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Townhouses in Bath, England (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

Top 12 Historic Sites to See on an Ireland and British Isles Cruise

Townhouses in Bath, England (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
Gayle Keck
Senior SEO Editor
Kyle Valenta

Mar 27, 2024

Read time
13 min read

The British Isles and Ireland are a treasure trove of history — from ancient to modern and everything in between. That cultural wealth helps make a cruise in this region — with stops in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, and the Republic of Ireland — a must-do for history and culture lovers alike.

If Ireland and the U.K have you dreaming of towering castles, prehistoric monoliths, centuries-old cathedrals, rolling green hills, and maybe a certain rock band that changed the course of Western music's history, you can likely find it on a cruise. In fact, there are so many itinerary choices and so many ports of call that you might find it all a bit boggling.

Excepting London (there are simply too many historic sights to count there), we've rounded up the best historic sights to see on a cruise through the British Isles and Ireland.

To help you plan, also consider checking out our guide to the best shore excursions you can book on a British Isles cruise.

Stonehenge: Salisbury (Southampton), England

Stonehenge in England (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

Stonehenge likely needs no introduction. It's easily one of the most popular excursions on a cruise in the British Isles and Ireland (and for travelers on land as well).

One of Britain's most mysterious ancient sites was likely first built at least 5,000 years ago. The vast complex held great significance for ancient inhabitants of what we now call Britain, and the mysteries the stones hold have drawn visitors by the millions in more modern times.

The stone circles include 50-ton megaliths that were dragged 20 miles from where they were quarried. You have to see Stonehenge in person to fully realize the monumental task these ancients faced. The setting operates as a solar calendar, but beyond that, research continues on its true purpose.

Keep in mind that most shore excursions don't include direct access to the stone circle and a thin rope separates visitors from the stones. Inner Circle or Special Access tickets are sold to enter the circle and walk around, though you'll need to check whether those hours align with your port time and travel time to the site. You will also likely have to book an independent visit.

Pro Tip: Many shore excursions to Stonehenge also include Salisbury, which is famous for its 13th-century cathedral, graced with the tallest spire in England. The town itself is delightful, with half-timbered houses, medieval walls and a sprinkling of other architecture through the ages. It's well worth choosing a tour that takes you there, as well as Stonehenge.

Nearest Port: Southampton

Edinburgh Old Town and Castle: Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh Castle in Scotland (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

Crammed onto high ground near Edinburgh Castle, Old Town is a wonderful mishmash of narrow streets, dead-end alleys and 16th-century buildings begging to be photographed. Most visitors head for the Royal Mile, the byway that connects the castle with Holyrood Palace, but you'd do well to explore the cute shops tucked away on streets like West Bow.

Once you've had your fill of city strolls, head to Edinburgh Castle. It's more of a complex than a single castle, with structures dating from the 12th century to the 16th century. Check out the Scottish royal jewels (known as the Honors of Scotland); the Great Hall, with its intricate 16th-century roof; and the castle vaults, with carvings made by prisoners of war hundreds of years ago. The views are spectacular, and if you're there at 1 p.m. (except Sundays), you can also witness the firing of the One O'Clock Gun, a tradition dating to 1861, which helped mark the time for ships in the Firth of Forth.

Tip: Edinburgh's New Town area is also part of the city's UNESCO-designated heritage status, although, in this case, new is a relative term. The gracious Georgian architecture and wide streets stand in stark contrast to jumbled Old Town. If you have time, it's well worth a visit. (And if you're wondering why some windows are bricked up, it's because the thrifty Scots were averse to paying taxes, which were assessed based on the number of windows. Yet Georgian design principles demanded symmetry.)

Nearest Port: Edinburgh (Leith or Roseth)

The Titanic Museum: Belfast, Northern Ireland

The Titanic Museum in Belfast (Photo: Adam Coulter)

No ship in the history of humankind has fascinated imaginations like the Titanic. From movies and immersive experiences to pie-in-the-sky plans to build a Titanic 2, this ship is a seafaring icon (albeit one borne out of very real tragedy).

Titanic Belfast, as the ship's sparkling museum is called, now sits on the grounds of the Harland & Wolff offices and the Hamilton Graving Dock, where the construction on the ship began in 1909.

Visitors can expect a plethora of exhibits on the history of the ship and how it was built, as well as information about the history of Belfast, workers in the early 20th century and plenty of memorabilia.

For more detailed information, check out our guide to visiting the Titanic museum in Belfast.

Pro Tip: You'll likely have plenty of time in port in Belfast, so consider visiting Titanic Belfast independently. This will give you more time to pore over the Titanic's history as well as a stop at other popular destinations like St. George's Market or Crumlin Road Gaol.

Nearest Port: Belfast

Trinity College and The Book of Kells: Dublin, Ireland

The Book of Kells is a rock star of medieval manuscripts. Scholars date the work to around the year 800 and believe it was created on the Scottish island of Iona, then transferred to Kells in Ireland for safekeeping following a Viking raid. Today, the Book of Kells resides at the Old Library of Trinity College Dublin, where it's been kept since the mid-1800s.

The lavishly decorated manuscript contains the four gospels, written in Latin. When you visit, you'll first enter an exhibition that provides context about the Book of Kells. You'll then proceed to the Treasury, where two of the book's four volumes are displayed, one opened to show a major illustration and the other opened to text. Visits also include a tour of the the Long Room (the library's stunning main space), which houses 200,000 of the library's oldest books.

Pro Tip: Visiting the Book of Kells is tops on my visitors' lists when they visit Dublin by land or by sea. You can avoid crowds by visiting at lunchtime, if possible, as an independent traveler. If you choose to go your own way, you can book timed tickets online.

Nearest Port: Dublin

The Giant's Causeway and Irish Whiskey: Bushmills (Belfast), Northern Ireland

Close up of the basalt columns that make up the Giant's Causeway (Photo: Cruise Critic member Cruising_Canuck)

The Giant's Causeway started forming 60 million years ago as a result of volcanic activity. Over time, lava eruptions and flows formed more than 40,000 basalt columns, most with six sides, creating a striking honeycomb effect that today defines this stretch of coast.

Legend says the columns are part of a giant's pathway, built when an Irish giant challenged a Scottish giant to a battle. Indeed, there is a similar formation across the water on the Scottish island of Scaffa.

Visit the Grand Causeway, and step from column to column. Don't miss a photo op sitting in the Wishing Chair. More distant sights include the Organ Pipes and the Giant's Boot. There's also a visitors' center, offering food, shopping and exhibits illuminating the causeway's formation and myths.

Tip: Some cruise lines offer exclusive Bushmills Irish Whiskey tastings as part of their excursions to the Giant's Causeway from Belfast. You can also visit the Bushmills Distillery itself. Check if your cruise includes that in a shore excursion or consider an independent tour that combines both.

Nearest ports: Belfast

Canterbury Cathedral: Canterbury, England

If the name Canterbury rings a bell, it's probably thanks to the famous "Canterbury Tales" by Chaucer. His fictional book features stories told by pilgrims who traveled from London to visit the famous Gothic cathedral. Today, it's still the main seat of the Anglican church, with a rich history to explore.

Thomas Becket was murdered there in 1170 and sainted shortly thereafter, inspiring thousands of pilgrims to visit. The cathedral is also home to a who's who of tombs, including many archbishops and Edward the Black Prince. But, in the end, the architecture alone is the star of the show.

Tip: The Romans were also in Canterbury, and the Roman Museum in Canterbury includes mosaics and a reconstructed marketplace.

Nearest Port: Dover

History of The Beatles: Liverpool, England

A tribute band playing at the rebuilt Cavern Club in Liverpool, U.K. (Photo: Cruise Critic Member Holly1A)

Liverpool itself, and nearby destinations in Wales, contain a wealth of historic treasures and beautiful landscapes. A visit to the cafes, restaurants and shops of the 19th-century Royal Albert Docks are a step back in Liverpool's maritime history, and you can tour the castle and ramparts in Conwy in Wales on a shore excursion.

However, Liverpool is a must for fans of rock 'n' roll and The Beatles. Paul McCartney and John Lennon met here in 1957 and, well, the rest is history.

Today, Liverpool is home to all manner of Beatles tours and experiences, including the Liverpool Beatles Museum and The Beatles Story Museum, Liverpool. Numerous tours, like the wildly popular Beatles Magical Mystery Tour, and shore excursions take in several sites in and around Liverpool (such as Strawberry Fields). You'll find them offered by most cruise lines that visit Liverpool, including Celebrity and Holland America.

Pro Tip: Choosing to go independent in Liverpool gives you more freedom to add local historic sites to your agenda, like the Liverpool Cathedral or time at the Royal Albert Docks. It's a quick 10-minute cab to the city centre from the cruise port.

Nearest Port: Liverpool

The White Cliffs and Dover Castle: Dover, England

The iconic White Cliffs of Dover (Photo: GlennV/Shutterstock)

Dover is a common point of departure for cruises, thanks to its proximity to London. Over the centuries, the city and wider region has played a huge role in protecting the U.K. from waves of invasions and even had a role in WWII. That's perhaps no surprise, as this region is the closest point in the U.K. to continental Europe.

A major part of those defenses are natural. The White Cliffs of Dover (and the shoreline of the wider Jurassic Coast, of which the cliffs are a part) have historically been leveraged as a natural defense against invading armies — to uneven success. France's Louis VIII was able to mount the cliffs and occupy the city for three months in the early 13th century before being thrown out.

Even if you're not keen on military history, the chalk-white cliffs are beautiful to behold and leave an indelible print on the imagination.

Pro Tip: The White Cliffs of Dover can be viewed from numerous points and walking trails (and as you depart the city on your ship). For a manmade addition to this city's guardianship of the U.K., check out Dover Castle, which dates back as early as the 12th century. The castle also played a role in WWII, when Dover was one of the most heavily bombarded cities in the U.K.

Nearest Port: Dover

Natural Thermal Baths: Bath, England

Roman baths in Bath (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

Bath has been attracting tourists ever since the Roman era, thanks to its natural hot springs. When you visit, you can see the remains of the Roman baths, as well as the 18th-century baths that were all the rage among Georgian high society. That water still comes out at a piping 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit).

The town gets its look today from that earlier era as well, with terraced houses and lovely crescents, where the facades form a curve. The whole city has a golden hue, thanks to the stone used to construct most buildings. When you visit, you'll soon understand why entire place is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tip: Bath is also home to the modern Thermae Bath Spa, with a vast open-air thermal pool where you can take in the waters (and some great views).

Nearest ports: Bristol (closest), Southampton and Portland

Belfast's Peace Walls and Murals: Belfast, Northern Ireland

For years, Belfast was a battleground between Protestants and Catholics (respectively, loyalists to the British crown and those wanting to unite with independent Ireland). The Troubles, as they're known, are mostly a thing of the past, but those interested in Northern Ireland's political history can visit moving and impactful remnants of the city's struggles.

The so-called peace walls were built to separate Protestant and Catholic communities, and now they're covered with murals and wishes for peace from around the world. The Cupar Way wall, separating Falls Road (Catholic) and Shankill Road (Protestant), is one of the most vivid.

Belfast is home to more than 300 murals, including memorials to the 1981 Hunger Strikes, the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising as well as some murals that still depict loyalty to the British crown.

Tip: A black-taxi tour is a great way to see the peace walls, murals and other Belfast sights. Drivers can tailor tours to your interests and give you a personal perspective on "The Troubles."

Nearest port: Belfast

Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle: Inverness (Invergordon), Scotland

Loch Ness in Scotland (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

How can you possibly visit Scotland without attempting to spot Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster? And docking in Invergordon, we've definitely been greeted by signs jokingly claiming that if we'd arrived the following day, we would be guaranteed to see the infamous monster.

Even if Nessie is in hiding, you'll get some magnificent views of the Loch and the romantic ruins of Urquhart Castle. The castle was blown up in 1692, but among the remains is a five-story tower that offers the best viewpoint out over the 23-mile-long loch. There's also a visitors' center and a plentiful gift shop. Pick up your stuffed Nessie there.

Pro Tip: If you can, choose a tour that also visits the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition in nearby Drumnadrochit. It presents the cases for and against Nessie from a scientific perspective and also analyzes some interesting hoaxes.

Nearest port: Invergordon

The Blarney Stone: Cork, Ireland

According to legend, if you kiss the Blarney Stone, you'll be able to pull some fancy tricks with your words. However, acquiring this legendary power isn't the easiest of tasks.

First, visitors climb up to Blarney Castle's parapet, then bend over backwards to kiss the stone while holding onto metal bars. (Take heart, though -- in the past, visitors were held by the ankles and lowered to put lips to rock.) The castle and stone date to 1446, and many tales surround the stone's origin. The castle itself is a partial ruin, but it's possible to visit several rooms.

Temper your expectations here. A visit to the Blarney Stone can involve standing in line upwards of an hour for a moment with the stone itself. If it's a bucket-list item for you, or you want a fun story, by all means the Blarney Stone is for you. But if you don't want to risk long lines and, perhaps, not being able to actually kiss the stone due to the wait, you may want to consider a different excursion when you port in Cork (Cobh).

Tip: The castle is surrounded by gardens, including an Irish garden, a fern garden and a bog garden. But the most unusual of all is the Poison Garden, home to poisonous plants from around the world. The Poison Garden is where you'll find Harry Potterish species like wolfsbane and mandrake, as well as ricin, opium and cannabis. Placards describe their history and uses.

Nearest port: Cork (Cobh)

Updated March 27, 2024
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