Europe - Mediterranean Cruise Guide

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Santorini, Greece - by Patryk Kosmider / Thinkstock

Why go?

The Mediterranean is a culture lover’s dream, with port after port full of important historic sites, gorgeous architecture, significant museums, unforgettable shopping, and some of the best food on the planet. Best of all, for travelers who have not yet seen much of this part of the world, a Med cruise allows you to sample some of the greatest cities the region has to offer. Think of it as the “pu pu” platter of European travel. You can explore, say, Spain, France, Italy, and Greece — and get enough of a taste of each to figure out which ones you would like to see in more depth.

Even for travelers who have spent time in the area, it’s hard to argue with the appeal of a day in Venice followed by one in Rome, then Monte Carlo, then Barcelona. In fact, if you’ve already seen the key historic sites and museums of one of these cities, then you’re free to shop and eat your way through town, which can feel like a luxury in itself, even for the most sophisticated cruiser.

One word of caution: With such exciting itineraries, and so much to see and do in each port, you may find yourself starting every day early in the morning, not returning to the ship until evening, and then having a late dinner onboard followed by drinks and perhaps catching a show. The result is a trip that’s action-packed and unforgettable, but not relaxing. If you plan to see every port to the fullest, you may need a vacation to recover from your vacation when you return home. Of course, you can always pick a day to stay onboard and hang out at the pool or spa to rejuvenate, but you’ll probably have to do so at the expense of seeing a world-class European city.

Because these itineraries are so intense, be sure to pay special attention to the number of shore days, as well as how they’re paced out on the cruise, and make it a point to fly into your embarkation port a couple days early to allow yourself time to get over any jet lag before you board the ship.

When to go

While there are cruise ships that ply these waters year-round, it’s critical to pick your dates carefully. The peak season in Europe is late June through early September, and although that’s when the weather is warm enough to hit the beach at ports in the Greek Isles and along the coast of Italy, France, and Spain, it’s also when crowding can be unbearable. Shopping streets fill up during the daytime, and lines wrap around the block at important museums, like the Uffizi in Florence, as well as at sights like Rome’s Vatican. Reservations become critical, and booking shore excursions may be the only way to get into some otherwise booked sights. In addition, August brings summer closings at the best restaurants in some parts of the Med, including, for example, Barcelona.

Cruising in spring and fall may mean giving up the option of sunning on the shores, but it will enable you to explore the region without feeling like all of Europe is in town with you. Just consider yourself warned: Late fall brings the Meltemi winds to Greece, and like a hurricane in the Caribbean, these storms can prevent ships from pulling into ports that otherwise might have been the highlight of your trip.

A few cruise lines offer winter sailings in this part of the world, which certainly provide value and a feeling of having the place to yourself, particularly in towns designed to serve the summer crowds. In those ports, some things may be closed this time of year, and whether you would enjoy cruising then can best be determined by how you feel visiting American beaches in the offseason. Some people find this experience depressing, while others love the peace and quiet that the slow season offers. It’s also important to remember, though, that major cities — including Rome and Barcelona — are a pleasure to tour without crowds.

Routes

There Are Two Main Routes to Choose From:

Western Mediterranean:

Spain and France are inherently exciting places to visit, as is the west coast of Italy. In order to get a taste of the nightlife, or at least have dinner with the locals, look for itineraries that start and end in cities you’d like to add hotel stays in, or ones that overnight in key ports, a trend that is becoming increasingly common on small lines.

Good for: The food, beaches, and shopping are amazing, but don’t forget to set aside time to sit down with a glass of sangria or rosé and indulge in some people-watching.

Downside: Um, there isn’t one, right? This is just an amazing itinerary.

Eastern Mediterranean:

Italy, Croatia, Greece, and Turkey are spectacular places to cruise, and this route offers a mix of cool cities — Venice, Athens, Istanbul — woven in with charming little islands.

Good for: These ports are full of interesting historic sites and gorgeous scenery.

Downside: The landscape is less varied here than it is in the Eastern Mediterranean. That said, if you have the time and money, we suggest doing two back-to-back sailings in order to see both parts of the region. 

Cruise Lines That Sail Europe - Mediterranean

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