Travelling through South East Asia

10 Things You Must Do in South East Asia according to aminearlythereyet.com

1) The Temples of Angkor, Siem Reap, Cambodia

You cannot come to south-east Asia and not visit these world famous temples in Siem Reap. Beautiful architectural design on a mind blowing scale, you’ll need at least 3 full days to explore the major temples. The sense of history and the grandeur of a lost civilization is incredible. Sunset at the phenomenal Angkor Wat temple is not to be missed.

2) Buy a motor boat and cruise Vietnam

No other country in Asia has so many motorbikes! Ride down the truly amazing coastal roads of the famous Highway 1 and the less visited central highlands. With some of the best scenery in south east Asia, what better way to experience it then to ride at your own leisure through unspoilt countryside, villages and rice terraces.

An excellent motor bike infrastructure exists throughout the whole country. With spares and repair shops in every town and high quality 2nd hand bikes to be had. Make sure you are covered by your travel insurance and are experienced and confident enough to enjoy the ride.

3) Dance all night at the Full Moon party, Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand

Backpacking in SE Asia would simply not be complete without getting your boogie on at the full moon party. World class sound systems, entertainment, and enough UV paint for a lifetime! Even if your not a party animal, there’s still plenty of fun to be had at probably the best party in the world.

4) Drink beer Lao watching the sun go down in Luang Prabang

Sleepy Luang Prabang, the jewel of the Mekong. Dripping with ex-French colonial charm; it’s the perfect a place to unwind with an ice cold Beer Lao (Possibly the best beer in Asia?). As well as the famous laid back Lao attitude, their favourite beer is also seen as a national institution.

5) Stay on Koh Rong Island, Cambodia

Blue sky, white sand, warm clear sea, Koh Rong Island is true paradise. If you want time alone with your book or to top up your tan you cannot get a more perfect place. Situated a two hour boat ride from Sihnoukville, Koh Rong Island is quiet, secluded and ideal for some peaceful solitude.

6) Try Muay Thai Boxing, in Thailand

Eaten too much Pad Thai? Drunk a few too many whiskey buckets?

If you want to get fit, learn a new skill or simply learn to kick ass, then this is definitely something worth doing in Thailand. There are schools all over the country that cater for all levels, from total novice to seasoned pro. It’s physically gruelling, but great if you want to get back into shape after going too crazy at the full moon party.

7) Relax in a hammock beside the Mekong River, at 4000 islands (Si Phan Don) Laos

Picture it. Can it get any better? Swinging in a hammock, head in a good book, total peace and quiet, listening to sound of the Mekong river below… Grab a cold Beer Lao and enjoy the an amazing sunset over the river.

8) Visit Maya Island, Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

To get to Maya Island, first you must arrive on Koh Phi Phi. It’s much smaller and than Thailand’s other islands, but is home to some great bars and restaurants, beach parties and impressive fire shows. Maya island is unspoilt beauty at it’s best.

It became popular over night when the film ‘The Beach’ starring Leonardo Di Caprio was filmed there. The only way to get there is by boat, about an hour from Koh Phi Phi. Totally undeveloped; with no hotels or go-go bars in sight! Lets hope it stays like that.

9) Drink Bai Hoi in Hanoi, Vietnam

Pull up a little plastic stool with the locals and sink a few glasses of ‘Bai Hoi’. The Vietnamese have adopted a Czech brewing process to create an excellent beer that’s brewed daily. It’s light, very cheap and extremely drinkable.

10) Do a Thai cookery course

Undoubtedly one of the best cuisines in the world, and probably one of the best things about Thailand. Spicy papaya salad, massaman curry, pad thai; sooo many delicious options to choose from! Gain new culinary skills and take some of the country home with you. Impress everyone with your new mouth watering recipes.

 

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Off the Beaten Path in Europe

This is an itinerary of things to do if you want to go off the beaten path in Europe

Austria:

  • Skiing in the Alps: Skiing is the Austrian national sport and the reason thousands of visitors come to Austria. The country abounds in ski slopes, and you’ll find the best ones in Tyrol, Land Salzburg, and Vorarlberg, although most parts of Carinthia, Western Styria, and Lower Austria also have slopes. The season lasts from late November to April, depending on snow conditions. At 1,739m (5,705 ft.), the Obertauern region extends its ski season until May. Daredevils can ski glaciers at 3,355m (11,010 ft.), even in summer.

 

  • Feasting on the “Emperor’s Dish,” Tafelspitz: Get a taste for typical Austrian cuisine with the fabled tafelspitz (boiled beef dinner), favored by Emperor Franz Josef. It might sound dull, but tafelspitz is far from bland. Boiled to a tender delicacy, the “table end” cut is flavored with spices, including juniper berries, celery root, and onions. An apple-and-horseradish sauce further enlivens the dish, which is usually served with fried, grated potatoes. The best tafelspitz is served in Vienna, where the chefs have been making the dish for decades.
  • Listening to Mozart: It’s said that at any time of the day or night in Austria, someone, somewhere is playing the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. You might hear it at an opera house; a church; a festival; an open-air concert; or, more romantically, in a Belle Epoque cafe, performed by a Hungarian orchestra. Regardless, “the sound of music” drifting through Vienna is likely the creation of this child prodigy. Try to hear Mozart on his home turf, especially in Vienna and Salzburg.
  • Watching the Lipizzaner Stallions (Vienna): Nothing evokes the heyday of imperial Vienna more than the Spanish Riding School. The sleek white stallions and their expert riders demonstrate the classic art of dressage in choreographed leaps and bounds. The stallions are the finest equestrian performers on earth. You can watch the performances, but you’ll need to make reservations 6 to 8 weeks in advance.

 

  • Cruising the Danube (Donau): Johann Strauss took a bit of poetic license in calling the Donau “The Blue Danube,” as it’s actually a muddy-green color. But a Danube cruise is the highlight of any Austrian vacation. The legendary DDSG, Blue Danube Shipping Company, Handelskai 265, A-1020 Vienna (tel. 01/588800; http://www.ddsg-blue-danube.at), offers 1-day trips. On board, you’ll pass some of the most famous sights in eastern Austria, including Krems and Melk.
  • Heurigen Hopping in the Vienna Woods: Heurigen are rustic wine taverns that celebrate the arrival of each year’s new wine (heuriger) by placing a pine branch over the door. Austrians rush to these taverns to drink the new local wines and feast on a country buffet. Some heurigen have garden tables with panoramic views of the Danube Valley, whereas others provide shaded, centuries-old courtyards where revelers can enjoy live folk music. Try the red wines from Vöslau, the Sylvaner of Grinzing, or the Riesling of Nussberg, while listening to a Schrammelmusik quartet and all the revelers singing “Wien bleibt Wein” (“Vienna loves wine”).

 

  • Reliving The Sound of Music: In 1964, Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, and a gaggle of kids imitating the von Trapp family filmed one of the world’s great musicals. The memory of that Oscar-winning movie lingers on, as a steady stream of visitors head to Salzburg just to take The Sound of Music tour. You visit the Nonnberg Abbey and that little gazebo where Rolf and Liesl danced in the rain. There’s also a stop at the Felsenreitenschule (Rock Riding School), where the von Trapps gave their final performance.

 

  • Driving on Top of the World on the Grossglockner Road (Land Salzburg): For the drive of a lifetime, you can take Europe’s longest and most panoramic alpine highway, with hairpin turns and bends around every corner. It begins at Bruck an der Grossglocknerstrasse at 757m (2,484 ft.); continues through the Hochtortunnel, where the highest point is 2,507m (8,225 ft.); and ends in the province of Carinthia. The mountain part of the road, stretching some 22km (14 miles), often at 1,983m (6,506 ft.), has a maximum gradient of 12%. You can drive this stunning engineering feat from mid-May to mid-November, although the road is safest from mid-June to mid-September. The views are among the greatest in the world, but keep your eyes on that curvy road!
  • Exploring the Alps: There are few places in the world that are as splendid as the limestone chain of mountains shared between Austria and Bavaria. Moving toward the east, the Alps slope away to the Great Hungarian Plain. The Austrian Alps break into three chains, including the High or Central Alps, the Northern Limestone Alps, and the Southern Limestone Alps. In the west, you discover fairy-tale Tyrolean villages, the Holy Roman Empire attractions of Innsbruck, and some of the world’s greatest ski resorts, including St. Anton, Zürs, Lech, and Kitzbühel. Filled with quaint little towns, the Eastern Alps sprawl across the Tyrolean country, West Styria, and Land Salzburg. Castles and stunning views await you at every turn.

Belgium:

  • Seeing the Grand-Place for the First Time: There’s nothing quite like strolling onto the Grand-Place. You’ll never forget your first look at this timelessly perfect cobbled square, surrounded by gabled guild houses and the Gothic tracery of the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) and Maison du Roi (King’s House).
  • Admiring Art Nouveau: Brussels considers itself the world capital of Art Nouveau, and local architect Victor Horta (1861-1947) was its foremost exponent. View the master’s colorful, sinuous style at his former home, now the Horta Museum, and in buildings around town.

 

  • Time-Traveling in Bruges: Without a doubt, Bruges is one of Europe’s most handsome small cities. Its almost perfectly preserved center sometimes seems like a film set or museum, with buildings that run the gamut of architectural styles from medieval times to the 19th century. The picturesque canals are the icing on Bruges’s cake.
  • Riding the Kusttram (Coast Tram): Onboard the Kusttram, the 2-hour ride along the Belgian coast, from De Panne on the French border to Knokke-Heist near the Dutch border, still seems like an old-fashioned adventure. Along the way, stop off at inviting resorts, beaches, horseback-riding trails — whatever takes your fancy.

 

  • Touring the Ardennes: The Ardennes, which covers the eastern third of Belgium, beyond the Meuse River and on into Luxembourg, is unlike any other Benelux landscape. Steep river valleys and thickly forested slopes set it apart. This region of castles, stone-built villages, and farms has resort towns like Spa and Bouillon; unequaled cuisine created from fresh produce and game; winter skiing; nature and fresh air in abundance; and towns like Bastogne and Ettelbruck that recall the sacrifice American soldiers made for victory in the Battle of the Bulge.

Croatia:

  • Listening to the Sea Organ (Zadar): Waves create music as they move water through this organ’s undersea pipes. Add a set of white stone steps leading into the crystal water above the submerged organ and shooting beams of light from sister installation Greeting to the Sun on Zadar’s Riva. The result is a matchless venue to enjoy a multimedia symphony courtesy of the sea and sky.
  • Viewing Mummies (Vodjnan): They look a little like skeletons shrink-wrapped in leather, and they are billed as the mortal coils of holy people who died centuries ago but miraculously never decomposed. You can’t get too close to these relics because viewing distance is restricted. You can, however, recognize these mummies as former human beings even in the dimly lighted area behind the altar of St. Blaise Church in Vodjnan. Soulful background music and overly dramatic piped-in commentary make the experience creepy but riveting.

  • Watching the Sunrise over Vis Town Harbor (Vis): Vis Town and its harbor were the view from our balcony at the Bellevue Apartments in the hills above. It was a perfect vantage point for witnessing a kaleidoscope of color washing over the landscape as the sun moved above the horizon each morning. At night everything was black and gray, then just before dawn, the scene was painted in liquid gold. Pinks and blues were next, and finally the buildings and sea came into focus in silver, turquoise, and red. It was such a glorious sight that we were up before dawn every day just to catch the show.
  • Exploring the Village of Hum (Istria): It calls itself the smallest town in the world, and population-wise, it might be. But so many people visit this village high in the Istrian interior that it always seems crowded. The village fathers have done a wonderful job of restoring the buildings in town to make it tourist-friendly.
  • Strolling Through Mirogoj Cemetery (Zagreb): As much sculpture garden as burial ground, this 19th-century cemetery was designed by architect Hermann Bollé. It is home to Croatian patriots, common folk, and people of all faiths and nationalities. The tombstones range from small and simple to enormous and elaborate, but each is a story in itself. Don’t miss the black granite slab at the grave of former president Franjo Tudman or the sculpture-rich arcades on either side of the entrance.

  • Descending into Ilocki Podrumi (Ilok): You’ll get the chills from two sources in this second-oldest wine cellar in Croatia: the temperature and the history. The cellar was looted by the Serbs during the Homeland War, but not before the owners concealed bottles of the best vintages behind a false wall. Today those bottles are out of hiding and on display along with the barrels and vats used to store the winery’s newest vintages.

Czech Republic:

  • Strolling Across Charles Bridge at Dawn or Dusk:The silhouettes of the statues lining the 600-year-old crown jewel of Czech heritage hover like ghosts in the still of the sunrise skyline. Early in the morning you can stroll across the bridge without encountering the crowds that appear by midday. With the changing light of dusk, the statues, the bridge, and the city panorama take on a whole different character. 
  • Making Your Own Procession Down the Royal Route:The downhill jaunt from Prague Castle, through Mala Strana (Lesser Town), and across Charles Bridge to Old Town Square, is a day in itself. The trip recalls the route taken by the carriages of the Bohemian kings; today it’s lined with quirky galleries, shops, and cafes.

     

  • Taking a Slow Boat Down the Vltava:You can see many of the most striking architectural landmarks from the low-angle and low-stress vantage point of a rowboat you pilot yourself. At night, you can rent a dinghy with lanterns for a very romantic ride.

     

  • Stepping into History at Karlstejn Castle: A 30-minute train ride south of Prague puts you in the most visited Czech landmark in the environs, built by Charles IV (Karel IV in Czech — the namesake of Charles Bridge) in the 14th century to protect the Holy Roman Empire’s crown jewels. This Romanesque hilltop bastion fits the image of the castles of medieval lore.

Denmark:

  • A Day (and Night) at Tivoli Gardens: These 150-year-old pleasure gardens are almost worth the trip to Copenhagen by themselves. They offer a little bit of everything: open-air dancing, restaurants, theaters, concert halls, an amusement park . . . and, oh yes, gardens. From the first bloom of spring until the autumn leaves start to fall (note: Tivoli’s closed in the winter), they’re devoted to lighthearted fun. The gardens are worth a visit anytime but are especially pleasant at twilight, when the lights begin to glint among the trees.
  • A Week down on the Farm: The best way to see the heart of Denmark and meet the Danes is to spend a week on one of their farms. Nearly 400 farms all over the country take in paying guests. Stick a pin anywhere on a map of Denmark away from the cities and seacoast, and you’ll find a thatched and timbered farm, or perhaps a more modern homestead. Almost any place makes a good base from which to explore the rest of the country on day trips. You join the host family and other guests for meals. You can learn about the farm and help with the chores if you like. Activities range from bonfires and folk dancing to riding lessons or horse-and-buggy rides. Although there’s no official agency to arrange such holidays, many visitors seeking this kind of accommodation surf the Internet for farms that advertise their willingness to receive guests. Another way to hook up is to decide what part of Denmark you’d like to visit, then contact the tourist office for a list of farms willing to accept paying guests.

 

  • On the Trail of the Vikings: Renowned for centuries of fantastic exploits, the Vikings explored Greenland to the north, North America to the west, and the Caspian Sea to the south and east from roughly A.D. 750 to 1050. Their legacy lives on in Denmark. Relive the age of Vikings at the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen, which displays burial grounds of the Viking period, along with the largest and richest hoards of treasure, including relics from the “Silver Age.” Even Viking costumes are exhibited. At Roskilde, explore the Viking Ship Museum, containing five vessels found in a fjord nearby, the largest of which was built in Ireland around 1060 and manned by 60 to 100 warriors. If you’re in Ribe, check out the Museum of the Viking Age, where a multimedia room, “Odin’s Eye,” introduces the visitor to the world of the Vikings through a vivid sound and vision experience. And, at Jelling, see two enormous mounds (the largest in Denmark), one of which was the burial ground of King Gorm.
  • In the Footsteps of H. C. Andersen: To some visitors, this storyteller is the symbol of Denmark itself. The fairy tale lives on in Odense, on the island of Funen, where Andersen was born the son of a shoemaker in 1805. His childhood home, a small half-timbered house on Munkemøllestræde, where he lived from 1807 to 1817, has been turned into a museum. You can also visit H. C. Andersen’s Hus, where much of his memorabilia is stored (including his walking stick and top hat), and take a few moments to listen to his tales on tape. But mostly you can wander the cobblestone streets that he knew, marveling at the life of this man and his works, which, in the words of his obituary, struck “chords that reverberated in every human heart” — as they still do today.
  • Cycling Around Ærø: Regardless of how busy our schedule, we always like to devote at least one sunny day to what we view as the greatest cycling trip in Denmark: a slow, scenic ride around the island of Ærø, lying off the coast of Funen. Relatively flat, its countryside dotted with windmills, the island evokes the fields of Holland, but is unique unto itself. Country roads will take you across fertile fields and into villages of cobbled streets and half-timbered houses. This is small-town Denmark at its best. Yes, you’ll even pass a whistling postman in red jacket and gold-and-black cap looking like an extra in one of those Technicolor MGM movies from the ’40s.

England:

  • A Night at the Theater: The torch passed from Shakespeare still burns brightly. London’s theater scene is acknowledged as the finest in the world, with two major subsidized companies: the Royal Shakespeare Company, performing at Stratford-upon-Avon and at the Barbican in London; and the National Theatre on the South Bank in London. Fringe theater offers surprisingly good and often innovative productions staged in venues ranging from church cellars to the upstairs rooms of pubs.

 

  • Pub-Crawling: The pursuit of the pint takes on cultural significance in England. Ornate taps fill tankards and mugs in pubs that serve as the social heart of every village and town. Quaint signs for such names as the Red Lion, the White Swan, and the Royal Oak dot the landscape and beckon you in, not only for the pint but also for the conviviality — and perhaps even the entertainment or the food.

 

  • Motoring Through the Cotswolds: If driving involves a determined trip from one place to another, motoring is wandering at random. And there’s no better place for it than the Cotswolds, less than 161km (100 miles) west of London, its rolling hills and pasturelands peppered with ivy-covered inns and honey-colored stone cottages.

 

  • Punting on the Cam: This is Cantabrigian English for gliding along in a flat-bottom boat with a long pole pushed into the River Cam’s shallow bed. You bypass the weeping willows along the banks, watch the strolling students along the graveled walkways, and take in the picture-postcard vistas of green lawns along the water’s edge.
  • Touring Stately Homes: England has hundreds of mansions open to visitors, some centuries old, and we tell you about dozens of them. The homes are often surrounded by beautiful gardens; when the owners got fanciful, they added splashing fountains and miniature pagodas or temples.
  • Shopping for Antiques: Whatever treasure you’re looking for, you can find it in England. We’re talking Steiff teddy bears, a blunderbuss, an 1890 tin-plate toy train, an egg cup allegedly used by Queen Victoria, a first-edition English print from 1700, or the definitive Henry Harper grandfather clock. No one polishes up their antiques and curios quite as brightly as English dealers. From auction houses to quaint shops, from flea markets to country fairs, England, particularly Victorian England, is for sale.

 

  • Cruising on Lake Windermere: Inspired by the lyric poetry of Wordsworth, you can board a boat at Windermere or Bowness and sail England’s most famous lake. You’ll see the Lake District’s scenery, with its tilled valleys lying in the shadow of forbidding peaks, as it was meant to be viewed — from the water. A great jaunt is the round-trip from Bowness to Ambleside, at the head of the lake, and back around to the village of Lakeside, at the southern tip.

France:

  • Hunting for Antiques: The 18th- and 19th-century French aesthetic was gloriously different from that of England and North America, and many objects bear designs with mythological references to the French experience. France has some 13,000-plus antiques shops throughout the country. Stop where you see the sign ANTIQUAIRE or BROCANTE.
  • Dining Out: The art of dining is serious business in France. Food is as cerebral as it is sensual. Even casual bistros with affordable menus are likely to offer fresh seasonal ingredients in time-tested recipes that may add up to a memorable meal.

 

  • Biking in the Countryside: The country that invented La Tour de France offers thousands of options for bike trips. For a modest charge, trains in France will carry your bicycle to any point. Euro-Bike & Walking Tours (tel. 800/321-6060; http://www.eurobike.com) offers some of the best excursions, including walking and cycling tours of areas such as Provence, Burgundy, and the Loire Valley.

 

  • Shopping in Parisian Boutiques: The French guard their image as Europe’s most stylish people. The citadels of Right Bank chic lie on rue du Faubourg St-Honoré and its extension, rue St-Honoré. The most glamorous shops are along these streets, stretching between the Palais Royal to the east and the Palais de l’Elysée to the west. Follow in the footsteps of Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, and Karl Lagerfeld on the shopper’s tour of a lifetime.

 

  • Exploring the Loire Valley: An excursion to the châteaux dotting the valley’s rich fields and forests will familiarize you with the French Renaissance’s architectural aesthetics and with the intrigues of the kings and their courts. Nothing conjures up the aristocratic ancien régime better than a tour of these landmarks.
  • Paying Tribute to Fallen Heroes on Normandy’s D-Day Beaches: On June 6, 1944, the largest armada ever assembled departed on rough seas and in dense fog from England. For about a week, the future of the civilized world hung in a bloody and brutal balance between the Nazi and Allied armies. Today you’ll find only the sticky sands and wind-torn, gray-green seas of a rather chilly beach. But even if you haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan or The Longest Day, you can picture the struggles of determined soldiers who paid a terrible price to establish a bulkhead on the Continent.

 

  • Climbing to the Heights of Mont-St-Michel: Straddling the tidal flats between Normandy and Brittany, this Gothic marvel is the most spectacular fortress in northern Europe. Said to be protected by the archangel Michael, most of it stands as it did during the 1200s.

 

  • Touring Burgundy During the Grape Gathering: Medieval lore and legend permeate the harvests in Burgundy, where thousands of workers (armed with vintner’s shears and baskets) head over the rolling hills to gather the grapes that have made the region’s wines so famous. You can sample the local wines in the area restaurants, which always stock impressive collections.
  • Schussing down the Alps: France offers world-class skiing and luxurious resorts. Our favorites are Chamonix, Courchevel, and Megève. Here you’ll find cliffs only experts should brave, as well as runs for intermediates and beginners. The après-ski scene roars into the wee hours.
  • Marveling at the Riviera’s Modern-Art Museums: Since the 1890s, when Signac, Bonnard, and Matisse discovered St-Tropez, artists and their patrons have been drawn to the French Riviera. Experience an unforgettable drive across southern Provence, interspersing museum visits with wonderful meals, sunbathing, and stops at the area’s architectural and artistic marvels. Highlights are Aix-en-Provence (Cézanne’s studio), Biot (the Léger Museum), Cagnes-sur-Mer (the Museum of Modern Mediterranean Art), Cap d’Antibes (the Grimaldi Château’s Picasso Museum), La Napoule (the Henry Clews Museum), and Menton (the Cocteau Museum). In addition, Nice, St-Paul-de-Vence, and St-Tropez all have impressive modern-art collections.

Finland:

  • Taking a Finnish Sauna: With some 1.6 million saunas in Finland — roughly one for every three citizens — there’s a sauna waiting for you here. Visitors can enjoy saunas at most hotels, motels, holiday villages, and camping sites.

 

  • Exploring Europe’s Last Frontier: In Scandinavia’s far north — its northern tier traversed by the Arctic Circle — Finnish Lapland seems like a forgotten corner of the world. Its indigenous peoples, the Sami, have managed to preserve their distinctive identity and are an integral part of Lapland and its culture. Dozens of tours are available through Nordique Tours, a subdivision of Picasso Travel, 11099 S. La Cienega Blvd., Suite 210, Los Angeles, CA 90045 (tel. 800/995-7997; http://www.nordiquetours.com).
  • Traversing the Finnish Waterworld: From the coastal islands to the Saimaa lake district, Finland is one vast world of water. Adventures range from daring the giddy, frothing rapids of the midlands to paddling the deserted streams or swift currents of Lapland. Every major town in Finland has canoe-rental outfitters, and local tourist offices can offer advice on touring the local waters.
  • Wandering Finnish Forests: Finland has been called one huge forest with five million people hiding in it. In fact, nearly four-fifths of the country’s total land area is forested. Walk in the woods, picking wild berries and mushrooms along the way.
  • Discovering Finnish Design & Architecture: Finnish buildings are among the world’s newest — more than 90% have been erected since 1920 — but their avant-garde design has stunned the world and spread the fame of such architects as Alvar Aalto. In Helsinki, you can see the neoclassical Senate Square, Eliel Saarinen’s controversial railway station (dating from 1914), and the Temppeliaukio Church, which has been hollowed out from rock with only its dome showing. While in Helsinki, you can also visit the University of Industrial Arts — the largest of its kind in Scandinavia — to learn about current exhibits of Finnish design.

Germany:

  • Exploring the New Berlin: Anyone who lived through the fear of the Cold War can’t help but shudder at the memory of the Berlin Wall. Since reunification, civic planners, with almost manic enthusiasm, have demolished large sections of what once stood as a scar across the face of a defeated nation. The architectural changes and urban developments that constantly update the cityscape around Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse and Potsdamer Platz can be confusing. But regardless of which renewal program is churning up rubble at the time of your visit, a pilgrimage through what used to be the most bitterly contested urban turf in Europe can’t help but provoke powerful emotions.

  • Spending a Midsummer’s Night in a Biergarten: When the temperature rises, head for the unpretentious cheer of the nearest Biergarten (everybody in Germany seems to have a favorite, so we’re not even going to try to name the “best”). These watering holes, which often feature trellises, climbing vines, Chinese lanterns, and arbors, offer low-cost fun on soft summer nights. You can order platters of hearty food with your beer or bring your own picnic.

  • Cruising the Elbe, the Danube, and the Rhine: This trio of rivers, along with their tributaries, dominated German commerce for hundreds of years. Today, an armada of tugboats, barges, and cruise ships still plies the muddy waters beside riverbanks lined with the historic majesty (and sometimes the industrial might) of central Europe. Cruises begin and end at large cities of historic interest and last anywhere from 6 hours to 7 days.

  • Boating on the Königssee: A “King’s Lake” must surely be the best, and the natural beauty surrounding this body of cold, dark water doesn’t disappoint. The quiet boat ride using electric motors will allow you to hear the echoes off the forest-covered mountainsides, as you discover baroque chapels and isolated hamlets along the shore. It might just make a Romantic poet out of you.
  • Hiking in the Bavarian Alps: If you’re heeding the call to climb every mountain, then the Bavarian Alps are the place to be in summer. Germany’s excellent network of trails, guides, and huts will allow you to discover the wealth of wildlife and stunning scenery. Two of the countless highlights include the 1,240m (4,070-ft.) Eckbauer south of Partenkirchen, and the southeastern “ear lobe” of Berchtesgaden National Park.
  • Ascending the Zugspitze: If the gentle inclines of the Harz Mountains or the Thuringian forests aren’t dramatic enough for you, ride the cable car from Garmisch-Partenkirchen to the top of Germany’s tallest mountain, 2,960m (9,700 ft.) above sea level. The view from the top is suitably panoramic, and you’ll find an appealing aura of German-ness that comes from the many climbers and trekkers who fan out across the hiking trails.
  • Experiencing a German Spa: In Germany, the question isn’t whether to visit a spa, but rather which spa to visit. Each resort has its virtues and historical associations, and can supply a list of the health benefits associated with its awful-tasting waters. Regardless of your choice, you’ll emerge from your treatment with a more relaxed attitude and a greater appreciation of German efficiency and sensuality. The most famous spas are in Baden-Baden.
  • Motoring along the Neckar: The Neckar River meanders through about 80km (50 miles) of some of Germany’s most famous vineyards. But the real appeal of the winding road along the water is the medieval castles scattered along the way. Highlights en route include Heidelberg, Neckarsteinach, Hirschhorn, Eberbach, Zwingenberg, and Burg Hornberg. Don’t forget to stop en route for samplings of the local wines.

  • Spending Harvest Time in the German Vineyards: Springtime in Germany brings the promise of bounty to the legendary vineyards of the Rhine and Mosel valleys, but the autumn harvest is truly the time to visit. Between late August and mid-October, the banks of the rivers turn gold and russet, and armies of workers gather buckets of grapes from rows of carefully pruned vines. Most of the medieval villages and historic castles scattered between Koblenz and Trier are associated with estates where you can sample the wines.

  • Touring the Fairy-Tale Road (Märchenstrasse): This is one of the newer marketing ideas of the German tourist authorities, but considering its appeal, you’ll wonder why they didn’t think of it earlier. From the town of Hanau (a 30-min. drive northeast of Frankfurt), the route zigzags northward along the Weser River for about 600km (370 miles), through some of Germany’s most evocative folkloric architecture, ending in Bremen. Scores of well-marked detours pepper the way. Required reading for the trip is a collection of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and the Nibelungen legends. Don’t overlook the psychological implications of Goldilocks, the Big Bad Wolf, and the Pied Piper of Hameln.
  • Lounging on the Island of Sylt: Don’t expect a lush or verdant island — the climate is temperamental, the setting is savage, the winds blow cold from the north even in summer, and the grasses that manage to survive in the sandy dunes are as weathered and sturdy as the soldiers in a Prussian regiment. Why is it wonderful? Here, the no-nonsense residents of north Germany can preen, flutter, and show off to each other, far from the strictures of their workplaces and the hardworking grind of their everyday lives.

Greece:

  • Making Haste Slowly: Give yourself time to sit in a seaside taverna and watch the fishing boats come and go. If you visit Greece in the spring, take the time to smell the flowers; the fields are covered with poppies, daisies, and other blooms. Even in Athens, you’ll see hardy species growing through the cracks in concrete sidewalks — or better yet, visit Athens’s Ancient Agora, which will be carpeted with a dazzling variety of wildflowers.

 

  • Island-Hopping in the Cyclades: Though the Cyclades are bound by unmistakable family resemblance, each island has a unique personality. Distances between islands are small, making travel by ferry pleasant and logistically straightforward (at least in principle). If you are traveling in the off season, when you do not need hotel reservations, don’t plan too much in advance and allow yourself to go with the flow — a tactful way of preparing you for the unexpected in island boat schedules!
  • Leaving the Beaten Path: Persist against your body’s and mind’s signals that “this may be pushing too far,” leave the main routes and major attractions behind, and make your own discoveries of landscape, villages, or activities. For instance, seek out a church or monastery such as Moni Ayios Nikolaos outside Metsovo — you may be rewarded by a moving encounter with the church and its caretaker. When you visit the Cycladic Islands, consider a base on Tinos or Siros. Both are very popular with Greeks but attract hardly any foreigners.

  • Sunrise, Sunset: Get up a little earlier than usual to see the sun rise (preferably from the Aegean, illuminating the islands). Then watch it sink over the mountains (anywhere in Greece, but try not to miss the sunsets that change the Ionian Sea from the deepest blue to a fiery red).

Italy:

  • Visiting the Art Cities:When Italy consisted of dozens of principalities, art treasures were concentrated in many small capitals, each blessed with the patronage of a papal representative or ducal family. Consequently, these cities became treasure-troves of exquisite paintings, statues, and frescoes displayed in churches, monasteries, and palaces, whose architects are now world acclaimed. Although Rome, Florence, and Venice are the best known, you’ll find stunning collections in Assisi, Cremona, Genoa, Mantua, Padua, Palermo, Parma, Pisa, Siena, Taormina, Tivoli, Turin, Verona, and Vicenza. 
  • Dining Italian-Style: One of the most cherished pastimes of the Italians is eating out. Regardless of how much pizza and lasagna you’ve had in your life, you’ll never taste any better than the real thing in Italy. Each region has its own specialties, some handed down for centuries. If the weather is fine and you’re dining outdoors with a view of, perhaps, a medieval church or piazza, you’ll find your experience the closest thing to heaven in Italy. Buon appetito!

     

  • Attending Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica:With the exception of some sites in Jerusalem, the massive, opulent St. Peter’s in the Vatican is Christendom’s most visible and important building. For many, attending Mass here is a spiritual highlight of their lives. In addition, many Catholic visitors to Rome await papal audiences every Wednesday morning, when the pope addresses the general public. (Please confirm that Benedict XVI will continue his audiences by calling ahead or visiting the Vatican website before your visit.) There is a regularly updated list of ceremonies the pope will preside over, including celebrations of Mass, on the Vatican website. If the day is fair, these audiences are sometimes held in St. Peter’s Square. Your fellow faithful are likely to come from every corner of the world.

     

  • Riding Venice’s Grand Canal: The S-shaped Canal Grande, curving for 3.3km (2 miles) alongside historic buildings and under ornate bridges, is the most romantic waterway in the world. Most first-timers are stunned by the variety of Gothic and Renaissance buildings, the elaborate styles of which could fill a book on architecture. A ride on the canal will give you ever-changing glimpses of the city’s poignant beauty. Your ride doesn’t have to be on a gondola; any public vaporetto(motorboat) sailing between Venice’s rail station and Piazza San Marco will provide a heart-stopping view. 
  • Getting Lost in Venice:The most obvious means of transport in Venice is by boat; an even more appealing method is on foot, traversing hundreds of canals, large and small, and crossing over the arches of medieval bridges. Getting from one point to another can be like walking through a maze — but you won’t be hassled by traffic, and the sense of the city’s beauty, timelessness, and slow decay is almost mystical.

     

  • Spending a Night at the Opera:More than 2,000 new operas were staged in Italy during the 18th century, and since then, Italian opera fans have earned a reputation as the most demanding in the world. Venice was the site of Italy’s first opera house, the Teatro di San Cassiano (1637), but it eventually gave way to the fabled La Fenice, which burned down in 1996 and was later rebuilt. Milan’s La Scala is historically the world’s most prestigious opera house, especially for bel canto, and has been restored to its former glory. There’s also a wide assortment of outdoor settings, such as Verona’s Arena, one of the largest surviving amphitheaters. Suitable for up to 20,000 spectators and known for its fine acoustics, the Arena presents operas in July and August, when moonlight and the perfumed air of the Veneto add to the charm.

     

  • Shopping Milan:Milan is one of Europe’s hottest fashion capitals. You’ll find a range of shoes, clothing, and accessories unequaled anywhere else, except perhaps Paris or London. Even if you weren’t born to shop, stroll along the streets bordering Via Montenapoleone and check out the elegant offerings from Europe’s most famous designers. 
  • Experiencing the Glories of the Empire: Even after centuries of looting, much remains of the legendary Roman Empire. Of course, Rome boasts the greatest share (the popes didn’t tear down everything to recycle into churches) — you’ll find everything from the Roman Forum and the Pantheon to the Colosseum and the Baths of Caracalla. And on the outskirts, the long-buried city of Ostia Antica, the port of ancient Rome, has been unearthed and is remarkable. Other treasures are scattered throughout Italy, especially in Sicily. Hordes of sightseers also descend on Pompeii, the city buried by volcanic ash from Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79, and Herculaneum, buried by lava on that same day. Our favorite spot is Paestum, along Campania’s coast; its ruins, especially the Temple of Neptune, are alone worth the trip to Italy.

Luxembourg:

  • Touring the Ardennes: The Ardennes, which covers the eastern third of Belgium, beyond the Meuse River and on into Luxembourg, is unlike any other Benelux landscape. Steep river valleys and thickly forested slopes set it apart. This region of castles, stone-built villages, and farms has resort towns like Spa and Bouillon; unequaled cuisine created from fresh produce and game; winter skiing; nature and fresh air in abundance; and towns like Bastogne and Ettelbruck that recall the sacrifice American soldiers made for victory in the Battle of the Bulge.

 

  • Driving the Wine Trail: Follow the Route du Vin along the banks of the Moselle River from Echternach to Mondorf-les-Bains. Here, the low hills of Luxembourg are covered with vineyards. Several wineries open their doors to visitors, offer guided tours, explain how their wine is produced, and treat you to a little of what they have stored in their barrels.

Malta:

Seeing The Malta Experience. This audiovisual presentation offers a look at the island’s fascinating history. (Mediterranean Conference Center, Old Hospital Street. Admission is about $2.50. The 40-minute presentation is offered on the hour, Monday to Friday 11am to 4pm; Saturday and Sunday 11am and noon.)

Exploring Mdina. The island’s medieval capital, about a 30-minute drive from Valletta, is a quaint, pedestrians-only walled city perched atop a plateau.

Visiting a museum. You have numerous choices here, including museums of fine arts, archaeology, war, folklore, maritime (in Fort St. Angelo), science, and even toys.

Strolling Republic Street. This is the place to be seen and to meet Malta’s friendly populace. You can also view historically interesting buildings.

The Netherlands:

  • Skating on the Canals: When the thermometer drops low enough for long enough, the Dutch canals freeze over, creating picturesque highways of ice through the cities and countryside. At such times, the Dutch take to their skates. Joining them could be the highlight of your trip.
  • Relaxing in a Brown Cafe: Spend a leisurely evening in a brown cafe, the traditional Amsterdam watering hole. These time-honored Dutch bars are unpretentious, unpolished institutions filled with camaraderie, like a British pub or an American neighborhood bar.

 

  • Following the Tulip Trail: The place to see the celebrated Dutch tulips in their full glory is Keukenhof Gardens at Lisse, where vast numbers of tulips and other flowers create dazzling patches of color in the spring. Combine your visit with a trip through the bulb fields between Leiden and Haarlem.

 

  • Checking Out the Windmills at Zaanse Schans: In flat Holland, wind is ever present, so it’s not surprising that the Dutch have used windmills to assist with their hard labor, from draining polders to sawing wood. At one time, the Zaan district, northwest of Amsterdam, had more than 1,000 windmills. Of the 13 that survive, five have been reconstructed at Zaanse Schans, together with other historical buildings reminiscent of the area’s past.

 

  • Celebrating Carnival in Maastricht: The country never seems so divided by the great rivers as it does during Carnival season. Southerners declare that their celebrations are superior, and if you ever run into a southern Carnival parade, you’ll have to admit they know how to party. In Maastricht, the festivities are especially boisterous — people parade through the streets in an endless procession of outrageous outfits and boundless energy.

Norway:

  • Enjoying Nature: Norway is one of the last major countries of the world where you can experience a close encounter with nature in one of the last partially unspoiled wildernesses in the world. The country extends 1,770km (1,097 miles) from south to north (approximately the distance from New York to Miami). Norway is riddled with 20,000km (12,400 miles) of fjords, narrows, and straits. It’s a land of contrasts, with soaring mountains, panoramic fjords, ice-blue glaciers, deep-green forests, fertile valleys, and rich pastures. The glowing red midnight sun and the Northern Lights have fired the imaginations of artists and craftspeople for centuries.

 

  • Experiencing “Norway in a Nutshell”: One of Europe’s great train rides, this 12-hour excursion is Norway’s most exciting. The route encompasses two arms of the Sognefjord, and the section from Myrdal to Flåm — a drop of 600m (1,968 ft.) — takes you past seemingly endless waterfalls. Tours leave from the Bergen train station. If you have limited time but want to see the country’s most dramatic scenery, take this spectacular train trip.
  • Visiting the North Cape: For many, a trip to one of the northernmost inhabited areas of the world will be the journey of a lifetime. Accessible by ship, car, or air, the North Cape fascinates travelers in a way that outweighs its bleakness. Ship tours started in 1879 and, except in wartime, have gone to the Cape ever since. Hammerfest, the world’s northernmost town of significant size, is an important port of call for North Cape steamers.

 

  • Exploring the Fjord Country: Stunningly serene and majestic, Norway’s fjords are some of the world’s most awe-inspiring sights. The fjords are reason enough for a trip to Norway. Bergen can be your gateway; two of the country’s most famous fjords, the Hardangerfjord and the Sognefjord, can easily be explored from here. If you have time for only one, our vote goes to the Sognefjord for its sheer, lofty walls rising to more than 1,000m (3,280 ft.) along its towering cliffs. Sheer cliff faces and cascading waterfalls create a kind of fantasy landscape. As Norway’s longest fjord, the Sognefjord can be crossed by express steamer to Gudvangen. You can go on your own or take an organized tour, which will probably include the dramatic Folgefonn Glacier.

 

  • Seeing the Midnight Sun at the Arctic Circle: This is one of the major reasons visitors go to Norway. The Arctic Circle marks the boundary of the midnight sun of the Arctic summer and the sunless winters of the north. The midnight sun can be seen from the middle of May until the end of July. The Arctic Circle cuts across Norway south of Bodø. Bus excursions from that city visit the circle. The adventurous few who arrive in the winter miss the midnight sun but are treated to a spectacular display of the aurora borealis, the flaming spectacle of the Arctic winter sky. In ancient times, when the aurora could be seen farther south, people thought it was an omen of disaster.

Poland:

  • Sip Your Coffee on Kraków’s Main Square: Superlatives don’t do justice to Kraków’s main square, the Rynek Gówny. It’s said to be Central Europe’s largest town square and is reputed to have the most bars and cafes per square meter than any other place in the world. Even if that’s not the case, it’s still one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful public spaces you’ll find in Poland and the perfect spot to enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of beer, and watch the world go by. Don’t forget to listen for the bugler on top of St. Mary’s Church at the top of the hour.
  • Reflect on History at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp (Oswiecim): The word “best” is clearly a misnomer here, yet a visit to the Nazi wartime extermination camp that came to define the Holocaust is one of the most deeply affecting and moving experiences you will have anywhere. Give yourself several hours to take in both camps (just a couple of miles apart). Auschwitz is undeniably horrible, but it is at Birkenau where you really grasp the scale of the tragedy.
  • Shop for Souvenirs along Gdansk’s Duga Street: As you stroll Gdansk’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, it’s hard to believe this stunning port city was reduced to rubble in World War II, so historically sensitive was the reconstruction. Amber-philes will think they died and went to heaven. It’s not surprising when you consider that the Baltic Sea (where amber comes from) is just a block away. Still, the quality and choice is overwhelming. There’s even an amber museum if the shops don’t have what you’re looking for.

  • Look for Bison in Biaowieza (Biaowieza National Park): Better put this under your “Most Unexpected Travel Experiences.” Who would have imagined that part of Poland’s eastern border with Belarus is primeval forest that’s home to Europe’s largest surviving bison herd? Both children and adults alike will enjoy touring the pristine national park.
  • Visit a Wooden “Peace” Church (Jawor and Swidnica): Few visitors to Poland have heard of these two massive 17th-century wooden Protestant churches in southwest Poland. Congregations had to build the churches from wood because of strictures on Protestant worship at the time by the Catholic Habsburg rulers. The churches’ size, grace, and stunning beauty all testify to the builders’ faith and their remarkable engineering skills.

  • See the Miraculous Icon of the “Black Madonna” (Czestochowa): The first Pauline monks started coming to the Jasna Góra Monastery in the 14th century. Over the years, it evolved into Catholic Poland’s most important pilgrimage destination and place of worship, drawing millions of Poles and other people from around the world every year. Authorship of the miraculous Black Madonna icon is traditionally attributed to Luke, and the painting is said to have made its way here through the centuries from the Holy Lands, to Constantinople (now Istanbul), to the Ukrainian city of Belz, and finally to Czestochowa in 1382. The monastery allows the painting to be viewed for only a few hours each day, and getting a glimpse of it among the throngs is not unlike trying to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. Still, it’s worth the effort.
  • Take in Some Socialist Realist Architecture (Warsaw, Kraków, and Katowice): Poles loathe it, but the architecture built during the Communist period is worth seeking out, if only for its downright wackiness. Some of the “finest” buildings include Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and the housing development of Pl. Konstytucja, the Nowa Huta housing project near Kraków, and the “Spodek” in Katowice.

Portugal:

  • Hiking in the Algarve: Portugal’s incredible physical beauty makes it a spectacular place for outdoor activities. In the southern Algarve region’s low-lying lagoons and rocky highlands, the panoramas extend for miles over the nearby ocean. Especially rewarding is trekking through the territory near Sagres, which has retained its mystical hold on journeyers since it was known as the end of the world. Other worthwhile hikes include the footpaths around the villages of Silves and Monchique, where eroded river valleys have changed little since the Moorish occupation.
  • Pousada-Hopping: After World War II, the Portuguese government recognized that the patrimony of its great past was desperately in need of renovation. It transformed dozens of monasteries, palaces, and convents into hotels, honoring the historical authenticity of their architectural cores. Today’s travelers can intimately experience some of Portugal’s greatest architecture by staying in a pousada, part of a chain of state-owned and -operated hotels. The rooms are often far from opulent, and the government-appointed staffs will probably be more bureaucratic than you’d like. Nonetheless, pousada-hopping rewards with insights into the Portugal of long ago.
  • Playing Golf by the Sea: British merchants trading in Portugal’s excellent wines imported the sport of golf around 1890. Until the 1960s, it remained a diversion only for the very wealthy. Then an explosion of interest from abroad led to the creation of at least 30 major courses. Many courses lie near Estoril and in the southern Algarve. The combination of great weather, verdant fairways, and azure seas and skies is almost addictive (as if golf fanatics needed additional motivation).
  • Swooning to Fado: After soccer, fado (which translates as “fate”) music is the national obsession. A lyrical homage to the bruised or broken heart, fado assumes forms that are as old as the troubadours. Its four-line stanzas of unrhymed verse, performed by such legendary stars as Amália Rodriguez, capture the nation’s collective unconscious. Hearing the lament of the fadistas (fado singers) in clubs is the best way to appreciate the melancholy dignity of Iberia’s western edge.

 

  • Finding a Solitary Beach: Portugal has long been famous for the glamour and style of the beaches near Estoril, Cascais, Setúbal, and Sesimbra. More recently, the Algarve, with its 200km (124 miles) of tawny sands, gorgeous blue-green waters, and rocky coves, has captivated the imagination of northern Europeans. While the most famous beaches are likely to be very crowded, you can find solitude on the sands if you stop beside lonely expanses of any coastal road in northern Portugal.
  • Fishing in Rich Coastal Waters: Portugal’s position on the Atlantic, its (largely) unpolluted waters, and its flowing rivers encourage concentrations of fish. You won’t be the first to plumb these waters — Portugal fed itself for hundreds of generations using nets and lines, and its maritime and fishing traditions are among the most entrenched in Europe. The mild weather allows fishing year-round for more than 200 species, including varieties not seen anywhere else (such as the 2m-long/6-ft. scabbard). The country’s rivers and lakes produce three species of trout, as well as black bass and salmon; the cold Atlantic abounds in sea bass, shark, tope, grouper, skate, and swordfish.

 

  • Trekking to the End of the World: For medieval Europeans, the southwestern tip of Portugal represented the final frontier of human security and power. Beyond that point, the oceans were dark and fearful, filled with demons waiting to devour the bodies and souls of mariners foolhardy enough to sail upon them. Adding Sagres and its peninsula to the Portuguese nation cost thousands of lives in battle against the Moors, and getting there required weeks of travel over rocky deserts. Making a pilgrimage to this outpost is one of the loneliest and most majestic experiences in Portugal. Come here to pay your respects to the navigators who embarked from Sagres on journeys to death or glory. Half a millennium later, the excitement of those long-ago voyages still permeates this lonely corner.
  • Losing It at a Spa: Compared to the sybaritic luxury of spas in Germany and France, Portuguese spas are underaccessorized, and by California’s frenetic standards, they’re positively sleepy. Still, central and northern Portugal share about half a dozen spas whose sulfur-rich waters have been considered therapeutic since the days of the ancient Romans. Luso, Monte Real, and Cúria are the country’s most famous spas, followed closely by Caldas do Gerês, Vimeiro, and São Pedro do Sul. Don’t expect the latest in choreographed aerobics and spinning classes; instead, sink into communion with nature, rid your body of the toxins of urban life, and retire early every night for recuperative sleep.

 

  • Tasting & Touring in Port Wine Country: Across the Rio Douro from the heart of the northern city of Porto lies Vila Nova de Gaia, the headquarters of the port-wine trade since the 1600s. From vineyards along the Douro, wine is transported to “lodges” (warehouses), where it is matured, bottled, and eventually shipped around the world. More than 25 companies, including such well-known names as Sandeman, maintain port-wine lodges here. Each offers free guided tours, always ending with a tasting of one or two of the house wines. The tourist office in Porto will provide you with a map if you’d like to drive along the Douro to see the vineyards.

 Russia:

    • Viewing Red Square at Night (Moscow): The crimson-and-ivy-colored domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral rise in a dizzying welcome to this most majestic of Russian plazas. The red stars on the Kremlin towers twinkle above one side of the square, making the medieval fortress seem festive instead of forbidding. Lenin’s Mausoleum in nighttime shadow is appropriately eerie. Stand on the rise in the center of the square and feel a part of Russia’s expanse.
    • Experiencing White Nights in St. Petersburg: Two weeks of festivities in late June celebrate the longest day of the year, when the northern sun never dips below the horizon. The White Nights are more than just a party; they’re a buoyant, carefree celebration of summer — liberation after the city’s long hibernation. Watch at midnight as residents picnic with their kids or play soccer in the courtyards. Then take a nighttime boat ride through the canals as the sunset melts into a languorous sunrise, and you’ll never want to go south again.
    • Steaming Your Stress Away at the Banya: Thaw your eyelashes in January or escape snow flurries in May in the traditional Russian bathhouse, something between a sauna and a Turkish hammam. The pristine Sandunovsky Baths in Moscow are a special treat, with Greek sculptures and marble baths. Watch expert banya-goers beat themselves with birch branches, plunge into icy pools, exfoliate with coffee grounds, and sip beer while waiting for the next steam. Sandunovsky Baths (Sandunovskiye Banyi) are at 14 Neglinnaya, Moscow (tel. 495/625-4631).

 

    • Watching the Drawbridges Open Along the Neva River (St. Petersburg): An unforgettable outing during White Nights, or anytime, involves perching yourself on the quay at 2am to watch the city’s bridges unfold in careful rhythm to allow shipping traffic through the busy Neva. Just be careful not to get caught on the wrong side of the river from your hotel.

 

    • Taking the Trans-Siberian Railroad: This winding link between Europe and Asia offers a sense of Russia’s scale. Seven days from Moscow to Beijing, or from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific Coast, the journey provides plenty of time for reflection and making acquaintances. Lake Baikal and the Altai Mountains are stunning interruptions in the masses of pine and birch forests.
    • Picnicking at Kolomenskoye (Moscow): This architectural reserve boasts the breathtaking 16th-century Church of the Assumption and the wooden house where Peter the Great sought refuge before assuming the throne. The surrounding lawns and groves beckon visitors to stretch out with caviar or cucumber sandwiches and a thermos of strong Russian tea. The hilly paths wind through apple orchards. Historic folk festivals are staged here throughout the year.
    • Paying Your Respects at Novodevichy Cemetery and Convent (Moscow): The intricately original graves of the Russian eminences buried here — writers Anton Chekhov and Nikolai Gogol, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and Stalin’s suicidal wife among them — are allegories more than headstones. The tranquil grounds of the convent above witnessed bloody palace intrigues, and many a powerful woman in Russian history was exiled there. Today its restored cathedrals and adjacent pond exude a quiet serenity.

 

    • Sipping Baltika Beer at Patriarch’s Ponds (Moscow): This prestigious neighborhood inspired writer Mikhail Bulgakov (Master and Margarita). It’s still a prime spot to sink onto a bench with a bottle of local beer (Baltika is a popular choice) or other beverage and watch Moscow spin by. Whimsical statues of characters from Ivan Krylov’s fables will entertain kids, and the pond is a skating rink in winter.
    • Taking Tea at a Luxury Hotel: A cup of steaming tea from an antique samovar is a treat for anyone, and even those on tight budgets should find something affordable at top-end hotels. To accompany the tea, try jam-filled bliny (thin Russian pancakes), fruit- or meat-filled pirozhki (pies), or caviar on toast. For more information, see the listings for Moscow’s Le Royal Meridien National or Metropol hotels or St. Petersburg’s Grand Hotel Europe.

 

  • Sampling Wild Mushrooms: Mushroom-picking in the countryside is a national pastime, and homemade mushroom dishes are heavenly, though not without risks. Restaurant-approved mushrooms are nearly as good and are sure to be safe: succulent cepes in soup; chanterelles sprinkled on pork chops; or zhulien, any wild mushroom baked with cheese and sour cream.

 

  • Enjoying a Night Out at the Mariinsky Theater (formerly known as the Kirov; St. Petersburg): Locals bemoan falling standards and rising prices at Russia’s premier ballet and opera houses, but the performers remain top class. Even seats on the fourth-level balcony offer views of the opulent 18th-century interior. The Bolshoi Theater in Moscow is closed for renovations, though its company is performing on a still-impressive stage nearby.

Scotland:

  • Checking Out the Local Pub: You’re in a Scottish pub, talking to the bartender and choosing from a dizzying array of single-malt whiskies. Perhaps the wind is blowing fitfully outside, causing the wooden sign to creak above the battered door, and a fire is flickering against the blackened bricks of the old fireplace. As the evening wanes and you’ve established common ground with the locals, you’ll realize you’re having one of your most authentic Scottish experiences.

 

  • Visiting Edinburgh at Festival Time: The Edinburgh International Festival has become one of Europe’s most prestigious arts festivals. From mid-August to early September, a host of singers, dancers, musicians, and actors descends on the city, infusing it with a kind of manic creative energy. If you’re planning to sample the many offerings, get your tickets well in advance, and make your hotel and flight reservations early. Call tel. 0131/473-2099, or go to http://www.eif.co.uk.
  • Haunting the Castles: The land of Macbeth contains more castles than anywhere else in the world. Many are in ruins, but dozens of the foreboding royal dwellings are intact and open to the public. Some, such as Culzean, built by Robert Adam, are architectural masterpieces filled with paintings and antiques. Travelers who can’t get enough of Scotland’s castles should consider staying in one of the many relics that have been converted into comfortable, though sometimes drafty, hotels.

  • Horseback Riding Through the Highlands & Argyll: There’s nothing like an equestrian excursion through the Highlands’ fragrant heather and over its lichen-covered rocks. One of Scotland’s biggest stables is the Highland Riding Centre, Drumnadrochit (tel. 01456/450-220; http://www.borlum.co.uk). For scenic rides across the moors, Highlands, and headlands of the Argyll, try the Ardfern Riding Centre, Loch Gilphead (tel. 01852/500-632).
  • Cruising Along the Caledonian Canal: In 1822, a group of enterprising Scots connected three of the Highlands’ longest lakes (lochs Ness, Lochy, and Oich) with a canal linking Britain’s east and west coasts. Since then, barges have hauled everything from grain to building supplies without having to negotiate the wild storms off Scotland’s northernmost tips. Now cabin cruisers tote a different kind of cargo along the Caledonian Canal: people seeking a spectacular waterborne view of the countryside that was tamed centuries ago by the Camerons, the Stewarts, and the MacDonalds. Caley Cruisers, based in Inverness (tel. 01463/236-328; http://www.caleycruisers.co.uk), rents out skippered boats by the week.
  • Attending a Highland Game: Unlike any other sporting event, a Highland Game emphasizes clannish traditions rather than athletic dexterity, and the centerpiece is usually an exhibition of brute strength (tossing logs and the like). Most visitors show up for the men in kilts, the bagpipe playing, the pomp and circumstance, and the general celebration of all things Scottish. The best known (and most widely televised) of the events is Braemar’s Royal Highland Gathering, held near Balmoral Castle in late August or early September. For details, call the Braemar Tourist Office (tel. 01339/741-600).
  • Ferrying to the Isle of Iona: It’s an otherworldly rock, one of Europe’s most evocative holy places, anchored solidly among the Hebrides off Scotland’s west coast. St. Columba established Iona as a Christian center in A.D. 563, and used it as a base for converting Scotland. You’ll find a ruined Benedictine nunnery and a fully restored cathedral where 50 Scottish kings were buried during the early Middle Ages. Hundreds of Celtic crosses once adorned Iona; today, only three of the originals remain. Now part of the National Trust, the island is home to an ecumenical group dedicated to the perpetuation of Christian ideals. Reaching Iona requires a 10-minute ferry ride from the hamlet of Fionnphort, on the nearby island of Mull.

  • Exploring the Orkneys: Archaeologists say the Orkneys, an archipelago comprising some 70 islands, hold the richest trove of prehistoric monuments in the British Isles — an average of three sites per square mile. Ornithologists claim that about 16% of all winged animals in the United Kingdom reside here, and linguists have documented an ancient dialect that still uses Viking terms. Northwest of the Scottish mainland, closer to Oslo than to faraway London, these islands are on the same latitude as St. Petersburg but much more exposed to the raging gales of the North Sea. The late-spring sunsets and the aurora borealis have been called mystical, and in midsummer the sun remains above the horizon for 18 hours a day. An equivalent twilight — and even total darkness — envelops the islands in winter. Only 19 of the Orkneys are inhabited; the others, often drenched with rain, seem to float above primordial seas.

Spain:

  • Sitting in Sol or Sombra at the Bullfights: With origins as old as pagan Spain, the art of bullfighting is the expression of Iberian temperament and passions. Detractors object to the sport as cruel, bloody, and savage. Fans, however, view bullfighting as a microcosm of death, catharsis, and rebirth. If you strive to understand the bullfight, it can be one of the most evocative and memorable events in Spain. Head for the plaza de toros (bullring) in any major city, but particularly in Madrid, Seville, or Granada. Tickets are either sol (sunny side) or sombra (pricier, but in the shade).

 

  • Feasting on Tapas in the Tascas: Tapas, those bite-size portions washed down with wine, beer, or sherry, are reason enough to go to Spain! Tapas bars, called tascas, are a quintessential Spanish experience. Originally tapas were cured ham or chorizo (spicy sausage). Today they are likely to be anything — gambas (deep-fried shrimp); anchovies marinated in vinegar; stuffed peppers; a cool, spicy gazpacho; or hake salad.
  • Getting Caught Up in the Passions of Flamenco: It’s best heard and watched in an old tavern, in a neighborhood like Barrio de Triana in Seville. From the lowliest taberna to the poshest nightclub, you can hear the staccato foot stomping, castanet rattling, hand clapping, and sultry guitar chords. Some say its origins lie deep in Asia, but the Spanish Gypsy has given the art an original style dramatizing inner conflict and pain. Performed by a great artist, flamenco can tear your heart out with its soulful, throaty singing.
  • Seeing the Masterpieces at the Prado: One of the world’s premier art museums, the Prado is home to some 4,000 masterpieces, many of them acquired by Spanish kings. The wealth of Spanish art is staggering — everything from Goya’s Naked Maja to the celebrated Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) by Velázquez (our favorite). Masterpiece after masterpiece unfolds before your eyes, including works by Hieronymus Bosch, Goya, Caravaggio, Fra Angelico, and Botticelli.

 

  • Sipping Sherry in Jerez de la Frontera: In Spain, sherry is called jerez, and it’s a major industry and subculture in its own right. Hispanophiles compare the complexities of sherry to those of the finest wines produced in France and make pilgrimages to the bodegas in Andalusia that ferment this amber-colored liquid. More than 100 bodegas are available for visits, tours, and tastings, opening their gates to visitors interested in a process that dates from the country’s Roman occupation.

 

  • Wandering the Crooked Streets of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter: Long before Madrid was founded, the kingdom of Catalonia was a bastion of art and architecture. Whether the Barri Gòtic, as it’s called in Catalan, is truly Gothic is the subject of endless debate, but the Ciutat Vella (Old City) of Barcelona is one of the most evocative neighborhoods in Spain. Its richly textured streets, with their gurgling fountains, vintage stores, and ancient fortifications, inspired such artists as Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró (who was born in this neighborhood).
  • Going Gaga over Gaudí: No architect in Europe was as fantastical as Antoni Gaudí y Cornet, the foremost proponent of Catalan modernisme (or, in Spanish, modernismo). Barcelona is studded with the works of this extraordinary artist, all of which UNESCO now lists as World Trust Properties. A recluse and a celibate bachelor as well as a fervent Catalan nationalist, he lived out his fantasies in his work. Nothing is more stunning than La Sagrada Família, Barcelona’s best-known landmark, a cathedral on which Gaudí labored for the last 43 years of his life. The landmark cathedral was never completed, but work on it still proceeds. If it’s ever finished, “The Sacred Family” will be Europe’s largest cathedral.

 

  • Running with the Bulls in Pamplona: Okay, maybe it’s smarter to watch the bulls, rather than run with them. The Fiesta de San Fermín in July is the most dangerous ritual in Spain, made even more so by copious amounts of wine consumed by participants and observers. Broadcast live on TV throughout Spain and the rest of Europe, the festival features herds of furious bulls that charge down medieval streets, at times trampling and goring some of the hundreds of people who run beside them. Few other rituals in Spain are as breathtaking or as foolhardy. And few others as memorable.
  • Following the Ancient Pilgrimage Route to Santiago de Compostela: Tourism as we know it began during the Middle Ages, when thousands of European pilgrims journeyed to the shrine of Santiago (St. James), in Galicia, in northwestern Spain. Even if you’re not motivated by faith, you should see some of Spain’s most dramatic landscapes and grandest scenery by crossing the northern tier of the country — all the way from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. Some of the country’s most stunning architecture can be viewed along the way, including gems in Roncesvalles, Burgos, and León.

Sweden:

  • Shopping in the “Kingdom of Crystal”: Many visitors come to Sweden just to shop for glass. In the “Kingdom of Crystal,” which stretches some 112km (70 miles) between the port city of Kalmar and the town of Växjö in Småland province, some of the world’s most prestigious glassmakers, including Kosta Boda and Orrefors, showcase their wares. At least 16 major glassworks welcome visitors to this area and offer cut-rate discounts in the form of “seconds” — goods containing flaws hardly noticeable except to the most carefully trained eye. Visitors can see glass being blown and crystal being etched by the land’s most skilled craftspeople.

 

  • Viewing the Awe-Inspiring Northern Lights: In the darkest of winter in the north of Sweden (called Lapland or Norrbotten), you can view the shimmering phenomenon of the northern lights on many clear nights, usually from early evening until around midnight. The sun and solar winds create this amazing light show when electrons from the sun collide with atmospheric atoms and molecules.

 

  • Touring the Land of the Midnight Sun: Above the Arctic Circle, where the summer sun never dips below the horizon, you have endless hours to enjoy the beauty of the region and the activities that go with it — from hiking to white-water rafting. After shopping for distinctive wooden and silver handicrafts, you can dine on filet of reindeer served with cloudberries. You can even pan for gold with real-life pioneers in Lannavaara, or climb rocks and glaciers in Sarek’s National Park.

Switzerland:

  • Hiking the Swiss Mountains: From the time the snows melt in spring until late autumn when winds blow too powerfully, visitors head for the country’s alpine chain to hike its beautiful expanses. Well-trodden footpaths through the valleys and up the mountains are found in all the resorts of Switzerland. Hiking is especially enjoyable in the Ticino and the Engadine, but quite wonderful almost anywhere in the country. You’ll find fewer visitors in some of the less inhabited valleys, such as those in the Valais. Every major tourist office in Switzerland has a free list of the best trails in their area. If you go to one of the area’s local bookstores, you can purchase topographical maps of wilderness trails.
  • Viewing Castles & Cathedrals: There is so much emphasis on outdoor sports in Switzerland that many visitors forget that it’s rich in history and filled with landmarks from the Middle Ages. Explore at random. Visit the castle at Chillon where Lord Byron wrote The Prisoner of Chillon. Or Gruyères, which everyone knows for the cheese, but is also the most craggy castle village of Switzerland, complete with dungeon and spectacular panoramic views. Both Bern and Basel have historic Münsters of cathedrals — the one in Bern dates from the 14th century. Among the great cathedrals, St. Nicholas’s Cathedral, in the ancient city of Fribourg near Bern, dominates the medieval quarter, and Schloss Thun, on Lake Thun in the Bernese Oberland, was built by the dukes of Zähtingen at the end of the 12th century.

 

  • Joining the Revelers at Fasnacht (Basel): Believe it or not, Switzerland has its own safe and very appealing version of Carnival, which dates back to the Middle Ages. It begins the Monday after Ash Wednesday (usually in late Feb or early Mar). The aesthetic is heathen (or pagan), with a touch of existentialist absurdity. The horse-drawn and motorized parades are appropriately flamboyant, and the cacophonous music that accompanies the spectacle includes the sounds of fifes, drums, trumpets, and trombones. As many as 20,000 people participate in the raucous festivities, which may change your image of strait-laced Switzerland.

 

  • Summiting Mount Pilatus: The steepest cogwheel train in the world — with a 48-degree gradient — takes you to the top of Mount Pilatus, a 2,100m (6,888-ft.) summit overlooking Lucerne. Once at the top you’ll have a panoramic sweep that stretches all the way to Italy. Until the 1600s it was forbidden to climb this mountain because locals feared that Pontius Pilate’s angry ghost would cause trouble. According to the legend, his body was brought here by the devil. Queen Victoria made the trip in 1868 and did much to dispel this long-held myth. You can follow in the queen’s footsteps.
  • Discovering the Lakes of Central Switzerland: Experience the country’s sparkling lakes with a tour through central Switzerland on the William Tell Express. Begin in Lucerne on a historic paddle-wheel steamer that chugs across the lake while you have lunch. Before the tour is over, you’ll have boarded a train on the lake’s most distant shore, traversed one of the most forbidding mountain ranges in central Europe (through the relative safety of the St. Gotthard Tunnel), and descended into the lush lowlands of the Italian-speaking Ticino district. 
  • Wandering the Waterfront Promenades: One of the greatest summer pleasures of Switzerland is wandering the palm-lined promenades in the Ticino, the Italian-speaking southern section of the country. The best resorts — and the best promenades — are found at Ascona, Locarno, and Lugano. You’ll have both lake scenery and the rugged Italian Alps as a backdrop on your stroll. Of course, you can do more than just walk: You’ll have the opportunity for swimming, boating, cafe sitting, people-watching, and even shopping. At night, when the harbor lights shine, you can join the Ticinese in their evening stroll.

Turkey:

  • Taking a Hamam: Visiting a Turkish bath rose out of the Islamic requirement for cleanliness, and public hamams made this obligation easily available to the masses. The hamam experience was taken to its sublime extreme in the Sultan’s private quarters, where he was surrounded by servile concubines fulfilling his every bathing need. Going to the hamam fell out of favor among middle-class Turks until recently; with growing popularity of spas, a Turkish bath provides a minivacation. A good hamam experience includes the proper traditional ambience and a heavy-handed scrubbing. For historical and architectural value, you can’t beat the coed Süleymaniye Hamami. If the royal treatment is your thing, you can try to get an appointment at Les Ottomans or at the Çiragan Palace. The lounge area of the men’s section in the Yeni Kaplica in Bursa is fabulously decorated with some of the most gorgeous wood details; you’ll feel like royalty. The Queen Mother of all luxury hamams, however, is the skylit and picture-windowed marble hamam at the Ada Hotel in Türkbükü, outside of Bodrum, by candlelight.

  • Taking a Boat Ride up the Bosphorus: Nowhere else in the world can you cross to another continent every 15 minutes. Connecting trade routes from the East to the West, it’s no surprise that any conqueror who was anybody had his sights set on the Bosphorus. Float in the wake of Jason and the Argonauts and Constantine the Great, and enjoy the breezes, the stately wooden manses, the monumental Ottoman domes, and the fortresses that helped win the battle.
  • Sharing Tea with the Locals: Tea is at the center of Turkish culture; no significant negotiation takes place without some. But more than commerce, tea stops the hands of time in Turkey; it renews the bonds of friends and family. Having tea is inevitable, as is the invitation to share a glass with a total stranger. Accept the invitation: There’s more in the glass than just a beverage.

  • Soaking in a Thermal Pool: Sometimes Turkey seems like one big open-air spa; chemically rich waters bubble up from below while frigid spring water rushes down from above. The Çesme Peninsula seems like one big hot bath, and a whole slew of brand-new luxury facilities are willing to accommodate. In the Sacred Pool of Hierapolis at the Pamukkale Thermal, you swim amid the detritus of ancient civilizations as sulfur bubbles tingle your skin. Bursa’s Çelik Palas Hotel has a domed pool hot enough to make your knees weak. Down the road at the Kervansaray Termal Hotel, the pools of running water are enclosed in a 700-year-old original hamam.
  • Exploring the Covered Bazaar: Nobody should pass through Turkey without spending a day at the mother of all exotic bazaars. The atmosphere crackles with the electricity of the hunt — but are you the hunter or the hunted? The excitement is tangible, even if you’re on the trail of a simple pair of elf shoes or an evil-eye talisman. It’s the disciplined shopper who gets out unscathed.

  • Cruising the Turquoise Coast: Words just don’t do this justice. Aboard a wooden gulet (a traditional broad-beamed boat), you drift past majestic mountains, undiscovered ruins, and impossibly azure waters as the sun caresses your skin from sunrise to sunset. In this environment the morning aroma of Nescafé takes on an almost pleasant quality when enjoyed on deck, anchored just offshore a pine-enclosed inlet. By 9am, you’re diving off the rail and cursing the day it all has to end.

  • Paragliding over Ölüdeniz: There’s no better place in the world than the surging summit of Babadag for this wildly exhilarating and terrifying sport. For 15 brief minutes, you’re flying high above the magnificent turquoise waters of Ölüdeniz with the mountains in the foreground. The safety factor? Not to be underestimated, but that nice body of water should break your fall.

  • Ballooning over Cappadocia: Watch this surreal landscape change character right before your eyes: In a matter of minutes, the sun rises over the cliffs, valleys, and ravines, and colors morph from hazy blue to orange, pink, and finally yellow. The capper? A post-flight champagne breakfast.
  • Spending the (Hopefully Romantic) Night in a Cave: The ceilings are low, the light is dim, and there are niches in the wall for your alarm clock — this is the troglodyte life as the Cappadocians lived it for thousands of years. Some of these “cave hotels” are rudimentary, others extravagant; but all are cool in summer, warm in winter, and as still as the daybreak.
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Top 10 Regions for 2013

These are the top 10 regions for 2013 according to lonelyplanet.com

1) Corsica, France

Best for: activites, events, food

Mixing the cultures of Italy and France yet fiercely Corsican, the French Mediterranean island of Corsica has a furious beauty. It is this epic beauty combined with its challenging topography that make it a spectacular choice to host the historic centenary of the initial stages of the Tour de France. Race organisers wanted the hundredth Tour to start in an enchanting location, and decided Corsica was the place; this will be the first time the race has braved its challenges.

2) The Negev, Israel

Best for: adventure, activities, off the beaten track

For decades the Negev was regarded as nothing but a desolate desert. But today, this region is a giant greenhouse of development. Think eco-villages, spa resorts and even wineries. In the next few years a new international airport at Timna is scheduled to open, followed by a high-speed railway to Eilat and more hotels. Time is running out to experience the desert as nature intended.

3) Mustang, Nepal

Best for: activities, off the beaten track, culture

The completion of a road connecting Mustang to China in the north and the rest of Nepal to the south will make all the difference to this remote region. Lo Manthang, or Mustang as it’s usually called, has been dubbed ‘little Tibet’ or ‘the last forbidden kingdom’; though politically part of Nepal, in language, culture, climate and geography, it’s Tibet. Until 1992 nobody from outside was allowed in; for a while after that it was opened up to a few hundred a year, and these days anyone can enter, though the pricey trekking permit keeps the numbers down. Expect that to change.

4) The Yukon, Canada

Best for: activities, adventure, off the beaten track

This vast and thinly populated wilderness has a grandeur and beauty that can only be properly appreciated in person. But while few places in the world today are so unchanged over the course of time, change has started coming fast to the Yukon. In 2013 it is still one of the least densely populated regions on the planet (there’s almost 14.2 sq km/5.5 sq miles for each hardy local) but its tremendous mineral wealth is drawing new residents in a reprise of the fabled Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. Climate change means that parts of the far north are actually dissolving into the Arctic Ocean and the glacier-clad parks are undergoing profound change.

5) Chachapoyas & Kuelap, Peru

Best for: adventure, culture, off the beaten track

Nestled in the northern Peruvian Andes, the placid mountain city of Chachapoyas is small, quiet and a pain in the neck to reach. But this charming agricultural centre sits amid some of the country’s most incredible cultural and natural treasures, including an entire river valley’s worth of pre-Inca ruins, the funerary site of Karajía, and one of the world’s tallest waterfalls. The glorious isolation isn’t going to last for long. For the past half-dozen years, the Peruvian government has been quietly paving roads and improving other infrastructure to make the area more visitor-friendly.

6) The Gulf Coast, USA

Best for: activities, family, value for money

An area that has become synonymous with the words ‘oil spill’ doesn’t sound like it’d be a vacation must-do. But a lot has happened since a deep-water drilling operation off the coast of Louisiana went fatally awry in 2010. The Gulf Coast – never a place to take disaster lying down – has rebounded. Rolling sand dunes once again sparkle and seasonal travellers are once again enjoying the Gulf’s tepid waters, not to mention its tender locally caught fish. The ‘Redneck Riviera’ is edging back to its best.
 
7) Carinthia, Austria
 
Best for: activities, family, value for money
 

With belts tightening across Europe, the Alps are fast becoming the exclusive preserve of the champagne set… but lesser mortals will find plenty to love about Carinthia. With ski resorts nestled on every mountain top, Carinthia is best known outside Austria for uncrowded slopes and après-ski where you don’t have to take out a second mortgage just to buy a beer. Backing onto Italy and Slovenia, the region dilutes the Austrian efficiency with Mediterranean laissez-faire. So where are the crowds? Check out Carinthia now, while peace and quiet reigns; it won’t stay like this forever.

8) Palawan, The Philippines

Best for: off the beaten track, adventure, culture

Palawan incorporates thousands of sparkling, rugged islands and is fringed by 2000km of pristine coastline. So far Palawan’s natural marvels have only been sampled by plucky backpackers. Not for much longer. The trail these pioneers have blazed is set to explode, with regional airlines waking up to Palawan’s potential and clambering to schedule direct flights to the capital. Throw in the mushrooming growth of style-conscious boutique hotels normally found in places like Ko Samui or Bali, and you can feel that Palawan is ready to hit the big-time in 2013.

9) Inland Sea, Japan

Best for: culture, activities, off the beaten track

Tokyo, Kyoto, Mt Fuji… the islands of the Seto Inland Sea? You’d be forgiven if the name of this vast stretch of water in Japan’s west doesn’t ring any bells. With the exception of Miyajima, with its oft-photographed vermillion ‘floating’ torii (shrine gate), most of the Inland Sea islands aren’t on the usual international-tourist hit list. Fair enough. They’re out of the way, and there’s just so much to do in Tokyo. But those who make the effort are rewarded. Many of the islands in this roughly 400km-long waterway offer the chance to experience a Japan without all the bells, whistles and bullet trains.

10) Campania, Italy

Best for: culture, family, food

Campania is home to Italy’s most sumptuous stretch of coastline (the Amalfi Coast), one of its most mind-blowing and ebullient cities (Naples), the menacing beauty of Mt Vesuvius, and the frozen-in-lava ancient Roman city of Pompeii. This year it is receiving an enormous injection of cash as part of its role in hosting the UN’s fourth Universal Forum of Cultures from April to July. Events will include art exhibitions from all five continents, music, cinema, dance, street artists and theatre, circus acts, food markets and workshops.

 

 

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Top 15 Must Sees in the South Pacific

1) Kakadu National Park, Australia

Find legroom, extraordinary wildlife and ancient culture in Australia‘s largest national park.

2) Franz Josef & Fox Glacier, New Zealand

On the ground or in the air, discover the icy grandeur of these centuries-old ice floes.

3) Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu

Flipper-kick into a luxury liner, hack through to a cave, bus up to picture-perfect beaches.

4) Rurutu, Tahiti & French Polynesia

Believe in magic after swimming with migrating humpback whales.

5) Tongatapu, Tonga

Marvel at the South Pacific’s Stonehenge, explore pyramidal tombs and applaud the spurting blowholes.

6) Gizo, Solomon Islands

Surf without surf-rage in warm crystal-clear waters at Pailongge’s excellent reef-breaks.

7. Uluru (Ayers Rock), Australia

Pay homage to Australia‘s most sacred rock.

8) Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

Explore the volcanic wonderland on one of the world’s best day walks or a challenging mountain bike ride.

9) Sydney, Australia

Sexy beaches, stylish bars and sassy culture all topped off with views over the stunning harbour.

10) Ile des Pins, New Caledonia

Glide across tranquil Baie d’Upi on Île des Pins in a traditional sailing pirogue.

11) Wellington, New Zealand

Windy Welly isn’t all politics: revel in NZ‘s best nightlife and caffeine-scene along Cuba St and Courtenay Pl

12) Federated States of Micronesia

Sample some of the Pacific’s best diving, including Chuuk‘s amazing WWII wrecks and Yap‘s beautiful manta rays.

13) Aitutaki, Rarotonga & The Cook Islands

Discover the underwater wonderland of Aitutaki‘s world-famous lagoon.

14) Great Ocean Road, Australia

Ribbon your way between the beach and bush along Victoria’s exquisite coast.

15) Napier, New Zealand

Sip on a syrah amid the Art Deco ambience of the Hawkes Bay Wine Region.

 

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Top 10 Winter Destinations in Europe

These are the top 10 winter destinations in Europe according to lonelyplanet.com

1) Rovaniemi, Finland

Fistfuls of Christmas clichés characterise Rovaniemi, the ‘official’ terrestrial residence of Santa Claus. Everyone’s favourite bearded man hangs out in an atmospheric Arctic Circle grotto, and it’s free to visit him (but photos are another story). Snow and reindeer add festive spirit, while the Arktikum museum gives insights into life at these latitudes.

Tip: Finnish thermometers have more numbers below 0°C than above, so pack serious winter clothing.

2) Christmas Markets, Germany and Austria

December sees these romantic historic markets pop up all over Germany and other Central European nations. Expect cute stalls selling everything from gingerbread to sleigh bells and plenty of good cheer, toasted with a glass of warming glühwein.

Tip: Famous markets in Cologne, Vienna and Munich draw the tourist crowds, but seeking out ones in smaller towns is rewarding.

3) Abisco, Sweden

Almost as far north as you can get in Europe on a train, Abisko in Lapland is for lovers of serious winter. The sun doesn’t rise for several weeks in December and January but that darkness makes it one of the world’s best places to view the majestic aurora borealis. Other attractions include cross-country skiing along national park trails and husky mushing.

Tip: Stop off at nearby Kiruna to see the famous Icehotel.

4) Athens, Greece

It’s a real downer trying to Photoshop 500 people out of your would-be-prizewinning Parthenon photo, but in winter it’s not an issue. All summer stresses – crowding, tourist pricing, intense heat, queues, air pollution – more or less disappear. It’s the best time to explore the country’s ancient heritage and get to experience local culture.

Tip: By all means do some island-hopping, but most accommodations close in winter.

5. Copenhagen, Denmark

 

For fairytale European winter, it’s hard to beat the home of Hans Christian Andersen. Forget the over-hyped Little Mermaid and head to the city’s cosy bars and cafes to watch snow flurrying outside. In the heart of town, the 19th-century Tivoli amusement park is a romantic, kitsch delight around Christmastime, with heartwarming illuminations and body-warming mugs of glögg.

Tip: Splash out on a meal at Noma, considered by many to be the world’s best restaurant (reservations can fill quickly, so try to book several months in advance).

6. Budapest, Hungary

Couples skating hand-in-hand, breath cloudy in the frosty air – there’s nowhere better for it than the Hungarian capital’s picturesque central park Városligeti Műjégpálya, with its enormous outdoor rink. Feeling chilly afterwards? Budapest is famous for its ornate thermal baths.

Tip: At night seek out a ‘ruin pub’ – an atmospheric drinking venue artfully created in a once-abandoned building.

7. Jasna, Slovakia

Slovakia offers high-quality skiing at affordable prices. Accommodation and food are reasonable too, and there’s a friendliness that’s missing from some of the snootier Alpine slopes. Jasná is the best Slovakian resort, with long descents flanked by snow-laden spruce trees, set in the ruggedly lovely Tatras Mountains.

Tip: Flights direct to Slovakia can be pricey, so don’t make this your entry point to Europe.

8 Andalucia, Spain

Parts of Andalucía are further south than the African coast so expect mild temperatures in winter. Accommodation is cheap, and crowds are smaller at standout attractions like Granada’s Alhambra or Seville’s cathedral. Plus tapas and nightlife in the cities are as enticing as ever.

Tip: Head to the Sierra Nevada near Granada if you want snowsport action.

9. Transylvania, Romania

You can’t visit Dracula’s lair on a sunny day with lambs bleating in the fields, right? Try steel-grey skies, bare trees and a smattering of snow. Braşov and Sighişoara, two hours apart by rail, are gorgeous medieval towns with various connections to Vlad Ţepeş, the historical Dracula, though it’s doubtful that he ever set foot in his so-called castle.

Tip: Bram Stoker never visited Romania, so don’t expect many parallels with the book or films.

10) Venice, Italy

Hauntingly beautiful and rather weird, Venice’s Carnevale in February is a European highlight. Elaborate costumes and spooky masks bring the canal city’s colourful history to life. Costumed dances are pricey affairs, but you can have a ball enjoying the free events with a mask bought on the street, but be prepared for epic crowding.

Tip: Book accommodation ahead. Day-tripping in and out on a train will lower costs considerably.

 

 

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Best Beach Vacations (Asia, South Pacific, Mexico, & Caribbean)

These are the best beach vacations according to tripadvisor.com

ASIA:

1) Phuket, Thailand

Phuket is Thailand’s most popular island destination, and one reason is that its coastline is divided into bays that form intimate beaches. You can get a soothing massage right on the beach, the scuba diving is spectacular and the locals greet you with smiles.
 
2) Koh Samui, Surat Thani Province, Thailand
 
 
Koh Samui’s myriad beaches present everything you could ever dream of in a tropical beach. Picture-perfect sands, coconut trees and palm fronds adorn each one, but there the similarities end. Choose from busy beaches, teeming with vendors and cafes, or secluded strips with not another person in sight.
 
3) Bali, Indonesia
 
 
With some of the best waves in the world and reliably great weather, Bali is a surfing paradise. Beach lovers can take their pick from a wide array of choices from crowded to deserted, with white sand or black.
 
4) Boracay, Visayas, Philippines
 
 
During dry season, there are few better beaches to be found in this part of the world than the famed White Beach, a sparkling stretch of pristine, powder-white sands on the west of the island. Cafes and restaurants nestle demurely behind palms, providing tasty delights for hungry beach-goers.
 
5) Maldives
 
 
More than two dozens Indian Ocean atolls and thousands of islets comprise the Maldives. Idyllic beaches, such as South Ari Atoll on Nalaguraidhoo, the Sun Island, are a dream come true for sand lovers. Swim out to the barrier reef – or from some parts of the island, admire the reef right from the gorgeous white beach.
 
South Pacific:
 
1) Sydney, Australia
 
 
With dozens of stunning ocean beaches within half an hour of downtown, there are few better urban beach destinations than Sydney. Famed Bondi Beach sees up to 40,000 on busy weekends. If quieter beaches appeal, take the coastal walk past smaller strands all the way to Coogee’s calmer sands.
 
2) Bora Bora, French Polynesia
 
 
Although a fairly small island, Bora Bora offers visitors a multitude of activities. Go on a 4×4 safari, sunbathe and swim on white sandy beaches, dive in a natural underwater park among fish and corals, experience thrilling shark feedings or circle the turquoise lagoon by boat.
 
3) Moorea, French Polynesia
 
 
The world’s largest coral reef eco-system actually consists of 3000 separate reefs. Come face to face with the wonderful diversity of life that exists within it by snorkeling and scuba diving from pontoons or watch the parade of astounding creatures stream beneath your feet from a glass-bottomed boat.
 
4) Byron Bay, Australia
 
 
Byron’s legendary, lighthouse-dotted, white sand beaches are some of Australia’s best. Situated where the Coral Sea meets the Tasman Sea, these clean, unpolluted, laid-back beaches remain relatively undeveloped and are great places to spot bottlenose dolphins, rays, whales and sea turtles.
 
5) Great Barrier Reef, Australia
 
 
For a beach vacation, Costa Rica is hard to beat. Some of the world’s best sands sit on its coastline where water remains a delicious temperature year-round. Don’t miss Manuel Antonio’s picture-perfect crescent of sand, with its azure waters and jungle at its back or, for surfing, Playa Dominical.
 
6) Surfers Paradise, Gold Coast, Australia
 
 
A perfect little beach town of 18,500 on Australia’s east coast, 48 miles from Brisbane, Surfer’s Paradise sits amid seemingly endless stretches of pristine sand. Nature has conspired to create amazing conditions and the crashing waves teem with swimmers as well as novice and more advanced surfers.
 
7) Viti Levu, Fiji
 
 
Fiji’s largest island, home to capital Suva, offers some wonderful beaches. Palm-fringed Natadola Beach, reputed to be one of the best beaches in the world, is a picture perfect crescent of powdery sand leading to dramatic cliffs. Coconuts hang overhead and the striking azure lagoon entices swimmers.
 
8) Perth, Australia
 
Perth’s active beach scene is dominated by two main stretches: Civilized Cottesloe, just south of town, is the choice for families, swimmers and snorkelers. More lively Scarborough, just north of town, is by day popular with surfers (via water, wind and kite), and by night is a spirited beachside club scene.
 
MEXICO:
 
1) Cancun, Mexico
 
 
Cancun calls with its stunning aqua-blue waters and white-sand beaches. Despite its reputation as a spring-break paradise, anyone will find plenty to do here, too. Explore ancient Mayan ruins, the Xel-Ha waterpark and the thrilling Interactive Aquarium, or just enjoy beautiful beaches.
 
2) Playa del Carmen, Mexico
 
 
Bring your sunglasses and cool clothes to Playa del Carmen, where the hot sun lights up the white-sand beaches. This is heaven for beach-loving kids and those who enjoy swimming or just lounging under the sun.
 
3) Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
 
On the second-largest natural bay on the continent, Puerto Vallarta has miles and miles of world-class beaches. The coastline is dotted with quiet coves and spectacular islands, and the water caters to all sorts of beach activities, from sunbathing to snorkeling to windsurfing.
 
4) Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
 
 
Cabo’s beaches are not just beautiful, they’re also incredibly diverse. On the Pacific Ocean, the waves are delightful to watch, but often too dangerous for swimming. On the Sea of Cortez, the waters are sheltered and calm and the sand is white and warm.
 
5) Cozumel, Mexico
 
Going to the seashore at Cozumel is fascinating because of the island’s diverse beach offerings. Although it has its fair share of typically beautiful white-sand beaches, it also boasts a number of rocky beaches that are not great for sunbathing or swimming but are ideal for snorkeling.
 
CARIBBEAN:
 
1) Dominican Republic
 
 
Distinguished by long stretches of glowing white sand and gorgeous blue water, Dominican beaches rank among the best in the world. From Puerto Plata to Punta Cana to Barahona, these beaches cater to bar lovers, sunbathers, jet skiers and scuba divers.
 
2) U.S. Virgin Islands
 
 
Swaths of powdery sand separate green hills from the crystal-clear Caribbean waters surrounding the U.S. Virgin Islands. Beach aficionados should beeline for idyllic St. John, home of windsurfer-friendly Cinnamon Bay, the beachside cafes of Cruz Bay, and less-frequented Francis Bay beach.
 
3) Jamaica
 
 
Blessed with miles of stunning natural coastline, Jamaica is a paradise for beach-lovers. Among the island’s best offerings are Negril’s Seven Mile Beach–rife with great snorkeling and diving, Treasure Beach on the South Coast and Doctor’s Cave Beach in Montego Bay, which has sand that looks like sugar.
 
4) Aruba
 
 
Spectacular for water sports or just sitting on the sand and admiring the tides, Aruba’s beaches are truly special. Swimmers and sunbathers will enjoy the calm waters and white sand at Palm Beach, while water-skiers and surfers love the surf at Eagle Beach.
 
5) St. Martin
 
 
There is no shortage of beautiful shoreline on St. Martin, which boasts some 37 beaches. What sets these apart from other Caribbean beaches is their breathtaking environs–visitors will not only be stunned by the white sand and gorgeous water but also by caves, cliffs, palm trees and rock formations.
 
6) Barbados
 
 
Turquoise waters, fine and soft sands and picturesque rows of palm trees make the beaches of Barbados a true pleasure. Stick to the south and southwest coasts for calm waters and good swimming; for a surfing thrill, don’t miss the massive, competition-caliber waves off the south and east coasts.
 
7) St. Lucia
 
 
Most St. Lucian hotels are right on the island’s best attraction–its beautiful beaches. Visitors will find sands that vary from white to gold in color, waters that range from calm and placid to rough and dangerous and locales that can be crowded and lively or peaceful and romantic.
 
8) Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
 
 
Grand Cayman is known as a scuba diving paradise with more than 130 dive sites surrounding the island, including its most famous one, Stingray City. Deep-sea fishermen enjoy the island’s “national sport,” and the coral reefs can be explored in many ways. The island also contains one of the Caribbean’s best strands of sand, 7 Mile Beach.
 
9) St. Kitts and Nevis
 
 
Scuba divers delight in exploring hundreds of wrecks surrounding St. Kitts, some of which date back to the 1700s. This relatively undeveloped island features quiet beaches with volcanic black sand on the northern half and white sand on the southern half.
 
10) Bahamas
 
 
Whatever you look for in a beach, the Bahamas has it. With sands that range from pink to white to sugary, waters that are blue or crystal clear, waves that cater to water sports or swimming and sunsets that are always romantic, the Bahamian shores are brilliant and unforgettable.
 
11) Curacao
 
 
Thirty-eight small, gorgeous beaches frame the turquoise waters around Curacao, and each one offers a distinct experience, from secluded to surrounded by cliffs. Scuba divers and snorkelers will find this a world-class destination, as will windsurfers and boaters of all kinds.
 
12. Bermuda
 
 
Most famous for their pink sands, Bermuda’s beaches are so good for swimming and water sports that most visitors will find that the Bermudan waters match the brilliance of its shores. Take a dip in the tranquil waters at Elbow Beach or try snorkeling at Warwick Long Bay.
 
13. Antigua and Barbuda
 
 
With as many beaches as there are days in the year, Antigua and Barbuda make quite a splash. The northwest coast jostles with beach resorts, while harder to find, secluded spots dot the south and southwest coasts. Amazing pink and white sand beaches confetti the family-popular southeast coast.
 
14. British Virgin Islands
 
 
Tranquility is the watchword in the pristine and engaging British Virgin Islands. You can sunbathe, swim, snorkel or sail along the isolated coves and coastline. The ocean teems with exotic marine life, and the uncrowded beaches invite you to enjoy their natural beauty, sandy shores and clear waters.
 
15. Puerto Rico
 
 
Blessed with crystal-clear waters and gorgeous white or golden sands, Puerto Rican beaches have a lot to offer. Swimming is great at Luquillo Beach and Playa de Ponce, Playa Higuero is perfect for windsurfing and the breathtaking scenery and vegetation is everywhere.
 
16. St. Vincent and the Grenadines
 
 
Black and white sand beaches cling to the shores of St. Vincent, the largest island in this more than 30-isle chain. Its leeward coast is ideal for swimming and snorkeling, while the windward side has boogie-board worthy waves. Lovely, remote beaches populate the tiny isles of the Grenadines.
 
17. Turks and Caicos
 
 
Known for its amazing coral reefs and fascinating wildlife, Turks and Caicos is the ideal destination for the avid scuba diver or birdwatcher. The island’s crystal-clear waters will also not disappoint those who enjoy snorkeling, surfing and swimming, and visitors will find plenty to do ashore, from sunbathing to shopping.
 
18. Anguilla
 
Surrounded by turquoise waters, Anguilla offer a tranquil retreat of more than 30 beaches, seven marine parks and numerous diving sites where you can explore shipwrecks, caves and marine life. The atmosphere is laid-back and friendly, the beaches warm and the water dazzling at this Caribbean getaway.
 
 
 
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Best Chocolate Destinations in Europe

The best chocolate destinations in Europe according to travelsort.com

       

1) Paris, France

You might want to also try  Debauve & Gallais is a historical chocolate site with the legacy of having served France’s royal line in previous centuries. The company is still a mecca for the best dark chocolate France has to offer. For something a little more off the beaten path, a pilgrimage to La Cafeothequein Paris is an absolute must. The coffee lounge demonstrates what it truly means to pair coffee and chocolate. Though the coffee roasts and espresso drinks are the star of the show here, the coffee shop also offers a range of premium chocolate bars – including a 99% cocoa chocolate noir bar – for your enjoyment.

And if you aren’t able to travel to Lyon and other top chocolate places in France, make sure to visit A l’Etoile d’Or, a legendary chocolate shop where the owner, Denise Acabo, takes pride in featuring the very best French chocolates from Jacques Genin, Henri Le Roux, Franck Kestener, and others, along with chocolate you’ll find nowhere else in Paris, such as Bernachon (see Lyon, below); It is finding gems like this – places to incorporate chocolate into the pleasure-filled tapestry of your trip to Paris – that makes this French capital a chocolate destination.

 

2) Brussels, Belgium

Belgian chocolate needs no introduction. Europe has a reputation across the board for fine chocolate, but perhaps nowhere is the chocolate scene quite so alluring, quite so destination-driven as in Brussels. Wittameris one of the fine chocolate makers in Brussels, specializing in fine individual chocolates like the “Isabelle” (dark chocolate filled with pistachio marzipan) and the “Leslie” (fresh cream with candied pineapple and dark chocolate).

3) Lyon, France

Luckily for Francophiles, the luxury chocolate experience extends from Paris across the country as one edges towards the Alps. Lyon is home to Bernachon, a premier chocolatier that offers a simple but sumptuous house specialty: Le Palet d’Or, composed of fresh cream, dark chocolate, and golden leaf adornment. It’s also well known for its famous Kalouga dark chocolate bar, filled with salted butter caramel, and its Amandine dark chocolate bar with toasted almonds was a huge hit at the New York Chocolate Show.  Bouillet adds depth to the Lyon chocolate scene, responsible not only for wonderful individual chocolates, but also heavenly tarts, cakes, and macaroons.

Seve, another Lyon favorite, is a veritable emporium of chocolate achievements; their macaroons are light and creamy, and their cakes are decadent without apology. Alain Rolancy, a patisserie, glacier, and chocolatier in Lyon, creates real visual spectacles out of chocolate while also managing to offer an impressive variety of fine gastronomic goods, from candied oranges to jam.

4) Zurich, Switzerland

Though Zurich may be known as a cold banking city, this Swiss capital amply provides for everyone from the run-of-the-mill chocolate lover to the cocoa connoisseur. It is exciting also to note that despite Switzerland’s longstanding tradition as a chocolate hub, Zurich is not complacent about offering the finest. Confiseur Laderach, which has only taken off in the last couple of decades, has built an excellent business around selling the most impressive pralines you are likely to come across. You can also look to Zurich’s Teuscher, which is known first and foremost for its champagne truffle, for an experience of particularly sophisticated indulgence.

5) Turin, Italy

In the midst of the mountains comes great chocolate. Gianduiotto originates in Turin: the pyramid-shaped chocolate-and-hazelnut creation is not only a boon to Turin, but a credit to the entire chocolate-making world. A Giordano is one of the most charming chocolate shops in Turin with its cheerful storefront and focus on high-quality hazelnut incorporation. For a fancier option, try Guido Gobino, responsible for such creations as the Giandujotto Classico and the Tourinot Maximo, both variations on the cosmic hazelnut and cocoa connection.

Of course, one can’t mention Turin and chocolate without also talking about Domori, founded by Gianluca Franzoni, which is one of the few chocolate makers to produce chocolate from from its own plantations — in this case Criollo beans from Venezuela — in order to have complete control over the quality of the sourced beans. Try Domori’s 70% Napolitains, with only Criollo cocoa mass and sugar, and be amazed at the smoothness — no emulsifiers, no vanilla, just superior chocolate and sugar.

Another Turin success story is artisanal gelato maker Grom, which offers divine extra dark chocolate gelato; the gelato company makes this flavor without any cream or milk, using only the finest chocolate, spring water, sugar, and egg yolk for a precise flavor of dark sweetness, with bittersweet chocolate shavings providing an extra chocolate hit and textural contrast.

6) Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona, Spain is a cacophony of sights, sounds, and smells – and the whiffs of chocolate this world-class city has to offer you will be both familiar and exotic. Oriol Balaguer makes its home here and has one both best dessert and best gastronomy awards in the last decade. Buboalso creates designer chocolates with personality, incorporating diverse flavors and inspirations that reflect the nature of the city itself. Caelum Barcelonaprovides arguably the richest dark chocolate experience in the city, and after a taste of their world-class product, you shall surely want to stroll the city, take in the amazing Gaudi architecture, and live a more satisfied life thereafter.

7) Villajoyosa, Spain

Villajoyosa is one of the most historic chocolate destinations, largely because of the legacy preserved in the Museo del Chocolate. The smell of chocolate literally permeates the small town just slightly north of Alicante; it is also the home of Chocolates Valor, a brand that has been producing chocolates for Spain since 1881. Hot chocolate and chocolate churros are particularly notable local favorites – enjoy the beauty of this seaside town with a cup and napkin in hand, and you’ll be sure to satiate your chocolate wanderlust.

8) Cologne, Germany

As the anchor of northern Europe, Germany offers a chocolate experience that may be unparalleled in its network of fine-chocolate-producing towns and villages; Cologne is the king of these towns, featuring not only the World of Chocolate Museumbut also the Stollwerck Chocolate Company, which has been making premium chocolate since 1839. Whether you’re touring Cologne on a snowy evening or stepping out of the famous Cologne Cathedral on a pleasant summer day, excellent chocolate is never more than a few steps away in this cultural nexus.

9) Rome, Italy

Rome is another of the world’s gastronomic capitals – the chocolate scene is worth travelling for, whether you’re seeking chocolate as dessert, a snack, or part of the nightlife scene. And as one of the artistic capitals of the world as well, you can expect the chocolate creations to flaunt true artistry. SAID has long been one of Rome’s best-respected chocolate shops. In some ways, SAID returns to the basics by producing fine chocolate bars, though there is nothing ordinary about the flavors they invoke. Cioccolata e Vino is a chocolate-y secret in Trastevere, one of Rome’s most fun neighborhoods for nightlife. At this bar, which doubles as a bookshop, you can order a variety of chocolate shots, which consist of chocolate liquor in hardened-chocolate shot glasses topped with real cream and chocolate shavings – the offering truly epitomizes the pleasures of Rome. 

10) Munich, Germany

Perhaps more international than Cologne, Munich nevertheless pulls its weight in protecting Germany’s strong chocolate reputation. Munich offers a plethora of chocolate connoisseurs, including such boutiques as Stancsics in the Alstadt neighborhood. Stancsics offers a bare-bones aesthetic, but hones in on chocolate like well-trained experts, providing some of the freshest truffles in the city. For a taste of true luxury, try Confiserie Rottenhofer, a high-end chocolate producer that turns dessert into a full-scale event. Dallmayr, a staple delicatessen in Germany, also makes magic with sugar and brews some of the finest coffee in the city to complement its creations.

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Best Adventure Vacations

These are the best adventure vacations for the thrill seekers who are studying abroad according to tripadvisor.com

1) San Juan, Puerto Rico

Aquatic thrills abound in Puerto Rico, from world-class surfing at Rincon where the swells reach 35 feet to relaxed scuba diving, particularly around Mona Island, Desecheo Island and Vieques. On terra firma, the tropical terrain yields prime hiking, horseback riding and rock climbing opportunities.

2) Bali, Indonesia

Take in the lush, volcanically active landscape of Bali while whitewater rafting on the Ayung and Unda rivers. Or get the heart pumping off-shore with an ocean-rafting sightseeing and snorkeling tour in boats that reach 44 miles per hour. Surfers hit the island’s western side for big-time swells.
 
3) Grand Canyon, National Park, Arizona, United States
 
At this behemoth of a canyon, whitewater and calm water rafting trips plunge along 277 river miles, fixed-wing and helicopter tours soar above its mile-deep maw and hikes and mule rides cover the terrain from rim to rim. Horseback tours operate from stables just outside the park’s south entrance.
 
4) Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, United States
 
Located about two miles north of the airport, the Kona Coast State Park’s trio of tranquil, uncrowded beaches cater to swimming, kayaking, picnicking and snorkeling. It’s possible to spot Hawaiian green sea turtles among the arches and caves of the offshore coral reefs. Surfers congregate in the winter for the big surf.
 
5) Thailand
 
Thailand takes adventure to another level. The south’s beaches and islands offer sea kayaking, cave abseiling and climbing on stunning limestone stacks that rise from the Andaman Sea. Jungle treks and canopy tours await inland. In the north, mountains and rain forest backdrop exhilarating outdoor adventures.
 
6) Chengdu, Sischuan, China
 
Perched in a high mountain valley, Huanglong or Yellow Dragon National Park offers invigorating adventure options. The ambitious can trek to Lhasa, whitewater raft or embark on multi-day river journeys. Alternatively, a five-mile trot brings you to five terraced, temple pools glowing with stunning hues.
 
7) Yosemite National Park, California, United States
 
Within the nearly 1,200 square miles of one of America’s first national parks are top-notch hiking trails to waterfalls, giant sequoia groves, meadows and the iconic granite cliff, Half Dome. Three stables inside the park boundaries lead horse and mule rides that last from two hours up to a full day.
 
8) Vietnam
 
Vietnam’s famed jungles are amazingly alive. Jungle trekking reveals a near unimaginable wealth of flora and fauna. Nowhere offers more creature encounters than the country’s oldest national park, Cuc Phuong, home to a staggering 43 biodiversity hotspots and over 300 types of rare tropical birds.
 
9) Brazil
 
The wealth of flora and fauna and opportunities to observe them are unparalleled in the Amazon. Riverboats ply the waters of this fascinating wilderness, home to pink river dolphins, clamorous howler monkeys and raucous toucans. Photograph your adventure, run the rapids or stalk elusive jaguars by night.
 
10) Morocco
 
The Saharan dune field of Erg Chebbi undulates along the southern Moroccan border, near the small Berber village of Merzouga. Four-wheel-drive and camel safaris traverse this desert region, bringing you front and center with fine red sands piled up to 820 feet high and star-saturated night skies.
 
 11) Corcovado National Park, Osa Peninsula, Province of Puntarenas, Costa Rica
 
This tropical wilderness, home to more than 350 species of birds is a nature lovers’ paradise. Explore pristine rainforest where scarlet macaws and toucans swoop and howler monkeys cavort. Horseback ride through dense jungle and along remote beaches where high breaks are perfect for surfing.
  
12) Machu Picchu, Sacred Valley, Cusco Region, Peru
 
Hike the Inca Trail to the majestic Lost Cities of the Incas, hidden in dense Amazonian jungle, 7000 feet above sea level. This ancient road treks 25 miles from Cuzco through deep Andean gullies and is not for the faint-hearted. Climb up to overlook the ruins and the Urubamba Valley from Huayna Pichu Mountain.
 
13) Moab, Utah, United States
 
With three scenic byways, plus Canyonlands and Arches national parks close at hand, Moab inspires outdoor desert adventures. Cycle, climb or hike among sandstone cliffs and mind-blowing rock formations, raft the Colorado River or take a four-wheel-drive day trip through the arid backcountry.
 
14) Provence, France
 
Cycling through Provence’s rolling hills and charming villages, along twisting country roads and past 2000-year-old Roman aqueducts is by turns exhilarating and relaxing. Elsewhere in the region, a slew of activities awaits, from cliff climbing to skydiving to horseback riding or alpine skiing.
 
15) Ambergris Caye, Belize Cayes, Belize
 
Belize’s largest island and an often overlooked Caribbean gem offers astounding diving and snorkeling. This English-speaking nation is home to the second-largest coral reef system in the world. If you want to stay atop the waves, this Caribbean idyll provides fabulous fishing, sailing and kayaking.
 
16) Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska, United States
 
A single road accesses the six million acres of wild landscape in Denali National Park, and few private vehicles are allowed to travel it. Instead, park shuttles transport visitors into the wild for backpacking, wildlife spotting and attempts to climb 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak.
 
17) Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
 
The wealth of wonderful wildlife in the Galapagos defies the imagination. Get up close to fearless sea lions, majestic tortoises and amiable iguanas by hiking, snorkeling, kayaking and diving. Evolve to another level entirely by cycling by cinder cones, lava flows and tunnels or multi-hued beaches.
 
18) Kruger National Park
 
A game drive in search of the Big Five – lions, leopards, cape buffalo, elephants, and rhinos – is only the start in this South African safari mecca. Hit one of four adventure trails in a 4 X 4 for a self-guided tour through the park, take a ranger-led bush walk or soar in a hot-air balloon outside its boundaries.
 
19) Nepal
 
When it comes to mountain climbing, Nepal is the big one, but the home of the world’s highest peak has got a lot more to offer than mighty Everest and its neighboring summits. The Himalayan kingdom also offers excitements such as the stunning Annapurna trek, wildlife jungle safaris, rafting and paragliding.
 
20) Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia
 
With 1,400 miles of coral reef stretching along the Queensland coast and 1,500 fish species, the World Heritage List-designated Great Barrier Reef is a scuba lover’s dream destination. Accompany underwater exploration with coastal adventures like bungee jumping or rafting through rain forests near Cairns.
 
21) Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Island of Hawaii, Hawaii, United States
 
Ashy plumes of smoke and red-hot lava stream from the active craters in this Big Island park, 30 miles southwest of Hilo. Crater Rim Drive takes cyclists through deserts and rain forests and into the caldera of Kilauea volcano. More than 150 miles of hiking trails cover its 333,000 acres.
 
22) Scottish Highlands, Scotland, United Kingdom
 
Hike or mountain bike past castles, lochs, Highland Cows and purple heather in the romantic Scottish Highlands. Experience the beauty of the country as you trot north on the West Highland Way from Glasgow to Fort William or explore the country’s first national park, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs.
 
23) Milford Sound, South Island, New Zealand
 
As one of the wettest places on earth, Milford Sound provides an emerald-green and waterfall-rich backdrop for hiking, biking and kayaking. The Fjordland stretches more than 124 miles south to Preservation Inlet, with an extensive trail network to support travel of the self-propelled variety.
 
24) Northern Norway, Norway
 
More than 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle waits this land of midnight sun, Northern Lights and spectacular skiing. The Lygen Alps offer a slew of snowy delights, from off-piste skiing and snowmobiling to dog sledding and reindeer trekking. Once snows melt, glacier walks, kayaking and hiking top the bill.
 
25) Flinders Ranges National Park, South Australia, Australia
 
In the Flinders Ranges, easily reachable from Adelaide, hiking and cycling trails criss-cross the southern region, caves and gorges carve a beautiful swath through the center, and kangaroos bound across red earth in the northern Outback. Four-wheel drive safaris delve into this designated National Landscape.
 
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Top 25 Best Destinations in Europe

This is the Top 25 Best Destinations in Europe according to tripadvisor.com

1) London, England

If you want to see London at its most spectacular, go in 2012. In June, the city will celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee with all due pomp and circumstance (including a huge parade and a flotilla of 1,000 boats on the Thames).

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2) Rome, Italy

Rome is one of those cities you could spend a year in and still feel like you’ve barely scratched its surface. Amazing historical sites, mind-blowing art—and then there’s the food. Stop at the Forno in the Campo de’ Fiori for a fresh slice of pizza bianca (cut from a piping hot six-foot-long slab of it), buy some tiny strawberries in a street market, and make it your business to find the city’s best gelato. Someone has to do it.

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3) Paris, France

Everyone wants to see the major sites of Paris—and it’s true, it’d be criminal to leave town without visiting the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, etc. But to truly appreciate this city, you need to get away from the tourist sites. Plunk yourself down at a table in a small café, enjoy a glass of wine and watch le monde go by.

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4) Istanbul, Turkey

The city of Istanbul is a vibrant mix of many cultures, due in part to its location (straddling Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus Strait) and, well, in part to its history of getting conquered. The Hagia Sophia, for example, was a church, then a mosque and is now a museum. You’ll spot Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman architecture around town.

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5) Barcelona, Spain

Architecture buffs should make a beeline for Barcelona. The medieval and Roman buildings in the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gotic) provide quite a contrast to Antoni Gaudi’s fanciful architecture, which you’ll find all around the city. A visit to his still-unfinished Church of the Sacred Family (Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia) is a must.

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6) Berlin, Germany

Berlin is a multi-faceted city. So feast your eyes on modern architecture, then visit a Baroque palace. Spend the day at one of the world’s finest zoos, then spend the evening listening to one of the world’s finest orchestras. Most travelers make a point of taking in more serious WWII-related sights as well. TripAdvisor travelers give particularly high marks to the grim but thorough and thought-provoking Topography of Terror exhibit.

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7) Florence, Italy

Everyone’s heard the Doors of Paradise, the Duomo, and Michelangelo’s David are captivating, but in Florence, beauty can sneak up on a traveler unexpectedly. You’ll duck into a random church to escape the heat only to spend two hours staring at an impossibly pure blue in a fresco. Or you’ll consider writing a sonnet about pear gelato. It’s just that kind of place. Don’t miss the sunset over the Arno and the famous wines of the Chianti region just south of town.

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8) Prague, Czech Republic

We hear the question, “What’s the next Prague?” a lot. But while we’re all for discovering great new destinations, we hardly think Prague is over. Sure, everyone’s heard of it, but it’s still a grand city with extraordinary historic and cultural sights, and it’s definitely worth a visit. The often-rebuilt Prague Castle has overlooked the city since the 9th century, and the synagogues and cemetery of the Jewish Quarter are must-sees. Nightlife here is diverse and plentiful, from trendy clubs to sophisticated wine bars to late-night cellar bars.

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9) Dublin, Ireland

It’s easy to love Dublin. Where else can you legitimately learn about local history and culture by visiting multiple pubs? (Side note: you can’t say you hate Guinness until you’ve had it in Dublin. It’s different. And it’s fantastic.) Leave time for a stroll along the Liffey, a peek at the Book of Kells and, on a more serious note, a visit to the Kilmainham Gaol Historical Museum.

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10) Amsterdam, Netherlands

This city, full of colorful homes, canals and bridges, is one of Europe’s most picturesque capitals. Must-sees on any visitor’s itinerary include the Anne Frank House, the Van Gogh Museum and the Flower Market. Looking for an unusual place to stay? Try renting a houseboat. Of note to travelers: Laws prohibiting Amsterdam coffeehouses from selling marijuana to foreigners go into effect on January 1, 2013.

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11) Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon can be summed up in one word: variety. From the 12th-century Se cathedral to the modern bridges spanning the Tagus River, from the 18th-century Aguas Livres aqueduct to the futuristic Oriental Station, Lisbon traverses the ages. The city’s many neighborhoods include Moorish Alfama, home of the city’s tallest hill, and 17th-century Bairro Alto, with its hopping nightlife. Museums, castles, open-air markets, funiculars, Fado music – Lisbon’s pleasures include these and much more.

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12) Venice, Italy

Stunning architecture. Mysterious passageways. And of course, the canals. Venice is one of the most alluring cities in the world—the type of place where, as a visitor, you’ll welcome getting lost (as you inevitably will). Relax in Piazza San Marco, take a moonlit gondola ride or taste the original Bellini at Harry’s Bar. Or just wander. No matter where you go, you’ll find history, beauty and romance.

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13) Edinburgh, United Kingdom

While dramatic windswept hills make Edinburgh a site to behold, its rich history makes it a city to remember. From the world-famous Edinburgh Castle, to St. Giles Cathedral, to Real Mary King’s Close and the Museum of Scotland, the sites are plentiful. Visit Edinburgh during Hogmanay (a days-long Scottish new year celebration full of food, drink and local traditions) and you’ll be one of 80,000 revelers in the city! And yes, you must try the traditional fruitcake.

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14) Madrid, Spain

Strolling through Madrid is a great way to see the lavish Royal Palace, the 16th-century Puerta del Sol (Sun’s Gate) marking the center of Spain, the old Moorish quarter of Moreria and much more. Art enthusiasts flock to the famous Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofia museums. Families enjoy boating in Retiro Park and visiting the zoo and the amusement park in Casa de Campo. After eating paella and tapas and watching flamenco, night owls can dance at clubs that are open until dawn.

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15) St. Petersburg, Russia

It’s hard to believe a city boasting so much great art and architecture is “only” 309 years old. (To put this in perspective, Newark, N.J., has been around a few decades longer than Saint Petersburg.) Towering cathedrals and ornate palaces fill Saint Petersburg, and the State Hermitage Museum, located in the Winter Palace, houses some of the world’s greatest works of art.

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16) Budapest, Hungary

Over 15 million gallons of water bubble daily into Budapest’s 118 springs and boreholes. The city of spas offers an astounding array of baths, from the sparkling Gellert Baths to the vast 1913 neo-baroque Szechenyi Spa to Rudas Spa, a dramatic 16th-century Turkish pool with original Ottoman architecture. The “Queen of the Danube” is also steeped in history, culture and natural beauty. Get your camera ready for the Roman ruins of the Aquincum Museum, Heroes’ Square and Statue Park, and the 300-foot dome of St. Stephen’s Basilica.

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17) Vienna, Austria

If you currently think your neighborhood coffee shop is nice, you might want to stay out of Vienna’s coffeehouses. After you’ve gotten used to these palatial, yet welcoming cafes—and their delicious coffee and Sacher torte—your local café will pale in comparison. Between coffee breaks, visitors can explore Vienna’s Schonbrunn Palace and Imperial Palace. And if you have a chance, catch a performance at the State Opera House—it’s not to be missed.

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18) Munich, Germany

Munich was almost completely destroyed in two world wars, yet it’s managed to recreate much of its folkloric, Bavarian past. Oktoberfest is legendary, but you can visit the Hofbrauhaus any time of year for an immense beer. Olympiapark, the site of the 1972 games, is not to be missed (you can skate on the Olympic ice rink and swim in the pool). On a somber note, take time to visit the concentration camp at Dachau—it’s an intense, yet unforgettable, glimpse into the not-too-distant horrors of the Holocaust.

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19) Santorini, Greece

Black-sand beaches. Whitewashed buildings perched cliffside above an impossibly blue sea. Santorini is so beautiful we’re having trouble finding words to describe it. Just look at a picture—we bet you’ll want to catch the next flight.

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20) Sorrento, Italy

Land of Mermaids. Land of Orange and Lemon Groves. Land of Colors. This small city in Campania has earned a plethora of alluring names. Famed for its sea cliffs, the town’s steep slopes look out over azure waters to Ischia, Capri and the Bay of Naples. The birthplace of Limoncello liqueur offers some good diving, great sea fishing, boat cruises and appetizing restaurants. Excellent hiking trails cross the peninsula. Rent a car or take a taxi if the steep streets look too intimidating.

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21) Krakow, Poland

For a medieval city that also survived World War II, Krakow is remarkably well preserved, making it a great destination for travelers interested in history or architecture. TripAdvisor travelers recommend exploring the charming small streets of Krakow’s Historic Centre (a World Heritage Site) and visiting the Main Market Square (Rynek Glowny), one of the largest town squares in Europe.

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22) Zermatt, Switzerland

When most people think of Zermatt, they think of one thing: The Matterhorn. This ultimate Swiss icon looms over Zermatt, first drawing visitors here in the 1860s. The village of Zermatt itself is lovely and car-free, with old-fashioned brown chalets and winding alleys. (Don’t worry, you don’t have to walk everywhere—there are electric vehicles and horse-drawn cabs.) Skiing in the region often lasts through early summer, but when the weather’s warmer, it’s a great time to hike.

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23) Taormina, Italy

Volcanic Mount Etna and the Ionian Sea provide the cinema-worthy backdrop for Taormina, Sicily’s legendary resort town. Twisting medieval streets and a second-century Greek theater add to its romantic air, which inspired the writings of D.H. Lawrence and Truman Capote. Take a cable car to the beach, or walk uphill behind the Church of St. Joseph for panoramic views.

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24) Positano, Italy

Once a vital part of a mighty sea power, Positano is today a sophisticated resort on the central Amalfi Coast. Moorish-style architecture rises up steep slopes that gaze out on the Sirenuse Islands. Smart boutiques, selling fashions for visitors to display on Grand Beach, abound in the village. And it’s a great base for exploring the area—you can easily travel by boat to Capri, Ischia and the Grotta dello Smeraldo cave.

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25) Palermo, Italy

To the first-time visitor, Palermo is a city of ever-changing character. An abundance of dusty museums, Arabian domes and flourishes of baroque splendor jostle with boisterous markets, chaotic traffic and oppressive summer heat. The Sicilian hotspot is a noisy, polluted, often dangerous, but always fascinating city. Don’t miss marvels of Arab-Norman architecture, such as 12th-century Palazzo dei Normanni or San Giovanni degli Eremiti. Ask your hotel to arrange cabs and negotiate fares before setting off.

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Top 10 Wine Destinations in Europe

Here are the top 10 Wine Destinations in Europe according to tripadvisor.com

1) Tuscany, Italy

It’s hard to find a bad bottle of wine in Tuscany—even the most modest trattoria will usually have an excellent house red. Standouts include Chianti (of course), Vernaccia di San Gimignano and the so-called “Super Tuscans.” So tear yourself away from the museums of Florence, even if just for the afternoon, and tour a few wineries in the countryside. We can’t think of a more beautiful (or delicious) way to spend a day.

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2) Aquitaine, France

Château d’Yquem, perhaps the world’s most prestigious wine, is produced here. How prestigious? Well, Thomas Jefferson was a fan, and a bottle of the 1811 vintage sold at auction in 2011 for $117,000, the highest price ever commanded by a single bottle of wine. But there are thousands of chateaux to visit in the region, so even if the Château d’Yquem is a bit out of reach, you’ll still have a wonderful time tasting notable red and white Bordeaux vintages.

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3) Provence, France

If you’re one of the many new fans of rosé, head to Provence to taste some of the world’s best. The crisp, dry pink wine (made from red grapes) pairs particularly well with garlicky foods, like the region’s famous aioli. You’ll also find good, spicy reds. For a special treat, visit in late June or July, when the lavender is blooming.

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4) Umbria, Italy

Umbria may not produce as much wine as Tuscany, but there’s a silver lining—it’s not as popular with tourists. If you’d like to taste great Italian wine without the crowds, Umbria is a good bet. Orvieto Classico, a white available in dry and sweet versions, is the region’s top wine. But for something a bit different, try Sagrantino, a tannic, full-bodied red. Don’t forget to visit Perugia to tour the Perugina chocolate factory.

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5) Sicily, Italy

Dessert wines like Marsala are the big draw in Sicily—they account for 90% of the local production. Legend has it that new wine is ready to drink on Saint Martin’s Day, November 11. If you’re in the area, put this to the test by attending the Festa del Vino (Festival of Wine).

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6) Languedoc- Roussillon, France

There’s no doubt about it—wine is huge in Languedoc-Roussillon. This is the world’s largest wine region, and if it can be made from grapes, local vintners probably produce it. Over two billion bottles of white, red, rosé, sparkling and sweet wine are made here every year. Try the Cremant de Limoux, a modern-style sparkling wine with a taste to rival much more expensive Champagne.

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7) Burgundy, France

Romans first planted wine grapes in Burgundy roughly two millennia ago, so the local vintners have had plenty of time to perfect their craft. If you like reds, head to Côte de Nuits; if you’re a fan of whites, try Côte de Beaune. Many TripAdvisor travelers recommend a stop at La Cave de l’Ange Gardien in Beaune, for a comprehensive introduction to the food and wine of the region.

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8) Champagne-Ardenne, France

Dom Perignon, Cristal, Veuve Clicquot… The very names evoke images of decadence and luxury, from star-studded parties in sunny destinations to candlelit evenings in five-star surrounds. Champagne-Ardenne breaks out the bubbly by the millions of cases every year, drawing thirsty travelers from the world over to taste its unparalleled sparkling wines and explore the chalky caves in which the Champagne matures.

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9) Costa de la Luz, Spain

If you love sherry, you’ll be in heaven in Costa de la Luz. Over 60 bodegas in the area produce various kinds of sherry, ranging from delicate Manzanilla to Cream Sherry to Amontillado (the perfect gift for fans of Edgar Allen Poe). If you’re an art lover as well as a sherry buff, don’t miss the Bodega Tradicion. There, you can sample excellent VOS and VORS sherries and view works by Goya and Velazquez from the owner’s personal art collection.

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10) Porto District, Portugal

Centuries ago, the British were at war with France but dearly missed French wine. They tried importing Portuguese wine but found it spoiled on the journey. Enterprising wine makers decided to fortify it, and port was born. Porto is the center of the port industry, and no visit here would be complete without visiting a few local port houses to sample the many different types and vintages. Find a tasting room that offers port/chocolate tasting flights, because port and chocolate go perfectly together.

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