France’s bustling, modern Reims greets travelers with cellar doors wide open. As the capital of the Champagne region, it features a lively center, a historic cathedral, and, of course, Champagne tasting. And thanks to France’s slick, high-speed rail, it’s just 45 minutes from Paris – making it an easy day trip.
Rome is a showcase of Western civilization, layered with elements of the city’s 2,000-year-old history. Among the traffic-choked 21st-century boulevards, you’ll find marble ruins of ancient times, early Christian churches, grand Renaissance buildings and statues, and a wealth of Europe’s most sumptuous, inspiring sights – its Baroque treasures.
Lately, I’ve really been enjoying what I consider to be the “second cities” of Europe, such as Naples in Italy, Marseille in France and Hamburg in Germany. These places often have a rough, Industrial Age heritage and a rust-belt vibe that keeps them honest, unvarnished and nonconformist. Even though Glasgow is Scotland’s largest and most populated city, I consider it to be that country’s second city behind Edinburgh, which wins first place for its capital status and tourism appeal.
Sometimes I wonder why I lug my bag through airports, following my own recommendation to pack light enough to carry on and avoid checking any bags on international flights. It can be a drag, dragging your bag through airports. But when scrambling with last-minute changes in flight plans, those without checked bags are far more nimble. Over the years I’ve learned some tricks on dealing with European airports. Here are a few of them:
The last time I visited St. Petersburg, in the 1990s, the Russian city was gray and depressing. But during a recent visit, I found a town that sparkles.
While Germany sits in the driver’s seat of Europe’s economy, it doesn’t take a cultural backseat either. Following are a few of the latest developments.
For travelers, Great Britain is a work in progress, richly rewarding those who visit with up-to-date information. Here are a few important changes to be aware of for 2014.
France is always working to show off its rich heritage in innovative ways. You’ll see some impressive changes this year.
Even when it’s hot, crowded or on strike, Italy is lots of fun. More than any other Western European country, though, travelers to Italy need up-to-date information to travel smart, saving both time and money. Here are a few updates to help you make the most of Italy in 2014.
Before Columbus, many maps of the world showed Jerusalem as the center of the world. Jerusalem – holy, treasured, and long fought over by the three great monotheistic religions – has been destroyed and rebuilt more than a dozen times. Its fabled old-town walls corral a tangle of colorful holy sites, and more than 30,000 residents – most with a deep-seated reason to live so close to such hallowed ground.
When parents tell me they’re going to Europe and ask me where to take their kids, I’m sometimes tempted to answer, “To Grandma and Grandpa’s on your way to the airport.”
With each trip I take, I make it a point to bring home cultural souvenirs – gold nuggets of experiences I'll remember all my life. Whether it’s sitting and talking with a Muslim at the Great Mosque of Granada in Spain, waving a flag at an Irish hurling match, or getting naked with Germans at a spa in Baden-Baden, it’s experiences like these that give each trip that extra sparkle.
They say that for every church in Rome, there’s a bank in Milan. The economic success of postwar Italy can be attributed, at least in part, to this city of bankers, publicists and pasta power-lunchers.
We have New York, but England has old York, one of the country’s top tourist destinations outside of London. The town offers a captivating tour of historic sites mixed with an easygoing pedestrian ambience – all lassoed within its formidable medieval wall.
Seville, the capital of Spain’s southern Andalucia region, is as soulful a place as I’ve ever been. It’s a wonderful-to-be-alive kind of town, buzzing with festivals, heat, color, guitars and castanets.
These days “budget European travel” includes point-to-point flights within Europe. When I started traveling, no one spending their own money bought one-way air tickets within Europe. It was prohibitively expensive. Nowadays, before buying any long-distance train or bus ticket, I look into flying, and routinely, it’s cheaper to fly than to make the trip on the ground – especially when you consider all the advantages of flying.
Iceland is trendy these days. Its powerful loneliness and mighty features can be ideal for exotic film locations – so parts of “Game of Thrones,” “Batman Begins,” “Prometheus” and the upcoming “Noah” were filmed here. Some of my readers have been nagging me to add it to our guidebooks and tours. But until this summer, I’d never visited.
Coming from a picnicking, backpacker travel heritage, it has taken me decades to recognize the value of a fine meal. Now I can enthusiastically embrace a long, drawn-out “splurge meal” as a wonderful investment in time and money.
Orvieto is one of the most striking, memorable and enjoyable hill towns in central Italy. Less than 90 minutes from Rome, Orvieto sits majestically high above the valley floor atop a big chunk of “tufo” volcanic stone, overlooking cypress-dotted Umbrian plains. A visit here will reward you with a delightful, perfectly preserved and virtually traffic-free world highlighted by a colorful-inside-and-out cathedral and some of Italy’s best wine.
For some time, I’ve been wanting to return to the Algarve, in southern Portugal, my favorite stretch of Iberian coastline. Warm and dry, the south coast stretches for some 100 miles, with beach resorts along the water’s edge and, farther inland, rolling green hills dotted with orchards. The coastline varies from lagoon estuaries in the east (the town of Tavira), to sandy beach resorts in the center (from Faro to Lagos), to rugged cliffs in the west (Sagres).
Driving in Europe can be scary – a video game for keeps, and you only get one quarter. European drivers can be aggressive. They drive fast and tailgate as if it were required. They pass where Americans are taught not to – on blind corners and just before tunnels.
Many people travel across the Atlantic in search of "Old World" Europe and to witness traditional culture in action. But with most of Europe firmly entrenched in the modern world, travelers are getting fewer opportunities to glimpse the old way of life.
I'm in Volterra, my favorite small town in Tuscany, sitting under rustic, noble stones at the base of a palace that made commoners feel small six centuries ago. Bats burst through the floodlights amid ghostly towers held together with rusted iron corsets. These stones have soul. The countless peasant backs they bent so many centuries ago gave to future generations the architectural equivalent of fine wines — something to be savored and pondered in solitary moments like this one.
Europe is safe when it comes to violent crime. But it's a surprisingly creative place when it comes to travel scams. Pickpockets and con artists target Americans — not because these crooks are mean, but because they're smart.
Electronic communication, such as disposable mobile phones, cheap and easy Wi-Fi, and social networking, is revolutionizing the way we travel.
Watching "Rick Steves' Europe" with my friends, I always wish I could take them behind the scenes to show them the "glamour" of filming. It takes six days to film a 30-minute television episode , and it is an exhilarating and exhausting scramble from start to finish.
Touristic, glorious, and romantic, some of Germany's best attractions are in Bavaria. My favorites are three of King Ludwig II's castles: stocky Hohenschwangau, his boyhood home; the nearby and fanciful Neuschwanstein, his dream escape; and Linderhof, his final retreat.
Despite France's reputation for fine restaurants and grand cafes, one of my most memorable meals was actually a picnic on a bench in Chartres. Munching my baguette with Emmentaler cheese and sipping my box of juice in front of the floodlit cathedral, I acknowledged the bum on the next bench.
Turkey is changing fast. And it's modernizing fast. For my vacation this year, I hit the road in Turkey, with romantic memories (a few years old) of horse-drawn carriages and villages with economies powered by hay, dung, and ducks. While that rustic old world is tougher to find, the deep traditions and warm hospitality of the region are as endearing as ever, especially if you venture past the predictable sights and tourist zones. Turkey has a sparse and frustrating train system, but flights are cheap and competitive bus companies provide easy, comfy, and inexpensive connections throughout the land.
Each July, a million revelers pack into Pamplona, Spain, for the raucous Festival of San Fermin. They come to this proud town in the Pyrenees foothills for music, fireworks, and merrymaking. Bu t most of all, they come for the Running of the Bulls, when fearless (or foolish) adventurers — called mozos — thrust themselves into the path of six furious bulls.
At Europe's lively open-air markets and bazaars, bargaining for merchandise is the accepted and expected method of setting a price. Whether you are looking for doorknockers or hand-knitted sweaters seize the chance to bargain like a native. It's the only way to find a compromise between the wishful thinking of the seller and the souvenir lust of the tourist.
Budapest, the cultural capital of Hungary and much of Central Europe, has no shortage of nightlife. You can go there for grand opera, folk music and dancing, a twilight boat trip, or live music in a nightclub.
My kids are young adults now, but I remember what it was like taking them to Europe at various ages. When they were in their single digits, our trips were consumed with basic survival issues, such as eating and sleeping. By the time they entered their teens, the big challenge became making our trips educational and fun.
It's sunset, and I'm at the place to be in Granada — the breathtaking San Nicolas viewpoint overlooking the fortress of the Alhambra. Here, at the edge of the city's exotic Moorish quarter, lovers, widows, and tourists jostle for the best view of the hill-capping, floodlit fortress, the last stronghold of the Moorish kingdom in Spain. For more than 700 years, Spain, the most Catholic of countries, lived under Muslim rule, until the Christians retook the land in 1492.
While Europe is my passion and the focus of my work, Central America has long held a fascination for me. I took my first trip to the region in 1988, during El Salvador's civil war. Over the years, I've returned to Nicaragua and El Salvador several times, as recently as a few months ago. In my columns, I'll periodically share some impressions from my latest trip.
Vienna is a city with a rich culture you can almost inhale and a vivid history you can practically touch. As I walked out of my hotel on a Sunday morning, I decided to skip the sights and immerse myself in Vienna's wealth of cultural offerings.
When I travel, I still get a little rush when I settle into the right train. With each journey, I celebrate the joy of not having to drive. Riding the rails through Europe is less stressful, better for the environment, and just plain friendly — offering a relaxed way to connect with traveling Europeans.
People always tell me how lucky I am to be eating my way through Europe. But my appreciation of good food was slow in coming. On my first trip to Europe sans parents, I packed along a big plastic tube filled with a swirl of peanut butter and strawberry jam. Every meal I spread it on bread and washed it down with soda pop.
I used to think of Athens as a big, ugly city with obligatory ancient sights, fine museums, the Plaka (an extremely tour old quarter), and not much else. "The joy of Greece is outside of Athens," I wrote. "See the museums and scram."
Helsinki and Tallinn are two great capitals in Northern Europe. Just 50 miles and a two-hour ferry ride apart, these two cities — facing each other across the Baltic Sea from their respective countries of Finland and Estonia — are not only neighbors, but soul sisters.
Travel is best with a few rough edges. I once suffered through an all-night stint on the blistered, black vinyl floor of a Yugoslavian train in order to wake up in Sofia, Bulgaria. When I stumbled out of that station into a blue, new Bulgarian day, just being off the train made Sofia a thrilling destination.
Madrid is the hub of Spain. This modern capital — Europe's highest, at more than 2,000 feet — has a population of 3.2 million. Like its people, the city is relatively young. One hundred years ago, Madrid had only 400,000 residents — so the majority of today's Madrid is modern sprawl surrounding an intact, easy-to-navigate historic core.
You're winging your way across Europe, having the time of your life, when you make a simple mistake. You set your bag down as you slurp an extra-large gelato, and before you know it your bag is gone. Unfortunately, today's the day you tucked your passport, credit cards, and extra cash in your bag instead of in your money belt. That sinking feeling is the realization that — except for the euro or two in your pocket — you've lost everything.
In Oslo, Norway's capital, a big statue of a tiger sits in front of the train station. A local once explained that Oslo is nicknamed the Tiger City because in the 19th century, when country boys would visit the wild and crazy "New York City of Norway," it would "make a mark on their soul."
Shoring up the old while ushering in the new, Germany and Austria invests major bucks to renovate sights, improve transit hubs, and bring soaring viewpoints and opera within easy reach of the p ublic.
After weathering volcanic ash, wicked winter snow, and rough financial storms last year, Great Britain and Ireland are hoping for a smoother 2011. Fortunately, there's a lot to look forward to.
Despite the economic downturn, France and Spain spent millions of euros last year to upgrade their public spaces and technology for visitors.
One of my favorite winter memories happened one night on the snowy slopes of the Berner Oberland in Switzerland. My friend Walter and I, warmed by hot chocolate laced with schnapps, decided to go sledding between mountain- high villages. We strapped flashlights to our heads, miner-style, and zoomed through the crisp, moonlit night.
Tracking down decent public toilets in Europe can be frustrating. I once dropped off a tour group in a town for a potty stop, and when I picked them up 20 minutes later, no one had had any luck . Most European countries are short on public restrooms, but I can teach you how to sniff out a biffy in a jiffy.
For me, holiday decorating is like a yearly trip down memory lane. Two little red carved birds on a thread remind me of my early "Europe through the gutter" days, when I dropped into the tren dy Marimekko shop in Helsinki and bought the only thing I could afford. I hate tourist traps, but I couldn't resist the delightful German-style painted wax and delicately carved ornaments from the Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas shop in Rothenburg. And the green and red skates with paper-clip blades summon up memories of my grandmother, who hand-knit them 20 years ago before her last Christmas.
Many travelers come to Italy because of its past. But Milan is today's Italy, and no trip here is complete without visiting this city. While overlooked by many, Milan is a hardworking, fashion-conscious, time-is-money city with plenty to see.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving, I'll take a break from writing about European hot spots to describe a fascinating vacation I just took to a place I'd never been before — Des Moines, Iowa. I wasn't traveling solo: I shared my time off with a thousand people from 65 nations who were attending the World Food Prize Award Ceremony.
World War I, the "war to end all wars," ended on Nov. 11, 1918, which is why we (and many other countries) celebrate veterans on this day. The battlefields of Verdun in France provide a poignant tribute to the 800,000 casualties suffered here during the horrific war, which raged from 1914 to 1918.
After graduating from high school, I took my first trip to Europe without my parents or much money. I subsisted entirely on jam, baguettes and Fanta. When I returned home, my doctor declared me "chronically undernourished." I've never had a jam sandwich or Fanta since.
For 20 years, I've built my North Wales coverage around a medieval banquet at Ruthin Castle. Driving into Ruthin — and knowing its banquet was out of business — I intended to cut the town entirely from my book. I was on edge, moody, as if I were about to commit a violent act. I was mad that the town would drop the one thing that put it on my map. I was going to kill it.
I can't think of any big city in Europe where you wake up literally at "cockcrow." In Tangier, Morocco — across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain — the roosters, even more than the minaret's call to prayer, make sure the city wakes up early. I spent my last birthday in Tangier, starting my days at cockcrow.
If you're bound for Europe, be warned: Your U.S. credit card won't always work. Thanks to new technological advances, old-fashioned tax evasion, and merchants' disgust with fees, your US credit card is not nearly as welcome as cash.
Prague is one of Europe's best-preserved cities, having been spared from last century's bombs. Nowhere is this more evident than in the hilltop Castle Quarter, which looms above the city and dominates the skyline. Filled with high art and grand buildings from the past 1,200 years, this area is packed with history. Even today, you feel like clip-clopping through this neighborhood in a fancy carriage.
It was my last day in Lisbon, and I was on a roll, until a walking tour hijacked my work. I had intended to tag along for half an hour and then duck out. But the tour was so good that I stayed the entire three-plus hours. Run by a company called Lisbon Walker, the tour was billed as an introduction to the city. Yet even after visiting Lisbon numerous times over the last 20 years, I just couldn't leave. The guide had our entire group enthralled for every minute as we walked and took the trolley through the old town.
For traditional Bavarian fun, nothing beats a good old-fashioned beer hall. Munich is Germany's beer capital, and its beer halls come complete with rivers of beer, cheap food, noisy fun, and oompah music.
For several years, I've marveled at how Berlin has eclipsed Munich in urban energy. I was just in Munich, and now it seems to be comfortable just being itself rather than trying to keep up with Berlin. It's a city that respects its past (celebrating its 850th birthday in 2008) while looking energetically into the future (it's a favorite to host the 2018 Winter Olympics).
With 600 square miles, 8 million people, and too many must-see sights to see, London can be formidable. On my last visit, I was up for the challenge. I blitzed the city from the second I arrived. After landing at Heathrow, I rode the Tube to my hotel, dropped off my bag, and hit the ground running.
For years I've flown over Stockholm's famed archipelago, or glided by it on a big cruise ship heading for Helsinki. Finally, I filmed one of my TV shows here, diving into the 80 miles of scenic islands that stretch out from downtown Stockholm. Locals love to brag that there are 34,000 islands — but they must be counting mossy little rocks, so I don't use that figure. Ferries serve a hundred of them, providing Stockholmers with the ideal island escape.
Travelers have long ago discovered most of Europe's castles. These fortresses can be fun, offering battle re-enactments, sound-and-light shows, catapult demos, dress-up costumes, fake garden parties, wagon rides, tourist accommodations, and medieval banquets.
Several years ago, I was invited to Amazon.com headquarters. After signing a legal promise of secrecy, I was taken into a special room. Someone came in carrying a package containing Amazon's secret weapon ... the Kindle.
It's rare that a town's charm will get me out of bed early. The postcard-pretty, lake-cuddling town of Hallstatt, two hours south of Salzburg, is one of those places. First thing in the morning, I head to the high end of town to look at the glassy waters of Lake Hallstatt. With the town's church spire mirrored in the tranquil water, a shuttle boat cuts through its reflection, like a knife putting a swirl in the icing on a big cake. For just a moment, it disturbs this oasis of peace.
When you know where to look, there's so much to see in Venice. Stepping ashore after a boat ride from the airport, I noticed everything seemed particularly vivid in this beautifully decrepit cityscape: Pilings rotten at the water line . . . a funeral boat with an iron casket-rack lashed to the center of the hull . . . chandeliers lighting a mansion's ceiling frescoes, which couldn't be seen during sunlit hours . . . white marble inlay that made the edge of some stairs pop.
It was 1978. My vagabuddy Gene and I were heading for a Turkish bath. With tattered towel around my waist, I walked gingerly across slippery marble into a steamy world of shadowy Turks under Byzantine domes. I felt gawky . . . and more naked than naked. After an awkward sit in the sauna, a muscular Turk, who doled out massages like cannery workers gut salmon, laid me onto a round marble slab. With a loud slap, he landed on me, his hands working as if kneading dough in a prison bakery. He smashed and stretched each of my tight muscles. Finally, like lobotomized Gumbys, we were led to marble thrones to be doused in hot water and scrubbed with coarse mittens. Dirt curled off of us in rolls. Finally, we emerged onto the streets of Istanbul, cleaner than we'd ever been.
The Irish seem born with a love of music. At social gatherings, everyone's always ready to sing his or her "party piece." Performances are judged less by skill than by uninhibited sincerity or showmanship. Nearly every Irish household has some kind of musical instrument.
If San Francisco had a sister, it would be Lisbon. Both cities have twin bridges and famously foggy weather. Both are situated on the best natural harbors on the west coast of their respective continents. Both have trolleys rattling up and down their steep hills past characteristic buildings. And both have survived horrific earthquakes.
About two hours from bustling Milan and touristy Venice is Verona — a welcome sip of pure, easygoing Italy. Made famous by Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers, Verona is Italy's fourth-most-visited city and second in the Veneto region only to Venice in population and artistic importance. If you don't need world-class sights, this town is a joy.
A reader once asked me if I were to bring a spry, 73-year-old grandmother to Europe, where would I go? My response: France's Dordogne River Valley. I'd take her for a float down the river in a canoe, then cap the day with a great riverside meal — letting her enjoy goose liver (explaining what it was later) with the finest glass of French red wine she's ever had.
Salzburg is forever smiling to the tunes of Mozart and "The Sound of Music." Thanks to its charming old town, splendid Baroque churches, and one of Europe's largest medieval fortresses, Salzburg feels designed to keep its visitors happy.
After two days in Florence, I had already met some fascinating people. First there was the woman who runs the leather school at the Church of Santa Croce (established by her family and Franciscan monks after World War II to give orphaned boys a trade). Then there was the likeable congressman from Florida whom I met while dodging a horse carriage near a Donatello statue. And while eating alone at one of my favorite restaurants, I chatted up a conductor from Switzerland with "Young Frankenstein" hair. All night we talked about pianos — a passion we both shared.
On the banks of the Rhine, Cologne is an urban Jacuzzi that keeps the Rhine churning. The city that the residents call "Koln" is home to Germany's greatest Gothic cathedral, its best collection of Roman artifacts, a world-class art museum, and a healthy dose of urban playfulness.
I checked the Orbitz site and discovered that they sneakily default a checkbox on your online reservation to include travel insurance — in other words, you need to actively uncheck this or else you will buy the insurance.
Krakow is the Boston of Poland — a charming and vital city buzzing with history, college students, and tourists. Though not the capital, Krakow is the cultural and intellectual center of the country — and easily Poland's best destination.
I never tire of tapas. Sure, you can find them in some American cities, but for the true tapas experience, you must go to Spain. When I'm there, I can't resist stopping in local bars to munch on these small portions of seafood, salads, meat-filled pastries, deep-fried tasties, and on and on.
When traveling in a country as old as Greece, ancient ruins can quickly go from magnificent to mind numbing. Great — yet another nameless hill with more stony remnants of people from centuries past. Just because something dates from B.C. doesn't mean it has to be seen. Be selective about your ancient sightseeing. Three of my favorite ruins are Delphi, Epidavros and Mycenae. All are within three hours of Athens —and all are well worth the trek.
Edinburgh is the cultural heart of Scotland. Once a medieval powerhouse stretching below its mighty castle, today it's one of Europe's most lively and festive cities.
It was Easter week in Sevilla, Spain, and the scene was holier than ever. Paraders in purple-and-white cone hats shuffled past, carrying crusader swords and four-foot candles. Like American kids scrambling for candies at a parade, Spanish kids collected dripping wax from religious coneheads, attempting to amass the biggest ball on a stick for their Easter souvenir.
Eastern Europe continues to work hard to build its growing tourist industry. From Prague to Poland to Turkey, there are plenty of changes in the works for 2010.
In the coming year, travelers to Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Scandinavian's Baltic neighbor, Estonia, will find fun new innovations that many have come to expect from these creative Nordic countries. And most of the action is taking place in their capital cities, where new sights and exciting events are sure to keep visitors entertained.
It's been 20 years since the Berlin Wall came down in Germany, and unification seems like old news. From a traveler's point of view, the business at hand seems to be to keep the economy going and visitors entertained. Things are changing in Switzerland as well. Germany's southern neighbor continues to impress me with the creative, constructive, and democratic ways it grapples with various challenges. Here are a few changes you'll encounter in both countries in 2010.
A key to experiencing Great Britain and Ireland smartly in 2010 is to embrace them not as "ye olde" destinations but as modern ones.
Mixing an abundance of cultural treasures and national pride, France is spiffing up its sights and museums from the Rhine to the Pyrenees. Of course, the biggest news is in Paris, where 2010 brings important changes that smart travelers will want to know about.
One reason why Italy is so much fun is that it just keeps changing. Here are a few new developments that are handy for you to know if you'll be visiting the land of "la dolce vita." (I've already covered what's new in Venice and Rome in a previous column.)
Rome and Venice are two of my favorite cities. But to enjoy these classic destinations fully, you need to be prepared for changes in 2010. Knowing about a few recent developments will make your visit smoother this year.
When people ask me about the scariest situation I've ever been in, I think back to a taxi ride I took to the Moscow airport in the early '90s. A no-neck guy who looked like a classic Russian mafia thug picked me up in a beat-up old car and drove for an hour down puddle-filled alleys and past derelict apartments buildings. All I could think about were those movie scenes where the good guy is taken down to the riverbank to be shot. Instead, the no-neck pulled up to the airport, shook my hand, and said, "Have a good fly."
One of Ireland's most popular destinations is the Iveragh Peninsula — known to shamrock-lovers everywhere as "The Ring of Kerry." The Ring, lassoed by a winding coastal road through a mountainous, lake-splattered region, is undeniably scenic. Visitors since Victorian times have been drawn to this evocative chunk of the Emerald Isle, where mysterious ancient ring forts stand sentinel on mossy hillsides.
During a frantically busy trip to Europe, I hopped on a train and slipped off into Germany's dreamy Mosel Valley, figuring that a dose of quaint, cobbled towns and storybook castles was just what I needed. The Mosel, located near Germany's western border, is the Rhine's peaceful little sister.
Swiss cities remind me of the kid at high school who's great at sports, has perfect hair, the best girlfriend, and the teachers all love him. He's just too perfect. Sometimes you just want to see him trip or get a pimple. Switzerland's cities can seem too perfect, too. For me — and most travelers — the mountains provide more real travel thrills per mile, minute, and dollar. But don't neglect Switzerland's pristine urban offerings in Zurich, Luzern, and Lausanne. With interesting art, colorful old towns, and serene waterfront settings, these cities are worthy stops as you head for the hills.
The City of Light shines year-round, but Paris has a special appeal in winter. Sure, the weather can be cold and rainy (the average high in January is 43 degrees), but if you dress in layers, you'll keep warm and easily deal with temperature changes as you go from cold streets to heated museums and cafes.
London dazzles year-round, but for a true "back door" experience, consider visiting in winter, when airfares and hotel rates are generally cheaper — and there are fewer tourists.
In Europe, "Christmas" lasts much longer than a day. The season stretches well over a month — not to extend the shopping season, but to fit in the many holy days and festivities.
Almost always, the tours for young people — ranging from high school students to professionals in their early 30s — are identical to the tours operated for middle-age baby-boomers and seniors. A 45-passenger bus arrives at their hotel early in the morning, taking them to the first museum. They alight from the bus, visit the museum as a group, re-enter the bus and drive to the next attraction. The experience is sterile beyond belief and divorced from the life about them, whether they are in Florence, Italy — or Antigua, Guatemala.
When I'm in Norway, I'm always amazed at how clear it is that I am with "my people." Three of my grandparents left hard times in Norway for hard times — with promise — in the United States.
As everyone knows, Pisa has the famous tilted tower you can climb, but an unspoiled Renaissance wall you can bike encircles the lesser-known Lucca. These two Tuscan towns, near Florence and each other, make for an easy day-trip from Florence. But if you have time for more than a touristy quickie, each offers great Italian city scenes — offering visitors the chance to savor Pisa's rich architectural heritage, and bask in Lucca's genuine charm.
As Germany celebrates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I can't help remembering my spooky 1971 visit during the Cold War. When we crossed back to the West, tour buses were emptied at the border so mirrors could be rolled under the bus. They wanted to see if anyone was trying to escape with us.
It was my last day in Athens after spending several weeks producing two exciting television shows on Greece. My brain was fried. I was concerned I was getting a cold, and I felt that getting sick was God's way of telling me to slow down. Instead of heading out on a shoot, I ditched work and spent the day lounging poolside on the rooftop of my hotel. Thankfully, it worked. The next day, I felt recharged.
If you're like most Americans, your image of Spain is the region of Andalucia, famous for windswept landscapes, whitewashed hill towns, flamenco and gazpacho. While visitors gravitate to the region's big cities of Granada, Sevilla and Cordoba, Andalucia's hill towns — a charm bracelet of cute villages perched in the sierras — offer a taste of wonderfully untouched Spanish culture.
Cosmopolitan Frankfurt, while low on Old World charm, offers a good look at today's no-nonsense, modern Germany. If you're a budget traveler, you'll likely fly into or out of this major hub for discount airlines.
Europe is investing in its infrastructure, and travelers know the results are breathtaking. With the English Channel tunnel, trains speed from Big Ben to the Eiffel Tower in about 2.5 hours. You zip under the English Channel in 20 minutes ... looking out the window for fish.
Brighton is South England's fun city and the destination for students, bohemians and blue-collar Londoners looking to go "on holiday." In 1840, a train connected the city to London, making the beach accessible to the masses for the first time. Since then, Brighton has become "London by the Sea." Whether wind, rain, or shine, it's where people come for a good time — and a fine toffee apple. And though the town has grown a little shabby, Brighton still knows how to crank out the fun.
Standing at the end of Gdansk's long wooden pier, I realize that I can see two of the most important sites in 20th-century history: the spit of land where World War II began, and the shipyard where the Cold War started its long and gradual final act. Many people imagine this northern-Poland city to be a wasteland of rusted, smoke-belching shipyards. But that's just one view of this multifaceted place. Gdansk boasts an illustrious history and one of the most picturesque old quarters in Eastern Europe.
Recently when I was in Tuscany, a region fiercely proud of its beef, I sunk my teeth into a carnivore's dream come true. In a stony cellar, under one long, tough vault, I joined a local crowd for dinner. An open fire in the far back of the vault powered the scene. Flickering in front of the flames was a gurney, upon which lay a huge hunk of beef. Like a blacksmith in hell, Giulio — a lanky man in a T-shirt — hacked at the beef with a cleaver, lopping off a steak every few minutes.
Market days are an especially big deal throughout France. No single event better symbolizes the French preoccupation with fresh products and their strong ties to the farmer than the weekly market. And in no other region is it more celebrated than in Provence.