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