Jacques Brinon  /  AP file
People walk past the Latina Cafe, near the Champs Elysees in Paris. Paris is the home of some of the best nightlife and evening activities on the planet, including great sites for vibrant teenagers looking for nights to remember.
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updated 6/1/2006 2:52:59 PM ET 2006-06-01T18:52:59

Having spent six weeks this summer cruising on three different ships, we learned a few "hard knocks" lessons on getting the most out of cruising Europe.

The first was that visiting Europe via cruise ship was easily the most intensive sightseeing cruise experience ever. In the Caribbean, sure, there's history, but you can also mix and match laidback beach outings and boat trips (and not feel guilty). Alaska, most definitely, is all about the wilderness, but much of it can be passively explored -- from a seat on everything from a dog sled to a helicopter.

Popular European cruise itineraries offer a head-spinning array of choices. The first piece of advice? A day per port is by no means enough time to see anything, much less everything. The best way to stay sane is to treat each day as a "sampler" -- if you like it, plan to return for a lengthier stay another time. And if you don't -- and trust me, there will be ports that don't ring your chimes -- the good news is you haven't invested time and money in a long stay.

Europe's such a big place that on Cruise Critic we've divided it up into four basic regions (though you'll find that many itineraries will combine various ports from these regions). By and large though, here's a quick (and hopefully helpful) guide to choosing an itinerary:

Eastern Mediterranean: These cruises primarily feature ports of call in Croatia, Greece and Turkey. Embarkation and disembarkation points are commonly located in places like Piraeus (for Athens), Venice and Istanbul.

Western Mediterranean: These itineraries focus on Italy's west coast (with port-of-call stops that service cities like Rome and Florence), France's glittering Cote d'Azur, coastal Spain (from Barcelona all the way east to Cadiz/Seville) and Portugal (Lisbon).

British Isles and Western Europe: On these cruises -- which quite commonly do pull from various regions such as the Western Mediterranean and Northern Europe -- you'll sail to places like Belgium (Brugge/Brussels), Amsterdam, Dublin, Edinburgh, Paris/Normandy and Hamburg. The most common embarkation point is London (Dover, Harwich, Southampton and Tower Bridge).

Northern Europe: There are two distinctly different types of itineraries in Northern Europe. The first is Norway's west coast, where the prime attractions are its gorgeous fjords. Cruises often turn around from Copenhagen or London. The second is the Baltic region, one of Europe's major centers of art, culture and history; key destinations there include Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg and Copenhagen. Common ports of embarkation/disembarkation include London, Copenhagen and Stockholm.

Other lessons learned on our European cruises?

Wear comfortable shoes (pack several pairs) and plan on walking. A lot. Those charming cobblestone streets (ubiquitous throughout Europe) are hard on feet.

When shopping for a specific cruise, look carefully at the itinerary to see if there are any days at sea. You will appreciate the occasional "day off" between bouts of frantic sightseeing in port.

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Strategize your sightseeing by varying activities. If Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam are on the docket three days in a row, intensive city tours in each place will be overwhelming (and get monotonous). Look for the occasional alternative -- in Belgium go to medieval Brugge instead; if Paris doesn't appeal, take advantage of the proximity of its port (Le Havre) to major attractions in France's gorgeous Normandy region. The Baltic cruise is another region where it's a good idea to try out more "innovative" explorations because many of the Scandinavian cities, in particular, feel somewhat similar. Try a walking tour of Oslo, a kayaking-the-canals approach to Copenhagen, and just hanging out in easy-to-maneuver Stockholm.

Avoid sightseers' guilt. You only have a day in each destination (with a few exceptions -- cruise lines often offer overnights in Venice and St. Petersburg). You can't see everything so narrow down your choices -- and if you're tired of museums and just want to have a long lunch at a sidewalk cafe, well, that's a great experience too.

Seasonal timing is important in choosing the right trip for you. Hate crowds (but don't mind mercurial weather)? Plan to sail in April - early June and then again in September - October (fares also tend to be lower then). August is dicey because lots of restaurants and even attractions shut down for yearly vacations; if you're limited to school holiday times, try for late June - early July.

Making that once-in-a-lifetime trek to St. Petersburg and intend to explore independently? Beware of the visa issue. Russia requires U.S. citizens to obtain a visa in order to wander the streets (an exception applies to those booked on ship-sponsored excursions or through independent tour operators with the appropriate registration), and you must obtain it in advance of your trip (you will not be allowed off the dock without it). The cruise line has little incentive to help passengers on this issue, according to an executive at one line who said they profit much more if travelers buy their shore excursions -- and, perversely, the cruise lines usually supply the forms with your travel documents, which often arrive fairly close to your departure date.

The cost of a visa ranges from $70 - $150 (depending on whether your turnaround time is two weeks or overnight), and it must be obtained from the Russian embassy or a Russian consulate. Also consider a visa service, such as Zierer, which charges an extra fee. In this case the fee may well be worth it because qualifications are very exacting. You will need to submit two passport photos. For more info: http://www.visittorussia.com/.

Independent tour operators with the appropriate registration can provide customers with an "invitation" (also known as sponsorship) if you book in advance (allow at least two weeks). We tried that on our last visit and had a wonderful experience with Red October (http://www.redoctober.spb.ru/), one of St. Petersburg's best-known tour companies.

Looking for off-the-beaten-track souvenirs? Head for the supermarket and shop like a local. Great buys can be found on everything from locally made ceramics (Stockholm) to wine (France and Italy) to chocolate (Belgium), and you'll spend far less than at tourist-oriented shops. Another great spot is a locale's department store, for fashions and home furnishings like distinctive candlesticks and vases. Many cities have upscale handicraft boutiques for discerning (and generally quite affordable) "art." If you are buying tourist trinkets, do try to nab them at the destination. Cruise ship staffers frequently will pick up touristy tchockes to sell in the onboard shops with quite a high price markup.

Beware of shopping for items like pirated CDs and DVDs (huge in St. Petersburg) and Cuban cigars that are illegal to bring back into the U.S.

The independent-minded travelers' conundrum: when to book ship-organized shore excursions...and when it's more fun (and cheaper) to explore on your own. Some of the most interesting European destinations are located a fair distance, anywhere from an hour to three hours' drive, from the port itself. Among these? Le Havre (Paris), Civitavecchia (Rome), Livorno (Florence/Pisa), Dover, Harwich and Southampton (London), and Cadiz (Seville). In these ports, cruise lines offer basic bus transportation to the main city; this is a good idea because, should the bus return late to the dock, the ship will wait for you. Another time when shore excursions can be a good idea is in a place where you the language and customs are utterly foreign; in this instance, we recommend taking a ship tour the first day in St. Petersburg (and exploring on your own the second). Easy ports for independent exploring include Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen (all have very sophisticated tourism offices that provide as much information -- historic or cultural -- as you'd probably get from a tour guide), all very walkable cities. Venice, Dubrovnik and Brugge are also good do-it-yourself destinations, easy to navigate and understand.

Europe's got a terrific mass transportation infrastructure -- trains, buses, boats -- that makes renting a car, unless you are venturing somewhere really off-the-path, completely unnecessary. In most cases, mass transit extends to major port areas, or cruise lines offer shuttle service to the nearest train station.

Cruise Critic, which launched in 1995, is a comprehensive cruise vacation planning guide providing objective cruise ship reviews, cruise line profiles, destination content on 125+ worldwide ports, cruise bargains, tips, industry news, and cruise message boards.

Photos: A European tour

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  1. Venice, Italy

    Gondolas line the bank near Venice's grand canal with the San Giorgio Maggiore church in the background. (Peter Deilmann Cruises via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rome, Italy

    The Colosseum is one of the best-known attractions in all of Italy, and is the largest elliptical amphitheater built in the Roman empire. (Tiziana Fabi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. London, England

    The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben clock tower, located along the River Thames, are seen at dusk from Westminster Bridge. (George Rose / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Berlin, Germany

    Tourists take pictures of themselves at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. The memorial, designed by U.S. architect Peter Eisenman and inaugurated in May 2005, is made up of more than 2,700 concrete steles that form a curved landscape in the heart of Germany's capital. (Barbara Sax / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Granada, Spain

    The Alhambra palace in Granada, although one of 21 finalists, missed out on being named one of the new seven wonders of the world. (Jose Luis Roca / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Paris, France

    This bird's-eye view of Paris at dusk, with the Eiffel Tower and L'Hotel des Invalides prominent, show why the capital's nickname is the "City of Light." (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Lindos, Greece

    The ancient town of Lindos is famous for its Acropolis, which stands on a 380-foot-high hill overlooking Lindos and the Aegean Sea and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Eyeswideopen / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Dublin, Ireland

    People walk past The Temple Bar, which should not be confused with its neighborhood, also called Temple Bar, in central Dublin. Ireland's capital has been voted one of the top 25 cities of the world to live in. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Lisbon, Portugal

    Belém Tower was built in the early 16th century as a ceremonial gateway to the city, and to serve as a defense at the mouth of the Tagus River. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Sebastiano Scattolin / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Barcelona, Spain

    Columns and arches of the Sagrada Familia rise high in this Roman Catholic church, which has been under construction since 1882 and remains incomplete. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Florence, Italy

    A woman looks over Florence from the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. Construction on the city's cathedral church began in 1296 and finished in 1462. (Guido Cozzi / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. County Mayo, Ireland

    Ashford Castle, which dates back to the 13th century and sits on 350 acres of manicured gardens and land, now ranks among the finest hotels in Ireland. About a two-hour drive from Dublin, the castle has played host to myriad high-profile events, including actor Pierce Brosnan's wedding. (Tourism Ireland via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kaag, Netherlands

    A cyclist pedals along rows of tulips near the village of Kaag, outside of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The Dutch often use cycling to get around, and Amsterdam is considered one of the most bike-friendly large cities in the world. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Amsterdam, Netherlands

    A tourist smokes at a coffeeshop "de Dampkring," or "Atmosphere," where a part of the "Ocean's Twelve" movie was filmed, in the center of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The city is famous for its nightlife, cultural activities and red-light district. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Stockholm, Sweden

    Boats line up on the shoreline in Stockholm, the capital and largest city in Sweden. The city is built on 14 islands connected by 57 bridges. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Krakow, Poland

    The Church of St. Mary of the Assumption in Krakow, Poland, is one of the most well-known tourist spots in the city and noted for its gothic, medieval architecture. However, most people come to Krakow because of its proximity to Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi's concentration camps, which is now a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. (Jon Hicks / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Nice, France

    Hundreds of people enjoy sunbathing on the beach in Nice on the French Riviera. (Valery Hache / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Brussels, Belgium

    The Grand Place in the heart of Old Town in Brussels, Belguim, is marked by many 17th-century buildings and flower markets. (Jean-Pierre Lescourret / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Greek islands

    Oia, on the island of Santorini, Greece, is on a clifftop village filled with white structures and gorgeous sunsets. Santorini offers seaside tavernas, cliffside paths, black volcanic rocks and of course, sunshine and the Aegean Sea. (Saundra Virtanen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pamplona, Spain

    Revelers hold up their red scarves during the start of the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain. The annual festival is best known for its daily running of the bulls. (Susana Vera / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Prague, Czech Republic

    The buildings in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, are constructed in many architectural styles from Romanesque to gothic to art nouveau and modern. (Michal Cizek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Reykjavik, Iceland

    Tourists stand in the Blue Lagoon outside Reykjavik, Iceland. The Blue Lagoon's waters come from natural hot water springs flowing through rocks of lava. Many also believe the mineral-rich waters may have health benefits. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. St. Petersburg, Russia

    The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul is seen on the bank of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Dmitry Lovetsky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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