Bordered by Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and Great Britain, the North Sea is a shallow, marginal sea of the Atlantic Ocean and sees quite of bit of cruise traffic. The sea connects with the English Channel in the south, the Norwegian Sea in the north and acts as a gateway to the Shetland and Faroe Islands. Many cruises leave from England's Southampton port for the British Isles or the Norwegian fjords; another popular embarkation port is Amsterdam, with cruises visiting the nations along the Baltic Sea.
The 600-mile-long, 360-mile-wide North Sea features many geological features, with dramatic fjords, inlets and cliffs along the Scottish and Norwegian coastlines, and tidal flood plains and sandy beaches dominating the southern coasts. Vikings sailed the North Sea to head westward to pursue better lands and leave their mark. Before the development of roads, maritime trading along the North Sea boosted the economies of its bordering countries. Today, the southern part of the sea remains one of the busiest waterways in the world.
Because the North Sea is shallow, with an average depth of less than 328 feet, its waters can get choppy -- a result of tidal patterns and storms. While all this churning brings up nutrients to the surface that help its marine life thrive, it's not ideal for cruising outside of the summer months.
To help you plan your North Sea voyage, we've put together details on the best time to take a cruise, how to prepare for bad weather and highlights along the more popular routes.
The best time for a North Sea cruise is at the height of summer, during the months of July and August, for calmer waters and fantastic, sunny weather. Although cruises often set sail during the shoulder months (May, June and September), you are likely to encounter a rougher sea, colder temperatures and rain. Cruises in the months of September and October have occasionally encountered weather-related issues resulting in missed ports and diversions.
Although fares might be lower during the shoulder seasons, keep in mind that the itinerary might be subject to last-minute changes and you could experience more ship movement. If you decide to go during this time, pack extra layers and be open to port changes.
Most major cruise lines, including Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Princess, Holland America and upscale lines such as Cunard, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Viking, Windstar and Oceania, offer North Sea itineraries. They take cruisers to the British Isles, Norwegian fjords, Scandinavian highlights and some even go as far as Russia. P&O Cruises and Fred. Olsen predominantly serve the U.K. market. Or, take an expedition-style cruise with Norway-based outfitter Hurtigruten.
Cruises typically depart from Southampton or Harwich, England, or Amsterdam in the Netherlands. While some ships travel toward the glacier-carved fjords of Norway or the British Isles, others venture east to St. Petersburg, Russia. Keep in mind that cruises from England to Eastern Europe could encounter rougher waters, as they will be crossing the width of the North Sea.
North Sea to the British Isles: A typical British Isles cruise lasts anywhere from 12 to 14 nights, and begins in either Southampton or Amsterdam. If you depart from Southampton, expect to travel the North and Irish seas, with stops in destinations such as Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Dublin, Cork, Liverpool, Guernsey and Normandy before returning to Southampton.
Cruises originating in Amsterdam go northbound along the North Sea and take you to Edinburgh, Glasgow or the Isle of Lewis in Scotland and then head to Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Dublin or Cork, Ireland, before returning to the U.K. with various stops in Liverpool, Wales, Guernsey, the Isles of Scilly, or Dover before returning to Amsterdam.
North Sea to Norwegian fjords: Cruise lines sail from Southampton or Bergen, Norway, for the mystical Norwegian fjords. The itinerary may include stops on the Norwegian coastline in Geiranger, Stavanger, Alesund, the Lofoten Islands or Olden, and then return to the North Sea for visits to the Shetland Islands, Orkney Islands and the eastern U.K. coastline.
North Sea with Baltic Sea: As the Baltic Sea is sheltered by Scandinavian countries, it's gentler than the North Sea. If you select an itinerary that mainly travels from the North Sea to the Baltic countries, you have the option of traveling during the shoulder months of May and September. Most cruises start in Amsterdam, with little time on the North Sea, and head to the countries bordering the Baltic Sea.
Itineraries are typically 12 to15 days long (with a few overnights) to accommodate the many wonderful cities and ports of calls in Sweden, Estonia, Finland, Denmark, Poland, Germany and Russia. Some cruises offer longer voyages traversing both the North and Baltic seas from Bergen to Eastern Europe and back to Scandinavia.
North Sea with Iceland and Norway: On a 14-night cruise from Southampton, travel northbound to Edinburgh, across the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean to the otherworldly landscapes of Iceland the Danish Faroe Islands, before heading back to Southampton. Some cruises leaving from Amsterdam combine stops in Norway and across the Atlantic to Iceland. Cruising the North Atlantic can be rough, with the ship enduring sustained motion, despite stabilizers. Be prepared with plenty of motion-sickness remedies. Go in the summer months for a smoother sailing experience in the Atlantic Ocean; you'll even be blessed with the midnight sun during visits to Norway's famed coastline.
North Sea to Russia: A cruise is one of the best ways to visit the Russian Federation without getting an individual visa. Cruise ships offer travelers a unique opportunity to experience the cultural capital of Russia on ship-run shore excursions. Travelers from Southampton embark on the North Sea toward the Baltic with stops in Belgium, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Riga, Tallinn, St. Petersburg (with an overnight stay), Helsinki and Stockholm before returning to the initial port of call.
North Sea with France and Spain: Travel south from Amsterdam to the highlights of France, Spain and the U.K. Itineraries might include stops in Bordeaux, Gibraltar, Bilbao, Malaga, Cartagena and Barcelona. This journey spends little time on the North Sea before crossing the often windy English Channel to visit France and Southern Europe. Plan this trip in the summer for the best chance of favorable sea conditions.
The main ports of call on the North Sea are launching pads for amazing journeys. Following the English coastline north from Southampton, you'll reach Scotland's major cities, lovely islands and fascinating ports of call along the coasts of the U.K. and Ireland. Venturing further north, you'll encounter magical Atlantic islands (including Iceland) and the striking fjords of Norway. Heading eastward delivers you to the bustling cities and charming towns of Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Russia. Southbound, via the English Channel await the wonders of France and Spain.
Here are some port highlights you are likely to come across on a North Sea cruise.
Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Considering a large number of North Sea cruises start in Amsterdam, enjoy a pre-cruise stay in this buzzy capital composed of 90 islands. Bikers of all ages whiz by in the second-most bike-friendly city in the world, so be careful when crossing the streets. Public transportation is top-notch and will help you navigate the city and visit the Anne Frank House, Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum. Take a lovely canal cruise or visit the charming countryside at Zaanse Schans for authentic Dutch culture and beautiful windmills over fields.
Copenhagen, Denmark. The world's most bike-friendly city sees scores of locals and tourists making their way across its roads in a dizzying manner. But, don't let that discourage you from exploring one of the largest city in Scandinavia. Copenhagen is home to the world's oldest monarchy and Queen Margrethe II opens the doors of her Royal Reception Rooms in Christiansborg Palace to visitors. Don't miss Tivoli Gardens, where you can stroll through its grounds and get in touch with your inner child by riding its retro rides and modern roller coasters.
Norwegian fjords. Gliding between steep mountainsides past cascading waterfalls from the comfort of your stateroom balcony is an absolute dream. Thousands of fjords carve the western coastline of Norway, with only a handful open to cruise passengers. Geirangerfjord, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is among its famous fjords and undoubtedly its best. With classic Norwegian scenery of snow-capped mountains, rolling green hills and the jaw-dropping Seven Sisters waterfalls, this destination is a must-see. Other cruise ports include Bergen, Stavanger (known for Pulpit Rock, popularized by Tom Cruise in "Mission Impossible"), Alesund (where you can cruise to Hjorundfjord) and Flam (for a lovely train ride in the heart of the Aurlandsfjord).
Iceland. If you are visiting in the summer, the Land of Fire and Ice is a green wonderland, with lush mountains, gushing waterfalls and sightings of majestic Icelandic horses and adorable puffins. Stay close to Reykjavik to explore attractions such as Hallgrimskirkja Church and The Pearl tour the Golden Circle, with stops at Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss Falls and the Strokkur geyser. If you are just looking to relax, head to the popular Blue Lagoon geothermal spa for a wonderful Icelandic escape against a stunning backdrop.
Edinburgh, Scotland. With a charming medieval Old Town and a Georgian New Town (jointly considered a UNESCO World Heritage site), Scotland's capital city is a blend of the ancient and the modern. It is a perfectly walkable city if you choose to take a self-guided tour. Don't miss the Royal Mile in Old Town, connecting the hilltop Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Other attractions include the National Museum of Scotland, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and Calton Hill (home to the unfinished National Monument). Every August, the world-famous Military Tattoo takes place against the glorious backdrop of Edinburgh Castle with performances by the British Armed Forces, Commonwealth and international military bands. Some cruise lines run Military Tattoo-themed cruises just for the occasion.
Shetland Islands, Scotland. Nature-lovers will adore the wildlife found on the Shetland Islands, located between mainland Scotland and Norway in the North Atlantic. This archipelago of 100 different islands, with only a small number inhabited, boasts a breathtaking coastline, abundant wildlife (from sea birds to marine life) and plenty of history. The Shetland Museum & Archives in Lerwick hosts exhibits relating to the original Shetlanders. No trip to these islands is complete without seeing their famous Shetland ponies, which can be found grazing or roaming the hills.
Belfast, Northern Ireland. The birthplace of the RMS Titanic features an impressive museum experience at the Titanic Belfast, a shimmering aluminum-clad structure built to resemble the sunken ship's hull. The UNESCO World Heritage site of the Giant's Causeway, considered the eighth natural wonder of the world, is a must-visit attraction near Belfast. The sight of 40,000 massive, interlocking basalt columns along the sea is so striking that you'll have to see it to believe it. Legend has it that giants strode over the sea to Scotland using the columns.
Liverpool, England. Take a magical mystery tour through the birthplace of The Beatles. Spend a few hours at The Beatles Story, the largest exhibit in the world dedicated to the four famous lads from Liverpool. Learn how these ambitious young men conquered the planet with their iconic music. Get up close with outfits, original instruments and even John Lennon's spectacles. See famous landmarks, including Penny Lane, Strawberry Field and the band's childhood homes. No visit is complete without setting foot inside the famed Cavern Club, a shrine to where the Fab Four played hundreds of gigs in their early days. (A replica Cavern Club can be found onboard some of Norwegian's newer ships.)
St. Petersburg, Russia. The cultural capital of Russia offers abundant opportunities to immerse yourself in its fascinating history. Travel back in time in the gilded palaces and onion-domed churches. Cruises usually have an overnight stay, so you can take in as many of the city's attractions as possible, from The State Hermitage Museum (the second-largest art museum after Paris' Louvre), Catherine Palace and Peterhof Palace and Gardens to the impressively restored Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood and St. Isaac's Cathedral. Leave time at night to catch the city's world-famous Mariinsky Ballet.
Embark in Amsterdam. To minimize time on the North Sea and its unpredictable weather conditions, book a cruise that departs from Amsterdam rather than Southampton. Amsterdam is a major international hub with connections to many U.S. airports, so getting there should be easy. Come a day or two early to explore the "Venice of the North."
Arrive early. As with most European and U.K.-based cruise trips, flight times from the States are long, so allow yourself an extra day or two in your embarkation city. This also gives you a chance to explore at your leisure, relax and fight jet lag before your ocean voyage.
Bring layers. If you are cruising during months other than July and August, you are likely to come across cold and rainy weather on the North Sea. Bring a jacket, raincoat and warm clothing for shore excursions. Gloves and hats might be needed if you are visiting Eastern European countries in the shoulder season.
Bring your passport ashore. If you are getting off the ship in Russia, bring your passport with you. While European nations don't require you to present it upon arrival, the Russian Federation won't let anyone in without examining your passport and shore excursion tickets. You can also obtain an individual visa ahead of the cruise if you want to embark on non-ship affiliated outings.
Keep track of currency (or use a card). On trips to the British Isles and most of Europe, you might need pounds, euros, or even dollars in some cases. Russia uses the ruble, but if you don't have time to exchange currency and still want to purchase some Russian dolls, there are shops by the cruise terminal that accept foreign currency or credit cards. Keep in mind that if you do use pounds/euros/dollars, change will be given in local currency. Bring at least two credit cards from different networks in case one is not accepted (and at least one without foreign transaction fees is recommended).