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Guide to Cruising in Northern Europe

Why Cruise Northern Europe?

Northern Europe is approximately the region north of the Southern Coast of the Baltic Sea.

Here are 8 reasons you should cruise Northern Europe:

  1. Northern Europe offers year-round cruising with two distinct attractions: the Northern Lights and Midnight Sun.
  2. Most places of interest are relatively close to the port.
  3. Northern Europe is traditionally expensive, but cruising makes it affordable.
  4. Most local people speak English.
  5. Much of the Fjords scenery is visible from the ship.
  6. Norwegian fjords are all about the breathtaking scenery.
  7. There are almost 24 hours of daylight during the peak of summer.
  8. Northern Europe is traditionally safe and trouble-free with little crime, very good health services and high living standards.

Most cruise lines alternate between the Norwegian fjords and the Baltic region. Historically these itineraries have been more popular with an older crowd, but families can enjoy them as well as there are lots of fun activities for children.

Where is Northern Europe?

The Northern Europe region combines all countries that are north of Germany: Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden. In this article, we are focusing on Norway only.

The Norwegian coastline stretches for 2,735 km (1,700 miles) with the most breathtaking features being the fjords which are up to 160km (100miles) long.

Most of the region lies beyond the Arctic Circle and appeals to travellers seeking the Northern Lights in winter and the Midnight Sun in high summer. The Norwegian landscape sees dramatic changes with the seasons and some of the most photogenic views are to be enjoyed directly from the ship, without the need to step ashore.

Most of the world's most northerly features can be experienced on a cruise beyond the Arctic Circle, especially in Alta, Honningsvåg or Tromsø.

The steep and uneven coastal mountains and extensive fjords make any land-based experience a proper expedition, costly and time-consuming. Most of the Norwegian coastline is not easily accessible by car - you either have to fly in a small plane or take a ferry to access these remote areas.

Cruising makes visiting Norway a breeze, it is a much more realistic and cost-effective option for any traveller.

Man overlooking the Lysefjorden, Norway on a Cruise to Northern Europe | Carl Cerstrand | 1110x250

Northern Europe History and Culture

Northern Europe, has had an interesting ride through history, from Vikings to social democrats, through wars, treaties and peace. The Nordic nations have been inhabited from some 120,000 years ago.

Around 1800 BC, the Norsemen began fashioning tools, jewellery and finely crafted works of art in bronze and traded them as far as Crete and Mycenae.

A thousand years later, the legend of the Vikings was born. With a growing population that drove shrinking in the available agricultural land, the Norsemen were under pressure to find new quality land. In 780 they landed on the coast of the British Isles. The first Viking raid only happened 13 years later, on St Cuthbert's monastery on the island of Lindisfarne in 793.

For 1,200 years, the Norsemen were swinging between war, invasion and treaties with their neighbouring countries, until the second world war.

After the war, Northern Europe had to rebuild and decide what long term path they would take. It is where Social Democracy was chosen as a way forward. Even if they kept their monarchs, the nations' standards were all about equality, free education, fair working conditions, comfortable pensions and generous welfare for the unemployed.

Today Northern Europe is a perfect balance between modernism and their proud Viking heritage.

To truly grasp this is to visit any of the museums in the smaller towns, deep inside a fjord, then take a small wooden fishing boat and spend half of the day fishing looking at the gigantic and breathtaking surrounding scenery, all whilst day-dreaming about battles.

Best Time to Cruise to Northern Europe

The best time to see the Northern Lights is between September and March and if you're after the Norwegian Fjords aim for between May and August.

Northern Europe has become a year-round cruise destination. For those seeking a trip beyond the Arctic Circle in search of the Northern Lights, the winter days are relatively short and the temperatures do not rise above freezing. Most expedition cruises operators will provide Arctic clothing and footwear as part of the cruise package.

The best time to see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) is between September and March, as the most brilliant displays occur both in a cold and dark environment.

As the Northern Lights are a phenomenon that is not completely understood, you can only predict the occurrence of the Aurora Borealis about two hours before it happens. But don't worry, the captain will be calling you to go out on deck to admire them when they occur during your cruise.

The best time to see the Norwegian Fjords is between May and August. The summer months are magical. With almost 24 hours of daylight, it is the perfect time to cruise the mirror-calm water in this area.

One of the best experiences is to sit on the deck, taking a mid-night sunbath whilst watching the ribbons of waterfalls tumbling over sheer cliffs and sipping a glass of bubbles.

The summer temperatures are similar to those in the rest of Northern Europe - beautiful and sunny.

Ålesund and Bergen, are recognised as two of the rainiest cities in the world, so don't forget a jacket. If you travel to the Lofoten Islands, the sea can be very rough and windy, especially in spring and winter.

Major Ports of Departure on a Northern Europe Cruise

Copenhagen, Denmark

While this 850-year-old city retains its historical looks, Denmark's capital city is focused on innovation. Mixing the old town's cobblestone, with craft and design studios and Michelin Star restaurants.

Kastrup Airport (CPH) is 10km (6.3 miles) from the Cruise Terminal.

Mainly: NCL | MSC | Silversea and 11 others

Sailing boats in Nyhavn, København, Copenhagen, Denmark on a cruise to Northern Europe

Credit: Nick Karvounis   

Amsterdam, Holland

One of the most popular cities in Europe, Amsterdam encapsulates fairy-tale magic in so many ways. From the centuries-old bruin cafés (traditional pubs) to the boat-filled canals.

Schiphol Airport (AMS) is 24km (15 miles) from the Cruise Terminal. +- 20 minutes by train.

Mainly: NCL | Holland America | Regent Seven Seas and 10 others

Bicycle in front of Canal in Amsterdam, Netherlands |  Callum Parker

Hamburg, Germany

The locals will tell you - Hamburg is one of the coolest cities in the world. The biggest port in Germany, Hamburg has always been the centre of German & European trade, and to this day, it is the wealthiest city in Germany.

The main airport is Hamburg International (HAM) about 24km (15 miles) north of the Cruise Terminal.

Speicherstadt, Hamburg Germany | 446x298

Oslo, Norway

Europe's fastest-growing capital, Oslo is surrounded by the sea and mountains. It is a fabulous city for nature lovers, as the city is fringed with forests, hills and lakes.

Oslo International Airport (OSL) is 54km (35 miles) north-east of the cruise terminal.

Akershus Fortress, Oslo, Norway | Thomas Wolter | 446x298

Credit: Thomas Wolter   

Kiel, Germany

Some locals will admit that the city centre of Kiel, is grottenhässlich (ugly as sin). Unfortunately, the centre was destroyed during WWII by the allies looking to target U-boats. The grand harbour and the city's museums should be the focus of your visits.

The Kiel Airport (KEL) is situated 10km (6.5miles) north from the port. However, most travellers will fly into Hamburg (HAM) an hour's transfer away.

Lighthouse Falcke Stein,  Kiel, Germany | 446x298

Southampton, UK

Southampton is still a significant port in the UK. It is known worldwide to have been Queen Elizabeth 2's port of registry and the base for her Transatlantic crossing to New York.

Travellers fly into London and travel about 128 km (79 miles) Southwest to reach Southampton.

Queen Mary in Southampton, England | 446x298

Credit: Wei Zeng   

Bergen, Norway

Bergen, set on a very picturesque Norwegian coastal landscape of mountains and Fjords, is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Since the Middle Ages, when it was Norway's capital city, Bergen has been the centre of Northern Europe's seafaring trade.

Bergen Flesland Airport (BGO) is 13km (9 miles) South of the cruise terminal.

Colourful houses in Bergen, Norway

What main ports of call do cruise ships visit in Northern Europe?

For a truly spectacular experience, the fjords' scenery is best viewed from the sea. One of the most memorable experiences is cruising through the inner passages between Ålesund and Narvik. The two most popular sights are probably the Geirangerfjord and the Hardangerfjord near Bergen. Smaller vessels are able to enter some of the tiny, yet equally scenic fjords, such as Lustrafjord and Trollfjord.

There are over 20 popular ports of call in the Norwegian Fjords to which you can cruise:

Northern Europe Port of Call
Ålesund Alta Bergen Bodø
Eidfjord Flåm Geiranger Lustrafjord
Hellesylt Haugesund Honningsvåg Krisiansund
Leknes Molde Olden Narvik
Skjolden Stavanger Tromsø Trondheim

What to Wear on a Northern Europe Cruise?

There are two very distinct packing lists on a Northern Europe Cruise.

If you need to pack for a Northern Lights Cruise, have a base layer, winter shoes, windproof winter jacket, wool accessories and camera.

If you need to pack for a Summer in Northern Europe, you would pack the same as for any Summer cruise - backpack, light clothing, hat, sunscreen, comfortable walking shoes, hiking boots and swimwear.

Excursions in Northern Europe

Very few regions offer as much diversity as a Northern Europe cruise. Most ports offer great tours within the city and surrounding areas, as well as sightseeing excursions to the many wonders and breathtaking scenery.

Some destinations will offer trips to nearby smaller fjords or must-see viewpoints. A "not-to-be-missed" in Stavanger is the trip along the Lyserfjord to view the dramatic 600m high Pulpit Rock.

Beyond the Arctic Circle, a typical excursion from Alta and Narvik is to visit a settlement of traditional Sami People of Finnish Lapland. Some excursions will even offer a night cuddled in reindeer skins, staying in an ice hotel.

Here is a list of some of the most popular excursions in Northern Europe, by City:

Oslo - Make sure you are on the deck when the ship enters the Oslofjord. The ship will dock within reachable distance of many of the Oslo attractions, including the Royal Palace and the Akershus Fortress. Take the ferry to the Bygdøy Peninsula and spend your afternoon at Vikingskipshuset (Viking museum).

Stavanger - Cruise ships dock 200m from the famous Stavanger Cathedral. Stavanger is known as the Gateway to the Fjords - you will understand why as soon as the ship starts her approach to the city. Stavanger is also home to the Ledal Manor and the Norwegian Petroleum Museum.

Bergen - Don't miss the funicular that will take you to a viewing point on Mount Fløyen. From there you can enjoy the view of Bergen and its fjords. Why not take some comfortable shoes and walk/hike a bit further up the mountain? The city is surrounded by seven fjords and seven mountains.

Flåm - To get to Flåm from Bergen, you will cruise through Norway's longest and deepest fjord, the Sognefjord - 204 km from the north coast of Bergen. It is no surprise that the Flåm Railway is a must, it climbs over 1,000 m during a 20km journey.

Olden - Known for its roaring waterfalls and colourful countryside. Don't miss out on a trip to the largest glacier in continental Europe, the Jostedalen Glacier.

Ålesund - Climb the 418 steps from the town park to the top of Mount Aksla to get a sweeping view of the city and its surrounding islands.

Åndalsnes - cruising down the Romsdalsfjord must be one of the most amazing experiences in the world. Your main experience here is a chance to view Trollstigen - Europe's tallest perpendicular rock face.

Ålesund, Norway the entrance of the port | 446x298

Trondheim - One of Norway's oldest ports, this city served as Norway's capital under the Viking era. It is home to some medieval masterpieces, including the Archbishop's Palace and Nidaros Cathedral.

Bodø - This small town is often a port of call above the Arctic Circle. A great stop during the midnight sun, in winter you can see the Northern Lights from Bodø. A short excursion will take you to the Saltstraumen, where you will find the world's strongest tidal current.

Tromsø - the city is home to the Northern Norway Art Museum, the Polar Museum and Polaria where you can discover everything you need to know about Arctic exploration and the Northern Lights.

Leknes - this small village is one of the most important ports of the Lofoten Islands. The highlights here are the Viking Museum and a visit to the picturesque fishing village of Nusfjord.

Alta - known for Norway's largest shopping mall. From Alta, you can hop on a couple of great excursions to the wilderness to view the night sky. It is also home to the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel, the ice hotel.

Honningsvåg - most travellers will opt to travel to Skarsvåg, the northernmost village in the world. The local Sami families continue with their ancient traditions of reindeer herding.

Who will Enjoy a Cruise in Northern Europe?

Nature lovers will enjoy the wildlife and breathtaking vistas. Adventure seekers are not disappointed by the Northern Lights and the countless opportunities to do reindeer or dog sledging, as well as skiing and snowmobiling.

Elderly travellers tend to be attracted by the enjoyable views of the fjords, coast and mountains without leaving the ship. Younger travellers appreciate walking, kayaking, hiking and cycling in some of the ports of call, especially Åndalsnes, Bergen or Stavanger.

It may not come as a surprise, but amongst the cruising fraternity, a trip around the Norwegian fjords is high on any bucket list. The breathtaking scenery, culture and weather attracts many first-time cruisers.

Northern Europe as with the Mediterranean, attracts many that have reservations about cruising, because of the high number of ports in any given itinerary. The fact that you are constantly surrounded by land makes it more appealing.

You can ask many cruisers in Europe about their initial holiday at sea, and in many cases, it will be the fjords of Northern Europe.

In 7 to 10 days you can grasp what cruising in the North is all about, which appeals to those who are wishing to take a shorter trip to test the waters or simply those who are looking for a shorter holiday.

A cruise will appeal to many seasoned photographers, as you don't need to leave the ship to capture some unbelievable coastal landscape.

Most ports of call are directly on the water or extremely close to the port, similar to Alaska. This appeals to those who are looking for days packed with sightseeing and pre-Covid independent trips into the towns.

You will find museums on Vikings, life in the Arctic and the local sea trade in every port.

Author: Alex Schwager | 15 January 2021 (Last Updated March 12, 2021 13:41)

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