How to Choose Your Cruise: Northern Europe and British Isles

There’s no single way to sum up a voyage through Northern Europe and the British Isles, simply because there are so many ways to explore this intriguing region. You might be following the ancient trade routes of the Vikings through the Baltic Sea. Or breathing in deliciously fresh air as you stand on deck at dawn, taking in the tumbling waterfalls and lush greenery of the Norwegian fjords. You could be un-peeling centuries of history in imposing Scottish castles, or tracing the footsteps of your ancestors in Ireland.

Any and all of these adventures are possible. And traveling by ship, you’re at a significant advantage, whichever route you choose. Imagine stringing together four or more European capitals by land in a week, or trying to circumnavigate Britain by road and still have time for sightseeing.

How can you make the most of a voyage through Northern Europe or the British Isles? This depends on where you go. You won’t have come for guaranteed sunshine or a beach break – although Swedes in their island summerhouses and Finns plunging into chilly tundra lakes from their wood-fired saunas may disagree.

Should you be following the classic Baltic route, visiting grand old seafaring cities of Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki and St. Petersburg, you’ll need sightseeing stamina. Make the most of those relaxing sea days between ports, as there’s a lifetime’s worth of culture to unravel. Some cities, namely Copenhagen and Stockholm, are easy and fun to explore independently, with their compact centers, friendly, English-speaking citizens and efficient public transport. You can walk around tiny, medieval Tallinn in a couple of hours but in St. Petersburg, I’d recommend a good private guide or a shore excursion to bring the priceless riches of this majestic city to life.

Perhaps you’re intrigued by the British Isles, which manage to cram millennia of history, extraordinary natural beauty and a melting pot of cultures into a relatively small space. As a Londoner, I confess to having dismissed exploring my own backyard until my maiden round-Britain voyage took me to Orkney and the Isles of Scilly, both of which left me enchanted, amazed and longing for more.

Isles of Scilly
Britain’s Isles of Scilly/Denis Elterman

When should you go? Midsummer is the most popular time for the unearthly spectacle of the midnight sun in Europe’s northernmost reaches, hovering above the horizon. White Nights festivals, bonfires and people out on the streets late into the night make this a happy, festive time to visit. And shoulder seasons are beautiful, too. May is the best month to visit Scotland, often with deep blue skies and sea in shades of Caribbean blue. Norway’s fjords are all soft green in spring, wildflowers strewn over lush meadows. Further north, reindeer graze on rust-colored moss of the tundra as the snows recede. On the other hand, late season brings its rewards. For the whole of August, Edinburgh is alive with music, drama and comedy of the Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival.

How do you choose your Northern Europe cruise, whether you’re interested in expedition-style travel or classic cruising? We help you boil down the choices.

Norwegian Fjords

The fjords or Norway
Each of Norway’s fjords has a different personality/Denis Elterman

In a Nutshell: Vast skies, snowy mountains, sheer-sided fjords and lush meadows ablaze with wildflowers combine to make Norway, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful countries in the world. But while the fjord-indented west coast is famed for its scenery, the Scandinavian nation has a vibrant cultural life, which you’ll enjoy as much as nature. There’s the white clapboard houses of old Stavanger, the art deco living museum that is downtown Ålesund, and the bustle of Bergen’s waterfront. Overlooked by the red and ochre 18th century warehouses of Bryggen, it’s an icon of the city.

What You’ll See: Nature like you’ve never imagined as you glide along glassy fjords, watching for seals basking on the rocks, eagles wheeling overhead and wild goats clambering vertiginous slopes. From spring onwards, the snow melts and the meadows are strewn with wildflowers. Hikers and cyclists take to the mountain trails but there’s never a sense of feeling crowded. Solitude is easy to find; no sounds but the song of chaffinches and yellowhammers, the wind whispering in the pine trees.

Vast skies, snowy mountains, sheer-sided fjords and lush meadows ablaze with wildflowers combine to make Norway, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

Each fjord is different; the many-fingered Sognefjord twists and turns deep into the mountains, dotted with tiny villages, while the narrow Geirangerfjord is one of the most dramatic. The terrifyingly high granite block of Pulpit Rock soars nearly 2,000 feet over Lysefjord. Scenic railways like the Flåmsbana trundle over mountaintops and around the contours of the hills, while rushing waterfalls cascade from the tongues of high mountain glaciers.

Nature of Norway
Norway’s lush flora and fauna will surprise you/Denis Elterman

Beyond the fjords, the sleepy Lofoten Islands are warmed by the Gulf Stream. Jaunty fishing huts line the shores and life moves slowly; this is the place for tucking into fresh fish, hiking, cycling and, for the hardy, swimming off flat rocks in the crystalline water.

The scenery changes further north, beyond the fjords and across the Arctic Circle. Meadows give way to brown tundra, on which reindeer graze all summer. You’ll be able to visit husky farms in Tromso, learning about the work of sled dogs, or join a king crab safari, or meet the local Sami people and hear about their culture. From Honningsvag, take a tour to the North Cape and stand on the windswept cliff that marks the most northerly point of continental Europe.

Choose Your Cruise: For the expedition-minded, a 13-day cruise between Tromso and Reykjavik that also calls at the Faroe Islands, this expedition voyage spends most of its time in the truly off-the-track ports as far north as Norway’s Skarsvag. Another option is a 13-day trip between Southampton and Tromso, which picks up ports in Scotland. Itineraries for classic cruises in Norway often include ports in Scotland and Iceland.

The Baltic

St. Petersburg, Russia
Russia’s mystical St. Petersburg/ Shutterstock

In a Nutshell: A voyage around the Baltic is a cultural odyssey through some of Europe’s great cities, from chic Copenhagen to arty Helsinki and Stockholm, all sophisticated but understated beauty. St. Petersburg, of course, is a highlight, thanks to its extravagantly gilded buildings and art treasures. So come prepared for a hefty dose of culture – and make time to soak up the enviable lifestyle of these cool locations, maybe absorbing a bit of Scandi ‘hygge’ – a sense of comfort and well-being.

What You’ll See: More than 1,000 years of history unfolds on a voyage around the Baltic Sea, from the age of the Vikings to the magnificent architecture of the Hanseatic era, to more recent reminders of the Cold War years and the current vogue for everything Scandinavian, from design to hygge and noir thrillers.

Copenhagen manages to be effortlessly cool. Once you’ve paid your respects to the Little Mermaid (in my opinion, slightly underwhelming), the riches of the Amalienborg Palace, home to the royal family, ornate Christiansborg, where Parliament is housed, the bustling waterfront at Nyhavn and the lush Tivoli Gardens, where even the oldest of old souls will feel young again. Simply absorb some of the city’s laid-back vibe. Every store is achingly tasteful, every café immaculately styled. Wander along Strøget, the swanky, pedestrianized shopping street, and be grateful that you left space in your luggage for Georg Jensen objets d’art or a piece of Royal Copenhagen porcelain.

In St. Petersburg, the riches of the Peterhof Palace and the Hermitage, the collection of which includes more than three million works of art and artifacts, must be seen to be believed. The river Neva bisects the city, its bridges raised all summer during the White Nights. St. Petersburg is no museum; there’s a vibrant culture here of shopping, high end restaurants and vodka bars.

Every ship that sails to Stockholm’s harbor travels through its archipelago. The forested passageway crawls through various islands where Swedes escape to their colorfully painted, beachfront summer cottages to bask in the long summer days. It’s magic, truly.

In the city center, as well as a walking tour of Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s medieval heart, the Vasa Museum is one of my favorite museums, providing a fascinating glimpse into the world of seafarers in the 17th century; the incompetently built warship, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1622, is the only intact vessel of this era in the world, thanks to a painstaking restoration. For a bit of light relief and 1970s nostalgia, you’ll no doubt want to visit the ABBA The Museum, too.

The Finnish capital of Helsinki
Helsinki’s bustling waterfront/Shutterstock

Helsinki, like Stockholm, celebrates its waterfront, this time with a bustling market, the stalls in summer piled high with blueberries, raspberries and wild mushrooms, as well as fresh fish. I always stock up on cloudberry preserves when I’m here – sweet and tangy, and unique to the Arctic region. The city itself reveals austere but impressive architecture, including Senate Square and the Lutheran Cathedral, the dazzling white Parliament building and the futuristic metal tubes of the Sibelius Monument. But it’s not the architecture that will leave you dazzled; take a moment to absorb summer life in capital by strolling along the Esplanade, which stretches from the harbor to the heart of downtown, sip a coffee (or something stronger) at an alfresco cafe, and people watch. It’s the best show in town.

In St Petersburg, the riches of the Peterhof Palace and the Hermitage, the collection of which includes more than three million works of art and artifacts, must be seen to be believed. Other highlights include the Yusupov Palace, where the monk Rasputin was murdered in 1916; the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, with its extravagantly beautiful interiors; and St Isaac’s Cathedral, the gilded dome of which dominates the city skyline. The river Neva bisects the city, its bridges raised all summer during the White Nights. St. Petersburg is no museum; there’s a vibrant culture here of shopping, high end restaurants and vodka bars.

Tallinn, Estonia's capital
The beautifully preserved medieval city of Tallinn is a surprising discovery on a Baltic itinerary/Shutterstock

Tallinn, in comparison to St Petersburg’s grandeur, is straight out of a fairytale, the turrets and spires of its medieval center clustered inside hefty ramparts. Lose yourself in the narrow, cobbled alleys, and don’t miss the world’s oldest apothecary on Town Hall Square; the shop dates back to 1422. Spy fans should check out the Hotel Viru, meanwhile. KGB spies used this unassuming hotel as a clandestine radio centre, fleeing in 1991, just before the fall of the Soviet Union, leaving behind a fascinating array of listening devices. Today, the disused rooms are a small museum offering an insight into the chilling activities of the Cold War.

Choose Your Cruise: Baltic voyages primarily are offered via classic cruise itineraries, ranging from seven to 19 days aboard Silver Spirit.

British Isles and the Atlantic Coast

Urquhart Castle, Scotland
The ruins of Urquhart Castle, overlooking Loch Ness, Scotland/Richard Sidey

In a Nutshell: As a Londoner, I’ll admit to being utterly astonished at how a country as compact as the United Kingdom offers such diversity. From the thrill of gliding under London’s Tower Bridge to the raw beauty of the Scottish Highlands or the craggy coast of Cornwall, rich with legends and myths, there’s adventure to be had in every port as you unravel century upon century of history. British Isles voyages often touch on northern France and western Spain, too, bringing new dimensions of art and gastronomy.

What You’ll See: If a round-Britain voyage starts in London, be sure to arrive a few days beforehand to take in the world-class museums, galleries, palaces, fashion and dining. Sailing under Tower Bridge is particularly special, as the traffic literally stops to let you through as the two sides of the drawbridge lift. As the adventure unfolds, you’ll be admiring almost tropical beauty in the greens, aquamarines and white beaches of the Isles of Scilly, scattered off the coast of Cornwall, or following the Beatles’ trail in Liverpool.

Many voyages call at Dublin, Ireland’s easygoing capital, all showstopper Georgian splendor and jolly pubs. Those that head north to Scotland thread their way through the Hebrides, a landscape of rocky islands, towering mountains, silent lochs, brooding castles and, on occasion, whisky distilleries. If you’re on an expedition voyage, you may visit St. Kilda, 45 miles out on its own from the westernmost tip of the archipelago, wind-blown, craggy, rich in bird life and disconcerting. The last inhabitants left in 1930 as life on the edge became untenable.

As a Londoner, I’ll admit to being utterly astonished at how a country as compact as the United Kingdom offers such diversity.

Some voyages head round the top of Scotland, to Orkney, traveling even further back in time, to visit the Neolithic village of Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar, a circle of standing stones that’s been here for more than 5,000 years.

Others explore the Iberian peninsula, in places like San Sebastian, an unsung hero of Spanish gastronomy with more than its fair share of Michelin-starred restaurants and inviting pintxos, or tapas bars, showcasing the region’s stupendous seafood. Bucolic countryside in this very green corner of Spain is fringed by long, golden surf beaches.

Tapas bar in Spain
Tapas, one of Spain’s many attractions/ Lucia Griggi

Further north, Bordeaux is somewhere I never tire of, snootily, elegantly beautiful as it sweeps around a half-moon curve of the Garonne river. Vineyards roll in every direction, presided over by lavish chateaux, the salty breeze from the Atlantic in the air.

If you spend time in one port in northern France, make it Honfleur, a jumble of pastel, half-timbered houses around a 17th century fishing harbor, positively shimmering with beauty. Monet and his impressionist cohorts painted in Normandy; his famous house, garden and lily pond are further inland, at Giverny. Just a glimpse of the colors, reflections and the vast skies in this lovely corner of France gives you an insight into the unique light that was almost an obsession with these great artists.

Choose Your Cruise: Traveled much of the marquee ports of the British Isles and Atlantic Coast already? Silver Wind and Silver Cloud offer itineraries ranging from 11 – 22 days that call at more offbeat places. Itineraries start as far south as Lisbon and head as far north as Tromso.

For a classic voyage, 12 – 24 day roundtrips from Southampton offer the best of the British Isles and the Atlantic Coast. You can also opt for 12 – 23 days cruises departing or ending in Lisbon. Other options allow you to sample some of the Mediterranean or Northern Europe. Ships include Silver Moon, Silver Whisper and Silver Spirit.

Iceland

Waterfalls of Iceland
Iceland’s waterfalls at dusk / Lucia Griggi

In a Nutshell: Wild, untamed, quirky and so dramatic that you’ll be doing constant double-takes, Iceland is like nowhere else. Spiky, volcanic rocks, creaking glaciers, vast, empty beaches and tumbling waterfalls at every turn are only the beginning. You’ll visit eccentric museums, learn why locals still believe in elves and if you’re adventurous, taste fermented shark. This tasting will probably be a one-off.

What you’ll see: Distorted on map projections, Iceland is actually surprisingly large, with more than 3,000 miles of fjord-indented coast and one of the world’s lowest population densities – just nine hardy souls per square mile. As such, you’ll have made a good decision to explore by ship, as getting from one tiny coastal hamlet to another by road can take a long time.

Around Reykjavik, the landscape is all volcanic fissures, rushing rivers and mossy hills; it’s Game of Thrones country, as you’ll be constantly reminded.

Hallgrímskirkja Cathedral, Reykjavik
Hallgrímskirkja is Reykjavik’s striking cathedral. For an awesome perspective over the city, you can climb the tower/ Pablo Bianco

Sailing round the Westfjords, the frilly peninsula to the northwest, is absolutely fascinating. For a start, the marine life is spectacular; we were on deck, gazing at a waterfall, as a pod of orca shot underneath the bow, their black-and-white markings clearly visible. Husavik is the country’s whale-watching capital and you’ll see humpbacks, minke and maybe even blue whales from the ship. The scenery is all sweeping, melancholy landscapes of massive U-shaped valleys carved by ancient glaciers, and long ribbons of waterfalls plunging into blue-green fjords. There are gorgeous hikes across spongy hills ablaze with purple lupins, mountains in every direction and trails taking you so close to waterfalls you’ll feel the spray.

You’ll find interesting cultural diversions, too; the Herring Era Museum in Siglufjordur may sound comical but it’s superb. Housed in a 1907 herring salting station, the museum is a vivid insight through black-and-white film, artifacts and memorabilia into what was essentially Iceland’s gold rush, when Siglufjördur’s sheltered fjord was crammed with herring trawlers and streets packed with shops, brothels and bars.

Around Reykjavik, the landscape is all volcanic fissures, rushing rivers and mossy hills; it’s Game of Thrones country, as you’ll be constantly reminded. You’ll no doubt visit Geysir, a powerful geyser that shoots boiling water 60 feet in to the air every few minutes, or spend a day floating in the silica-rich water of the geothermically heated Blue Lagoon, incongruously located on a plain tumbled with spiky lava rocks.

Choose Your Cruise: Iceland is a destination that appeals to expedition-minded travelers who want an in-depth experience around the island on Silver Cloud and classic voyagers who want to see major cities between Reykjavik and other Northern Europe and British Isles/Atlantic Coast ports. Another exotic option: An around-the-country immersion is a top bucket list choice; a 10-day trip on Silver Whisper is a great choice.