by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Cruise Critic – July 28, 2009
From Rome to Stockholm, Venice to Brugge, our sister site Cruise Critic’s European Hot List offers an opinionated take on the best of the best of Europe’s most fabulous ports.
What are your favorites? Scroll down to the comments section and tell us about the European ports you love most (whether they’re Baltic, Eastern Mediterranean, Western Mediterranean, close to home, or even somewhat farther afield—such as the Canaries and Northern Africa), and offer us some detail about what you love most about them!
Best Small Pleasure: Eating and drinking at one of the city’s famous piazzas, like Piazza Navona, Piazza del Popolo, or Campo dei Fiori; particularly delicious are the pastas (particularly the carbonara), pizzas and gelatos, though many cafes only serve pizza for dinner. Wash ’em down with a glass of the house wine—white or red Italian wines always taste delicious.
Biggest Surprise: Stumbling across some of Rome’s most famous monuments by accident while meandering along winding, narrow streets when, suddenly, there’s the Pantheon, the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps; or the neighborhood of Trastevere, with its funky boutiques and numerous sidewalk cafes.
Touristy but Fabulous: A pilgrimage to St. Peter’s Basilica and Sistine Chapel in Vatican City
Best Small Pleasure: A plate of tapas. Strolling along the beach in the fishing village of Barceloneta. An afternoon siesta.
Biggest Surprise: That Barcelona’s most famous cathedral—La Sagrada Familia, designed by native son Antoni Gaudi—is still unfinished more than 75 years after his death. Most fascinating was wandering around a cathedral-in-progress (as construction workers ply their trade around you) and also climbing the 365-winding, turret-esque stairs of the bell towers for a marvelous view.
Touristy but Fabulous: Wandering along Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s famed pedestrian boulevard and sipping wine at one of its numerous cafes. Also, make sure to visit Las Ramblas’ Boqueria, Barcelona’s fabulous food market, and Museu Picasso, not just for its collection of the artist’s work but also the 15th-century palace that houses them.
Best Small Pleasure: Tucking into a cheap—but delicious—plate of pasta with a local wine at one of the city’s numerous trattorias (Tip: Generally, the farther away from San Marco Square, the less touristy they are).
Biggest Surprise: Riding the vaporreto—a water version of a city bus—around the city. Exploring the nearby island of Guidecca (where the “real” locals live).
Touristy but Fabulous: San Marco Square is awesome! During the height of summer, try to visit early before it gets too crowded (and wear a hat in case one of the ubiquitous pigeons, well, you know). Riding in a gondola, at sunset, with a tenor belting out Italian arias.
Best Small Pleasure: Watching the world go by from a vantage point at one of Paris’ innumerable sidewalk cafes.
Biggest Surprise: As big as Paris can seem, it’s really just a collection of neighborhoods. With limited time to explore, pick a neighborhood and poke around its nooks, crannies, cathedrals, shops, parks, and museums. Taking a Turkish bath at the Hammam in La Grande Mosquee, then finishing off with a mint tea in the Moorish cafe next door.
Touristy but Fabulous: Riding to the top of Eiffel Tower. The Grand Louvre for a glimpse at the Mona Lisa (and everything else in the world’s biggest art museum). Haute chic shopping on the Avenue Montaigne (Chanel, Dior, Ungaro), Faubourg St-Honore (Gucci, Chloe, Hermes), and the Left Bank (Giorgio Armani, Yves St-Laurent, and Louis Vuitton).
Best Small Pleasure: Supping at a sidewalk cafe on Belgium’s classic moules’ frites (mussels and fries), washed down with a local beer.
Biggest Surprise: The canals! You can take a boat ride that winds in and out of some fairly off-the-beaten-track (and quite beautiful) parts of Brugge.
Touristy but Fabulous: Hanging out in any of the town’s numerous squares—people-watching, eating and drinking, and shopping for lace and chocolate.
6. St. Petersburg
Best Small Pleasure: Dining on Chicken Kiev at the Grand Hotel’s sidewalk cafe just off vibrant Nevsky Prospekt. Strolling through the park opposite St. Isaac’s Cathedral.
Biggest Surprise: St. Isaac’s Cathedral, a splendid mid-19th century Orthodox church with highlights that include mosaic murals, granite pillars, and marble floors; its immense gold dome can be seen for miles around. St. Petersburg’s canals (you can take a boat ride a la Venice).
Touristy but Fabulous: The summer palaces—especially Pavlovsk and Pushkin.
Best Small Pleasure: The murals in City Hall that depict scenes from life in Norway along with scenes highlighting resistance activities against the Germans there during World War II.
Biggest Surprise: Oslo’s got the perfect blend of art and culture, history, and lush scenery (green parks, gorgeous bays, and harbors). It’s an outdoor lovers’ city that reminds me of America’s Seattle.
Touristy but Fabulous: A short boat ride amidst the fjords (even locals occasionally deign to get onboard)
Best Small Pleasure: Lunching at “gastro” pubs like Chelsea’s Cooper’s Arms and Foxtrot Oscar.
Biggest Surprise: Gorgeous Kensington Park—head for the lake (you can rent lounge chairs) and don’t forget to check out the Princess Diana memorials (flowers, letters) tucked into the wrought iron gate of Kensington Palace.
Touristy but Fabulous: Riding around on the double decker buses (on the top deck!). Riding the London Eye, the city’s millennial Ferris wheel. Afternoon cream tea but not necessarily at the famed Ritz; more elegant experiences can be found at olde-British hotels like Brown’s. Shopping at the venerable Harrods.
Best Small Pleasure: Kayaking through Copenhagen’s canals. Lunch at a sidewalk cafe at Nyhavn beside the canal.
Biggest Surprise: Climbing the seemingly endless spiraling staircase of the historic Round Tower; you can see why Russian Czar Peter the Great actually rode his horse to the top in 1716.
Touristy but Fabulous: Tivoli Gardens is a must-see; there are rides and amusements and restaurants ranging from casual snack shacks to Michelin-starred haute cuisine. If your ship overnights in Copenhagen, go after dark when the park is lit with twinkling lights as it’s quite magical. Take a guided tour of Copenhagen, via the canals, by boat.
Best Small Pleasure: Strolling along downtown’s waterfront promenade.
Biggest Surprise: The Swedish Archipelago. At sunset, as ships sail from the port of Stockholm to the open ocean, they pass through (takes a couple of hours) a gorgeous, glittering string of small islands, green, lush, and largely undeveloped aside from occasional brightly painted wood homes. This view alone is worth booking a balcony cabin.
Touristy but Fabulous:
A city tour from a boat. Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s walled, medieval-era old town. Head for Vasterlanggatan, the main drag, and explore from there.