5 Surprising Must-See Cities in the Mediterranean

There’s nothing like a ride across the Atlantic, through the Strait of Gibraltar and around the Mediterranean Sea when you’re looking for an exotic, thrilling, beach and booze-infused summer cruise. Unless you take that ride with 700 other college students on a floating campus that allows complete freedom (as long as you didn’t get yourself arrested) for examination of each beautiful port city and the lands beyond. So went my victory lap study abroad adventure of choice in college, when I needed just nine measly credits to solidify my graduation requirements. But, whereas many of my thirsty 18-and-19-year-old colleagues made a beeline for the closest discotheque, I was more interested in actually exploring Europe, Africa, and (briefly) Asia. Everyone knows about Barcelona, Paris, Rome and the Greek islands of Mykonos and Santorini. Some may even venture into Jerusalem or Istanbul (where I spent an afternoon technically in Asia). But there is so much to do elsewhere in adventures found in the footnotes of guidebooks that end up becoming the best memories of all. Here are five surprising must-see places in the Mediterranean that you must be sure to visit on your next visit overseas.

Naples, Italy

Now before you go and trash my credibility as a travel writer for including such a well-known city on this list, consider a couple things about Naples:

  • It is dirty, loud, and crowded
  • It is dangerous and mob-ridden

Not exactly a tourist’s dream. While most might be out gallivanting in Rome or being serenaded in Venice, my next visit to Italy will be a direct flight into Naples, where our ship first ported. Not only did we dock outside and sleep under a magnificent castle, but everyone was greeted by a fleet of exceptionally friendly cab drivers ready to spirit us away to any destination. I did what any good American tourist first setting foot in Italy does: went straight for the pizza. Naples is widely accepted to have the best pizza in Italy, which is already the reigning pizza country. Seriously, I paid five euros for a pizza the size of the desk I’m typing this on and it made American pizza taste like it’s made out of Play-Doh. Aside from the food, there isn’t a ton to explore in Naples proper. But the great thing about the city is its proximity to other gems, such as Pompeii, Mt. Vesuvius and Capri. So if you want a less-revered spot in Italy to spend a trip, you can do a lot worse than a place with vibrant history, art and culture, unrivaled pizza, ancient volcano hikes and nearby islands that are straight out of a movie.

Cinque Terre, Italy

Need I say more? The “Cinque Terre” is actually a name for the National Park which partly encompasses five cliffside towns in northwest Italy that are connected by a massive hiking trail, but also reachable by train or boat. Getting there is a treat in itself, as you ride through gorgeous Tuscan countryside (and make a stop in Pisa, if you’re in the mood), but the real treasure is the day(s) you spend hiking through Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare. The trail is very steep in some parts and you’ll be exceptionally tired of stairs after a while, but it’s worth every muscle cramp and wheeze along the way. In each of the five towns, I stopped for a bite to eat, a glass of wine and a chat with the very friendly locals. And though each town closely resembled the next, you’ll quickly learn to recognize and love the subtle differences between each (and, is seeing five towns like the one above really a punishment?). Whether you take the typical North-to-South (starting with Monterosso al Mare, ending with Riomaggiore) route or go back-asswards like yours truly, you’ll spend a day (or more, if you pony up for a hotel room in one of the towns) traversing through luscious flora and next to breathtaking ocean views. It took my group about eight hours to do the full hike, and we were taking our time. One of the most important pro tips I can offer is to reward yourself at either end with a sunset dip in the ocean and a gelato – you’ll have earned it.

Varna, Bulgaria

Yes, Bulgaria is a country, and no, it’s not technically on the Mediterranean Sea. It’s on the Black Sea, which connects to The Sea of Marmara via the Bosphorus Strait. The Sea of Marmara connects to the Aegean Sea, which connects to the Mediterranean Sea. So a couple left turns here, a current there, and you can end up in Bulgaria on your Mediterranean vacation. Most people don’t want to, though. Maybe it’s the combination of “vulgar” and “bulge” you get when breaking down the country’s name, or maybe just because it’s not in your standard trip-planning guide; for whatever reason, Bulgaria is untouched. In fact, the ship I sailed on was the biggest they’d ever seen at the Varna port, despite it being dwarfed by regular cruise liners. My itinerary originally headed for Egypt on the voyage but was changed last-minute due to riotous dangers in the African country – when I heard our new destination was Bulgaria, I was severely disappointed. If you’re into beaches with perfect sand and warm water, as well as endless beachfront nightclubs and unique culture and architecture, Varna is the place for you. Avoid the nightclubs with fancy cars outside (sure sign of the mob), be nice to the locals (Americans aren’t necessarily their favorites… ) and never leave your belongings unattended on the beach (you’ll never see them again), and you’ll have a hell of a time in a country you’ve never even given thought to. If you can charter a trip to a local village like I did, even better – the village, which was formerly unvisited by outsiders, had the most welcoming, interesting, lovable (not to mention adorable) people I’ve ever met.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

The first question I got upon returning home after Semester at Sea was always, “Where was your favorite?” At first, I was so overwhelmed by memories that I couldn’t even spit out a legitimate answer. As the pictures were uploaded and memories jotted down, it became plainly obvious to me that Dubrovnik was the best place I’d ever been to and might ever be again. Sure, it’s a tiny town in a random country with no coliseums, castles or churches of note. But the vibe is infectious, the people are carefree and the outdoor recreation opportunities are endless. From jumping off the walls surrounding the city into the clear, blue ocean below, to wandering from one street performer to the next inside the Old Town, you can’t go wrong in Dubrovnik. A perfect mix of new and old (seriously – there’s a modern nightclub hidden away in one of the old stone fortresses of the city) with kayaking, beaching and climbing galore. It’s a cozy getaway in a magical landscape that you’d never guess was under siege less than 25 years ago. The walk around the Old Town walls and a cannonball or two into the water at the end is worth the trip alone. You’ll never want to leave.

Casablanca, Morocco

Of course, we’ve all seen the movie. Besides a fake version of Rick’s Café just down the street from the Casablanca port, there isn’t much about the film that you’ll actually find here. What you will find are plenty of reasons not to hop on the first train to Fes or Marrakesh as many tourists are wont to do. For all the charm and excitement of those two places, Casablanca is packed full of cool sights itself. The most moving experience of my time abroad was standing outside Hassan II Mosque, the seventh-largest in the world, at sundown during Ramadan evening prayer. If religion isn’t your thing (it’s not mine either, but it was quite a display of worship and loyalty), tiptoe around the slums of Casablanca or barter through the bazaars, or let yourself be wooed by hashish-smoking carpet salesmen. Just spending a few days walking around Casablanca is well worth your time, even if it doesn’t possess the same level of action as other cities nearby. The place is a daydreamer’s