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Viking Longship in Budapest

Cruise ships have been taking passengers from one city to another and calling at some of the best cruise ports in the world for centuries. Here are some must-visit destinations for your next cruise, from exotic islands to famous European capitals, off-beat towns, and more.

Best cruise ports in Europe

Hvar, Croatia

Hvar, a small island two-thirds of the way down Croatia’s west coast, is surrounded by secluded coves and inlets and has a medieval town square filled with Renaissance-style buildings. Small cafés, with umbrellas shading rickety tables, are cool and inviting on a hot day, and the island’s thriving wine scene ensures you’re never short of a drop to quench your thirst. Join a walking tour of Hvar’s historic Old Town, tour a vineyard and meet the winemaker, or go off-road on a 4WD tour through the Dalmatian countryside.

Paris, France

Paris in France is one of the world’s most beautiful cities, with more famous buildings and art galleries than you can point a camera at. Most river cruises include at least one night in port before the ship departs, so you’ll have plenty of time to discover everything this famous city has to offer. Dine in a restaurant atop the Eiffel Tower, stroll along the Champs-Élysées, or explore the Musee d’Orsay art gallery which is housed in a Beaux-Arts train station built in 1900. Stroll through the atmospheric suburb of Montmartre and you’ll be able to climb the hill to Moulin de la Galette, one of the few surviving windmills from the 1600s, catch a show at the famous Moulin Rouge or do a Paris walking tour. If you can’t decide which famous attraction to visit, sit down at a café to watch the world go by, and let the passing parade of Paris entertain you.

Sunset views of Paris from a river ship
Sunset views of Paris

Mallorca, Spain

Mallorca packs dramatic landscapes, unspoiled beaches, and a rich cultural heritage into a compact Spanish destination that’s easy to explore. Ships port at the island’s capital, Palma de Mallorca, which has an atmospheric old town, museums, and streets that are perfect for a leisurely stroll. Further afield, there are beaches to suit every mood, huge underground caves, pretty coastal villages, and historic stone cities perched high amongst the mountains.

Porto, Portugal

This river city is worth visiting on a Portugal river cruise for its Portuguese tarts alone, but there’s so much more to discover in Porto, where winding cobblestone streets, charming architecture, and squares make it tempting for cruise travellers to book an itinerary that starts with an overnight stay in town. Given port wine originated here, it’s no surprise there are plenty of historic cellars where you can sample the city’s famous namesake tipple. Gift stores and boutiques featuring locally-made products make it tempting to fill your suitcase to the brim with souvenirs. Or you could buy a bottle of port to take home so you can raise a glass to this fabulous city after your cruise is over.

Viking River Ship in Porto
Viking River Cruises ship in Porto

Budapest, Hungary

Budapest hums with history and bohemian energy, from its magnificent Gothic parliament building and picturesque Chain Bridge to its thrumming streets and squares. Eat your way around the city at the Great Market Hall or sip coffee at the famous Café Gerbeaud where chandelliers hang from the ceiling, and little has changed since Franz Liszt sat at a table here. The finer things in life are surprisingly affordable in Budapest. For example, tickets for a show at the grand Hungarian State Opera House, one of the world’s most beautiful opera houses, can be yours for NZ$15 each (or even less if you don’t mind buying them last minute). Finish your day with a dip in the ornate Széchenyi Baths which are more than 100 years old and as beautiful as they are refreshing.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

This picture-perfect European city is not just about windmills or clogs. Departing from a dock near the historic city centre means you’re in easy reach of everything Amsterdam has to offer, with many ships starting their itinerary with an overnight stay in port. You could easily spend the entire day at the Rijksmuseum, where works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh and hundreds more famous artists line the walls. For a change of scene, there’s a modern art gallery featuring pieces by the likes of Banksy, Kaws, and Damien Hirst a short walk away. A scenic cruise along Amsterdam’s canals is a must, as even the smallest river ships are too big to navigate these narrow historic waterways.

Exploring Amsterdam on foot
Explore Amsterdam on a cruise

Oslo, Norway

This picturesque Scandinavian city offers plenty of history and culture and also a few surprises, like ziplining down an Olympic ski jump. There are multiple art galleries and more to discover along Olso’s picturesque waterfront, including a cutting-edge museum devoted to artworks by famous Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch. It’s a picturesque short ferry ride from here to the museum housing the Fram, the strongest wooden ship ever built, where visitors can walk the decks and explore the inside of the ship where explorers once lived. This interactive museum is packed with simulators that take you into the heart of a (virtual) polar storm and the harsh conditions faced by the early sailors.

Explore Oslo
Olso has a beautiful waterfront

Naples, Italy

Don’t believe everything you hear about Italy’s quintessential ‘bad boy’ town of Naples in Italy. Just like a rebellious kid with a dubious reputation but a heart of gold, this city is simply misunderstood and worth getting to know. Plus, it’s home to some of the best pizza in the country! Italy’s architectural flamboyance is on show at the ornate main square, Piazza del Plebiscito, and you can venture below the city tour to tour the Bourbon Tunnel, a huge network of secret passageways and caverns which housed more than 10,000 locals during the war and is an Aladdin’s Cave of historic treasures.

Istanbul, Türkiye

The wonders of the Turkish capital will charm you from the moment you arrive. Mosque domes rise above the city and old trees with enormous canopies scatter splotches of green across the landscape in Istanbul, which combines the excitement of Asia with old-world European charm. Hunt down a bargain at the Grand Bazaar or stroll around Sultanahmet, the area known as ‘Old Istanbul’, which was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site because it contains so many buildings from the Ottoman Empire.

Best cruise ports in Asia

Singapore, Singapore

Want to visit an island and an entire country at the same time? Singapore is a popular cruise departure port that’s compact, clean, easy to get around and perfect for a pre- or post-cruise stay. Many travellers come here to eat and you’d be wise to do the same, with choices ranging from lively hawker markets to dining on Michelin star fare at high-end restaurants. Traditional districts like Little India and Tiong Bahru combine Singapore’s historic and modern life and are a pleasure to explore.

Singapore Gardens
See the sights in Singapore

Phuket, Thailand

While the party town of Patong is the best-known part of Phuket, this diverse island in Thailand has subtler charms for those who seek them out. Take a day tour to Pha Nga Bay where the James Bond movie, The Man With the Golden Gun, was filmed or sail past towering limestone cliffs at Phang Nga Bay National Park where you can kayak into sea caves. Phuket’s old town is filled with restored mansions that were once home to Chinese tin miners, and now house cafes, art galleries and restaurants.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is a thoroughly modern city that also embraces its traditional heritage. Start your pre-cruise adventure by exploring the Old Quarter with its classical French colonial buildings and tightly packed terrace houses that have been converted into shops like art galleries and restaurants. Another must-see is the Vietnam Military History Museum which features a collection of wartime artifacts and displays. When hunger strikes, slurp down a bowl of pho (Vietnamese soup) or dine on tender pork bun cha for just a few dollars. In the morning, a Vietnamese coffee is guaranteed to have you smiling (and wired) thanks to its cooling combination of condensed milk, coffee and ice.

Best cruise ports in Australia

Cairns

Keep an eye out for itineraries that include an overnight stay in Cairns, as there’s so much to do in this tropical city that one day simply isn’t enough. This is the closest port to the Great Barrier Reef but you’re not limited to ocean pursuits, with other highlights including soaring above the rainforest on the Skyrail cableway and white water rafting or river tubing trips available just outside the CBD. For a day spent enjoying more simple pleasures, join the locals for a (free) swim at the enormous downtown lagoon or stroll along the Cairns Esplanade at sunset.

Swim in the Cairns Lagoon
Swim in the Cairns Lagoon

Burnie

Tasmania might be small but it packs a punch with two main cruise ports. Burnie has one of the world’s most impressive collections of Art Deco buildings and an excellent self-guided walking trail. You can also head out of town to sample the top drops at Hellyers Road Whiskey Distillery or drive to Stanley and take the chairlift to the top of The Nut, the flat-topped core of an extinct volcano.

Hobart

In Hobart, ships dock in the Tasmanian capital’s historic downtown waterfront area, offering easy access to the city centre and Salamanca Market. Mt Wellington soars 1270 m above the wide harbour and is frequently dusted with a layer of snow well into spring. The world-famous MONA gallery, pretty Huon Valley and the rich convict history of Port Arthur are all less than an hour away by car if you want to book a cruise tour or explore independently.

The Hobart water front
The Hobart waterfront

Sydney

Cruise visitors get a dress-circle view of what is widely regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful harbours when they arrive or depart from Sydney. If you arrive on a larger ship, you’ll dock in the heart of the city and have Sydney at your fingertips with art galleries, dining options, shopping, and famous attractions like the Sydney Harbour Bridge all on offer just a short walk away. For a classic Sydney experience, venture behind the scenes and discover the stories and scandals behind the Sydney Opera House on a tour or catch a ferry to Manly for fish and chips by the beach.

Ovation of the Seas in Sydney
Ovation of the Seas sails from Sydney

Best cruise ports in the South Pacific

Kaua’i, Hawaii

Kaua’i is the oldest island in the Hawaiian chain and is famous for its natural beauty. After you’ve cruised past the rugged cliffs, lush valleys, and dramatic scenery of the mountainous Napali Coast, it’s time to explore ashore. Dine on traditional fare at a Hawaiian luau, visit famous movie locations, or combine soft adventure with the island’s rural history on a tubing tour around a former sugarcane plantation. If you prefer exploring independently, it’s easy to rent a car and go your own way.

Coastline of Kauai
See the Napali Coast in Kauai

Hiva Oa, French Polynesia

The beauty Hiva Oa, which forms part of the Marquesas Islands, caught the attention of Paul Gauguin who spent the final years of his life here. Art lovers can pay tribute to the famous artist, explore the small museum and replica of his home, and visit his grave at Calvaire Cemetery. Further afield, you can tour the Oipona me’ae temple and see the largest stone tiki statue in Tahiti or drive from the port at Atuona to Puamau which has statues similar to those found on Easter Island.

Kiriwina, Papua New Guinea

There are no formal shore excursions at Kiriwina, the largest island in the Trobriands, which makes a visit here even more rewarding as it encourages you to chat with the locals and experience the island’s true beauty. Kids get the day off school when a cruise ship comes to town and perform tribal dances, wearing traditional lap laps and big grins each time the crowd applauds (which is often). There are dugout canoe rides to the outer reef and woven mats form a marketplace by the beach at this Papua New Guinea port.

Kiriwina in Papua New Guinea
Kiriwina in Papua New Guinea

Best cruise ports in the USA

New York City

Being greeted by Lady Liberty and watching the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan get closer will have you mesmerised as you sail into this port of call. And the good times continue when you arrive, with a bevy of attractions and experiences that will have you bouncing with excitement. Hit the big-name sights like the Empire State Building, Times Square, and Brooklyn Bridge, tour using a New York CityPASS or eat your way around the city on a food tour. Or you could jump on the subway for a day of ‘go as you please’ exploration, and surprise yourself with a new New York highlight that you found all by yourself.

Statue of Liberty with a crowd in front taking photos
See the Statue of Liberty in New York City

New Orleans

Discover the history of this riverside town where Native Americans plus French, Spanish and Anglo-American settlers have all had an influence on what the “Big Easy” is today. Kick up your heels in the French Quarter, where it’s legal to drink while you stroll along the lively streets, then spice things up with some Cajun and Creole cuisine or a meaty po’ boy sandwich. Finish your night at a famous jazz and blues bar like BB King’s or The Blue Nile. The latter was one of the first music clubs in town, and it’s still going strong. It takes just 30 minutes to reach the city’s famous swamps, where you can take a thrilling airboat ride and get up close to some of the backwater’s local animals.

Best cruise ports in South Africa

Cape Town

Table Mountain provides a stunning backdrop for this picturesque city where you can take a cable car up to the top of the mountain for stunning views or join a tour or join a tour that takes in the beauty and fabulous food and wine in the Cape Winelands wine region. Tours of Robben Island show you around the place where Nelson Mandela spent more than 25 years behind bars and invite visitors to learn more about the sometimes complicated history of South Africa. The rainbow houses of Bo-Kaap in the city’s Malay Quarter provide the perfect backdrop for a colourful holiday snap.

Want more great cruise advice? Check out our tips for choosing the perfect cruise, cruising with grandchildren, cruising with tweens and cruising with kids of all ages, solo cruising, the best activities on Ovation of the Seas, doing a Transatlantic cruise with kids, cruising in Australia or Papua New Guinea, Iceland cruise tips, cruising on a megaship, scoring a bargain cruise fare, cruising the Mediterranean, making the most of a cruise ship kids club, luxury cruising with kids, and the Byron Beach Club onboard P&O Cruises. We have also reviewed Disney Wonder, Pacific Adventure, Celebrity Edge, Quantum of the Seas and Ovation of the Seas, Pacific Encounter, Carnival Splendor, Voyager of the Seas, Nieuw Statendam, Viking Helgrim, Pride of America, Coral Expeditions in Tasmania and the Great Barrier Reef, Celebrity Solstice, and Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth.

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Dr Tiana Templeman is an award-winning food and travel journalist, travel author and media industry academic. She is the creator of The Travel Temple, writes for Australian and international media outlets and appears on radio talking about where to go, what to see and travel industry trends.