrays. I actually got to hold and kiss one, it was pretty awesome (more so as it was shortly after Steve Irwin died, but we’ll brush past that bit…). Try to research your tours before you arrive, the barrage of vendors that will greet you can be overwhelming if you don’t have a plan. Oh, and take cash, not everyone will accept credit cards.
Anyway, here are some cool things you can do:
- Take a boat to El Cielo, aka ‘Heaven’ where the water is shallow, pristine and you can see the stingrays gliding by.
- Take a dune buggy tour, which usually takes you to the ‘wild side’ of the island, less populated, deserted beaches, blow holes, hidden water caves and smaller cafes and bars.
- Watch baby turtles hatching on a private jeep tour. Check out the seasonality of when you’re visiting, but this is an incredible thing to watch if you get the chance.
- Visit El Cedral, a village built around one of the oldest Mayan ruins, from AD800. If you’re there in April check out their annual festival Feria El Cedral when the village really comes to life.
- Browse the shops in San Miguel, a thriving part of the town and the main shopping area on the island
- Go snorkeling and enjoy lunch at Money Bar Beach Club
- Enjoy a cocktail at the Coconut Shack, located on the beach and using only fresh ingredients, you will love every creation from here, but try the mojitos or dirty monkeys!
New York City, USA
New York, New York, so great they named it twice… This is one truly amazing city, which totally captured my heart on my first visit about 20 years ago, and has continued to do so with every subsequent visit. Yes, it’s completely mad and hectic and full of bustling people, but that is what makes it so vibrant and alive. I have been lucky enough to stay in both summer and winter, and they are so incredibly different, especially in Central Park, the heart of the city. I love that in one season you can be sunbathing on the grass or rollerblading through the many paths, and in the next you’re ice skating, fully rugged up.
I also loved that all the times I’d seen movies set in NY and seen the smoke come up from the drains – this really does happen! Yeah, doesn’t take much to amuse me…! Bring on the shopping, the Broadway shows, the bars, the diners, the street performers, the Rockefeller Centre, the Statue of Liberty…I could go on for ever, but instead I’ll just list my favourite things to do:
- Get a last minute ticket from Times Square for a Broadway show that day, for a real bargain.
- If your ship doesn’t pass it (depends where it’s docked) then get a boat ride out to see the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island close up.
- Take a jump-on-jump-off tour bus. The guides are usually pretty humerous and it’s a great way to see the major sites of the city if you’re on limited time.
- Walk/run/skate through Central Park, it just has to be done, it’s absolutely beautiful!
- Go up to Top of the Rock for an amazing view of the city, it’s cheaper and less crowded than the Empire State Building.
- Take a backstage tour of Radio City Music Hall which takes you behind the curtains and to the secret rooms patrons rarely get to see.
- Visit the Guggenheim, recently turned 60 years old. Start from the top of the circular building and work your way down, as the architect wanted.
- Get your chops around a Shake Stack from the iconic Shake Shack, a burger topped with a cheese stuffed fried mushroom – delicious! Weirdly, their shakes are pretty average, but I’ve been told you have to try their thick and creamy custard ‘Concrete’ instead…
So, there you have my top 10 cruise destinations in the world. Hopefully they have given you some inspiration or maybe reminded you of one of your favourite places?
If I could have continued to make it more like 20 favourite cruise ports and bored you with an 8k essay, my other faves include Hobart, Australia; super easy to get around into the city from the port, friendly people, cute harbour town with great markets and fabulous food), Olden/Flam/Eidfjord/Bergen in Norway becuase they are all just so beautiful, Tauranga, NZ because it’s a gorgeous beach town with a chilled vibe and great cafes, Tallinn because you feel like you stepped back into Medieval times as you wonder the fascinating old town, Capri/Sorrento/Florence in Italy because they’re all so pretty and food is amazing…yeah, I could keep going…what an incredible world we live in, and how grateful I am for being able to experience so much of it.
What are your thoughts? Do you agree, or do you have others that would make your top 10? Let me know, I always love to add things to my bucket list!
Thanks for reading, see you next time!
Wendy A x