Britain and Ireland’s best historic sites to visit on a cruise

Advice

Many key historic attractions spread around the British Isles can be visited on a cruise. We have picked out a selection that are easily reachable on day trips from ports of call in England, Wales, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

For each we have highlighted the nearest port, and given approximate driving times from there. Sometimes the attraction can be visited from another port: for example, Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral are also popular excursions from Portland.

We have named a particular cruise line featuring excursions to each sight; in most cases, other lines will offer excursions too. Bear in mind that sometimes it can be more enjoyable and/or cheaper to visit independently or on a private tour.

Canterbury Cathedral

Mother church of the Church of England, place of worship for 1,400 years and historic pilgrimage site. Highlights include the shrine to Thomas Becket, the medieval stained glass, the beautiful Cloister and ancient murals in the Crypt.

Closest port: Dover (30 minutes)

Excursion offered by: Viking Cruises

HMS Victory in Portsmouth

HMS Victory

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Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

Home to several of Britain’s most famous vessels, such as HMS Victory (Nelson’s flagship from the Battle Trafalgar), HMS Warrior (Britain’s first iron-hulled battleship), and Henry VIII’s recovered warship The Mary Rose.

Closest port: Portsmouth (10 minutes); otherwise Southampton (45 minutes)

Excursion offered by: Silversea

Stonehenge 

On a cruise-ship visit, your time at the world’s most famous prehistoric monument is likely to be quite limited. Grab an audio guide, take the shuttle bus straightaway out to the stone circle, and make a circuit around it spotting the alignments with the summer and winter solstices. If possible, allow time at the end of your visit for the exhibition centre, which has good displays on Stonehenge’s development and the significance of the surrounding landscape of Salisbury Plain for early man.

Closest port: Southampton (one hour)

Excursion offered by: Princess Cruises

Stonehenge

Stonehenge, a must-visit for many, is easy to teach from Southampton

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Salisbury Cathedral

A wonderful example of Early English Gothic architecture, set in the largest (and arguably loveliest) cathedral close in Britain. The tallest medieval spire in Europe, the world’s oldest working mechanical clock, and one of only four surviving copies of the Magna Carta.

Closest port: Southampton (45 minutes)

Excursion offered by: Princess Cruises

Corfe Castle

Crowning a hilltop on Dorset’s Isle of Purbeck, this is arguably England’s most memorably located castle. Dating from Norman times, it was slighted – deliberately blown up to prevent it from being used again – in the English Civil War.

Closest port: Portland (45 minutes)

Excursion offered by: Oceania Cruises

St Michael’s Mount

This tidal island, accessed by a causeway at low tide or otherwise a ferry, is Cornwall’s photogenic counterpart to Normandy’s Mont St Michel. The cluster of buildings at the summit encompass an ancient priory church, fortress and mansion, lived in by the same family since 1659.

Closest port: Falmouth (50 minutes)

Excursion offered by: Windstar Cruises

St Michael's Mount

St Michael’s Mount

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Roman Baths

Britain’s most engrossing Roman site was created in 70 AD around natural hot springs. Lying in the centre of the Georgian city of Bath, it includes a huge bathing complex to explore, and fascinating finds from the temple to the goddess of the springs.  

Closest port: Bristol (50 minutes)

Excursion offered by: Seabourn

Book of Kells

The world’s most famous medieval manuscript is a richly decorated copy of the Gospels, created back in the 9th century. It’s displayed in Trinity College Dublin’s Old Library, whose barrel-vaulted Long Room is also a stunner.

Closest port: Dublin (15 minutes)

Excursion offered by: Norwegian Cruise Line

Beumaris castle

Beumaris Castle’s surroundings add to its beauty

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Beaumaris Castle

One of four imposing fortresses built by the English monarch King Edward I in north Wales. Designed with geometric symmetry and made up of concentric defensive walls, the unfinished edifice is billed as the most technically perfect medieval castle in Britain.

Closest port: Holyhead (40 minutes)

Excursion offered by: Viking Cruises

Titanic Belfast

Housed in a vast and dramatic aluminium-clad structure, this award-winning museum stands where the ill-fated ship was designed, built and launched. Nine high-tech, interactive galleries tell the story, and you can visit an original tender to the Titanic.

Closest port: Belfast (10 minutes)

Excursion offered by: Saga Cruises

Skara Brae

Wander around Skara Brae during a voyage to the Orkney Islands

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Skara Brae

The most fascinating of Mainland Orkney’s Neolithic sites – a 5,000-year-old settlement of remarkably intact stone houses, preserved under a sand dune until a storm in 1850 exposed them to the elements. Excursions also take in other prehistoric monuments on the island such as the Ring of Brodgar, Britain’s third-largest ancient stone circle.

Closest port: Kirkwall (30 minutes)

Excursion offered by: Cruise & Maritime Voyages

Edinburgh Castle

The Scottish capital’s most imposing landmark lords it over the city from its setting atop a volcanic rock, and has served as a fortress, royal palace, military garrison and prison. Among the many highlights are Britain’s oldest crown jewels and the firing of the One o’clock Gun (daily except Sundays).

Closest port: Rosyth (40 minutes) or South Queensferry (30 minutes)

Excursion offered by: Fred Olsen Cruises

Edinburgh Castle

You can’t miss the Edinburgh landmark

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Durham Cathedral

Constructed between 1093 and 1133 to house the shrine of St Cuthbert, the austere cathedral is the finest ecclesiastical building in England from the Norman period. Herculean pillars carved with chevron patterns line the nave, below a rib-vaulted stone roof that was ground-breaking in design when built. The cathedral’s setting, on a peninsula rising above the wooded banks of the River Wear, is also special.

Closest port: Newcastle (40 minutes)

Excursion offered by: Seabourn

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