Six European Ports to Explore on Your Own

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Updated 02.29.2020:  When Alan and I travel on European cruises, whether it’s on ocean or river, we grow tired of exploring cathedrals and museums after a while. Sometimes we want to wander off on our own to soak up the local color of European ports.

Although we think it’s important for an itinerary to include learning about history and culture on organized cruise excursions, we also believe in slowing down to take it all in. That’s why Alan and I enjoy independent city walking tours.

When tour burnout happens on your next cruise, I encourage you to take a break to wander aimlessly around the backstreets, with a little people watching from a sidewalk café thrown in for fun. Here are six European ports that you can explore on your own.

Explore on your own in Amsterdam

Canal surrounded by historic buildings in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam is easy to explore on your own.

One of our favorite cities for independent exploring, it’s easy to reach Amsterdam’s history, museums and scenic canals from where your river cruise parks on the Rhine Canal. When Alan and I cruised on a Rhine River Christmas Markets Cruise, we took the ship’s Amsterdam walking tour but then returned to explore the Red Light District with friends from the ship. No, we didn’t take photos but we sure had fun.

If you’re interested in walking the streets of Jordaan—and you’re not on a guided tour—download a free walking guide from Every Trail.

Slow down in Barcelona

Cofee on a table at an outdoor cafe in Barcelona.
Enjoy coffee with the locals in Barcelona.

The first time you cruise to Barcelona, by all means, visit Gaudi’s fanciful architecture as well as the Jewish Quarter. And if you’re in port long enough, the trip to Montserrat is well worth it.

Now that Alan and I have visited this lovely Spanish city a number of times, our favorite thing to do is explore Barcelona on our own. We begin by walking to La Rambla. When the crowds of tourists get to us, we duck down a side street to see what we can find.

That’s how Alan and I ended up enjoying a latte on the patio of a coffee shop where locals were reading the paper or watching their children in the playground across the way. And we were the only ones sitting at a table consulting a map. Now that’s local color!

Build your own itinerary in Bergen

City view of Bergen, Norway
In Bergen, take a nature break high above the city.

The Hanseatic League got its start in this Norwegian city. During our visit, Alan and I spent an active day in Bergen exploring the wharf area, riding the funicular and hiking above the city on the ship’s cruise excursion.

By reading about our Bergen experience, you can easily do this one on your own—although you’ll miss the tour guide’s historical commentary. And, yes, even if there is a long line at the funicular, it’s worth the ride to walk the trails above the city.

Walk the limestone streets in Cartagena, Spain

Stone tower overlooking the town of Cartagena, Spain.
You don’t need a guide to explore Cartagena, Spain.

Alan and I don’t care what else there is to see and do near Cartagena, walking the limestone-paved streets of the city center will always be our choice. It’s easy to explore historical and archaeological sites on your own. Or grab a bench near the port for a sunny hour of people watching. Slow, relaxing, laid back—just the way we like it.

Climb the hill in Cologne

Spires of Cologne cathedral reach into a blue, winter sky
It’s easy to spot Cologne’s cathedral.

Look for the spires of the Cologne Cathedral, then walk uphill—that’s our advice for visiting Cologne on your own. If it’s the season, stop at Christmas market stalls on the uphill walk to the cathedral. Warmer weather calls for a German beer at one of the beer gardens on the banks of the Rhine. Don’t rule out the river cruise line’s free Cologne walking tour. We took one. But if you’ve been there, done that, use our ideas for next time.

Relax in Rudesheim

Rudesheim oozes charm any day of the year but it’s especially festive during the Christmas markets.

This Rhine River village exudes charm, charm, charm. And it’s easy to explore Rudesheim on your own. Just begin the uphill walk from where your river cruise docks.

Rudesheim offers cute shops decked out for the season at Christmas. You’ll find plenty of stalls selling handicrafts, hot wine and tasty goodies. And there are plenty of wine bars—we recommend the patios in good weather—for a glass of reisling or pinot noir that’s probably grown and bottled on the hills above town. Yes, Rudesheim can be touristy, but it’s still fun.

A word about exploring on your own in European ports

Your location to the city may not be as convenient as the ones I have described. Of course it helps that Alan and I cruise on small ships that dock close to the action. And when that’s not possible, the luxury cruise ships offer free shuttle service to the city center.

If you’re on one of the huge ships, sorry, but you won’t be close to the city center and you’ll probably have to pay for the shuttle. Also, not all river cruises pull right up to the city center. On our Rhine River Christmas Markets Cruise, visits to Heidelberg, Freiberg and Strasbourg required bus rides.

Don’t forget that a little bit of preparation goes a long way when traveling to Europe, which applies to cruises as well as independent travel. And if world events have made you skittish, follow our tips on how to travel safely.

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