Ports of call: what to do in the world's best cruise cities

While cruising offers travellers unique opportunities to experience many of the world’s best cities, it helps to know what to do when you get there.Monday, 16 December 2019

For many, the convenience of waking up in a new port each day is the key appeal of cruising, and part of the fun of selecting a cruise itinerary. A single voyage can include a constellation of different cities, each containing a multitude of spectacular attractions to be explored on shore excursions or before/after the cruise.

There are a few things to bear in mind: excursions can include organised tours or these might incur an additional fee. Of course, you can also strike out on your own, exploring the city within your shore time. However, with so many passengers needing to disembark, there’s often a certain etiquette to observe.

Disembarkation usually takes place according to whether you have excursions booked and your cabin number — or if you’re a VIP. You’ll also need to check out when you leave the ship. One other thing to be aware of is that ‘ship time’ might be different to local time, so set an alarm just in case.

Most importantly, make sure you’re back when you need to be or you’ll be stranded, watching your ship setting sail without you — albeit in one of these amazing cities.

Amsterdam 

One of Europe’s prime departure points for river cruises, Amsterdam is best explored over at least a couple of days. The 400-year-old city is home to some excellent museums and art galleries, while the historic canal belt  is one of the most architecturally unique places in Europe. 

Who: Avalon Waterways’ 15-day Grand Tulip Cruise sails through Holland and Belgium, starting and ending with two days in Amsterdam. From £3,306 per person excluding flights.

See & do: Head to the Museumplein for a blockbuster day of culture. Explore the best of the Dutch masters at the Rijksmuseum, before heading across to the Van Gogh Museum, and then the bathtub-shaped Stedelijk Museum for some excellent contemporary art and design. Book in advance to tour Anne Frank House, which is located on the fringes of the beautiful Jordaan neighbourhood. Lastly, take an afternoon canal cruise, or help clean up the canals on a plastic-fishing cruise with Plastic Whale.

Buy: Amsterdam’s leading shopping district is the Nine Streets, a neat grid of independent shops, vintage and designer boutiques and cosy cafes along the Prinsengracht, Herengracht, and Keizersgracht canals. Expect to find pieces by local designers in pop-up shops and specialist outlets.

Eat: Feast on raw herring in the summer months; at other times of year, the best street food is frites with mayonnaise. In a city surrounded by gorgeous scenery, pick a spot like Café de Jaren, with a terrace on the canal, for a light lunch and watch the world go by.

After hours: One of the city’s hottest nightspots is Paradiso, a former church near Leidseplein that hosts international and local live music acts. Everyone from Pink Floyd to Madonna has played here. If the weather’s good, Sky Lounge, the rooftop bar of the DoubleTree by Hilton next to the cruise port, is highly recommended for a nightcap.  

Who else: Viking, Uniworld, Scenic and APT all offer river cruise departures from the Dutch capital.

 

Sydney

Sydney’s incredible weather and cosmopolitan atmosphere make it a perennial highlight on any cruise itinerary. The city’s harbour is fringed with gorgeous beaches, surrounded by bushland and has an incredible restaurant scene. 

Who: P&O Cruises offers a 39-day cruise from San Francisco to Hong Kong, including a two-day stopover in Sydney. From £4,999 per person excluding flights.

See & do: Take a guided tour behind the scenes of Sydney’s Opera House, hike up and over the 440ft-high Sydney Harbour Bridge with BridgeClimb, or catch a ferry across to Taronga Zoo, where you can walk with kangaroos or watch seals splashing about. For a taste of life by the water, enjoy the coastal walk from Bondi to Coogee, which wraps around the cliffs of the Eastern suburbs. In summer, stop and swim at the beaches or snorkel at Clovelly; during winter, keep an eye out for majestic humpback whales migrating close to shore.

Buy: On the weekends, parts of Sydney’s historic Rocks district are closed to traffic, hosting markets selling artisanal goods, high-end souvenirs and street food. 

Eat: Head to Town Hall to sample a slice of Black Star Pastry’s incredible watermelon cake. Crown Street in Surry Hills is home of some of the city’s best restaurants, including Porteño, but for knockout views and high-end fine dining, nothing beats the tasting menu at Bennelong, which is located under the Opera House’s iconic sails.

After hours: Sydney’s licensing laws have seen the city’s nightlife shift significantly from the centre and Kings Cross to the urban fringe. Both Redfern and Newtown have lively bar scenes, with places like The Bearded Tit and Earl’s Juke Joint, a speakeasy hidden behind the facade of an old butcher’s shop.

Who else: Silversea, Cunard, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises all visit Sydney as part of itineraries that take in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific.

Barcelona 

Squeezed between the Mediterranean and the mountains, the Catalan city of Barcelona is a sprawling metropolis with a vibrant nightlife and incredible architectural pedigree. There’s so much to explore, it’s worth adding on a couple days if you can.

Who: Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ 31-night Athens to Dubai sailing includes a one-day stopover in Barcelona. From £11,719 per person including flights.

See & do: Explore the Barrio Gothic, bustle with the crowds on Las Ramblas, and take in the view from Montjuïc Castle, a fortress dating back to 1640, to get a sense of the city. Follow in the footsteps of Antoni Gaudí at Casa Batlló and marvel at its swirling ceiling. Climb over the rooftop of the La Pedrera a few blocks away, but don’t miss a visit to Gaudí’s incredible Sagrada Família. 

Buy: Made by hand and sold on site, La Manual Alpargatera has been selling espadrilles since 1941. The iconic shoes are a favourite with travellers for their colourful designs.

Eat: One of the most appealing aspects of Barcelona is its outstanding cuisine. Start you day among the market stalls of La Boqueria, and when you’re hungry, try to grab a seat at the counter of Pinotxo Bar. Failing that, feast on comfort food at one of the city’s seven Taller de Tapas restaurants before seeking out the next generation of master chefs at Hofmann, a culinary institute that also has a Michelin-starred restaurant.    

After hours: Barcelona is a city that’s made for night owls, with most restaurants and bars not getting going until after 9pm. While there’s no shortage of local neighbourhood bodegas, the city’s rooftop bars offer brilliant views, including Skybar at Grand Hotel Central and the leafy green garden terrace on the roof of the Hotel Pulitzer. 

Who else: Barcelona is particularly busy port with Silversea, Holland America Line, Royal Caribbean, Costa, MSC, Oceania, Celebrity and Norwegian Cruise Line (among others) all calling at port.

Ushuaia 

The capital of Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost city in Patagonia and the gateway to Antarctica, Ushuaia’s stunning, isolated location is colloquially known as ‘the end of the world’ and regularly serves as a departure point for expedition cruises. While its remoteness lends the city superlative natural beauty — it’s perched on the shores of a wide bay and bordered by the Martial Mountains  — it’s also a buzzing city with exciting cuisine and nightlife. 

Who: Aurora Expeditions’ 12-day Spirit of Antarctica cruise sails round-trip to Ushuaia. It’s worth staying on for a couple of days after the cruise to explore the city further. From £8,275 per person excluding flights.

See & do: Tierra del Fuego National Park is mostly wild and inaccessible, although a small section along the coast can be enjoyed on a day hike along the shore — dress warm, as it can snow even in the summer month of December. Take a tour to Martillo Island, where a colony of Magellanic penguins nest, or climb up into the mountains and walk through the wooded trail along a stream to visit Martial Glacier, which offers views over the town and Beagle Channel. 

Buy: Located by the port, the Paseo de Artesanos Enriqueta Gastalumendi artisan’s market sells a range of handmade goods. The main shops are located along Avenida San Martin, the high street that runs parallel to the sea. While there are plenty of souvenir shops, there are also decent outlets selling backpacks, polar fleeces and Gore-Tex.

Eat: If you manage to secure a table, try Argentine fine dining at Kalma Resto, with a menu featuring king crab and lobster ravioli. Follow the boat crew and guides to taste the best asado, or Argentine barbecue in town. Everyone has their favourite, but La Estancia is popular thanks to its thick steaks.

After hours: Ushuaia is small, but when it’s cold outside there are plenty of bars that will serve you something to warm your cockles. Known for its cosy atmosphere, Casa Olmo on San Martin is a favourite with locals and crew, as is the Dublin Pub on 9 de Julio, which gets crowded come nightfall. 

Who else: National Geographic Expeditions and a host of other expedition cruise outfits depart from Ushuaia for Antarctica for the 2020 season.

Vancouver

The juxtaposition of Vancouver’s high-rise downtown and snow-capped mountain peaks make it a favourite gateway city for a number of British Colombia and Alaska cruises during the summer season. 

Who: Crystal Cruises’ 12-night Expedition Alaska cruise departs from Seward in southern Alaska and ends in Vancouver, and includes a full day exploring the city. From £10,600 per person excluding flights.

See & do: Get a taste of the mountain air at Capilano Suspension Bridge, which connects two patches of cedar rainforest above the Capilano Canyon and has a 230ft drop to the river. Vancouver has the world’s longest uninterrupted waterfront path, the Seaside Greenway, including a section around the 1,000-acre Stanley Park. There, at Brockton Point, you’ll find the Stanley Park Totem Poles, carved by First Nations artists.

Buy: Vancouver has a vibrant food scene, and Edible Canada's artisanal retail store on Granville Island is one of the best places to pick up a gourmet souvenir — from freeze-dried blueberries to some outstanding maple syrup.

Eat: Explore the fresh produce market at Granville Island, tucking into a honey-dipped doughnut at Lee’s Donuts, a 40-year-old Granville institution, for breakfast. Blue Water Cafe is a favourite spot for first-class sustainable seafood, while the Botanist offers a gourmet taste of the Pacific Northwest.   

After hours: Vancouver has an incredible craft brewing scene. 33 Acres Brewing in East Vancouver has a range of small-batch beers on tap, while Granville Island Brewing is one of the original craft breweries in Canada. For something a little classier close to the cruise port, try Prohibition, a speakeasy-style venue that serves up excellent cocktails in 1920s-style surroundings. 

Who else: Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, Disney Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, Seabourn, Silversea Cruises and Windstar Cruises all visit Vancouver.  

Published in the Cruise guide, distributed with the December 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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