How to make the most of a cruise stop in Ajaccio, Corsica

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Robin McKelvie

Robin McKelvie

Corsica, the Mediterranean's fourth-largest island, surges from the sea in a volley of vaulting mountains cloaked in emerald forests, surrounded by impossibly blue waters.

Cruising into Ajaccio © Evannovostro - Adobe Stock Image
Cruising into Ajaccio © Evannovostro - Adobe Stock Image

Both a natural and manmade fortress, this French island with a character all of its own was a fitting birthplace for the most famous emperor of them all - Napoleon Bonaparte.

To visit this postcard writ large is not just to enjoy one of the most spectacular islands in the Med, but to experience a place rich in history, culture and intrigue. Not to mention great food and wine.

Corsica's beating heart is the thrilling Mediterranean port city of Ajaccio*. The island's capital politically, culturally and historically, Ajaccio has the grand air of Parisian France, but also a swish of sultry southern glamour and bustling excitement more akin to Marseille.

Ajaccio invites exploration* on two feet, or two wheels, heading along streets once trodden by Napoleon himself. Head out of Ajaccio and another world awaits elsewhere along this glistening coastline and deep into the hinterland.

The remarkable interior is dotted with historic villages and towns; wine, maquis shrubland and even tortoises and turtles too.

Getting to Corsica: sail into Ajaccio with Marella Cruises, which calls at the Corsican capital on many of its Mediterranean itineraries*. Check out the latest online offers from Marella* and book your berth today.

Wander the streets of Ajaccio

Napoleon courses through the veins of Ajaccio. He has, of course, statues dedicated to him, but also lends his name to streets, hotels, cafés and restaurants. Anyone fascinated by the man who once dominated Europe can just revel for a day in his legacy.

One of the many statues of Napoleon in Ajaccio © Richard Villalon - Dreamstime.com
One of the many statues of Napoleon in Ajaccio © Richard Villalon - Dreamstime.com

Ajaccio has its serious side. Palais Fesch, the work of Napoleon's uncle Joseph Fesch, boasts masterpieces by Botticelli, Michelangelo and Titian, as well as Corsican artists.

The mighty Citadel meanwhile speaks of Ajaccio's more tumultuous past, when the threat from the sea was constant. But this is also a playful city of tree-lined boulevards, pavement cafés and its own beaches too.

Ajaccio is relatively compact and set around a gorgeous bay so sightseeing is a real pleasure.

Meet Napoleon

You can hear about Napoleon at museums all over France, but to really get under his skin you must visit Maison Bonaparte, his childhood family home, where he was born in 1769.

Today it has been protected and recognised as a national museum. It has done well to survive having been attacked by Corsican nationalists and occupied by British soldiers. Its myriad exhibits offer a window into the man, and indeed the family that raised him, and you'll even find a lock of his hair.

The family's rooms lie on the first floor, including Madame Mère's bedroom, where Napoleon was born. Look out for the room with the trap door that Napoleon is said to have used in 1799.

Tour Ajaccio on a bike

Take to two wheels and you will discover a lot more of Ajaccio. What's more, a guided bike tour is the best option as your guide will know how to avoid the worst of the city's traffic. You'll see a lot more cycling than you ever will on a tour bus, so it really is worth the effort.

Your guide will also slow things down so you can learn about the city and its main landmarks too. Don't forget to bring a camera, or a phone with a camera, as although you'll be pedalling, a cycle tour also brings brilliant photo opportunities.

Escape to the mountains

Corsica's mountains soar for the heavens in hike-tempting grandeur. If you prefer a more laidback exploration enjoy the Bastelica & Little Train excursion. You're swept up to the camera-pleasing village of Bastelica, a village famous for its delicious cured meats.

Escape to the mountains from Ajaccio © Hassan Bensliman - Adobe Stock Image
Escape to the mountains from Ajaccio © Hassan Bensliman - Adobe Stock Image

Bastelica sits above a gorge and at the foot of the 2,000 metre-high Renosu Mountain; if you're here in spring it may well still be crowned in snow. The best way to get around is on the mini tourist train, which makes quick work of navigating the village's narrow streets.

Highlights include the Annunziata Chapel and the village fountain. The village is also famous as the birthplace of the Corsican legend, Sampiero Corso.

From sea level we're talking an ascent of 800 metres to get here. The full majesty of the Bay of Ajaccio unfurls below as well as the Prunelli Valley.

The trip also takes in the Zipitoli Forest, which is bathed in fragrant maquis shurbs; just breathe in that gorgeous Corsican mint and myrtle in this shower-fresh wonderland.

Get a taste of Corsica

Breaking clear of Ajaccio and being enveloped in the countryside sets the tone for a trip to a local winery; you'll soon realise how seriously underrated Corsican wine is.

The two grapes to really look out for are white Rolle and red Nielluccio (better known outside Corsica as Vermentino and Sangiovese). Not much Corsican wine is exported outside France, so snare a bottle as a souvenir.

Some of the wines at the Clos Ornasca tasting - photo courtesy of Clos Ornasca Vineyard
Some of the wines at the Clos Ornasca tasting - photo courtesy of Clos Ornasca Vineyard

Another way to get the 'scent' of the island is on a visit to an essential oils factory where you can see the oils being made naturally using local herbs and flowers. The sweet-toothed should call by a family-run nougat factory, where you can pick up another tasty souvenir.

Savour Corsica's natural beauty

To truly appreciate how green and alive Corsica's hinterland is, you need to push out of the city and you'll soon be in the maquis shrubland that blankets much of Corsica, earning it the deserved epithet, 'the scented isle'.

Stop at Prunelli's Gorge, where red granite cliffs plunge dramatically into the surging river, with a thick blanket of pine trees adding to the drama before calling by Lake of Tolla, a gorgeous stretch of deep blue water fringed by rugged crags and forest. Bliss.

Expect more chocolate-box-pretty villages as you descend back down to the modern world and Ajaccio.

Meet Corsica's tortoises

Who can resist a visit to A Cupulatta, the island's Tortoise Protection Centre? Home to Europe's largest tortoise protection centre, it's easy to see that they're passionate about conservation.

Since 1993, this two-hectare site has rehomed neglected tortoises and protected threatened turtles from extinction as well as looked after other species.

In fact, there are over 130 species at the park, with more than two thousand animals thriving here. You can follow the whole life cycle of turtles, from the tiny babies through to the metre-long elders.

They've got leopard-spotted tortoises as well as Giant African varieties. And terrapins. In short, if you love animals - go!

Weather in Corsica

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The above shows the weather in Ajaccio. You can find out more about conditions across the island in our complete guide to the weather in Corsica.

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Robin McKelvie

Robin McKelvie
Posted on Thursday 22nd September 2022 in: City Cruises Europe Excursions Marella Cruises

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