10 Tips on How to Explore a Major Cruise Port City

What would you do if you arrived in a place and knew you might never get back there again? This should be the logic every cruise, vacation flier or business travelers should adopt when visiting a foreign city for the first time. Your approach should be structured, not thought up on the fly.

Think about it: Airlines tend to fly into world business centers. New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris and Frankfurt are a few examples. Cruise ships tend to sail to or from major port cities that are shipping hubs. New York, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Singapore and Hamburg are examples. There might be some overlap, but ocean-going vessels cannot sail to inland cities. Excepting river cruises, no big ships sail to Frankfurt, Paris or London.  Your cruise is starting, stopping or ending at a certain port city. How can you take advantage of this opportunity?

First: Study in advance. The cruise line or tourism bureau might provide information, but this might be the superficial, 30,000-foot level. Buy a good travel book or do online research, building a file about the place you are visiting.

Let us assume you have some free time or have chosen to explore the city on your own. How should you approach this project?

  1. Buy a good map. This is done a month or two in advance. The maps ships and hotels distribute are often simplified or only cover the area close to the pier. You want a very good map because you can mark off the sights you plan to see, judge the distance and determine how you will get from point to point.
  2. Is the city famous for certain foods? I regret we did not get to try the Flying Fish Sandwich in Barbados. The restaurant was out that day. England is famous for fish and chips. Normandy is well known for Calvados, an apple brandy. What is the food you must try? What is the best place to find it?
  3. Get away from the port area. Cities build airports on open space. Piers tend to be in run-down parts of the city. This is a mistake I have made several times. I walk off the ship, looked around at this run down section of town, reboarded the ship and told my wife, “It’s a dump. Don’t bother.” Find where the upscale part of the city is located. If transportation is a problem, book the ship tour that takes you there.
  4. Try to get away from the touristy areas. This can be tougher than it sounds if you are in the Caribbean and the island’s economy is based on tourism. In Bermuda, we try to walk a couple of blocks deeper into town, seeking out the supermarkets and wine shops where the locals go. You want to get a feeling for how the locals live their lives.
  5. Is this city famous for its music? New Orleans is a good example. They are known for jazz. It is highly likely the city does a fine job keeping that particular tradition alive. If your research indicates music is part of cultural history, find out where you can sample it.
  6. What are the best restaurants in town? Your ship provides all your meals, but dining ashore is a good idea too. The Michelin Guide is available online. It can tell you which restaurants they recognized, which are worth a detour and ones representing good value. You should be able to access the menus online and book a reservation too. It makes sense to try the best the city has to offer.
  7. Are they famous for wine or liquor? If you are in the Caribbean, you know rum based drinks are very popular. You know France is famous for wine, produced in many regions. It has often been said in wine areas, the best wines never leave the region. Why? Because certain producers have a small output and it gets bought up by local restaurants and residents in the know. If you are a wine or liquor fan, see if you can go around on a tour of a famous producer.
  8. What sights are famous? New York has an abundance of sights. It has some of the most famous museums in the world. It has the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, the 9/11 Memorial and the Freedom Tower. Bilbao, Spain has the Guggenheim Museum. Paris has the Eiffel Tower. It would be embarrassing to return home and be asked: “Did you see (famous site)?” then reply “No.”
  9. Are any festivals taking place? These can be lots of fun, showcasing local life. Some are run almost exclusively for tourists. Others are citywide events. New York has street fairs and block parties. Many cities have a St. Patrick’s Day parade. It is fun to attend, feel like a local and get into the spirit.
  10. Is the city famous for certain products? Amsterdam and Antwerp in the Netherlands are famous for diamonds. Peru is famous for emeralds. Sri Lanka was once known as Ceylon and famous for sapphires. On a more down to Earth level, Florence is famous for fine paper and leather goods. Hong Kong is famous for custom tailed clothing. If you can find the genuine article and you are happy with the price, this makes a good souvenir.

If you approach your visit from the point of view, “I might never pass this way again” you can make the most of every moment of your visit. If you absolutely loved every moment, you can make plans to return.

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Cover photo: Strasbourg (France) Cathedral ceiling ©Dennis Cox/WorldViews


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