The Mediterranean could be said to be the ‘cradle of civilisation’. Enclosed by three continents, the world’s largest inland sea stretches more than 2,200 miles from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Black Sea. It’s not surprising, then, that the history of the Mediterranean is sea-based. The transfer of goods, languages, religion, rituals, fashions and power that has made this area such a rich mixture was only ever possible because of the relatively short distances and calm seas. And so it is with cruising.

Fall in love with the Western Mediterranean

Bright blue sea lapping onto a lush shoreline in the Western Mediterranean

If you had a blank canvas and were trying to paint a picture of the perfect cruise destination, then it is doubtful you’d come up with anything other than the Western Mediterranean. Italy, France and Spain are three of the world’s most popular countries and offer something for every kind of visitor. They are integral to every voyage around this cruising playground – one that is just a short hop by air or a leisurely few days cruising away.

In these unbeatable countries colourful cultures are united, the history is unparalleled and the geography revels in a mix of contrasts. The Mediterranean has long bewitched artists but for the last few decades it has been casting its spell on travellers who prefer their holidays of the seaborne variety.

Cruises for every traveller

Pile of freshly-picked lemons in Sorrento

Shorter ‘greatest hits’ cruises are ideal for first-timers who want a flavour of what sets this popular destination apart. Longer itineraries offer a nice balance of iconic cities and offbeat ports. The fusion of arts and culture, surf and sand, café hopping and boutique shopping make cruises to the Western Mediterranean sure-fire successes.

Today's travellers are spoilt for choice - there is a dizzying number of ships and itineraries on offer for varying budgets; in fact, there are more ships deployed in the Mediterranean than ever before.  As a result, great deals are now the norm.

Western Mediterranean cruise tips

Mount Etna erupting and throwing lava into the black night sky
Mount Etna erupting in 2015

A word of caution for those dipping their toe in the water for the first time - beware of tourist burnout. There is so much to see that it pays to set the pace and not be overwhelmed by signing up for too many tours. There are conveniently-packaged excursions, but pack in too many and you risk missing the best of the culture for speedy trips from fountain to forum to ruin to relic. The secret lies in getting the balance right. For example, in Taormina, Sicily, you can either take a 4x4 expedition for a close encounter with Mount Etna or enjoy chilling out with an Aperol spritz and a view of the largest active volcano in Europe crowned by its gentle halo of cloud.

Elaborate entrance to a church in Sicily
Chiesa di Montevergine, Sicily

Another thing to bear in mind is that the Western Mediterranean is very hot in the summer. Climbing the steps to get into the Alhambra in Granada or wandering the ruins of Pompeii under the baking sun can be exhausting. If you think that sounds like more than you might have bargained for then choose a midsummer cruise that has a more passive, beach-filled itinerary. Alternatively, plan your cruise for late spring, autumn or even winter when it is cooler and you can max-out on excursions to your heart’s content, with the added bonus that prices won’t be at their seasonal peak.

It is also worth remembering that some cities such as Florence, Rome and Avignon are quite a distance from the ports that serve them - Livorno, Civitavecchia and Marseilles, respectively. While these destinations tick all the right boxes, the sensory overload is balanced by longer journeys. Carefully-crafted itineraries often include a day at sea to allow some chill-time before the next ‘must see’ destination appears on the horizon.

Where and when to go

A square in Nice lined with charming buildings and soaked with water from fountains
Nice

Barcelona, Rome and Venice are the most popular embarkation points for the larger ships criss-crossing the Mediterranean Sea. These cities can handle thousands of passengers at a time and the transfers from airport to port are relatively hassle-free. Smaller ships often prefer to embark guests in ports like Malaga, Nice and Palma, and these can often be less stressful but with equally good air connections.

While Brit-popular companies like P&O Cruises and Cunard offer fly cruises, their mainstay is cruises from Southampton. These benefit from days at sea which allow you to get acquainted with your floating home. The downside is the Bay of Biscay, which can be a challenge during the rougher conditions in April and October.

Ultimately, the biggest downside you are likely to face has nothing to do with choosing your cruise or picking shore excursions: it will be packing for the journey home. Of course, you can always come back next year, or even sooner... some cruise lines operate ships in the region all year round!

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Gary Buchanan
Gary Buchanan
Gary Buchanan has been an influential cruise writer for almost 30 years. Based in Scotland, he writes for Britain’s leading national newspapers and respected consumer magazines on a variety of cruise topics. Recipient of several awards for his creative writing, he has also written five books about cruising. His other skills include being an expert lecturer on maritime history aboard Cunard ships during transatlantic voyages. His favourite cruise destinations include the Greek Isles, Thailand and the Norwegian fjords. When it comes to river cruises he rates the Irrawaddy, Mekong and Seine as real gems.

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