Last month my husband surprised me with a European cruise for my thirtieth birthday. I shared a bunch of fun pictures on Instagram, but today I want to share all the details about our itinerary, what we did and didn’t do, and what we recommend.
First of all, if you want to visit a lot of places in one trip, cruises are the way to go. This was my fifth cruise, and although the actual cruising part isn’t quite as charming as a beautiful bed and breakfast or home-y as an Airbnb, you can’t beat it for convenience and logistics.
Our cruise was a seven-day Mediterranean cruise through Royal Caribbean, and we sailed on the ship called “Freedom of the Seas.” We started in Barcelona, and our itinerary followed through Provence, Nice, Florence and Pisa, Rome, and then Naples.
I also have to say that although this was one of the most amazing trips of my life, it was not a very relaxing trip. Our goal with this trip was to see as much as we could, so we were go, go, going from basically sun up to sun down every single day. I mean, we were in these incredible places, and we felt like we couldn’t waste a moment.
At each port on a cruise ship, you have a couple of options for the day’s activities. One, you can just get off and wander around at the port. Two, you can book an excursion through the cruise ship. Or three, you can get off and book a tour through a local company.
We chose to book our excursions through the ship for a couple of reasons:
- It guaranteed that we saw all the sites we wanted to see. Many of the cities and sites were an hour or two bus ride from the port, and it made us nervous to handle those transactions in a foreign language and with the ship’s timeline. If you don’t make it back in time, you miss the boat and have to catch it at the next port. If you book through the ship, they communicate with the ship if you’re running late and the ship waits for you.
- We were guaranteed a good tour where we could actually learn about the sites. This is huge for both Philip and me. If I went to the Colosseum on my own, I’d probably walk in and be like, “whoa, cool. This place is big.” And then I’d walk out. But instead, we had an amazing tour guide who taught us about the ins and outs of the structure, the events, the logistics, and the history, and it was incredible. The same went for Pompeii and Florence. Having someone teach us made the places so much more meaningful. Also each tour we went on allowed for a significant amount of free time, so we had time to sneak away to buy gelato and pizza, take pictures, and see things on our own.
- We didn’t have to worry about time at all. We talked to some other couples on the ship who didn’t book excursions through the ship and they were stressed the whole day about their time.
note: we’ve been on other cruises where the stops were more relaxing and the excursions were just activities (ie. snorkeling) , rather than trips (ie. traveling two hours into Rome). These kind are easier and much cheaper to book on your own once you get off the ship each day. It all depends on your itinerary, your comfort level, and your time frame.
Day 1, Barcelona.
It feels scary, sad, and a little bit wrong to talk about traveling to beautiful Barcelona with the horrific attack yesterday, because only three weeks ago we were there and so carefree. We’re sincerely praying for those affected by this tragedy. But the city of Barcelona was so incredible, and even though our time was short there, we fell in love with it. We arrived on Saturday evening and spent the evening walking down Las Ramblas right where the van attack was, stopping in the outdoor market for a snack, and then sitting down at a restaurant for a real meal.
The next morning we booked a private tour (well, Philip booked it a few weeks before) and our tour guide took us on a four hour tour of the city while he shared details about the history, the culture, the food, and the events that make the city what it is. We visited La Sagrada Familia, and although we heard it was spectacular inside, we didn’t have time to go in so we just walked around and across the street for a full view. Next we visited Park Guell where we spent about 45 minutes wandering through by ourselves, then we made our way around the city visiting Montjuïc Cemetery (which was breathtaking – like a cemetery city), and other major sites of which I can’t even remember all of them. But taking a tour was the best way to see the city in a short amount of time and learn about its history. Highly recommend.
At the end of the tour, our tour guide dropped us off at the cruise terminal and we were off on our next adventure!
Day 2, Marseille.
Our first port was Marseille, France. This stop definitely did not need a tour. The city was very close to the port, and would have been easy to take a taxi to the area with shops and restaurants. But we didn’t know, so we took a bus through the city and up to Notre-Dame de la Garde, which is a beautiful church on a hill overlooking the coast. The trip up to the church was fine, and we had some incredible views (including one of the Chateau D’If (from The Count of Monte Cristo!), but honestly just staying down in the city would have been better. We spent about 45 minutes down there at the end of our tour and wished we had more time to stop and eat and walk around. Although we did have time to sneak into a bakery and grab a few fresh croissants. No complaints there.
I was feeling a little bummed that we didn’t have time to get to Provence, because I wanted to see the spectacular lavender fields, but it turns out it was the end of the season so they were all dead.
Day 3, Villefranche-sur-Mer
This was one of the best stops of the trip. Villefranche is a tiny coastal town with colorful homes and quaint little shops, and I fell in love with it the second I saw it. We grabbed breakfast on the ship and then got off a few hours before our scheduled tour so we’d have time to walk around Villefranche. I’m so glad we did this because this town was unlike any of the others that we stopped at — so tiny and special.
Our tour that we booked was for a trip to Monaco (which was about 30 minutes up the coast), famous for the Monte Carlo Casino. The other option was Nice, but we didn’t have time to both. Although I wish we’d had the chance to go because we heard it was incredible! But Monaco was very cool – so different than the other cities we saw, and a huge change from Villefranche. Monaco was opulent and over the top, and there were outrageously expensive cars and shops everywhere we looked. It was fun to see, but I kind of wish we’d done Nice instead. Next time 😉
Day 4, Florence and Pisa.
This was our first really busy day. We wanted to hit both Florence and Pisa, so we booked a tour that did both. It left very early in the morning to travel the hour or so to Florence, stayed there for a couple of hours, and then drove the distance to Pisa, stayed there for a bit, and then drove back to the ship. Lots of traveling, but super worth it.
Florence was incredible. The Duomo was our first stop, and again we didn’t have time to go in, but it was breathtaking on the outside, and we loved having a tour guide to teach us about the history of its construction and use. We visited the outside of a few other historical sites, including the Galleria dell’Accademia where the original David statue is kept, but we didn’t go in so we only saw the replica outside. The architecture and history on every street in Florence was incredible, and definitely the highlight of this area.
Our second stop that day was Pisa. People said Pisa was overrated, and the leaning tower was whatever, but we had to go if we were that close. Aaaand it turned out everyone was right. The tower was so cool to see in person, and we did get some amazing pizza at a place in the square, but honestly the whole area was so touristy and it’s not a place I’d go back anytime soon. But again, glad I’ve seen it!
Day 5, Rome.
Oh, Rome. This was for sure one of the highlights for me when I saw the cruise itinerary. And it absolutely didn’t disappoint.
Rome. Was. Incredible.
This was also one that I feel like our cruise excursion was the way to go. It was pricey, but it guaranteed that we saw all these spots, and that we wouldn’t be late coming back (The port was about an hour and a half from Rome).
Our tour took us to the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, and the Vatican City (where we saw the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, and St. Peter’s Square). Again, we had an amazing tour guide who taught us a ton so all of these places became so meaningful. My mom told us we had to visit the Pantheon, which was her very favorite when she visited, but we didn’t have time and it wasn’t included in our tour. We’ll definitely come back – Rome is on our short list!
Day 6, Naples, Amalfi Coast, Pompeii.
I feel like our stops and our tours just got better every single day, and this was the culmination of an amazing destination, and a fantastic tour. We docked in Naples, and then drove about an hour to get to Sorrento, and then on to Positano. They are both incredible cities and basically look like they’re out of a postcard. We had a lot of free time on this tour because the guide would teach us as we drove, and then once we got to our destination we could just go explore. I loved this system. It allowed us to explore the winding walkways in between shops and houses, stop for a pastry in a bakery, and just be together in these stunning places.
Our last stop was Pompeii, which I’ve always been fascinated with. To see it in person, and learn about it from a certified 22-year Pompeii tour guide was just incredible. We learned so much about the history and culture, and what they know about the events of the eruption day, and then to actually see stone and mosaics from 2000 years ago was life changing. If you ever have the chance to go to Pompeii, GO.
The only bad thing about this tour is that we didn’t get to stop in Naples, even though it was our port. I was really hoping to get some pizza from the place that invented pizza, but I guess I’ll just have to come back again someday.
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I had a ton of questions about what I packed, and especially how I packed without knowing where we were going. I have a few tricks for generic packing that I’ll be sharing in a full packing blog post next week, so check back for that!
If you have any other questions about our travel, leave a comment and I’ll answer it!