10
Must-see Mediterranean
ports

Almost 100,000 Australians head to Europe – and the Mediterranean in particular – to cruise every single year. They are tempted by a smorgasbord of cultural dishes: a taste of Santorini here, a nibble of Naples there, a morsel of Mykonos this day and a bite of Barcelona that day. They are drawn by the melting pot of art, architecture, music, history, museums, castles, old towns, wine, fashion… No other destination offers so much variety with new countries, cultures and experiences on every day of a cruise.

Just about every ocean-going line, from the megaship brands to tiny boutique vessels, has cruises in the Med offering a range of itineraries at different lengths and with different focuses. Fancy a Roman holiday? Done. The Greek islands appeal? There’s an option for that. Dreaming of the French Riviera? There are ships to take you there. Want a tasting tour of all of them? Right this way.

Whether you’re seeking a relaxed tour of Michelin-starred restaurants and world-famous wineries, an active exploration of stunning geographic locations, or a hands-on history lesson among ancient ruins, crumbling castles and fabulous fortresses, in the Mediterranean, all these extraordinary experiences can be linked in one seamless itinerary.

This is cruising at its best; a stress-free segue from one destination to the next in a short space of time. In a week, for instance, you could explore Venice, Dubrovnik, Mykonos, Santorini and Athens or, in the Western Mediterranean, Barcelona, Marseilles, Naples and Rome. Plenty of cruise lines offer both in one itinerary, or allow you to link two cruises together.

And there’s no bad time to visit. April to June is gorgeous, with flowers in bloom and everyone gearing up for the summer season. September and October are hot and sunny – and the sea is still warm enough for swimming. July and August are European school holidays, so avoid unless you’re comfortable with crowds. There’s a growing trend now for winter cruising, which is a breath of fresh air if you’re there for the culture rather than the sunshine, as museums and galleries are empty.

Whenever you decide to cruise, here’s our guide to getting the most out of your stop at the ten most popular destinations in the Mediterranean.

#1 Rome

Unless Italy’s capital city is your port for embarkation or disembarkation, you’ll be afforded roughly 11 hours of exploration, factoring in the 90 minutes it takes to get to and from the dock in Civitavecchia. When in Rome, do as the tourists do. Must-sees are all the bucket-list mainstays: the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Trevi Fountain and St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. With so much to do in so little time, let professionals be your guide to navigate with optimum efficiency. Most cruise lines offer a full-day tour of the Eternal City’s greatest-hits, but another option is booking a licensed private guide yourself for a small group; Eyes of Rome Tours is among the best.


#2 Athens

It’s almost sacrilegious how little time most cruise lines afford to the birthplace of Western civilisation. The silver lining is that Athens understands the time restraints a sea-arriving visitor is under. Ground transportation from the port of Piraeus to downtown Athens can be as quick as 30 minutes, even when multiple megaships are anchored on the same morning. Checking off the city’s two must-sees – the Acropolis and National Archaeological Museum – can be done with a single excursion booked directly with the cruise line; a five-hour tour comfortably takes busloads to the sacred rock of ancient Athens and home of the iconic Parthenon to the richest collection of artifacts from Greek antiquity anywhere. Highly recommended Athens Tours Greece will pick up cruisers opting for a private tour; its popular four-hour excursion runs to about $230.


#3 Naples

Pish-posh to tourists who diss Naples for its sprawling grittiness and high rate of petty crime. Just focus on its enthralling side, mind your valuables and become one with southern Italy’s largest city. If the preference is to explore the city, consider bypassing the cruise ship’s array of shore excursions and hire a licensed tour guide through Tours by Locals. For about $430, up to seven people are shown the city by foot and public transportation during an eight-hour private customised tour. Do lunch at Di Matteo, L’Antica Da Michele or Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, considered the top places to eat pizza in the city in which it was invented. Prefer a scenic drive to the gorgeous Amalfi Coast? Big-ship cruise lines offer a wide selection of options, several that include the fascinating ruins of Pompeii, which was destroyed by the 79 AD eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Look for a tour of roughly nine hours that covers the Amalfi Coast, Positano, Sorrento and Pompeii.


#4 Barcelona

Spain’s second-largest city offers everything you want from a cruise port without the need for a shore excursion or private guide. In the city of Picasso, Miró and Tàpies you don't require an expert to find spectacular sights, superb shopping, an excellent beach, fabulous food and drink and the best people watching in the region. For cruisers, exploring is as easy as going into town by cab, telling the driver to drop you pretty much anywhere, then walking in any direction. Chances are you’ll fall in love with this electrifying port and its beautiful people – whether you stroll the famous La Rambla pedestrian thoroughfare or pay homage to Antoni Gaudi’s Catalan Modernism at Sagrada Familia. Huge cranes have been a mainstay of this inimitable Roman Catholic church for decades – it was incomplete when Gaudi died in 1926 but an international labor of love vows to complete the iconic building in 2026, the centenary of Gaudi’s death.


#5 Florence

The port of Livorno on the Etruscan Coast of Tuscany serves as the gateway to Florence and Pisa for more than 15 major cruise lines. Shore excursion desks keep busy fulfilling passengers’ wishes to discover the area’s famous sites. Most large ships offer a Florence and Pisa DIY tour that has a local escort narrating the 90-minute coach ride to Florence before dropping you off in Santa Croce Square with directions, maps and tips. The three hours or so of independent exploring are well spent checking out the Duomo with its iconic dome and bell tower, and the cherished Ponte Vecchio over the Arno River. From Florence, it’s another 90-minute drive to Pisa for a visit to Piazza dei Miracoli and its famously leaning 650-year-old bell tower. Don’t be shy about getting a photo of yourself trying to right the foundation-challenged structure – you’re a tourist!


#6 Santorini

There’s no getting around a tender ride and a 400-metre ascent up the cliffs of a caldera to reach Fira, which is a pretty town in itself as well as the starting point for all shore excursions such as visits to nearby Oia, beach days and hiking. Your easiest of three options to reach the plateau (and the most animal-friendly) is an $8 cable car ride, probably with a long queue (especially coming down). Your payoff is a place where a bad selfie background doesn’t exist. Good luck not being photobombed, though; so much beauty attracts throngs of people. The chalk-white buildings, crawling bougainvillea and dramatic coastline, coupled with interesting museums, churches and boutiques, lure nearly 800,000 cruisers annually. The narrow passageways seem even more so when the ships are in.


#7 Kusadasi

One could easily spend the entire day within walking distance of the ship in Kusadasi, Turkey. The port’s vibrant and secure shopping center and adjacent retailers are chock-a-block with such local specialties as carpets, silk pashminas and ceramics. The marina also boasts terrific restaurants; if you’re ever tempted to bypass a pre-paid lunch on the ship, this is the place. But let’s talk Turkey: cruise ships don’t call on Kusadasi because of what’s in and around the port. The emphasis here is Ephesus. Once home to philosophers, gladiators and rulers, the ancient city is rich in ruinous architecture and history, and a fleet of buses parked on the other side of the gangway can take you there in 30 minutes. Nearly every shore excursion offered through the cruise lines includes a visit to Ephesus, considered one of the world’s most magnificent and best-preserved archaeological sites.


#8 Mykonos

A dearth of shore excursion options is actually part of the allure of this Greek island, a destination Lonely Planet accuses of “[flaunting] its sizzling St. Tropez-meets-Ibiza style and party-hard reputation.” Nightlife begins long after the larger cruise ships have sailed away, but Mykonos by day is still exciting. Tours of ancient Delos, birthplace of the god Apollo, and shuttles to wonderful beaches get some takers, but most visitors who get off the boat hoof it to the Old Town to stroll the narrow streets that lead to boutiques, museums, cafes, patisseries and churches. Many get genuinely lost thanks to a centuries-old defense scheme designed to thwart would-be invaders; the town is plotted as a maze, and a total whitewash of its buildings intentionally makes navigation challenging. Not to worry, the Aegean Sea or a friendly local will stop you going too far astray.


#9 Crete

Shore excursion options are few in the home of Europe’s earliest civilization, but that offers a rare, stress-free opportunity to assimilate with the locals. There’s no easier, cheaper or quicker way to do that than taking the hop-on hop-off open-top buses of Heraklion Open Tour. For just $35 (less if you buy online in advance or cut a deal with the ticket seller), you’re taken on a loop around Crete’s capital and Greece’s fourth-largest city. Any of the 11 stops is technically a starting and ending point, but the official one is just off the ship. After quick stops by a medieval fortress and a small, but decent aquarium, consider getting off for a few hours to truly soak up indigenous culture and color. Although a popular stop, the Palace of Knossos can be disappointing in that it’s overly restored and lacking in original antiquities. Still, this home of Hercules is a real charmer.


#10 Rhodes

Walk off the ship and in five minutes you can enter a castle-like fortress where fun, food and souvenirs await, along with hungry feral cats. Exploring the Old Town is easily done on your own, but getting to the second-most visited attraction in Rhodes – the ancient city of Lindos – requires ample time and wheels since the 50-kilometre journey takes about 45 minutes each way, longer during peak season from April through September. Crowds will also have you deciding whether the Acropolis of Rhodes, site of a temple to the goddess Athena, is worth hiking up a narrow and imposing path. Donkeys can carry you up in exchange for about $8 and your PETA membership card. If visiting Tsambika Beach and Lindos before or after the Old Town sounds nice, pre-book a private driver through Taxi Rhodes, which charges about $290 for six hours and will meet you at the dock.



10
Must-see Me
diterranean ports

Almost 100,000 Australians head to Europe – and the Mediterranean in particular – to cruise every single year. They are tempted by a smorgasbord of cultural dishes: a taste of Santorini here, a nibble of Naples there, a morsel of Mykonos this day and a bite of Barcelona that day. They are drawn by the melting pot of art, architecture, music, history, museums, castles, old towns, wine, fashion… No other destination offers so much variety with new countries, cultures and experiences on every day of a cruise.


Just about every ocean-going line, from the megaship brands to tiny boutique vessels, has cruises in the Med offering a range of itineraries at different lengths and with different focuses. Fancy a Roman holiday? Done. The Greek islands appeal? There’s an option for that. Dreaming of the French Riviera? There are ships to take you there. Want a tasting tour of all of them? Right this way.


Whether you’re seeking a relaxed tour of Michelin-starred restaurants and world-famous wineries, an active exploration of stunning geographic locations, or a hands-on history lesson among ancient ruins, crumbling castles and fabulous fortresses, in the Mediterranean, all these extraordinary experiences can be linked in one seamless itinerary.


This is cruising at its best; a stress-free segue from one destination to the next in a short space of time. In a week, for instance, you could explore Venice, Dubrovnik, Mykonos, Santorini and Athens or, in the Western Mediterranean, Barcelona, Marseilles, Naples and Rome. Plenty of cruise lines offer both in one itinerary, or allow you to link two cruises together.


And there’s no bad time to visit. April to June is gorgeous, with flowers in bloom and everyone gearing up for the summer season. September and October are hot and sunny – and the sea is still warm enough for swimming. July and August are European school holidays, so avoid unless you’re comfortable with crowds. There’s a growing trend now for winter cruising, which is a breath of fresh air if you’re there for the culture rather than the sunshine, as museums and galleries are empty.


Whenever you decide to cruise, here’s our guide to getting the most out of your stop at the ten most popular destinations in the Mediterranean.

#1 Rome

Unless Italy’s capital city is your port for embarkation or disembarkation, you’ll be afforded roughly 11 hours of exploration, factoring in the 90 minutes it takes to get to and from the dock in Civitavecchia. When in Rome, do as the tourists do. Must-sees are all the bucket-list mainstays: the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Trevi Fountain and St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. With so much to do in so little time, let professionals be your guide to navigate with optimum efficiency. Most cruise lines offer a full-day tour of the Eternal City’s greatest-hits, but another option is booking a licensed private guide yourself for a small group; Eyes of Rome Tours is among the best.


#2 Athens

It’s almost sacrilegious how little time most cruise lines afford to the birthplace of Western civilisation. The silver lining is that Athens understands the time restraints a sea-arriving visitor is under. Ground transportation from the port of Piraeus to downtown Athens can be as quick as 30 minutes, even when multiple megaships are anchored on the same morning. Checking off the city’s two must-sees – the Acropolis and National Archaeological Museum – can be done with a single excursion booked directly with the cruise line; a five-hour tour comfortably takes busloads to the sacred rock of ancient Athens and home of the iconic Parthenon to the richest collection of artifacts from Greek antiquity anywhere. Highly recommended Athens Tours Greece will pick up cruisers opting for a private tour; its popular four-hour excursion runs to about $230.


#3 Naples

Pish-posh to tourists who diss Naples for its sprawling grittiness and high rate of petty crime. Just focus on its enthralling side, mind your valuables and become one with southern Italy’s largest city. If the preference is to explore the city, consider bypassing the cruise ship’s array of shore excursions and hire a licensed tour guide through Tours by Locals. For about $430, up to seven people are shown the city by foot and public transportation during an eight-hour private customised tour. Do lunch at Di Matteo, L’Antica Da Michele or Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, considered the top places to eat pizza in the city in which it was invented. Prefer a scenic drive to the gorgeous Amalfi Coast? Big-ship cruise lines offer a wide selection of options, several that include the fascinating ruins of Pompeii, which was destroyed by the 79 AD eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Look for a tour of roughly nine hours that covers the Amalfi Coast, Positano, Sorrento and Pompeii.


#4 Barcelona

Spain’s second-largest city offers everything you want from a cruise port without the need for a shore excursion or private guide. In the city of Picasso, Miró and Tàpies you don't require an expert to find spectacular sights, superb shopping, an excellent beach, fabulous food and drink and the best people watching in the region. For cruisers, exploring is as easy as going into town by cab, telling the driver to drop you pretty much anywhere, then walking in any direction. Chances are you’ll fall in love with this electrifying port and its beautiful people – whether you stroll the famous La Rambla pedestrian thoroughfare or pay homage to Antoni Gaudi’s Catalan Modernism at Sagrada Familia. Huge cranes have been a mainstay of this inimitable Roman Catholic church for decades – it was incomplete when Gaudi died in 1926 but an international labor of love vows to complete the iconic building in 2026, the centenary of Gaudi’s death.


#5 Florence

The port of Livorno on the Etruscan Coast of Tuscany serves as the gateway to Florence and Pisa for more than 15 major cruise lines. Shore excursion desks keep busy fulfilling passengers’ wishes to discover the area’s famous sites. Most large ships offer a Florence and Pisa DIY tour that has a local escort narrating the 90-minute coach ride to Florence before dropping you off in Santa Croce Square with directions, maps and tips. The three hours or so of independent exploring are well spent checking out the Duomo with its iconic dome and bell tower, and the cherished Ponte Vecchio over the Arno River. From Florence, it’s another 90-minute drive to Pisa for a visit to Piazza dei Miracoli and its famously leaning 650-year-old bell tower. Don’t be shy about getting a photo of yourself trying to right the foundation-challenged structure – you’re a tourist!


#6 Santorini

There’s no getting around a tender ride and a 400-metre ascent up the cliffs of a caldera to reach Fira, which is a pretty town in itself as well as the starting point for all shore excursions such as visits to nearby Oia, beach days and hiking. Your easiest of three options to reach the plateau (and the most animal-friendly) is an $8 cable car ride, probably with a long queue (especially coming down). Your payoff is a place where a bad selfie background doesn’t exist. Good luck not being photobombed, though; so much beauty attracts throngs of people. The chalk-white buildings, crawling bougainvillea and dramatic coastline, coupled with interesting museums, churches and boutiques, lure nearly 800,000 cruisers annually. The narrow passageways seem even more so when the ships are in.


#7 Kusadasi

One could easily spend the entire day within walking distance of the ship in Kusadasi, Turkey. The port’s vibrant and secure shopping center and adjacent retailers are chock-a-block with such local specialties as carpets, silk pashminas and ceramics. The marina also boasts terrific restaurants; if you’re ever tempted to bypass a pre-paid lunch on the ship, this is the place. But let’s talk Turkey: cruise ships don’t call on Kusadasi because of what’s in and around the port. The emphasis here is Ephesus. Once home to philosophers, gladiators and rulers, the ancient city is rich in ruinous architecture and history, and a fleet of buses parked on the other side of the gangway can take you there in 30 minutes. Nearly every shore excursion offered through the cruise lines includes a visit to Ephesus, considered one of the world’s most magnificent and best-preserved archaeological sites.


#8 Mykonos

A dearth of shore excursion options is actually part of the allure of this Greek island, a destination Lonely Planet accuses of “[flaunting] its sizzling St. Tropez-meets-Ibiza style and party-hard reputation.” Nightlife begins long after the larger cruise ships have sailed away, but Mykonos by day is still exciting. Tours of ancient Delos, birthplace of the god Apollo, and shuttles to wonderful beaches get some takers, but most visitors who get off the boat hoof it to the Old Town to stroll the narrow streets that lead to boutiques, museums, cafes, patisseries and churches. Many get genuinely lost thanks to a centuries-old defense scheme designed to thwart would-be invaders; the town is plotted as a maze, and a total whitewash of its buildings intentionally makes navigation challenging. Not to worry, the Aegean Sea or a friendly local will stop you going too far astray.


#9 Crete

Shore excursion options are few in the home of Europe’s earliest civilization, but that offers a rare, stress-free opportunity to assimilate with the locals. There’s no easier, cheaper or quicker way to do that than taking the hop-on hop-off open-top buses of Heraklion Open Tour. For just $35 (less if you buy online in advance or cut a deal with the ticket seller), you’re taken on a loop around Crete’s capital and Greece’s fourth-largest city. Any of the 11 stops is technically a starting and ending point, but the official one is just off the ship. After quick stops by a medieval fortress and a small, but decent aquarium, consider getting off for a few hours to truly soak up indigenous culture and color. Although a popular stop, the Palace of Knossos can be disappointing in that it’s overly restored and lacking in original antiquities. Still, this home of Hercules is a real charmer.


#10 Rhodes

Walk off the ship and in five minutes you can enter a castle-like fortress where fun, food and souvenirs await, along with hungry feral cats. Exploring the Old Town is easily done on your own, but getting to the second-most visited attraction in Rhodes – the ancient city of Lindos – requires ample time and wheels since the 50-kilometre journey takes about 45 minutes each way, longer during peak season from April through September. Crowds will also have you deciding whether the Acropolis of Rhodes, site of a temple to the goddess Athena, is worth hiking up a narrow and imposing path. Donkeys can carry you up in exchange for about $8 and your PETA membership card. If visiting Tsambika Beach and Lindos before or after the Old Town sounds nice, pre-book a private driver through Taxi Rhodes, which charges about $290 for six hours and will meet you at the dock.