The Eastern Mediterranean, a history-stuffed region at the crossroads of where Europe meets Asia, is a must-see for those who want to explore the ancient world. It's not all blasts from the past though; there are plenty of vibrancy and vigor around for those who thrive on more modern energy.
The islands of dramatic Greece, shaped by the sea and the elements, spill over in myth, history and geological drama. Every island has its own inimitable personality, from Santorini, the sunken part of which is said to be the mythical lost land of Atlantis, to Mykonos, which not only appeals to younger visitors with its nightlife, but also has plenty of art, culture and history. Then there's Corfu, known for its great beauty, and Athens, dominated by the Acropolis and Parthenon -- structures that have been around for centuries.
Turkey is like an open museum, home to some of the world's oldest archaeological ruins, as well as glorious beaches and plenty of culture. Kusadasi is the port city for Ephesus, where the Temple of Artemis was one of the Wonders of the Ancient World, while Izmir, once called Smyrna and rumored to be where Homer was born, has a bustling commercial center and is athrob with opportunities to eat, drink and relax. Immense Istanbul, the capital, has a mind-boggling mass of palaces, temples, mosques and markets to discover.
Read on to discover more of what a cruise to the Eastern Mediterranean entails.
Piraeus (Athens), Greece
The port of Piraeus serves chaotic, lively Athens. Most of this fat history book of a city was created around 400 B.C., and its greatest marvel has to be the Acropolis, which is, simply, architectural perfection. Athens was spruced up ahead of the 2004 Olympic Games, when many streets were pedestrianized and a splendid Archaeological Promenade was created to link ancient sites.
Tip: The central bazaar, flower market and surrounding streets bristle with little shops full of traditional arts, crafts, local herbs, nuts, pastries, handmade jewelry and quirky memorabilia. And if it is views that do it for you, the one from the restaurant at the top of the Benaki Museum is a feast for the eyes; it encompasses most of Athens.
Kerkyra, a beguiling mix of Venetian, French and Greek architecture, is the capital of this sickle-shaped, olive-laden island that's awash with golden beaches and colorful fishing villages. The 6th-century Old Fortress, which lies on the site of a Byzantine castle, is separated from the rest of town by a moat. This island's two korypha (peaks) gave it its name. If time allows, Mon Repos estate, formerly the Greek royal family's summer residence, is worth a visit. Stroll through its peaceful grounds sprinkled with Doric temples; it's easy to reach by following the coast road around the bay.
Tip: Corfu is renowned for gold jewelry. Treat yourself, or buy some as a present.
For sheer, authentic Greekness it's hard to beat the Peloponnese peninsula, where sleepy fishing villages and sparkling white beaches play host to rich history and cultures. The inhabitants of Gythion claim Hercules and Apollo as its founders. Not far away, at the tip of the Peloponnese, lies the Mani, a desolate -- though gorgeous -- region of underground lakes, rivers and windswept landscapes. Gythion is also fairly close to ancient Sparta and the cliffside city of Mistra, one of the finest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture in Greece.
Tip: Gythion is famed for its fishing-net-fresh seafood, so don’t leave without sampling it in one of the many friendly local tavernas.
Although one of the oldest settlements in the region, Izmir is unabashedly modern. Shopaholics are drawn to the Konak Pier Shopping Centre, a stylish mall with cinema, local fashion stores and chic restaurants. The Konak Clock Tower, a symbol of Izmir which has a fountain in each of the four corners, is a local meeting place. From there, walk inland to reach the bustling bazaar area. Museum hounds will be in their element rooting around the Museum of History and Art to gain an insight to the region's artistic heritage or the Mask Museum, with its somewhat bizarre collection of decorative masks from around the world.
Tip: For great views, go to the Asansor a historic building where you can take a ride in the antique, renovated and free elevator. There is a pleasant restaurant at the top.
At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that Mykonos has been dusted with snow. That's the impression given by masses of dazzling white houses outlined against what's almost always an impossibly blue sky. Just south of the waterfront are the island's famous windmills, while the sea laps up to the edges of cafes and hip bars in Little Venice. In the garden of the Aegean Maritime Museum, see reproductions of marble memorials for sailors lost at sea.
Tip: Petros the Pelican has been the official island mascot for more than 50 years. The original Petros arrived on the island following a storm during the '50s and became a well-loved character. When he died 30 years later, he was replaced, and today's Petros lives on and around the waterfront, often joined by a couple of pelican friends.
Originally a tiny fishing village, Kusadasi has blossomed into a thriving holiday resort, boasting a marina and palm-lined boulevards full of busy bars, shops, cafes and restaurants. Nearby is the ancient Roman city of Ephesus, rightly considered to be one of the wonders of the Ancient World. See splendid temples, baths and fountains, and the ruined amphitheater that once seated 25,000 people. Even all those eons ago, the main street had 50 street lights on its colonnades. Jutting into the bay is Pigeon Island, a charming islet topped by a small Genoese fortress, now home to cafes and bars.
Tip: When visiting Ephesus, take euro coins to use in the -- very clean -- public toilets. Be careful with possessions, as pickpockets tend to operate there.
In 1450 B.C., a huge volcanic eruption caused the middle of Santorini to fall into the sea, leaving a steep-edged crater, or caldera, visible above the waves. Tenders ferry passengers from cruise ships to the foot of the cliffs below the town of Fira, one of the most photogenic spots in Greece. While on the island, walk along the black-sand beaches lapped by crystal-clear waters, taste some local wines, visit hot springs or, if you're feeling energetic, maybe take in a spot of volcano hiking.
Tip: Rent a boat or take a tour to visit the still-active volcano on Nea Kameni. A short distance farther on is Oia, where you can hike, snorkel and float in the caldera. Oia is also the best place to see the island's famous sunsets.
Once known as Constantinople, Istanbul served as the capital of world empires for more than 1,500 years and has an abundance of palaces, mosques and museums. The Grand Bazaar, in effect the world's first shopping mall, is a conglomeration of more than 3,000 shops in a warren of winding lanes. Visit the harem, a maze of rooms in the Topkapi Palace, rambling residence of the sultans. (One of them was Selim the Sot, who met an unfortunate death by drowning after he consumed too much Champagne.) In addition to the dorms of the concubines, it includes the apartment where the chief eunuch lived.
Tip: Be like a local and experience a Turkish bath in the ancient Cagaloglu Hamami, the city's most beautiful hamam.