With 1,092 UNESCO World Heritage Sites across the globe, there’s so much history to discover wherever you decide to go on holiday. But the Mediterranean is home to some of the most iconic sites in the world. From the majestic Acropolis of Athens to the ancient city of Pompeii, discover which UNESCO World Heritage Sites you can visit on a Mediterranean cruise holiday.
Acropolis of Athens, Greece
Towering high above the city of Athens, the Acropolis is one of the most important ancient sites in the Western world. The citadel is made up of the remains of several ancient structures of great historical significance, with the most famous being the Parthenon. Evidence suggests the hill surrounding the Acropolis may have been inhabited as far back as the fourth millennium BC, it was Greek statesmen Pericles who ordered the construction of the now iconic site.
Though the buildings are in ruins, you can still admire the sheer skill of the sculptors, architects and artists involved in the creation of the Acropolis. During the years of foreign occupation, poor renovations, natural disasters such as earthquakes and when the Venetians attacked the Turks in 1647, the site only consists of a few remaining monuments, but it’s well worth a visit during your Mediterranean cruise holiday. Your ship will stop at the port city of Pireas.
Did you know? The world’s oldest weather station is situated on the slopes of the Acropolis. Known as the Tower of the Winds, the marble structure dates back around 2,000 years and is believed to have once held a bronze wind vane above the sundial.
Pompeii, Naples, Italy
Perhaps one of the world’s most famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites is the tragic remains of the city of Pompeii. The ancient Roman city, just outside Naples, was buried under 4-6m of volcanic ash and pumice after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Sadly, many of the city’s inhabitants were also buried before they had a chance to escape.
Due to a lack of air and moisture, much of the city has been well preserved. Many artefacts offer a stunningly detailed insight into the lives of those who lived in Pompeii. During excavations of the site, workers discovered that human skeletons were surrounded by voids in the compacted ash, preserving their final poses as the volcanic ash swept through Pompeii. By carefully pouring plaster into the spaces, the residents of Pompeii were eternally and eerily preserved.
Today, visitors can explore Pompeii and see the former inhabitants frozen in time. More than one million people now live in Naples, in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, and the likelihood of another volcanic eruption is becoming increasingly likely.
Did you know? The city was not discovered until 1748 when workers happened upon it during the construction of King Charles III Palace.
City of Valetta, Malta
Malta’s vibrant capital city is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Valletta’s stunning mannerist, neo-classical and modern architecture combine to create a truly unique city by the sea. Valletta earned its UNESCO status in 1980 and has continued to draw visitors since. Its grand fortifications and baroque palaces are hugely popular among tourists, as are its completely unique cuisine and friendly atmosphere.
On many cruise itineraries through the Med, ships will dock in Valletta, giving you the opportunity to get under the skin of this remarkable city. As a predominantly Roman Catholic nation, Malta, and Valetta in particular is home to many spectacular churches. St John’s Co-Cathedral is one of the most iconic, designed by the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, who also designed other prominent buildings in the city.
“My absolute highlight was a visit to St John’s Cathedral”
To find out more about why Valetta is worth seeing, we spoke to travel blogger Silke of Happiness and Things: “Valetta was the second last stop of our cruise. I hadn’t really considered it as a worthwhile destination up until then, but I was very pleasantly surprised indeed.
“Entering the ancient port which is framed by medieval fortresses and strong walls, is a very impressive first introduction to the city. Once we set off to explore the streets of the old town, we were immediately smitten with the cosy atmosphere, the buildings steeped in history and the amazing views of the harbour. Valetta is not that easy to conquer as the streets are sometimes rather steep, but the old buildings with the Maltese balconies, the pastizzi sold in the little cafes and the many pretty shops make a wonderful city trip.”
With so much to see and do in this ancient city, we wanted to find out the highlight of Silke’s visit: “My absolute highlight was a visit to St John’s Cathedral. Again, I didn’t expect much when standing in front of the building which is rather plain looking from the outside. But once you are inside you are blown away by the splendour and the shine of pure gold all around you. I also loved the rather macabre floor of the cathedral – the marble plates were tomb stones by the Templar Knights and showed gruesome depictions of skulls and skeletons.”
“It’s bursting with character and beautiful architecture”
Avid traveller Lucy of blog On The Luce also spoke to us about her experience in this vibrant Maltese city: “Malta makes for a great spring break – it’s warm and sunny but not too crowded, and Valletta is the perfect spot to explore the island. It’s bursting with character and beautiful architecture, with narrow cobbled streets lined with tall golden stone buildings with their distinctive colourful balconies.
“It’s easy to get around on foot, with waterfront walks on every side of you, and the island’s bus network means you can easily get out and explore. The highlight of my trip was the boat ride over to the neighbouring Three Cities. Not only do you get a stunning view of Valletta’s skyline on the way, but the cities are a real tranquil time warp with quiet streets you’ll have all to yourself.”
Did you know? At just 0.8 square kilometres, Valletta is the smallest capital city in the European Union.
Old City of Dubrovnik, Croatia
With its azure water and terracotta-coloured rooftops, Dubrovnik is one of the prettiest cities in the Mediterranean. Due to its many historical sites, the Old City of Dubrovnik is also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. In modern culture, the city is perhaps most recognisable for starring in hit series Game of Thrones. It also featured in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Dubrovnik’s old town is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in the world and is a fascinating place to explore during your Mediterranean cruise stopover. For many centuries, Dubrovnik rivalled Venice as a trading port, with its impressive stone walls protecting the city. Today, visitors flock to these ancient city walls to get a flavour of how Dubrovnik once was. But in fact, the city’s remarkably well-preserved architecture is the result of reconstruction after an earthquake in 1667.
Did you know? Dubrovnik’s Old Town is a traffic-free zone, so the only way to explore is on foot.
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Soaring high above the streets of Barcelona is the spectacular Sagrada Familia – a Roman Catholic church designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. Although the cathedral is unfinished (Gaudi passed away before the structure was completed), Gaudi’s work on the building is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Construction of the imposing cathedral began in 1882, however, Gaudi took over the project in 1883, combining Gothic and Art Nouveau styles. He worked on the building for the rest of his life, until he was tragically hit by a streetcar and passed away in 1926. He is buried in the crypt within the Sagrada Familia.
The interior of the church is intricate and breathtakingly beautiful. Geometric shapes and designs play with daylight, reflecting it in various levels and colours throughout the cathedral. Each of the building’s 18 towers has a special significance. In the middle, the tower is dedicated to Jesus Christ, and around it, there are four towers representing the Gospels; the books containing the life and teachings of Jesus. Every element of the cathedral is meticulously designed and had meaning to Gaudi.
Today, the cathedral is open to the public. Take a tour of the Sagrada Familia during your cruise stopover in Barcelona to learn more about its fascinating history.
Did you know? It’s estimated that the Sagrada Familia will finally be completed in 2026.
Tempted to explore these fascinating historical and cultural sites during your next holiday? Browse our selection of Mediterranean cruises today.
Image Credit: Gary Campbell-Hall