Italy's boot-like shape means it has a great deal of coastline, much of it extremely beautiful. The country also boasts some of the most attractive islands of the Mediterranean. Several of the world's most fascinating and culturally-rich cities are on or near Italy's coast, with artistic, archaeological and foodie destinations in easy reach of picturesque ports. These factors, combined with its geographical location, make it no wonder that Italian destinations feature heavily on cruise itineraries. A great many Mediterranean cruises visit at least one or two Italian ports. Curiously, it is hard to find a cruise which is dedicated purely to Italy, and there are none which make a comprehensive tour around the entire peninsula with many stops. But on this page you'll find an overview of cruises which devote a significant amount of their itinerary to Italy, and which are a good way of combining a love of Italy with a fondness for cruising.
If you prefer to avoid air travel, a cruise can also be a way of reaching Italy without flying, as several cruise lines offer trips from the UK to Italy, and it is also possible to find transcontinental cruises - for example, when ships are repositioned for the season.
I have given examples of destinations and itineraries featured by cruise lines, but these are obviously subject to change.
Ports of call
I've counted at least 25 Italian ports in Italy being visited by cruises. Two of Rome's greatest cities, Florence and Rome, are listed on cruise itineraries but are a considerable distance inland. Given the vast array of sights in both towns, they really merit a separate, longer visit. For a more relaxing and charming cruise, I'd choose to spend time seeing the lovely towns, countryside and coast nearer the ports. Many of the ports themselves are fascinating, while all of them are close to sites of great interest and appeal.
The principal ports of call in Italy are:
For information about other destinations along the coast of Italy and its islands, see the list in the right-hand links panel. Depending on the cruise you select, you could be visiting small picturesque islands, taking an excursion up a volcano, exploring Venice's canals or Pompeii's ruined streets, relaxing in chic seaside resorts or taking a cable-car to a medieval hilltown.
The advantages of cruising are many, and if you are reading this page you may already be confident that a cruise is right for you. Your cruise ship will be your holiday, essentially, with visits to Italy included - a different experience to staying on Italian soil, though of course you can combine a cruise with a hotel stay if your tour starts or ends in Italy. Cruise passengers won't need to worry about travel arrangements or luggage, and will have the huge advantage of touring different places in Italy without the hassle of shifting accommodation. You can socialise with fellow passengers, enjoy all the entertainment options on board, and have your shore excursions planned for you, if you wish. On a cruise ship you can combine a relaxing holiday in familiar surroundings with the chance to tour Italy's coastline and visit varied tourist destinations. Families or groups with disparate interests will appreciate the range of activities on offer on larger ships. Some cruises (detailed below) feature lectures from highly-qualified experts, which could add hugely to your appreciation of the sights you see.
Disadvantages of cruises
The main disadvantage of seeing Italy on a cruise is that you won't be able to structure your own time, or explore freely. Obviously, travellers are limited to the ship's ports of call and the shore time allocated. Although most Italian ports are fairly convenient for sightseeing, I'd have reservations about visiting Florence or Rome this way. Especially if you choose a larger cruise ship, you will always be visiting sights in a crowd. Small destinations - such as the island of Capri and even central Venice - can feel overwhelmed when cruise parties land, and you won't have the possibility of enjoying the ambience without the crowds. Eating on board a ship, you will also miss out on the great experience that is dining in Italy. You may not have the chance to appreciate the famous Italian evening passeggiata and aperitivo time. If you're concerned about missing out, look for cruises which begin or end in an interesting city - Rome or Venice, say - and book a hotel to give yourself a good chance to explore. A few cruises do allow for overnight stays in the most interesting destinations. If you are in doubt, check the cruise itineraries closely, looking at the arrival and departure times for each port, to work out whether you will feel rushed.
Choosing an Italy cruise
Cruises around Italy vary from massive ships visiting a few principal tourist sights, to high-class options using smaller vessels and calling in at interesting smaller destinations, often with particular historic or artistic themes, and with knowledgeable experts - sometimes the leaders in their field - aboard. Obviously the latter option, while appealing, can be extremely expensive.
Do you want a cruise dedicated entirely, or almost entirely to Italy? Or a cruise which combines Italy with other parts of the Mediterranean? Are you happy to visit the principal tourist sights, or do you want to visit less common destinations for a more in-depth experience of Italy? Are you tempted by a specialist cruise focussing on particular aspects of history or culture? Many cruise lines split the Mediterranean into sections, and operate cruises around a particular section - this is unlucky for Italy-lovers, as Italy gets divided in two. The western coast of Italy is usually combined with France, Spain, and the western Mediterranean. Venice, on the eastern coast, is usually a departure point or stopover for cruises touring the Adriatic and Greece. While this practice make geographic sense and both options are appealing, it's not so convenient if you want to do a thoroughly Italian cruise.
What size of ship and onboard facilities would you prefer? This will determine the nature of your holiday. Smaller ships generally offer a more upmarket and intimate atmosphere, and can visit smaller destinations, but they won't offer as much onboard variety. Smaller vessels can be significantly more expensive, which may limit your choice.
What company? Maybe you already have a favourite. Some firms are noted for their family-friendly fun, others for their cultural expertise. Although many cruise lines carry a variety of nationalities and operate in several languages, there will often be one nationality predominating. Italian cruises offer frequent trips around their country, but would you be prepared to travel in a mostly-Italian ship? If you are considering booking a cruise which isn't marketed chiefly at your own country, it's particularly important to read up on other travellers' experiences before you book.
Several companies, nobably Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean, offer a 'Cruisetour' which combines a land tour visiting cities, before embarking on a cruise. If you want a variety of experiences, or are not confident about travelling independently in Europe, this may be a helpful option, though it would generally be a cheaper and more flexible option to simply plan your own travel before or after a cruise starting/finishing at an Italian port.
The best Italian cruises
Thomson - Popular mainstream operators with a big choice of cruises, repeated during the year, including Italian ports of call. Some of their Western Mediterranean cruises include up to three Italian ports, selected from Civitavecchia (for Rome), Naples, Livorno (for Florence/Pisa), Marina di Carrara (for Florence/Pisa), Genoa, Olbia, Trapani and La Spezia, from which you can easily visit the Cinque Terre. Despite its name, Thomson's 'Atlantic Sunrise' cruise actually takes in four Italian destinations: Livorno, Rome, Naples and Messina. While the majority of their Italian ports are visited during Western Mediterranean cruises, there is an 'Adriatic Explorer' cruise in their Eastern Mediterranean schedule which includes Venice.
Thomas Cook - A good one-stop shop for cruises from a number of cruise lines, with deals and destination searches. Cruise lines featured include Royal Caribbean, P&O and MSC.
Cruise Deals - This website, part of TUI, helps you to compare cruises from various cruise lines. The website can be particularly useful if you are looking for a last-minute cruise offer.
SAGA Holidays - If you are fortunate enough to fall into their age range (50+, or 40+ with a companion of 50+), Saga offer some good-quality cruises. Their big advantage is that they have departures from UK ports Dover and Southampton, giving travellers the option of no-fly cruises to Italy. This does mean a longer cruise, of course, and cruises only feature three or four Italian destinations, along with a range of other Mediterranean stop-overs. Their 3-week 'Mediterranean Explorer' tour visits Civitavecchia (Rome), Salerno, Venice and Siracusa, while the 'Mediterranean Odyssey' features Catania instead of Siracusa. 'Beauty of the Mediterranean' calls at Sorrento, Cagliari and Civitavecchia.
P&O Cruises - P&O offer a range of Italian destinations, combined in tours with other countries. Like Saga, they operate cruises departing from the UK (Southampton) heading as far as Venice and the Adriatic for a longer option avoiding air travel. Ports include Ravenna, Elba, Alghero, La Spezia, Savona, Portofino, Santa Margherita Ligure, Trieste, Bari, Rapallo, Brindisi (near Lecce) as well as the usual Livorno, Civitavecchia and Venice. Most of their cruises visit only a couple of Italian destinations, but scrolling through their extensive options can unearth the occasional gem for Italy-lovers, such as a Western Mediterranean cruise on the 710-passenger Adonia which visits Savona, Portofino, Livorno, Civitavecchia, Sorrento and Catania before leaving Italian waters.
MSC Cruises - An Italian company, with cruises visiting a good selection of Italian ports - most of the usual destinations, with the addition of Ancona (for Urbino) on its Adriatic cruises. Like the other big cruise lines, they generally operate cruises to either the east or the west of Italy, stopping at two or three Italian destinations on each cruise. One of their more unusual cruises combines four Italian ports - Genoa, Civitavecchia, Messina and Sorrento - with a journey reaching as far as the Black Sea.
Costa Cruises - Another Italian firm, Costa Cruises advertise 'cruising Italian style'. Their Mediterranean cruises often visit two or three Italian ports, not always the most obvious ones - for example, 'Magnificent Mediterranean' visits Livorno, Capri and Cagliari. You may find quite heavy discounting on their website for last-minute trips.
Princess Cruises - A US firm with some fairly good European cruise options, including UK departures. Many of their 'Greek Isles' type cruises feature several Italian stops - for example, I found a 12-day 'Greek Isles and Mediterranean' tour starting in Rome and finishing in Venice - ideal for extending your stay in either city - which also calls at Livorno and Naples in Italy. If you fancy a big adventure (or just hate air travel) they operate voyages between continents, linking Rome and Venice with Fort Lauderdale, Galveston, and Sydney.
Royal Caribbean - For travellers without much time, Royal Caribbean operate some cruises lasting less than a week, as well as longer options. Many of their cruises include two or three Italian destinations. They feature Adriatic cruises visiting Venice, Ravenna and Bari, and a route from Venice heading around Italy, stopping in Naples, Civitavecchia and Livorno in Italy and on to Spain. Royal Caribbean have departures from Genoa, Civitavecchia, Messina and Venice.
Small ships, specialist cruises and luxury travel
Voyages to Antiquity - This relatively new cruise company is the one which most tempts me to leave dry land. Perfect for thinking cruisers, Voyages to Antiquity offer specialist cultural cruises with eminent lecturers (who have included John Julius Norwich and Mary Beard). Itineraries are mostly based around well-thought-out historical or artistic themes. Their most interesting cruise for Italophiles is probably their in-depth Sicily tour, 'Sicily is the key to everything'. As well as visiting interesting smaller destinations, they also allow longer in important towns like Venice and Rome. Their ship, the Aegean Odyssey, carries an average of 350 passengers.
Seabourn - This Seattle-based luxury cruise line is an ideal choice if you want to tailor an Italian cruise, as you can basically book 'legs' on their ships which tour around Italy, France, Spain and the rest of the Mediterranean. So you can spend a week or a fortnight cruising along the Riviera and around the islands and coastline of western Italy. Their boats visit a good selection of interesting smaller destinations (in some of which you must take a tender to shore) including the island of Elba, exclusive Portofino, Portovenere, Ravenna on the Adriatic coast, and Lipari in the Aeolian Islands.
Swan Hellenic - On Swan Hellenic's small ship Minerva, travellers are promised a 'country house atmosphere' with guest speakers providing an intellectual accompaniment to the sights. For a really lavish holiday, you could book a 'Grand Mediterranean' tour, which calls at Alghero, Livorno, Messina, Brindisi and Venice on its Italian leg, and cruises past Stromboli at night to witness volcanic eruptions (the two halves of this cruise are also bookable separately). If you are really keen on volcanoes, check Swan Hellenic's schedules for volcano cruises, such as 'Volcanoes of the Mediterranean', which as well as passing Stromboli stops in Lipari and other excellent Italian destinations, and visits Italy's other active volcanoes. As they have only one small ship with 350 passengers, the cruise schedule varies from year to year, and popular cruises get booked up well in advance.
Noble Caledonia - Noble Caledonia offer some luxury small-ship experiences which are cruises entirely in another class (and price bracket). Several of their special cruises are devoted to Italy, including 'La Dolce Vita', a wine cruise from Venice to Catania in the 44-passenger MV Harmony, and a musical stay in the Venice lagoon onboard the MS Michelangelo. Thanks to their small vessels, some cruises visit excellent out-of-the-way spots like the Egadi Islands off the coast of Sicily, Matera (driving inland) and La Maddalena in Sardinia.
Italy no longer has navigable rivers of any great length, but it is possible to try something a bit different. European Waterways cruise along canals between Venice and Mantua with a 20-passenger luxury hotel barge. French company CroisiEurope run six and seven-day cruises around the Po delta and the Venetian lagoon, visiting Venice, Chioggia and Ferrara. From Venice it is also possible to enjoy day cruises on small boats along the Brenta Canal between Venice and Padua.