When it comes to Italy cruises, your best bet is to go with a small-ship sailing. Big ships tend to do the tried and true—Rome, Venice, Florence, Naples—not that there’s anything wrong with seeing the Colosseum, St. Mark’s Square, Michelangelo’s David, and the ruins of Pompeii. But on the best cruises around Italy, there’s opportunity to go deeper and at a slower pace.
You’ll often still be able to check off major marquee attractions, while at the same time admiring the pastel-colored villages and hairpin roadways along the Amalfi Coast, the unspoiled landscapes of Puglia, the drama of Sicily, or the dreamy Ligurian coast. In addition to visiting off-the-beaten-path places, small ships tend to linger in ports, with the best itineraries including late evening or overnight stays. That way, there’s time to sample the dining scene—key for cruisers like me who like to try the local pasta dish in every town.
The best time for an Italy cruise
The main season for Italy cruises is April to October, coinciding with weather that increases the allure of beaches and outdoor attractions, even if visiting ancient ruins in the heat of summer may require some fortitude.
Where Italy cruises sail
Along the famed Amalfi Coast, ships visit Sorrento, overlooking the bay of Naples, and colorful Amalfi, dramatically backed by steep cliffs. Some itineraries also including the strikingly beautiful Positano. Smaller yacht vessels may sail directly to the fancy island of Capri (otherwise there will be a shore excursion, as with the larger ships). Among other shore choices in this region is a visit to ancient Pompeii.
Italy cruise itineraries often land at several ports on Sicily, and some itineraries circumnavigate the island. Each port has its own allure, including the city scene in Palermo; Syracuse, which showcases ancient attractions from when it was a prominent Greek city; Taormina, with its impressive hilltop location and Greek theater; and Lipari, which has a charming, tiny island ambience. In addition to striking landscapes, attractions include Roman and Greek ancient historic sights and views of Mount Etna, plus filming locations featured in The Godfather movies and in Season 2 of the HBO series The White Lotus. If while cruising Sicily your ship ventures to Stromboli, with its famous volcano, it will be from a safe distance—and if you’re lucky, in the dark when you can witness the lava flowing.
Increasingly popular on the cruise map are destinations in Puglia, a region of olive groves and national parks. Small ships call in the city of Lecce and town of Gallipoli, with their impressive baroque architecture; Taranto, a bustling port city with a history dating back to the Spartans and known for its fresh seafood restaurants; the town of Otranto, where a chapel in the cathedral displays skulls of martyrs from a 15th-century Ottoman siege; and the scenic fishing town of Monopoli, with its beaches and castles.
Adriatic Coast and Sardinia
Small ships also visit Italy’s Adriatic Coast, including the historic Ancona, which has Roman ruins and beaches. Additional islands might appear on an Italy cruise itinerary, too, such as Sardinia, where the wild landscape affords hiking opportunities with views, and you can wander among medieval sights in the historic port city of Cagliari.
The best Italy cruises for every type of traveler
Abercrombie & Kent
- Itinerary: Hidden Treasures From Florence to Venice
- Best for: Classic Italy cruise experience
- Number of days: 11
- Starting cost: $14,885 per person (including two hotel nights in Florence)
Luxury tour company Abercrombie & Kent carefully curates its cruise itineraries with local guides on shore and with destination experts onboard. A&K has partnered with French line Ponant for a September Italy cruise on Ponant’s diesel-electric ship Le Bougainville. This trip explores Florence, Rome, and Venice, stopping along the way on the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, and in Bari (the capitol of Puglia) and Ancona. Added bonus: a day on the French island of Corsica, the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. The experience is limited to 148 guests, who can sip drinks with views in the ship’s underwater lounge.
Atlas Ocean Voyages
- Itinerary: Valletta to Rome
- Best for: food lovers
- Number of days: 8
- Starting cost: $3,499 per person
Atlas Ocean Voyages, with its elegant small expedition ships, switches the focus from penguin-spotting in Antarctica to summer expedition cruises in Europe, including what the Portuguese-owned line calls “epicurean expeditions.” On the 196-passenger World Traveller, one such expedition from between Malta and Rome adds the food angle to exploration of Sicily and the Amalfi Coast, with overnights in Positano, the dramatically positioned cliffside town with its labyrinth of staircases, and on the island of Capri. An expedition team will lead culinary explorations on the ship and ashore, such as visiting local markets and specialty tastings, culinary presentations, cooking demonstrations, and sampling wine.
- Itinerary: Italy Intensive Voyage
- Best for: More affordable Italy sailing
- Number of days: 10
- Starting cost: $2,320 per person
Sailing round-trip from Venice on the upscale 684-passenger Azamara Pursuit, this “Italy Intensive Voyage,” which sets sail in June 2024, takes passengers to Bologna, where optional excursions include a visit to the Ferrari Museum, and the historic Adriatic port city of Ancona, before cruising over to Kotor, Montenegro, with its impressive fjord approach and UNESCO-recognized Old Town. Heading south, you’ll stop by Taranto in Puglia and Sicily’s Giardini Naxos (near Taormina) and Palermo, before lingering in Amalfi, Sorrento, and Capri. There’s the bonus of a day in Rome (accessible from the port of Civitavecchia). It’s a packed itinerary and a great price.
- Itinerary: Highlights of Southern Italy
- Best for: Intimate yacht experience
- Number of days: 7
- Starting cost: $6,120 per person
Cruising with thousands or even hundreds of people is one thing; cruising around southern Italy on a luxury super yacht is something else completely. Sail on Emerald Cruises’ 100-passenger Emerald Sakara from Civitavecchia to Dubrovnik, daydreaming in a designer daybed at the infinity pool when you’re not on shore exploring Sicily, the Amalfi Coast, Calabria (from the port city of Crotone) and Puglia. In Sorrento, an included guided tour of the city focuses on gelato. In Sicily’s Giardini Naxos, an optional excursion involves river tubing.
- Itinerary: Mediterranean Gems: Southern Italy and Sicily Aboard Sea Cloud
- Best for: Historic ship experience
- Number of days: 10
- Starting cost: $18,602 per person
Passengers will immerse themselves in history as soon as they set foot on the 58-passenger Sea Cloud tall ship, built in 1931 for socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post and finance tycoon E.F. Hutton, and decorated with period antiques. Lindblad Expeditions is operating the vessel on several Mediterranean journeys in 2024, including this Southern Italy and Sicily sailing. There will be a Lindblad–National Geographic–certified photo instructor to help guests get perfect photos of the ship’s iconic sails and of the enchanting sights on an off-the-beaten-path itinerary to Puglia, Sicily, and the Amalfi Coast, sailing from Dubrovnik to Naples. Highlights include a private lunch at Castello degli Schiavi, an 18th-century castle used as a filming location in The Godfather movies.
The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection
- Itinerary: Rome (Civitavecchia) to Valletta
- Best for: Luxury experience
- Number of days: 10
- Starting cost: $10,600 per person
You can be sure that the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection is going to deliver high-end resort cruising, and that’s certainly the case on the 298-passenger Evrima, where Moët & Chandon will flow freely as guests sail from Rome to Malta. Itinerary creativity is another bonus, as you explore the Amalfi Coast, Puglia, and Syracuse, the ship lingering in several ports so that you can go out on the town, with overnights in both Sorrento, where there is time to visit the emerald waters of the Grotta dello Smeraldo, and Taranto, with its white beaches and dolphin-spotting.
- Itinerary: Amalfi & Sicily
- Best for: Value
- Number of days: 7
- Starting cost: $1,930 per person
Star Clippers’ Amalfi and Sicily itinerary on the 166-passenger Star Flyer sailing ship is the perfect combination of going with the wind and hitting key sights. The itinerary is round trip from Civitavecchia (near Rome), making this cruise a convenient and affordable add-on to your own exploration of Italy’s “Eternal City.” Set sail for Sicily (Messina and Lipari) and visit the Amalfi Coast (Sorrento and Amalfi). There’s the bonus of a port call in picturesque Ponza, an island in the Tyrrhenian Sea and very much not on the typical tourist path. When sailing, take in the breezes on the bowsprit.