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So you want to cruise without the crowds? The iconic major cities might be the itinerary rock stars, but smaller ports provide real opportunities to experience local life and culture.

Smaller ships visit smaller towns of Greece, Spain and Italy – but lines with larger ships are also starting to seek out alternative ports.

Celebrity Cruises are porting their newest edge-class ships, the Celebrity Edge and Celebrity Apex (debuting in 2020) in Santa Magherita in Italy, alongside Crystal Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises.

Here are nine alternative ports to visit when you sail to the Mediterranean.

Greece

Thessaloniki

Aristotelous Square in Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki is Greece’s second largest city after Athens. The port city is also rich in history dating back to Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman times. You’ll find most of the ruins in the upper town, including the 4th century palace of Roman Emperor Galerius. The Rotunda within the palace has been both a church and a mosque. The White Tower near the waterfront is also an icon of the city. The fortress is a former prison from Ottoman history. You can continue enjoying waterfront views when you head to the Aristotelous Square for a taste of buzzing city life. Take in the modern European style which much of the city centre is rebuilt in, after the Great Fire of 1917.

Visiting cruise lines

Cruises doing an in depth exploration of the Greek coast will stop by Thessaloniki. For 2019, Azamara Club Cruises’ 11-night ‘Greek Intensive Voyage’, will visit Thessaloniki mid itinerary after Volos, before continuing to Kavala. The roundtrip sailing departs Athens on August 29.

Viking Cruises will also be visiting Thessaloniki in their 2021 ‘Greek Odyssey Cruise’. The 10-night roundtrip sailing departs Athens in January, February, May and November.

Syros

Ermoupolis in Syros

The island is located east of Athens and has over 21,000 thousand residents. Cruise ships dock in Ermoupolis, the capital of the island. Wander around the creamy white neighbourhoods and the neoclassical architecture. Ermoupolis owes its name to Hermes, the god of trade and its prosperous past left behind old mansions, marble paved streets, marble squares as well as imposing churches and statues. Golden sand beaches to relax and sunbathe on are never far away.

Visiting cruise lines

Seabourn Cruises, Ponant and Windstar Cruises all make stops for the rest of 2019, from July to September. Ponant is offering shorter cruises from seven to eight-nights while itineraries on Seabourn and Windstar range from 14 to 21-nights. Oceania Cruises will also be joining the line up in 2020, with Sirena sailing to port in May.

Spetses

Old shipyard in Spetses

This Greek island boasts a long naval tradition and is famous for its contribution to the 1821 War of Independence. The independence flag was raised on this very island on April 3, 1821, and it is also home to well preserved grand captain mansions. Take a walk along the picturesque old harbour, visit the House of Hatzigiannis Mexis, which exhibits relics from the War of Independence or simply explore the island’s beaches. The island hosts special events like a re-enactment of a naval battle in September and the biggest triathlon in April.

Visiting cruise lines

Azamara Club Cruises and Seabourn Cruises has sailings to Spetses in June 2019. For 2020, Seabourn Odyssey will be making stops from May to October, on itineraries ranging seven to 18-nights.

Rethymnon

Rethymnon is a city on the north coast of the Greek Island of Crete. The city preserves much of its Venetian and Turkish appearance, with Venetian fortification and mansions mingling with orthodox and catholic churches and mosques. The Venetian Harbour of the old town is dotted with fishing boats and lined with cafes while a beach hotel ship stretches from the east end of Rethymnon. Between June and August each year, you can even see turtles returning to lay their eggs.

Visiting cruise lines

Crystal Cruises, Ponant and Costa Cruises will be visiting Rethymnon in 2019. Crystal Cruises and Ponant are sailing shorter cruises of seven-nights and Costa Cruises are sailing three-week itineraries. Ponant’s itineraries departs Istanbul and Rome before concluding in Athens. In 2020, Seabourn Cruises and Viking Cruises joins the line up with itineraries starting from a week and up to three weeks. Viking Cruises has also released a range of itineraries to Rethymnon in 2021.

Italy

Gaeta

Nature lovers will enjoy this port, which is home to Monte Orlando natural park. You’ll not only find bike trails and birds in the natural park, but also one of the best preserved Roman tombs in Italy. The Split Mountain is also located on the headland of the park and legends say that the mountain was split during an earthquake that came upon at the moment of Christ’s death. One of the crevices is now a marine cave and commonly known as Turk’s Grotto.

Visiting cruise lines

Regent Seven Seas and Oceania Cruises have itineraries visiting this port in October and November 2019. Ponant’s ‘Sicily & Amalfi Coast’ and Oceania Cruises’ ‘Coasts, Cliffs & Canals Cruise’ will also stop in Gaeta in 2020.

Lipari

Lipari is an island off the northern coast of Sicily and the largest and most accessible of the Aeolian Islands, situated between Vesuvius and Etna. Lipari is the nearest thing the islanders have to a capital city. Sail up to their port that has a pastel-coloured seafront. The island has volcanic origins and has UNESCO World Heritage listing. Visit the historic castle where used to sit or visit the archaeological museum which houses artefacts from all over the Aeolian Islands or go straight to the source at the excavated area inside the citadel revealing different layers of habitation.

Visiting cruise lines

Ponant and Silversea are sailing seven-night itineraries in August this year and Windstar Cruises is making a stop in October. For 2020, Ponant has week long itineraries in June and August.

Santa Margherita

Santa Margherita is a small town where you can find local fishermen unloading their catch early in the morning. Take a walk along the palm lined harbour, enjoy the small beach or enjoy the marina from a bar, restaurant or café. It is a charming hideout, just six kilometres away from Portofino.

Visiting cruise lines

Celebrity Cruises is sailing Celebrity Edge to Santa Margherita in 2019 and its newest ship Celebrity Apex after its launch in April 2020. Crystal Cruises is also visiting in 2019 and Azamara Club Cruises in 2020.

Spain

Alicante

Hike up to Santa Barbara Castle for sweeping views

The port city of Spain’s southeastern coast boasts seafood restaurants and nightclubs near the port. Alicante is a bustling port with many cruise lines visiting but it is a good alternative to Barcelona. The marble paved Explanada de Espana is perfect for evening strolls. For a challenge, take a hike up to the medieval Santa Barbara Castle and be rewarded with sweeping views of the Mediterranean coast. Else, you can also find a relaxing time in one of their urban sand beach.

Visiting cruise lines

Oceania Cruises, Royal Caribbean Cruises and Celebrity Cruises are visiting Alicante in 2019. In 2020, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn Cruises, MSC Cruises is also joining the party in Alicante in addition to the three lines.

Palamos

Old fisherman houses in Palamos

Palamos is a town rich with Catalan culture and another town for seafood lovers. The old town centre has many small streets that is best explored on foot. You can also visit the fishing museum to learn how fishermen used to bring in the catch of the day in this fishing village before tucking into a seafood feast. Palamos also has sprawling beaches as well as smaller coves for a more quiet time.

Visiting cruise lines

Oceania Cruises, Seabourn Cruises and Regent Seven Seas will be visiting Palamos in 2019. Windstar Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises will also be making stops in 2020, in addition to the 2019 line up.