12 Best Mediterranean Cruises for Exploring Europe’s Hottest Destinations
Have your heart set on a Mediterranean cruise but don't know where to begin? This list will point your cruise compass in the right direction.
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Explore the Mediterranean on a cruise
Having recently completed my fourth Mediterranean cruise, it dawned on me that there’s a reason I enjoy exploring Europe by sea so much: I absolutely love waking up in a new country every morning and getting a taste of so many different cultures, cuisines, architectural styles, languages and historical landmarks all in one trip. Sure, there’s a time and a place for doing a deep dive into a single country or city, but there’s a lot to be said for initially taking a more surface-level approach—especially if it’s your first time in Europe. It can help you decide where you’d like to do a longer stay next time. Another reason to love Mediterranean cruises? The waters are typically calm, unlike in the open ocean, making it a prime location for anyone who suffers from seasickness.
I’ve cruised the Mediterranean on some of the best cruise lines, including a recent Greek Enchantment itinerary on Holland America Line that took me from Venice to Athens via multiple stops in Croatian ports and such Greek islands as Santorini and Rhodes. Though it’s often billed as one of the best cruises for couples, I actually took my dad, and we enjoyed every minute of it. (There were plenty of multigenerational families and friend groups on board, so we certainly didn’t feel awkward amid the perceived romance of the locale.)
What follows are my favorite cruises, based on my personal experience and expertise as a travel writer who has been on 18 cruises (and counting), as well as on user reviews and ratings.
What’s the best time to take a Mediterranean cruise?
Logically, summer seems like the best time for a Mediterranean cruise. But there are a few reasons why this may not be ideal in reality. First, because summer is the high season in Europe, you’ll often face premium cruise pricing due to the laws of supply and demand.
Beyond that, crowds will be heavy in the ports of call during the high season. (The day we were in Santorini, there were four other ships in port, and the line to take the gondola up for those who didn’t book an excursion was nearly two hours.) These crowds can make it difficult to take great pictures or move freely near landmarks, and concerns about pickpockets increase in crowded settings. Plus, you may have a tough time getting into restaurants or major attractions if you didn’t book ahead.
Finally, the weather can be downright miserable in the summer, with soaring temperatures and high humidity making even the most relaxing tours uncomfortable. And if that doesn’t convince you, know that many places in Europe don’t have air conditioning.
My advice after making a few seasonal mistakes over the years? Go during the shoulder season, which is the spring (March through May) or fall (mid-September through October). You’ll be rewarded with fewer crowds, lower prices, more temperate weather and an overall more enjoyable experience.
How we chose the best Mediterranean cruise ports
Mediterranean cruise is a catchall phrase for the general region, but there are many different areas within this 2,500-mile stretch of intercontinental water—and each one offers a unique set of ports of call. There’s the Western Mediterranean, with popular sailings between Barcelona and Rome and stops all along Italy’s boot (including Rome and Florence).
In the Eastern Mediterranean, you’ll find cruises that visit Greece and Turkey. Stops in the Adriatic Sea (the northernmost arm of the Mediterranean Sea and your access to Croatia and Venice) are often included in these sailings.
Finally, some Eastern Mediterranean Holy Land cruises spend time in Israel, Egypt and Cyprus. Some of my personal favorite ports of call include Rhodes, Greece; Civitavecchia, Italy (northwest of Rome); the Croatian cities of Dubrovnik and Split; Kusadasi, Turkey; the French cities of Nice and St. Tropez; the Spanish cities of Barcelona and Valencia; Valletta, Malta; Taormina, Sicily; and Sorrento, Italy. Ready to sail in to your own port of call? Read on for the best Mediterranean cruises for 2024.
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Best for midpriced Greece and Turkey
Holland America Line’s Greece & Adriatic Antiquities cruise
With a slightly more upscale clientele that skews a bit older than some other brands, Holland America Line excels at comfortable cruises that hit some of the hottest ports of call in Turkey and the Greek Islands. And while the line has numerous ships in the Mediterranean, the Oosterdam is an excellent choice for your Mediterranean cruise—it holds just shy of 2,000 passengers, and its 2016 remodel makes it a perfectly contemporary option.
Holland America partners with local vendors who offer a wide variety of shore excursions geared toward an array of activity levels, including lunches at the private home of a local family, coach sightseeing tours and walking tours that immerse you in both ancient history and modern culture. Its 10-Day Cruise to the Mediterranean showcases Turkey and Greece, with additional stops in Egypt and Cyprus. And it takes place during October, an ideal time to visit.
- Hits all the hot spots in Greece and Turkey
- The midsize ship is easier to navigate
- Incredibly friendly crew members
- Although it’s not an adults-only cruise, it caters to the over-50 crowd, so there are typically fewer kids
- More expensive than competitors such as Princess and Royal Caribbean
- Smaller ship means fewer dining venues and onboard activities
Best for ultra-luxury Croatian cruising
Seabourn’s Jewels of the Dalmatian Coast cruise
Here’s a handy cruise tip: Don’t discount smaller ships. They really foster a sense of intimacy. On a Mediterranean cruise with Seabourn, guests experience the best that the sea and the countries have to offer, all with an extremely elevated touch. Allow Seabourn to turn the Mediterranean into your nearly private playground as you explore the Dalmatian Coast, a region along the western edge of Croatia.
You begin and end your seven-day cruise in one of the most perfectly preserved medieval cities: Dubrovnik. Surrounded by ancient city walls, it’s possibly the most iconic and picturesque city on the coast (if you’ve seen Game of Thrones, you know just how magical this real-life King’s Landing is). This cruise makes its way up the Adriatic Sea, with stops in beautiful Korcula (famous for its wine-making), Hvar (known for its hilltop fortress) and Zadar (take in the Roman architecture and Venetian gates). Your ship, the Seabourn Encore, holds just 300 guests but has a casino, spa and numerous dining venues.
- All accommodations are ocean-front suites
- All dining and drinks (even alcohol) included
- It’s rare to see young children
- High fares
- Dress code enforced (no jeans at dinner, even on “casual” nights)
Best for budget-friendly Western Mediterranean
MSC’s cruise to the Western Mediterranean
If you’re traveling to the Mediterranean from the United States, your airfare could likely be more expensive than the cruise per person. Still, budget-conscious vacationers will appreciate the overall affordability of booking a cruise with MSC. Choosing a round-trip itinerary from Civitavecchia (near Rome) means you can use the money you save on the cruise to spend a few days sightseeing in one of the most impressive capital cities in Europe. With cruise dates from April into October 2024, you’ll easily be able to select a shoulder season date and avoid the summer rush.
The MSC Seaview handles many of the Western Mediterranean itineraries, and it’s possible to upgrade to the MSC Yacht Club on this ship for an enhanced experience that includes everything from 24/7 butler service and exclusive venues to an all-inclusive package and signature dining. Plus, you’ll hit many of the most popular ports in Spain, France and Italy on this seven-night cruise in the Western Mediterranean, including Barcelona, Cannes, Cinque Terre and Portofino.
- Plenty of Mediterranean offerings for less than $800 per person
- Loyalty club members save 5% on many sailings, so it pays to stay loyal
- Kids clubs for infants through teens for family-friendly vacations
- Low-cost fare increases quite a bit once you add drinks and a Wi-Fi package
- Dress code for “elegant” nights enforced in the main dining room
Best for affordable, family-friendly Italy
Royal Caribbean’s Western Mediterranean cruise
Who wouldn’t want to see the Colosseum in Rome, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Blue Grotto in Capri, the Grand Canal in Venice and various UNESCO World Heritage sites all on one trip? You can go on those excursions and more on Royal Caribbean’s seven-night Western Mediterranean cruise, which heavily features Italy’s most famous landmarks. Plus, you’ll spend some time in Sicily and France before ending in Barcelona—add a few post-cruise days here to check La Sagrada Família and the Picasso Museum off your bucket list.
With the lower price point of this cruise, you might be able to bring the whole family, and there’s plenty on board to keep everyone busy, from surf simulators and ice-skating shows to laser tag and a youth program.
- Interior cabins start at less than $800 per person
- Family-friendly cruise with an onboard rock-climbing wall, waterslides and a teen lounge
- Recently refurbished ship
- Higher-capacity ships may feel crowded
Best for luxury in the Greek Islands
Crystal’s Istanbul to Athens cruise
Just refurbished in 2023, the 740-passenger Crystal Serenity has all ocean-view rooms and somehow manages to offer nine restaurant concepts onboard. It’s also a great cruise option for people with disabilities—eight of the rooms meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
Beginning with a couple days in Istanbul, this impressive 12-night itinerary winds its way through the most beautiful Greek Islands and cities, including Santorini (with its iconic white buildings and blue rooftops), Mykonos, Thessaloniki (guests are treated to an overnight stay here, which is a wonderful way to enjoy a city’s evening culinary scene and nightlife), Volos, Paros, Spetses, Nafplion and Athens.
Optional shore excursions include visits to archaeological sites, interactive farm-to-table cooking experiences, wine tastings and breakfast with locals. A highlight in Kusadasi, Turkey, is touring the ancient city of Ephesus (one of the best preserved in the world) and visiting the House of the Virgin Mary. On your day at sea, be sure to stop by the Aurora Spa for relaxing and rejuvenating treatments that will help you sail through the rest of your busy itinerary.
- Dedicated butler in every stateroom and suite
- Onboard dining includes a venue by Michelin-starred chef Nobuyuki (Nobu) Matsuhisa
- The smaller ship can overnight in some ports
- Pricey, and shore excursions cost extra
- Formal nights require cocktail attire (gowns, suits, tuxedos and dress shoes)
Best for shorter Mediterranean itineraries
Norwegian Cruise Line’s 4-night cruise to the Western Mediterranean
Many cruise lines focus on seven- to 14-day itineraries in the Mediterranean, making it hard to find an option if you don’t have a full week or two for your vacation. Enter Norwegian Cruise Line, which offers an abbreviated four-day cruise for those looking to get a quick taste of cruise life. Aboard the Norwegian Escape, which was just refurbished in 2022, you’ll journey from Barcelona to Rome’s northwestern neighbor Civitavecchia, with stops in Cannes and Florence.
With four ports in four days, you can make the most of your sightseeing along the French Riviera and Tuscan region of Italy, allowing time to explore Michelangelo’s David, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Vatican, among other ancient relics and historic monuments. Onboard, there’s a large assortment of dining options, bars and lounges, and a spa with a thermal lounge and snow room (kept at 14 degrees).
- Four-night cruise is perfect for shorter stays
- Offers studio rooms priced for solo travelers (no single supplement)
- Exclusive cabins and elite perks (like butler service and a private sundeck) available with an upgrade to the Haven
- No enforced dress code
- May encounter long lines at dining venues and for evening entertainment with 4,226 passengers
- A la carte fees can quickly add up on an otherwise lower fare
Best for cruising Spain on a sailboat
Windstar’s Spanish Symphony cruise
It’s always a good time to visit Spain—there’s just so much to see and do in Spain. That’s why a cruise a smart way to visit. Windstar’s 10-day itinerary begins in Barcelona, taking passengers to the Spanish island of Majorca before cruising on to Cartagena, Almeria, Málaga and Gibraltar. You’ll sail through the Strait of Gibraltar before visiting Cadiz and ending in Lisbon, Portugal. Be sure to spend some extra pre-cruise time in Barcelona and post-cruise time in Lisbon because you won’t have time on the actual cruise to explore these cities.
Take in a Flamenco show, go sightseeing by Segway or enjoy wine tasting on the various shore excursions. One special onboard experience you won’t get with other cruise lines: During the sail away from each port, Windstar dramatically unfurls the ship’s sails while playing Vangelis’s “1492 Conquest of Paradise”—it’s a majestic (and somewhat emotional) moment each day when most passengers gather on deck for the show.
- The Wind Surf is the world’s largest sailing ship (with seven sails and five masts)
- Only holds 342 passengers, making for an intimate vibe
- Fabulous spa with massage styles from various cultures
- Not as many daytime activities or nighttime entertainment options onboard as big ships
Best for sailing on the newest ship
Princess’s Mediterranean with France and Italy cruise
Cruise enthusiasts are all buzzing about the newest ship to join the Princess fleet: the Sun Princess. And good news: Now is your chance to be among the first passengers to enjoy this world-class beauty in its inaugural season. During your days at sea, you can fully explore the Park19 activity zone, a top deck space with a ropes course, hang-gliding ride, climbing structure, hammock area, splash zone, recreational court and jogging track. Or hang out at the Dome, which is a pool during the day but a stage at night for acrobatic performances.
But you’re also here to see the Mediterranean, so you’ll need to maximize your time off the ship too. Your cruise begins in Barcelona, with stops in Gibraltar, Marseille, Genoa and Florence before culminating in Civitavecchia, near Rome. Princess does an excellent job with shore excursions, offering everything from pesto tasting in Genoa and wine tasting in Gibraltar to more strenuous activities, such as a bicycle tour through Marseille or climbing the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
- Brand-new ship with all the bells and whistles
- Affordable fare, especially if you catch a promotion
- Expansive spa area with a wide array of treatments
- I wish there was one less day at sea and one more stop in France on this itinerary
Best for small-ship Adriatic and Aegean Adventures
Viking’s Empires of the Mediterranean cruise
You may know Viking from its European river cruises, but it has specific ships for ocean cruises that’ll knock your socks off. Its Empires of the Mediterranean itinerary takes you to nine destinations through five countries—Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Greece—for a full immersion in the best of the Adriatic and Aegean seas.
Dying to travel to Greece? You’ll visit the wonderfully underrated Greek island of Corfu along the way, and you’ll have enough time in Athens to see the Panathenaic Stadium, Temple of Zeus and Acropolis. The fare is steeper with Viking than with most, but you get a lot more for the money, such as free shore excursions and Wi-Fi, covered port taxes and fees, ground transfers with a Viking Air purchase, enrichment lectures, access to the spa and fitness center, self-service laundry, 24-hour room service, and beer, wine and soft drinks with lunch and dinner.
- Good introduction to the Adriatic and Aegean regions
- All cabins are Verandas
- Complimentary excursion at each port and free Wi-Fi
- No guests under age 18 permitted
- High price point
Best for affordable 10-day voyages
Carnival’s Europe from Civitavecchia (Rome) cruise
In 2024, Carnival Cruise Line is expanding its offering of seasonal European sailings on its 2,200-guest Carnival Legend. Fans of this affordable cruise line will find many of the signature venues they know and love, including Guy’s Burger Joint, the BlueIguana Cantina, the RedFrog and Alchemy bars, WaterWorks Aqua Park and the Punchliner Comedy Club—plus time to enjoy them during this itinerary’s two days at sea.
For this cruise, you’ll begin just outside Rome in Civitavecchia, then head to Turkey, make several stops in Greece (including the beloved islands of Santorini and Mykonos), wrap up with a few more Italian ports of call (including Naples, the birthplace of pizza) and end back where you started. You’ll be traveling in October, which is one of the best months to visit this region, thanks to mild weather and fewer crowds.
- Get 10 days in the Mediterranean during an ideal month for less than $1,000
- Kids club and teen club, plus an adults-only retreat for some alone time
- Carnival often runs sales with reduced rates and onboard credit
- Charges for extra amenities add up quickly, so keep those in check to mind your budget
- Ship received cosmetic updates in 2022 but could use a more comprehensive update
Best for hitting the region’s top cultural hubs
Oceania Cruises’ Mediterranean Culture Capitals, Barcelona to Istanbul
Over the course of 10 days in cool and uncrowded November, passengers aboard the Oceania Cruises’ Riviera will be treated to a trip that covers nearly the entire east-west expanse of the Mediterranean. Beginning in Barcelona and ending in Istanbul, this voyage stops in the Spanish port of Palma de Mallorca; both Marseille and Nice in France; Rome, Capri and Sicily in Italy; and Philippi in Greece.
Tour UNESCO World Heritage sites, sunbathe on the Côte d’Azur, visit Pompeii, stroll the spice market and Grand Bazaar of Istanbul and roam the lavender fields in Provence—you’ll be steeped in culture every step of the way. Onboard, guests have access to hands-on cooking classes, free Wi-Fi, treatments at the Aquamar Spa, a fitness center, a running track and sports deck, guest speakers, shows and afternoon tea with a classical string quartet and pastry carts filled with finger sandwiches, sweet treats, classic scones with clotted cream and English jams.
- Visit five countries in one cruise
- Elegant experience (including a Lalique grand staircase) with gourmet cuisine
- Ship was refurbished in 2022
- Although inside staterooms are affordable, balconies and suites are quite expensive
Most comprehensive Greece voyage
Celebrity’s Best of Greece cruise
On most cruises to Greece, you’ll hit a couple islands and maybe Athens, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Celebrity recognized that there are more things to do in Greece, so it set out to create an itinerary you won’t find from many of its competitors: an 11-night Best of Greece cruise roundtrip from Athens. And did we mention it’s priced around $1,000 per person?
You’ll have full days in Volos, Thessaloniki, Rhodes (which has some lovely beaches, including Faliraki, with about 3 miles of sandy coastline), Santorini and Mykonos, along with a day in Limassol, Cyprus’ second-largest city, and Ephesus, Turkey. You’ll end the trip in Athens, where you’ll have an overnight stay, which means you can have a traditional Greek dinner off the ship at your leisure. During your two sea days, lounge by the pool and soak in that Mediterranean sunshine, grab a gelato at Café al Bacio or spoil yourself at the spa.
- See the best of Greece in a single cruise
- Stops in Cyprus and Turkey for extra cultural exploration
- Many kids and teens activities, including youth clubs
- Attractive pricing, but watch out for extra fees
- Ship was refurbished in 2018, but online reviewers say it could use a full remodel