Many cruise ports are filled to the brim with discount jewelry, trinket shops, and glorified beer halls. Those ports are… fine, but they’re not fantastic. Here, we rank 13 of the best cruise ports—ones you depart from and return to—as well as the ports of call you’ll want to visit during your next family cruise.
1. Galveston Island, TX
Galveston is a tropical island in the Gulf of Mexico that you’ll cruise away from, but this Texas city may end up being your very favorite port of call! Consider starting you cruise vacation early (or keeping it alive after you disembark) in Galveston to enjoy thrilling amusements on the Historic Pleasure Pier, the water park brilliance of Schlitterbahn, dolphin sightseeing harbor tours, tasty fresh seafood, and an abundance of Texas and American history at the meticulously designed Bryan Museum and Bishop’s Palace.
Extend your cruise from this port with a stay at The Tremont House and be within a short walk to your cruise ship, The Strand, and everything this dreamy holiday paradise has to offer. And that’s just on Galveston Island!
You’re only 45 minutes from Houston, meaning you can catch a Rockets or Astros game, a Dynamo or Dash soccer match, learn fascinating new things at the National Museum of Funeral History, and indulge your artistic side in the massive Houston Fine Arts Museum. Before you depart Texas, enjoy a delicious taste of the foodie capital of the South with brunch at Postino, dinner at Marché and a fresh brew or homemade root beer in the family-friendly Saint Arnold Brewery beer garden.
Recommended Hotel: The Tremont House
2. Naples, Italy
What makes the port of Naples one of the best cruise ports in the world is the downtown location of the pier. There’s no tender needed and no bus into the city; you’re right there in the heart of Napoli! Once you step off your ship, you’re a short walk to the iconic L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele to feast on the pizza Neapolitans have been eating since 1870, as well as any number of gelato shops and cool Italian clothing stores. Conveniently, you’re an even shorter walk to the high-speed hydrofoils that will transport you to Capri, Sorrento, and the picturesque Amalfi Coast in under an hour, and the affordable commuter ferries you should absolutely hop on to visit two gems of the Bay of Naples: the small, walkable and quintessential Italian islands of Procida and Ischia, where you can shop not for cheaply made trinkets, but instead for ceramics, clothing and gelato made locally.
Recommended Hotel: Hotel Buca di Bacco
3. Bonaire, Caribbean
Off the beaten path and largely unknown to most U.S. tourists, Bonaire is a tiny island near Aruba and Curaçao, off the coast of Venezuela. It’s ripe for exploring if you love wild animals and unique cruise destinations. There are cruise excursions offered, of course, but there’s also a Hertz location in the Divi Flamingo Resort, an easy walk from the cruise port. From there, take off for a choose-your-own-adventure day to see wild flamingos standing statue-still, wild goats excitedly running alongside your car, and feral donkeys chilling on the beach. Stop into a grocery store to source local food for a fresh family picnic. You’ll be far from the cruise ship crowd, seeing all of the wild, remote sites, and making unique memories on this darling Caribbean island.
Recommended Hotel: Divi Flamingo Beach Resort and Casino
4. Bergen, Norway
This western Norwegian cruise post is a fairytale of color set amongst the famous fjords. Have a meal at Olivia with views of the historic Bryggen wharf (a UNESCO’s World Heritage Site); ride the funicular up to Mount Fløyen for stellar views of the port city at sunset (or any time of day); take a walk through the old Hanseatic part of town to watch artists at work and to buy authentic products made in Norway; and tour the KODA art museums for a dose of Edvard Munch, as well as some wonderful Picassos. Also consider booking an excursion on the famous Norway fjords or renting a car to explore on your own terms; the latter option means getting to ride on a car ferry, which may very well end up being your kid’s favorite part of the cruise vacation! The Sognefjord, Geirangerfjord and Hardangerfjord are each easily accessible from Bergen city center for an exhilarating day trip by car or sightseeing cruise.
Recommended Hotel: Radisson Blu Royal Hotel Norway
5. New Orleans, LA
Because its port is so close to, and easily accessible from, the French Quarter, NOLA is a fantastic cruise port. There’s more than enough in this mystical city to justify starting your family’s cruise vacation early or extending it after the cruise is over: the Audubon Zoo, a spooky all-ages walking tour of the French Quarter, a stroll through an ancient cemetery, nearby swamp tours to get up close and personal with crocodiles in the wild, or a less terrifying steamboat journey aboard the Steamboat Natchez, departing steps from Cafe du Monde and its warm beignets! Also recommended is an early-evening, family-friendly jazz concert at the legendary Preservation Hall. So much awaits you and your kids in New Orleans, one of the best cruise ports in America.
Recommended Hotel: Omni Royal Orleans
6. Perfect Day at CocoCay, Bahamas
One of those incredible islands you can only reach by cruise, Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day at CocoCay is a feast for the senses. There’s ziplining and watersliding; pools for playing; miles of sandy beach with hammocks, umbrellas, palm tree shade, and lounge chairs for relaxing; a tethered balloon rising up hundreds of feet for amazing views; and so much vibrant color you won’t know whether to keep photographing everything or stash your stuff and just play all day! The majority of the food on Perfect Day is covered in rates, and this includes the cookies and soft-serve ice cream, which combine brilliantly to produce a chilly sandwich. The same goes for Wi-Fi if you bought internet on the ship—its strength extends to the island. Whether you want to chill or seek out thrills, this gorgeous, private cruise port is a must-visit when cruising with Royal Caribbean.
7. Port Canaveral, FL
Two words: Disney World. Two more: Harry Potter.
We could go on (SeaWorld, Orlando Pride, Kennedy Space Center… ) to explain why Port Canaveral is one of the best cruise ports. Just like Galveston and New Orleans, Port Canaveral is a cruise port you’ll want to spend a few pre- or post-cruise days exploring. According to Cruise Radio, the Central Florida port currently homeports Disney Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Line ships year-round. Port Canaveral also serves as a port of call for cruises originating in New York, Baltimore and other east coast embarkation points. Easy shuttle service from the Atlantic coast inland to all the theme parks means you won’t need to worry about rental cars or parking while your ship waits for you and your kids to return wearing Mouse ears and wide, albeit tired smiles.
Recommended Hotel: Quality Inn & Suites Port Canaveral Area
8. New York, NY
Cruising from New York is a special kind of treat because the night before your cruise begins, you would have enjoyed a great meal (we recommend Hummus Kitchen on 9th Ave.) and a Broadway musical with your kids (maybe Dear Evan Hansen, Mean Girls or Beetlejuice). Once onboard with the first soft-serve cone of many in your hand, you get a complimentary Hudson River cruise as you slowly sail past new modern art piece The Vessel in Hudson Yards, the magnificent High Line, shimmering One World Trade Center, and the queen of the harbor, The Statue of Liberty.
Recommended Hotel: Fairfield Inn and Suites New York Manhattan/Central Park
9. Isla Roatán, Honduras
When you’re cruising in the Caribbean, you don’t require much more than an umbrella in a slushy drink, a relaxing beach, and delicious local food. The cruise port on this Honduras island offers all that and more, including the added bonus of riding a ski lift from the cruise port to the beach, food delivery service right to your lounge chair in the sand, and one of the most chill, calm, warm beaches found anywhere in the Caribbean. Of course, if you crave adventure and animal encounters, there’s the opportunity to zipline through the dense green canopy of trees, revel in Daniel Johnson’s Monkey and Sloth Hang Out, interact with animals at Gumbalimba Park, and snorkel to discover a world of color below the surface.
Recommended Hotel: Bananarama Beach and Dive Resort
10. Disney’s Castaway Cay – Bahamas
What’s more magical than a Disney cruise? A visit to the cruise line’s exclusive island, Castaway Cay! Located in the Bahamas, this dreamy cruise port features both family-friendly and adults-only beaches; water sports including kayaking, water biking, jet skiing and snorkeling; and a floating deck with two waterslides in the ocean. You can also explore the island by bike or run the famous Castaway Cay 5K for a different vantage point. A delicious buffet lunch at Cookie’s BBQ is included in the price of your cruise. Bonus: Disney will open a second private cruise port, Lighthouse Point, in 2022 or 2023.
11. Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Jamaica has a lot to offer families on a cruise vacation. But what makes Ocho Rios a memorable cruise port is the Bamboo Beach Club. My kids have taken several cruises and have been traveling since they were babies, but if you mention the Bamboo Beach Club to my tween, she lights up brighter than Times Square on New Year’s Eve. It’s easy to understand why she loves Ocho Rios as a cruise port. The sand here is fine and soft, the slope into the water is slight and gradual, and the water is calm and as warm as a bath. The excursion to the Bamboo Beach Club also comes with all-you-can-drink lemonade (which she swears is the best in the world), a fresh-grilled meat and seafood lunch delivered straight to your lounge chairs; and a private dance performance on the edge of the sea. Affordable outdoor cliffside massages are also available for parents to unwind.
Recommended Hotel: Moon Palace Jamaica All Inclusive Resort
12. Skagway, Alaska
This charming Alaskan cruise port is the gateway to Davidson Glacier and also to the wild, wonderful Yukon Territory. Thanks to nearby dog sledding tours, the remarkable Glacier Point Wilderness Safari excursion, and the positively stunning White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, Skagway is a gem of a small gold rush town to explore on foot. While walking around Skagway, enjoy a tasty, locally caught lunch of halibut cakes at Olivia’s Restaurant, do some shopping, and check out the Skagway Museum housed in a 1898 building. You can also use this cruise port as a launching point to bigger adventures, whether through a proper excursion or on your own in a rental car to reach the Yukon’s Carcross Desert (the smallest desert in the world), and the otherworldly Emerald Lake.
Recommended Hotel: Westmark Inn Skagway
13. San Juan, Puerto Rico
The cruise ship port of Puerto Rico puts you within steps of colorfully vibrant Old San Juan, making this one of the best cruise ports in the world to explore easily and authentically. A pair of castles sharing one admission price and dating back to the 16th and 18th centuries await at the top of the hill, as does Parque Las Palomas (otherwise known as Pigeon Park) if you fancy recreating Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (it truly is fun, and only mildly terrifying to be surrounded by hundreds of hungry pigeons)! There’s also loads of restaurants serving local food and rum if you’re so inclined, lively bars, shops, pastel hued buildings, and oodles of adorable feral cats for kids to spot. Of course, there’s a stellar rainforest, El Yunque, to tour either on your own or with an excursion, and some fantastic beaches if you wish to eschew the history, food and sights of this lovely old city.
Recommended Hotel: Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel
Jeff Bogle lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia with his wife, two daughters, and three cats. He is an award-winning photographer and respected travel journalist with bylines on Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping, PBS, Esquire and more. Jeff (probably) spends too much time in England watching football and far too many hours plotting his family’s future travel adventures. Find Jeff on his own site, Out With the Kids.