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Best Mediterranean cruise shore excursions

July 05, 2022
10 min read
Aerial top view on the old city of Dubrovnik, from the observation deck on the mountain above the city. Film location. The view of the city is based on the Royal Harbor.
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Shore excursions in the Mediterranean highlight must-see experiences such as fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Some of the wonders you travel to see – the ruins of Pompeii, the Roman Colosseum and Michelangelo's David in Florence – are nowhere near the pier where your cruise ship will dock. The easiest way to get to them is with tours sold by your cruise line, which typically include the services of tour guides who are experts about the destination.

While some Mediterranean cruise passengers choose to do an excursion in each port and see every major attraction, it's also fun to plan some time exploring on your own. If you go the independent route, do some research and pick a port where your preferences – beachfront, cafes, boutiques or other attractions – are close to the pier.

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While excursion offerings vary by cruise line, here are our picks for the best shore excursions in the Mediterranean.

Full-day tour of Athens, from Piraeus, Greece

The port of Piraeus, Greece, is about seven miles from Athens, and while you can use taxis or public transport to get into the city, you are better off booking a tour with a licensed guide who will get you to the key sights and provide details about the city — a birthplace of democracy and Western thought. Athens is a fascinating city with both ancient and modern attractions. While half-day tours will get you to the famous Acropolis, we recommend a full-day experience so you can see and experience more.

Europe's oldest capital has its origins in 3,000 B.C. Grab a window seat on the bus so you'll see the hilltop Acropolis dominating the skyline, as it has for thousands of years. On the tour, you will spend time exploring its sacred buildings including the Parthenon, the beautiful, columned temple dedicated to the goddess Athena.

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Your tour will also show off other sites throughout the city, including the ruins of the Temple of Zeus and Hadrian's Arch, Greece's impressive Parliament building and the Olympic Stadium. You'll have opportunity to dine on Greek cuisine (lunch is included in full-day tours) and shop for souvenirs on the narrow ancient streets of the lively Platka neighborhood.

Pick a tour that affords time at the Acropolis Museum, a modern museum full of ancient treasures such as statues that date back to the 5th century B.C.

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Best of Olympia tour, from Katakolon, Greece

Katakolon is a popular stop for cruise ships, offering an opportunity for passengers to visit the site of Olympia. (Photo by majaiva/Getty Images)

Katakolon, Greece, is a small town with a nice strip of beach – and a landmark attraction about an hour away. Cruise passengers make the trip to ancient Olympia to see the site where the Olympic Games debuted in 776 B.C. A tour of the ruins of the religious center and sports complex includes the Temple of Zeus, Roman baths, gymnasium and swimming pool, as well as the first Olympic stadium. Three thousand years ago, the games took place every four years, after the summer harvest, with competitors coming from as far away as Italy and Asia Minor.

The short foot races were the most prestigious of the events, and you can imagine the roar of the crowd as you stand in the field where the races took place. Your tour will likely include a stop at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia to see some amazing artifacts, including bronze and stone statues of well-toned athletes.

Palace of Knossos tour, Crete

Wherever you dock in Crete, in the Greek islands, you’ll want to visit the ancient Minoan palace of Knossos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates to the Bronze Age.

First settled around 7000 B.C., the religious and administrative center was the domain of King Minos and home of Zeus and Europa, according to Greek mythology. Tour the ruins, some partially rebuilt, to learn about the labyrinth built to contain the Minotaur (half man and half bull) and how a queen had running water in her bathroom more than 3,000 years ago.

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Your tour may also include a stop at the Archeological Museum of Heraklion, which houses Minoan artifacts removed from the palace site.

Game of Thrones tour, Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik doubled for King’s Landing, the fictional capital of the Seven Kingdoms in Game of Thrones. (Photo by Michal Rosak/Getty Images)

You can take a shuttle from the pier and tour Old Town Dubrovnik on your own, but if you are a fan of “Game of Thrones,” the must-do is a guided tour that highlights sights that appeared on the HBO TV show. As fans know, Dubrovnik doubled for King’s Landing, the fictional capital of the Seven Kingdoms.

Stops on the tour include the formidable 11th-century Lovrijenac Fortress, high on a rock overlooking the sea, just outside the medieval walls that surround the Old Town. In novelist George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” books, which inspired GOT, the views from the fort are of Blackwater Bay.

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In Old Town, you’ll climb to and walk along the defensive walls that appeared on the show in the Battle of Blackwater Bay, as well as in other scenes. Other GOT sights in Old Town include the Jesuit Staircase, where Cersei began her Walk of Shame (season 5) and an area near St. Dominic Street, where market scenes for the show were filmed. Elsewhere, the outside of the Ethnographic Museum Rupe may look familiar. It appeared on the show as Littlefinger’s brothel.

Rome city tour, from Civitavecchia, Italy

The port closest to Rome is Civitavecchia, Italy. Getting into the city can take 1.5 hours (or less or more, depending on traffic). It’s a good idea to book a full-day excursion to make the most of your time in the city – especially if you are determined to see St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, along with the Roman Colosseum, Roman Forum, Circus Maximus, the Forum, the Pantheon and other sights. Tours may also stop at Trevi Fountain, where tossing a coin is said to ensure your return to Rome.

Some tours combine one marquee sight and free time. If you are going this route, we recommend you go with the Colosseum, an amphitheater that once held as many as 50,000 spectators and where you can well imagine life in ancient Rome in all its (gory) glory.

Make sure to also climb Palatine Hill for views of the city, which has something fascinating — a flowing fountain, a gelato stand, a designer handbag shop — practically around every corner.

Florence city tour, from Livorno, Italy

If you want to explore Florence, look for cruises calling in Livorno, Italy, or another port in Tuscany. From there, you’ll take a bus ride into the city, known for its Renaissance treasures. The city itself is a visual treat; a shore excursion will assure that you see such key sights as Michelangelo’s David, in all his polished marble naked glory (at the tickets-required Accademia Gallery).

Art lovers will want to choose a tour that includes the Uffizi Gallery, with its works by Botticelli, Donatello, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and other Renaissance artists. Your tour will also showcase the 15th-century Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (a.k.a. the Duomo) and other architecture treasures in the city. Some tours also visit the university town of Pisa, famous for its Leaning Tower.

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Ancient Pompeii, Capri and Sorrento tour, from Naples, Italy

It’s not difficult to imagine life in ancient times while exploring the remarkable ruins of Pompeii, the ancient Roman city buried by ash from Mount Vesuvius in the year 79. The ruins — the forum, baths, temples and decorated villas — appear frozen in time.

While you can focus all your attention on Pompeii, we recommend a full-day tour from Naples that also showcases the breathtaking Amalfi Coast and the beautiful island of Capri — a typical combination would be Capri, the resort town of Sorrento and Pompeii.

You’ll take a jetfoil to Capri and a funicular ride up to Capri Town, a shopping haven (with residential side streets well worth exploring). Back on the mainland, drive to Sorrento, with time to people-watch at an outdoor cafe. On the way back to Naples, stop by Pompeii for a guided tour of the ruins.

Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia tour, Barcelona

La Sagrada Familia Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the most visited attraction in Spain. (Photo by Alexander Spatari/Getty Images)

In Barcelona, you dock right in the city. Las Ramblas, the city’s famous boulevard, is a long walk or quick shuttle bus ride away. For us, the must-do shore excursion is to see the extravagant creations of architect Antoni Gaudi, including his La Sagrada Familia Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where construction has been ongoing since 1882. The cathedral is the most visited attraction in Spain.

Choose a tour that also takes you to the hillside, UNESCO-recognized Parc Guell, where Gaudi sought to combine nature with modernist architecture. You’ll also see two Gaudi residential buildings on the Paseo de Gracia — the La Pedrera apartment building and Casa Batllo, a private home with an especially eerie-looking façade.

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Some tours also stop at Museu Picasso, which features early works by Pablo Picasso, in the city’s Gothic Quarter (Barri Gotic).

Ancient Ephesus tour, from Kusadasi, Turkey

A favorite of those who love to explore ancient history, Ephesus is one of the most fascinating and best-preserved ancient cities in the world (and only a short drive from the Turkish resort town of Kusadasi).

In Ephesus, you walk the same marble streets as the ancients to sites that include a bath house, massive amphitheater and the jaw-dropping remains of a two-story library building façade, looking at columns, mosaics and monuments along the way. Greeks, Egyptians and Romans all ruled in Ephesus, but most of what you see today was built by the Romans. Outside the library, carved in stone, is early marketing asking whether you prefer to visit the library or a house of pleasure (an age-old question).

A tour of the ancient city can be combined in longer excursions with a visit to the House of the Virgin Mary, a modest chapel built on the spot where the Virgin Mary is believed to have spent her last days — a sanctioned pilgrimage site. There’s also a second pilgrimage site in the area, St. John’s Basilica, where St. John wrote the fourth book of the New Testament.

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Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto
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