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Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia Barcelona

7 Alternatives to Popular European Cruise Ports

Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia Barcelona
U.K. Executive Editor
Adam Coulter

Last updated
Mar 15, 2024

Read time
8 min read

Barcelona, Amsterdam, Dubrovnik, Rome – every one of these cities are high on cruisers’ bucket lists. Loaded with history and cultural delights, they are some of Europe’s top marquee destinations.

But for those who have visited before, maybe more than once, and are looking for somewhere a little less touristy and a little less crowded, there are plenty of other, lesser-known European ports of call that provide every bit as enriching an experience.

We’ve put together a list of alternative European cruise ports you can visit on your next cruise that maybe you haven’t even heard of, but which will surprise and delight you.

It’s also worth noting that as more and more cities look to limit the number of cruise ships entering their ports, it may be that cruisers have little choice but to go somewhere else.

On This Page

1. Seen Barcelona? Visit Tarragona

Mirkale Beach, Tarragona, Catalonia, Spain (Photo: BAHDANOVICH ALENA/Shutterstock)

Tarragona lies around 45 minutes south of Barcelona, and while it may not have the Gaudi architecture or wealth of museums, it does have the highest density of Roman remains in Spain.

Tarragona is becoming an increasingly popular port call, especially as Barcelona limits the number of cruise ships, particularly in high season. Alternatively, Tarragona is often offered as a shore excursion from Barcelona.

The Second Century Roman Amphitheatre is the standout sight, with most of the arena and the steps still intact. It may not be as large as the Colosseum in Rome (14,000 spectators vs 50,000), but just like the Colosseum, it was used for battles between gladiators and animals, as well as for executions. However, where it does trump the Colosseum is the setting – a backdrop of the Mediterranean rather than busy roads.

Other Roman sights include the Roman Circus, built in the first century AD and used for Gladiator races; the Roman Forum, a large square flanked by ancient architecture; and the breath taking, double height “Pont de las Ferreres” Roman aqueduct.

And once you’ve had your fill of Roman ruins, there are plenty of lovely streets to wander down, tapas bars to explore and bars to enjoy a cool beer in – or just head to the gorgeous beach. You can even pay a visit to nearby Ferrari Land for some high-octane adventures.

2. Seen Amsterdam? Visit Rotterdam

Cube Houses in Rotterdam (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

It may be hard to believe, but up until May 14, 1940, Rotterdam looked very similar to Amsterdam, filled with 16th- and 17th-century, wood-beamed houses, criss-crossed by canals and cobbled streets. Then the German Luftwaffe flew in and flattened the whole of the town centre, leaving just a few buildings standing, including the cathedral.

Today, you can get a glimpse of how Rotterdam looked 80 years ago on a small island opposite the port and the old harbor, but for most people it’s the modernist architecture visitors come for. The two most famous structures are the Cube Houses and the Markthal.

The former were built through expediency – the city council wanted a bridge to connect two residential areas, over a commercial area and the architect came up with arguably the most unusual modern houses in the world.

Designed by architect Piet Blom, each “house” (an apartment really), is a hexagon resting on a pillar (meant to denote a tree) and were designed in such a way to maximise space inside. There are four, larger houses in the center, which are now a youth hostel, should you wish to experience them.

The Pencil Building in Rotterdam (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

(Fun fact: There were meant to be twice as many Cube Houses, but the investor thought they would be a disaster, so pulled the plug on them; instead you’ll find the “Pencil Building” bookending one side).

Markthal Rotterdam (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

Opposite lies the Markt Hall, an extraordinary structure, some 120-feet high, painted inside with surreal images of flowers and fruit and with apartment windows looking down on the market floor where you can get your waffle and coffee fix.

Other places worth a visit are the Old Harbor, the Maritime Museum and the Cathedral. And, for maritime lovers, Holland America Line’s classic Rotterdam V, built in 1959, is now permanently moored in its namesake city as a floating museum and hotel.

3. Seen Fira (Santorini)? Visit Perissa Beach

Norwegian Jade in Santorini (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

We’ve all seen the images of stunning sunsets over Santorini’s famous caldera and blindingly bright, whitewashed houses, but pan back just a little bit and you’ll also see crowds of tourists looking for that perfect selfie.

For a complete change of pace take a bus from the station (just below town) to Perissa Beach for just a handful of euros. The volcanic black sand beach lies around 45 minutes from Fira and has a strip of restaurants and beach bars.

Perissa Beach Santorini (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

The town is nothing special (a handful of buildings and a small church clustered around the main bus stop), it’s the beach and sheer cliff which are the stars of the show. Grab a sun lounger and relax for the day, before heading back to your cruise ship – for a way better sunset and a sundowner in hand.

4. Seen Mykonos? Visit Delos

Windmills of Mykonos (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

For a short period in the summer, Mykonos becomes one of the most expensive and overcrowded islands in Europe. Yet 3,000 years ago it was the small island of Delos, which lies just a few miles off Mykonos, that drew the crowds while Mykonos was just an empty rock. The reason: Delos was the birthplace of two of antiquities most famous gods – Apollo and Artemis – and drew worshippers from across the Aegean and beyond.

Ruins on Delos (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

It's a short ferry ride (and often a cruise ship excursion) from Mykonos port and could not be more of a contrast. There are plenty of ruins where you can make out the remains of bath houses, toilet blocks and mansions, as well as a small museum displaying some of the many artefacts found here over the years.

What you’ll not find on Delos are bars, restaurants, hotels or clubs – or residents. Delos provides a perfect antidote to the craziness of Mykonos – and you can even get some good shots of Mykonos’ famous windmills framed by the setting sun as you take the ferry back.

5. Seen Venice? Visit Trieste

St Marks Square Venice

Of all the alternatives to marquee European cities, Venice is arguably the toughest to come up with anywhere that even comes close. However, like all the marquee European cities we have highlighted here, it does become unbearably overcrowded in high season and inevitably, some of its magic is lost as you jostle for a selfie in St Mark’s Square (we recommend Venice in winter or early spring).

So, if you have been to Venice, why not try Trieste? Literally bordering Slovenia, on a small strip of coast in the north, Trieste is an Italian city with a very different feel and vibe to anywhere you might have visited before in Italy (it even has its own unique dialect), with Influences from both countries, as well as from the Austro-Hungarian empire, evident in its architecture.

Trieste, Italy, as seen from the the pool deck of Silver Nova. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

More cruise ships are docking here in lieu of Venice, and the city center is literally a stone’s throw from the port. And as well as attracting fewer crowds, it’s also a lot cheaper than Venice is in high season.

The city dates from the Middle Ages and boasts – among many other sites – Italy’s largest sea-flanking piazza, Piazza del’Unita d’Italia, bordered on one side by the Adriatic. It has a number of gorgeous Austro-Hungarian neo-classical buildings, including the famous Savoia Excelsior Palace (just off Union Square); the Revoltella Museum, which has a huge collection of late 19th century and early 20th century paintings, mainly by Italian artists; and if you are after shades of Venice, there’s even a canal, Canal Grande, which runs through the center of town, and boasts more stunning architecture along it.

6. Seen Dubrovnik? Try Zadar

View of Dubrovnik Old Town (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

When Game of Thrones was in its ascendancy, the small, walled city of Dubrovnik, in Croatia, became overwhelmed by tourists (not just cruise tourists, it’s worth noting). You literally had to wait in line to walk round the battlements which encircle this perfectly preserved medieval city. Though it still attracts GoT fans, it’s not to such a huge extent, but the crowds still come and if you have visited before, you might want to try Zadar, whose city walls may not have been immortalised in a TV show, but are just as impressive as Dubrovnik’s and have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Historic Center of the Croatian Town of Zadar at the Mediterranean Sea, Europe (Photo: 27studio/Shutterstock)

Zadar can trace its roots back to Roman times, which is evident in the ruins you can see in the town, including the Roman Forum. But like with so many European cities, waves of conquerors have shaped this city, most notable Venetians, who left their architectural mark on the city in the form of the city walls and gates, when the city played a vital part in the Venetian empire.

Fast forward more than 200 years to another architectural marvel – a sea organ, built in 2005 by architect and designer Nikola Basic to rejuvenate the old town and a perfect spot to watch the other thing Zadar is famous for – its sunsets.

7. Seen Rome? Try Tivoli

The Colosseum in Rome (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

Lying just 22 miles from Rome, Tivoli is beautiful Italian city overshadowed by its world-famous neighbor. There are 28 trains per day from Rome, which take just under an hour -- the only challenge is getting back to your ship which will be docked in the port of Civitavecchia, which lies around an hour-and-a-half from Rome, unless you have added a day on at the start or end of your cruise that embarks in Civitavecchia.

Views in Tivoli, Italy (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

Tivoli is stunningly beautiful, situated on the Aniene River and with breath taking views over the Roman countryside, and boasts a huge number of architectural gems, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Perhaps the most famous is Villa d’Este. If you want to see the high watermark of Italianate gardens, then this 16th century building is a must-visit, with its terraced gardens, profusion of fountains and stunning architectural flourishes both in the gardens and the villa.

Other sites include a Roman ampitheater, Hadrian’s Villa, Villa Gregoriana, which is actually a park at the base of the city’s acropolis, and Tivoli Cathedral.

Tivoli is a gorgeous spot to escape the crowds of Rome and to admire the beauty of Renaissance architecture in peace and tranquility.

Publish date March 14, 2024
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