In July of 2023, I set off on a two-week southern Europe tour with 23 of my family and friends. 11 of those people were teen boys! Cruises are a great way to travel with large, diverse groups of people, so we first found the cruise that looked best to the group, then planned a trip around that. Here is the story of our crazy Mediterranean vacation.
Table of Contents
One Day in Lisbon
The cruise left from Barcelona, Spain, and the best flights I found stopped in Lisbon. Portugal was a new country for me, so I couldn’t stop there without doing a little exploring.
Since we were popping into Lisbon, we stayed near the water and the airport in the Oriente neighborhood at the Moxy Lisbon Oriente.
This is a unique area of Lisbon, and we enjoyed walking around it. We found Lisbon safe, and all agreed that we would love to return.
Walk around Biaxa.
Explore the plazas and narrow streets of Old Lisbon. Stop into a bakery for a pasteis de Belem, a Portuguese egg tart.
Santa Justa Tower
You can do the long queue to take this cool elevator to the upper city, or Bairro Alto, or you can walk the stairs for free. At the top, you will find a great lookout over the city.
In Bairro Alto, be sure to visit Livraria Bertrand, the world’s oldest bookstore!
Tuk Tuk Tour
We spent our day doing a Tuk Tuk tour to see the highlights of Lisbon. It was a great way to get a guided overview of Lisbon’s sites along the coastline and visit the neighborhoods of Belem and Alfama. It is a no-brainer to book this tour if you are visiting Lisbon with limited time.
I always love a view from the water, so we bought tickets for Lisbon’s Telecabine, a closed gondola that provides views of the Tagus River, Nations Park, and the Vasco de Gama Bridge.
The south end of the skyway is at the Lisbon Oceanarium. You can buy combo tickets or purchase one-way or round-trip tickets. You can buy the tickets at the kiosk at the attraction or with this link. After we got off at the north station, we grabbed a drink by the water at the ritzy My Riad hotel.
Have Dinner at Tacho do Pescador
We wanted Portuguese food for our only night in Portugal and were lucky to find this lovely restaurant with a patio on Parque Das Nacoes. We ordered what the waiter suggested and had a perfect Portuguese dinner with pork, fish, vegetables, seafood, and potatoes.
Two Days in Barcelona, Spain
Day One in Barcelona
Our cruise left from Barcelona. Everyone in our group didn’t love the city. The Gaudi designs in the city are spectacular, and the food is good, but the city is sketchy. Day or night, I didn’t feel comfortable walking alone. Two people in our group were pickpocketed at different times, and we saw many people in La Ramblas either dead or so drugged out it was hard to tell the difference.
Barcelona Highlights and Monserrat
We wanted to see the highlights in Barcelona while there, so we booked a tour with Spain Day Tours.
This mountain range is just outside of Barcelona. It provides excellent views of the city from its hiking trails and the Benedictine abbey that sits nestled on its peak, Santa Maria de Montserrat. There is also an impressive art museum. If I had to return to Barcelona, I would take public transportation and spend a whole day here. Wear decent shoes so you can hike to the cross, which takes about an hour.
Our tour also included entry into this quirkily delightful park overlooking Barcelona, designed by Antoni Gaudi. He designed his architecture with nature in mind using unique strategies. We felt like we were dropped into an ancient version of Dr. Seuss’ Whoville, which is a pretty nice place to visit. I would also return here for a full day to soak in the park and views.
If you go alone, you must buy timed entry tickets.
La Sagrada Familia
On day two, we booked a guided tour of La Familia Sagrada. So much of what to see in Barcelona revolves around the art of Gaudi. This is the largest unfinished church in the world.
I highly recommend climbing either of the towers, as it is a great way to see the intricacies of the church’s exterior and get expansive views of the city.
In the afternoon, we stopped at the Picasso Museum. The Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, spent much of his formative years in Barcelona, and he felt this was the best spot for his museum. The last donations of his art were to it.
Royal Caribbean 8-Day Mediterranean Cruise
Free Shuttle Bus from the Cruise Port
When you leave the port, there will be cabs to rent on your left. If you follow the painted green line to your right for about 15 minutes, you will find a free shuttle bus that will drop you off at the old port by the aquarium. It doesn’t start until about an hour after the ships get into port and ends about an hour before you need to get back on the boat, so it does require some planning.
I am enchanted with nature and the ocean, so we spent our day in Marseilles on the water exploring the beaches, cliffs, and inlets of Parc National des Calanques by swimming and snorkeling with BleuEvasion.
We swam into a blue grotto, which was a highlight, and I saw a lot of fish while snorkeling.
If you want to do this activity but don’t want to book a whole boat, book here.
The park is beautiful, but the water was freezing due to springs feeding into it. We did this excursion with all 23 of us, and it was a favorite, but if I visit again, I plan to get out to the lavender fields and Aix-en-Provence.
Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica
After the tour, a few of us headed by cab to Notre Dame de la Garde. This massive Byzantine-inspired basilica looms over the city, providing a sweeping vista of Marsailles and the ocean. The staircase up to the church is a considerable climb with 160 steps.
Although the church was first built in 1214, the current building is from 1853 and is made of red and white marble. There is a massive gold statue of Mary overlooking the city.
After visiting the church, have a glass of wine or ice cream at its patio cafe.
We got there by taxi that we caught quickly by the old port, but we could not find a cab back and had no cell service. It was a somewhat stressful experience that resulted in us barely returning to the cruise in time. Ensure you have a full battery (Why I generally always carry an external battery pack) because taxis are hard to find in Marseilles. I now know that bus 60 will take you to and from the basilica.
You can also take the Petit Train from Quai du Port to the basilica. It is by the old pier, and you get tickets at the kiosk. The reviews aren’t great, but it is a cheap way to get up to see the views from the basilica.
Another option is to book a tour, such as this one.
The port of Nice is not actually in the city but in Villefranche, but it is easy to take the train to Nice, Eze, or the country of Monaco.
The seaside mountain towns of Cinque Terre have long been on my bucket list. This port was the closest to them, so we decided to take a long day trip to see them on this port day. I will also write a whole post about a day trip to Cinque Terre.
We also took a quick spin around Genoa, visiting Cristopher Columbus’ childhood home. Taxis are waiting right outside of the cruise terminal.
Some of our group did a food tour of Genoa, which they enjoyed.
Here is the number of the cab driver we used in Genoa Maurizio +39 346 7467036.
This was one of our favorite stops. It is beautiful and petite and has enough to do to fill your day. I will write about it soon.
Since we had never been to Florence, we took the hour-long train ride on this day. You can catch a cab at the port to the train station.
There are so many options on this port day. We had difficulty deciding between visiting Florence, Lucca, and Pisa.
The Livorno Train Station is only a little over 4 km from the Livorno cruise terminal, and you will find taxis waiting.
The train into Florence takes just under an hour and a half. The central stop in Florence is called the Firenze Santa Maria Novella, and you can buy your tickets ahead of time at Italiarail.
Once you enter Florence, you can walk to most of what you will have time to see.
Here is a list of the highlights:
- The Plaza del Duomo, including the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. Entrance to the Cathedral is free (but has long lines), but the baptistery, bell tower, museum, dome, and Santa Reparata require tickets. Or you could book a guided tour of the Duomo.
- Galleria Academia- There are copies of The David outside, but if you want to see the grandeur of Michelangelo’s original, you must buy a ticket. Even with timed access, you will spend some time in the queue to enter. Make sure you are in the right line; there are many. We spent about an hour in the museum, but you could spend longer to appreciate the paintings and sculptures.
- Uffizi Gallery- requires a timed ticket to enter.
- Ponte Vecchio and its Gold Market
- Piazzale Michelangelo- If you have time, you will want to take a cab to catch the views.
You won’t be able to enter everything, but pick two and allow yourself time for lunch.
If you have enough time and take a non-direct train, Pisa will have a train stop on your return route. You can detrain and check out the leaning tower.
Book this tour if you would instead enjoy this day to Pisa and Florence by private van with a guide.
2 Days in Rome
We stayed in the Hotel Delle Nazioni while in Rome.
As you can see, this was a jam-packed two-week vacation, but all agreed it was one of our favorites. I especially loved that every last one of us loved it, regardless of our age!
Let me know any specific questions you have below, and I will do my best to answer them.