It might be a relatively small country, but the UK is packed with exciting destinations on all points of the compass. And this year, there really is no better time to discover the British isles as a plethora of lines (at least 12 at the last count) are offering domestic cruises in summer 2021. From north to south and east to west, we take you on a cruise around the UK to see the best of what our small but diverse island has to offer.
Lines offering round-Britain cruises this summer include Fred. Olsen, P&O Cruises, Saga, Princess, MSC Cruises, Viking, Disney, Virgin Voyages and Cunard, amongst others.
Editor's note: We have listed places to visit, but note that these may be subject to change, depending on current health guidelines and what your cruise line offers.
The Highlands and islands of bonnie Scotland beckon in the north. It might be rugged, wild and blustery in places but that's all part of Scotland's charm. With 790 Scottish islands, a small ship cruise offers the perfect way to explore -- expect towering castles, pretty harbours, roaming wildlife and a dramatic landscape peppered with lochs and rivers, hills and mountains, rugged coastlines and beautiful gardens.
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Most of the cruise lines operating this summer will either sail along these stunning coastlines or in some cases, offer port stops.
A cruise to the Scottish Highlands is like a stepping back in time, where castles, palaces and forts overlook rolling countryside and villages where time stands still. From the pretty port of Invergordon you can visit Dunrobin Castle -- the largest house in the Highlands -- which sits proudly in its manicured gardens by the sea. Medieval Cawdor Castle is another Highland beauty, just ten miles from Inverness, which is the capital of the Highlands and home to its own castle, St Andrew's Cathedral, and an historic old town.
Of course, the River Ness leads us to Loch Ness, where myth-busters can try to catch a glimpse of the UK's most famous mythical monster. Also nearby is the vast Cairngorms National Park, Fort William and Britain's highest mountain, Ben Nevis.
There are 70 Orkney Islands in total, with 1,000 miles of stunning coastline between them and vast stretches of open green space inland. Orkney is known as the mainland, despite being an island, and its capital Kirkwall is a popular stop on cruise itineraries. The magnificent sandstone St Magnus Cathedral is a highlight of this charming market town -- oh, and it boasts not one but two palaces too. If they're not quite grand enough, Orkney's imposing Balfour Castle should hit the spot.
Lerwick is the capital of the Shetlands. In fact, it has to be, as it is the 'mainland's' only town. The waterfront here is a hub of activity, with boats constantly coming and going on their explorations of the other isles.
Keen walkers will be in their element in the Shetlands, and there's a lot to discover, from tiny fishing villages to important archaeological sites. A wealth of nature reserves also make it easy to spot wildlife, especially seabirds and, of course, cute Shetland ponies.
The Inner and Outer Hebrides are a vast and diverse collection of islands off Scotland's west coast. Any cruise here can only scratch the surface, but the small ship lines like Hebridean will help you get the most out of your visit. The Isle of Skye, the largest of the Inner Hebrides, is one of the most common stops and it's easy to see why with its unspoilt landscape, vast lochs and exciting wildlife, including sea eagles to seals. The Isle of Mull is another Hebridean beauty, where it's possible to spot whales and dolphins in the waters. As you sail into the island's capital, Tobermory, you might recognise the rainbow of cottages on the waterfront from children's TV show "Balamory" -- but a trip to the town's historic whiskey distillery is just for adults.
The southern ports of the UK, which enjoy the country's warmest weather, offer seaside escapes in Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, plus military and maritime history in Portsmouth. Southampton is the UK's capital of cruising and Britain's biggest cruise port, with ships leaving the cruise terminal for far-flung destinations every day, but it's still worth a visit, even if you're not heading for the Caribbean this time.
Not just a place to embark and disembark, the city has plenty to see, including museums and art galleries such as SeaCity Museum that traces Southampton's maritime history and has a fascinating interactive Titanic (which set sail from here) exhibition. Parks include the waterfront Mayflower Park where you are in a perfect spot to watch the ships come and go. Or why not head out of the city on a magical trip to Stonehenge? This mysterious prehistoric monument is under an hour away and well worth seeing.
The majority of the cruise lines operating round-Britain cruises this summer will be departing from here, including P&O Cruises newest ship, Iona.
Another busy port city in the south, Portsmouth is proud of its seafaring and military heritage. Discover it on a trip to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard -- home to Nelson's flagship HMS Victory and the Mary Rose, the only 16th-century warship on display anywhere in in the world. The dockyard also covers other attractions including the Royal Marines Museum. For more military history take a tour of the Bovington Tank Museum or Biggin Hill Heritage Hanger. You can also climb the Spinnaker Tower, a modern landmark in the newly regenerated harbour, for incredible views across the city, docks and out to sea. Step on the glass-bottomed Skywalk, if you dare.
Two lines will operate from Portsmouth -- Viking and Virgin Voyages, marking the line's debut in carrying fee-paying passengers.
The quaint port town of Falmouth provides a picturesque gateway to Cornwall for cruisers, with endless options for spending a day in one of Britain's best loved seaside spots. Go on an adventure to the Lost Gardens of Heligan, before discovering the world's largest indoor rainforest at the Eden Project. A cruise down the nearby Fal Estuary offers further opportunities to enjoy nature, or scale St Michael's Mount, a tiny island crowned with a medieval castle, for incredible views.
Just off the Cornish peninsula sit the Scilly Isles, an unspoilt collection of five islands offering a natural wonderland to explore. From snorkelling with seals on St. Martin's to horse-trekking the coastline of St. Mary's, it's a perfect place for those who like to be active in the great outdoors. The Tresco Abbey Gardens are a must, as the island's warm microclimate means that you can see exotic plant species that you won't find anywhere else in the UK.
The Channel Islands sit between the UK and France, boasting a unique blend of elements of both countries, while being proudly independent from either. Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney are the largest islands, with bags of 'olde worlde' charm between the cobbled lanes, stunning sea-cliffs, pretty harbours and endless green, while tiny, traffic-free Sark and Herm instil an unrivalled feeling of remoteness. The Jersey War Tunnels and Guernsey's Hauteville House (where Victor Hugo wrote "Les Miserables") are good itinerary fillers, and many cruises combine the Channel Islands with trips to Brittany or Normandy on the French mainland. Sadly, however, Guernsey is not welcoming any cruise ships this season.
The east of the UK boasts two capitals -- London and Edinburgh -- with Newcastle situated in between. You can combine a city break and cruise for a trip crammed full of culture, landmarks and life.
England's capital city is overflowing with world-famous sights and landmarks, and some small ships, like luxury line Silversea's Silver Wind, dock right in the heart of the action, on the Thames by Tower Bridge. Small ships can also dock at Greenwich, while larger ones stop at Tilbury, for easy access to the city.
From the grand Thames-side landmarks, including Westminster Palace and the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, St Paul's Cathedral and Big Ben, you'll want to cram as much culture into your London adventure as possible. Add world-class museums and galleries, beautiful royal parks and renowned department stores, and a day or two won't ever be enough.
Sitting proudly on the River Tyne, which is straddled by impressive landmark bridges including the Tyne Bridge and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, Newcastle is an east coast hive of culture and activity. Just some highlights of this northern city include the Biscuit Factory gallery, Great North Museum, Newcastle's castle and cathedral -- not forgetting the magnificent Angel of the North sculpture in nearby Gateshead. Heading outside the lively centre, Jesmond Dene Park offers tranquil respite, and some itineraries take the 45-minute drive to Alnwick castle and gardens, which starred as Hogwarts in the first two "Harry Potter" films and where the deadly Poison Garden is kept under lock and key. (Editor's note: There are no plans for any lines to include Newcastle in their itineraries).
Whether your ship docks in Rosyth or Leith, it's likely that you're going to heading for Scotland's capital city. Wander the Royal Mile and the colourful, cobbled old town, marvel at Edinburgh Castle and the surrounding Princes Street Gardens, or take in a breath of fresh air at the 70-acre Royal Botanic Garden. If you're feeling energetic, hike up to Arthur's Seat for breathtaking views over the city. And if you're cruising with kids, the Camera Obscura Museum passes a fun few hours and is great for rainy days.
The west of the UK offers the full house of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh ports, with the Isle of Man thrown in for good measure. Whether the vibrant cities are calling you for whirlwind port stops taking in museums, galleries and more, or you want to head further out to discover castles, National Parks and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, there's so much variety in the west, including the best of what the Emerald Isle has to offer.
Glasgow port makes it easy for cruise ships of all sizes to transport you to Scotland's 'second city'. Historic buildings house art galleries and museums galore, and Glasgow Cathedral and City Chambers are just two of the key landmarks to tick off. The modern Riverside Museum is well worth a look, and Kelvingrove Park (home to a stunning gallery and museum) and Glasgow Botanical Gardens are a dream in fair weather. Fans of artist and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh won't want to miss his magical House for an Art Lover. (For a treat, try the equally magical desserts in the cafe.)
Another lively port town on the west coast, Liverpool is best known as being the birthplace of The Beatles, and the good news is, it's included on almost all itineraries this summer. While there's lots to do for fans of the Fab Four (try the Beatles Story attraction at Albert Dock or one of the many Beatles-themed tours), there's plenty more besides if you're not gripped by Beatlemania. For history and culture, see the Merseyside Maritime Museum, The World Museum, The Walker Art Gallery and the Museum of Liverpool to your list of places to visit. The modern Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral is also a must see, especially if you're feeling a little bit weary of the usual Gothic towered places of worship.
Holyhead is the gateway to the beautiful island of Anglesey, just off the coast of Wales. From here you can explore Bangor, just across the Menai Strait which separates Anglesey from the mainland, or carry on to the Snowdonia National Park, where miles of green, vast lakes and the Snowdon peak are waiting to be hiked and enjoyed. Alternatively, discover the beaches, cliffs and pretty villages of Anglesey, or visit landmark Holy Island where a Roman fort, quaint church and small, scalable mountain are your reward.
The charming capital of the Emerald Isle has bags of charm, culture and 'craic' to welcome you. Enjoy a tipple or two with a tour of the Guinness Storehouse or the Old Jameson Distillery, and then wander around the cobbled streets of the Temple Bar, where many pubs feature live music. Kilmainham Gaol offers something a bit different to the usual city cathedrals, castles and museums, which, of course, Dublin has plenty of if you want to enjoy some culture. A stroll across the Ha'Penny Bridge, which straddles the River Liffey, is a must, and look out for the hop on hop off city tour buses, which are a great way to get around. (They're green, of course!)
Moving to Northern Ireland, Belfast is an exciting capital with a unique attraction for cruisers -- Titanic Belfast. Delving into the history of the world's most famously ill-fated liner, it's a fascinating exhibition housed in a very striking modern building. The baroque wonder of Belfast City Hall is an unmissable historic building and the Crumlin Road Gaol whisks you even further back in time to the 19th century.
Some cruisers choose to use Belfast port as a gateway to the legendary Giant's Causeway rock formation, just an hour away, fans of the hit TV show "Game of Thrones" won't want to miss a tour of the spectacular locations used to create the magical world in which the story is set.
The pretty seaport town of Cork is uniquely interesting as the city centre sits on its own island on the River Lee. If a wander of the churches, cathedrals and St Patrick's Street shops (twice voted Ireland's best shopping doesn't appeal, you can take the short excursion to Blarney Castle, via one of the city's 30 bridges, to kiss the famous stone and be bestowed with the gift of the gab.
Isle of Man
The Isle of Man sits in the Irish Sea and is blanketed in tranquil green countryside. You're welcomed to the port of the capital city Douglas by a sweeping bay and pretty marina filled with fishing boats. Elsewhere on the island, Castletown is the historic capital boasting a medieval castle, and Peel is a popular day trip. Sitting on St Patrick's Isle, which is connected to the mainland by a causeway, it is home to Peel Castle and the Isle of Man's only cathedral.
Editor's note: There are no plans for any port stops at the Isle of Man this summer, 2021.