Savour tranquility in the less-trodden corners of the busiest Med ports

Mary Novakovich
While the ship stops in Barcelona, the gardens of Sant Pau Art Nouveau offer tranquility - VitalyEdush

Your ship docks in Barcelona – or Marseille, or Venice, or Rome – and you want to get the most out of your visit while you’re in port. Trouble is, so does everyone else. How do you explore the city without being swept away by the crowds? We’ve come up with some lesser-known corners of four of the busiest ports in the Mediterranean.

Barcelona

In spite of the crowds, Barcelona draws us in like a magnet, with an irresistible combination of compelling architecture, fabulous food and a buzzing seaside vibe. But if you want to avoid the queues at Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, walk another 15 minutes north of the famously unfinished church to the Sant Pau Art Nouveau Site.

A birds-eye view of El Mercat de Santa Caterina – full of tempting stalls, without the crowds Credit: Antonio Lajustica/©Turisme de barcelona

Formerly a hospital designed by Modernista architect Domenech i Montaner, it’s now a Unesco-listed complex of 20 pavilions set in tranquil gardens – and it’s the largest Art Nouveau site in Europe. If you’re in need of refuelling, check out Granja Petitbo south of Sagrada Familia, for a late brunch or some hefty tacos.

From here it’s only a 15-minute walk to Fundacion Sunol, a collection of more than 1,200 works of modern and contemporary art including artworks by Picasso, Miro and Dali. Carry on another 10 minutes south and you can gaze at Gaudi’s wondrously swirly Casa Batllo.

As an alternative to the busy Boqueria market on Las Ramblas, wander round the enticing food stalls at El Mercat de Santa Caterina in La Ribera. It’s less than 15 minutes’ walk to the east through the atmospheric Barri Gotic.

Marseille

Once you’ve docked, you won’t have too far to go to see Marseille’s attractions. At the southernmost tip of the Joliette docks is Mucem, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations. As it doesn’t open until 11am, visit its panoramic rooftop terrace when you return to the ship.

After the midday rush, Marseille's MuCEM is a more tranquil stop when heading back to the ship Credit: Getty

In the meantime, you can’t miss the elaborate sight of the 19th-century neo-Byzantine Cathédrale La Major, whose interior is worth a look. At its base are Les Voûtes de la Major, whose cafés and shops are tucked into vaulted warehouses. Pop into Les Halles de la Major, where gourmet food stalls mingle with cafés.

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You’ll be on the doorstep of Marseille’s oldest district, Le Panier, whose narrow streets are filled with quirky shops, cafés and galleries. Look out for Le Glacier du Roi in Place du Lenche for a superior ice-cream stop. Your wanderings will lead you to the Vieux Port, whose lively goings-on you can watch over lunch at Le Poulpe. Stroll to the port’s southern side towards Rue Sainte, an otherwise unassuming-looking street with more than its share of bars and restaurants. For wonderful views of Marseille, relax in Parc Emile Duclaux overlooking the port.

Venice

In spite of Venice’s enduring popularity, it is possible to get away from the crowds. In everyone’s rush to get to Piazza San Marco from the ferry terminal, they miss one of the city’s least touristy districts, Santa Croce. After stopping for a coffee at Majer in Santa Croce’s Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio, check out the grand palaces along the Grand Canal, including the International Gallery of Modern Art housed in the magnificent Ca’Pesaro.

Vaporetti (water buses) can offer a speedy escape from tourist hoards Credit: Getty

If you plan to do some exploring, it’s more economical to buy a Venezia Unica day pass for the vaporetti (waterbuses). As there are so few bridges across the Grand Canal, hop on a vaporetto to reach Cannaregio, one of Venice’s more laid-back districts.

If you’re feeling peckish, this is one of best areas to indulge in the Venetian habit of snacking on cicchetti. A plate of these moreish bits of bread, covered with everything from Parma ham to creamy salt cod, make a satisfying lunch. Try the cicchetti at Al Timon Bragozzo, Birreria Zanon or Cantina Aziende Agricole in Rio Tera Farsetti.

If time is running short, take a vaporetto along the Grand Canal, past the crowds around Piazza San Marco towards the peaceful Giardini della Biennaleti at Al Timon Bragozzo, Birreria Zanon or Cantina Aziende Agricole in Rio Tera Farsetti.

Overcrowding makes famous spots, such as Rome's Spanish Steps, less appealing Credit: iStock

Rome

If you’re arriving in Rome on the train from Civitavecchia, you’ll be right on the edge of Monti, a relatively unknown urban village near the Colosseum. Soak up the friendly atmosphere among the cafés in Piazza Madonna dei Monti, and explore the ruins of Domus Aurea in the Parco del Colle Oppio by the Colosseum.

For a traditional Roman lunch, try the classic pasta dishes at La Carbonara. Fans of street food can head to the Testaccio district south of Circus Maximus. Formerly a working-class area, Testaccio has become the place for lovers of true Roman cuisine, and it’s home to the mouthwatering food stalls at the Mercato di Testaccio.

Parco del Colle Oppio is on Esquiline Hill, one of the Seven Hills of the city Credit: Getty

Just across the River Tiber from Testaccio, discover another slice of authentic Rome in the Trastevere district. Explore its narrow cobbled lanes filled with 17th-century terracotta townhouses towards the attractive Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere. You won’t be far from one of the finest views in Rome. Look out for the Botanical Gardens, where the reward for climbing to the top of the Janiculum Terrace (Terrazza di Gianicolo) is glorious panoramic views.