Having grown up near and on the water, I love anything to do with boats. That said, you will probably never find me on a large cruise ship because I like flexibility and hate crowds when traveling. After the pandemic more than ever. But there are alternatives that give you the thrill of being on the water, feeling the wind in your hair, standing at the bow, looking ahead at your new destination from the water, which I think is just so much more fun than landing at an airport.
Despite my dislike of cruises, I have a distinct love of ferries. Go figure. A short, purposeful, and more often than not, cheap ferry filled with locals thrills me. It does not matter where I go, if there is a funicular or a ferry, I’ll be on it. And if it can take the place of a flight, even better, because just like with train travel, travel on a ferry it is just as much about the journey as it is about the destination.
Here is a selection of ferry trips within Europe that take you from one country to the next, across various seas, along rivers, or simply from one end of a city to the other. All have been chosen for their ease of use, great scenery along the way, convenience, or their way of providing an inexpensive alternative to a touristy boat trip.
Step aboard, and bon voyage.
Editor's Note: If you're looking to travel Europe by train, we've got you covered, too.
1. Countless Ferries In Istanbul, Turkey
One of the reasons that Istanbul is such a beautiful destination is not only its extensive history, but also the fact that it stretches across the Golden Horn waterway, the Bosphorus strait, and along the Sea of Marmara, all of which are crisscrossed by countless ferries. Hopping on a selection of these ferries should be near the top of your to-do list when exploring Istanbul. Most leave from the inner-city hub of Eminonu by the Galata Bridge. From here, you can catch a ferry to the colorful suburb of Balat; across to Uskudar on the Asian side; or up the Bosphorus toward the Black Sea. All tickets are cheap and easily bought at ticketing machines, and these normal commuter ferries will allow you to see all the sights from the water, travel past the smaller islands like Maiden’s Tower, and enjoy the sunshine while you go -- all without paying the extortionate prices for the organized tourist harbor cruises.
Pro Tip: Plan for a stop in Ortakoy to see the pretty mosque and enjoy the little market with its food stalls.
2. Stockholm, Sweden, To Helsinki, Finland
Traveling from the Swedish capital of Stockholm to the Finish capital of Helsinki by overnight ferry is probably the closest you will come to a cruise in this selection. Competing lines Viking Line and Tallink Silja Line have decked out their ships with saunas, restaurants serving local delicacies, and various other comforts. The ferries leave in the afternoon and arrive the next morning around 10 a.m., so you have plenty of time to stay on deck to take in the Swedish archipelago, with its countless small islands dotted with tiny, wooden huts, and also enjoy the ship itself. You can get a good night’s sleep before heading back on deck for the arrival in Finland.
Pro Tip: It is best to have either an early dinner, straight after departure, or a late one, after sunset, because the second and third hours after departure from Stockholm are the most scenic.
3. Venice To Burano, Italy
When in Venice, do as the locals do and catch a vaporetto, or waterbus, to the colorful little island of Burano. Vaporetti 12 and 14 leave from either San Zaccaria (near St. Mark’s Basilica) or Fondamente Nove and head to Burano, stopping at the glass-making island of Murano and continuing onto Mazzorbo and Torcello. Sitting on this large waterbus, you can spend all day on the waters of the Venetian Lagoon, enjoying the views and the other islands as you go.
Pro Tip: Buy a day ticket (or a three-day ticket, depending on how long you are staying for) to get unlimited access to public transport. This way, you can hop on and off, spending a few happy hours exploring the various islands.
4. Algeciras, Spain, To Tangier, Morocco
The Strait of Gibraltar is the stretch of water that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea and divides Europe from Africa. On a clear day, you can spot one continent while standing on the other, and there are plenty of ferries making the quick connection between the ports. While there are many other crossings, my favorite ferry route is between Algeciras and Tangier because you sail right past Gibraltar with great views of the rock, and Tangier is a superb setting-off point for exploring Morocco.
Pro Tips: There are several ferry companies doing this route, with around 30 sailings every day. You can choose from fast, 1.5-hour crossings to slower ones, taking 2.5 hours. All ferries are open to foot passengers as well as vehicles.
5. Barcelona To Mallorca, Spain
While you are in Spain, you might want to check out the Balearic Islands. One good way of connecting from the mainland is to take the ferry from Barcelona to Mallorca or maybe Ibiza, depending on your preference. The crossings take six to seven hours, allowing you a day on the Mediterranean Sea to enjoy the sun, sea, and sights.
Pro Tip: There are two ferry operators that offer different itineraries, so you could opt for a night crossing in a cabin if you have connections to consider on your return trip.
6. Saint-Malo, France, To Jersey Island
Setting off from beautiful Saint-Malo and taking the 1.5-hour-long, twice-daily sailing to the Bailiwick of Jersey is a lovely experience, especially once you get closer to the island. Condor Ferries operates a no-nonsense, easy-to-use ferry that’s open to both foot passengers and vehicles, with restaurants and shopping onboard.
Pro Tip: Despite the short distance, it is worth paying a few dollars for an upgrade to the Horizon Lounge, as you will get seats with great views from the inside.
7. Athens To Santorini, Greece
Sailing through the Greek Islands by cruise ship is a popular route, and not surprisingly so. The beauty of the islands set against the Mediterranean Sea is unbeatable. But traveling by ferry between the islands allows you far more flexibility at a more affordable price. Head off from the Athens port of Piraeus and head for that oh-so-picturesque island of Santorini. Yes, Santorini is touristy, but you simply cannot beat those white and blue buildings nestled in the mountains. And on the way, you will spot many other islands and can enjoy being on the turquoise sea -- while contemplating which island to hop to next. Ferryhopper has more on ferrying from Athens to Santorini here.
Pro Tip: There are many operators and ships, including slower car ferries and faster catamarans and hydrofoils. Choose carefully, as some of the faster ferries do not have open decks, and you will spend your time indoors, missing the views.
8. Split To Dubrovnik, Croatia
Croatia has arguably the best coastline in Europe. It’s full of beaches, bays, islands, and medieval seaside towns, and the best way to enjoy the sights is by boat. There are plenty of organized tours and cruises, but the local ferries do the same job with more flexibility at a lower cost. Consider the trip from the seaside resort town of Split to the fortified city of Dubrovnik for maximum impact. You will not be able to pry yourself away from the views, I promise. Regular ferries operate up and down the coast, and this is just one option of many.
Editor’s Note: This isn’t the first time we've written about seeing Croatia by boat -- it truly is worth your while.
Pro Tip: Dubrovnik gets terribly crowded, so you might want to time your sailing to arrive in the afternoon, when the crowds start to thin out.
9. Central London To Greenwich, UK
This isn’t a cruise ship but a waterbus, albeit one with the best seats in the house. Taking the waterbus from central London toward Greenwich is a veritable sightseeing tour that offers views of Westminster, St Paul’s, the Globe Theatre, the many bridges, Tate Modern, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, and many more, all at the price of a bus ticket. Here is the map of the river (and all the things you’ll see along the way).
Pro Tip: If you are spending a few days in London, invest in an Oyster card for all public transport options.
Destinations mentioned in this article: