Europe has an amazing array of things to offer its visitors. So many different nations and cultures are packed onto this one continent that a person could visit one every week for a year and not see them all!
This is an area that fascinates in so many ways. There's always something to enjoy, whether it is its prehistoric caves, its warrens of cobbled medieval streets or its magnificent gilded palaces. Europe has countless world-class museums, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, majestic mountains to hike, picturesque islands in azure waters, sandy beaches and frozen tundras, each one different, each one memorable.
And then there’s the cuisine.
Wherever we go in Europe we eagerly inhale the aromas wafting from kitchens. Our mouths water at the variety of local foods. We mentally debate which items to order on the various menus. Truth to tell, when we're in Europe we rarely think about calorie counts. We have a weakness for Europe’s crusty breads, aromatic cheeses, and incredible, old-world vines and traditional brews.
You name it, when it comes to visiting Europe, we try to see and taste as much as we can. Judging from all the comments we get we know we're in good company.
Five countries in 11 days
While we were planning one of our European trips we discovered that Holland America Cruises was offering an extremely appealing and affordable Adriatic itinerary. How could we resist? It would give us an opportunity to visit five countries in 11 days. Some of the destinations were places that we might not consider visiting otherwise.
Taking a cruise means that you will never have to waste valuable vacation time dealing with transportation and changing hotels. We loved that all we needed to do was focus on enjoying ourselves from the port that served Rome (Civitavecchia) to the port that served Athens (Piraeus). We delighted in every destination and site, especially because we’d only been to one of them before (that would be Venice).
I'll admit that we're rather predictable in one respect: From Panama to Paris, we just can’t seem to visit a place without taking photos and notes of its sights, sounds and tastes. We love to share our experiences with our family, friends and fellow curious travelers (that means you, dear readers).
Ocean cruise or river cruise, organized excursion or do-it-yourself, we want our stories to help folks plan their own adventure. Perhaps you will choose to do what we did … or maybe after reading about it you'll try to avoid it!
Anyway, this article is a summary of the 10 ports our cruise ship visited in the Adriatic Sea. If any interest you, each has (or will have) related stories and photo galleries that you can read. We will update this page as we create new, related posts and as time permits.
We hope you enjoy taking this virtual cruise with us. If you enjoy it at all then hurrah, we have done our job. 🙂
– Dan & Linda
P.S. – Feel free to share Dan's photos on your favorite social media channels. Pin, stumble, or whatever you fancy. We appreciate the support.
10 Adriatic cruise ports
So here we go…
1 – Civitavecchia, Italy
Civitavecchia is the seaport closest to Rome. In case you don't know Italian geography all that well (and I'm guilty too, I didn't until the cruise), it is on the side of the Italian peninsula completely opposite to the Adriatic Sea. While the Adriatic lies along Italy’s east coast, Civitavecchia is on the Tyrennhian Sea, which borders Italy to its west.
I chose to take artistic license and include it anyway, though, because Civitavecchia is one of the Mediterranean's largest cruise ports — and besides, our ship embarked from here.
Because we had never been to Italy’s west coast before, we arrived a few days early so we could take a look around the city before departure. Our conclusion: It’s a shame so many people head straight to their ship. They’re missing so much, including two nearby World Heritage Sites and a functioning Roman bath.
2 – Venice, Italy
Venice, city of canals and gondolas, was literally built out of the marshes of the Adriatic. It is the most popular Mediterranean cruise port of all, even more so than Rome’s. One of the most romantic cities in the world, Venice offers picturesque scenery and classic artwork at every turn. It has often been called the home of the Renaissance and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
From the Grand Canal to the Doge’s Palace in St. Mark’s Square, every canal, bridge and building seems to be a masterpiece of architecture and every dish promises to be a masterpiece of cuisine.
Notable experiences: For some chic shopping in Venice, head to Rialto Bridge or Piazza San Marco. Consider a once-in-a-lifetime gondola tour to get a canal-level view of Venice and its sinking buildings. Also, don't miss seeing the famous Bridge of Sighs, behind the Doge's Palace.
Other ideas: If you would prefer to escape the crowds, take a vaporetto to another island in the Venetian Lagoon. For a more authentic souvenir, the island of Murano has produced exquisite Venetian glass for centuries (vases and jewelry are popular mementos) while the colorful island of Burano is where you should shop for authentic, handmade Venetian lace.
- 7 Must-See Things on Murano, the Glass Island of Venice
- Armchair Travel: Visit Venice’s Burano Island (with video)
- Postcard: Night Falls on Venice’s Grand Canal
- YouTube Video: Burano Island, Venice, Italy – the Lace Island
- YouTube Video: Exploring the Island of Murano Glass, Venice, Italy
- View our best photos from Venice here
3 – Ravenna, Italy
It's a shame that Ravenna isn’t very well-known as a tourist destination and that more cruise ships don't stop here. Once the capital of the Western Roman Empire, Ravenna is famed for its exquisite Arian and Byzantine mosaics and is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Eight!
Take the Basilica of Sant’ Apolinare, for example. What may look like a lovely collection of tiny, bright tiles on close inspection will, when you step back, transform into a vivid image of a sea voyage, an image of Jesus, or a choir of angels. Waxing philosophical for a moment, I guess everything resolves into clarity if you can just achieve the proper perspective.
Alternate trips from Ravenna: Notable out-of-town excursions include Bologna, Ferrara, the Ferrari museum and the tiny nation San Marino. (To be honest, we had planned to go to San Marino until we awoke to dismal weather that day. Instead we decided to see what Ravenna had to offer, and we weren't disappointed.) As the world’s oldest surviving republic (founded in 301 AD) San Marino remained free even during the Renaissance and World War II. Completely landlocked by Italy, it covers a total area of only 23 square miles and a population of only about 22,000.
4 – Dubrovnik, Croatia
With its striking red tiled roofs and impressive 12th century defensive walls, Dubrovnik is one of the world's finest and best preserved medieval cities. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well.
Dubrovnik is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Adriatic and competes with Venice for its port activity. Today you can walk around its ancient walls for a unique look at Old Dubrovnik before you delve into the actual Old Town.
Wander through the old city, shop its bazaars and markets, visit its Baroque churches, museums, palaces, and monasteries. Take time to meander through the less crowded side streets polished smooth through centuries of use, and stop for a bite at a local restaurant or café to people watch.
Other options include soaking up the sun at the nearby beach or hiring a local driver to visit nearby Cavtat, a picturesque resort town.
- One Day in Dubrovnik: How Much Can You Really See?
- Cavtat, Croatia: A Refreshing Alternative to Dubrovnik
- View our best photos from Dubrovnik here
- View our best photos from Cavtat here
5 – Split, Croatia
Split, Croatia’s second largest city, began in the 6th century BC. It has endured everything from Greek rule to Roman domination to post-war Socialist politics and is now a powerful port and tourist destination. With a history like that it's no surprise that Split’s historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here you’ll find historic Diocletian’s Palace, the old Castle market, and plenty of buildings sporting Roman or Venetian architectural styles.
Take a short tour of the city and then head off to check out the local farmers’ market for some fresh fruit, olives, or a sample of the local cheese.
And while you're in Split, if you can, try to find a wine shop that offers tastings or just order a glass with your meal. We discovered one in a hidden corner of the city and can’t say enough good things about Croatian wines. American wine distributors are missing a golden opportunity, that’s for sure.
6 – Kotor, Montenegro
You'll find plenty of natural beauty, Venetian architecture, and ancient history in Kotor. Kotor was awarded its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site both for its medieval city and its picturesque landscape. The town lies on the Bay of Kotor, a secluded inlet, partially hidden from the Adriatic by towering limestone cliffs. (It is often called the southern-most fjord in Europe, but it is actually a submerged river canyon!)
Kotor was settled during ancient Roman times (168 BC) and historical sites abound. The two most outstanding ones are Cathedral of Saint Tryphon in the old town (built in 1166) and the ancient walls which stretch for 4.5 km (3 mi) directly above the city. The walls were built for protection by the Republic of Venice. (Those Venetians went everywhere along the Adriatic!)
Kotor’s main square, Piazza of the Arms, has a beautiful old stone clock tower and offers a variety of excellent restaurants, cafés and shops that will keep you busy for quite a while. But please don’t miss the less touristed side streets, where you can often find even better prices, more attentive service and more authentic local dishes. (We also discovered a tasting room for a local winery that produced absolutely amazing wines at incredibly low prices.)
Kotor has a hop-on/hop-off tour bus that goes all the way down the road to Perast. We took it and enjoyed a short cruise to Our Lady of the Rocks, a manmade island in the bay. Legend has it that the island was formed over centuries by seamen who tossed rocks in the sea to keep an ancient oath. Today, the islet has a small church and historic paintings, including a 17th century baroque masterpiece from Perast.
7 – Kérkyra, Corfu, Greece
The second largest Greek island in the Ionian Sea, Corfu (or Kerkyra, as it is correctly known) serves both as a major tourist destination and a producer of olive oil and local wines. Its neoclassical houses and ancient fortifications dating from the Venetian era, have earned theOld Town of Corfu its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Here you’ll meander along ancient bougainvillea-laden cobblestone streets and walk among buildings sporting Venice’s characteristic arches, as well as visit Greek churches such as the church dedicated to Our Lady of the Cave or Saint Spyridon church, where the body of the island’s patron saint lies.
The picturesque promenade is lined with housing, hotels, restaurants, bars and quaint shops.
You can also cross the moat to visit Kerkyra's ancient Palacio Frourio (old citadel), which was built by the Venetians and is now used for cultural events and concerts.
For an authentic taste of Greece, order horiatiki salata for lunch. It's a true Greek salad. We liked it so much that we had it every day. It's so different than the Greek salads we have had elsewhere, I had to write an article to share the recipe.
Other options: To get a break from all the UNESCO sites and tourist-packed attractions, take a small winding road to the top of Mount Pantokrator for a bird’s-eye view of the island and stop for a bite at a small café on your way back.
- How to See Corfu / Kerkyra in One Day
- My Big, Fat Greek Salad Recipe
- View our best photos from Corfu here
- View our photos of Greek foods here
8 – Katakolon (Olympus), Greece
Only 612 people live in this tiny port town, so it comes alive when a cruise ship docks.
Katakolon provides the gateway to one of Greece's most well-known UNESCO sites. Mount Olympus was the most sacred site for worship of Zeus and the gods as well as the birthplace of the modern Olympic Games in 776 B.C. Its tourist area is made up of two areas: 1) the archaeological ruins at the site of the games and worship of the gods, and 2) a museum which contains well-preserved masterpieces. Many of the structures that can still be seen today date back as far as the 9th century B.C.
Other options: For those who prefer something a little more contemporary, the town has an interesting museum as well as a tourist train that runs around the area. We took it out to a little beach and enjoyed a delightful lunch and a lovely view of the Adriatic. We also sampled the local wines at Mercouri Estate, a working farm and winery that has been family owned for nearly 150 years.
9 – Návplion (Nafplio), Greece
It hasn’t quite gained the popularity of other cities like Athens, Santorini, or Mykonos, but Návplion is still a best kept secret for those who know of its picturesque scenery and history. This town has been under French, Italian and finally Greek rule, and it was actually named the first capital of modern Greece.
For such a small port, this quaint waterside town still offers a surprisingly wide variety of things to do. Crystal clear, aquamarine waters, quaint shops, and long scenic walks are what you’ll find here. And even though the primary industry is tourism, you’ll frequently spot locals fishing near the town beach and reeling in anything from flying fish to octopus.
The impressivie Palamidi Fortress that looms over Návplion played a large role in the Greek independence effort of 1822. It is worth a visit for the views, if nothing else.
At the castle of Acronauplia, the oldest part of Návplion, you will see stone walls dating back to pre-classical times. If you walk through the beautiful old town you will find that it is packed with intriguing museums and inviting restaurants.
Other options: For history buffs, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mycenae is just a short bus ride away.
10 – Piraeus (Athens), Greece
Our tenth and final Adriatic cruise port was Piraeus, which serves Athens. As soon as we disembarked we headed straight to the capital city. Athens was the epicenter of the classical world in the 4th and 5th centuries B.C., and much of its rich history and culture has survived until today. The city's major must-see is the Acropolis, which can be seen from everywhere in the city. Due to its historic significance, it too is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Visit the Acropolis to get a closeup look at the Parthenon, the temple of Athena Nike and the stone amphitheater called the Odeon of Herod Atticus. While there you can also climb Mars Hill, where the apostle Paul addressed the leaders of Athens (see Acts 17:16-34).
We also really enjoyed the Monostiraki neighborhood, the National Archaeological Museum and watching the Changing of the Guard at Syntagma Square. Highly recommend all three.
One final tip
If you plan to visit any of these, whether on a cruise or on your own, you should know that the region gets unbearably hot, unreasonably expensive and extremely crowded in the summer. Spring and fall offer lower temperatures, better prices and fewer crowds.