- Danielle Belyeu
FROM THE FRENCH RIVIERA TO THE SUBTROPICS OF SARDINIA
Historic cities dot the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. On a cruise that takes in its highlights, you’ll see many of Spain, France, and Italy’s best bits. Although Spain’s beaches bask in the heat and its markets are alive with activity and the salty aromas of the bountiful sea, the days here are often surprisingly quiet. It’s a country with endless energy and opportunities for fun-loving travelers. Whether exploring urban Barcelona or hedonistic Ibiza, you’ll be glad to have a cruise cabin to recover in. Learn more about the most popular ports of the Mediterranean Sea.
Barcelona exudes cool. Located on Spain’s Catalan coast, this artistic city with an unrivaled food scene is a year-round hive of activity. Every traveler’s first stop is La Rambla, a wide, three-quarters-of-a-milelong boulevard of cafes, bars and outlet stores that cuts across the city center directly from the cruise terminal. Once you’ve wandered up and down the bustling street, make a beeline to the Gothic Quarter. It’s marked by spiraling washed stone towers, thin, twisting lanes, and market stalls selling hand-wrought souvenirs and thought-provoking literature, secondhand. Its lanes lead up to its otherworldly cathedral, the final resting place of the tortured martyr Santa Eulàlia, the city’s patron saint. Alternatively, visit El Raval’s ornate Palau Güell mansion, built by renowned architect Antoni Gaudí from 1886 to 1888. Gaudí is synonymous with Barcelona — and his work is best observed in the elevated Parc Güell. Technicolor ceramics and mammoth monuments pepper the park, against a panoramic city backdrop. After hiking uphill to the verdant park, hop on the Metro to admire the ornate spires of the Sagrada Familia — one of Spain’s most popular attractions, and the world’s largest unfinished Catholic church. Barcelona is also known for its tapas. Head to Carrer del Parlament for bites of freshly caught fish, served up en masse with glasses of local sweet red vermouths.
FLORENCE AND PISA, ITALY
Florence — a historic hotbed of art and culture — has been romanticized by poets and painters for centuries. It’s filled with museums, boutiques, cathedrals and hotels, many of which are works of art themselves. One of its most popular squares, Piazza del Duomo, makes a good first port of call: the cathedral complex is free to enter (advance booking is often required, as with many of the attractions here) and includes access to the Bell Tower for an unrivaled view of the cathedral. Michelangelo’s David statue at Galleria dell’Accademia is nearby, too. It’s essential that you break up your morning with a lunch at one of Florence’s cozy, old-school trattorias. Bury your crisp salad in piles of freshly grated Pecorino Romano or wait in line for fresh focaccia layered with cured meats and decadent soft cheeses with a cathedral view, at one of the square’s many al fresco eateries. Head next to the Uffizi, which houses what is considered the world’s finest collection of Renaissance art; in 1743 the collection was bequeathed to Florence by the Medici family, on the basis that the art would never leave the city. After you spend a few hours exploring its halls, finish the day overlooking the terra cotta skyline at Piazzale Michelangelo, with a Negroni in hand. Back near the port of Livorno, stop at Pisa’s Leaning Tower. Its grounds are peppered with amateur photographers, lining up their comical shots. Follow up with an authentic Tuscan dining experience at Ristorante Galileo — think wild boar slowly stewed in Italian wine or freshly rolled ricotta ravioli slicked in sage butter.
Every trip to Italy’s capital is a new experience. You’re visiting one of the world’s most fascinating cities, layered by millennia of history. Start at its most renowned ruin, the Colosseum. For an introduction to Roman culture, book a tour of the labyrinthine passages that weave beneath the great gladiatorial arena floor, the site of centuries of cruelty. You can pair your visit to the amphitheater with a stop at Palatine Hill, a vast area of ruins, forest and cityscapes. Follow this with a trip to the Roman Forum, a sprawling archaeological site of basilicas and temples. If you’re short on time, a walking tour of the sites is recommended as it’s easy to get lost. The Pantheon, Rome’s best preserved ancient monument, acts as a centerpiece for exploring Centro Storico. It’s OK to get lost in this maze-like district; you’ll stumble upon the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain and Campo de’ Fiori. Dip in and out of the side streets to find unassuming but decadent local restaurants and cafes.
Cannes comes alive for the two weeks of the star-studded Film Festival in May, but there’s far more to this glitzy French Riviera city than its celebrity attraction. Sure, the rich and the famous flock here; and quite naturally, too, as an abundance of designer shops and exclusive restaurants dominate proceedings. Cannes is modest in size, which makes it easy to explore. Begin at the famed La Croisette, a palm tree-lined, 1.2-mile-long boulevard where grand art deco palace hotels overlook the seafront. Close to the port, you can indulge in typically decadent French fare at Le Bistrot Gourmand — try a seared steak draped in black autumn truffle, or a tarte tatin with soft, caramelized apples. Strolling up Rue Saint-Antoine, you’ll follow the snaking hillside streets of Le Suquet, believed to be Cannes’ oldest district. At the summit sits the city’s 11th-century medieval castle which is now a museum and a panoramic view of the city. If time allows, catch a 20-minute boat ride to Cannes’ peaceful islands to escape the crowds.
Naples is an edgy, love-it-or-loathe-it metropolis that has long acted as an overlooked gateway city. It’s chaotic and unkempt in parts, yet so regal and alluring in others. From its palaces to its museums, Naples tends to quickly emerge as a highlight of any southern Italian itinerary, with its archaeological offerings, grand squares and world-renowned cuisine. Naples is also an ideal place to organize an excursion to Pompeii or Mount Vesuvius. The city’s bay is picturesque — take a cable car from Castellammare di Stabia railway station for views of the bay, or the walking trails available from the top. Or head to Naples’ main square, Piazza del Plebiscito, to see the neoclassical Royal Palace in all its grandeur. But most importantly, stop at L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele. Known as the world’s best pizza joint, the rich tomato sauce, fresh buffalo mozzarella and earthy zest of fresh basil are so good you don’t need any more toppings on your pizzas.
Cultures coalesce in Cagliari — a city closer to Tunisia than to Rome. Flanked both by imposing hill forts and the Mediterranean coast, the city is made up of winding alleys, sandy bays and gourmet restaurants. Sardinia has been populated since Neolithic times, and Cagliari’s historical sites are just as old. Visit the Tuvixeddu Necropolis, a Punic burial ground believed to be the largest in the Mediterranean, to see ancient tombs dug into the limestone rock as deep as 36 ft. Just a 15-minute bus ride to the east is Poetto, Cagliari’s main beach, where the party really starts. Booming bars, nightclubs and restaurants pepper its five-mile coastline, full of locals dancing away on the warm summer evenings. If you prefer to stay in the center of the city, tuck into enormous portions of fresh seafood in San Benedetto food market, or take in a show at the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari opera house.
PALMA DE MAJORCA, SPAIN
Majorca offers the best of the draw of the Balearic Islands — pristine beaches, grand Gothic architecture, beating Mediterranean sun. The best place to experience each is in the island’s capital city, Palma. Your first stop in the city should be the Santa Maria Cathedral — known as La Seu — its resplendent Gothic exterior only beaten by its dramatic indoors, replete with grand Gaudí designs. Head next to the lively nearby Plaça Major; locals and travelers alike flit through its craft markets, pausing for a café de leche in the square. Visit both early, before ascending to the lofty Castell de Bellver, a 14th-century royal fortress familiar to fans of Game of Thrones. Mercat de l’Olivar is a popular spot at lunchtime — a place to find fresh fish and wine, where local almonds and olives are sold by the bucket. If you want to sample some of the island’s favorite traditional snacks, stop off for sobrasada (cured pork sausage seasoned with paprika), or coca de trampó (crispy flatbread topped with local vegetables and extra virgin olive oil). Once you’ve had your fill, rest up one of the nearby secluded beaches. Expect to find powder-soft sands and calm, turquoise waters.
Majorca’s noisy neighbor has a reputation for hedonism — and it’s thoroughly earned it. Its throbbing superclubs, like Pacha and Amnesia, play host to the world’s biggest DJs each season, which runs from May to October. But there’s far more to this party isle than just clubbing, as renowned as it may be. Walk alone around the cobbled hills of Ibiza’s fortified old town, Dalt Vila, by starting out before the crowds of recovering partiers. Head for the famous, centuries old steps of neighborhood bar S’Escalinata. There, you can pull up a beanbag chair and admire the views with a coffee, before setting off to roam the town’s maze of steep streets. Traveling back to the coast, stop first at the bay area of San Antonio. One of its many seafront bars serves fruit-filled cocktails alongside views of the Mediterranean Sea. Active travelers can try their hand at watersports on Es Pouet beach, while those looking to escape the crowds can travel farther along the coast to the quiet, picturesque Cala Gració beach. Finish off your trip at Ibiza’s very own Sunset Strip. It features chilled-out bars like Café Mambo and Café del Mar, where laid-back DJ sets accompany sunset views.