Polar bears in Svalbard. Credit: Shutterstock

Cruise to northern Europe for unrivalled culture, history and nature

Author: Sarah Freeman

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From folklore-steeped fishing villages and futuristic museums to fjord-fractured coastlines, a cruise to northern Europe delivers culture, history and nature beyond your wildest dreams

One of the joys of cruising is that no two days are ever alike.

On a northern European cruise you can take that feel good factor and double it, because there’s just so much variety from port to port.

As your holiday unfolds you could find yourself strolling down Helsinki’s tree-lined boulevards, searching out Bronze-Age burial sites in the Orkneys, marvelling at the beauty of the fjords or sipping a pint of black gold in Dublin.

More of a nature lover? Northern Europe’s long, mild summer days are perfect for exploring wild wonders such as Denmark’s towering sand dunes and Iceland’s glacier-capped volcanoes.

And there are animal encounters aplenty, whether you’re tracking beach-roaming polar bears in Svalbard or birdwatching from the water in Stockholm’s forested archipelago.

Those great Scandi capitals are a treat for architecture lovers, too, blending gabled townhouses with fairytale castles and the latest boundary-pushing creations from a region that’s renowned for brilliant design (don’t miss the spaceship-like library in Aarhus, Denmark).

Elegant, effortlessly cool, and beautiful, Stockholm rewards a visit


Great for stunning scenery

From canalside cities and chic shopping to car-free islands and cosy cafes, Sweden delivers the full holiday package. And with a coastline of 2,000 miles and an incredible 97 per cent of the country still uninhabited wilderness, nature is never far away.

Affectionately known as ‘The Beauty on Water’, capital Stockholm is scattered across 14 islands where the Baltic Sea meets Lake Malaren. Must- sees here include the medieval Old Town and the restored 17th-century warship Vasa, which sank on her maiden voyage.

You can also head underground to the world’s longest art gallery in the city’s subway, then come up for air at its six-mile-long Royal National City Park.

Crowned the world’s most sustainable destination for six years on the trot, the capital’s west-coast counterpart, Gothenburg, offers Dutch-style canals (great for kayaking), a historic amusement park and no end of neoclassical architecture. Oh, and its locals are said to be the friendliest in Sweden.

East of the mainland lies another popular port of call: UNESCO-listed Visby on the large island of Gotland. As a former Viking stronghold with well-preserved medieval ramparts, crumbling gothic churches and an 18th-century botanical garden, it’s aptly known as the ‘Town of Roses and Ruins’.

Some itineraries also call at Helsingborg on Sweden’s southwestern tip, just across the Oresund Sound from Denmark. Here you’ll find an impressively rejuvenated waterfront, packed with restaurants and galleries, as well as historic half-timbered houses and a trio of refreshing open-air baths.

Helsinki is a memorable coastal capital. Credit: Shutterstock


Great for adventures

Ninety per cent wilderness and aptly known as ‘The Land of a Thousand Lakes’, Finland is heaven for lovers of the great outdoors.

Its vibrant coastal capital, Helsinki, is a firm fixture on Baltic cruise itineraries, and with ships approaching via a 300-island archipelago, this is a sail-in to remember.

Dubbed the White City for its pale granite architecture, Helsinki has more than its fair share of sights. In just one afternoon you can check off its rock-hewn Temppeliaukio Church, the award-winning multi-faith Chapel of Silence and the massive Suomenlinna fortress, built across seven islands.

On Finland’s southwest coast, bilingual (Swedish/Finnish) Turku is another waterside city, offering something for every kind of cruiser.

Founded 800 years ago, this former European Capital of Culture offers a fairytale medieval castle, Parisian-style riverside cafes and a handsome pair of tall ships, moored in its historic harbour as museums.

Then, when you’ve ticked off the sights, you can enjoy a beer-tasting in the old prison complex at Kakola, sample pickled herring at Kauppahalli market or take to a kayak and explore some of the country’s countless rocky islets.

Moving on to Finland’s southeast coast, the attractive city of Kotka at the mouth of the Kymi River offers maritime museums, including the strikingly wave-shaped Merikeskus Vellamo, and sensational deep-fried donuts known as possos (well, you’ve burned all those calories sight- seeing, so why not?)

Copenhagen is renowned for being one of the happiest capitals in the world. Credit: Shutterstock


Great for design and cuisine

Regularly ranked as the happiest country on earth, Scandinavia’s southernmost nation is famous for cutting-edge design and New Nordic cooking.

But it’s also a land of pretty half-timbered villages, endless beaches, world-class museums and beautifully preserved medieval architecture.

Denmark’s cosmopolitan capital, Copenhagen, is the highlight of many a north European voyage.

Crowned UNESCO World Capital of Architecture for 2023, its sights include the futuristic Opera House, Renaissance Rosenborg Castle and star- shaped Kastellet Citadel. Summertime visits are perfect for open-air swimming at the city-centre Brygge Harbour baths and exploring the half-mile long Superkilen urban park.

More hygge (that untranslatable Danish word for the good life) can be found in hipster Aarhus, the Viking-founded port on the Jutland peninsula.

Best known for its speciality design shops and the beautiful rose gardens of Marselisborg Castle, the city (pronounced ‘or-hoose’) also offers one of the planet’s highest freefall rides, at Tivoli Friheden fairground, plus the chance to step back in time at Den Gamle By open-air museum and stargaze at the Ole Roemer Observatory.

Outdoor types, meanwhile, should be in their natural habitat at Denmark’s northernmost cruise port of Skagen, where the unique light has inspired artists for generations.

Here you can desert-hike across the 40m-high Rabjerg sand dune and witness the meeting of the Baltic and North Seas at Grenen Beach, which is a favourite hangout for sunbathing seals (and if you’re a wildlife fan, Skagen is also home to Northern Europe’s largest aquarium).

Discover the Baltics in the beautiful Oslo. Credit: Shutterstock


Great for scenery and wildlife

Extending almost as far as the North Pole, with the second longest coastline in the world, the Land of the Midnight Sun blends rugged landscapes with a rich maritime tradition.

This photographer’s paradise is studded with snow-capped peaks, spectacular sea cliffs, sapphire waters and around 1,000 stunning fjords, all of them brimming with wildlife, from white-tailed sea eagles to orcas.

Sailing in the wake of the Vikings, ships typically depart from Oslo or Bergen on 7 or 14-night itineraries. In Oslo, Norway’s dynamic capital, you can walk on the sloping marble roof of its iceberg- like opera house, enjoy alfresco art in wooded Ekeberg Sculpture Park and visit the unique Nobel Peace Centre.

Then in Bergen – known as the gateway to the fjords – you can soak up the medieval charms of its UNESCO-designated wharf area before hopping aboard Floibanen funicular railway to Bergen’s very own ‘city mountain’.

Sailing further north along Norway’s incredible coastline you’ll come to the small city of Alesund, an Art Nouveau gem that grants access to two spectacular fjords: UNESCO-protected Geirangerfjord (which inspired the fantasy kingdom of Arendelle in Frozen) and 22-mile- long Hjorundfjord, which extends into the jagged Sunnmore Alps.

As for the country’s Arctic ports, they cast a magic spell in the endless light of summer. In Tromso you can stroll along a chalk-white beach and visit an Arctic/Alpine botanic garden, and on the island of Spitsbergen you can marvel at migrating birds, whales and even see polar bears in their natural habitat.

Sailing this far north gives you an excellent chance of seeing the astonishing natural light show known as the aurora borealis (aka the Northern Lights). And if hiking and horse-riding under the midnight sun float your boat, book a cruise that includes a visit to the Lofoten Islands, a remote archipelago that lies 95 miles inside the Arctic Circle.

Iceland is great for stunning natural scenery. Credit: Shutterstock


Great for wild adventures and volcanic scenery

One of Europe’s least densely populated nations, the ‘Land of Fire and Ice’ is revered for its raw natural beauty.

In this country of extremes, located between the Greenland Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, the moon-like lava fields, glimmering ice caves, iceberg-studded glacial lagoons and spouting geysers have to be seen to be believed.

Expedition cruises often include Greenland or Svalbard as well, while popular 9 to 11-day cruises do a full circumnavigation of Iceland, sailing between May and September.

If you’re looking for adrenaline-fuelled adventure, you can ride a snowcat to the top of a glacier, snorkel between two tectonic plates at Silfra, or fly in a light aircraft through the spray of horseshoe-shaped Godafoss, also known as the ‘Waterfall of the Gods.’

And with some 11 species of whale recorded in Skjalfandi Bay alone, and a huge puffin colony on the Storhofdi peninsula, Iceland’s coastal wildlife is world-class too.

Culture-seeking cruisers are also in for a treat. The planet’s most northerly capital, eco-forward Reykjavik can trace its origins back to the Vikings, but these days draws visitors with its thriving arts scene, innovative museums and geothermal- powered Blue Lagoon.

On the country’s northeastern tip, idyllic Isafjordur immerses cruisers in Iceland’s seafaring history at the Maritime Museum, housed in one of the town’s earliest dwellings.

The Faroes are known for their Viking heritage, traditional way of life and many puffins. Credit: Shutterstock

UK and Ireland

Great for history and culture

You needn’t sail far from home to enjoy a great holiday. Our own richly varied coastline is packed with wonders – some that may be new to you and some you think you know, until you see them with new eyes from the deck of a cruise ship.

Ranging from the Orkneys to the Channel Islands, via the ports of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, one and two-week round-trip sailings depart from Southampton, Dover, London and Portsmouth. Extended itineraries can also incorporate mainland Europe.

From Cornwall’s hidden coves to the quaint turf houses of the Faroe Islands, a British Isles cruise is a true voyage of discovery. You could find yourself uncovering the mysteries of Stonehenge, hiking to a 4,000-year-old settlement in the Shetlands or testing the waters of Loch Ness for signs of that famously elusive monster.

Our scenic shores are also awash with wildlife, from puffins on St Kilda to the wild Welsh ponies of Snowdonia National Park and the clamorous seabird colony of Rathlin on the north coast of Northern Ireland.

A highlight of any Irish itinerary has to be the UNESCO World Heritage-protected Giant’s Causeway, a stunningly precise geometrical formation of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, formed 60 million years ago by a volcanic eruption.

Elsewhere on the Emerald Isle, urbanites can check off the star-shaped Titanic Belfast museum in Northern Ireland’s rejuvenated capital, while foodies will love the historic English Market at Cork on the Republic’s southeast coast.

Other sights along the way include maritime Liverpool (home of the Beatles and two of Britain’s greatest cathedrals), the Georgian glories of Edinburgh and, of course, London (your chance to be a tourist in your own capital – why not?)

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