Our big trip this summer was a one-week European cruise with my husband’s family. We started and ended the trip in Venice and visited five cities along the coast of the Adriatic Sea. We chose to book passage on the MSC Lirica after researching various itineraries and ship amenities to determine what was best for our group. We had my 1.5 year old son and 2.5 year old nephew with us, so it was important to us to find a child-friendly cruise line. MSC offers several children’s programs and childcare and is overall very welcoming to families.
Here are my thoughts on various aspects of the ship and cruise line:
Kids activities and care: We utilized the baby care a few times during the week so we could go to the gym. We also brought our son up to baby care one night during dinner so he could enjoy the play area while we ate. The ship additionally offered baby time, where you could bring your child to the play area and play with them. The play area was outfitted with Chicco toys and products, so you can trust that all of the toys are safe.
MSC organizes fun activities for children on the ship. Many of the activities were geared towards elementary school age, but we still enjoyed a gnocchi making class, music for children, and a meet and greet with the MSC mascot.
Another perk for families is that cruise staff were really diligent about giving preference to families with babies and strollers. If there was a long line to get on or off the ship, we were typically pulled out to go to the front of the line. Anyone with little ones knows that the less time spent being stationary, the better! The ship also provided changing tables in most of the bathrooms. I really appreciated the overall concern for babies and children on the ship.
Food: The food on the ship was…ok. I think most of our family agreed that the American cruiselines we have been on had much better food. There weren’t any real upscale dishes (e.g. no lobster, filet mignon, escargot). The food was definitely not bad, but it just wasn’t anything to write home about. Also, the only specialty restaurant on board is sushi and while I generally love sushi, as a rule, I don’t eat it on cruise ships.
Another food-related issue was the timing. I know Europeans generally eat later than Americans, but the dinner time options were a little tough with toddlers. 7 pm was the early dinner time, so we routinely didn’t get back to our room to get our son to bed until 9 pm. It was fine because we were on vacation and obviously in a very different time zone anyway, but it just was not what we were used to, especially in terms of scheduling meals. Our solution to this was afternoon snack time, where you could get small sandwiches, fruit, and pizza. Once we discovered snack time, we were able to get our son something to eat so he wasn’t absolutely famished by dinner.
Service: The service at the restaurants was great overall. After a minor kerfuffle with our dining staff on night one (basically I had to have a conversation with them about the fact that we had two toddlers and needed service to be quicker than a 2+ hour dinner), the staff was fantastic and remembered our preferences through the week.
Our porter was excellent and cleaned our room at least twice daily. Our only complaint was that when we arrived, the crib we requested was not in the room and it took several calls and personal requests to finally get one in time for bedtime. Some of our family members did not experience the same service in their rooms, so there may be a lack of consistency on the ship.
Ship layout: The ship generally was easy to get around, but the layout had one confusing aspect. Certain elevators only went to some floors, and to different floors at different ends of the ship. We got used to it by the end of the week, but found ourselves having to occasionally walk between elevators or up stairs. This isn’t a problem when it was just adults, but could be a bit irritating when we were pushing our son in the stroller. Also on the topic of elevators, we spent a lot of time waiting for them. It’s a huge pet peeve of mine when people who don’t actually need the elevator take it just a floor or two!
Deck area: Luckily we had a few warm, sunny days during our week on the ship. On those days, the deck was packed with people trying to get sun, but there were always chairs available. The deck also has an excellent water park (“Spray Park”) that our son adored.
Fitness/Spa: Alex and I visited the gym on several mornings before the ship arrived at port so I feel like I can make a fair assessment that the gym could definitely use some updates. Several cardio machines were out of order throughout the week and the weight machines were old. The gym was usually very crowded with lines for the cardio machines and no enforcement of time limits.
I didn’t take a workout class, but saw several classes going on. From what I saw, they would not be worth the price as the gym doesn’t have a designated group exercise area and the classes didn’t look particularly challenging. There is a nice jogging track outside but it was very windy when we were at sea so we weren’t able to use it.
We didn’t visit the spa, but I noticed that the “relax room” where you can go after your services looked really nice. However, guests have to walk through the gym to get to the room. I think a reconfiguration of the gym/spa area could be an improvement.
Internet: Standard internet on the ship is terrible, so it’s worth upgrading to the premium internet if you plan to use it during your trip.
Laundry: We used laundry service to wash some of our son’s clothing and were very happy with the quality and quick turnaround.
Room service: We never used room service during the week because we were either in port or at a meal, but it is available for certain cabin bookings.
Entertainment: We only saw one show during the week and like the food, it was just ok. The dancers/singers were talented and the show was certainly entertaining, but I wouldn’t say it was a “can’t miss” activity.
Excursions: We did one excursion during the trip, which I’ll talk about more below (see Olympia, Greece). It was wonderful – we had a fantastic tour guide and thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon. We also felt that it was reasonably priced for what we got!
For the next half of this post, I’ll be focusing on our activities at each stop and what we recommend. Below, I’ve included a map of our itinerary and the time we were in each port.
Day by Day Summary and Map
- Venice, Italy
- Depart: 4:30 pm
Hopefully, you will have some time to explore Venice before departing on a cruise. I certainly wish we had more! We were initially supposed to have a full day in Venice, but due to some travel delays and lost luggage, we only had a few hours. However, we managed to explore the charming canals and pathways in Venice and eat some delicious food. Highlights were stopping to make our own ice cream bars at the Magnum store, having pizza and coffee at Farini, and watching the sun set over the Grand Canal with cocktails/mocktails at the Top of the Carlton Sky Lounge.
- Bari, Italy
- Arrive: 12:00 pm
- Depart: 6:00 pm
MSC makes you think that you need to pay to take their bus to town, but this is definitely not the case unless you have mobility issues. Bari is a small coastal town and you can easily walk to and from town from the port. Another alternative is to rent bikes as there is a bike rental shop called Velo Service at the port and with other locations in town.
Much of Bari is closed during the day, specifically during the hours we were at port, so there were several things we might have done that we immediately had to rule out. Once we got to “downtown” Bari, we did a bit of shopping at a street market, where there were several great vendors selling jewelry, antiques, and other handmade items. The market was next door to Castello Normanno-Svevo, a castle built around 1132 which had an exhibition of items (mostly pottery and sculptures) obtained from excavations of the castle.
Later, we walked through Old Town Bari, where we saw older ladies selling handmade pasta and pastries right out of their kitchens. We had a lovely lunch at Coclatera Sotto il Mare, where we shared a delicious salad and a light meal of breads, cheeses, and meatballs. Everything was good, except for the meatballs, which were not very flavorful.
- Katakolon (Olympia), Greece
- Arrive: 1:00 pm
- Depart: 6:00 pm
The main activity in Olympia is seeing the ruins of site of the ancient Olympic games. We took an excursion to see the ruins and later, sampled olive oil and wine at the Magna Grecia Estate. We loved our excursion and highly recommend it. As a huge fan of the Olympics, seeing the ancient ruins was definitely a bucket list item for me. The Olympic games began in 776 BC but were discontinued in 393 AD until the start of the modern Olympic games in 1896. The ancient site was mostly destroyed by flooding, sand, and earthquakes, but you can see ruins of the stadium, temple, and training area. One thing to note if you visit the ruins is that we had a bit of difficulty with our stroller so if you have a small baby, it may be easier to wear them.
The Magnia Grecia Estate provided a tour of the winery and olive farm. The staff explained how they make red and white wine and several different flavors of olive oil. After the tour, we were provided a delicious sampler platter that included tzaziki, Greek salad, cheese, onion marmalade, tapenade, bread, sausage, a veggie burger, and wine, all consumed while listening to live Greek music and watching (and participating!) in dancing. It was a fun afternoon!
If you’re looking for a different option, the rest of our family took the Katakolon Fun Tourist Train, which had stops at the Mercouri Estate and Winery and Agios Andreas beach. They also thoroughly enjoyed their day, so if you don’t want to see ruins, this is a great option that is under 10 euros. This blog has a great description of the fun train.
- Athens (Port of Piraeus), Greece
- Arrive: 9:00 am
- Depart: 4:00 pm
MSC provides hop-on/hop-off bus tickets to Athens for a reasonable fee. I’d never been on this type of bus, but it was an enjoyable way to learn something about Athens on the drive to the Acropolis. Alex and I had been to the Acropolis on a previous trip and originally had planned on doing something else, but decided to go with our family to see the ancient ruins. It really is an impressive site, so I was happy to visit it again. If you plan to visit the Acropolis, I recommend purchasing tickets in advance to avoid waiting in line. Also, if you have a stroller, you’ll have to check it outside of the ruins. This is another place that it might be best to wear your child if possible.
After visiting the Acropolis, we took the bus to Syntagma Square, where we had chicken gyros, beer, and Greek coffee. The beer was part of our hop-on/hop-off bus ticket. We found the gyros and coffee at local shops that looked popular in the square (Bairaktaris for the gyros and Everest for the coffee).
- Saranda, Albania
- Arrive: 1:00 pm
- Depart: 7:00 pm
Because we had to take tender boats into Saranda, our time in the town was very limited. My research before the trip had shown that some of the best places to visit were a 15 to 45 minute drive away: Mirror Beach, Ksamil Beach, Syri Kalter (a natural spring), and the Butrint ruins (a UNESCO site). There are many taxis waiting at the port to offer to take you to any of these locations so unless you prefer to go with a cruise excursion, there is no need to book one of these trips in advance.
We decided to stay in town to maximize our short time in Albania and strolled along the promenade. Along the way, you’ll see multiple vendors of mostly touristy tchotchkes, but hidden amongst them are a few unique vendors with handmade wood items and art. We got ice cream along our walk and stopped to go to the beach. The public beach access is one option, but we found a hotel that wasn’t open for the season yet and asked if we could use their chairs and umbrellas. They were kind enough to oblige us. The water was freezing but it was nice to relax in the sun in a quiet location! The beach was next to the Pizzeria Alfa and across from the Hotel Butrinti. You can see the beach from this google maps link.
- Split, Croatia
- Arrive: 1:00 pm
- Depart: 7:00 pm
Split was my favorite stop on the cruise. Even though I’d been before (11 years ago), I find the city to be so unique and charming. We really enjoyed our stop there. There is a fantastic market that you can’t miss when you’re walking in from port that sells everything from touristy t-shirts to handcrafted items to fresh fruit.
The main draw of Split is Diocletian’s palace. The city of Split is built into the ancient palace walls and because it isn’t actively used, homes and businesses are located within the palace. It is free to walk through the majority of the palace, although there is a charge to visit the basement area. If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, evidently some scenes from the show were filmed there.
We also strolled, shopped, and people-watched in the Old Town. We ate the best gelato at Pumparela Gelateria (just around the corner from the St. Domnius Cathedral) while watching tourists come in and out of the palace and cathedral. We ended our time in Split with a late lunch at Olive Tree, a trendy restaurant on the seaside promenade that has both indoor and outdoor seating.
- Venice, Italy
- Arrive: 9:00 am
If you’re departing from the Venice airport on the day your cruise arrives, I highly recommend booking a transfer or at least reserving a taxi. By booking a taxi, you ensure that you’ll be able to get off the ship early enough to make your flight. If you don’t book through the cruise, you’ll have to talk with customer service to make sure that you and your luggage are able to get off the ship when necessary. Our deck’s departure time was after our flight time so we were really thankful that we had booked an official transfer.
Before I wrap up, I must make note that if you are flying through London Heathrow airport with children, there is a lovely little play area away from the gate areas that our son climbed around on for awhile. I thought it was a genius idea to help the kiddos get out some of their energy before a long international flight. My only complaint was that the “supervisor” didn’t really do her job supervising. The photos below are of the “baby area” which was supposed to be for toddlers under 2. You can see in the background that there is a bigger, more complex play area for older children. The supervisor kept letting the older kids run into the baby area and I finally had to say something out of concern that the big kids (most were about 4-5 years old) would trample my 1.5 year old.
That’s all for our Adriatic cruise! We made so many wonderful memories and thoroughly enjoyed our week. I’d love to hear from you, have you cruised with MSC or taken an Adriatic/Mediterranean cruise? What is your favorite cruise memory?