City sightseeing by ferry: 5 brilliant budget boat trips

Hong Kong's city skyline at night and by boat

There’s nothing like going on a cruise, taking in a country’s sights by sea or by river, and going from “A” to “B” in the process.

Sure, the price can be prohibitive and being away from dry land for long periods of time mightn’t be to every traveller’s taste – but what if I said you can go on short cruises by boat in most major cities all over the world and it shouldn’t cost you very much at all?

I’m talking, of course, about the humble ferry boat – my all-time favourite means of public transportation.

Ferries are usually more convenient and cheaper than privately-run tour boat operations, plus services often run past major tourist attractions and places of interest, offering travellers a unique perspective on a place.

I’m a sucker for a good boat trip and these are some of my favourite ferry services and other budget boat trips around the world.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong boasts a city skyline that just begs to be viewed from the water. Even better at night, the imposing skyline lights up like a Christmas tree on steroids (see above).

Almost as iconic is the city’s Star Ferry passenger service, which has been operating out of the city since 1898. For only $2HK (25c US) you can go via boat from Victoria Harbour to Hong Kong Island, a route that takes in all the city’s skyscrapers.

Istanbul by ferry: the view across the Bosphorus


If you’ve ever flown to Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen international airport then you’ll know that it’s not located anywhere near the city proper. Equally, if you’re a traveller on a budget – like me – you’ll know that getting in from the airport can be a complete pain in the ass.

The first leg is a very long bus ride; the second is a boat ride across the mighty Bosphorus – and that is quite a leg. For just a few Turkish lira you can sail from Asia on one side of the Bosphorus, to Europe on the other.

A mixture of old and new buildings, the Istanbul city skyline is peppered with the tall spires of the city’s many mosques. Even if you don’t have to get to Istanbul by ferry it’s well worth climbing aboard one just to see the city from the water.

Singapore city as viewed from Merlion Park


For the best view of Singapore’s imposing skyline you simply have to get out on the Singapore River – especially at night.

The smooth lines of the Esplanade Theatres by the Bay and the remarkable Marina Bay Sands Hotel are just two of the more remarkable sights on a boat route that takes you past the city’s brightly lit skyscrapers, Clarke and Boat Quay.

The city’s delightfully-named bumboats are popular with tourists but I’d recommend the much-cheaper water taxi from Clarke Quay to the Esplanade, which takes about 20 minutes. (More cheap and cheerful things to do in Singapore.)

Bangkok by ferry boat


Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River is about the only part of the city that doesn’t grind to a standstill due to extreme traffic congestion – which makes it an ideal way to see some of the Thai capital’s most historic sites.

With numerous ferry services running along different parts of the city’s rivers and canals priced from  as low as three Thai baht (10c US), travellers are spoilt for choice when it comes to Bangkok boats. It comes as no surprise, then, that Bangkok is often dubbed the “Venice of the East” – which brings us to our final budget boat trip.


No city in the world is as famous for its waterways as Venice – for obvious reasons.

Spread across a group of 118 small islands, it’s not difficult to get lost exploring the Italian city’s many nooks and crannies, bridges and canals. Of course the city is best viewed from the water – but not every traveller can afford to fork out so much for a ride by gondola (80 euros was the going rate when I was in Venice in 2008).

Venice’s vaporetto (water ferry) service is a far more affordable alternative, with 19 scheduled lines ferrying commuters around the city and to nearby islands. Sure, it may not be as pretty as Venice by gondola – but beggars can’t always be choosers!

Venice by boat, ItalySo what do you think? I can also recommend boat trips in London, Paris, Sydney and Auckland… Can you recommend any budget boat trips?

About Simon Petersen 504 Articles
Travel blogger, journalist, sports and movie fiend. Chronicling the life and times of a Kiwi at home and abroad.


  1. I like your post. It’s very informative. I also like reading the comments because they are also full of facts. You have very good readers.

  2. I’ve done a few of those.. New York City is pretty nice too, especially with the skyline. Getting out on the water is definitely something people should take part in!

    • You’re right – NYC is amazing! I did a boat trip past the Statue of Liberty one winter and it was amazing. Freezing cold but amazing.

  3. Hey Simon,
    Great post with a view(point) from the water!
    Several years ago on our first trip down under, Conrad and I bought the transport pass in Sydney that allows you to ride on all forms — bus, train, and ferry — for one price. The cards were good for three days. Nearing the end of the third day, we did a mad dash to take in as much as possible and hopped aboard the ferry to Manly, across the bay. It was a gorgeous Friday night and all the young folks were dressed up and looking fine for a night on the town. The lighted skyline was magical and it’s a ride we’ll never forget.

    • I love Sydney – is there any city on earth that’s as impressive from the water? It’s got the big buildings, the iconic Opera House, the bridge and, of course, beautiful bays, beaches and natural wildlife!

  4. Nice list Simon. I’ve done Venice and Istanbul boat trips and they are both enjoyable especially in the morning when you ride among the locals going to work.

    A boat trip from Rotterdam to Dordrecht, Netherlands is also fun and around Lake Geneva from Switzerland to France.

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