Rome and Barcelona certainly have their charms. But, the two cities are also perfect starting points to dive into the other cultures and communities along the Mediterranean Sea, where there’s so much to discover. For travelers ready to explore around the Mediterranean coasts, we’ve spotlighted five lesser-known towns and cities worth a visit.
Spain’s southeastern port city of Valencia is responsible for two majorly tasty exports: paella and horchata. Both culinary creations still can be found all around the city. For a traditional taste of horchata, a drink made from tigernut milk, pull up a chair to one of the marble-topped tables at Horchateria de Santa Caterina, where the walls of painted porcelain tiles will transport you back in time. Order the horchata—they also offer horchata ice cream—with fartons, a long and narrow pastry perfect for aerodynamic horchata dipping.
Work off the pastries in the Turia Gardens, an urban park that snakes around the city and under bridges just like Paris’s Seine. The reason why the park is laid out like a river is because it used to actually be one, until a flood in 1957. After that, the river was diverted, leaving the area a fertile ground for walking and cycling paths. Journey to the “mouth” of the former waterway for Valencia’s futuristic Art and Science Museum.
For gifts and to-go treats, navigate your way to the Round Square, where vendors hawk handmade lace and ceramics, and the Central Market. Nearly 1,000 stalls fill this indoor fare fair, offering cheeses, fresh juices, wine, croquettes, baguettes, and even chocolate in the shape of baguettes. Don’t feel bad if the goods don’t actually make it back home.
Tip: Also along the Turia Gardens, Valencia’s Modern Art Museum (Institut Valencia d’Art Modern) offers free admission on Sundays and Friday nights.
To experience the area’s ancient history, start with the well-preserved ruins of Carthage. Dating back to 814 B.C., this port hub on the Gulf of Tunis is reminiscent of Pompeii, without the overwhelming crowds. Here visitors can see infrastructure created by the Romans and the Phoenicians, including large public baths, an amphitheater, and cemeteries. The nearby village of Sidi Bou Said offers a more modern look at life in Tunisia. The Santorini-style stark white buildings with blue shutters and bougainvillea house shops and cafes to shelter visitors from the heat.
Save room in your suitcase for souvenirs from Tunis’s central medina, a main artery of commerce that also doubles as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Under the tangle of covered archways are stalls stuffed with handmade pottery, spices, incense, glass lamps, and intricately woven rugs.
Tip: Haggling is standard at the medina, so don’t be afraid to bargain.
On the Italian island of Sardinia, Cagliari is divided into two. The newer section of the city exists at sea level, while the older Castello Quarter sits atop a hill that’s accessible by a series of zig-zagged ramps or steep stairs.
Down at the marina, walk up the boulevard-like Largo Carlo Felice to Caffe Svizzero for a cappuccino at the counter amongst wrought iron chandeliers and towering stone archways straight out of The Phantom of the Opera. Follow up the caffeine kick with a sugar high next-door at Originis. This cioccolateria and pasticceria tempts with treats like strawberry and Bavarian cream-filled hearts, cakes with praline and orange jam, and, somewhat surprisingly, chocolates shaped like life-size wrenches, bolts, and hammers.
A few blocks north, Largo Carlo Felice intersects with the pedestrian-only street of Via Giuseppe Manno. The shops here are mostly Italian chains, but the end of the road is dominated by the Bastione di Saint Remy, a limestone arched gateway to the Castello Quarter. The building’s double staircase leads to a palm tree-lined terrace with city and harbor views, as well as Cagliari’s medieval side of town. Constructed 800 years ago, the streets in the Castello Quarter are so narrow that they remain shaded even when the sun is directly above. You’ll find plenty of dark antique shops to duck into, peaceful piazzas, and the Romanesque Cattedrale di Cagliari with ornate marblework.
Tip: Nature lovers should head to Parco Molentargius Saline, protected wetlands that are home to flocks of flamingoes and other aquatic birds. The site is only a 10 to 15-minute drive from the city.
The coastal town of Trapani feels untouched by tourists—lines of laundry frame Juliette balconies, dogs sleep on sidewalks in the afternoon sun, and side streets lead to quiet alcoves along the sea.
Trapani’s walkable historic area is small enough to be explored in a day. For prime people-watching, park yourself in front of the baroque Palazzo Senatorio, preferably with a scoop of gelato tucked into a brioche roll from Ferlito Gelateria.
To see Trapani from a lofty perspective, catch the nearby cable car, or funivia, for a 10-minute ride to the top of Mount Erice. Here you’ll find the medieval town of Erice, which includes the Norman-built Castello di Venere (Castle of Venus). Made with stones from a former temple to Venus, it’s easy to fall for the castle’s panoramic cliffside views and groomed gardens.
Back on sea level, finish the day at Cantina Siciliana with a plate of busiate al pesto trapanese, a local specialty of ringlet curl-shaped pasta with tomatoes, almonds, olive oil, and an extra-large serving of garlic.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Tip: The Trapani to Erice cable car is only open seasonally, so be sure to check availability. Travelers visiting during the off-season can take a quick taxi ride to the top of the mountain.
Known for its pearls, almonds, and mega yachts, Mallorca is an island escape with a cosmopolitan edge. The capital, Palma, named for its abundance of palm trees, is actually one of the largest cities in Spain. Stroll down the arched promenades of Palma’s main commercial shopping street, Avenue de James III, and along the fresh flower stalls of Passé de Las Ramblas, a smaller version of Barcelona’s popular boulevard. But, whenever hunger strikes, bypass the major roads for any of the winding side streets. Our recommendation? El Tunel, carved out of a stone archway, for tapas, followed by the cozy Bodega Can Riga for local cheeses and wines by the glass.
Once you get outside of town, bustling roads turn into groves of almond, olive, and carob trees, interrupted only by the occasional Spanish tiled home. A 30-minute drive north of Palma is the quaint mountain town of Valldemossa, centered around its monastery. Bright green shutters and hillside stone homes are the norm here, and instead of using numbers to mark addresses, there are colorful tiles depicting religious scenes at each abode.
The real religious experience here are the town's beloved pastries: Coca patata (a potato roll covered in powdered sugar) and gato d'ametlles (almond cake). Try them both with a cup of hot xocolata (chocolate) on the back terrace at Ca'n Molinas, surrounded by orange trees and chirping birds.
Tip: There’s a great view of Palma’s vast, yacht-filled harbor from the Gothic-style Bellver Castle, which is only a 10-minute drive from the city center.