Spy the Mediterranean's cultural landmarks

With an almost ideal climate, some of the world's oldest cultures and an incredible array of foods, the Mediterranean is the perfect place for a European summer vacation. Planning the perfect cruise largely depends on what you expect from the holiday, if you've already visited the region and whether you want a shared experience with thousands of other passengers or just a couple hundred people with similar interests.

Much like the latter days of the Roman Empire, the sea is divided into two spheres when it comes to cruising — the Western Mediterranean (Italy, Spain and Southern France) and the Eastern Mediterranean (Greece, Turkey and the Adriatic).

If you've never been to Europe, the Western Med is where to begin. Cruise itineraries often begin and end in Barcelona, one of the world's great cities. It boasts a mosaic of grand boulevards, golden beaches, outdoor cafes, and the over-the-top architecture of Antoni Gaudi and paintings of Pablo Picasso.

Another port that figures into nearly every West Med cruise is Civitavecchia, a jumping off point for shore excursions to Rome, Florence and elsewhere in central Italy. These excursions offer all the sights and sounds one would expect - ruins of the Roman Empire coupled with fresh dining and fine Chianti on the Livorno coast. Expect another landfall in the south of France — time enough for a sun-soaked visit to luxurious Nice, Cannes or St. Tropez — and perhaps one of the big islands: Sardinia, Sicily or Corsica, where visitors can view the ancestral home of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Eastern Med cruises tend to start and end in one of three places — Venice, Athens or Istanbul — some of the region's most popular destinations. These cruises spend most of their time exploring smaller offshoots of the Mediterranean like the Adriatic and Aegean Seas. Don't miss Greek islands like Santorini, where whitewashed, blue-roofed cottages climb up the rocky hillsides.

Many of the best ships from the Caribbean sail to the Mediterranean during the summer, so there are plenty to choose from. A traveler can dine on fine Italian fare in one port and be observing Istanbul's classic Ottoman architecture three days later.

For a more intimate, personal and upscale cruise, try a voyage on classic tall ships throughout the Mediterranean. The cruises typically cover less distance and instead focus on interesting regions like the Turkish coast, Croatian coast, or Sicily and Italy's Amalfi coast. Often, passengers get more time in ports and more exposure to the culture of the region.

-By Joe Yogerst, Brand Publishing Writer

For more great summer travel options, go to latimes.com/summertravelseries.

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