Europe has so much to offer by cruise ship that it can be a challenge to decide where to start. Should you choose a Baltic cruise versus a Mediterranean cruise for your sailing abroad? How do you decide?
A Mediterranean cruise is often the first dip into European waters many travelers take. It’s an easy choice because there are many options, including cruises to France, Spain and Italy on familiar big-ship cruise lines with reasonable prices and relatively easy flights. Mix ancient sightseeing and culinary sampling with a dash of beach time, all while surrounded by stunning blue seas, and you’ve got the essence of a summer cruise in the Med.
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Baltic cruises are not about beach time, and most of the historical sights are anything but ancient. What you’ll find instead is incredible architecture, garden tours and deep dives into modern European history, as well as access to everything offered in some of Europe’s most vibrant cities in Germany, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. As with the Mediterranean, the region is rich with foods and beverages to taste. Think Danish pastries, German beer and Swedish meatballs.
Let’s look at what each of these two distinct European cruise choices offers to help you decide which one you’d like more.
Mediterranean vs. Baltic on the map
The Mediterranean Sea lies south of Europe, and though it’s connected to the Atlantic Ocean, it is almost entirely enclosed by the European, African and Asian continents. It comprises 11 smaller seas, which can confuse things when you shop for cruises; itineraries are sometimes labeled according to the smaller sea. In general, though, any ocean cruise with ports in Spain, France, Italy, Monaco, Greece or Turkey are Mediterranean cruises.
Eight northern European Union countries and Russia surround the Baltic Sea. It connects to the Atlantic via the North Sea at Denmark. Baltic cruises, particularly the longest itineraries, may begin or end outside the Baltic Sea itself, adding bonus countries to the itinerary. Countries most Baltic cruises visit include Denmark, Germany, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, plus Sweden and Finland. Longer cruises might also include Norway and United Kingdom countries outside the Baltic Sea.
Mediterranean cruise itineraries generally are seven nights or longer. Peak season is summer, but it’s possible to find Mediterranean cruises during every month of the year. Summer daytime temperatures average around 80 degrees Fahrenheit but can spike well into the 90s in July and August in some locations. Spring and fall cruises in the Med have more moderate weather.
You’ll find a wide range of choices of departure ports and countries your ship will visit. The most flexible departure ports in terms of what direction the cruise will take you are Barcelona, Rome (Civitavecchia) and Athens (Piraeus) — all of which serve as departure or return ports for cruises in all directions across the Mediterranean.
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Depart from Venice (Ravenna or Trieste) to sail to destinations along the Adriatic; in addition to Italy, your itinerary may include Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Greece.
Because there are so many ports in the Mediterranean, sea days are generally limited to one per weeklong sailing, and many itineraries lack sea days entirely.
One-way itineraries that depart from one port and end in another are common in the Mediterranean, allowing your cruise to visit more ports in more countries than you might on a round-trip route. This can, however, complicate flight plans and may make flights more expensive than round-trip fares — something to pay attention to as you shop for your cruise.
The bonus of these one-way routes is that they are easily combined into longer cruises. A cruise that starts in Barcelona and ends in Athens can be combined with a second cruise from Athens to Istanbul or back to Barcelona. Some lines — such as Viking, Holland America, Princess, Windstar and Oceania — pre-package multiple one-way cruises to make the planning easy. On other lines, like Azamara, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, you can book two (or more) cruises back-to-back to create your own extended voyage.
Lines that primarily offer round-trip cruises in the Mediterranean include Virgin Voyages, Celebrity and Carnival. Disney Cruise Line also offers round-trip itineraries, including some of the shortest cruises in the Med, with four- and five-night sailings during the line’s brief season there each summer.
Cruisers who count continents can check off three big ones with a carefully planned extended cruise in the region. One way to add Asia to your list is to spend time in Istanbul on both sides of the Bosphorus River, as it’s the dividing line between the continents. Alternatively, the Turkish ports of Kusadasi, Bodrum and Izmir are among those commonly visited in Asia.
Finding a Mediterranean itinerary that visits Africa can be a bit more challenging, but the ports to look for include Alexandria, Egypt; Casablanca, Morocco; and Tunis, Tunisia. If you want to hit three continents in one voyage, look for 10- to 14-night itineraries on lines such as Norwegian, Celebrity and Holland America.
Baltic cruise itineraries are also mostly seven nights or longer. Because the Baltic countries are farther north, chilly weather is possible even in mid-summer in the Baltic. Average high temperatures in Copenhagen, for example, are barely 70 degrees Fahrenheit during June, July and August. Helsinki is a degree or two cooler. Because of the climate, cruise ships only sail these waters from April through September.
Related: The best time to go on a cruise
Departure ports may be cities located on the Baltic, like Copenhagen, Stockholm or Warnemunde, Germany, or outside the Baltic, as in Southampton, England, or Amsterdam and Rotterdam in The Netherlands. As with Mediterranean cruises, you’ll find a mix of round-trip cruises beginning and ending in the same port city and one-way itineraries — many of which begin outside the Baltic Sea and end at a Baltic port.
The opportunity to create longer journeys by connecting multiple cruises is available in the Baltic. Those usually include Northern European or United Kingdom add-ons before or after your Baltic cruise. Think Stockholm to Edinburgh, Scotland. After a thorough cruise of the Baltic Sea, the itinerary might include multiple stops in the fjords of Norway before ending in the U.K. Baltic cruises that begin or end outside the confines of the Baltic Sea often have at least one day at sea, sometimes more.
Country counters rejoice! A solid itinerary within the Baltic can add eight countries to your list; add-ons in the North Sea will get you another handful if you plan carefully.
Prior to March 2022, Baltic cruises often included a stop in the Russian port of St. Petersburg. Currently, no cruise lines catering to Westerners call on Russian ports.
Ports of call
The list of ports of call in the Mediterranean is lengthy, ranging from European mainland ports like Dubrovnik, Zadar, Naples, Nice and Istanbul to popular ports on the islands of Sardinia, Corfu, Crete, Mykonos and Santorini, all of which can accommodate ships of all sizes.
Smaller cruise ships have an even greater range of options. Ports you may never have heard of — such as Durres, Albania or Bonifacio, France, on the island of Corsica — are listed in the itineraries of small-ship lines like Emerald and Ponant. Ports you’ve only dreamt of visiting, like Capri, Amalfi or Jerusalem, are surprisingly accessible on several cruise lines sailing the Mediterranean, including Windstar, Azamara and Celebrity.
Ports of call in the Baltic include recognizable city names like Copenhagen, Helsinki, Gdansk and Stockholm, along with cities you may be less familiar with — Visby, Tallinn and Riga, in Sweden, Estonia and Latvia, respectively.
Copenhagen is rich in architecture and seaside charm. Warnemunde, Germany, is the gateway port to Berlin. Cruise lines often schedule overnight stays there to allow ample time to explore the city, a train ride away from the port. Stockholm is another Baltic port where some ships overnight, allowing passengers to enjoy the city’s nightlife.
Shore excursions and activities
The range of shore activities in the Mediterranean is vast. In Rome, Naples, Athens, Nafplion, Crete, Corinth, Olympia, Santorini and Kusadasi, you can explore ancient Greek and Roman historical sites. In Istanbul, Barcelona, Dubrovnik, Corfu, Florence and Venice, tours focus on more recent art, architecture and history.
You’ll find vineyard and winery tours from almost every port in Italy and along the French Riviera (like Marseilles). Olive farm tours are popular from most ports of call in Greece but don’t rule out Greek wineries if your cruise itinerary takes you there.
Foodie tours are available in almost every port in the Mediterranean. The best include food-themed walking tours in Athens, truffle hunting tours from Livorno, Italy, and tapas tours in Barcelona. Or, you can do what I do and make it a point to sample local fare like pizza and gelato in every port.
Active tours in the Mediterranean include abundant choices for hiking and biking. If you’re itching to dip your toes into the blue Mediterranean waters, you’ll find beaches on almost all the Greek islands. Not every ship offers beachy shore excursions, so you may be on your own getting to them.
The easiest beach excursions are on Santorini, Crete and Mykonos. The most stunning beach I’ve ever seen is Myrtos Beach on the Greek island of Kefalonia. It’s not near the cruise port, but half-day excursions are available to take you there.
And let’s not forget the beaches of the French Riviera or Barcelona’s beautiful stretches of sand.
The most surprising beaches in the Mediterranean include those along the crystal-clear waters of the upper Adriatic. Trieste (where some ships dock for Venice), Koper in Slovenia and Zadar in Croatia all have beaches (some pebble rather than sand) accessible from the cruise ports. If more active water sports are your thing, boating, snorkeling and even scuba diving are easily arranged on Santorini, Crete and Kefalonia and in Zadar.
Baltic destinations also offer beaches and watersports, but you’re more likely to find a scenic boat ride than jetskiing, and beaches are more likely to be enjoyed through windy walks along the shore than sunbathing and swimming. If the weather is suitable, the best beaches are in Copenhagen, Warnemunde and Stockholm. Boat rides, both slow scenic cruises and thrilling speed boat rides are popular throughout the Baltic. Boats are the ideal way to experience Copenhagen.
Land-based activities in the Baltic lean toward city tours, either via hop-on-hop-off buses or sometimes walking tours. Expect landmarks and museums of all sorts, many focusing on local events or areas of importance. Riga, Lithuania, and Tallinn, Estonia, both have museums focused on the Soviet occupation of those countries, for example.
Lighthouses and castles are some landmarks you can visit in the Baltic. Look for castles and fortresses in Gdansk, Copenhagen and Helsinki. Lighthouse excursions are possible in Kiel and Warnemunde, Germany. You can visit a medieval village in Old Town in Tallinn and a Viking village near Copenhagen.
Active tours on Baltic cruises include hiking and biking, available in almost every port. Kayaking is often easy to arrange if the weather turns out nice.
Winery visits are possible from ports in Germany, Denmark, Latvia, Estonia and Poland but may not be offered by your cruise ship. You may have to seek them out and arrange your own tour guide or transportation. Brewery tours are considerably easier to arrange throughout the Baltic. Foodie tours include those that focus on cheese, pastries, meats and seafood. Walking food tours are possible in the larger cities, and farm visits with lunch are a popular way to experience the region’s cuisine.
Bottom line: Baltic vs. Mediterranean cruises
What you want to experience on a European cruise can help determine whether you’d enjoy a Mediterranean or a Baltic cruise more. Both regions are loaded with visits to stunning European ports where you can experience the food, history and culture through tours and by simply walking the streets mingling with locals.
On a Mediterranean cruise, you gain the ability to add one or even two continents to your list of places traveled to, but if you’re trying to push your country count higher, a Baltic cruise can help you out based on the sheer number of countries it’s possible to visit on a single cruise.
Weather in the Med is more likely to be warm and sunny, allowing for more time enjoying water sports or lounging on a beach. But if escaping blistering summer heat at home is your chief objective, the crisp air in the Baltic may be what you need to reset on vacation.
Both regions have dozens of cruise lines to choose from, starting with mainstream lines you may already know but also including premium and luxury lines you may be longing to try. Transportation to and from Europe can be slightly easier and cheaper to Mediterranean departure ports when compared to some Baltic ports, but there are options for round-trip Baltic cruises from London that serve as a workaround.
The bottom line, then, is that it comes down to personal preferences. Ancient history or something more recent? Beach time or intensive sightseeing? Sample some of the world’s best wines or the world’s best beers? Either way you go, you can expect the cruise adventure of a lifetime.
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