Not all ports of call on a cruise are ‘must sees’ like New York or St Petersburg. Sometimes you don’t know much about a port or just want a relaxing day. Sometimes I like to roll the dice and see what I can find. Here are are a few low key, low spend activities that I have enjoyed when I’ve decided to have a chilled easy port day.
Walk along the water
A walk along the seaside, fjord or river can be very pleasant if you want to stretch your legs. Unless you are in an industrial port you can usually walk straight from the ship. If you follow the water there will often be promenades or pleasant paths and you can’t get lost because you can always see the ship, Flam in Norway is a great place for a walk.
Ride the shuttle bus
Shuttle buses are often free, or low cost. Tickets can usually be bought on ship if necessary so no need for local currency. Rides can vary from a couple of minutes to leave the port or a longer haul into the local town. You can take a roundtrip and see something of the local area.
Ride the tender
A tender is either one of the ship’s lifeboats or a local boat which takes passengers from the ship to the shore when the boat stops at anchor instead of at a pier. This is always a free service and you can enjoy the ride and come straight back to the ship if you like. The tender into Villefranche near Nice is a lovely trip.
Go to the beach
Small local beaches can often be found within walking distance of the port. They may lack facilities such as sun loungers but can be a pleasant place to stop for a while. Sometimes you luck out, Warnemunde in Germany has a great beach with amazing cabanas about 20 mins walk from the ship.
Photograph your ship
If you take one of the above suggestions and ride the shuttle bus or tender or go for a walk, turn around and take some photos of your ship. Cruise ships are huge and you need some distance to get a good shot of them. Get a great picture as a souvenir of your cruise and with some local scenery in the background for a sense of place. Take a selfie with your ship. Or a forced perspective shot – picture to follow if I every manage to do this properly.
Browse in the cruise terminal
Many popular ports of call now have dedicated cruise terminals. These will have at least some basic tourist information about the local area including maps. There will often be a cafe for a drink or snack. Most have souvenir shops where you can buy chocolate or postcards. Duty free style shops are common, for example in Gibraltar, but please note your cruise line will normally confiscate any alcohol brought back on board until the end of the holiday.
Use free wifi
Another common facility found in most cruise terminals is free wifi. If you haven’t paid for the cruise ship wifi then you can take your device down to the terminal and surf away. There will always be crew members doing exactly the same thing, so speed can be limited. Normally I find the free wifi decent enough to check social media, the internet or email but not good enough to back up my phone or stream video. Businesses around the port might also offer free wifi.
Visit a cafe for a coffee and local cake
I love a proper freshly brewed coffee. The free coffee provided in large urns on most ships is fine but its nice to have a freshly made barista flat white occasionally. Any town or tourist spot will be filled with cafes and I always look for a local speciality cake or pastry is to try along with my drink. Delicious and always good for an instagram photo like this one from a cafe in Reykjavik.
Shop for souvenirs
A cruise liner bringing thousands of people into one small area will almost always spawn a host of nearby souvenir shops. Some of these can be tacky but others supply work by local artists and crafts people. You can’t always tell from the outside what you might find inside the store. I collect fridge magnets and try to pick up one for each place I visit.
Visit a fast food restaurant
Ok, this is not very cultural, but it is an idea for a chilled easy day. Visit a McDonalds or Subway or Starbucks. Revel in the familiarity even though you are far from home. Have a look and see how their menu items differ by country. Use the wifi. Use their toilets. Starbucks sell souvenir mugs with the name of the city you are in on them. When you get home and you visit one of these restaurants remember your holiday and smile.
Take the Hop on hop off bus
Hop on hop off buses will be waiting on the pier in many many cruise ports of call. Whilst not necessarily cheap these generally cost less than half the price of the cheapest cruise line shore excursion. There is no need to pre book. You will be given a map and headphones to listen to a commentary about the local area as you travel. Once you’ve seen what you want to see then the bus will return you to the ship.
Local ferry or sightseeing boat tour
A lot of tourist areas will offer sight seeing boat tours or local ferries. Information about these boat rides can usually be found in the cruise terminal. If not, if you walk along the waterside there will often be kiosks next to the piers displaying timetables and selling tickets. Ferries in particular are priced for local people and are not necessarily expensive. La Spezia quayside has regular ferries that go the the beautiful towns of Portovenere and the Cinque Terre.
Ride the land train
Another tourist favourite that will often found waiting at the pier is a land train. If you want a short, overpriced but ultimately not that expensive tour of the area then hop on board. These cute trains always remind me of being 5 years old. This train is in Olden, Norway.
Follow the crowd
This probably sounds a bit random but if you know nothing about the area you are visiting and you get off the ship at a busy time then just head in the same direction as the crowd. The chances are if everyone is going the same way then there will be something to see or do there. I do this all the time. Obviously use common sense, you will need to find the ship again afterwards.
Find a bench or a rock. Sit down. Watch the world go by. Enjoy being somewhere different for a few hours. Notice the present moment.
Photograph the local area from your ship
You don’t even have to get off the ship for this one. A cruise ship is a very large tall structure which in some locations such as the Norwegian Fjords will give you a unique 360 degree view of the area. Take advantage of the differing heights of the pool and promenade decks to get your shots. Get creative and use port holes and ship infrastructure to frame your pictures. Go to the highest point on the ship and shoot down to get a drones eye view.
If you have any more ideas to add to this list please let me know in the comments