Top Mediterranean Independent Shore Excursions

By Nancy Schretter

We recently took a classic Holland America Mediterranean cruise and I find myself still dreaming about it today. While our ship's shore excursions were generally excellent, our independent nature bristles when we're herded along as part of a large group. As a result, we 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, Italy: Venice is a magical city for adults and kids of all ages. 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 gondola ride through the city's narrow canals 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 Carnevale masks and Murano glass bead necklaces.

Dubrovnik, Croatia: 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, Greece: 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, Greece: 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, Italy: 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. 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.

If you're more of a do-it-yourself type, there are a number of ways to see these cities independently. In Naples, make sure to try out the city's famous pizza and take a horse-drawn carriage ride. Pisa's leaning tower is sure to be a hit in the port town of Livorno (Florence.) Take the local train for a 25-minute ride to Pisa and spend the day enjoying the sights. Visit the Pisa monuments' website at www.opapisa.it for more details and to plan your visit. Doing an independent tour in Rome (Civitavechhia) takes a significant amount of patience and planning. Local trains can take families straight into the Central Termini station, where you can depart for the Colosseum and other famous sites. Be very careful to watch the time and plan your train departures wisely in order to leave plenty of time to get back to the ship.

Barcelona, Spain: Barcelona is an easy city for families to tour on their own. Kids will love the wild and weird street performers on La Rambla boulevard, the Barcelona Aquarium, and the city's amazing Gaudi architecture - especially the La Sagrada Familia cathedral. There's a great playground right across the street from the cathedral in case the kids need to work off some extra energy. The city's Bus Turistic (aka the "Hop On - Hop Off Bus") is a perfect way for families to see the city. The double-decker open-air buses take three different routes around the city and stop at a total of 44 sights.

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