Savoring the unobstructed scenery, taking time to relax, and going back and forth at a pleasant pace give ferries big appeal among travelers and commuters (even bona fide poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay). The boats vary widely, from passengers-only to three-car auto-ferries to the world’s largest, with capacity for 3,200 passengers and 1,060 vehicles. And so do their trips, from an epic 800-mile journey through Chile to a breezy nine-minute trip on Hong Kong’s Star Ferry.
Riding a ferry is also a great way to get a feel for the rhythms of a place and even get to know some fellow passengers. “Because no roads connect towns in southeastern Alaska, the ferry system is the water highway for Alaskans,” says Kay Hathhorn, now of Bozeman, MT, but formerly a resident of Homer, AK. “When you travel on the ferry, you meet the locals. Everyone has a story about how they came to the state or how proud they are if they were born there.”
You’ll understand why locals are so proud after you, too, admire their home turf from the unique perspective of a ferry.
Within 30 minutes, the ferry breezes past Sydney’s blockbuster sights—the Sydney Opera House, Harbour “Coathanger” Bridge, and downtown skyscrapers—and greener ones. You’ll see botanical gardens, tiny islands with Victorian homes and cottages, innumerable coves, little bays, hidden beaches, and imposing brown sandstone cliffs topped with native gum trees. With a little luck, a bottlenose dolphin or southern right whale might pop up nearby.
Among the Adriatic Coast’s thousand islands and 250 miles of ferry routes, this two-and-a-half-hour ride stands out for its exceptional scenery. You’ll be transfixed as the panorama of Split’s red-tiled roof buildings—framed against the Kozjak and Mosor mountain ridges—recedes and your boat slips through the narrow pass between the islands of Šolta and Brac. Your destination is Vis, the most remote large inhabited island from the mainland, where olive groves and vineyards brush up against layered limestone cliffs.
New York: Between Manhattan and Staten Island
About 65,000 riders board this orange commuter ferry every day. When you get on, head upstairs to snag a seat on the starboard (right) side—the best vantage point for admiring Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The free 25-minute ride also delivers unobstructed views of the Manhattan skyline, stretching up and out from Wall Street. Complement the view with a classic city snack, a bagel or pretzel, and some of the city’s cheapest beer, all sold at the onboard bar.
Chile: Patagonian Fjords between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales
This epic ferry ride spans 800 miles over four days, treating passengers to views of isolated estuaries and gulfs, tiny cypress- and lenga beech–covered islands, massive ice fields, and fjords slashed into the Andes. The boat even approaches the dramatic face of Pío XI or Brüggen Glacier, which, at 488 square miles, is the largest glacier in South America. Toast your adventure with pisco sours made with iceberg ice the crew collects from Pío XI.
Thirteen civilizations left their marks along the route of this three-mile voyage from the Haliç (Golden Horn) Dock near the Egyptian Spice Market to Eyüp, where Ottoman princes ascended to the throne. The Genoese built the imposing Galata Tower on the northern shore in the 14th or 15th century, while Bulgarians constructed the ornate cast-iron Orthodox Church of St. Stephen in 1871. The boat also passes Balat, formerly a Jewish neighborhood, and Hasköy, where muezzins’ musical calls to prayer reverberate across the water.
Locals in these rugged mountains rely on the 3,500-mile Alaska Marine Highway—the only U.S. maritime route designated as a National Scenic Byway and an All-American Road. For joyriders, the 22-hour, 364-mile Ketchikan-to-Haines segment among the islands of the Inside Passage offers a casual, nature-oriented experience. You can book a cabin or camp on open decks for better views of villages and hanging glaciers. Onboard U.S. Forest Service interpreters discuss native culture, history, geology, and wildlife. Bring binoculars.
This short, sweet, and cheap ferry ride transports you across Victoria Harbour from one shore of dazzling skyscrapers to another. Set out at dusk, when the office towers glow in multicolored lights that rival the soft blues, pinks, and purples of the sunset sky. Linger to admire the view from the rooftop Pier 7 Café & Bar at the Central Star Ferry Pier 7 while sipping lychee coolers made with fresh lychee, pineapple juice, and mint leaves.
Rivers flowing from the mountains of the Western Ghats continually flood Kerala’s coastal backwaters, canal-systems, and rice paddies. So ferries are an essential mode of transport, carrying locals and visitors alike past coconut palms, banana trees, and houses lining the water’s edge with green fields behind them. You can witness the everyday rituals of rural Indian life from a ferry deck: children bathing in the river; women washing colorful laundry and laying it on rocks to dry; kids riding bicycles and performing handstands for the entertainment of passersby.
California: Between San Francisco and Sausalito
After exploring the art galleries and shops of Sausalito, catch this 30-minute ride across San Francisco Bay. You’ll check off landmarks like wooded Angel Island State Park (the “Ellis Island of the West”), the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and the Oakland Bay Bridge before docking near the Ferry Building, a gourmet marketplace. It’s the perfect spot to break for lunch, pick up some artisanal olive oil, or just enjoy a really good cup of coffee.
British Columbia: Between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert
Ferries ply the Inside Passage from Port Hardy on the northern end of Vancouver Island passing rugged mountains, islands covered in coastal Douglas fir and Sitka spruce, quarter-mile-wide Grenville Channel, and small First Nations’ communities such as Bella Bella. Along the 15-hour, 250-mile journey to Prince Rupert, passengers may see orcas, porpoises, black bears, bald eagles, and the scenic Boat Bluff lighthouse on Sarah Island.