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Cruising in the northern seas

Cruising in Europe’s Baltic or North Sea can satisfy even an independent traveler.
By Rick Steves Published: April 27, 2014
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Cruising in Europe’s Baltic or North Sea can satisfy even an independent traveler like me. Stepping off the gangway, I’m immersed in the vivid life of a different European city each day. I’ve toured some of the world’s top museums, taken a Scandinavian-style coffee break while people-watching from a prime sidewalk cafe, lingered on a surprisingly sunny and sandy Baltic beach, and enjoyed some of Europe’s most expensive cities on the cheap from my big ship home-base.

In northern Europe, the cruise ports themselves are generally not pretty, but they are mighty — often it’s an industrial or maritime area with any historic charm bombed to bits in World War II. In many cases (including certain ports in Tallinn, Bergen, Oslo and Copenhagen), they’re right in the city center and an easy walk from the sightseeing action. When they aren’t, there’s good public transportation into town.

And once you’re in the heart of the city, the options are enticing. Even if you have just eight hours in port, you can ride a double-decker bus through London; paddle a kayak on a Norwegian fjord; stroll Copenhagen’s car-free Stroget; gaze at the Rembrandts in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage, and walk in Lech Walesa’s footsteps at the shipyards and cobblestone streets of Gdansk.

I’ve taken several European cruises recently, and I’ve found the per-day cost for a mainstream cruise can beat independent travel — particularly in northern Europe, with one of the highest costs of living in the world. (While a cruise saves money on a trip to Greece or Spain, it’s an even better deal in Norway — where hotel costs can be more than double.) There’s also the convenience factor. After a busy day in port, you can head back to the same cozy bedroom each night, without ever having to pack a suitcase or catch a train.

Lots of travelers don’t like the idea of being part of the cruise-ship hordes. With big ships typically carrying more than 3,000 passengers and everyone sharing their gripes online, cruise lines work very hard to avoid any congestion. In four cruises I’ve enjoyed lately, I’ve been impressed by crowd management. There’s almost never a congestion problem on board. In fact, very often I marvel at how empty the big ship feels — even though they are always sailing full.

In port, each ship dumps off thousands of cruisers, raring to have the best seven or eight hours possible. Just off the gangplank, you’ll find several options. Tour buses await those who signed up for ship-sponsored excursions; this is the standard option. Hop-on, hop-off buses, which are designed for independent travelers, cost about $35 for an all-day ticket; they usually cover a 90-minute loop with a recorded narration, run every 20 minutes during the daytime, stop at a dozen or so major sights, and include hop-off-and-on privileges. Public buses connect cruisers with the town center, as well as taxis (both standard and minibus — economical for small groups).

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If there are 3,000 tourists relaxing on vacation, it’s because there are more than a thousand crew members working day and night to keep them fed, watered and clean. I’ve always been pleased with the caliber of the crews on the ships.”

Rick Steves,

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