Whether you're on a cultural odyssey through the cradle of European civilization or are in search of the hippest sun-soaked hot spots around the Mediterranean, a cruise showcases the very finest the region has to offer.
The Mediterraneanis the kind of place you'll come back to again and again, so here are the essentials in 10 of our favorite ports -- and also some intriguing alternatives.
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VeniceExperience a classic…Drifting slowly along the Grand Canal in a gondola is a bucket-list dream for many and easy enough to arrange. Time it for "magic hour" for the best shots of the evening sun reflecting off the ochre and sienna facades of the stately but crumbling palazzi that line the canal. You'll want to see the Palazzo Ducale, or Doge's Palace, too; join a tour to skip the lines and take in the Renaissance splendor and magnificent Old Masters from the 16th century.Now go deeper…Losing yourself in Venice is the best way to uncover the city's soul: a dreamy world of silent, greenish blue canals, hidden wisteria-draped gardens and cats basking on windowsills, shutters flung open to let in the sunshine. For something more purposeful though, there are places to seek out. In the Castello district, the Libreria Acqua Alta bookshop on Calle Longa Santa Maria Formosa is a sight to behold: a treasure trove of thousands and thousands of books, stacked in bathtubs, boats -- even an old gondola -- all useful for escaping the "acqua alta" (high tides) for which Venice is famed for. You may have to move a dozing cat to reach the tome you're looking for.From here, wander down to the waterfront by San Zaccaria convent and board a No. 2 vaporetto across to San Giorgio Maggiore. Entrance to the church is free -- impressive given that the building houses Tintoretto's Last Supper -- and the views from the bell tower are the best in Venice, as you're looking over the city from the side, rather than from within. Carry on one more stop on the No. 2 to the long, skinny Giudecca island, relatively free of tourists, and join the locals in their "passeggiata," or sunset stroll, for an Aperol spritz looking across the canal toward San Marco.
BarcelonaExperience a classic…Without doubt, the unfinished Sagrada Familia, the great legacy of architect Antoni Gaudi, should be top of your list in Barcelona, although advance booking is essential. (Tip: Pay extra to ride the elevator up one of the towers for stupendous views.) The Picasso Museum is outstanding, housed in a medieval mansion near the Gothic Quarter. After your visit, stroll the few blocks to the artists' local pub, Els Quatre Gats. Or head to Montjuic hill to the Fundacio Joan Miro, a fine collection of the artist's work with a fabulous museum shop.Now go deeper…Barcelona has its seamier side -- El Raval, a tangle of narrow alleys to the left as you head north up the famous-but-touristy La Rambla boulevard. This former red light district is fast emerging as a fashionable, boho place to live in. Just off La Rambla, on Carrer Nou de la Rambla, is one of Gaudi's early works, the magnificent Palau Guell, an elaborate neo-Gothic mansion built for the architect's patron. The detail is incredible, merging Gaudi's trademark organic, natural form with everything from art nouveau to Islamic influences. Take a guided tour, and be sure to visit the roof to admire the crazy chimneys, all dazzling, intricate mosaics and weird, bobbly shapes.While you're in the area, make time for the striking, Richard Meier-designed MACBA Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona's most important collection of contemporary art. From the second half of the 20th century through pop art and avant-garde to date, the museum features the work of international as well as Spanish and Catalan artists.
St. TropezExperience a classic…Whiling away lunchtime in the pretty harbor is a favorite pastime for many. Or join an excursion driving along the rocky, pine-forested coastline to flower-filled Bormes-les-Mimosas or chichi Port Grimaud. Beach lovers should reserve a table in the ultra-glamorous Club 55 on Pampelonne Beach, a legend since 1955 and a top spot for people-watching.Now go deeper…Don't overlook St. Tropez itself, which is a lovely and, in the most part, serene old town. Wander from the port to the shaded Place des Lices, and watch locals playing the lawn game petanque under the plane trees. If you're in town on a Tuesday or Saturday, there's a superb market here, bursting with local produce, from fruit and flowers to cheeses and olives. Try a Tarte Tropézienne, an orange blossom-flavored brioche filled with custard, named by Brigitte Bardot when she was filming "And God Created Woman" here in the 1950s.Peek into the Musée de l'Annonciade, where there's a wonderful collection of contemporary art (1890 to 1950) by artists, among them Henri Matisse, drawn to the then-sleepy fishing village by the extraordinary light. For a pair of the original, handmade leather Tropézienne sandals, you'll want to drop in at Rondini on Rue Georges Clemenceau. For lunch, local-style, head to the port and book a table at La Petite Plage, rustic chic with soft sand on the floor and an elegant, summery Mediterranean menu.
DubrovnikExperience a classic…Within Stari Grad, the old town, you'll want to take in the Rector's Palace, the Church of St. Blaise and the Dominican Monastery and Cathedral, or simply wander the broad Stradun, the stately, polished limestone boulevard that bisects the city. Walking the massive ramparts, linked by a series of chunky forts, is a must for views across the sparkling Adriatic and the terracotta rooftops; do this first thing or just before sunset for the best light. The entry ticket includes Fort Lawrence (popular among Game of Thrones fans), which also has stupendous views.Now go deeper…The town of Ston has to be one of the great unsung heroes of this region. An easy day trip from Dubrovnik, it's an adventure in three things: salt, oysters and ramparts that, incredibly, are second in length only to the Great Wall of China. Ston and its neighbor, Mali Ston ("Little Ston"), perch on a cape connecting the Peljesac Peninsula to the mainland. Spectacular stone fortifications, built in the Middle Ages when Ston was an important military port and producer of salt, snake high over the hillside for 2 miles and connect these sleepy towns. You can walk the ramparts and visit the salt pans, which have been in use for some 4,000 years. At Konoba Bakus, slurp on fresh oysters harvested from the beds around the town, washed down with a crisp white from the Peljesac Peninsula. On the way back, ask your driver to stop at the family-run Milos winery to sample organic wines.
AthensExperience a classic…No visit to Athens is complete without a day at the Acropolis and the exquisite Temple of Athena, Nike dominating the city skyline. Put the history of Greece into context with a visit to the elegantly designed Acropolis Museum at the base of the hill, with beautiful displays of ancient treasures and glass floors showing the old city walls and streets below.Now go deeper…The gleaming white marble Temple of Poseidon, dedicated to the Greek god of the sea, stands on a rocky headland at isolated Cape Sounion, some 45 miles south of Athens, an easy half-day trip and wonderfully scenic drive along the coast. Built in 444 B.C., the same year as the Parthenon, this graceful monument is astonishingly well-preserved, 15 of the original Doric columns having withstood the test of time. You can walk up to the top, where the cliffs plunge 210 feet into the sea and views extend as far as the Peloponnese and the northern Cyclades. British romantic poet Lord Byron was a fan; he even carved his name on one of the columns when he visited in 1810.Sounion is at its most dazzling at sunset, when aficionados gather to photograph it in silhouette, so arrive in the afternoon, if time permits, and cool off with a swim at the sandy Sounion beach before climbing up.
NaplesExperience a classic…The brooding presence of Vesuvius looming over bustling Naples is a constant reminder of the volcano's violent past, exploding in 79 A.D. with such fury that the residents of Pompeii had no time to flee and were buried in the ash. Pompeii is such an extraordinary sight. It has to be visited if you haven't been before and, ideally, with a good guide who can conjure up evocative images of this once-thriving city.Now go deeper…Naples itself, a city that's admittedly somewhat edgy, is often overlooked in favor of the glorious attractions along the coast -- colorful Sorrento, the Amalfi Drive and the romantic island of Capri. The cultural scene here, though, is impressive. To put Pompeii in greater context, visit the National Archaeological Museum in the city center, housing one of the world's most important collections of Roman artifacts, including murals, frescoes, exquisite statues and mosaics salvaged from Pompeii and Herculaneum.Speaking of which, Herculaneum, or Ercolano, is essentially Pompeii with fewer crowds, and a half-day visit here gives an even clearer picture of the horrors wreaked by Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Destroyed by the same eruption as Pompeii, this 4,000-inhabitant fishing port was buried under 75 feet of mud so quickly that everything was fossilized, preserving items like clothing, furniture and ornaments in near-perfect state, as well as skeletons of people and animals. It's a sobering experience, although the mosaics are extraordinary, as is the scope of the archaeological dig, which is still ongoing.Back in Naples, you could always lighten the mood with a pizza at L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele, possibly the world's most famous pizza joint, in the same family since 1870 and completely purist, with only two flavors, marinara and margarita. It's basic, but legendary; locals wait in line here.
Spain's ValenciaExperience a classic…Valencia seamlessly blends intricate Gothic with elegant futuristic architecture. Any first visit here should include a walking tour taking in La Lonja, the beautiful old Silk Exchange; the Cathedral, believed to house the actual Holy Grail; and the stunning, contemporary City of Arts and Sciences. Lunch has to be paella -- the city is surrounded by rice fields and regards itself as the home of paella -- flavored with chicken, rabbit, shellfish, local beans and a generous pinch of saffron. Incidentally, if you have space in your luggage, the Mercado Central is a great place to invest in a paella pan and a big pack of saffron as a practical souvenir.Now go deeper…To feel like a local in Valencia, you need to cycle or walk the Turia river bed. The river was diverted around the city after a particularly bad flood in 1957, but instead of building over it, a beautiful, green park, Jardín del Turia, was created. Now, a lush, 4-mile swathe of greenery winds through the city, blending ornate formal gardens with lawns, soccer fields and palm-lined avenues. The old bridges have been left intact, and the park is bordered at one end by the city's zoo and at the other, the curvy, shimmering complex of the City of Arts and Sciences, composed of the opera house, aquarium, science museum and a 3D cinema.Hire a bicycle from Valencia Bikes, which has an outlet in the gardens, and explore, free of traffic, for a couple of hours. Hopefully, you'll have stocked up beforehand at the Mercado Central on a picnic of fresh bread, cheese, cured hams, pots of olives and big, luscious peaches.
MarseillesExperience a classic…Although Marseille is making a name for itself as it transforms from a notoriously grungy port to a modern cultural center, the city is really better known to many as a gateway to the delights beyond: the gorgeous old university town of Aix-en-Provence, or Roman Arles, former home to Vincent van Gogh. Either makes a wonderful day trip. Aix is all leafy boulevards, stately mansions and outdoor cafes, and attracts fans following the Paul Cezanne trail; the artist was born here in 1839. Arles, meanwhile, was a regional capital for the Romans, who built a magnificent amphitheater here, and later, served as the inspiration for van Gogh, appearing in many of the artist's paintings.Now go deeper…It's a fact little known to outsiders, but Marseille sits on the edge of some of the most enchanting coastal scenery in the whole of Provence, the Parc National des Calanques, a tiny national park stretching between the metropolis and the coastal resort of Cassis and extending out into the Mediterranean. This string of exquisite little fjord-like coves, is interspersed with craggy limestone uplands, the highest cliffs in France, plunging straight into the azure sea. It's home to an astonishing array of flora and fauna, from eagles to lizards and snakes and around 900 species of plants, most of which cling to the bare rock.The park is crisscrossed with hiking trails with varying levels of difficulty, but there are many ways to visit. You could kayak into the inlets or hire a boat for the day -- the most popular access in the height of summer. Or join an electric bike tour from downtown Marseille; you'll need the extra oomph, as the hills are steep. Tiny fishing ports are squeezed into some of the coves, and sampling their fresh produce in some of the rustic beach restaurants is all part of the experience.
Malta's VallettaExperience a classic…Valletta is a breathtakingly lovely city, its massive, honey-colored ramparts glowing gold in the sunshine, enclosing a warren of streets and palaces constructed in the 16th century by the Knights of St. John. Although you could tour the island, or hop on a boat across to bucolic Gozo, or visit the sleepy hilltop town of Mdina, Malta's capital in the Middle Ages, you're most likely to spend your first visit in town. St. John's Co-Cathedral is dazzlingly ornate, its best-known treasure Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's gruesome "The Beheading of St. John." The Grand Master's Palace, meanwhile, is an insight into the opulent lifestyles of the Knights of St. John, while the Upper Barrakka Gardens is one of Valletta's loveliest green spaces, where locals sit for hours gossiping over ice cream, watching boats buzzing back and forth across the harbor.Now go deeper…In 2018, Valletta enjoyed a year in the spotlight as European Capital of Culture, for which many new cultural projects were developed. One such is the flagship, Muza, Malta's new national art museum, containing 20,000 works from the former national collection and many new ones. The museum, housed in the 16th-century Auberge d'Italie, former home of the Italian chapter of the Knights of St. John, should be fully open for the 2019 season.Alternatively, explore Malta's complex military history at Fort St. Elmo's National War Museum, intelligently laid out and documenting life on this barren, rocky island from the Bronze Age through the Roman Empire to the years of the Knights and finally, the First and Second World Wars. Malta's treasured George Cross, awarded to the whole island by Britain's King George VI for its bravery in World War II, and Franklin D. Roosevelt's Jeep, "Husky," are two of the prized exhibits. Back in the city center, pick a table in the shade outside Caffe Cordina, a Valletta institution on Republic Street, and snack on pastizzi, a traditional Maltese delicacy of filo pastry filled with ricotta cheese or, interestingly, mushy peas and minced beef.
Palma de MallorcaExperience a classic…On a first visit to Palma, you're likely to gaze in awe at the honey-colored La Seu cathedral, a hulking Gothic masterpiece dominating the waterfront and bearing the touch of Barcelona's famous son, Gaudi, who designed the altar. Look down on the city from the 14th-century hilltop Bellver Castle. Back in town, lose yourself in the tangle of alleyways making up the Gothic quarter, lined with grand old mansions, secret courtyards and dark little cellar bars that provide shady refuge from the heat and tasty tapas to accompany a lunchtime glass of wine.Now go deeper…Palma has a fascinating art trail, and in one day, it's possible to take in several galleries and still have time for tapas in the Gothic Quarter. Start in the city center, where the admittedly somewhat boutique Museu Fundacion Juan March, housed in an 18th-century mansion, displays paintings, sketches and sculptures by Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, among others.There's more contemporary art at Es Baluard, a bright, airy space in the former 16th-century bastion, with a permanent collection including a whole room dedicated to Miro and an impressive selection of ceramics by Picasso. Take time to step out onto the ramparts for views across the city and the Mediterranean. If you still haven't had your fill of Miro (who lived in Mallorca from 1956 until his death in 1983), ask your driver to take you to the Fundacio Pilar i Joan Miro, to the west of Palma, to visit the artist's studio, learn about his life, admire some 2,500 works and contemplate the sculpture garden.
Sue has taken dozens of cruises around the Mediterranean and never tires of heading off the beaten track in search of authentic experiences. She has kayaked along the Grand Canal in Venice, cycled round Barcelona, hiked up Vesuvius, watched the moon rise over the Acropolis from a rooftop in Athens and followed the trail of prehistoric settlers on Malta. She is a keen cook, so loves exploring markets around the Mediterranean, and wherever she cruises, heads ashore in a quest to find the perfect coffee shop.