If ships, explorers and maritime heritage are a European traveler’s passion, then Europe has a lot to offer. Many nautical delights are easily explored during an escorted tour, city-stay getaway or independent trip to coastal areas of the Baltic, Mediterranean and beyond.
Ships of Discovery
Throughout Europe, “ships of discovery” await including the Vasa, a humongous Viking-era warship that capsized and sank in 1628, while sailing from the harbor in Stockholm, Sweden.
Spending 333 years on the sea bed, this wooden warship was protected by mud and cold Baltic water (which avoided worms and bacteria from feeding on the wood). Today, this salvaged, beautifully restored Viking ship is considered the world’s best preserved 17th-century vessel. It's displayed in all its glory in Stockholm’s Vasamuseet, Sweden’s and Scandinavia’s most visited museum.
“Start your morning with a visit to the Vasamuseet (Vasa Museum), one of Sweden’s most popular attractions," Delta Vacations tells web visitors thinking of booking one of its Stockholm air/hotel packages. Those packages include roundtrip air transportation on Delta or one of its partner airlines to the Stockholm Arlanda Airport. Travelers can create their own package adding in such pieces as a hotel stay, car rental and/or transfers.
In Oslo, Norway, those who love maritime history or Viking folklore should check out the Viking Ship Museum on the Bygdoy Peninsula; it has well-preserved Viking ships and finds from Viking tombs around the Oslo Fjord.
Visitors will see discoveries from the Gokstad, Oseberg and Tune ships, plus small boats, sledges, a beautiful cart, tools, textiles and household utensils. The adventure film, "The Vikings Alive," is screened on the museum's ceilings and walls.
Across the Baltic Sea, in Hamburg, Germany, travelers can view other types of historic vessels in the harbor:
- A former cargo freighter, MS Cap San Diego, is beautifully preserved; it could accommodate 12 passengers and is now a museum and a hotel.
- The three-masted Rickmer Rickmers is a museum ship
- A fully operational, former Soviet U-434 submarine gives travelers a chance to head below into a Tango-class sub
- A former firefighter ship, now a hotel, is anchored within Hamburg's harbor adjacent to the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg
Among tour operators with Hamburg city/stay packages is Classic Vacations, which offers a wide choice of Hamburg hotels including the Park Hyatt Hamburg, Radisson Blu Hotel, SIDE Design Hotel Hamburg, the Westin Hamburg, Sofitel Hamburg Alter Wall, the Steigenberger Hotel Hamburg, Le Meridien Hamburg and other properties.
In the Netherlands, the city of Rotterdam now has its namesake in residence, the former S.S. Rotterdam, a former Holland America Line cruise ship now retired dockside but operating as the S.S. Rotterdam Hotel, part of WestCord Hotels. Tours available from the hotel will give maritime buffs the scoop about the ship’s history, facts and figures as well as amazing stories of this “Grande Dame.”
In fact, independent travelers who are maritime buffs often stay at the hotel overnight. “The 1959-built liner is a magnificent example of mid-20th century sea going design and has rebuilt, comfortable hotel rooms,” says Peter Knego, a maritime historian specializing in passenger ships, based in Oceanside, CA. “The beer garden on the stern is a wonderful place to watch passing ships in the busy harbor.”
Maritime fans who are traveling on an escorted tour often head to the S.S. Rotterdam Hotel during their free time. Cosmos offers a seven-day “Best of the Netherlands” escorted tour roundtrip from Amsterdam. This tour includes afternoon city sightseeing with a guide in Rotterdam and an overnight in the city. This allows tour-goers who so desire to head out in the evening to the S.S. Rotterdam Hotel to peruse its classic architecture or enjoy drinks onboard. Also of maritime note in Rotterdam, says Knego, are the former Holland America Line headquarters and pier (now the Hotel New York) and the Rotterdam Maritime Museum.
If taking that Cosmos tour, travelers will have free time in Amsterdam, as well. It's home to the excellent National Maritime Museum, chronicling both civilian and naval marine heritage.
Farther south along the Adriatic Sea, the Croatian Maritime Museum in Split, Croatia, is housed within a 19th-century building that’s within a 17th-century Gripe Fortress. Its collections were drawn from the Split Maritime Museum, the Military Maritime Museum, other heritage collections, marine archaeological finds and the Brodosplit Museum in Split’s shipyard.
Top draw? Head for the fortress’ courtyard to see the museum’s larger pieces including the 1857-era Bakar, a traditional Dalmatian "gajeta" or fishing boat, and one of the eastern Adriatic coast's oldest surviving vessels.
Portugal and its citizens have long had a strong link to the sea. During the 15th and 16th centuries, part of the so-called “Age of Discovery,” Lisbon flourished as the center of a vast empire that had spread to Asia, South America, Africa and the Atlantic isles.
Portugal's famous Belem Tower is shown in the photo above.
Henry the Navigator was at the forefront of Portuguese global exploration and "discovered" the Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde for Portugal. Travelers to Lisbon often head for Belem’s 170-foot-high Padrao dos Descobrimentos, or Monument of Discoveries, comprising 33 different figures including Henry the Navigator. The group of sculptures represent the prow of a caravel, a small sailing ship constructed by the Portuguese to explore the Atlantic Ocean. This monument was created to celebrate the golden age of discovery and created to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death.
Visitors can head for the top of the monument to survey the views, including a 164-square-foot compass rose made from limestone on the floor below.
Cosmos’ nine-day, “Lisbon, Seville and Madrid,” a Small Group Discovery Tour offered on multiple dates in 2022 and 2023, includes sightseeing that will take tour participants to see Henry’s tribute monument, the Moorish Citadel, Black Horse Square and Belem Tower, built around 1514 to commemorate the expedition of Vasco de Gama and to defend the port of Lisbon.
On this escorted tour, priced from $1,199 per person, double occupancy, guests also have an afternoon at leisure in Lisbon. One good option is to visit the Jeronimos Monastery, where famous explorers once journeyed to pray for their own safe return. The monastery is also home to the Museu da Marinha, a museum dedicated to Portugal’s maritime history. With 17,000 artifacts, it displays models of 15th-century ships, maritime paintings, equipment, historical maps and even a “flying boat’ that was Portugal’s first navy aircraft.
In Latvia, the Riga Dome complex is a noteworthy 13th- to 20th-century architectural monument and home to the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation, Latvia’s oldest public museum and one of the oldest in Europe.
One way to view the Riga Dome complex is on an escorted tour such as Tauck’s “Yellow Roads” itinerary, starting in Vilnius, Lithuania, and then traveling through Latvia and Estonia, before guests board a ferry to Helsinki, Finland.
This Tauck tour will explore Old Town Vilnius, northern Europe's oldest and largest surviving medieval town. It also will visit Riga’s medieval Old Town, its Art Nouveau New Town and the historic former Jewish Ghetto. Tour guests also will have lunch in the Estonian summer resort town of Parnu and take a guided walking tour of Tallinn, Estonia's medieval Lower Town.
Cranes, Quays and Museums
In Antwerp, Belgium, the MAS (an abbreviated version of the longer Dutch name, Museum aan de Stroom, translated into "Museum by the River") is an impressive maritime museum with nine levels of exhibits, many interactive. Its showpiece, though, is outside along the Scheldt quays. It's the world’s largest museum collection of harbor cranes and, best of all, these exterior cranes are free to view.
Also, “in Antwerp, the Red Star Line Museum is a must-see for anyone interested in the Belgian liners that carried so many immigrants to the U.S.,” emphasizes Knego.
The harbor area of Gydnia, Poland, bustles with activity; it's a shipbuilding location and home to two superb maritime museums. Visitors to Copenhagen, Denmark, should check out the new Maritime Museum of Denmark in Elsinore.
Moving southward, here's a sample of the Mediterranean maritime draws. “In Genoa, Italy, the Galata Museo del Mare has comprehensive exhibits exploring all types of ships from ancient sailing craft to the great Italian ocean liners," says Knego. "It’s also steps away from the Renzo Piano-designed aquarium and waterfront.”
Kotor, Montenegro is shown in the photo above. // Photo by Getty
The Maritime Museum of Montenegro in Kotor grew out of a “Boka Marine” Fraternity in the late 19th century and post-World War II, the Baroque palace of the noble Grgurina family was restored and adapted to house the museum and its nautical collections.
The museum’s central exhibition hall preserves memories of the 16th to 18th century when Montenegro’s seamen developed the domestic shipping and maritime trade, took active part in building of naval and merchant marines in foreign countries, established new routes of maritime trade and fought against pirates and Turks on the Adriatic and Mediterranean seas.
Tours and packages that visit a combination of European cities open up many possibilities for maritime fans. For example, Collette's 14-day, escorted “Spectacular Scandinavia” tour visits Copenhagen, Denmark; Granna, Vittaryd and Stockholm, Sweden; and Oslo, Flam, Loen, Geiranger and Bergen, Norway.
This 14-day, land-only offering is priced from $3,899 per person, double occupancy. On Day 3 in Copenhagen, tour goers will enjoy a city tour including views of pretty Nyhavn, a charming harbor dating from the 17th century; it's lined with colorful facades and cafes, the perfect spot to enjoy a snack with a lovely view. On Day 6 in Stockholm, there’s time to visit the Vasa Museum.
On Day 13 in Bergen, Norway, the big draw is an included guided walking tour of the city’s historic harborfront, the Bryggen, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With many wooden buildings, narrow alleyways and the harbor just steps away, Bryggen (the Norwegian word for "dock") is a gorgeous spot and a visitor magnet.
For decades in the Middle Ages, this region's commerce was linked with German sea traders. But in 1350, that became “official” as the powerful Hanseatic League, a guild of German merchants, established a Bergen office for trading stockfish and grain. It was one of only four Hanseatic League overseas offices.
Today, the Bryggen is home to the Hanseatic Museum and Schotstuene (assembly halls for the merchants), but structural reconstruction has been under way with closures, so check the opening status before heading out.
More Maritime Draws
For Abercrombie & Kent’s visitors to Iceland, one inclusion on some itineraries is a short walk around the scenic town of Isafjordur to visit the Maritime Museum (also known as the Westfjords Heritage Museum). It's located within an 18th-century house brimming with tales from the rugged lives of determined and resourceful Icelanders. Tour goers will see a film shot at the Osvor fishing station to learn how traditional fishermen lived.
In Varna, Bulgaria, the Maritime Museum/Naval Museum showcases the construction of the country’s maritime fleet, participation of seamen in the war between Serbia and Bulgaria (1885), the Balkan War (1912–1913), World War I (1914–1918) and World War II (1939–1945).
Sometimes maritime history is revealed in unusual ways, such as at the site of a once-busy port of a past civilization. But, over time, harbors and rivers silt up. Sometimes, land takes over from the sea.
One such site is Italy’s Ostia Antica, an archaeological site that was once was the bustling port of ancient Rome with harbors named for Roman Emperors Claudius and Trajan. But it makes a fascinating day tour for maritime fans, despite being several miles inland.
Many other countries in Europe, including Malta, Spain, Cyprus, Romania, Finland, Monaco and others also have enticing maritime histories, as well as sites to entice lovers of the sea.