6 Tips for Culture Vultures in the Mediterranean

by Gayle Keck

6 Tips for Culture Vultures in the Mediterranean

by Gayle Keck

If you rattle off the names of the world's top museums and cultural landmarks, it’s likely that a high percentage of what you include are located in major cities included on Western and Eastern Mediterranean itineraries. We're talking about Rome, Florence, Venice, Barcelona, Athens, and beyond. If you want to spend time really seeing the icons in these historic destinations (and not just through a bus window), it takes a little planning. We've got you covered with these tips for getting the most out of your time in port while on a Mediterranean cruise.

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St. Peter's Basilica / iStock.com / Emi Cristea
The Uffizi Gallery
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1. Buy tickets in advance.

Purchasing tickets online — before you arrive at an attraction — not only means you’ll avoid long lines, it also guarantees that you’ll get in. In Florence, it's essential to reserve a scheduled entry to the Uffizi and Academia museums, while in Rome, an advance ticket lets you skip the line at the Vatican Museums. The same goes for the Sagrada Familia and the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona. If you don't want to navigate multiple websites, Viator.com and TickItaly.com can handle your bookings for multiple points of interest, but will add a hefty surcharge. Most major cities also offer a pass that gets you into museums and attractions (while letting you skip the ticket lines); some even include public transportation. Passes are a good deal if you're spending extra time in embarkation or debarkation ports. 

Purchasing tickets online — before you arrive at an attraction — not only means you’ll avoid long lines, it also guarantees that you’ll get in. In Florence, it's essential to reserve a scheduled entry to the Uffizi and Academia museums, while in Rome, an advance ticket lets you skip the line at the Vatican Museums. The same goes for the Sagrada Familia and the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona. If you don't want to navigate multiple websites, Viator.com and TickItaly.com can handle your bookings for multiple points of interest, but will add a hefty surcharge. Most major cities also offer a pass that gets you into museums and attractions (while letting you skip the ticket lines); some even include public transportation. Passes are a good deal if you're spending extra time in embarkation or debarkation ports. 

Sagrada Familia
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2. Take a tour to skip the lines.

Don't want to hassle with tickets or passes? Find a tour that gives you access to top destinations like the Vatican Museums, Topkapi Palace, or Sagrada Familia. Viator.com, TickItaly.com, and TripAdvisor are good places to start. If large crowds aren’t your thing, book private or semiprivate tours — just be prepared to pay handsomely for the privilege. Viator.com also offers a small-group Vatican tour that accesses "secret rooms." Less pricey is Vivaticket's Secret Itinerary at the Doge's Palace in Venice. These tours typically give you an in-depth look at the landmark, plus time to explore on your own. Check your ship's shore excursions desk, too, to see if smaller-group trips are available. Luxury lines like Silversea, Crystal, Seabourn, and Regent Seven Seas all have concierge service to help with shoreside advice and bookings.

Don't want to hassle with tickets or passes? Find a tour that gives you access to top destinations like the Vatican Museums, Topkapi Palace, or Sagrada Familia. Viator.com, TickItaly.com, and TripAdvisor are good places to start. If large crowds aren’t your thing, book private or semiprivate tours — just be prepared to pay handsomely for the privilege. Viator.com also offers a small-group Vatican tour that accesses "secret rooms." Less pricey is Vivaticket's Secret Itinerary at the Doge's Palace in Venice. These tours typically give you an in-depth look at the landmark, plus time to explore on your own. Check your ship's shore excursions desk, too, to see if smaller-group trips are available. Luxury lines like Silversea, Crystal, Seabourn, and Regent Seven Seas all have concierge service to help with shoreside advice and bookings.

Swiss Guard at the Vatican's Apostolic Palace
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3. Don't assume things will be open.

Opening hours for museums and shops in Europe (and further abroad) aren't the same as in the U.S. Midday closures are common in smaller cities. Most museums start shooing out visitors 30 minutes before closing, while others have a firm "last entry" policy, set well ahead of closing time. For example, the Vatican is open until 6 pm, but the last entry is at 3 pm. Museums and restaurants are often closed on Mondays, and many shops do not open on Sundays.

Opening hours for museums and shops in Europe (and further abroad) aren't the same as in the U.S. Midday closures are common in smaller cities. Most museums start shooing out visitors 30 minutes before closing, while others have a firm "last entry" policy, set well ahead of closing time. For example, the Vatican is open until 6 pm, but the last entry is at 3 pm. Museums and restaurants are often closed on Mondays, and many shops do not open on Sundays.

Opera de Marseille
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4. Catch a performance.

Rome and Barcelona as well as Nice and Marseille have multiple theaters where opera, ballet, and classical concerts are staged. The downside is that many of those performances take place at night, after your ship is set to depart for the next port. Don't give up hope. Matinees may not be performed regularly, but it's worth researching to find daytime events that fit your schedule. Sites like Classictic list multiple events by city, giving you a sense of what is available.

Rome and Barcelona as well as Nice and Marseille have multiple theaters where opera, ballet, and classical concerts are staged. The downside is that many of those performances take place at night, after your ship is set to depart for the next port. Don't give up hope. Matinees may not be performed regularly, but it's worth researching to find daytime events that fit your schedule. Sites like Classictic list multiple events by city, giving you a sense of what is available.

Cicchetti
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5. Follow your stomach.

Culture goes well beyond just museums. Spend your time in port sampling the local cuisine to really get a feel for the city. Go on a “cicchetti” (bar snacks) crawl in Venice, try tapas in Spain, find your favorite cannoli in Sicily, pick your top gelato in Rome, or seek out some of France's 200-plus cheeses. Organized food tours take place in most major cities, or you can beat your own path. While you’re at it, browse and bargain for edible and nonedible souvenirs at markets like La Boqueria in Barcelona, Campo de’ Fiori Market in Rome, and Provençal markets in southern France.

Culture goes well beyond just museums. Spend your time in port sampling the local cuisine to really get a feel for the city. Go on a “cicchetti” (bar snacks) crawl in Venice, try tapas in Spain, find your favorite cannoli in Sicily, pick your top gelato in Rome, or seek out some of France's 200-plus cheeses. Organized food tours take place in most major cities, or you can beat your own path. While you’re at it, browse and bargain for edible and nonedible souvenirs at markets like La Boqueria in Barcelona, Campo de’ Fiori Market in Rome, and Provençal markets in southern France.

The Acropolis
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6. Pick a theme

A general tour is going to be just that — general. If you’re after a more in-depth experience, find a tour (either organized or self-guided) that concentrates on ancient Roman or Greek sites, or Baroque and Renaissance architecture. Mediterranean cities have deep, deep history, and hiring an expert can uncover many of the secrets behind the landmarks. Archaeologist Dr. Paolo Gardelli leads expert tours on day trips to Pompeii. Or contact the art history, architecture, and science experts at Context Travel; the company arranges guided walks with experts in all major Italian cities as well as Athens, where you can book a private architecture tour of either the city's modern buildings or ancient sites like the Acropolis.

A general tour is going to be just that — general. If you’re after a more in-depth experience, find a tour (either organized or self-guided) that concentrates on ancient Roman or Greek sites, or Baroque and Renaissance architecture. Mediterranean cities have deep, deep history, and hiring an expert can uncover many of the secrets behind the landmarks. Archaeologist Dr. Paolo Gardelli leads expert tours on day trips to Pompeii. Or contact the art history, architecture, and science experts at Context Travel; the company arranges guided walks with experts in all major Italian cities as well as Athens, where you can book a private architecture tour of either the city's modern buildings or ancient sites like the Acropolis.

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