Whether they operate tiny ships with fewer than 100 passengers or giant mega-ships with several thousand, most cruise lines have ships summering in the Mediterranean. Some even sail the region year-round. Mediterranean sailings to countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece are hugely popular.
The Mediterranean is a big sea covering some 970,000 square miles, so cruises often focus on one region — though some encompass more. While choosing a ship is important, so is picking which route to take and which countries you want to see.
Consider what’s on your bucket list. Cruise lines offer a variety of options — whether you’re a culture-vulture, beach-lover, history buff or family traveler.
Here are some of the top routes to help you find the cruise that’s right for you.
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The Rivieras for Romantics
For romance seekers, nothing beats a cruise that lingers on France’s Côte d’Azur, with its coastal mountains and very blue (azure) sea. The French Riviera is 125 miles long, and cruising there, you will understand why the coast, villages and cities have inspired artists for centuries. You may even recognize some sights depicted by Matisse and Renoir, among others.
Some one-week cruises focus almost entirely on the French Riviera and legendary places such as Nice with its flower market and world-class museums; Cannes with its oceanfront promenade that you may have seen in news clips of the city’s famous film festival; and St.-Tropez, with its glamorous yacht scene.
Other one-week and longer itineraries add a visit to Elba, where French emperor Napoleon was exiled. It is a tiny island with miles of sandy beaches, vineyards and forests — and a wonderful place for a biking excursion.
Another popular port of call on Rivera itineraries is Monaco, where you might visit the royal palace of the Grimaldi family and stop by the glamorous Monte Carlo Casino to pretend you are James Bond doing a night on the town.
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Related: Western Mediterranean vs. Eastern Mediterranean cruises: Which itinerary will I like more?
The Italian Riviera is also breathtaking, and cruises may visit or focus on this area of the coast. Take a romantic stroll around the secluded harbor in colorful, postcard-perfect Portofino or celebrate the good life with a lunch (reservations required) outdoors on the patio at the luxurious, hilltop Belmond Hotel Splendido, toasting the good life as you view the town and see.
You’ll find these cruises on small and luxury ships, such as those of Windstar Cruises, Emerald Cruises, Seabourn and Silversea, embarking from Barcelona, Rome and Nice, France.
Greek Isles for the budget-conscious
Visiting the Greek Islands is a magical experience. Lessons in ancient history and the development of western civilization come to life surrounded by astounding natural beauty. All you need to do is look up at the hilltop of the Acropolis in Athens to appreciate that you are in a place that’s important to life as we know it.
The mainland is fascinating. Skip over to Athens from the cruise port of Piraeus to take in the Parthenon on the Acropolis hilltop. Look for port stops in Katakolon, gateway to ancient Olympia, so you can see where the Olympic Games debuted in 776 BC
To really understand Greece, you also need to get to the islands. Your jaw may drop as your ship navigates the sunken caldera that leads to Santorini, where whitewashed villages dot the tops of steep cliffs. In Mykonos, explore fashionable Hora town, where designer shops compete with views of quaint houses with brightly painted doors and window frames. You can head to one of the island’s famous beaches or catch a ferry to see the ancient ruins on Delos, known as the birthplace of Apollo.
Related: Best Mediterranean cruise tips to enhance your European vacation
For the budget-conscious who may not want to pay for a shore excursion, the Old Town of Rhodes is a fun place to explore on your own, as you wander narrow streets and atop city walls built by the Knights of St. John.
Small and luxury ships from lines such as Ponant Cruises, SeaDream Yacht Club, Variety Cruises and Star Clippers set sail from the mainland on itineraries that may range from a week to two weeks, visiting both marquee and tiny islands. For less-pricey ways to see the Greek Isles, consider Celestyal Cruises, which sails two- to five-night cruises in addition to affordable, one-week sailings. Royal Caribbean has some six-day cruises from Rome that visit Mykonos and Santorini, along with Naples, Italy.
Eastern Mediterranean for history lovers
Cruises of a week or more from Rome (the port of Civitavecchia), Venice or Athens get you to the historic places you have traveled to see — including several UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Extraordinary itineraries visit Athens to climb the Acropolis; Mykonos for the ancient ruins on the mystical island of Delos; and Rhodes to see the medieval Old Town and the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Columbus. In Turkey, don’t miss a chance to see Istanbul’s Blue Mosque or, accessible from the port of Kusadasi, the impressive ancient city of Ephesus and sites associated with the Virgin Mary.
Visit Dubrovnik, Croatia’s medieval Old Town (most recently known as a filming location for HBO’s “Game of Thrones”); Naples, Italy to see the ancient city of Pompeii; and Rome for such sights as the Roman Colosseum and the Vatican museums. It’s history lover nirvana in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Related: Best Mediterranean cruise shore excursions
Some one-week sailings concentrate on Greece and Turkey and may include a port call in Italy or in Dubrovnik. Longer sailings may add additional stops in Croatia and less-visited Montenegro. Cruise lines with deep itineraries include Viking, Holland America, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Azamara. (Viking and Regent include shore excursions in the cruise fare.)
Holy Land itineraries for explorers
Longer cruises of 10 nights or more in the Eastern Mediterranean — offered by such lines as Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises and Holland America, as well as luxury lines — combine Greece, Turkey and Italy with port calls in Egypt, Jordan and Israel.
Depending on the specific itinerary, you may see Cairo and the pyramids of Giza, Jordan’s ancient rose-hewed rock city of Petra and biblical locations in and around Jerusalem.
Most of these cruises sail round-trip from Civitavecchia (the closest port to Rome).
Western Mediterranean for culture vultures
For foodies, fashionistas and art lovers, it’s hard to top a cruise to the western Med. These cruises follow the sunshine and in the footsteps of artists and connoisseurs as you explore the renowned resort towns and famous coastal cities of Italy, France, Monaco and Spain.
Small ship and luxury cruise lines, along with such popular big-ship lines as Princess Cruises, Costa Cruises, Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and MSC Cruises, sail on one-week or longer itineraries between Barcelona and Rome, visiting Italy, France , Monaco and Spain.
This is your opportunity to see Antoni Gaudi’s fantastical church and other creations in Barcelona, visit Michelangelo’s David sculpture and other Renaissance treasures in Florence, Italy, hang out at the casino in Monte Carlo, and visit Provence, France.
You may stop in dreamy Nice (with its Matisse and Chagall museums) and Cannes in France, and Spanish cities such as Malaga on the Costa del Sol, where Pablo Picasso was born, or Seville (via a shore excursion from Cadiz), home of flamenco dancing.
Related: How I skipped the cruise ship tour in Italy and had a better, cheaper adventure on my own
Shop for Italian, French and Spanish designer fashion. Dine on the best pasta and gelato you ever tasted — or bouillabaisse and escargot in France, or paella and tapas in Spain — accompanied by local wines. Even if you just sit at a seaside cafe, sip coffee and check out the beautiful people walking by, you’re in for a treat.
Some longer sailings include Lisbon; Europe’s smallest capital, Gibraltar, with its famous Barbery apes; or Valletta, Malta, with its cathedrals, palaces and fortifications.
The Mediterranean for families
If you are bringing the kids or grandkids, you may want to do the entire Mediterranean in one fell swoop as you add to your list of countries visited. Cruise lines that do a family-friendly, comprehensive look at the Mediterranean include Disney Cruise Line as well as Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Princess Cruises.
When looking at a cruise with children, you want time to explore on land plus time to play on the ship, whether in the kids club or with such attractions as video arcades and waterslides. Look for an itinerary that includes one or more fun-filled days at sea.
Kids will enjoy such sights as the Roman Colosseum, where they might pretend that they are gladiators; the flower market in Nice; and the Leaning Tower of Pisa (on a shore excursion from Livorno, Italy). Take them to the beach in the Greek Isles and eat pizza in Naples, Italy. If you can find a cruise that includes the Italian seaside villages of Cinque Terre (accessible from Genoa, Livorno and Portofino), fans of Disney’s animated feature “Luca” will be ecstatic.
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