The best ways to cruise around Europe

For Australian travellers, cruising is increasingly the way to go. The prospect of going on holiday, unpacking just once and waking up in a new port (pretty much) every day is luring more and more of us on board. And Europe, a continent crammed with incredible destinations, many with magnificent waterfront settings, is perfect for cruising. 

You can choose from a variety of itineraries, with a diverse array of ships ensuring there's something for everyone, whether you prefer a family-friendly vessel packed with fun entertainment or a luxury adults-only affair with gourmet restaurants, spas and resident historians. Here are four great regions.

THE MEDITERRANEAN

Stretching from the Rock of Gibraltar to the sun-baked coast of Israel, the Mediterranean has hosted seafarers for millennia, and today's cruises retrace the routes taken by ancient Phoenician, Greek and Roman explorers. 

Many western Mediterranean sailings begin and end in Barcelona, the buzzing Catalan capital. Regular western Med ports of call include Monte Carlo, that glamorous, casino-peppered city on the French Riviera, and Livorno, the gateway to Tuscany, including the art-rich jewels of Florence and Pisa. Rome, the effervescent Italian capital, and Naples – the springboard to the ruins of Pompeii – also star on many itineraries, along with enchanting islands like Mallorca, Sicily and Sardinia. 

One area pulling in more cruisers is the Adriatic region. Besides classic draws like Venice, cruises here show off Croatia's bewitchingly beautiful coastline, including Dubrovnik, the majestic walled city that appeared in the TV hit Game of Thrones. In the eastern Mediterranean, cruises from Athens head to Santorini, Mykonos and other myth-drenched Greek islands sprinkled with postcard-pretty whitewashed buildings.  

THE RHINE

Many famous kings, queens and emperors have journeyed along the Rhine, a history-steeped waterway that courses 1223 kilometres from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea. Rhine cruises typically run between Amsterdam, the cosmopolitan Dutch capital, and Basel, Roger Federer's home town, which nestles on Switzerland's border with Germany and France. 

The largest city straddling the Rhine, Cologne is one stand-out port, home to a magnificent twinspired Gothic cathedral, buzzing breweries and beer halls, and streets impressively revamped after World War II destruction. 

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Strasbourg, the heart of France's Alsace region, is many cruisers' favourite port of call, with its delightfully walkable labyrinth of cobbled streets brimming with half-timbered, 500-year-old properties. Whether relaxing on the top deck, gazing through your cabin windows or wining and dining on regionally sourced fare, you can expect striking scenery, especially in the Rhine Gorge.

THE BALTIC

As a cruising destination, northern Europe was once overshadowed by the continent's sunnier, southern climes. Not any more. The chance to sail up jaw-dropping Norwegian fjords and witness the aurora borealis ghosting over Iceland's surreal glaciers and volcanoes has put this region on the cruising map.

And with its promise of gorgeous natural scenery and photogenic ports, a Baltic voyage is another great option, especially in the northern summer, when there's daylight almost around the clock. Many cruises start (or finish) in Stockholm, the Swedish capital, where you can amble around its atmospheric old town, Gamla Stan, past colourful antique townhouses and refuel at alfresco cafes. 

Cruising beyond the Stockholm archipelago, and its cluster of about 30,000 islands and skerries (small rocky islands), ships call in at Baltic seaports like the Finnish capital Helsinki, which teems with fashion and design boutiques and neoclassical and modernist architecture.

While some cruises swerve back to Scandinavia to Copenhagen, Denmark's cool capital, other cruises enter Russian waters and St Petersburg, where you can marvel at the onion-shaped domes of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood and potter around the galleries of the Hermitage.

THE DANUBE

Europe's second-longest river after Russia's Volga, the Danube flows 2850 kilometres through 10 countries, from Germany to Romania. Most cruises navigate the stretch west of Hungary's beautiful capital Budapest, where you can take rejuvenating dips in the city's historic thermal spas before sailing past the neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament Building, which is illuminated after dark. Vienna is another memorable port of call, with grand imperial palaces and storied coffee houses. 

Just as enticing is the opportunity to hop on bikes and take leisurely riverside rides and picnics in the leafy, peaceful countryside. Many cruises begin (or end) in Nuremberg or Passau, two lovely Bavarian cities, with the latter nestled at the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers.

FIVE EUROPEAN CRUISE OPTIONS

Western Mediterranean

Carnival offers cruises from Barcelona to Venice. See carnival.com

Eastern Mediterranean 

Peregrine Adventures has the Islands of Greece and Turkey voyages. See peregrineadventures.com/en-au

The Rhine

Crystal has luxury cruises from Basel to Amsterdam. See crystalcruises.com

The Baltic

Silversea​ offers luxury cruises from Copenhagen to Stockholm. See silversea.com

The Danube 

APT has Europe cruises from Budapest to Amsterdam. See aptouring.com

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale September 8.

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