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Golden Oldies

5 incredible ancient cities in the Mediterranean worth exploring

Ancient Mediterranean cities harbour a wealth of iconic monuments, stories of riches and devastation, and the inception of some of the world’s most powerful religions – and they can all be explored by cruise ship.

Mediterranean cruises are generally associated with sailing the continent’s sun-drenched coastline, drinking the very best wine and uncovering the region’s fascinating and varied culture, whether it be through flamenco dancing with locals or perusing vibrant markets.

Yes, the Med is a veritable treasure trove of wonders, both new and old – but this time we’re interested in the latter. Step away from the designer brands, glistening beaches and delectable cuisine and delve into a remarkable ancient world that shaped the way we live today.

We’ve taken a look at just five of the wonderful ancient cities you can visit while cruising the Mediterranean. Oh and you can still drink wine along the way.



You know you’re hot stuff when there’s an entire city named after you, but then the clue is the name if you’re dubbed Alexander the Great. The Macedonian King and warrior founded Alexandria on the northwestern coast of Egypt around 334BC and it blossomed into the cultural and intellectual centre of the ancient Mediterranean, home to the legendary Library of Alexandria and The Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Alas, a fire destroyed the library and the ruins of the lighthouse are now underwater but every year archaeologists uncover more and more information about ancient Alexandria.

These days tourists can visit the modern reimagining of the great library and its various museums or head down into the Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqqafa which offer an impressive example of an Alexandrian fusion of Egyptian and Greco-Roman styles (fun fact: they were discovered after a donkey fell into them).

There’s also the archaeological park of Kom el-Dikka (expect a small Roman theatre, bathhouse and villas) and the National Museum to help you truly swot up on the famous city.



Bethelem, south of Jerusalem, is most famous for being the biblical birthplace of Jesus Christ, and, you know, that hit Christmas carol.

Its historical relevance dates back to 1350 BC when it served as an important rest stop for those en route to Egypt from Syria and Palestine but the ancient Mediterranean city became an important pilgrimage and tourist centre in its own right from around 200 AD thanks to Jesus.

Of greatest religious (and historical) importance is The Church of the Nativity (above), one of the oldest Christian churches in the world and said to have been built over the cave where Jesus was born. A church has been continuously in the spot since the 4th century AD.

Another highlight are Solomon’s Pools which used to provide water for nearby Jerusalem and Herodium (where King Herod built a fortified palace) and could hold roughly 450,000 cubic meters of water. They are attributed to the period of King Solomon some 3,000 years ago (his wives bathed in them, according to the bible) and were famously restored in the 16th century.

If you have time, a third amazing ancient site to visit during a port of call here is the Mar Saba Monastery, founded in 492 AD. The historic Greek Orthodox monastery is squeezed in between the rock walls of the Kidron Gorge out in the desert east of Bethlehem.



Ephesus was the most dominant Greek city in Ionian Asia Minor thanks to its role as a prosperous centre for trade and later a religious centre of early Christianity.

Most famously, Ephesus was home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis, one of the largest and most powerful sanctuaries of the era. Artemis – goddess of the hunt, chastity, childbirth, wild animals and the wilderness – was one of the most worshipped Greek deities and her temple here is estimated to have been four times larger than the Parthenon in Rome.

Today Ephesus’ well-preserved ruins are found in Turkey, south of Izmir, and extensive excavations over the decades have revealed majestic monuments dating back to the Roman Imperial period. The best-known monument is the iconic Library of Celsus; it dates back to the early 2nd century AD and is the third-largest library in the ancient world after Alexandria and Pergamum (also in Turkey).

Luckily the Library of Celsus (above) has been extensively restored so its monumental facade can still be admired by visitors but the Temple of Artemis has been long ransacked, although some of the ruins do now reside in the British Museum in the UK.

You can also admire seven well-preserved Roman homes built on three terraces (the mosaics, marble and frescos are remarkable) as well as the magnificent Great Theatre. Greek-built but reconstructed by the Romans between 41 and 117 AD, the entertainment venue is estimated to have seated an whopping 25,000 people.

Ephesus can be visited during your call at Kusadasi, with cruise lines offering a range of excursions to the ancient Mediterranean city (although there is a Turkish vineyard experience if you fancy a break from the culture!).



Delphi, in Greece, was an important ancient religious sanctuary dedicated to the Greek God Apollo – the Olympian God of the sun, light, music, poetry, medicine, prophecy… and frankly almost everything else! Inhabited from the 14th century BC, the town saw worship of the deity established between the 11th and 9th centuries BC.

However, it was during the 8th century that BC Delphi became internationally renowned for its Oracle – a priestess called Pythia who allegedly voiced prophecies from Apollo himself. So unswerving was the ancient people’s faith in the Oracle of Delphi that no major decision was made without consulting her (the original smart phone perhaps?)

According to Greek philosopher and priest Plutarch, the priestess would fall into a trance in the inner chamber of the temple (having inhaled the light hydrocarbon gasses escaping from the ground) and uttered unintelligible prophecies that were translated by priests. These oracles were (rather conveniently) always open to interpretation.

A well known example of the Oracle’s powers was the Greeks’ victory in the naval battle of Salamina which was credited to one of Pythia’s prophecies after it was said “wooden walls” would lead to victory which were interpreted to signify ships. Clever girl.

After the sanctuary fell into Roman control in 191 BC the Oracle of Delphi gradually lost its influence, with worship of Apollo waning as Christianity spread.

Visitors heading to Delphi now can still walk The Sacred Way through the ruined complex to the temple. The well-preserved 4th-century BC theatre (above) cannot be missed and offers breathtaking views. Head to the modern Delphi Archaeological Museum to bring the ancient site to life and admire incredible artefacts such as the Bronze Charioteer or the Twins of Argos.

You can visit Delphi – now a UNESCO World Heritage site – on a shore excursion from Piraeus. Most excursions here visit Athens and the Acropolis so this day out to Delphi could be a great option for travelers on their second or third trip to the region.



Pompeii was a thriving and wealthy city in southern Italy by the first century AD, attracting wealthy vacationers from Rome. Rich volcanic soil helped grow grapes for wine and olive, while elegant villas lined the city’s paved streets.

The city met its untimely end when it was devastated in the summer of 79 AD after neighbouring volcano Mount Vesuvius erupted and blanketed the city in ash and killed 2,000 Pompeians as well as up to 14,000 people from the surrounding region almost overnight.

Despite the scale of the ravages, the ruins of the city are remarkably well-preserved thanks to the layers of ash which served to protect buildings, art, food and human bodies – with some figures frozen in time as they tried to escape the hot ash.

Pompeii’s ruins were uncovered for the first time in 1748 and today provide an impressive insight into ancient Roman life, from heading to the baths to frequenting brothels.

Many of the preserved artworks, frescoes and other artefacts can be viewed at the Pompeii Antiquarium while visitors can wander the ancient city’s streets and admire the remaining buildings (above).

Surviving structures include the Forum, Basilica, the Temple of Apollo, two theatres (the larger of the two was one of the first stone theatres built by the Romans), the Temple of Isis, gladiators’ barracks, Stabian Baths and an amphitheatre (the oldest surviving Roman amphitheatre in the world and the most complete of any constructed prior to the Colosseum in Rome) and many more attractions besides.

Travellers can visit Pompeii during their call at Naples on a shore excursion too.

Much like Alexander, we reckon a Mediterranean cruise is pretty Great. Forgive us if we do also admire the Prada along the way.

Published 02.03.23