We’ve gone on three Disney cruises now – two in the Mediterranean and one in northern Europe – and stopped at 20 different ports. At those stops we’ve done a little of everything on our shore excursions: we’ve booked official Disney Port Adventures; we’ve booked our own private or group shore excursions, and we’ve wandered around without booking anything. To assist with your own planning, here’s how we planned our own shore excursions and how it worked out.
Athens, Greece Shore Excursions
Here’s what you don’t want to do in Athens – book a large group tour that goes straight to the Parthenon/Acropolis. You’ll be there with busloads and busloads of day-trippers, taking away from the experience of visiting one of the world’s great sites. Instead, we booked a foodie walking tour with Athens Walking Tours. Roughly 15 of us walked through the streets and markets of Athens, led by a guide who purchased unique Greek dishes for us along the way and discussed the Athens food scene. It was a good tour, with our kids trying most of the foods, and at the end of the tour our guide led us up to the Parthenon. This was a perfect time to visit (mid-afternoon) since most other people on shore excursions had already come and gone. We ended in the Plaka area before taking a shuttle back to the port. If it’s your only time in Athens you may want to book a private tour seeing more of the historical sites, but we had a successful day.
Akureyri, Iceland Shore Excursions
There are a number of sites around Akureyri that you don’t want to miss during your Disney cruise – Gullfoss Waterfall, Lake Mytvan, Hverir with its suphur pits, steaming fumaroles and mud pools, and the chasm where North America and Europe literally collide. We took a small 16-person tour with Saga Tours, which was priced roughly the same as Disney’s official big-bus excursion. Because we had fewer people, though, we visited several more locations than Disney cruise excursions did. Our kids’ highlight was the spot where the continental plates collided. The Disney buses never made it there.
Barcelona, Spain Shore Excursions
Barcelona was the embarkation point for one of our Disney cruise destinations and the final stop for two of our cruises. I’m including it here because we booked one of the official Disney excursions at the end of our first cruise, a day trip to Montserrat. Upon arrival into port, we arranged for our luggage to be sent to the airport and then boarded the bus. There were only 15 or so people on the Disney excursion, and we had a great time seeing the mountains north of Barcelona and the Benedictine abbey there. Afterwards we were dropped in the center of Barcelona, where we explored for a few hours before taking a taxi to the airport and meeting up with our luggage. It was a great way to kill time before our flight, and was our most-successful Disney Port Adventure.
Bergen, Norway Shore Excursions
Our stop in Bergen was only 5 1/2 hours – not nearly long enough to go sightseeing on the fjords. So we walked around town, did some shopping (we bought a Norwegian mailbox!), had coffee and pastries, and purchased large quantities of berries at the Fish Market in the middle of town. If it hadn’t been raining we would have taken the Funicular up Mount Fløyen. The area around Bergen is stunning so it was disappointing not to have more time in port.
Civitavecchia, Italy Shore Excursions
My philosophy on Florence and Rome is that, unless it’s your only opportunity to get to the cities, you don’t want to try to see them in half a day off of a cruise ship. Civitavecchia is the port stop for Rome. There will be at least a dozen buses leaving from the Disney Magic to take people into Rome on Disney cruise excursions, but you’re looking at almost an hour and a half of driving just to get the city, then more time on the bus (in traffic) going from site to site, enough time at the sites for some quick history and photos, a lot of time waiting for the 54 other people on the bus to go to the bathroom and get lunch, and an hour and a half back to the ship. That’s not enjoyable to me, and it’s not kid-friendly. Since we were opting out of Rome, we spent the day in Civitavecchia. It’s not an interesting town, but we had a casual lunch, found a playground and got gelato. If you really want to go to Rome, book a private tour – it would at least be at your pace and you would see more than with a large tour group. Look into other day-trip options as well that are closer than Rome, but which would get you out of Civitavecchia.
Ajaccio, Corsica, France Shore Excursions
Napoleon’s hometown is utterly walkable, with excellent restaurants, colorful produce markets and a gorgeous harbor. We explored for the day and had a great time. Any excursions would have taken us outside of town on windy mountain roads, which our kids don’t love, so we never considered booking anything.
Crete, Greece Shore Excursions
Anytime you’re able to meet up with locals and get a personalized tour, do it! We were fortunate to do this in Crete and again in Scotland. We decided to skip the Disney cruise excursions, and instead, a friend met us at the ship in Crete and showed us around the town of Heraklion. Next, we took a couple of taxis down the coast a few minutes to Ta Kalitera taverna and the surrounding beach – which we had practically to ourselves. Lunch at Ta Kalitera was excellent – one of our best meals in Greece.
Ephesus, Turkey Shore Excursions
For the Disney cruise destination Kusadasi, we booked a full-day shore excursion well in advance through Best of Ephesus. Işık was our guide, and one of the best guides we have had anywhere. She and a driver picked us up at the ship and we headed to the major sites. Işık was excellent at setting the order of our destinations (House of the Virgin Mary, the ancient city of Ephesus and the Temple of Artemis) to avoid other large groups as much as possible, which was difficult given that there were seven ships in port that day. Ephesus itself was crowded and hot, but she let us go at the kids’ pace, and she always tried to make things interesting for them.
When Işık noticed that our younger kids were getting a little tired, she added in a stop at a carpet weaving center – mainly just to get cold drinks and let the kids sit for a little bit. It turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. I’ve been to a lot of touristy “factories” around the world – stuck looking at cloisonné or jade or fabrics for half an hour because the guide and driver were getting kickbacks to take us there. This wasn’t like that. The guys at the center rolled out carpet after carpet for us to look at, and the kids ran around for an hour, helped unroll carpets, rolled around on the carpets and otherwise had a great time. We then had an excellent lunch next door to the carpet center, in a courtyard where the kids could play. Very good food, great location, and really enjoyable to spend more time talking to Işık. One of our two favorite shore excursions on this list.
Invergordon, Scotland Shore Excursions
Invergordon isn’t an interesting town, but there are a lot of great sites nearby. We met up with friends who drove us to Dunrobin Castle. We explored the castle, watched the falconry show (very cool) and then had lunch in nearby Golspie. We also explored the area between Dunrobin and the ship a little, finding seals and sea otters. It was a fun day, and we only heard positive things from the people on the ship who had chosen Loch Ness and other areas to explore.
Kirkwall, Scotland Shore Excursions
I mentioned above that we’ve had two favorite shore excursions. Kirkwall, in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, was the other. More than a year in advance I booked a full-day private tour with Lorna at See Orkney. She picked us up as soon as the ship docked and off we went. We started with two circles of standing stones not far from Kirkwall, since we wanted to see those sites before the big buses arrived, but then we headed off to explore the area.
We went to a working farm, to some burial mounds and to an excellent rural pub/brewery for lunch, and then drove out to the Brough of Birsay, an island that can only be reached at low tide. We let the kids play on the beach for a while as the tide was going down, when suddenly a walkway appeared linking the mainland and the island. It was so cool! We walked across and explored the Brough of Birsay, finding the ruins of old Viking settlements and, even better, puffins. Overall an amazingly fun day, and one in which we saw very few of the other 2,400 people from the ship. It made us want to return to the Orkney Islands in the future.
Kristiansand, Norway Shore Excursions
Kristiansand is a nice little town, with grassy areas for kids to play, excellent cafes and bakeries (Kjerstis Kjøkken especially), and good street markets. Having said that, this wasn’t a very exciting stop. Instead of giving us 6.5 hours in Kristiansand and 5.5 hours in Bergen, Disney should have skipped Kristiansand and given us enough time in Bergen to really explore. Maybe that’s not possible with cruise scheduling, but it’s difficult to understand what Disney thought we would do with a little over six hours in this small town.
La Spezia (or Livorno), Italy Shore Excursions
La Spezia was Disney’s port stop for Pisa and Florence. It’s now been replaced on most cruises by Livorno. My take on Florence is the same as Rome – unless this is the only chance you’re going to have to visit Florence, don’t try to see it in a day off of a cruise ship docked an hour and a half away. If you decide to go anyway, definitely don’t go with 54 others on a large bus. Book a small private tour so that you can fit more in and have the tour tailored to you and your kids. An alternative would be to book a private car to Pisa, Lucca or elsewhere in Tuscany – get away from the crowds, enjoy Italy and don’t try to see one of the world’s most amazing cities in a day.
We spent the day in La Spezia, a cute little town near the Cinque Terre. We lingered over cappuccino, shopped and enjoyed a long Italian lunch.
Mykonos, Greece Shore Excursions
There’s no need to book anything in Mykonos. Walk off the ship, head into town and get lost in the narrow, twisting passageways. Pick a café for lunch, get gelato and let your kids play on the beach. If your ship is there for sunset, walk up to the windmills for the best view. Mykonos isn’t my favorite Greek island for multi-day family trips given its popularity and the nightly party scene, but it’s a good cruise stop.
Naples, Italy Shore Excursions
Naples was our other semi-successful official Disney port shore excursion. We signed up for the half-day trip to Pompeii and had a good time. While the large group necessitated some waiting around for snack and bathroom breaks, overall it was a decent way to see Pompeii, and we enjoyed the guide. In the afternoon we dropped two of the kids at the Disney kids club on board and walked around town with our youngest child, getting pizza (of course).
Oslo, Norway Shore Excursions
Oslo has a lot of great sites and museums, all conveniently linked by public transportation. Download the OsloPass App in advance and buy one-day Oslo Passes through the app. With the passes pre-loaded, we walked off the ship and headed straight for the ferry to Bygdøy. We missed the ferry by seconds, so we turned around and walked one minute to the bus stop (near the Nobel Peace Prize Center) and took the next bus to Bygdøy instead. At Bygdøy we went to the Fram Museum, which showcases the Norwegian Arctic exploration vessel (my kids’ favorite museum in Oslo). The Kon Tiki Museum, Viking Ship Museum and Norwegian Folk Museum are all nearby and worthwhile as well.
From the peninsula, we hopped on a bus to Frogner/Vigeland Park, or as close to the park as we could get, and walked to the park and to the statue garden in the middle. We spent the better part of an hour there, walking through the statues, playing at the playground near the main entrance and throwing a Frisbee. We then took the T-Bane from nearby Majorstuen one stop to the center of town and walked down Karl Johans Gate to the Opera House, getting lunch on the way.
The kids loved running around the Opera House – be sure to head up to the roof. Then we took the T-Bane from the central station back to the National Theater and walked back to the ship. Total expense: only the Oslo Passes and lunch. If we had had a few more hours in town, I would have taken the T-Bane to Sognsvann, a gorgeous park with lakes and hiking trails, and gone to see The Scream at the National Gallery as well. And Holmenkollen can be fun, with its ski jump overlooking the city. So much to do! And no need to arrange a tour.
Palermo, Sicily Shore Excursions
We hadn’t intended to go to Palermo, but Disney substituted it in when they canceled their port stop in Tunis, Tunisia. We booked a Disney Port Adventure that included a quick city tour and a ceramics workshop. It was a truly terrible tour – too many people and disorganized, and our kids hated creating and painting ceramics with 40+ others. This tour was the primary reason we stopped booking anything through Disney.
Reykjavik, Iceland Shore Excursions
We had a two-day stop in Reykjavik. When we arrived in the early afternoon of day one, my wife and oldest daughter took a taxi to Laxnes Horse Farm and went horseback riding (on Icelandic horses naturally) for two hours and had a great time. I walked around Reykjavik with my other two kids, met up with friend, and headed to the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church for a great view over the city.
On day two we went to the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa. I had booked a shore excursion through Reykjavik Excursions, which picked us up at the ship at 8:30 and took us to the main bus station in town where we quickly transferred buses and went on to the Blue Lagoon. When we arrived we showed them our voucher (pre-purchased through Reykjavik Excursions), changed, showered and spent roughly an hour in the lagoon. We then showered again, hopped on one of the hourly buses back to town and were taken directly to the ship. It couldn’t have been easier and it cost us US$169 total (two adults at 77 Euros each and free for our three kids).
The exact same shore excursion was offered through Disney Port Adventures for $500 (two adults at $139 each and three children at $74 each). And if you went with Disney you had to wait in an entrance line, since you were arriving with 50+ others, and you had a set departure time. We could have stayed as long as we wanted and taken any of the hourly buses back to the ship. Another reason to always check out alternatives to the Disney shore excursions.
Rhodes, Greece Shore Excursions
We loved exploring Rhodes Town – one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe. We walked around the city and the palace, let the kids play in the moat (they highly recommend jumping off the piles of cannon balls) and had an excellent Greek lunch in a charming square under towering ficus trees. One of our best cruise stops. Be warned though – don’t get the black henna tattoos!
Santorini, Greece Shore Excursions
This is another island where you don’t need to arrange anything in advance unless you want to get out of the main cities and explore the lesser-traveled areas. We departed the ship as soon as we were able to, rode on donkeys up the hill to Fira, jumped in a taxi and headed to Oia for the day. Our favorite restaurant in the world is on the water below Oia (Dimitris Ammoudi Taverna), and we enjoyed an amazing three-hour lunch there before shopping a little, taking a bus back to Fira and then taking the cable car back down to the ship. It worked out perfectly, except that we wouldn’t ride on the donkeys again since we felt bad for them – it’s a hard life being a donkey walking up and down stone steps all day. Also, the line for the cable car down was 40 minutes or so. If we didn’t have a sleeping child we would have walked it.
Valletta, Malta Shore Excursions
We stopped in Valletta twice. The first time we simply walked around the town, got gelato and explored the Battery, gardens, and cathedral. The second time we booked a full-day private tour through TouringMalta. I don’t remember our guide interacting with our kids as much as others have, but it was a good tour and we were able to see a lot more of the island, including Marsaxlokk Fishing Village, the Blue Grotto (with a boat ride) and the medieval city of Mdina. The tour ended with a walk through Valletta, where we were given the history of the city and island – far more than we pieced together our first trip. We particularly liked Mdina and our lunch there.
Villefranche, France Shore Excursions
Villefranche was a nice, lazy stop for us. We wandered the steep, narrow streets, got amazing pastries (because France) and spent several hours on the stone beach while our kids played. We also could have easily taken a train to Nice, Cannes or Monaco, all just minutes away.
We made some mistakes our first cruise and shore excursions but learned from them. My general advice for these or any other cruise ports:
- Plan far in advance. As soon as you book your cruise, look at the ports and figure out where you want to do tours and where you don’t need to book anything. Some of our stops were in towns of 7,000 people. That means that there aren’t going to be a lot of private tour options. If you want the best guides and tours, contact them at least a year in advance.
- Choose the kid-friendliest option for your shore excursions or private tours. Ask yourself whether a 10-hour bus trip through a major city is something your young kids will enjoy.
- Look at the list of official Disney Port Adventures to get a feel for what to see at each stop, but don’t book shore excursions unless it’s your only option. With 55 people on a bus there’s going to be limited flexibility, and there can be delays for unscheduled bathroom stops. You’re also likely not getting the best pricing – Disney’s price for the Blue Lagoon port shore excursion in Reykjavik was three times as much as the exact same tour booked locally.
- To research the best private tour options, simply Google “day trips from Livorno” or wherever your stop is. And go to TripAdvisor, search for that city, and then look at Activities and Tours. Don’t go by the rankings, since those sometimes aren’t indicative of quality, but definitely read the reviews.
- Remember that your cruise is supposed to be relaxing. That includes the port stops. Don’t feel pressure to plan something in every port.
- My review of our first two Disney Cruises is HERE.
- My open letter to Disney about what they need to improve is HERE.
Everything above is based on our experiences at each Disney port and shore excursions, but I’d love to hear from you too. What have been your most successful or least successful European port stops? What would you recommend to others?