Canal cruises offer travelers an intimate perspective on countries and their maritime history. Impressive human engineering paired with peaceful rural surroundings blend to create a unique experience.
When considering prominent canals, chances are it’s the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal that come to mind due to their length and importance to global trade. However, it’s the 61-mile-long Kiel Canal that boasts the title of the world’s busiest artificial waterway.
An average of almost 100 ships navigate the narrow channel every day. Germany’s autobahn for cargo ships and passenger vessels alike is a must-visit for all maritime enthusiasts.
Introducing the Kiel Canal
What sets the Kiel Canal apart from its larger counterparts is its strategic importance and convenience. Cutting through Northern Germany, it provides a direct link between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, allowing vessels to save an average of 280 miles by avoiding the lengthy detour around Denmark’s Jutland peninsula.
This not only saves precious time but also greatly reduces shipping costs, making it a preferred choice for many cargo ships.
Although the canal crosses the peninsula at sea level, locks at either end neutralize the tidal flows of the sea water. But the rest of the canal is lock-free, passing through pleasant countryside and forests, making the canal just as attractive for pleasure vessels and small ship cruising.
The idea for the canal was conceived back in 1864 by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. He was keen to avoid Danish hostilities around the Jutland peninsula during the Danish-German War of 1864. But the ambitious project wouldn’t be realized until 1895 under the leadership of Wilhelm II.
Why cruise the Kiel Canal?
As you cruise through the Kiel Canal, you’ll be treated to quaint village and dense forest landscapes of the Schleswig-Holstein region. Picturesque homes and churches dot the shoreline, providing a sharp contrast to the passing cargo ships and steel bridges.
The journey through the canal typically takes 8-10 hours on a cruise ship, making it a wonderful alternative to what would otherwise be an ordinary sea day.
A trip on a yacht or even a small cruise ship is an intriguing addition to a more typical Baltic Sea itinerary. “When the weather plays ball and if time is on your side, a passage through the Kiel Canal can be one of the most interesting parts of a voyage to or from the Baltic,” said Detlef Jens in Yachting World.
How to cruise the Kiel Canal
If you’re a fan of the newest megaships, you’re going to be disappointed. Only small vessels can cruise through the canal. This limits the number of traditional cruise lines that can offer trips through the canal.
German company Hapag-Lloyd is one of the few companies to do so. This 10-night Germany itinerary featuring the Kiel Canal starts and ends in Hamburg and starts from €3,791 ($4,125) per person. Although Hapag Lloyd cruises are usually German-speaking, this itinerary is one of a handful to be designated an ‘international cruise’ with a bilingual onboard service.
Oceania Cruises includes the Kiel Canal on its 12-night ‘princes and promenades’ itinerary from Stockholm to Dublin. Fares for the trip start from €3,719 ($4,050). Azamara offers a similar 12-night itinerary from Stockholm to Southampton on the Azamara Onward from $3,759 per person.
Fred Olsen Cruise Lines is one of the few mainstream British lines with a ship small enough to traverse the canal. Its traditional ship the Balmoral sails the Kiel Canal on a 10-night ‘Baltic cities’ itinerary, starting and ending in Rosyth, Scotland. Fares start from £1,499 ($1,910) per person for an inside cabin.
Cruise in luxury
The smaller vessels of luxury cruise lines ranging from large yachts to small cruise ships are another option to consider, if you have the money.
Seabourn offers a 21-day itinerary from Lisbon to Hamburg via the British Isles and Scandinavia, traversing the Kiel Canal on its final day. Fares for the lengthy trip start from €9,699 ($10,550) per person. There is also an option to join the final 11 days of the cruise from Dover to Hamburg for €5,599 ($6,100) per person.
In 2025, Seadream plans this 10-day itinerary from Oslo to Bordeaux via the Kiel Canal. Fares on the Seadream II, which holds just 110 passengers, start from $8,499. Windstar Cruises have run Kiel Canal trips in 2023 but presently do not have anything planned for 2024-25.