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Western Mediterranean vs. Eastern Mediterranean cruises: Which itinerary will I like more?

March 31, 2022
8 min read
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The Mediterranean is the top cruising region in Europe, but ships rarely traverse the entire sea in a weeklong sailing. That means you have to choose between Western Mediterranean cruises sailing dream itineraries to Spain, Italy and France and Eastern Mediterranean cruises to the sundrenched Greek Isles and Turkey or Croatia.

The itineraries do have many similarities, and both will get you to a greatest hits list of sites in the ancient world. But only you can decide if you’d rather step back into history at the Roman Colosseum or learn about ancient Greece at the jaw-dropping Parthenon in Athens.

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Throughout the Mediterranean, culture vultures will find themselves with a wonderland of choices. Stop by world-class museums or indulge in some of the best shopping anywhere (Gucci! Turkish rugs!). The whole region is full of foodie delights, whether you crave escargot, paella or moussaka.

Dive deep with this look at the specific differences of Western Mediterranean vs. Eastern Mediterranean cruises to decide where to go first.

Cruise itineraries

Isla de Menorca on the Balearic Islands of Spain. (Photo by Gonzalo Azumendi/Getty Images)

Mediterranean cruise itineraries vary in length, but the ports are close enough that you can pack a lot into a week.

In the Western Mediterranean, you can hit Spain, France and Italy on a one-week cruise between Barcelona and Civitavecchia (the port for Rome) or on a round-trip from Barcelona or Rome — all popular routes. Big-ship itineraries may feature a different port every day. Small ships might focus on a specific area, such as the legendary Italian and French Riviera, with an overnight in Monte Carlo so you can pretend you are James Bond at the Grand Casino.

Longer itineraries of 10 and 12 days add relaxing time at sea and may add more overnight visits in ports, giving you time to check out the local nightlife.

All the major big ship cruise lines sail the Western Mediterranean, sometimes debuting new ships on this route even before they arrive in the Caribbean.

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Related: A beginners guide to picking a cruise line

Eastern Mediterranean cruises for a week or more embark from ports such as Piraeus (for Athens), Istanbul and Venice (or nearby Italian ports). A weeklong itinerary from Athens may concentrate exclusively on the Greek Isles or combine the Greek Isles with a visit to Kusadasi, Turkey, the gateway to the amazing ancient site of Ephesus, where Mark Antony and Cleopatra may have once traversed the still-intact marble streets.

A one-week Eastern Mediterranean cruise from Venice may combine Greece with port calls in Croatia such as Dubrovnik, the walled city famous even before it doubled for the fictional King’s Landing on HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Small luxury ships and sailing yachts explore Greek islands, combining popular places such as Santorini and Mykonos with hidden gems. Longer eastern Mediterranean itineraries may include the Greek mainland and go as far Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel.

Both Eastern and Western Mediterranean cruises are most popular in summer, especially with the family crowd. Bargain hunters should look for deals in early spring and late fall. Fares are especially cheap in winter, when routes are limited but European lines such as Costa Cruises and MSC Cruises operate in the western Mediterranean with highly reduced fares.

Ports of call

The views from Santorini. (Photo by Levente Bodo/Getty Images)

Here is a sampling of ports of call to help you decide whether an Eastern or Western Mediterranean route is best for you.

On a western Mediterranean cruise, you’re likely to visit Rome, the “Eternal City,” with such sites as the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, the ancient Colosseum and the Forum. Another popular port is Barcelona, where you may see the fanciful Modernism architecture of Antoni Gaudi, including his still-unfinished cathedral, and visit the Picasso museum to see that artist’s early works.

Other western Mediterranean port calls in Italy may include Naples, the birthplace of pizza. From Naples, you can venture to the ancient city of Pompeii or follow the rich and famous to the island of Capri. From Livorno, you have several destination choices. Head to Florence, with its Renaissance treasures such as Michelangelo’s “David” statue, or visit such nearby sites as the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the gorgeous Tuscan countryside.

In France, you may visit Marseilles, gateway to Provence, with its vineyards, olive groves and lavender fields. Or you may stop along the French Riviera, where the gorgeous coastline inspired artists, or dock among the superyachts in Monaco.

Related: 5 fabulous destinations for luxury cruise fans

Eastern Mediterranean itineraries vary more widely. You’ll likely explore Greece, with its breathtaking coastline and islands, none more impressive than Santorini, where you sail into a sunken caldera and view white-washed villages clinging to hillsides 1,000 feet above the sea. Other highlights include Mykonos, with its colorful homes and beaches, and other Greek islands that look like scenes from the “Mamma Mia!” movies.

In Athens, you’ll see the hilltop Acropolis with the magnificently columned Parthenon, the temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, and may stop by the modern Acropolis Museum, home to breathtaking ancient treasures. Also on the Greek mainland, you may stop in Katakolon, a tiny fishing village (with a nice long beach) that’s the gateway to Ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympics.

Some itineraries combine Greece and Croatia, with a port call in Dubrovnik and sometimes other towns on the crystal-clear Adriatic Sea.

If your itinerary includes Turkey, you can check Istanbul’s Blue Mosque and Grand Bazaar off your bucket list. From Kusadasi, you can the ancient ruins of Ephesus and visit sites related to the Virgin Mary.

Shore excursions and activities

The ancient Erechtheion (Temple of Athena Polias) on Acropolis hill in Athens. (Photo by Domingo Leiva/Getty Images)

No matter which Mediterranean itinerary you choose, you should budget for tours and activities. Shore excursions on both routes will get you to UNESCO World Heritage Sites galore.

At the ancient Greek and Roman sites found on either itinerary, expert guides can help you understand the history and take you to the key attractions (while skipping the lesser ones). You’ll appreciate their direction, especially in summer when you may be touring in intense heat and with large crowds.

At museums, especially in the Western Mediterranean, being on a tour helps you cut lines. You’ll appreciate this at such popular places as the Sistine Chapel and Colosseum.

In both the Western and Eastern Mediterranean, key attractions may not be near the port – meaning if you explore on your own, you will have to deal with the hassle of finding transportation. Civitavecchia is about 45 miles from Rome; Piraeus is easier, at only six miles from Athens.

Related: 15 ways cruisers waste money

If you are a DIY type, look for “On Your Own” excursion opportunities, which basically provide transportation and a few hours to do your own thing before returning to the drop-off spot. Rome is a prime spot for this.

You will find tour options specifically focused on food, wine and art; the Western Mediterranean has the edge over the Eastern in this department. In the Eastern Mediterranean, you may find more options for excursions to beaches if you need a respite from hardcore sightseeing.

In either part of the region, try to reserve time in the towns and cities to wander and enjoy the outdoor cafes, where you can sample the local cuisine, people-watch and dive into the culture. Chatting with friendly locals while eating mezes on a Greek island, tapas in a Spanish city or the perfect bowl of pasta in an Italian town may be a highlight of your trip.

Bottom line

Both Eastern Mediterranean and Western Mediterranean itineraries are entrancing, from the moment you take in the gorgeous coastline views to the moment you gasp at a sight you’ve only dreamed about seeing.

For a focus on ancient sites, plus options for beach time, choose the Eastern Mediterranean. If you want high culture with your history, opt for the Western Mediterranean.

When it comes down to choosing the Western Mediterranean versus Eastern Mediterranean for your next cruise, ultimately you can’t go wrong with either choice.

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Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
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Apply for American Express® Gold Card
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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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Rewards Rate

4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
3XEarn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.

    60,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $250
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

Pros

  • 4x on dining at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (on the first $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x)
  • 3x on flights booked directly with the airline or with Amex Travel
  • Welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first six months

Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees