We recently took a classic Mediterranean cruise and I find myself still dreaming about it today. While our ship's shore excursions were generally excellent, we're independent types and found that many of our most memorable days were ones spent with a private tour company or on our own. Here are my recommendations for do-it-yourself shore excursions in some popular Mediterranean ports:
Venice: Take the vaporetti (water taxis) for rides along Venice's waterways. If you're going to be in the city for several days, consider purchasing a Venice Card (www.venicecard.com) to save money on multiple water taxi rides. Take a romantic gondola ride and don't miss the Grand Canal, the Bell Tower, the Piazza San Marco, and Doges Palace. The Basilica di San Marco is lovely, but make sure your knees and shoulders are covered or you will be denied entrance. If you have time, stroll along Venice's narrow streets stopping for gelato, freshly baked pizza, ripe produce, and popular souvenirs including masks and Venetian glass bead necklaces.
Dubrovnik: Take a cab from the port to the old city of Dubrovnik. Walk the wall, step inside the many churches, view the Franciscan Monastery and Europe's second-oldest Sephardic synagogue, have lunch at a sidewalk cafe, and shop for art and lace items from vendors along the city's cobblestone streets.
Corfu: Take the ship's shuttle to the passenger services terminal and take a taxi to Corfu Town, a few miles away from the New Port. Corfu Town is a good place for shopping, wandering through the winding streets of Old Town, and dining at one of the many cafes. Don't miss the Ayios Spyridon Church and the Old Fort. If you'd prefer to get out of town, rent a car and drive to Achilleion Palace or spend the day at Mon Repos beach.
Santorini: Santorini can be jammed with crowds depending on how many ships are in port. Check www.cruisecal.com to find out and plan accordingly. If there are more than 2 ships, you may want to take a cruise line tour. This worked out well for us. If the port is not crowded, go up the funicular (or ride the donkeys) and head straight to Oia by bus or taxi. The clifftop village complete with whitewashed houses and blue-domed churches is absolutely stunning. Have a leisurely lunch, shop, and enjoy the views. Hopefully your ship will stay in port long enough to watch one of Santorini's spectacular sunsets.
Naples, Rome & Florence: If you’d like to see as much as possible in these ports, take a private tour. We chose Rome In Limo (www.romeinlimo.com) for our tours in all three ports and saw much more each day than those taking ship’s tours. In addition, we spent the day our way, doing exactly what we wanted to do for every minute we were in port. Rome In Limo is one of the best managed tour operators I've encountered and I was very impressed with their services. Their guides are superb. If you put together your own private group, you’ll pay about the same as you would for a ship’s tour and you’ll get more value for your money. Make a prioritized list of what you'd like to do in each port and discuss it with your driver before leaving on your tour. Your driver may be able to suggest hidden spots and insider favorites to enhance your experience as well.
Athens: Athens has so much to see in just one day. It's important to weigh your options carefully and prioritze what you'd like to do, particularly if you're traveling with your family or another group. In Athens, as with the ports in Italy, it's best to take a private tour to experience and enjoy as much as you can in such a short time. We took a fantastic full-day Athens city tour with Dennis from Tours of Athens (www.toursofathens.com) and saw more than we dreamed possible. Dennis did an exceptional job of catering to our family's needs and interests, plus he had an excellent sense of timing. We arrived at the major must-see sites before the cruise ship tour crowds and he surprised us with some extras as well - including a fantastic gelato stop that the kids raved about for weeks. To this day, the time we spent in Athens remains one of their favorite memories.