Western Mediterranean and Atlantic
The Mediterranean has always been one of the most popular cruise destinations (and was even voted the most popular destination for the UK’s first-time cruisers) and for good reason, offering sun-kissed beaches, cultural heritage sites and some of the world’s most celebrated cities. The Mediterranean is split into the Western and Eastern Med regions, with the West featuring three of the world’s most popular countries – Spain, Italy and France – while the East features more up-and-coming cruise destinations such as Montenegro, Turkey and Cyprus. From medieval architecture to modern edifices, historic towns to superlative cosmopolitan cities, picturesque coastal areas to charming villages, the Western Mediterranean truly has something to offer every type of cruise traveller.
Of course, the same could be said for the islands of the Atlantic. Lying southwest of Spain in the Atlantic Ocean, the Canary Islands is an archipelago made up of seven main islands, with the most popular on cruise itineraries being Tenerife, Lanzarote and Gran Canaria. Boasting almost year-round sunshine, most cruise passengers are drawn to the Canaries for the 600 miles of coastline, swathes of sunshine-soaked beaches and dramatic volcanic landscapes. Then there’s the Azores Islands, known for their lakes, fishing villages and volcanoes. Most popular cruise ports include Ponte Delgada, surrounded by lush nature and dolphin-swimming waters, and Funchal, a veritable earthly paradise of the Azores and known as the ‘Garden Island of Madeira’.
Why cruise Western Mediterranean and Atlantic
It’s no surprise that the Western Mediterranean is the most popular region for British cruise passengers. First-time cruisers should choose itineraries featuring the big-hitter cities, including Rome, Barcelona, Florence, Seville and Nice, while seasoned cruise passengers should look at itineraries that go to second-string cities, such as Siena, Valencia and Avignon, and islands such as Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. Some itineraries also include lesser-known but still well worth visiting ports, such as Mahón in Menorca and Valencia in Spain. Western Med cruises typically sail from Barcelona and Rome, as well as Venice. There is so much to see in the Mediterranean that it would be impossible to cover everything in one itinerary, but no matter which they choose, cruises are guaranteed incredible history, culture, architecture, food and wine. The Atlantic is another exceptional cruising destination, home to the Canary Islands and the Azores. The appeal of the Canary Islands lies in its black-sand beaches and otherworldly, lunar-like volcanic landscapes, not to mention its year-round sunshine. The islands have become a popular choice for families and party-goers alike. Many Canary Islands cruises also drop anchor at Madeira, the beautiful archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa, known for its volcanic, green and rugged natural landscapes.
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Top cruising destinations in the Western Mediterranean
You will find Spain featured on Western Mediterranean itineraries that include Portugal, Italy and France, or cruises to the Canary Islands and Morocco. Cruises sail out of the country’s premier port, Barcelona, and some will journey south to the Moorish Andalucia region which borders Spain’s southern coast, then on to Valencia, home to urban beaches and a futuristic art museum. The ancient port city of Cadiz is another highlight of a Spanish cruise tour. Of course, there's also northern Spain on the shores of the Bay of Biscay, where cultural hotspot Bilbao – complete with museums and its own Guggenheim – and food lovers' paradise San Sebastián are situated. Spain is also the proud owner of the Balearic Islands, the archipelago that includes hedonistic Ibiza, beachy Majorca and relaxed Menorca.
With world-class architecture, beautiful hilltop towns and (it goes without saying) an incredible food and wine scene, Italy is a highlight of a Western Med cruise. Cruises typically overnight in Venice or Rome, giving cruisers the chance to soak up either city’s famed history and culture. Naples is another key port, offering access to the glittering Amalfi Coast, or Genoa in the Italian Riviera, where you can board a train and visit Cinque Terre, the five rainbow-coloured villages that have become some of the most Instagrammed in the world. The Italian island of Sicily also features abundant wonders and historic cities that make it a popular spot for cruisers, along with Sardinia, which lures visitors to its sparkling Emerald Coast.
The most popular stretch of France’s Med coastline is the iconic Cote d’Azur, home of the international jet-set. Nice has a lovely villagey charm, while the ancient port city of Marseilles is famed for its gastronomy. To experience the true glitz and glamour of the French Riviera, head to Cannes or St Tropez, but if you prefer something more laid-back, the picturesque, gelato-hued village of Villefranche-sur-Mer offers a more authentic French experience.
Located on the Iberian peninsula, Portugal has more than 800km of coastline, offering plenty of beach spots and watersports opportunities, while its capital Lisbon boasts monasteries, museums and world-class cuisine. Start in Portugal’s second city Porto – home of Port wine – before heading south to the hilly, coastal capital. Food and wine lovers are in their element in Portugal, which is famed for dishes such as fresh seafood stew, delightful pasteis de nata (custard tarts to you and me) and sweet port wine. Outside of the cities you’ll discover medieval castles, the rugged hills of the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês and the sun-bleached shores of the Algarve.
Soaked in perennial sunshine and packed full of lush botanic gardens, verdant landscapes and powder-white and black sand beaches, it’s not hard to understand the allure of this beautiful archipelago, which lies in the Atlantic Ocean. Cruise passengers are drawn to this earthly paradise for its Garden of Eden-like charms, a place where time appears to have slowed down and days are spent languidly strolling through cobbled-laned towns, basking in the glorious sunshine or soaking up some of the region’s spectacular wine.
While the Canary Islands technically belong to Spain, they lie much closer to Africa and come with their own fascinating and unique culture and terrain. The archipelago is home to sun-drenched holiday favourites such as Lanzarote, Tenerife, Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura, all of which boast lunar-like volcanic landscapes, beautiful beach resorts and volcanic mountain ranges.
San Sebastián de la Gomera
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Iconic ports in the Western Mediterranean
Sicily’s ancient capital is today a bustling and hectic city, but if you stop to pause for a moment you will see its true and beautiful colours. Palermo is filled with art galleries, monuments and museums, and must-see sites include the Palazzo dei Normanni, the Museo Internazionale delle Marionette, Galleria Regionale della Sicilia and Museo Archeologico. Palermo also boasts four storied street markets – which include Capo, Ballarò, Vucciria and Borgo Vecchio – where you can pick up Sicilian delicacies.
The gateway to the north coast of Africa, Cagliari is an important port in Europe. Due to its ancient history, Cagliari has several Roman ruins, the best of which is the Roman ampitheatre that dates back to the 2nd century AD. This is where gladiatorial contests and even public executions were held. After your historic venture, mingle with the locals at the market at San Benedetto.
Barcelona is Spain’s premier cruise port. The colourful city blends modernist buildings, Gaudí architecture and gothic alleyways with golden sand beaches and majestic green hills. After a day soaking in this thriving cultural capital, make sure to splash out at one of the capital’s famed restaurants, including the three Michelin-starred ABaC.
Civitavecchia is where cruise passengers famously disembark to reach one of the world’s greatest cities, home to a wealth of spectacular, must-see sites, including the Colosseum, St Peters, Renaissance palaces and Baroque churches. Many cruise lines offer late embarkations from Civitavecchia, giving passengers nine or more hours to explore Rome and its plethora of cultural and artistic attractions.
The ancient port city is the Andalucia region of southwestern Spain and was once a base of trade and exploration. The gold-domed cathedral offers sweeping views of the city, as do the many watchtowers (there are more than 100), the most iconic of which is the Torre Tavira.
Monte Carlo, Monaco
Thanks to James Bond, most people think of the famous casino when they imagine Monte Carlo, but there is more to Monaco’s principality than just gambling. The Palais du Prince is home to the world’s oldest monarchy, the Grimaldi family, and visitors can view the grand State Apartments when the family is absent. The Oceanographic Museum carved out of the cliffs looks even grander than the royal palace and features aquariums, exhibitions and games.
The glamorous resort town on the sparkling French Riviera has been attracting a jet-setting crowd for many years and is famed for its international film festival, taking place every May. Curving along the coast, the city’s iconic promenade, Boulevard de la Croisette, is where you can observe how the other half live, lined with exclusive beach clubs, chic boutiques and palatial hotels. Of course, there is much more to Cannes than glitz and glamour. Le Suquet, the oldest area in Cannes, is a great place to visit if you wish to get away from the hedonistic centre and travel back in time to see what the city was like in the 18th and 19th centuries, lined with pastel-coloured buildings and quaint, family-run restaurants. You can also venture further afield and visit the neighbouring Lérins Islands – Sainte-Marguerite and Saint-Honorat.
Once an unassuming industrial city with little to recommend it from a tourism standpoint, Bilbao in northern Spain has since become one of the hottest destinations in Europe, thanks largely to the opening of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in 1997, which has become the city’s pièce de resistance. Since then, the de facto capital of Basque Country has seen an influx of tourism, including many cruise passengers, who are drawn to the Spanish port for its art galleries and cultural attractions, as well as its fabulous cuisine. From Bilbao, you are in close proximity to the coastal city San Sebastián, which boasts a beautiful beach and a wealth of Michelin-starred restaurants.
Palma de Mallorca, Spain
The vibrant capital city of the Balearic Islands has become a popular and convenient embarkation point or point of call on a Western Mediterranean cruise. Located on the southern end of the island of Mallorca, Palma has much to recommend it, from Gothic castles and cathedrals to sun-soaked beaches and gastronomic delights. Fortunately, the city is compact, so cruise passengers only there for a short time can take in many of the key sites that are clustered together in the old town, including the cathedral, royal palace and ancient city walls. Alternatively, those with time on their hands can venture further afield to outlying towns and villages, such as Valldemossa and Sóller.
Following a revitalisation, Málaga is no longer simply viewed as the gateway to the Costa del Sol, but is a destination and port of call in its own right, boasting a new port and a burgeoning repertoire of art galleries and museums – including the Pompidou Centre and the must-visit Museu de Picasso – and other top cultural attractions. Those who prefer something more traditional are also well catered for, with Málaga's old town showcasing the city’s rich past, being one of the oldest cities in Spain.
Marseille is one of the most popular calls on a Western Mediterranean cruise and for good reason. The oldest city in France was founded in 600BC and subsequently features a wealth of historic and culturally fascinating sites, including the Cathedral of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde and the old town, filled with crafts, shops, bars and street art. Alternatively, you could also choose to venture off and visit one of Provence’s headline destinations, such as Aix, Avignon, Arles and the Camargue, Cassis, complete with lavender fields and perched villages.
Art lovers have truly come home when they visit Florence. The Tuscan capital is filled with countless masterpieces of Renaissance art and architecture. Iconic and must-see sights include the Duomo, a cathedral with a terracotta-tiled dome engineered by Brunelleschi and a bell tower by Giotto; the Galleria dell'Accademia, which displays Michelangelo’s 'David' sculpture, and the Uffizi Gallery, where you’ll find Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and da Vinci’s Annunciation. Of course, there is more to the charming Italian city than artwork, including a thriving restaurant and nightlife scene, as well as excellent shopping.
Lying on Spain’s south-eastern coast, where the Turia river meets the Mediterranean Sea, Valencia is known for its exciting blend of old and new, where the port city’s venerable old town meets the futuristic structures of the City of Arts and Sciences, home to a planetarium, oceanarium and an interactive museum. Those who prefer to be among nature rather than study it can instead enjoy hikes in the nearby Albufera Park, which features a wetlands reserve with a lake and walking trails, or can visit one of Valencia’s pristine, golden sand beaches.
Arriving into the ‘Garden Island of Madeira’ on a cruise ship and you can immediately see why it was such a firm favourite with the likes of Winston Churchill, who came to Funchal frequently to paint. Backed by hills, the capital city of Portugal’s Madeira archipelago region is known for its lush, verdant landscapes and superlative wine cellars. A horticulturalist’s dream, you cannot stop over in Funchal without paying a visit to the famed Madeira Botanical Garden, home to a fascinating collection of a wide variety of plants and boasting spectacular views over the city.
Puerto del Rosario (Fuertaventura), Canary Islands
The capital city of Fuerteventura, the second largest of Spain’s Canary Islands, is fairly underwhelming in itself, home to a sprinkling of local cafés, restaurants and shops. Further afield, however, is where you will discover the island’s bountiful charms, famed for its white sand beaches and dramatic volcanic scenery. Cruise lines such as P&O Cruises offer excursions to the famous dunes and beaches of Corralejo, roughly half an hour away from Puerto del Rosario, and the uninhabited volcanic islet of Los Lobos.
Arrecife (Lanzarote), Canary Islands
The legacy of visionary local artist César Manrique lives on in Lanzarote’s capital city, a man who was committed to keeping quality integral to the island’s architecture and design. This is highlighted in buildings such as the International Contemporary Art Museum, housed in the old fortress Castillo de San Jose, which features an interior refashioned by the Fundacion César Manrique. Of course, the real draw for cruise passengers stopping over in Arrecife is the otherworldly Timanfaya National Park, the volcanic heart of Lanzarote where Star Wars and Planet of the Apes were famously filmed.
Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands
The second busiest cruise ship destination in Spain after Barcelona, Capital Santa Cruz de Tenerife is an exciting playground of tapas bars, trendy boulevards, brightly-painted buildings and restaurants. Between February and March, the city comes alive with music, dance and pomp for the world’s second biggest carnival after Rio de Janeiro. The city is also home to a world-class arts venue modelled after the Sydney Opera House.
Las Palmas, Gran Canaria
With its famous beach Las Canteras, the capital of Gran Canaria is often compared to Rio de Janeiro. Cruise ship passengers can take their pick from basking in the city’s year-round sunshine on the golden sand beach, exploring the postcard-perfect old town or sampling some of the superb cuisine at one of Las Palmas’ excellent tapas bars.
While historically having always been somewhat in the shadow of Portugal’s capital Lisbon, Porto has been gaining increasing popularity among travellers, particularly among cruise passengers, who are drawn to this historic European city for its spectacular architecture and wealth of Unesco-listed sites. Don’t leave Porto without visiting Livraria Lello, often ranked as one of the world’s most beautiful bookshops and said to have been the model for JK Rowling’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; visiting the celebrated cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia, a district which remains home to some of Porto’s most famous wineries; or trying the famed pastéis de nata – Portuguese custard tarts – at the iconic Nata Lisboa bakery.
Mahón, or Maó as it’s also known, is the small but charming capital of Menorca, which boasts the biggest natural port in the Mediterranean and second only to Pearl Harbour in the world. Stroll through the streets of the relaxed town and you will still see the legacy of the British occupation in the 18th century reflected through Mahón’s architecture. Don’t leave without trying a pomada, Menorca’s most popular gin cocktail drink, or picking up a pair of classic Menorcan leather sandals.
Naples has long been underrated, but slowly people are starting to wake up to its charms. The birthplace of pizza is also home to high-profile museums, such as the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale and the Museo di Capodimonte. The ancient city of Pompeii is only 16 miles from Naples, making it a perfect half- or full-day trip.
Probably Italy’s most famous cruise port, Venice is a city made for cruising. Sailing into Venice via the Guidecca Canal takes you right into the heart of the city. Must-see sights include the St Mark’s Basilica, Burano and the Bridge of Sighs.
Portugal’s hilly coastal city features many trophy sites, such as the Moorish São Jorge Castle, the Gothic Carmo Convent and Lisbon’s fortified Se Cathedral. Belém Tower is a Unesco World Heritage Site and famously protected Portugal’s coast during the Age of Discoveries and after that.
You’ll find the owners of the super-yachts that line Portofino’s harbour enjoying the fishing village’s high-end boutiques and superb seafood restaurants during the long summer months. The town, flanked with pastel-coloured houses, also has a 16th-century castle museum, a marine reserve and an ancient monastery, now converted into a luxury resort.
Best cruising experiences in the Western Mediterranean
Explore the world’s best cultural attractions
The Western Mediterranean boasts the greatest concentration of art, architecture and archaeological ruins in the world. In Spain’s Barcelona, you will find Antoni Gaudí's otherworldly designs, including fantastical Gothic-style cathedral, Sagrada Familia, one of the city’s biggest attractions. Meanwhile, Italy’s capital, Rome, is home to countless must-see cultural sites, including St Peter’s Basilica, the Colosseum and the Vatican Museums. Outside of Rome, Italy is peppered with ancient sites, arguably the most famous of which is Pompeii, the thriving Roman city frozen in time that can be reached from the southern port city of Naples. In Naples is where you will find the country’s most prestigious archaeological museum. For more Roman ruins, Sardinia’s Cagliari has several, including a Roman amphitheatre that dates back to the second century AD.
Marvel at masterpieces
Art-lovers can rejoice on a Western Mediterranean cruise. The Renaissance city of Florence is overflowing with works of fine art, many of which are housed at the Uffizi Gallery, featuring works by the likes of Botticelli, Caravaggio and Titian, as well as the Accademia, where you’ll find Michelangelo’s famous ‘David’ sculpture. Spain is another Western Mediterranean country filled with world-class art, not just in Barcelona, but also in places such as Málaga, home to the Pompidou Centre and the Museo Picasso. Meanwhile, in France, the Matisse Museum in Nice is another must-visit, showcasing works from various stages of Matisse’s career.
Sample the local cuisine
Home to gastronomic countries France, Italy and Spain, the Western Med is a foodie’s haven. The flavours are as diverse as they are mouth-watering, encompassing a mix of many different cultures and gastronomic styles. Spain is home to many delicious regional cuisines, including Basque, Andalusian, Catalan, and Valencian. Lovers of tapas should cruise to Seville, where it is a mainstay of the Andalusian fare synonymous with the city. Arguable Spain’s most famous dish, paella, is a staple of Valencian cooking. If it’s gourmet cuisine you’re after, then look no further than Northern Spain’s Basque region, which has the most Michelin-starred restaurants per capita of anywhere in the world. Of course, when it comes to Michelin Stars, you cannot compete with France. The cuisine of Provence is all about fresh herbs, succulent seafood and crisp wines, with classic dishes such as bouillabaisse – hailed from Marseille – ratatouille and socca, both of which originate from Nice. Meanwhile, Mediterranean cuisine in Italy tends to include many of the country’s coastal regions including Sicily, Campania, and Liguria, favouring ingredients such as olive oil, pasta, tomato sauces and seafood.
Discover amazing landscapes
The Canary Islands is famed for its dramatic and varied landscapes, with four of Spain’s seven major national nature reserves being located among this volcanic archipelago – including the volcanic crater of Mount Teide on Tenerife and Lanzarote’s Timanfaya National Park. The island of Fuerteventura boasts 3,000 hours of sunshine a year and offers beautiful volcanic landscapes to explore, while the other-worldly Lanzarote features a plethora of golden sand beaches as well as a subterranean lagoon. Those who prefer more lush scenery should visit Madeira, known for its verdant landscapes and abundant botanical gardens.
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