Often an embarkation port, Barcelona is ideal for independent touring. Transportation is great in Barcelona with a quick, cheap shuttle at the foot of the Ramblas which runs to and from the cruise terminal. From there, top attractions of Barcelona are within easy walking distance like the old Gothic quarter with its Cathedral and picturesque and twisty alleys, and the La Ribera neighborhood which houses the Picasso Museum and the Gothic architecture of Santa Maria del Mar. Or, you can take the inexpensive and clean metro up to Gaudi's masterpiece church, La Sagrada Familia. Barcelona also has the best deal in transportation that we have found anywhere with the T10 card which costs 7.80 euros, but can be shared between members of your group and allows for 10 trips on public transit, including the RENFE train which goes all the way to the airport. Beaches are also an easy walk, if that is your preferred activity.
You don't even need to use public transportation to see the main sites of Valletta as the cruise terminal is directly below the town within easy walking distance. Valletta is small, with attractions like the St. John's Co-Cathedral simple to find and tour. In Malta, there is no language barrier since they speak English here. The architecture is captivating, and it is a treat to "get lost" in the old town, finding little hole-in-the-wall restaurants to enjoy Mediterranean fare and a glass of wine. It is hard to imagine having as enjoyable an experience being led around in a large group with a tour guide. Even farther flung sites like Mdina and the megalithic temples can be easily reached by bus, and with the station directly above the cruise terminal, all of Malta is at your fingertips.
Cruisers can come into Dubrovnik in one of two ways. Some ships tender passengers directly to the gate of the Old Town, while others dock at the terminal a couple of miles away. If tendering, one only needs to walk around the city to tour independently. If docked, there is a reasonable priced shuttle which drops you off right outside the walls of the Old Town. Those feeling especially independent can save even more money by taking public transit or by walking the two miles. Once in the Old Town of Dubrovnik, you have easy access to the top attraction: walking the perimeter on the city walls which provides breathtaking scenery and views. You could also duck into a number of old monasteries or churches, or you could ride the gondola up to the fortress above the city which boasts more amazing views as well as a small museum on the recent war in the 90's which destroyed much of Dubrovnik. Shopping is also a pleasure, and eateries are geared toward cruisers.
Up to this point, my choices have been largely uncontroversial, but this one might raise a few eyebrows due to the negative reputation of Naples. So why, when Naples is known for being somewhat unseemly and potentially dangerous, would I suggest to tour it on your own? My answer is simple: some of the best attractions in the Naples area are not on any ship excursion. Sure, you can take an overpriced excursion to Pompeii, but to see the art from Pompeii as well as a wealth of other ancient sculpture, you must go to the Naples Archaeological Museum. This museum is one of the true gems of Europe, and is often not crowded (likely due to its exclusion from cruise shore excursion itineraries). And, it is a relatively easy walk up on of the most touristy streets of Naples, or you could easily take a bus.
Another site which gets no love from cruise ships, but is certainly worth touring is the Royal Palace at Caserta. The palace, built shortly after Versailles, was to rival the famous French palace. With its amazing gardens, complete with waterfalls and gorgeous statuary, one feels transported back in time. The palace itself also impresses, with room after room of gold leaf and rich brocades. The train ride to Caserta is only slightly longer than the train to Pompeii, and the palace is across the street from the station.
Taking a train from Naples does require more planning than some other ports, but the payoff can be extremely high. It allows you to spend all day in Sorrento if you prefer, or to combine a trip to Pompeii with lunch at one of Naples famed pizza parlors and an afternoon visit to the Archaeology Museum. My warning or caveat for Naples would be that you MUST do your research. Don't expect to just step off the boat and find your way or wander around Naples. If you don't have time for planning, absolutely take a shore excursion.
Most people assume that since Rome is an hour away from the cruise port of Civitavecchia, they must take a shore excursion to get to the Eternal City. But, with a little bit of prior knowledge, it is quite easy to take the train to Rome, allowing you to tour at your own pace. The station in Civitavecchia is a short walk from the cruise terminal, and an all day ticket which allows you to travel to and from Rome, plus metro and bus travel within the city is only 9 euros. If you are like we were, you want to see all the major sites in Rome in one day: Colosseum, Forum, Pantheon, Vatican and St. Peters. Alas, no shore excursion dares to complete all that in one day, so we created our own itinerary which we completed by 5 pm. (Podcast Itinerary- A Day in Rome) Other great sites like the Basilica di San Clemente and St. John's Lateran are also absent from shore excursion itineraries.
Some concerns may arise about touring Rome independently, one being the lack of a guide. But, guided tours are easy to come by at both the Colosseum and the Vatican, with private guides costing extra. The other concern would be getting back to the boat in time, but with most boats leaving Civitavecchia at 9 pm or later, as long as you make sure you are on a train by 7, there should be no issue. (We have always completed our touring and headed back by 4:30, even with our full schedule.)
Shore excursions can be a great option for travelers who don't have time to plan, or who just want the security, but in many Mediterranean ports it makes sense to weigh your options before plunking down lots of cash. As always, each traveler should feel comfortable with their decision and decide what is right for them.