The Mediterranean is one of the most popular regions in the world to cruise and it’s not difficult to see why. Its blue, sun-warmed waters lap the shores of France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Croatia – five countries with great food, picturesque coastlines, beautiful architecture and fascinating cultures and histories. Ply a leisurely route between them, couched in the comforts of a cruise – just be sure to choose one that stops off in these 10 highlight destinations.
From the moment your ship noses into Athens’s port, you’re entering an archaic world – the Port of Piraeus has served the city since 483 BCE. And once you set foot on land, the fascinating historic sites just multiply. Check out the Acropolis, a series of ancient monuments perched upon a rocky crag raised above the city below, and the site of many of the ancient civilization’s religious festivals, cultural events and mythic stories. All these elements are explored in the neighboring Acropolis Museum. Then pop into the Parthenon, a magnificent Doric temple dedicated to the city’s patron, the goddess Athena. And alongside these historic monuments are winding streets studded with cafes, tavernas, craft shops and food stalls.
Few European cities are as pleasant to stroll as Barcelona, so it’s no surprise that nearly all the major cruise lines stop here. The great central thoroughfare of Las Ramblas is lined with designer stores and upscale restaurants, while either side lie two labyrinthine districts, El Gotico and El Raval, warrens of beautiful buildings, great bars and superb tapas joints that open out from time to time into grand and picturesque plazas. And once you’ve ambled, sampled and supped to your heart’s content, you can check out a few of the city’s magnificent sights. Head north to find the fairy tale Parc Guell, a wildly imaginative assemblage of gardens and structures built by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí.
Cruising the shimmering blue waters of the Adriatic, the narrow stretch of sea separating the rocky coastlines of Italy and Croatia, is a highlight of many Mediterranean journeys. And dropping into Dubrovnik is the pearl in the oyster – this Croatian city’s beautiful Old Town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As you stroll its white-hued weave of streets and stone stairways, dotted with architectural gems built on the proceeds of 16th century maritime trade, you’ll understand why. And this historical center is circled by fortified City Walls, which visitors can climb for stunning views over the city, ocean and surrounding countryside.
Rome is not on the coast, so cruises normally dock in the port town of Civitavecchia and travel into the city by bus. But Rome is undoubtedly worth that extra hassle. It contains some of the most staggering historic sites in Europe, such as the Colosseum, the largest amphitheater in the world and a great ancient entertainment complex where gladiators clashed and Christians were consumed by lions. Then head over to the Roman Forum, an evocative patchwork of ruins that was once the center of life in Imperial Rome. And once you’ve tired yourself out with this kind of sightseeing, you can feed in one of Rome’s many superb cafes and restaurants, relaxing in the heart of the eternal city.
Santorini is snuggled among the stunning Cyclades, a handful of Greek Islands sprinkled across the Aegean Sea. Its rugged volcanic landscape is a sight to behold from the deck of your ship: multi-colored cliffs scythe diagonally down into the deep blue sea while white villages cling to the sun-kissed strata. Once on land, there are many more deeply pleasurable experiences to be had: sample the superb wine, tour ancient Minoan settlements, savor some of the best cuisine in Greece, and idle away hours outside the island’s gloriously situated cafes.
Sailing south through the Mediterranean, most cruise liners choose to take in the sun-baked islands of Malta, a green and rocky archipelago floating between Sicily and North Africa. Capital city Valletta is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a vivid palimpsest of Malta’s quixotic history – its strategic location led to it changing hands many times, ruled by the Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, Normans, Castilians, Knights of St. John, French and British before becoming independent in 1964. The sights start from the moment you cruise into its Grand Harbour, backdropped by imposing sand-colored 17th century fortresses. They continue in the city itself, where you can visit the fabulously Baroque St John’s Co-Cathedral and enjoy the sublime sea views from the Upper Barrakka Gardens.
No Mediterranean cruise would be complete with a visit to Venice. Sailing into the city is like entering another world – it spreads a floating tapestry of silver canals, terracotta tiles and grand white buildings across the marshy Venetian lagoon. Following the iconic waterways, exploring the winding streets, heading off-piste to find the best restaurants and bars, admiring the fresh intricacy of the architecture as you turn each new corner – all this can easily take up most of your time in the town. But there are some sights you probably don’t want to miss, and a little discipline may be required to ensure you remember to fit them in – sights such as the monumental Saint Mark’s Basilica, its intricate facade fronting a gloriously ornate interior; and the shadowy Bridge of Sighs, with "a palace and a prison on each hand," as Byron so memorably phrased it.
Monte Carlo, the leisure district of the world’s second smallest state, really is a world apart. A haven for the rich with sky-high property prices and rock-bottom taxes, its streets crawl with cars that cost more than most houses, its marina is crammed with luxury yachts and its apartments and villas ooze opulence – all cradled between dramatic mountain slopes swathed in palms and pines. If you want to taste the life of the city’s residents, a flutter at Monte Carlo Casino is a must, which you could follow with a show at the Opera de Monte Carlo.
Naples is a lively and chaotic city, far less dominated by tourists than the other destinations covered here, and beautifully situated between the gulf of Naples and the great volcanic peak of Mount Vesuvius. In the city itself, graffiti daubs many of the walls, haggard castles lean out over the ocean waves, and baroque churches loom over pretty piazzas. Naples is the birthplace of pizza, so trying the city’s traditional puffy-crusted style is a must – L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele is considered by many to be the best in the place. And if all this becomes a little too much, you can always slink away to one of the other smaller ports that line the bay, where tranquil lemon groves stand on green hillsides above the water.
Cruising along the Amalfi Coast, you’ll look out on a patchwork of lemon groves and old whitewashed villages set atop cliffs that tumble down to the Mediterranean below. This’ll leave you hungry to get out onto Italian soil itself, and when you disembark into Amalfi, it won’t disappoint. Alleys zig-zag between pastel-coloured houses, climbing uphill to the higher part of the town and spectacular views over the surrounding shoreline. Don’t miss the grand architectural melange of Amalfi Cathedral, remodelled through several epochs to gain Romanesque, Byzantine, Gothic and Baroque elements. And be sure to visit one of the town’s terrific restaurants, serving the coastline’s sublime seafood and Amalfi’s speciality, fresh anchovies – La Trattoria da Gemma is a good bet.