Whenever possible I try and skip a cruise ship's organized shore excursions and go off on my own in port, especially when traveling with my young children. It's a great way to leave the sheltered, group-y vibe of a cruise ship behind and pretend you're independent travelers not bound by the whims of a tour guide and a rigid schedule -- at least for a few hours. On Mediterranean cruises, the sightseeing in port usually includes legendary historical monuments, and sometimes also beaches and parks. Eating local food is also part of the fun for families and so is sightseeing via non-traditional forms of transport, from open-air trams to horse-drawn carriages (we always always steer clear of long bus rides). Once in a while ships offer appealing, kid-focused excursions in a port or two that include the likes of puppet shows, arts and crafts, and gelato. Of the 17 cruises I've taken with my young sons in tow, our time in port has always been a highlight. Here are some options for exploring the Med with kids in the picture.
Touring Rome can be daunting, but if you plan your day right, it can be a wonderful experience for families. Instead of signing up for a pricey bus tour into Rome (it's a 90-minute drive each way from the port of Civitavecchia), opt for the local train. On our last cruise there, we spent just $50 for four round-trip tickets straight into the Central Termini station. On the 30-minute walk to the Colosseum, the site we decided to focus on, we snacked on chapattis at an Indian fast-food joint, pasta and delicious grilled calamari at a sidewalk café, and of course a cone of creamy gelato. Eventually we made it to the Colosseum and spent two leisurely hours circling the interior, feeding our sons' hungry imaginations with stories of gladiators who once fought lions in this ancient arena. We took our time to stop for photo taking, including the must-have snap of the boys with a for-hire gladiator.
Though Capri, Sorrento, and Pompeii are top attractions from this port, with young kids in tow, on the Disney Magic cruise we decided to skip a long day of group touring and stroll around Naples instead. The cruise piers are right in town, so we walked a few blocks by foot and stopped for some pizza at a cafe. Afterwards, we meandered just a few minutes when we came upon a horse-drawn carriage for hire. For $50, we set out on an hour's tour clip-clopping along the cobblestone streets that wend through the historic city. The boys loved their perch, and it didn't matter the driver didn't speak English, he was good at pointing and I cross-referenced with my guidebook. We sat back and savored the sights and sounds of Napoli, including the seaside Castle dell'Ovo with its moat and cannons and the tunes of a local street musician we happened upon who, without being asked, began playing one of the boys' favorite songs.
Super kid-friendly and convenient -- cruise docks are right in town -- Barcelona offers a lot for the whole family. Playgrounds are everywhere, including a cute little one right across the street from the Antonio Gaudi's famed La Sagrada Família cathedral. Our kids loved the street performers on La Rambla boulevard, especially the guy who laid down on a bed of broken glass and swallowed swords. They had a ball eyeing the sharks and other creatures living in the Barcelona Aquarium near the cruise piers at Moll d' Espanya and a visit to the chocolate museum near Arc De Triomph was a no-brainer. When we needed a break, we climbed aboard a Bus Turístic, a fleet of double-decker hop on/hop off tour buses that loop around the city and stop at 40 top sights. The boys loved riding up top in the open-air seats and fiddling the headphones for the audio tour.
The gateway for trips to Pisa, sign up for one of the ship's tours or better yet, hop on a local train for the 25-minute ride to Pisa to gawk at the famous 180-foot high leaning tower that Galileo made famous with his experiments on gravity. Kids love the strip of souvineer stands that flanks one side of the grassy Campo dei Miracoli square (called Piazza del Duomo by locals), around which the tower and the other impressive monuments, museums and cathedrals are located. You can pick up everything from night lights to underwear, glasses and toys shaped or emblazoned with the crooked tower. If going solo, check out the monuments' collective website, www.opapisa.it, for info on ticketing (admission to the Leaning Tower itself is by advance reservation only).
Ships dock right in downtown Palermo, just steps from restaurants serving delicious Italian standards like pizza, pasta, sandwiches and gelato. The city's nearby historic sights are conducive to half-day tours that keep bus rides shorts and stops frequent. For instance, on our last cruise, we signed up for the ship's 4-hour Palermo for Kids excursion. It started with a short drive-by past the 250-year-old Garibaldi Theater and the Palermo Opera House, before reaching the 17th century Royal Palace. Inside, the children painted clay butterflies in the prince's former dining room, then everyone enjoyed a scoop of gelato before the main event, a traditional Sicilian puppet show staged by one of Palermo's legendary family-run marionette theaters. Hand-made, heavy wooden puppets in elaborate medieval costumes dueled with swords and engaged in comically dramatic dialogue. No one seemed to mind it was all in Italian!
Venice is just plain magical, no matter what your age. The city's narrow maze-like streets are enchanting and of course a gondola ride through the network of canals with a gondolier singing in Italian was appreciated by everyone. While mom and dad sip espressos or a glass of wine in the iconic St. Mark's Square, kids can have a ball chasing and feeding the pigeons. The wildly ornate and colorful papier-mâché Carnevale masks made in Venice for centuries are ubiquitous and amusing, and make great souvenirs. The cruise piers aren't far from the city center, and the 15- to 20-minute water taxi ride to St. Mark's Square is a thrill in and of itself. Another plus: there are no cars on the islands of central Venice, so less worry about accidents (though do warn your kids about the risks of playing too close to the edge of the canals and falling in).
Beaches are big draw here. Take the ship's shuttle or grab a taxi (about US$30 each way) and head for La Cinta beach. On a recent cruise, after a scenic half-hour drive through the island, we spent a lovely afternoon building sand castles in the broad expanse of sand and playing in the calm, cool surf. We snacked on pizza, prosciutto sandwiches and mozzarella salad at a super casual beach café and thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon.
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