The crystal blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea sparkle year-round, making cruises in the region a hot ticket for passengers around the globe. (Even Australians make the long trek during their winter.) But with so many ports spanning the Med, how do you pick which itinerary is right for you?
Generally, Mediterranean cruises are divided into Western Mediterranean – Monaco, Spain and France -- and the Eastern Mediterranean, which includes but is not limited to Croatia, the Balkan countries, Greece and Turkey. Italy does double duty, serving as an embarkation/debarkation homeport for both (usually Rome for Western Med cruises and Venice for eastern routes); Italian ports of call feature in both itineraries, as well.
It's hard to go wrong with either. Both itineraries include UNESCO-approved cultural and historic sites that will help you complete your bucket list. Both also offer fabulous ports of call with outstanding cuisine and local wines, beaches for all sorts of travelers and opportunities for shopping. Keep in mind that either itinerary will be port-intensive; this is not a cruise where you spend lots of time lolling near the ship's pool.
Read on to find out how to choose between an Eastern Mediterranean vs. a Western Mediterranean cruise.
Culture vultures and art-lovers will be in heaven on either an Eastern or Western Med cruise. That's because fantastic museums abound in Western ports such as Barcelona, Nice, Florence and Rome, as well as Eastern stops such as Venice, Athens and Istanbul.
Foodies will also be happy with both cruises. On a Western Mediterranean cruise, you can imbibe Spanish cava and Provencal wines in lovely seaside cafes. In the Eastern Med, you'll be surprised with how good the food and wine is in Croatia; Greece and Turkey also have outstanding cuisine. And we really don't need to sell you on Italy, do we?
If you like to shop, you'll be spoiled for choice on both itineraries. Italy is famous for its leather goods, while you'll also find food and art souvenirs in France and Spain. The markets in Greece and the bazaars in Turkey are fun for hagglers; take measurements ahead of time if you're shopping for a rug. Most vendors take euros, even if the country doesn't use it as official currency.
Last but certainly not least: Both itineraries also include historically significant islands, such as Corsica, Sardinia, Malta and Crete, that may be hard to get to otherwise.
While both regions have culture (and we're not forgetting Rome), you'll find that the Eastern Med is heavy on archaeology and the ancient world. (How can it not be, with Greece and Turkey on its route?) Many Eastern Mediterranean cruises also dip down into Israel and the Holy Land, which makes them prime itineraries for modern pilgrims.
The beaches on offer are also different. In general, the Western Med has more rock and pebble beaches; the weather is also more subject to change. The Eastern Med has some of the world's best beaches; if consistent hot weather and sand is what you seek, it's a better bet. The cities and seaside towns of the Western Mediterranean also tend to be more sophisticated than what you'll find in the East. It's the difference between a Campari in a French Riviera cafe instead of ouzo in a Greek taverna.
Unfortunately in today's geopolitical climate, you're also more likely to encounter port swaps on an Eastern Mediterranean cruise. In recent years, cruise lines have stopped calls at Black Sea ports such as Yalta, Israeli ports such as Haifa and Egyptian cities such as Cairo and Alexandria; even Turkey is not necessarily a given. Don't get too attached to an itinerary, particularly if you book far in advance.
Choose an Eastern Mediterranean cruise if you're a beachgoer who wants to experience sand and sun; you're into the ancient world and Greek mythology; or you're a traveler who wants to see parts of the Middle East (but is flexible enough to change itineraries if need be).
Choose a Western Mediterranean cruise if you're a foodie who loves seaside cafes and local wines; a history-lover who prefers to see art and artifacts inside an air-conditioned museum instead of walking around in the heat; or you crave stops at sophisticated cities such as Barcelona, Monaco and Florence instead of smaller ports.
Updated October 10, 2019