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Ship tour vs Doing Your Own thing in Croatia and Greece

This post covers 9 ports and my advice on whether you should book an excursion/ship tour, and which ones will be great just to wander around on your own.

My last cruise was a 10-day Adriatic cruise that included some Croatia islands, Greek islands, Istanbul, Ephesus and Athens, on Holland America Line. I created a walk through video of the ship as well as two of my favorite ports of all, in this video.

We visited:

  • Trieste, Italy
  • Rijeka, Croatia
  • Korcula, Croatia
  • Santorini, Greece
  • Rhodes, Greece
  • Kusadasi/Ephesus, Turkey
  • Mykonos, Greece
  • Istanbul, Turkey
  • Athens, Greece

Not every port has easy access to the main interest points, or even shopping and restaurants so you do need to book some sort of transport or a tour, but at some you are literally right there. I found some ports to be fun just to wander around enjoying the coastal views, the shopping and taking photos too!

So here are my suggestions for when to do a ship excursion, and which ports you can be very happy bobbing about doing your own thing on this itinerary.

Our ship pulling into Athens, Greece
Our ship pulling into Athens, Greece

Which ports are worth taking an excursion and which ports are good for pottering?

Note: you can also book independent tours through the likes of GetyourGuide or Viator, or maybe just book a local taxi when you get off the ship.

But be warned: do not be late back. If you’re not an official excursion, the ship won’t wait for you. But conversely, don’t be afraid to do an independent tour. Often times the smaller, local tours are better priced and you get to design your own day.

You might also like to read my hugely popular post on all the things NOT to do on a cruise! It will save you from making some rookie mistakes, save money and not miss out on the best things.

Driving back to the ship at sunset
Driving back to the ship at sunset

So here are my thoughts and suggestions for when to buy one of the ship tours in a port, and which places I loved just doing my own thing. Plus my recommendations on what I’d do differently.

Trieste, Italy:

This is what they also now call Venice as large ships are no longer allowed dock there, but it’s actually a two hour drive from Venice. My advice would be to take an excursion to see Venice if you haven’t been before.

However, on my tour, we’d already spent 10 days in Italy and had had two nights in Venice, so we didn’t need to join the throng and head back there. Instead we took a privately arranged day trip excursion to Lake Bled and Ljubliana in Slovenia. But honestly the town of Trieste was so sweet with plenty to do there for those who like to potter, that I would suggest you do that. It’s within walking distance of the port too.

Verdict: no need to do an excursion in Trieste, unless Slovenia is on your Bucket List.

Megan Singleton at Lake Bled
Of course I had to have a pic at Lake Bled, Slovenia!

Rijeka, Croatia:

We didn’t do an excursion here, prefering to just wander from the ship into the cute little town, have lunch, do some shopping (I purchased the first of what would become four pairs of sandals!) I would do this free day again.

Verdict: no need to do an excursion in Rijeka.

Rijeka pedestrianised street
Rijeka pedestrianised street for shopping and eating

Korcula, Croatia:

I booked a little boat tour along the “Dalmatian Riviera” and loved it. It was just a half day tour (we did the morning and that’s what I would recommend). Sweet little towns. Not at all busy. We had a snack, took photos, paddled in the sea and learned lots from our local guide.

Korcula fishing boats
A little town in Korcula, Croatia

BUT the main town where the ship tendered in from is adorable and this would also be a lovely way to spend the day. We came back after our tour and had lunch here and spent a couple of hours wandering. You’ll see in my video what this looks like.

To get to this wonderful lunch spot (pic below), keep walking around the town and up around the “castle” looking walls.

Verdict: yes do an excursion in Korcula.

Motor scooter at Korcula
Have lunch high around the castle back in the main town of Korcula

Santorini, Greece:

The ships dock at sea and life boats are used as tender boats to take people onto the island. You’ll arrive at the bottom of a steep hill and there are two – three – ways to get to the top.

Take the cable car, which fits 6 people per pod, up the hill for €6 each way. Walk up the hill (no thanks!) or take a donkey ride. The latter I object to, and I didn’t see anyone else riding them up the concrete path either.

Megan in Santorini
Posing in Santorini!

Once you’re at the top you’re in Fira and there is a huge amount of shopping here: clothing, shoes, souvenirs, jewellery. It’s also very cute,. This is where we rented our cars.

But the hero town where all the photos you’ve ever seen are taken in Oia. I have more on things to do in Santorini in this post.

Verdict: no need to do an excursion in Santorini.

Yellow Bambina in Santorini
We rented a Bambina and tootled around Santorini on our day there

Rhodes, Greece:

I had last been in Rhodes (Rhodos) when I was about 21, but being an old town, not much had changed near the cruise port – happily I might add! I did book a ship excursion because I had fond memories of Lindos, and found a trip that would take us there.

It also took us via a ceramic factory, which was fascinating, but as with large trips, you do a lot of standing around waiting for everyone else to buy. When we got to Lindos we only had one hour and that was too brief. The village has changed ENORMOUSLY since me and my girlfriends were here with no accommodation booked and thought we’d have to sleep on the beach, before we chanced a little apartment.

Cruise ships docked beside Old Town Rhodes
Cruise ships docked beside Old Town Rhodes

My husband and I ducked and weaved through the myriad narrow lanes edged in souviner shops down the beach. Wow, how times have changed. What beach? It’s now a beach club with wooden decking and day beds and cabanas all the way to the water. Still amazing, and I wanted at least two hours here.

We raced back up to the bus – it’s steep! Hubby had to hold my hand to help my little legs go faster!!

Meanwhile, some of the other ladies on my tour had not done an excursion in Rhodes, but grabbed a taxi and they also visited Lindos. I would do that next time. Also note: Rhodes Old Town is beautiful and located at the port.

Verdict: no need to do an excursion in Rhodes.

beach at Lindos
There was nothing on this beach at Lindos, when I visited 30 years ago!

Kusadasi (Ephesus):

This was my second visit to Ephesus and I had loved it previously, so I had planned a private excursion for my group as there were about 20 of us wanting to explore beyond the port.

There really is not much more than souvenir shopping at the port, although that does include beautiful leather jackets and exquisite Turkish rugs. In fact, if you have in mind to buy one of these items, do it in Kusadasi – the port name of Ephesus. But you can also go to the factory outlets here as well, not just the retailers at the port.

Cat posing in Ephesus
Who knows he’s pretty! Visiting the ancient city of Ephesus

On our tour we visited the main highlights of Ephesus: the House of the Virgin Mary and the ancient city of Ephesus where you will see the Magnesia Gate, Odeon, the Trajan Fountain, the temple of Hadrian and the impressive Celsus Library.

As it was our own tour were able to work around the timings of the cruise ship tours, so it wasn’t heaving with people when we got to each place.

The house of the Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary’s house is a lovely spot to visit. The story goes that the disciple John (not John the Baptist), but also known as St John, built this house hidden up in the hills. Remember the Jesus haters of the day were also after his followers and his family. Mary spent her last years up here, not far from the church John pastored.

Our little tour also included lunch at a rug making school and production facility. They had hundreds of rugs for sale and yes, several of my group bought some.

Quick hands working on a silk rug in Ephesus
Quick hands working on a silk rug in Ephesus

We had the time, so we requested a visit to a leather factory outlet store where they put on a runway show for us. I loved it!

They use a lot of lamb skin leather here which is super soft, and we saw so many amazing styles and colours. And yes, several made purchases. But honestly, if you’re going to buy, this is where to do it. Don’t wait for the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul as quality can be hard to find, and the aggressive vendors are a bit of a pain.

Verdict: do an excursion in Ephesus, or book a driver at the port for your own personal day covering the above.

Heading down the marble street towards the library, Ephesus
Heading down the marble street towards the library, Ephesus

Mykonos, Greece:

What a stunning Greek island this is! The day we arrived there were four or five cruise ships in, so it was heaving with thousands of people squeezing down the narrow alleys and filling the restaurants and cafes.

Strolling through Mykonos
Strolling through Mykonos

So here’s the thing about cruises to keep in mind, they are really like a tapas menu. A buffet (oh the irony!) You get a little taste of a place so help you plan your next holiday and decide where you want to stay longer next time.

Mykonos and Santorini would be islands I’d like to stay three or four days at so I can experience it once the ships have weighed anchor. Making a note to do that next time!

There is a water taxi that takes you from the port, or if your ships have tenderd off shore, to town for a few Euros. We did that, shopped, ate, took photos and taxied back.

Verdict: no need to do an excursion in Mykonos.

The famous windmills in Mykonos
The famous windmills in Mykonos

Istanbul, Turkey:

It was my second visit to Istanbul. Last time we had stayed a couple of days and I wrote this post about things to in Istanbul with a local. I also braved a harrowing Turkish hamam (bath) experience (which you can read about here), and visiting markets both with and without a guide.

This time we had arranged a private tour for my group tailored to the things we wanted to see, rather than book two half-day ship excursions. We had a local guide, Ozden, who met us in both Ephesus and again in Istanbul and he was great.

Haggia Sofia, Istanbul
Haggia Sofia, Istanbul

You’ll want to visit Haggia Sofia and/or the Blue Mosque. Note, the lines can be long. Like an hour each. They were too long for us, so here’s a sneaky tip, before you enter the Blue Mosque there is a lovely courtyard with open windows that you can look inside.

Back when I first visited Haggia Sofia was a museum (it’s been a Christian church, a mosque, a museum and is now a mosque again). Therefore lots of people now want to visit.

You’ll also want to visit the Grand Bazaar, and maybe the Spice Market. If you walk from the ship, you’ll cross the Galata Bridge, which separates Asia from Europe. There are two levels, on the top people are fishing and underneath there are many places to eat.

You might also want to visit the Grand Palace. It’s best for this one to either be on a tour that includes, or if you are doing your own thing, buy skip the line tickets in advance.

Verdict: do an excursion in Istanbul.

Night fishing off Galata Bridge, Istanbul
Night fishing off Galata Bridge, Istanbul

Athens, Greece:

I was pleasantly surprised by Athens. This was my second visit, and I confess to not liking the city much when I only had one day previously on a cruise excursion.

The difference this time was we added on three more nights once we departed the ship and got to explore, shop and eat.

At the Acropolis in Athens
At the Acropolis in Athens

If you only have a day, you’ll want to see the heroes like the Acropolis where you can look down over the  Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which is still a functioning ancient amphitheatre hosting concerts today. In fact someone was rehearsing when we were there!

We also saw the Changing of the Guard – but our clever guide took us behind the royal palace to see the smaller version with no crowds.

Guard doing high kick walk as they change positions
This is the walk for the changing of the guard!

The highlight was that we stayed in Plaka. If you only have a day, and you’ve seen those ancient and astonishing structures before, then take a couple of hours off and enjoy eating and shopping in Plaka district, with views of the Acropolis on the hill.

Verdict: do an excursion if you haven’t been to Athens before. If you have, head to Plaka for the day.

Our rooftop pool at sunset facing the Acropolis
Our rooftop pool at sunset facing the Acropolis

We stayed at the Electra Palace Hotel, in a fabulous location in the Plaka neighbourhood. The area is filled with restaurants and rooftops for a drink or something delicious and Greek, and shops selling linen (I bought four pairs of pants!), souvenirs and jewellery. Plus it’s walking distance from many great sights including the Acropolis Museum.

Check out the best rates for the Electra Palace Hotel here >

You can also book private tours in most of these places on sites like Get Your Guide and Viator. But do bear in mind that the ship will not wait for you if you are late back. Professional guides know this and make sure that doesn’t happen, but of course unforseen circumstances can come up, so be aware.

Note: if you want to jump to some of my favorite sites for accommodation, tours, car rental and more, I’ve created a new resources page.

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!