The Mediterranean is often the first choice for new-to-cruise passengers who are keen to immerse themselves in the glitz, glamour and culture or simply laze on soft, sandy beaches during long days of sunshine.
But that’s only half of it. Vibrant cities are home to some of the world’s greatest art and architectural treasures; there are traditional villages where life has changed little in 100 years, as well the opportunity to explore markets and indulge in regional cuisine and wines.
Sail into the sparkling azure waters of the Eastern Med – including Athens, Venice and Dubrovnik or the Western Med – southern Italy, Barcelona and the French Riviera or, if you are lucky, there could be a cruise which combines the two.
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Views from Dubrovnik’s city wall, across terracotta rooftops to the shimmering sea, are truly unforgettable. The city has been restored since the war in 1991 and as you amble along the marble pedestrianised streets, passing baroque buildings which have been brought back to their former beauty, you can understand why Dubrovnik is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Game of Thrones’ fans will know Dubrovnik is King’s Landing, the capital of Westeros and walking tours take in St Dominika Street, which was used for market scenes; Stradun, where Cersei Lannister took her walk of penance and Minceta Tower, the highest point in Dubrovnik.
Stop for a drink, literally on the rocks, at Bar Buzu. It’s not too easy to find but ask for the ‘hole in the wall’ and locals will point the way. The bar opens out to the sea overlooking the island of Lokrum and there’s no better place in the city to enjoy a cold drink.
It is impossible not to fall in love with Italy but remember to have patience when sailing in for Rome - it takes around 90 minutes by road from Civitavecchia Port to the city.
All cruise lines offer excursions into the city, either guided or independent tours but I recommend beat-the-queue tours every time. Decide what you want to see and pay for skip-the-queue entry, especially for the Sistine Chapel and Vatican museums.
There is still the Colosseum, Spanish Steps, Pantheon, Roman Forum and Trevi Fountain to see, but don’t be too ambitious – settle on a few ‘must’ visits and then traditional restaurant to give yourself time soak up the city’s atmosphere. After all, you can return again to this truly magical city!
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A day gives you only a tiny taste of the city which houses some of the world’s greatest art and architectural treasures. Head to the Uffizi Gallery to see works including Sandro Botticelli’s magnificent Birth of Venus and Caravaggio’s Medusa.
Further highlights include the Duomo Cathedral, the Ponte Vecchio and Piazza della Signoria, to see a replica of Michelangelo's David.
Try to avoid a high summer visit as the city gets overcrowded, but if you can’t avoid it, take a short walk from the madding crowd to find delightful gardens, cool colonnades and courtyards scented with the blossom of orange trees.
Garden lovers can head to Il di Giardino di Bobili, created by the Medici family. Again, if it’s hot, hot, hot simply laze on the lawns and enjoy a siesta!
Italy’s third largest city is the gateway to the Amalfi coast and a stone’s throw from the ruined cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried under ash by the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD.
Walk through the streets of Pompeii and wonder at how the city and its people lay undisturbed beneath the ashes for more than 1,500 years.
The advantage of cruising is that there’s likely to be a destination expert on board, such as an archaeologist or historian, who can give an unparalleled insight into Roman life in the city’s forum, temples and theatres.
Armed with all that information before you arrive makes for a much finer experience, and with a guided tour, you can really sense how life once was in these astonishing ruins.
If ruins are not your thing, consider a ferry to the divine island of Capri or visit the seaside town of Sorrento, a beautiful town famous for Limoncello.
Who has not dreamed of being serenaded by a gondolier in Venice? It can be seriously expensive though, so perhaps just take a map distributed by the cruise ship and explore the city built on water by foot!
It can still feel romantic walking hand-in-hand though the myriad of streets and there will be more time to visit St Mark's Basilica and the Doge's Palace.
With some cash saved perhaps stop off at Harry’s Bar, home of the Bellini, on the corner of Calle Vallaresso. Now that’s worth a thought.
A Casanova tour can be fun and a guided walk to the infamous adventurer and lover’s haunts makes for a fascinating few hours of storytelling and unusual views of the city. The 6ft 1in romeo would wear a cape and mask so he would not be recognised, but surely his height might have been a giveaway?
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For a first-time cruise, Barcelona is a port of plenty. It is arguably one of the world’s greatest tourist cities and smaller cruise ships dock by the World Trade Centre at the bottom of the tree-shaded La Rambla, where musicians and mime artists entertain.
A foodie’s heaven!
Call into La Boqueria, in La Rambla, a colourful food market where each stall is a work of art; displaying speciality meats, cheeses, honey, nuts, sweets, fruit and seafood. Around the edge of market are cafes where huge pans of paella are cooked al fresco. Tuck in and wash it down with a glass of rioja without breaking the bank.
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It’s a really captivating, delicious city for foodies, so cross the road from the market into the gothic district where the rabbit warren of pedestrian streets are chock-a-bloc with gourmet delights.
Try coffee and cake in Caelum, on the site of a former nunnery in Carrer De la Palla. The enticing shop serves a galaxy of cakes including ones made to recipes created by the nuns. In corner position, Caelum is a perfect place to meet or partake in people watching.
In the opposite street, Carrer C. Petrixol, is Torrons Vicens, the famous artisan nougat company. The shop sells every conceivable nougat under the Barcelona sun from almond, hazelnut, caramelized, marzipan and chocolate to gin and tonic and even curried strawberry.
Nougat makes a great present, all sealed and easy to go in the case (if it makes it to the case).
In winter, try hot chocolate in La Parellesa, just along from Vicenso, one of the city’s famous granjas or cafes. Savour the thick, really dark chocolate and dunk churros, long thin doughnuts dipped in chocolate, for complete inner happiness.
If it’s busy, nearby Granja Dulcinea is another route to satisfaction or, of course, any of the tempting tapas bars.
Discover the real Spain on Saga's 'Local flavours of the Mediterranean' cruise.
Architecture and landmarks
Barcelona can be overwhelming because there is so much to see. If possible, opt for a cruise with an overnight stay to make the most of your visit.
It’s useful to take a ship’s tour to familiarise yourself with the city but the open-top Bus Turistic offers more flexibility with a hop on and hop off service to see Gaudi’s architectural gems; Barcelona’s Nou Camp football ground, the Picasso Museum and much more.
Architect Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished Sagrada Familia has become the city’s emblem and I would suggest putting the Passion and Nativity facades on the ‘must-see’ list and take a lift to the top of the tower for a rewarding view of the city. If there’s cash to splash, book an individual guided tour.
For more Gaudi, simply wander along towards Passeig de Gracia, passing block upon block of fabulous Modernista buildings where each one vies from attention with stained glass oriel windows, ornamental ironwork and ceramics.
Visit Casa Mila, commissioned by Pere Milà and built by Gaudí between 1906 and 1912. The building’s curving, sinuous façade is echoed inside, where there’s not a straight wall in sight.
As well as art, architecture and artisan food, Barcelona is also up there for retail therapy. There are plenty of affordable shoes, bags, souvenirs and clothes but for window shopping Passeig de Gracia is home to top designer houses from Salvatore Ferragamo to Jimmy Choo and Mandarina Duck.
Exploring independently while on a cruise.
To witness even more extravagance, the South of France is a veritable playground.
A helicopter ride is always a fabulous option for a bird's-eye view of the Riviera but if your budget is tight, there’s an awful lot to be said for enjoying a bike tour through Nice’s city squares, grand boulevards and the Promenade des Anglais which runs along miles of golden sand.
A walk past the colourful boats in Nice harbour is quite a contrast to the megayachts in Monaco. This tiny principality simply oozes glamour. Get the timing right to see the Monaco Grand Prix, a jewel in the F1 crown.
Cruise passengers can soak up the pre-race atmosphere before taking a seat to watch the 200mph cars race through the streets but it’s really not the end of the world if your ship does not sail in on race day - a walk around the old town and harbour to the casino in the sunshine is a satisfying way to rub shoulders with the jet-set.
Just be careful not to order a 1,000-euro bottle of champagne by mistake!
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The Greek capital's charm has not been diminished by its financial worries – and here in the cradle of Western civilization, the pedestrianised Archaeological Promenade skirts the Acropolis to link the major archaeological sites to make life easier for tourists.
The Acropolis Museum is one of the very best museums in the world, set in beautiful grounds, and tells a story of the life and times of the Acropolis and Parthenon, which were built in 5BC.
The National Archaeological Museum is also a ‘must’ visit with a treasure trove of Greek art and history which includes pottery, sculpture, jewellery and frescoes including the gold Mask of Agamemnon.
Cruise ships sail into Piraeus, for Athens, a busy port where ferries and catamarans serve the Greek islands. It’s quite a way into the city so take a shuttle or join a tour. Oh, yes, remember to slap on the sun cream.
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