I was invited on the Mediterranean Quest as Contiki’s 2019 Travel Ambassador. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
I am a huge fan of group travel. While traveling solo is always something I enjoy doing, exploring new places with a group of people is a level of adventure that I have recently fallen in love with. This summer, I had the opportunity to visit Europe with 18 others on a Mediterranean Quest with Contiki. On this 10-day trip, we traversed through Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, and Vatican City. It was a whirlwind experience (to say the least!) with a jam-packed itinerary, so I wanted to write a comprehensive review of the trip and what you can expect if you’re considering this or any other Contiki itinerary for yourself.
But, before I review the trip itself, I should backtrack a bit. If you’ve been following me on social media, you might have seen me announce that I was recently selected to be one of Contiki’s 2019-2020 Travel Ambassadors, which was huge (I’m still recovering, honestly). Contiki is a really special company that devotes itself to sharing the world with young travelers (ages 18-35 are the company’s key audience), and I couldn’t be more ecstatic to be a part of the Contiki family. This trip that I took was a familiarization trip for myself and the 18 other ambassadors selected, and was pulled from a Contiki itinerary called The Mediterranean Quest. This post is a review of the day-by-day itinerary you’ll take if you book this trip for yourself.
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About Contiki’s Mediterranean Quest Trip
The Mediterranean Quest itinerary takes you along Europe’s Mediterranean coast through 5 countries: Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, and Vatican City. From end to end, the trip lasts 10 days and costs $1,265 (unless you have my promo code, which you do!). The Mediterranean Quest is one of Contiki’s ‘Iconic Essentials’ tours, which are designed to help travelers stretch their budgets and see as much of Europe’s landmarks and most iconic sights as possible. The concept behind Iconic Essentials is to show you the ‘essentials’ of various parts of Europe quickly, so that you can discover what you like, what you don’t like, and what you want to return to again in the future. Because of this, they’re perfect trips for individuals who have never traveled internationally, have never been to Europe, or who are strapped for time/money and want to get the biggest bang for their buck.
When it comes to the Mediterranean Quest, this 10-day expedition is honestly a wildly epic ride, especially if you’ve never been to Europe. Why? Because nearly every stop is one you’ll likely recognize due to their notoriety. The itinerary is packed with iconic spots and picture-perfect vistas. Places that people only dream of visiting – like Monte-Carlo, Cinque Terre, Lerici (Google it!!), and Sorrento – that you get to witness back-to-back. I’d been to most of these places before, since I studied abroad in Florence when I was in college, so it was such an incredible experience to return and get a crash-course in everything for a second time!
Read on for a day-by-day recap of where you will go and what you can expect on Contiki’s Mediterranean Quest. And, be sure to reach the bottom for tips, things to consider, my overall experience, how to save $ on booking, and more.
Contiki Mediterranean Quest: Day-By-Day Review
DAY ONE: Barcelona
The Mediterranean Quest tour begins in Barcelona, Spain, which is where you’ll fly in to meet the rest of the group you’ll be traveling with. Our trip manager Mikael and our dedicated coach driver Paulo met us at the airport and whisked us off through the streets of Barcelona to our hostel. You’ll notice on Contiki coach bus tours that even though there can sometimes be a good amount of driving, the drivers and trip managers (at least in my experience) are top-notch and impeccably professional.
Since I was on a brand ambassador trip, some of our afternoon was spent getting briefed on the Contiki brand and the expectations the company had for our output during the trip (many of us are content creators and planned to create videos, shoot photos, and/or scribble down notes – like I did – to write articles after the trip was over). But once that was done, it was back to the itinerary! We kicked off our trip with a walking tour of the city, which quickly launched us into a face-to-face encounter with La Sagrada Familia, Ciutat Vella (Old Town Barcelona), and Las Ramblas – some of the most famous places to be and see in the city. After a quick stroll through the sights, we coached up to Poble Espanyol, an open-air museum-type space where we had our first evening out in Europe: a tapas and flamenco show* at the Tablao de Carmen (and one of my favorite evenings from the entire week, despite the jet-lag).
After the flamenco show, some troopers (myself included) went out to City Hall Club to experience some of Barcelona’s nightlife scene before calling it a night and heading back to our hostel.
*A heads up, you will see these asterisks throughout this post. Each asterisk indicates that an activity I’m talking about is a Free Time Add-On (FTA). These are optional add-ons to the base Contiki itinerary that you can pay for as you go and participate in if you want to. The flamenco show was our first Free Time Add-On in the itinerary.
DAY TWO: Barcelona to Nice
On day two, we said goodbye to Spain and hit the road in our trusty coach for the long drive up to Nice. Because European driving laws for coaches are strictly enforced, you will make rest stops every couple of hours when you’re driving from place to place. Usually, these stops are pretty fun because rest stops in Europe are a cultural and culinary experience in their own right. That was definitely the case on our first stop somewhere near the border of Spain and France, where I scarfed down my first of many croque monseiurs (a ham & cheese sandwich topped with bechamel sauce) and eyed every single hunk of French cheese and crusty baguettes lining the aisles of the shop.
The coach buses you ride on Contiki tours are equipped with WiFi and a restroom on board. The WiFi package they offer caps your free usage at 100 MB per 24-hour period, which isn’t very much at all. So instead, I spent most of my bus time catching up on sleep, editing photos, talking with the group, and admiring the sights we drove past. From Barcelona to Nice, this drive is exceptionally beautiful, because you go from mountainous northern Spain to wide-open farmland to the rugged coastline of the Côte d’Azur, which is breathtaking.
We made it to Nice around 6 pm, checked into our hostel, and immediately went out for dinner as a group. After dinner, we all visited Wayne’s Bar, a mainstay of Contiki trips through Nice, where you get to dance on tables to the tune of live cover bands.
After sufficient table dancing, I broke away from the group to visit an underground salsa bar. The French really know their latin ballroom dancing, to my surprise!
DAY THREE: Nice & Monaco
Nice is one of the few stops on this particular trip where you get to stay for 2 nights. Our full day in Nice started out with an incredible bike ride through the city with Nice Cycle Tours*. While I am usually apprehensive about the idea of me on a bike near cars and pedestrians, this ended up being one of the most fun FTAs on the entire trip, and I know many of the other travelers on this trip would agree.
After a brisk bike ride up and down the windy, effortlessly beautiful streets of Nice, we had the rest of the afternoon free. I spent mine eating the best ravioli of my life (at a little restaurant called Cose Cosi), trying my first aperol spritz (which I am now officially addicted to), and walking to the beach.
In the late afternoon, we took the coach down the Cote D’Azur to visit another country for dinner* – Monaco! I’ve been to Monaco 6 years ago on the exact same route to see the Royal Palace and the Monte-Carlo Casino, so while I was a bit sad to not have more free time to wander around the streets of this tiny country, it’s still pretty cool to now say I’ve been to Monaco not once, but twice! On your first visit to Monaco, you have to go inside the Monte-Carlo Casino, even if just to look around. It’s a beautiful building and really the epitome of French Riviera luxury.
DAY FOUR: Nice to Cinque Terre
After probably my 9th breakfast croissant despite only spending 2 days in France (what is ‘moderation,’ anyway?), we hit the road on day four for Italy. Italy is such a special country to me, having called it home for a semester in college. I could not believe I was here again and had to practically pinch myself because the very first stop we made in Italy was to La Spezia. La Spezia is the gateway to Cinque Terre, a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its dramatic coastlines and delicately arranged, colorful fisherman’s villages. There are 5 villages total, with nothing but a rail car and a coastal hiking path connecting one town to the next. Contiki provides you with a day pass to hop on and off the rail so that you can spend the day on your own terms, visiting as many or as few of the 5 towns as you like. That said, we really only had a couple of hours of free time here, so you’ll likely only visit 2 or 3 tops.
During our free time, I went swimming and watched other braver souls in the group cliff jump into the ocean. After that, a couple of us hiked up to Nessun Dorma for dinner and an epic view of the sunset before catching the rail down to meet the coach. If you’re ever in Cinque Terre and make your way up to Nessun Dorma, you have to try pesto and focaccia bread, both of which are staples in this region of Italy.
We spent the night in Lerici, a small Italian village 45 minutes south of Cinque Terre that boasts an incredibly picturesque harbor dotted with boats. I actually couldn’t believe my eyes when we got to our hotel (so much so that I forgot to take any photos besides the one you see above these paragraphs on the right!).
DAY FIVE: Cinque Terre to Florence via Pisa
We woke up early to hit the road for Florence, making a quick pit-stop in Pisa. Now, Pisa was the only place on this entire itinerary I hadn’t been before, so I was pretty excited to finally see the infamous leaning tower. In reality, the Piazza dei Miracoli where the Leaning Tower of Pisa is located is so crowded, but seeing the tower in person is actually pretty incredible. So, well worth weaving through fellow travelers to take it all in. Our trip manager orchestrated a photo contest where we all voted on whose Pisa photo was the most creative/hilarious, which was a fun way to pass the time on the coach from Pisa to Florence!
After just under 2 hours, we made it to Florence, which was the stop I was most excited about returning to. There is an included leather demonstration and walking tour where you’ll see the Ponte Vecchio, Medici Palace, the Duomo, the Basilica Santa Croce, Giotto’s Bell Tower, and the Piazza della Signora. If you’ve never been to Florence before, the walking tour, which is led by a local guide, is well worth it. However, since I lived in Florence before, I opted to skip out and do some wandering on my own.
At night, we were taken by coach to the Piazzale Michelangelo, which offers an incredible view of Florence from above. From there, we visited the Certosa Monastery* (an operational monastery with actual monks in residency, which was such a unique experience and one I never thought I’d get to do) and had a really special dinner at La Certosa*, which included several courses of incredible food, singing, and dancing. We made friends with other travelers despite not speaking the same language, and we all danced the macarena together at the end of the night! I highly recommend opting in for this Tuscan evening FTA because it was honestly one of the best add-on meals and experiences on the entire trip.
After dinner, we carried on to Red Garter, which, if you’ve ever been to Florence before, is a nightlife mainstay for study abroad students. It’s part bar, part club, part karaoke bar, and it’s frequented every single night of the week by locals and travelers alike (and yes, you can bet we got on stage and sang but I will never ever EVER post the video evidence).
DAY SIX: Florence to Sorrento via Pompeii
I was so sad to leave Florence because it was all starting to feel so familiar, almost as if I had never left. I still remembered how to walk to my favorite cafe in college, Antica Sosta degli Aldobrandini, and I was thrilled to lead some of my fellow Contiki friends to the Ponte Vecchio for gelato and an iconic Florentine view. But, on this itinerary, the show must go on!
We boarded the bus to head down to the southern region of Italy, specifically, to Pompeii. To get us in the mood, I requested that our fearless trip manager blast Bastille’s song (also named ‘Pompeii’) in our coach on the way to the site, and we all sang along at the top of our lungs as was beginning to become protocol for us on our long bus rides. Pompeii, though unfortunately littered with some touristy kitsch and odd restaurants these days, is an incredibly remarkable place to witness in person. The ancient ruins of this Roman city, buried for centuries under ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, are so well preserved it’s almost eerie, like stepping back in time and feeling as if it could have been you there in that time and place all those years ago. We had a local guide take us around and show us all of the city’s most famous excavation sites, which by the way, is highly recommended. Otherwise you’d probably get lost!
After Pompeii, we finished off the day by driving down the Amalfi Coast to Sorrento, arriving just before sunset to explore the central part of the town and grab some dinner before checking into our hotel. Sorrento and all of the coastal towns in the area are as insane as any Google search or social media post makes them seem. Bustling streets and shops dance dangerously near the edge of dramatic cliffs that drop straight down to the ocean below. It’s picturesque no matter how you look at it, and I couldn’t believe my eyes even though I’d seen Sorrento once before. Still, just as shockingly beautiful as ever.
DAY SEVEN: Sorrento & Capri
A trip to the Amalfi Coast isn’t complete without a visit to the island of Capri! We took a day trip to Capri and hopped on an included private cruise around the island, which was one of the highlights of my entire time in Europe with Contiki. We swam in royal blue water, sunbathed on our boat, and naturally had countless photoshoots throughout the morning against the incredible backdrop of the island, and it was just one of those situations where you find yourself wondering how this could possibly all be real. At this point, I started to get the sense that moments like this happen often on jam-packed trips like this, where I had literally no other responsibility but to show up on time for the coach bus and have fun.
Back on land, we finished the night off with a pizza making demonstration which we, of course, inhaled in literally 2 bites per slice. The pizza in this region of Italy, which you might know as Neapolitan pizza (from Naples), is some of the best you’ll ever try if you enjoy tasting things in their purest form.
DAY EIGHT: Sorrento to Rome
The next day, my roommate Lana and I decided it would be a great idea to wake up at 4:30 in the morning to go to the beach to watch the sunrise before we had to leave on the coach towards Rome. What sounded like a good idea ended up manifesting as two girls sprinting for their lives up and down the broody, dim 5 A.M. streets of Sorrento in search of the one road that led down the cliffs to the beach (it’s tricky to find the entrances if you don’t know where to look, and we definitely did not). On our way back up the cliff to the hotel, we were running late for the coach and mad-dashing to get back. One of us got saved by an Italian man on a vespa and dropped off ever so conveniently next to our bus.
It wasn’t me.
The road to Rome was one that I definitely couldn’t catch any sleep on, despite the 4:30 A.M. wake-up call. The drive in and out of the Amalfi Coast is mesmerizing. And once it was out of sight, I was wired, catching up on work using the coach’s WiFi and starting to feel the creeping sensation that our trip was almost coming to a close. We all joked at the beginning of the trip that we were doing so much that each day felt like its own lifetime. But right now, sitting in this bus surrounded by strangers who began to feel like such close friends, the realization that that wasn’t true hit me hard.
Fortunately, Rome has a way of making you forget life’s hardships. When we arrived, we were whisked straight into Vatican City for a tour of the smallest country in the world. After the tour, we all checked into a super hip hostel, napped, and got ready for our dinner experience, a pasta cooking class*! Together, we made ravioli, linguine, and rigatoni, and had a beautiful family meal together with delicious wine and bruschetta. The evening afterwards was a pretty emotional one, with (more) singing at the top of our lungs in the streets of Rome, lots of hugging, and a night out with every single person on the trip, including our coach driver who by this point was undoubtedly our hero and MVP.
DAY NINE: Rome
I had a feeling that my last day of this trip would be sad, but I had no idea just how disoriented I’d feel after spending 10 days in so many incredible places sharing such beautiful memories with strangers-turned-friends. But I knew I had to keep it together! We started off the day with a tour of the Colosseum, followed by a walking tour through some of Rome’s most iconic sights.
In the evening, we were surprised with dinner in a rooftop apartment – a local’s home – overlooking the Pantheon. And no, I can’t make this stuff up.
The dinner experience* was co-hosted by Contiki and EatWith, an international company that strives to bring locals and travelers together through shared meals. We were hosted by a local Italian family who welcomed us into their apartment, prepared lasagna and other tasty dishes with us, and spent the entire time chatting with us about Rome, their lives, and their food. With the backdrop of the Pantheon and the sun setting over the city, if you all thought I was emotional in the morning, imagine how much more grateful and wrecked I was feeling in this exact moment. It was another one of those indescribable moments, and one I’m so humbled I got to share with others. While I selfishly could have skipped my flight the next morning and stayed in this moment forever (I was tempted!), this meal was a perfect way to end a perfect, insanely eventful, life-changing trip!
Contiki Tips & Things to Consider
This trip is what Contiki refers to as an Iconic Essentials Tour
You spend a lot of time on a coach bus getting from place to place
There is lots and lots of walking, so be conservative with the shoes you pack
Avoid bringing two roller suitcases (a carry on and a check-in luggage), like I did, because you’ll be moving frequently and it can get annoying to lug more than 1 suitcase over cobblestone streets
Not all meals are included, so read your itinerary carefully
You don’t need to do any of the optional day tours or FTAs, but you’ll probably want to, so be sure to budget accordingly
This trip includes a mix of hotel and hostel stays, and in each accommodation you’ll be sharing your room with anywhere from 1 to 3 other people (you each get your own twin-sized bed). While this is not as common in the USA, it’s a very widespread and popular travel style in Europe. Because of how common hostels and the like are in Europe, the level of accommodation actually pleasantly surprised me. There was something charming about each place, whether it was the central location, a good view from our window, a modern layout, or included breakfast in the mornings. If you’re hesitant about hostels and unsure whether you’ll like the experience, I implore you to be open and give it a try. It’s a cultural experience in itself, and a great way to bond with the other people on your trip!
Here are two of the hostels we stayed in, to give you an idea of what to expect:
Is This Trip For Me?
Since returning from this trip, I’ve gotten this question a lot, both from people that I know travel often and people that haven’t really left the country. The answer to this question is different for everyone, and it really depends on what your outlook will be towards group travel in general.
It’s worth mentioning again that Contiki’s audience ranges in age from 18 – 35. This is both a selling point and a word of caution. On the plus side, if you fall within this age range you will get to meet fellow like-minded travel enthusiasts and make some really close friends from all over the world while exploring a new country (or countries) together. The people seriously made this trip for me! On the other hand, Contiki’s itineraries are fairly fast-paced and there is a fair amount of going out in the evenings (totally optional), so that’s definitely something to consider.
All that said, I think that taking a group trip is an essential experience for everyone to have at least once, whether you’re new to international travel and want to ease your way in, or even if you’ve traveled extensively but are looking for new friends that share your interests! If you do travel often, what I personally loved the most about this trip was the fact that I did not have to plan or figure out the logistics of absolutely anything. Everything from your accommodations, to your transportation, to your day-to-day schedule is figured out for you so the only requirement you have is to simply enjoy. While I really do like getting my hands dirty and figuring things out on my own, it was so refreshing to actually wash my hands of all the “dirty work” for once. This Contiki trip was truly unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my life and if you’ve never been to any of these places before, this is certainly a great way to get going.
WATCH: My 10-Day Contiki Mediterranean Quest Tour Recap