Bordering Italy, France, Spain and Portugal, the Western Mediterranean is a culturally rich region filled with an incredible array of sights and experiences. Spanning the coast of Europe and nudging the continent of Africa, it's filled with ancient and modern wonders.
Italy is brimming with art and culture, to say nothing of its wonderful food. Roads from Civitavecchia cruise port lead to Rome, bursting with history and legendary sights like the Colosseum, St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. If you want to return, don't forget to leave a coin in the Trevi Fountain (nearly $4,000 worth are thrown in each day; the money is collected and given to charity). From Naples and Sorrento, it's an easy trip to the beautiful island of Capri, where you can venture into the Blue Grotto and explore the picture postcard hilltop village of Anacapri.
In the early 19th century, members of European high society would talk of azure waters fringing a magical land that was never touched by the chill of winter. Welcome to the French Riviera, a 75-mile stretch of coastline epitomized by jet-set lifestyle and glamorous playgrounds -- such as Cannes, Nice and St. Tropez. Then there's vibrant Spain, where a highlight is buzzing Barcelona, capital of the Catalan region. The port leads directly to Las Ramblas, the main pedestrian thoroughfare lined with street vendors. Neighboring Portugal is home to Lisbon, built on seven hills and continental Europe's westernmost city.
From visits to some of the world's most famous museums to tasting tours in sleepy wine-making villages, the Western Mediterranean is a feast for all the senses. This region features a diverse collection of cruise ship ports.
--By Jeannine Williamson, Cruise Critic contributor
Malta's history has been shaped by many influences, including Roman, Greek, Arab, French and British. The island celebrates more than 50 years of independence, and its capital, Valletta, is gearing up to be European Capital of Culture in 2018. Take the elevator from the port -- or walk if you're feeling energetic -- to Upper Barrakka Gardens, the highest point in the city with fabulous views over the Grand Harbour. Nearby is ornate St John's Co-Cathedral, home to two of the Italian artist Caravaggio's most important works; "The Beheading of St. John the Baptist" and "St. Jerome Writing."
Tip: Take a tour around the Grand Harbour on a dghajsa, the traditional wooden gondola-shaped boat once used to ferry sailors ashore. These water taxis leave from the cruise ship docking area, and the fare is only a couple of euros.
The subtropical island of Madeira, part of Portugal, is often referred to as the "floating garden" because of its lush, natural beauty. The island's abundant plant life can be seen in the Botanical Garden above Funchal. From there, you can reach the hilltop town of Monte, once the preserve of Madeira's gentry, and embark on what Ernest Hemingway described as one of the most exhilarating experiences of his life -- a ride down to Funchal in a wicker toboggan on wooden runners. Started in the 19th century as a quick way back to town, the sleds are expertly steered by men dressed in white with traditional straw hats.
Tip: Book a boat trip from Funchal to watch dolphins, whales, turtles, seals and marine birds. Big-game fish are also plentiful in the deep seas off the island's shallow shores, and half-day trips are available to match your time in port.
In the 1950s, Bohemian artists from Paris adopted St. Tropez as their summer getaway spot, triggering an influx of writers and actors who turned the small fishing village into a glamorous resort. It was permanently put on the map with Brigitte Bardot's 1956 movie "And God Created Woman," for which the infamous bikini scene was filmed on a small beach next to the harbor. The waterfront remains the place to see and be seen, relax at a street cafe, admire luxury yachts and spot celebrities. You won't see price tags in the numerous high-end designer boutiques, but window shopping is fun and free!
Tip: For a real taste of St. Tropez order La Tarte Tropezienne, a delicious custard filled tart perfumed with orange blossom flowers.
Commanding the western gateway to the Mediterranean, the peninsula clinging to the edge of southern Spain has been the subject of many squabbles over the years and was formally handed over to the British in 1713. Today, it's a duty-free shopping haven, and the small, bustling downtown is packed with stores selling jewelry, watches, electrical goods, perfumes and gift items. Visit the 18th century Great Siege Tunnels, carved deep into the Rock of Gibraltar and used as an underground city during the Second World War. If time allows, curiosities at the Gibraltar Museum include an Egyptian mummy found floating in the bay 1930.
Tip: The apes, or to be correct, Barbary macaques, are Gibraltar's most famous residents. They're undoubtedly cute, but they're also very mischievous and some make off with cameras, bags and other items. So, hold on tight to your belongings and note that it's strictly illegal to feed them.
Photo: Philip Lange/Shutterstock
One of the few European capitals with a river and a coastline, maritime voyages of discovery turned Portugal's largest city into one of the world's great ports. Many of Lisbon's historic monuments -- the Tower of Belem and Jeronimos Monastery -- celebrate the era of the seafaring discoveries and are built in the highly decorative Manueline style. The towering Monument of Discoveries on the edge of the Tagus River pays homage to the country's pioneering explorers. Modern attractions include the Park of Nations, built for the 1998 World's Fair and housing one of Europe's largest aquariums. Even Lisbon's Metro subway system is a tourist attraction, with stations covered in artwork made from azulejos, traditional glazed ceramic tiles.
Tip: Head to the bars and cafes of Old Town to listen to fado, the haunting music that originated in Lisbon in the 1820s and tells tales of lost love and the sea.
Photo: Carlos Caetano/Shutterstock
Palma de Mallorca
When you sail into port, you can't miss Palma's landmark 14th-century Sa Seu Cathedral, which dominates the city skyline. The Gothic masterpiece is a must-see sight. The cathedral's interior features decorative 20th century additions by the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, more famously known for his influences on Barcelona. Leave time to browse along the big shopping streets around Placa Major, followed by a stroll through the labyrinth of narrow streets in the Old Quarter, where houses have elegant courtyards. Also, check out the Modernista architecture, or Spanish Art Nouveau, which is at its most impressive in Placa Weyler.
Tip: The La Gerraria neighborhood used to be an important center for traditional crafts, and these skills have been revived in the Passeig de l'Artesania, a great place to pick up locally made souvenirs.
Monaco (Monte Carlo)
Sandwiched between France and the Mediterranean, the tiny principality of Monaco is big on glamor. An independent nation since 1419, when the Grimaldi dynasty secured power, Monaco is Europe's second-smallest state after Vatican City and home to the most millionaires and billionaires per capita. Within easy walking distance from the port is Monte Carlo, the best-known district. Hilly streets -- aided by a network of escalators and elevators -- lead to the Prince's Palace. If you don't want to walk, take a tour of the highlights, which include the cathedral where Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly married and the city's Grand Prix race circuit.
Tip: It's worth the high prices for a coffee or ice cream at Cafe de Paris in the square opposite Monte Carlo Casino because it's the best people-watching spot in town. If you want to go into the casino and play the slots or tables, the minimum entry age is 18 and you need to take your passport.
Shaped by volcanoes, resulting in amazing lunar landscapes and black-sand beaches, Lanzarote is totally different from the rest of the Canary Islands. The hot spot is Timanfaya National Park, where volcanic heat provides the spectacle of dried grass bursting into flames as it's thrown into a hole in the ground and restaurant food is barbecued on giant grill resting over the 750 degree Celsius heat from the volcano. (Don't worry; the last volcanic eruption was in 1824.) Other geographic wonders include the unusual green lake at El Golfo, which has provided the background for sci-fi movies and TV programs including "Planet of the Apes" and "Doctor Who."
Tip: Grapes have been grown on the black lava soil in La Geria for more than 1,000 years, and Lanzarote has 18 vineyards, so take time out to sample the wine.
Photo: Pawel Kazmierczak/Shutterstock
The Tuscan capital offers more art per square foot than anywhere else in the world. The Uffizi Gallery is the most important museum with 60 halls filled with masterpieces from the 12th to the 16th century, including Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus." Michelangelo's equally renowned "David" is housed in the Galleria dell'Accademia (with a copy of the statue in nearby Palazzo della Signoria). The Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, topped by Filippo Brunelleschi's majestic Renaissance dome, presides over Piazza del Duomo, which stands at the historic center of this surprisingly compact and walkable city.
Tip: If you've set your sights on seeing the Uffizi and Accademia, then check the day of the port of call before booking your cruise because they are always closed on Mondays (but open Sundays).
Photo: Rudy Balasko/Shutterstock
Perhaps you're like me and start filling your suitcase a week (or more) before your cruise, armed with a packing list and smart space-saving techniques, like rolling up socks and stuffing them in your shoes. Or maybe you're like my husband, who throws a bunch of clothes into a carry-on at midnight