If you’ve got your sights set on a trip to the Western Mediterranean, the possibilities are endless with so many beautiful destinations to choose from. From bustling Barcelona to glamourous Monte Carlo, we give you our five favourite destinations that each offers the very best in sights and cuisine for a truly memorable holiday.
Whatever your idea of a dream holiday is, Barcelona never fails to deliver. It offers the best of the Mediterranean – endless sunshine, delicious food, cultural richness and a laid back pace. The best time to visit is during spring or autumn when the weather is still warm, although be aware that it can shower around October/November time. It’s worth knowing that from late July through to early September, many of the locals venture out of the City. Although this means things get a little quieter, it also means many of the restaurants are closed and there are few planned events.
The best way to get an overview of Barcelona is via Bus Turístic – the open-topped tourist buses that each follow one of two routes through the city. Both routes join at Plaça Catalunya, so you can hop from one to the other. The red route is the best of the two – this goes up Montjuïc hill and then down next to the port and on to the beach. The alternative blue route visits the Monestir de Pedralbes (a monastery), the Camp Nou football stadium and the Park Güell gardens. You can also take the green route which follows the line of the shore and takes you past the business district.
You can buy tickets on the bus (or online for a discount) and get on and off as you choose – and you’ll usually be given a book of vouchers that give you discounts to the other attractions so it’s worth doing early on in your holiday.
Florence is the truly cultural experience of the Western Mediterranean, and with so much architecture and art on offer, it’s hard to know just what to recommend. The ideal time for visiting Florence is late in the spring through to the early autumn. The glorious weather during this time is perfect for enjoying the many open-air events and al fresco eating and drinking experiences. It is, however, the busiest time so if queues bother you, you might want to brave the cold of January and enjoy the sights without the madding crowd. It’s also worthwhile checking out what’s on at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale and the Palazzo Strozzi, and timing your trip to coincide with any events there that take your fancy.
If you could visit only one place in Florence it would have to be Cathedral Square. This is home to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Brunelleschi’s Dome, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (containing many works of art created for the Cathedral), the Baptistery of San Giovanni, Giotto’s Bell Tower and the crypt of Santa Reparata. The Cathedral is best known for Brunelleschi’s impressive gigantic 15th-century cupola, which is the largest masonry dome in the world.
If you thought Naples was all about pizzas, gangsters and petty crime, think again. This beautiful city is home to some incredible architecture, from churches and castles to grand palaces and galleries. If you’re not adverse to the heat, July and August are the most popular times to visit, with the sea breeze making the heat more tolerable along the coast. October and March are better choices if you prefer the weather to be warm but not sweltering – and these are more peaceful months too.
Top of our list of must-sees in Naples is the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, one of the biggest and best museums in the world. Here you can see a huge number of Roman artefacts from Pompeii, Stabiae and Herculaneum amongst the many delights. The Napoli Sotterranea and San Lorenzo Maggiore (excavations) are another must-see. This underground tour which takes you through the City’s old water system and part of a Roman theatre to see the older layers of the city on which many current structures were built.
No trip to Naples would be complete without visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum. Everyone has heard of Pompeii and without doubt it has been preserved to a startling degree, but Herculaneum is perhaps even more impressive in terms of preservation. Once covered in boiling mud, it has been excavated in part and the beautiful frescoes and mosaics which look far more recent than they should are a revelation.
One of the five districts of Monaco, glamourous Monte Carlo is a destination famed for playing host to the elite. It is the most popular area of Monaco and without doubt, the place to see and be seen. Any time of the year is a good time to visit, but be aware that the temperatures and tourist numbers are very high in July. The worst time to visit is during Formula 1 Grand Prix week (usually in May) unless you’re there for the action – as the streets are blocked and it is chaotic.
Saint Nicholas Cathedral is a must-see – where Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III were married in 1956, then toured the streets in an open topped car watched by more than 20,000 people. Casino Square is another popular spot with the tourists. Although small, the square is impressive in its architecture and tends to be lined with luxury vehicles that will keep car enthusiasts happy.
The Japanese gardens are another must-see – although not a large attraction, they are both beautiful and peaceful for taking a walk through and there is a Japanese teahouse in the centre of the gardens to take a break at. Finally, don’t miss out on a walk through the harbour which is host to many luxurious boats but beautiful in itself. Here you’ll find all types of restaurants serving every imaginable cuisine.
Last but not least on our list of top Western Mediterranean destinations is beautiful Rome. This historic city of classical ruins with its Baroque fountains and Renaissance palazzos is a cultural gem that everyone should experience at some point during their lifetime. Whether it is the incredible architecture, the quirky shops and trattorias or the aperitivo that takes your fancy, Rome has an incredible energy that is unmatched in any other city.
Rome is great all year round, although the tourists tend to descend during Spring and Autumn. If you like to avoid the crowds, winter is quiet – but if you prefer the warmth, August is a great time to visit when many locals head for the beach.
The Borghese Gallery is high on the list of must-sees, boasting one of the greatest art collections in the world which includes Bernini’s breath-taking sculpture Apollo and Daphne. Of course, a visit to the Colosseum is also a given – and at this famous ruin, visitors are allowed to walk through the passages that gladiators and beasts would have taken to enter the arena. Queue for your tickets at the Palatine entrance as the queues are a little smaller there.
Finally, the Vatican Museums are a big draw, with rooms of dazzling art providing a precursor to Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Sistine chapel. It’s worth an early visit to avoid the droves of people, and make sure you’re familiar with the dress code before you go which applies to both the museums and St Peter’s.
Barcelona, Florence, Naples, Monte Carlo and Rome are all major tourist destinations and Naples in particular has earned a reputation for attracting petty thieves. However, this is probably no more or less deserved than the other four, and the usual cautionary travel advice applies to each. Keep your valuables out of sight and keep a sharp eye out for pick pockets. Take special care if using the metro as the crowds make pick pocketing and theft very easy. Leave anything you don’t need in your hotel safe and invest in a travel card before you go so that you don’t have to use your bank card in restaurants and bars.
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Images sourced via Flickr Creative Commons. Credits: Jesus Solana, Chris Yunker, Robert Pittman, Artur Staszewski, Luca Sartoni