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How to plan a magical Mediterranean cruise

Author: Sarah Freeman

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With the major cruise lines returning in force, there's never been a better time to enjoy the world's favourite holiday playground.

With its crystal-clear waters, Renaissance treasures, mouth-watering seafood, and museum-like cities, it's no wonder the Mediterranean is such an enduringly popular destination for cruise travellers. And the region is back with a splash this year, as major cruise lines including Costa, Celebrity, and MSC gear up for a full summer programme for the first time since the pandemic.

Factor in the inaugural season for Virgin Voyages' Valiant Lady and Royal Caribbean's new homeport at Ravenna on the Adriatic coast, and you're looking at a hugely exciting range of options for anyone who loves this sun-kissed corner of the globe. So check out our guide to the top Mediterranean hotspots for this year and next...

Istanbul's Hagia Sophia mosque has towered over the Bosphorus since the 6th century AD. Credit: Travel Information.

Accessing the Mediterranean is easy from the UK with a selection of no-fly cruises from various ports throughout the UK. Mediterranean cruises from Southampton are available aboard a number of the leading cruise lines as are Mediterranean cruises from Dover and even Liverpool, Newcastle and Scottish ports. If you prefer to fly to join your ship you have a big choice too. Perhaps cruise from Barcelona, Civitavecchia (for Rome), Palma or perhaps from Piraeus for for the Greek Islands. Cruises to the Mediterranean really are your cruising oyster...

Best for culture

Turkey
A melting pot of Middle Eastern, Asian, and European traditions, this vibrant country is bursting with cultural riches.

A cornerstone port for most Eastern Mediterranean voyages, Istanbul offers treasures from all corners of the once-mighty Ottoman Empire. You can watch a ballet performance for incredibly little money at the state-owned Sureyya Opera House, then travel back to Ottoman-era life at one of the world's oldest covered markets, or admire the domes, minarets and mosaics of the famous Hagia Sophia mosque.

And the new state-of-the-art cruise terminal at Galataport is just one more reason to visit this fabulous city.

-READ MORE: A Cruise to Greek Islands and Turkey with Azamara -

Some 450 nautical miles South, the Aegean resort of Bodrum has been a port for 3,000 years and some of its most famous landmarks – such as the 4th-century BC Greco-Roman amphitheatre and waterfront castle – now play host to concerts and festivals.

Meanwhile, at the resort city of Antalya on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, you can admire Warhols and Picassos at Antalya Culture and Arts, or enjoy live jazz in one of the old quarter's Ottoman mansions-turned-music venues.

Get on board

Ponant 9-night 'Sublime Istanbul to Venice the Serenissima' cruise aboard Le Jacques-Cartier, via Corfu and Dubrovnik, departs 17 August 2022 from £3,980 (uk.ponant.com).

Oceania 7-night 'Turkish & Hellenic Gems' cruise aboard Oceania Marina, from Athens to Istanbul via Antalya and Bodrum, departing 4 May 2023, from £1,809 (Search all Oceania Cruises to the Mediterranean).

The Croatian island of Hvar is said to be the sunniest spot in Europe. Credit: Daily Beast.

Best for island-hopping

Croatia
With more than 1,000 islands dotted along its rugged Adriatic coast, Croatia is prime cruising territory – whether you fancy diving to sunken wrecks or sipping local wines in Venetian-style harbour towns.

-READ MORE: Croatia Cruise: The perfect small ship cruise holiday-

Sailing North from the stunning walled city of Dubrovnik, nature-loving cruisers can immerse themselves in vineyards, olive groves and pine forests on the island of Mljet – the 'green pearl of the Adriatic' that has entranced visitors since Homer's Odysseus.

A little further up the coast lies celebrity hangout Hvar – said to be the sunniest spot in Europe – which offers picture-postcard swimming coves and scoops of fragrant lavender gelato.

On the neighboring island of Brac you can trek up Vidova Gora, the Adriatic's highest island mountain, while on nearby Korcula you can enjoy the Dalmatian pace of life a little more pomalo (slowly), exploring medieval churches, sandy beaches and family-friendly restaurants.

-READ MORE: Dubrovnik: A Game of Thrones guide to the Croatian city-

Finally there's Vis, the closest Croatian island to Italy. An Allied base during WW2, this rurual hideaway more recently played a starring role in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.

Get on board

Royal Caribbean 7-night 'Greece and Croatia' cruise aboard Brilliance of the Seas, round trip from Venice via Dubrovnik, Santorini, and Split, departs August 21, 2022, from £767 (Search all Royal Caribbean cruises to the Mediterranean).

APT 7-night 'Adriatic Coast and Dalmatian Islands' cruise aboard MV Princess Eleganza, from Dubrovnik to Zagreb via Badija, Korcula, Vis, Split, SIbenik, Krka, Zadar and Rab, departing 5 May 2023, from £2,595 including flights (aptouring.co.uk).

The ancient and vibrant port city of Marseille. Credit: Lonely Planet.

Search all cruises to the Mediterranean

Best for Fabulous Food

France
From its cosy bistros and bustling markets to its high-end Michelin-starred restaurants, the country that invented haute cuisine is a foodie's fantasy come true. And while Paris is hard to beat for perfect patisserie windows and atmospheric brasseries, France's true culinary heart lies further South.

-READ MORE: Belmond Afloat in France launches Wine Academy-

In the ancient and vibrant port city of Marseille, the must-try dish is authentic bouillabaisse seafood soup – best slurped harbourside, with the Med sparkling in the sun.

Another Provençal port with huge foodie appeal is Nice, a little further along France's 370-mile Mediterranean coastline. Home of ratatouille, it's also just the spot to try a classic Niçoise salad, washed down with a glass of local rosé, before a spot of farm-to-table market shopping in the Old Town.

From one pedestrianised, palm-lined promenade to another, Cannes offers one of the Côte d'Azur's foodiest streets – Rue Meynadier – where you can enjoy gourmet dining with a side order of trompe l'oeil facades.

-READ MORE: Shop with the Chefs on a Saga Pearl II cruise -

But the most mouth-watering prospect of all must be a voyage along one of France's five major rivers. Cruisers can sample world-class wines and chocolate in the Rhône valley or take their pick from one of 20 Michelin-starred restaurants in the gourmet capital of Lyon.

Alternatively there's the chateaux-studded Loire valley, where freshwater bream and perch – caught and enjoyed since pre-Roman times – pari perfectly with the fresh and zingy local wines.

Get on board

Emerald Cruises
A seven-night 'Sensations of Lyon & Provence' cruise aboard Emerald Liberté, from Lyon to Marseille via Tournon, Viviers, Avignon and Arles, departs October 29, 2022, from £2,595 including flights (Search all Emerald Cruises to the Mediterranean).

Viking Cruises
A seven-night 'Chateaux, Rivers, & Wine' cruise aboard Viking Forseti, round trip from Bordeaux ia Cadillac, Libourne, Bourg & Blaye and Medoc & Margaux, departs May 13, 2023, from £2,595 (viking.com).

The gothic Duomo. Credit: Viator.

Best for history galore

Italy
With more UNESCO World Heritage designations and more visitors to its archaeological sites than any other country, Italy is a history buff's dream.

-READ MORE: Steel cutting ceremony for Seabourn Encore takes place in Italy-

Cruisers can soak up the country's rich heritage by threading their way through the palazzo-lined canals of Venice, cliff-walking among the picture-postcard villages of the Cinque Terre or scaling 463 steps to the top of Florence's magnificent Gothic duomo.

Gateway to the rest of Italy and the highlight of any Western Mediterranean cruise, Rome is a city with history on every street corner. In a single afternoon you can visit the baroque Trevi Fountain, walk in the footsteps of the Caesars through the ancient Forum and look down from the tiers of the mighty Colosseum, where gladiators fought and died nearly 2,000 years ago.

Art and history also converge in Florence, where Uffizi Gallery has guarded the world's masterpieces since the time of Leonardo. And then there's Venice, the great city state that once ruled territory as far away as Crete, and where St Mark's Bailica alone has 8,000 square metres of golden mosaics.

-READ MORE: Norwegian Cruise Line celebrates its return to the Mediterranean-

Further North, in Christopher Columbus's birthplace of Genoa, you can feast your eyes on the UNESCO-listed Strade Nuove district, a network of streets where merchant princes built their palaces at the height of the city's power in the 17th century.

Turning south again, you can take another deep dive into history on the island of Sicily, where Palermo's famous Capuchin monastery conceals a network of 16th-century catacombs.

Venetian canals. Credit: TravelDigg.

Get on board

Celebrity Cruises
A nine-night 'Venice, Portofino & Florence' cruise aboard Celebrity Constellation, from Venice to Rome via Sicily, Naples, and Florence/Pisa, departing 18 August 2022 from £1,100 (Search all Celebrity Cruises to the Mediterranean).

Princess Cruises
A six-night 'Mediterranean with France & Italy' cruise aboard Enchanted Princess, from Barcelona to Rome via Genoa and Pisa, departs May 6, 2023, from £749 (Search all Princess Cruises to the Mediterranean).

The famous La Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona. Credit: Barcelona Tickets.

Best for night owls

Spain
The country that never sleeps (but loves a siesta) is a surefire hit if you like to stay out late, and nowhere embraces those balmy summer nights like Barcelona.

Hop ashore from the Med's largest cruise port and you can enjoy open-air cinema with a beachy backdrop, see the famous La Sagrada Familia cathedral after hours or enjoy a sunset cable-car ride, gazing over the shimmering sea and the city lights twinkling below.

Equally captivating is the Andalusian port of Malaga, where the entertainment can include everything from authentic peñas (flamenco clubs) to craft beer crawls in the city's very own Soho.

Historic Cadiz is said to be the oldest city in Europe. Credit: Love Exploring.

A day's Southbound sailing will bring you to Alicante on the Costa Blanca, where the nightlife is so amazing there's even a name for it: la marcha alicantina. But it's the vivacious seaside city of Valencia that's bringing clubbing culture to mainland Spain, thanks to late-license bars where the dancing goes on 'till dawn... and beyond.

-READ MORE: Paella, sherry and tapas onboard a Fred Olsen cruise-

Like your nightlife a little more sedate? In historic Cadiz you can hit the old town plaza fry-shops (freidurias), or watch a zarzuela (comic opera) in Bilbao's ornate Arriaga theater.

Get on board

P&O
A 14-night 'Spain & Portugal' cruise aboard Iona, round trop from Southampton via Alicante, Barcelona, Valencia and Cadiz, departs September 24, 2022 from £949 (Search P&O Cruises to the Mediterranean).

Marella
A seven-night 'Magic of Spain' cruise aboard Marella Voyager, round trip from Majorca via Cadiz, Malaga and Valencia, departing July 8, 2023, from £1,181 including flights (Search all Marella cruises to the Mediterranean).

Greece is holiday paradise. Credit: Re/Max Europe.

Best for sun-worshippers

Greece
With 6,000 islands scattered across the Aegean and Ionian Seas, and the eleventh longest coastline of any country in the world, Greece enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a holiday paradise. After all, who can resist those waterfront tavernas, sun-baked ruins and miles of sandy beaches?

-READ MORE: Discover Greece and her islands-

Serving Athens since the fourth century BC, the capital's historic port of Piraeus continues to be the gateway to island-hopping adventures. On Patmos – the Northernmost of the Dodecanese islands – ancient monasteries dot the rugged headlands, a reminder that this is one of Christianity's oldest pilgrimage destinations.

Craggy bays and calm lagoons characterise perenially sunny Rhodes, where you'll find dozens of Blue Flag beaches ranging from sheltered and family-friendly to the kite-surfing hotspots of the northwest coast.

Crete's rocky gorges beg to be explored from the emerald-green water, while the Ionian island of Corfu warrants a hike to drink in its fabulous sea and mountain views which stretch all the way to Albania.

-READ MORE: Top 10 islands to visit in Greece-

Top of most cruisers' bucket lists, however, is the Cyclades, the island chain famed for its blue-domed churches and sugarcube villages. Formed by a volcanic explosion in the late Bronze Age, Santorini delivers jaw-dropping sunsets over the Aegean, while just a few nautical miles away, its charismatic cousin, Mykonos, offers 600-year-old windmills and elegant harbourside restaurants.

Get on board

Variety
A seven-night 'Unexplored Greek Islands' cruise aboard Callisto, round trip from Athens via Patmos, Levitha, Amorgos and Serifos, departs September 16, 2022, from £2,010 (varietycruises.com).


Colorful Lisbon. Credit: Kensington Tours.

Best for Atlantic adventures

Portugal
Stretching from Porto in the North to the Algarve's Southernmost city of Faro, Portugal's 1,100-mile coastline has been sculpted by the power of the Atlantic winds and waves.

-READ MORE: Douro river cruise guide -

Few places recall the nation's illustrious maritime history more vividly than Belem, the waterfront district of the capital, Lisbon. The starting point for many of history's most famous voyages of discovery, the fairytale Belem Tower is just the place to gaze at the blue horizon and imagine setting sail with no notion of what lies beyond it.

Some 150 nautical miles north lies the famous coastal city of Porto, where the Douro River meets the Atlantic. Here you can zip around on historic trams, sample the wares of the great port houses, and savour deliciously fresh cod fritters on the sea-spritzed promenade.

Portimao Cruise Terminal is the gateway to the Algarve, Portugal's sun-soaked Southern coast, where whitewashed fishing villages are interspersed with more than 150 beaches. Characterised by sea caves and towering sandstone cliffs, this rocky coastline is perfect for hiking, snorkelling among marine fossils, kayaking to mysterious grottoes and surfing in the Costa Vicentina Natural Park.

And if you still haven't had your fill of adventure, further out to sea lie sun-kissed Madeira and the lush green Azores – an enchanting archipelago of nine volcanic islands, justly nicknamed 'the Galapagos of the Atlantic'.

Madeira is a sun-kissed haven. Credit: Insider.

Get on board

Fred. Olsen Cruise Line
An 11-night 'Discover Portugal with Madeira' cruise aboard Borealis, round trip from Liverpool via LIsbon, Funchal (Madeira), Porto and La Coruña, departs May 28, 2023, from £795.

Carnival
A 12-night 'Europe from Barcelona' cruise aboard Carnival Pride, from Barcelona to Dover via Lisbon, Porto, Vigo, La Coruña, Bilbao, Le Havre and Zeebrugge, departs May 28, 2023, from £795.

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