Mediterranean cruise guide: Best itineraries, planning tips and things to do

Erica Silverstein

No two Mediterranean cruises are the same. Some bring travelers to the French and Italian rivieras for food, wine and cultural pursuits. Others head east to the Greek Islands, where passengers alternate days sipping ouzo at a beachfront taverna with trips to ancient sites. Each itinerary is a mix of urban tourist capitals — Barcelona! Rome! Istanbul! Jerusalem! — and sleeper gems, such as Portofino, Italy, or Kotor, Montenegro.

If you've never been to Europe, you may feel overwhelmed by destination choices. If you know which ports are on your must-see list, you might be more stumped by which cruise line to choose or which specific itinerary will be the best for you.

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Know that you can't see everything in one Mediterranean cruise — even on sailings that run multiple weeks. Once you let go of your need to see and do it all and accept that you're on a sampler tour, you'll be better able to make your cruise selections and enjoy the ports your ship does visit.

Get started with this Mediterranean cruise guide. You'll learn the basics of itineraries, cruise lines, destinations, when to go and when to book your European adventure at sea.

Why cruise to the Mediterranean?

which cruise line is best for mediterranean

Many of the European countries on your travel bucket list lie along the Mediterranean Sea: Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Israel and Egypt. A cruise lets you hit many of the hot spots (the French Riviera, Barcelona and Venice, Italy) on one trip without having to navigate multiple hotels, transportation between cities and making dinner reservations in foreign languages.

For some people those experiences are a key part of travel. However, for vacationers who want all the attractions without the hassle, a cruise is an ideal way to explore the Mediterranean. This type of European cruise can be especially alluring to honeymooners, families and older couples.

Mediterranean cruises beckon travelers with a love of culture and history. Visit the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, or the Colosseum in Rome; see Michelangelo's David in Florence, Italy; or make a pilgrimage to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Take a tour to a medieval town or marvel at the construction of a soaring cathedral. If you've always wanted to see the pyramids in Giza, Egypt; the ruins in Ephesus, Turkey, and Pompeii, Italy; Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; and the famous casino in Monaco, you can do it easily on a Mediterranean sailing.

You can also eat your way through the markets, cafes, trattorias, gelato shops and crepe stands in the ports you visit. Sample local wines at vineyards in France and Italy, or sip ouzo or limoncello made on the premises.

When do cruises go to the Mediterranean?

You might be surprised to learn that cruise ships sail the Mediterranean year-round.

The majority of ships, however, arrive in the spring and depart in the fall, choosing warmer climes like the Caribbean for holiday sailings. Only a few hardy stalwarts remain through the winter months. Most of those are European-based lines, such as Costa Cruises , MSC Cruises and Celestyal Cruises , but Viking also braves chilly weather for its destination-focused itineraries in Europe.

Best Mediterranean itineraries

You can find a variety of weeklong Mediterranean cruises, but if you've got the time, nine- to 14-night sailings are not uncommon. Seven-night cruises are best if you're short on time or want to tack on a few days in Barcelona, Rome or Athens before or after your cruise. Longer itineraries are ideal for experiencing a greater variety of destinations and traversing more of the Med.

Here are some the best Mediterranean cruise itineraries you should consider for your European vacation.

Western Mediterranean

The classic Western Mediterranean cruise sails between Barcelona and Rome, and calls in ports in Spain, France, Monaco and Italy. This is your chance to explore Tuscany and the French Riviera, as well as hit up Florence, Monte Carlo, Naples and islands such as Corsica, Mallorca, Sicily and Sardinia. Just watch out: Marquee destinations like Rome and Florence are both located an hour or more from the cruise port, so get ready for long bus rides and long days off the ship.

Greece and Turkey

The classic Eastern Mediterranean cruise sails out of Athens or Istanbul and visits a mix of historic places (Delphi, Ephesus via Kusadasi, Rhodes) and sun-drenched islands (Mykonos and Santorini).

Adriatic Sea

Some so-called Mediterranean cruises actually spend most of their time on the Adriatic Sea, sailing from Venice and visiting ports in Croatia and Greece, and sometimes Montenegro and Albania. You may also find an Adriatic sailing wrapped into longer Western or Eastern Mediterranean cruises.

The most easterly of the Eastern Mediterranean itineraries, Holy Land cruises spend time in Israel and sometimes Egypt, often with overnight stops or multiple days spent in each country to maximize touring opportunities. These sailings may also call in Cyprus or ports in Greece and Turkey.

Best Mediterranean cruise lines

which cruise line is best for mediterranean

Most major cruise lines send at least one ship to the Mediterranean every year. Even Carnival Cruise Line , known for its affordable cruises out of U.S. home ports, offers some Mediterranean sailings, as does Disney Cruise Line , which typically bases its ships near its theme parks.

If you're looking for a bigger ship, Celebrity Cruises , Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean are the best choices as they base a handful of ships in the Mediterranean each year, arriving in the spring and departing in the fall. These lines offer a variety of itinerary choices, so you can find the Mediterranean ports you most want to visit. You'll also find lots of restaurant choices and evening entertainment options to keep you occupied at night when the ship is sailing.

Couples or families with grown children looking for longer sailings and a destination focus should consider Viking, which offers eight- to 15-night cruises through the Mediterranean, including three- and four-week voyages for retirees (or workationers?) who have the time for a most thorough exploration of the region.

Which luxury line is best for your Mediterranean cruise will come down to what you're looking for in a luxury ship and a European itinerary. However, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Silversea Cruises stand out for including a large variety of shore excursions in their cruise fares. If you're a foodie, these two lines plus Oceania Cruises are notable for their culinary tours in port, plus destination-themed cooking classes on board.

Things to do in the Mediterranean

Sightseeing is a big component of Mediterranean cruises, whether that's exploring a historic site like the Roman Forum or the walled city of Dubrovnik, Croatia; visiting cathedrals in Florence and Barcelona; or touring medieval villages, forts and old towns. You might want to skip the formal tours and merely wander around the port town, browsing local shops or grabbing a coffee or snack in a local cafe.

Culinary tours are also popular here. You can choose from roving food tours, cooking classes, winery visits and tastings, and meals made with local produce and cheeses in beautiful villa or farmhouse settings.

Travelers looking to stretch their legs might want to sign up for cycling tours in city and country settings, hike around a volcano on Santorini or Sicily, or even take a kayak for a spin in Croatia or Greece.

A beach day is possible in the Greek Islands or along the French Riviera, and many ports will have sightseeing cruises.

Best Mediterranean cruise ports

which cruise line is best for mediterranean

Everyone has their favorite list of the best Mediterranean cruise ports (as evidenced by the discussion I just had with TPG's cruise team about which to include). Some travelers want to hit all the most popular cities, while others prioritize the ability to walk right off the ship into the heart of the town. Some ports are better for historical attractions, others for cafe culture or outdoor activities.

The following cruise ports are generally standouts, no matter your travel style.

Barcelona: Both an embarkation port and a port of call, depending on your itinerary, Barcelona has much to offer first-timers and repeat visitors. Cruise ships dock at the end of Las Ramblas, the main thoroughfare in the old part of the city, so it's easy to leave the ship and simply wander. Don't miss Gaudi's fantastical buildings or a meal of tapas.

Monte Carlo, Monaco: Monte Carlo is both a fascinating port on its own and a gateway to the French Riviera. In town, you can walk to the casino, palace and stunning oceanographic museum. From town, you can take the twisty-turny Corniche coastal roads to destinations like Nice, Eze, Cannes and Grasse.

Dubrovnik, Croatia: Even if you're not in it for the "Game of Thrones" tour, you will be captivated by Dubrovnik and its famous walled city. Walk the walls or take to the water for scenic views of the old town.

Rome: It's actually a pain to get to Rome from the cruise port of Civitavecchia by bus or train, but it's worth it to experience the Eternal City firsthand. Tour the Vatican and Sistine Chapel at St. Peter's Cathedral, step back in time at the Colosseum and Roman Forum, climb the Spanish Steps, throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain and meander through the Borghese Gardens. When your feet give out, take a breather with a gelato or plate of pasta.

Rhodes, Greece: The historic port of Rhodes no longer has a Colossus, but that doesn't take away its appeal. Ensconced by ancient stone walls, Old Town is easily walkable, composed of cobblestone streets lined with restaurants and stores housed in structures dating back to the 14th century. If shopping isn't your thing, keep walking until you reach the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes, where you can take a tour, or venture out to one of the city's beaches.

Naples, Italy: Naples is one of our favorite ports because you have so many options of what to do there. It's the jumping-off point for tours to Pompeii, Mount Vesuvius, Capri and the Amalfi Coast. Or, if you want to explore the city on your own, perhaps sitting down to a lunch of the region's famous pizza, it's a quick walk right into town from your cruise ship.

Ashdod, Israel : Most cruisers don't stick around Ashdod; it makes our list of best Mediterranean cruise ports because it's the gateway to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Tel Aviv and the Dead Sea. Prepare to be amazed by the sites you will see, but also be ready for long bus rides and long days off the ship touring.

Istanbul: Istanbul is the vibrant city you might not know you need to visit. Serving as both a departure port and port of call on Mediterranean cruises, the city offers something for everything: the cultural icons of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, intense shopping experiences at the Grand Bazaar, Byzantine palaces, traditional Turkish baths (called hammams), flavorful cuisine, Bosporus day cruises between Europe and Asia, and plenty of neighborhoods to explore.

When to book a Mediterranean cruise

It's a good idea to book your Mediterranean cruise early, even nine to 12 months in advance. You can take advantage of early booking discounts and promotions and have the widest selection of available cabins and suites and dining times (if applicable). An early booking is ideal if you're planning on using miles to book your flights or points for a pre-cruise hotel. Look for fall sales when the current Mediterranean season is winding down.

Another smart time to book a Mediterranean cruise is during January or February when cruise lines run their " wave season " sales, often with lots of extra freebies thrown into the cost of the sailing. You might find last-minute deals on spring cruises to Europe or still be considered early for fall itineraries.

What to bring on a Mediterranean cruise

The Mediterranean region has a temperate climate, but it still gets chilly in the spring and fall and can be brutally hot in the summer. Check the weather before your sail date and pack for the predicted temperatures — with layers, in case the forecasters are wrong and it's unseasonably hot or cold.

You'll likely do a good deal of walking on a Mediterranean cruise, so a good pair of walking shoes is a must. Bonus if you can find cute options you can wear on sea days or sneakers that can do double duty in the ship's gym.

If your tours take you to religious sites, especially in Israel and Egypt, you might need a modest outfit that covers shoulders, arms and knees. Ladies, a shawl is a versatile option you can toss over your shoulders (or hair if need be), use for warmth with your strappy formal night attire or as a blanket on the airplane.

Of course, North Americans taking Mediterranean cruise vacations will need a passport to fly to and from their ship's departure and arrival ports.

Bottom line

The Mediterranean is an amazing region to cruise, and a sailing there is a wonderful introduction to Europe for travelers who have never been. The varied choices of itineraries, cruise lines and ships can be intimidating, but rest assured, you can't really go wrong with any of them. Just know that once you go, you may feel a need to return — either to see a port you loved more in-depth on a land vacation or to sail to the Mediterranean countries you missed on your first go-round.

Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:

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7 Best Mediterranean Cruises for Every Type of Traveler

A sailing in the mediterranean is awash with art, architecture, sun-kissed coastlines, and world-class cuisine..

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7 Best Mediterranean Cruises for Every Type of Traveler

SeaDream Yacht Club runs dozens of Mediterranean voyages annually aboard its twin luxury sailing yachts.

Courtesy of SeaDream Yacht Club

Perhaps you’re eager to hop between big-city, blockbuster Mediterranean metropolises at ports like Barcelona , Athens , or Rome on a seamless cruise-based itinerary. Maybe you’re yearning for a beach escape on a storied strip along the French Riviera or a Greek island idyll. Or you might want to uncover more off-the-path coves and sleepy villages, or hit up UNESCO World Heritage archaeological sites where history books come to life. Whatever your interest or travel style, there’s a Mediterranean cruise for you, with myriad at-sea adventures awaiting along the coasts of such coveted locales as Spain , France , Italy , and Greece .

Here are seven perfect Mediterranean cruises for different types of travelers, whether it’s romance, family fun, cuisine, antiquities, or simply some R&R that you’re after.

Masted ships and Greek islands are a winning recipe for romance on Windstar Cruises.

Masted ships and Greek islands are a winning recipe for romance on Windstar Cruises.

Courtesy of Windstar Cruises

Windstar Cruises

Best Mediterranean cruises for couples

If sailing into the sunset, billowing white sails overhead, after a day strolling hand in hand with your sweetheart along a blissful Greek island beach or past evocative ancient ruins sounds like a recipe for romance, your ship has come in. Windstar Cruises runs weeklong made-for-canoodling cruises through Greece, round-trip out of Athens, aboard its intimate, 148-guest, four-masted sailing yacht Wind Star.

En route, stop at Santorini , with its striking caldera, and Mykonos , famed for its beaches and party scene. Sail on to lesser-visited locales like the sacred island of Patmos; medieval Monemvasia ; and Nafplio , a pretty port town in the Peloponnese. Plus, Wind Star stops in Kuşadasi, Turkey, gateway to ancient Ephesus, where it puts on an exclusive white-glove dinner in an illuminated courtyard of the Celsus Library, complete with chamber orchestra accompaniment.

Back onboard, a complimentary water-sports platform invites kayaking or snorkeling outings for two. Or amp up the romance a notch with a captain-helmed wedding or vow renewal at-sea ceremony. Sailings from May through October annually; rates from $4,599/person;

Disney Cruise Line

Best Mediterranean cruises for families

Disney gets what families want, by land and by sea, and that includes in the Mediterranean, where the line will base the 4,000-passenger Disney Dream in 2023 with 7- to 11-night sailings out of Barcelona and Rome (the port of Civitavecchia), in May, June, and July. For those who want a great family introduction to the Med, included is a nine-night, four-country sailing from Barcelona to Rome, with stops in Marseilles, France; Livorno and Naples, Italy; and Kefalonia, Athens, and Santorini in Greece. In port, expect family-focused excursions, such as a performance of traditional Italian puppetry in Rome or a “treasure hunt” in an open-air architectural museum in Barcelona.

Expect all of the Disney Cruise Line signatures—Broadway-style shows, first-run Disney film screenings, lively deck parties, Disney character meet-and-greets, and top-notch kids clubs (plus, some dedicated adults-only spaces, too). The kids will also delight in the ship’s 765-foot AquaDuck water coaster themed on Donald and friends. Rates from $3,423 /person; .

which cruise line is best for mediterranean

While in the Med, dine at the Cyprus restaurant on the Celebrity Edge for favorites from the region.

Photo by Michel Verdure/Celebrity Cruises

Celebrity Cruises

Best Mediterranean cruises for foodies

Celebrity Cruises’s contemporary Celebrity Edge offers a full spring-through-fall season of Mediterranean sailings during 2023. The sleek, 2,918-passenger ship claims a culinary “edge” indeed, thanks to 29 onboard dining destinations (overseen by renowned chef and restaurateur Cornelius Gallagher), including main dining rooms dedicated to highlighting regional flavors, such as the Cyprus Restaurant and Tuscan Restaurant. Plus, find unique culinary concepts like Le Petit Chef, which features tabletop 3-D projections of “mini-chefs” from Italy, Spain, France, and Japan who present specialty dishes from their respective homelands. And there’s the Dinner on the Edge open-air venue, where rotating menus, often featuring items sourced from port, are presented on a cantilevered platform floating 13 stories above sea level.

Also based in the Mediterranean from spring to fall in 2023 is the 3,260-passenger Celebrity Beyond , an Edge -class ship that boosts the culinary offerings with a specialty restaurant, Le Voyage, helmed by celebrity chef Daniel Boulud, who also serves as the line’s global culinary ambassador.

In port, guests can sign up for special chef-guided market excursions for shopping local markets in locales such as Barcelona and Malaga, Spain, and Livorno and Sorrento, Italy. Finds are later prepared and served by the chef via cooking demos back onboard. Choose from a series of 7- to 11-night Mediterranean Celebrity Edge voyages, running round-trip from Rome or between Rome and Barcelona. Rates on Celebrity Edge from $1,005 /person;

Sail along the coast of Italy in luxury on a Regent Seven Seas Med cruise.

Sail along the coast of Italy in luxury on a Regent Seven Seas Med cruise.

Courtesy of Regent Seven Seas Cruises

Regent Seven Seas Cruises

Best mediterranean cruises for culture vultures.

Some travelers head to the Mediterranean for total cultural immersion—whether their interest is art, wine, architecture, or design—and all-inclusive luxury line Regent Seven Seas Cruises delivers for the culture vulture with carefully curated shore excursions, many of which are included in the cruise fare.

On a 10-night cruise on the 700-passenger Seven Seas Mariner in July, for instance, you might sip wine at the villa of a family-run farm on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, check out unusual art made from discarded industrial waste in Sicily (part of the line’s new eco-connect series of tours ), or sample Maltese food and wine in Valletta. There’s also the opportunity to shop for crafts in the Italian Riviera, learn about perfume-making in the French Riviera, admire scenery that inspired Vincent van Gogh in Provence, and enjoy tapas and a flamenco show in Spain. Regent recently launched special behind-the-scenes design tours that look at architectural marvels in cities such as Marseilles and Barcelona for a deeper dive into the building of these historic places. The 10-night sailing between Rome (Civitavecchia) and Barcelona on July 13, 2023, starts from $11,299/person; 7-night sailings are from $7,999/person; .

SeaDream Yacht Club

Best Mediterranean cruises for beach bums

Do thoughts of sun, surf, and sand along the French or Italian Riviera, Spain, Croatia, or the Greek Isles have your swimsuits crawling out of the drawer to pack themselves? Well, consider hopping between the region’s very best beaches aboard a luxury sailing yacht (billionaire bankroll not required). SeaDream Yacht Club will get you there in style, aboard its intimate 112-passenger SeaDream I or SeaDream II , where you can top off a beach day while luxuriating at a Thai-specialized spa, dining on gourmet cuisine, tippling at the open bar, or sleeping in the line’s signature “Balinese dream beds.” For active types, the ships’ complimentary water-sports marina (lowered when the ship tenders and weather permits) comes equipped with personal sailboats, kayaks, Jet Skis, stand-up padddleboards, and snorkeling gear.

The line runs dozens of diverse Mediterranean itineraries annually: One sample weeklong SeaDream I run between Nice and Rome (Civitavecchia) departing August 19, 2023, follows along the shores of Saint-Tropez, Portofino, Italy, and Monte Carlo (with an overnight stay). Mediterranean sailings take place from May through November (typically from 7 to 11 nights in duration); rates from $5,599/person;

The relaxed pace of Greek island life is sure to help you unwind. Seabourn Cruise Line extends its emphasis on wellness to port via “Mindful Living” excursions.

Seabourn extends its emphasis on wellness to port via “Mindful Living” excursions.

Courtesy of Seabourn Cruise Line

Best Mediterranean cruises for spa and wellness seekers

The Mediterranean, with its beautiful beaches and welcoming breezes, is just what the doctor ordered for some rest and renewal. The wellness factor increases further aboard the luxury of intimate, 458- to 600-passenger ships from Seabourn , which schedules dozens of Mediterranean sailings each year (from seven nights in duration, from April into November), most of which feature the line’s signature “Mindful Living” excursions ashore. In Kos, Greece, for example, set out to explore the foundation of modern medicine at the archaeological site of Asklepion, or get your heart pumping with a riverfront bike ride through the orchards and vineyards of Croatia ’s Konavle Valley, outside of Dubrovnik . These wellness-themed excursions are part of the two-year-old “Spa and Wellness with Dr. Andrew Weil” program, a Seabourn exclusive that anchors each cruise with daily yoga, meditation, and fitness classes, along with seminars on mindful living (on topics like healthy aging or spontaneous healing). The holistic approach and teachings stem from Dr. Weil, known as the father of integrative medicine. The onboard spa is a natural extension, where a standard portfolio of treatments (massages, facials, wraps, and beauty treatments) is augmented by alternative therapies like acupuncture, sound therapy, and Chinese herbs. Rates from $3,259/person; .

Get a deep dive into the history of the region with Viking's educational onboard lectures and discussions.

Get a deep dive into the history of the region with Viking’s educational onboard lectures and discussions.

Courtesy of Viking Cruises

Viking Cruises

Best Mediterranean cruises for history buffs

With a name like Viking Cruises , it’s no surprise that the cruise line gives a special nod to history on its voyages (its oceangoing ships even have a Viking Heritage Museum onboard, meant to evoke the lives and times of Vikings via replica displays of clothing, weaponry, and more). Through 2023, Viking has three of its ships—the 930-passenger Viking Sky , Viking Mars , Viking Saturn, or Viking Venus —on the popular seven-night “Journey to Antiquities” voyages, on history-rich routes between European capitals of antiquity Rome and Athens. En route, stop off at Naples, Messina (Sicily), Crete, and Kuşadasi, with an overnight in Athens, for excursions that run to spots such as ancient Ephesus, the Minoan Palace of Knossos, Herculaneum and Pompeii, and the Acropolis.

Onboard, a resident historian is available to add color and context to the voyage via talks and roundtable discussions; the library offers history books relevant to the visited ports; and a “cultural curriculum” promises further enrichment via history lectures and destination-influenced programming, such as cooking classes. Rates for the two-week sailing are from $5,498/person; .

This article was originally published in April 2019 and has been updated to include current information. Fran Golden contributed reporting.

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