The rivers and seas of Europe have always been essential to life and trade. But, until the mid-1800s, European boats and ships were only concerned with moving cargo or hauling in the day’s catch – not with passengers or their comfort.
In 1835, Arthur Anderson, a sailor from the Shetland Isles, wrote about his vision of providing passenger service from Scotland to Iceland in the summer months, and from Scotland to the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in winter. Two years later, he co-founded the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O), which became a major operator of passenger liners.
Other shipping lines, which got their start by carrying mail across the Atlantic, began to offer passenger service. More ships began to consider the comfort of passengers: in 1840 the Britannia, the first ship to sail under the Cunard Line name, reportedly took a cow on board to supply fresh milk on a trans-Atlantic crossing.
By the early 1900s, European passenger ships had taken on the characteristics of elegant, floating hotels. However, World Wars I and II interrupted the building of new cruise ships, and many ships were pressed into service as troop transports.
Interest in trans-Atlantic cruising surged between the wars and again after World War II, but the introduction of trans-Atlantic flights put a damper on that era. During the 1960s and 70s, the European cruise industry slowly refocused on sailing the coasts and rivers of the continent.
Today, multiple cruise lines visit an amazing variety of European ports. Major cruise lines that sail Europe include the contemporary lines Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line; premium and deluxe lines Azamara Club Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line and Princess Cruises; and luxury lines Crystal Cruises, Cunard Line, Oceania, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Silversea, Uniworld and Viking River Cruises. Uniworld River Cruises and Viking River Cruises are noteworthy because they cruise the rivers of Europe – the Danube, the Rhine, the Seine and more – providing access to inland cities and villages.
European cruises cover four regions: The Baltic and Northern Europe; the British Isles and Western Europe; the Western Mediterranean; and the Eastern Mediterranean. Some cruise itineraries focus on ports in one region, while longer cruises may include ports in two or more regions.
A cruise of Northern Europe might include the stunning fjords of Norway’s west coast. Or, choose a Baltic-based itinerary, enjoying Scandinavian capitals like Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki. Some cruises also visit Russia’s jewel of the Baltic, St. Petersburg.
Cruises of the British Isles and Western Europe often launch from London and may stop at Inverness and Edinburgh, Scotland; Dublin, Ireland; Amsterdam, The Netherlands; Hamburg, Germany; and Le Havre (for Paris), France.
Western Mediterranean itineraries can stretch from Gibraltar and coastal Spain to the west cost of Italy. Ports of call might include Cannes and other cities on the French Riviera; and the Italian ports of Livorno (for Florence), Citavecchia (for Rome) and Naples. Some itineraries also call on the islands of Sicily, Sardinia and Malta.
The Eastern Mediterranean includes a classic cruise destination– the Greek Isles. However, there is much more to see, including the ports of Croatia (Dubrovnik and Hvar); the gorgeous, watery city of Venice, Italy; and the exotic ports of Turkey (Istanbul, Izmir and Kusadasi).
With so many places to see, deciding on a European itinerary can be challenging. Fortunately, Cruise Specialists can help narrow down your choices based on your interests, budget and the time of year. We can also help you choose shore excursions that will let you experience European history and culture.
Our Europe cruise recommendations