What You Need to Know About Cruising the Mediterranean

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View of Florence, Italy under a setting sun

Cruises to the Mediterranean include calls on modern cities and ancient ruins, quaint villages and castle fortresses, important historic and religious sites, beautiful beach hideaways and interesting marketplaces. The Med is perfect for first-time cruisers, but you’ll also encounter travelers who visit year after year because this vast region of Europe has much to see. Here are the most popular questions cruisers have about cruising to the Mediterranean.

What is a Mediterranean cruise?

When searching for a cruise in this region, you’ll find options for Eastern and Western itineraries.

  • Eastern Mediterranean voyages call on Turkish ports like Istanbul, Kusadasi and Bodrum, as well as the Greek Islands, the Black Sea, and the Adriatic coasts of Croatia and Italy. Main embarkation ports are Piraeus (for Athens), Greece; Istanbul, Turkey; and Venice, Italy.
  • Western Mediterranean voyages call on Spain, Italy, France and sometimes also Morocco, Tunisia, Gibraltar and the Canary Islands. Embarkation points can be Barcelona, Spain; Genoa, Italy; or even Southampton, Dover or Harwich in the United Kingdom.

Who should take one?

Mediterranean voyages are a good match for many types of people. They’re excellent options for couples who want to experience the romance of Europe, for families that wish to introduce their children to the deep history of the region, and for singles and friends who want a destination-intensive vacation that keeps them busy.

What is considered “in season,” and how’s the weather?

While you'll find some ships sailing the Med yearlong, high season is from May to September (with crowds and temperatures peaking in July and August). Ports in Greece and Turkey enjoy clear, sunny days throughout the summer, with temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s. Ports in the French and Italian Rivieras can be a bit cooler, but you’ll still be wearing short sleeves and shorts.

When is the best time to cruise to the Med?

Summer is a fantastic time to visit the Mediterranean because of the perfect temperatures, but it’s also the most crowded. Many in-the-know cruisers prefer shoulder season—April/May and September/October, the time between high and low season—instead. If you do book a summertime cruise, note that much of Europe goes on vacation in August. That can mean certain tourist attractions, shops and restaurants will be closed during your visit. So, while August is a popular month to cruise the Med, it might not be the best option for you — especially if you’re a first-time visitor to these ports of call and you want to see and do it all. Also, if hot weather bothers you, consider a Mediterranean voyage during offseason from October through April. Don’t be surprised if you see some rain in November and March.

What are the ships like, and why should I choose one over the other?

Since the region is so popular, every cruise line has a ship — or several — that offers unique itineraries in the Mediterranean.

Traditional, large cruise ships also bring thousands of passengers to some of the world’s most famous ports of call. Look for itineraries from Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Costa or MSC Cruises. Smaller ships — like those sailed by luxury lines Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Silversea and Seabourn — can anchor in tiny bays and harbors that the big ships can’t get near.

If you’ve already seen the major cities of Europe, a smaller ship can take you to the more off-the-beaten-path destinations. Luxury cruise ships tend to overnight in major ports like Barcelona and Venice so you can enjoy a more in-depth exploration of the area and even have dinner in port. The newest and largest ships can be a good bet for multigenerational families that want every amenity from kids clubs to a waterslide on the sundeck to multiple dining venues.

You can also choose an itinerary on a masted sailing ship, such as one from Star Clippers, or a yacht (of either the intimate or megayacht varieties). SeaDream I and II, as well as Crystal Espirit, are low-passenger-count yachts, or you can try a megayacht, such as those from Windstar Cruises or Ponant.

How do I get to port? Do the ships pull right into the action or do I need to take some kind of transportation to most of the sights?

At major embarkation ports like Barcelona, Venice and Civitavecchia (for Rome), your ship will dock right at the pier. But at most other ports, your ship will likely anchor in the harbor and you’ll board a tender that takes you to the cruise terminal. That’s especially true if you’ve booked passage on a very large ship that isn’t able to dock at smaller ports.

From the cruise terminal, you may be able to walk to the center of town (which usually happens in the small ports of call in Greece and the Italian and French rivierias) or take local transportation. Luxury lines usually offer complimentary transportation from the tender drop-off to the center of town, which is usually not far.

A few caveats exist, though. Some Mediterranean itineraries have Florence as a port of call, but the nearest cruise terminal to Florence is Livorno, so you’ll need to travel 70 minutes from there to the sights in Florence. Likewise, Civitavecchia is the cruise terminal for Rome, which is an 80-minute drive away. In most other cases, however, your cruise ship will get you very close to the action.

What can I expect to see from the ship and in port?

From the ship:

  • Sailaways from certain Mediterranean ports — like Venice (if you’re traveling aboard a small ship that can navigate the Grand Canal) and Istanbul — are some of the most beautiful in the world. You’ll be treated to magnificent views of some of the world’s most compelling architecture as the sun sets in the background.

Once in port:

  • Culture and/or History: Major museums housing collections by European Baroque artists like Rubens and Rembrandt and Renaissance masters such as da Vinci, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo.
  • Art and Architecture: Architectural wonders, usually in the form of cathedrals and mosques, are also popular tour options in the Med.
  • Beaches and Boutiques: Beautiful beaches are yet another attraction, as are the boutiques and shops selling everything from Murano glass in Venice to marbled paper in Florence to kumquat liqueur in Corfu to leather handbags in Rome.

How is a Med voyage different from a Caribbean cruise?

In European ports, you’ll have a variety of options for shore excursions that typically don’t involve swimming with sea creatures or ziplining in jungles like you would expect in the Caribbean. Excursion options can vary from a walking tour of old town to a museum exploration to a visit to a monument to a beach day. You’ll see families on both Caribbean and Med cruises and there’s definitely less of a party atmosphere on Med cruises. The passengers are a blend from all over the world with a large percentage being from Europe, Canada and the U.S. and this varies depending on the cruise line.

What are the excursions like?

In the Mediterranean, expect a few different flavors of shore excursions. There is always a general tour that focuses on destination highlights: the port’s old town, church or mosque of note, castle or fort, the harbor area, local museums and any unique observation points. Depending on the lay of the land, the excursion will either be a walking tour or one via coach that takes you to a few different nearby destinations. There are also usually shopping tours, cuisine and wine tastings, visits to historic and cultural sights, as well as active adventures that can include hiking, biking, swimming and more. Here’s a look at the type of available shore tours:

What to Do in Venice, Italy: You have to take a gondola ride and, if you’re traveling with your sweetheart, make it an evening voyage with a serenading gondolier. Other must-do activities include walking tours that call on Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Basilica and San Giorgio Maggiore. In ports like Venice, you can also choose from some shopping-centric excursions. Here, you can visit Murano Island in search of Murano glass and Burano Island, which is famous for its handmade lace.

What to Do in Salerno, Italy: Take a tour by water launch or coach to see the cliffs and grottos of the Amalfi Coast, as well as the ruins of nearby Pompeii. Combo tours package visits to several destinations like Capri, Sorrento and Pompeii or Pompeii, Sorrento and Positano. Active types book the Mt. Vesuvius and Pompeii hike, while those more interested in consuming calories rather than burning them opt for the Villa Massa Limoncello tasting and tour in Sorrento.

What to Do in Bodrum, Turkey: This is a fantastic port to book an active adventure. Choose from diving the Big Reef, a 4x4 Jeep tour of the surrounding area, or a day of fun in the sun at Torba Beach.

What should I pack for a Mediterranean cruise?

  • Euros (it’s easier and cheaper to convert money at a local bank at home than waste time during your cruise) Hat, sunglasses and sunscreen
  • Translation apps on your smartphone so you can communicate with the locals
  • Credit card with chip technology (non-chip cards are not widely accepted in Europe)
  • Plug adapter if you have a pre- or post-cruise stay planned at a European hotel (your cruise ship will have a 110-volt outlet, but European hotels are 220 volts)
  • For women: a scarf, shawl or light sweater to cover your shoulders for church/mosque visits (some venues require covered shoulders and legs)
  • Comfortable walking shoes (lots of European towns still have cobblestone streets)
  • Two bathing suits (at the least) and a beach cover-up; a water bottle
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