The Mediterranean region is home to some of the most spectacular and beautiful historic cities in the world.
Known as the Cradle of Civilisation, it has seen many empires rise and fall over the millennia. In the days before trains and airplanes, movement of goods and people was mainly via the sea – the Mediterranean was of great strategic importance and its access cities were densely populated and wealthy, leaving a legacy of incredible architecture.
Here are 10 of the most beautiful Mediterranean cities worth putting on your bucket list:
The unique Italian lagoon city of Venice is one of the top tourist destinations in Europe – and for good reason.
Known as La Serenessima (the most serene), Venice is famous for its vast network of canals which were created when the lagoon was drained.
Where else can you hop in a gondola to explore watery byways packed with dazzling Renaissance and Gothic architecture?
The main attractions are Piazza San Marco and St. Marks’ Basilica, the Grand Canal, the Rialto Bridge, the Doge’s Palace, and the colourful island of Burano.
But in the age of overtourism it pays to stay longer and explore beyond the central tourist zone. There are plenty of atmospheric hidden streets and piazzas to discover if you’re willing to get lost a little.
Seville is the capital of the Andalucia region in Spain, and one of its most beautiful and charismatic cities.
The old town at the heart of the city is absolutely charming. Wander through sun-baked medieval streets taking in ornate Gothic, Baroque, and Moorish architecture.
Possibly the most famous sight is its Moorish royal palace, the Alcazar, which had a starring role in Game of Thrones. It’s inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list along with Seville Cathedral. However its the canal-lined Plaza de Espana which features on all the postcards.
In contrast is the stunning modern Space Metropol Parasol (affectionately referred to as ‘the mushroom’) which costs just a few euros to explore.
At night the city comes alive with tapas, flamenco, and lights.
Beautiful Valletta is the capital of tiny archipelago state Malta. It’s home to one of the biggest natural harbours and best preserved medieval old towns in Europe.
The island’s honey-coloured limestone is utilised in immense fortifications and vast baroque buildings with colourful enclosed wooden balconies.
Often called an open-air museum, Valletta is a history-lover’s dream, densely packed with incredible historic sites spanning thousands of years and many empires and occupiers (most famously the Knights of St. John).
These days Valletta part of a wider urban area known as the Three Cities which are easily explored by foot and small ferryboat.
Landmarks include the St John’s Co-Cathedral, the the Grandmaster’s Palace, and Upper Barakka Gardens.
Unsurprisingly, it has long been a popular cruise port of call but is increasingly a destination in its own right. Malta has one of the warmest climates in the Med, making Valletta a great choice for a winter city break.
Dubrovnik is another blockbuster city in the Mediterranean thanks to its its incredible UNESCO World Heritage-listed old city and starring turn in Game of Thrones.
The walled old quarter suffered heavy damage in the 1990s conflict but has been restored with great attention to detail.
It’s one of those places where time travel doesn’t seem such a far-fetched idea.
For spectacular views over the old town with its terracotta roof tiles you can walk around medieval city walls or take the short cable car journey up Mount Srd.
Highlights include a sunset cocktail at the clifftop Buža Bar and a trip over to the tiny island of Lokrum where you’ll find a nature reserve with resident peacocks wandering around.
Read more: A Perfect Itinerary for 3 Days in Dubrovnik
There are so many beautiful cities in Italy it’s difficult to narrow them down. If the likes of Venice and Dubrovnik are too full of tourist crowds for you then make your way to the delightful city of Lecce.
Sometimes referred to as ‘the Florence of the South’, this Baroque beauty in Puglia is an underrated gem. It receives a fraction of the tourists that its more famous northern neighbours see and so is the perfect place to slow down and experience ‘la dolce vita’.
The sandstone buildings here (particularly its churches) heave with intricate baroque facades which glow gold in the evening sun.
Standouts include Lecce Cathedral and the Basilica di Santa Croce. Tucked away down narrow shady backstreets are atmospheric piazzas with endless cafes and bars.
And you can’t miss the Roman Amphitheatre which is slap bang in the middle of the city.
Spanish beachside city and Catalonian capital Barcelona is one of the most vibrant and attractive cities in Europe.
Notable for its striking Modernisme architecture and grid layout, Barcelona is the place to go for legendary architect Gaudi’s fantastical buildings including the Sagrada Familia and Casa Milà.
Stop by the Gaudi House Museum for more context on his work.
Tree-lined avenue La Rambla cuts through the heart of the city. Head to the Gothic Quarter for churches, tapas, and meandering backstreets. And when you need to wind down, the city has nearly 5km of superb beach.
Montpellier might just be the most beautiful city you’ve never thought of visiting.
Known as the ‘Paris of the South’, take one glance at its elegant boulevards and you might mistake it for the French capital capital. Montpellier even has a mini Arc de Triomphe.
The city is walkable and vibrant and it checks all the boxes for quintessential French charm – wrought ironwork, gothic churches, tiny alleyways, bakeries, manicured gardens, and cafe life.
But it’s also a stone’s throw (well, a short tram ride) from the Mediterranean Sea so you get all this plus wide sandy beaches.
The historic centre is around Montpellier Cathedral and the Place de La Comedie.
Other landmarks include the Musee Fabree, Botanical Gardens, and the Roman Aqueduct.
The Italian city of Florence (Firenze) is a big-hitter in the tourism leagues and a feast for the eyes. Located in the region of Tuscany, it is famously the home of Renaissance art and architecture.
Treasures include the famous Duomo with its vast tiled dome, designed by Brunelleschi, which sits atop the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Palazzo Vecchio, Pitti Palace, and the enclosed Ponte Vecchio bridge.
Most visitors make a beeline for the Uffizi Gallery however there has been a recent move to spread the city’s artistic treasures out to smaller local galleries.
Palma de Mallorca
Palma de Mallorca is the thriving capital of the Spanish island Mallorca.
Long overlooked by international visitors who flock to the island’s beach resorts, Palma is capitalising on a recent wave of regeneration.
Its Roman, Moorish, and Gothic heritage can be seen in its historic buildings such as the iconic Le Seu cathedral, Bellver Castle, and the Royal Palace of La Almudaina. Medieval alleyways are abuzz with cafes, art galleries, boutiques, and bars.
There’s a promenade which runs right around the Bay of Palma and its sandy beaches.
Istanbul is the capital of Turkey and the eastern gateway to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea. This is where East meets West, where Asia meets Europe.
Having been the seat of power in the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, it has an abundance of unmissable historic sites including the Agia Sofia and Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the Basilica Cistern, the Galata Tower, the Dolmabache Palace, and the Grand Bazaar.
But it’s also a vast modern city (population: 15 million) with endless neighbourhoods to explore – try Balat, Ortakoy, Cihangir, and Karakoy.
Don’t miss a boat trips up the Bosphorus or to the Princes Islands are also available.
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Barcelona skyline: © basiczto / Adobe Stock
Venice: © muratart/ Shutterstock
Seville: © emperorcosar/ Shutterstock
Valletta: © Kavalenkava/ Adobe Stock
Dubrovnik: © The Mediterranean Traveller
Lecce: © luigi/ Adobe Stock
Barcelona: © Mapics/ Shutterstock
Montpellier: © RossHelen/ Shutterstock
Florence: © Olga Gavrilova/ Shutterstock
Palma de Mallorca: © Allard One/ Shutterstock
Istanbul: © Ruslan Kalnitsky / Shutterstock