Europe Travel Guide
There’s something magical about Venice on a sunny winter’s day. With far fewer tourists around and the light sharp and clear, it’s the perfect time to lap up the city’s unique and magical atmosphere. Ditch your map and wander the shadowy backstreets of Dorsoduro while imagining secret assignations and whispered conspiracies at every turn. Then visit two of Venice’s top galleries, the Gallerie dell’Accademia and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which house works by many of the giants of 20th-century art.
Granada’s Alhambra, Spain
The palace complex of the Alhambra is close to architectural perfection. It is perhaps the most refined example of Islamic art anywhere in the world, not to mention the most enduring symbol of 800 years of Moorish rule in what was then known as Al-Andalus. From afar, the Alhambra’s red fortress towers dominate the Granada skyline, set against a backdrop of the Sierra Nevada’s snowcapped peaks. Up close, the Alhambra’s perfectly proportioned Generalife gardens complement the exquisite detail of the Palacios Nazaríes. Put simply, this is Spain’s most beautiful monument.
London’s Nightlife, Britain
Can you hear that, music lovers? That’s London calling – from the numerous theatres, concert halls, nightclubs, pubs and even tube stations, where on any given night hundreds, if not thousands, of performers are taking to the stage. Search for your own iconic London experience, whether it’s the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, an East End singalong around a clunky pub piano, a theatre performance in the West End, a superstar DJ set at Fabric or a floppy-fringed guitar band at a Hoxton boozer.
Ancient Rome, Italy
Rome’s famous seven hills (actually, there are nine) offer some superb vantage points. A favourite is the Palatino, a gorgeous green expanse of evocative ruins, towering umbrella pines and unforgettable views over the Roman Forum. This is where it all began, where Romulus supposedly founded the city and where the ancient Roman emperors lived in unimaginable luxury. Nowadays, it’s a truly haunting spot; as you walk the gravel paths you can almost sense the ghosts in the air.
The drama of Norway’s fjords is difficult to overstate. They cut deep gashes into the Norwegian interior, adding texture and depth to the map of northwestern Scandinavia. Sheer rock walls plunge from high, green meadows into water-filled canyons shadowed by pretty fjord-side villages. Sognefjorden, more than 200km long, and Hardangerfjord are Norway’s most extensive fjord networks, but the quiet, precipitous beauty of Nærøyfjord (part of Sognefjorden), Lysefjord and – the king of fjords – Geirangerfjord, are prime candidates for Scandinavia’s most beautiful corner.
Eiffel Tower, France
Seven million people visit the Eiffel Tower annually and most agree that each visit is unique. From an evening ascent amid twinkling lights to lunch in the company of a staggering city panorama, there are 101 ways to ‘do’ it. Pedal beneath it, skip the lift and hike up, buy a crêpe from a stand or a key ring from the street, snap yourself in front of it, visit at night or – our favourite – experience the odd special occasion when all 324m of it glows a different colour.
Remembering the Berlin Wall, Germany
Even after 30 years, the sheer magnitude of the Berlin Wall, and and the disbelief that it really cut through this city, doesn’t sink in. But the best way to examine its role in Berlin is to make your way – on foot or by bike – along the Berlin Wall Trail. Passing the Brandenburg Gate, analysing graffiti at the East Side Gallery or learning about its history at the Documentation Centre: the path brings it all into context. It’s heartbreaking, hopeful and sombre, but integral in trying to understand Germany’s capital.
The Matterhorn, Switzerland
It graces Toblerone packages and evokes stereotypical Heidi scenes, but nothing prepares you for the allure of the Matterhorn. As soon as you arrive at the timber-chalet-filled village of Zermatt, this mighty mountain looms above you, mesmerising you with its chiselled, majestic peak. Gaze at it from a tranquil street-side cafe, hike in its shadow along the tangle of Alpine paths above town with cowbells clinking in the distance, or pause to admire its sheer size from a ski slope.
St Petersburg, Russia
Marvelling at how many masterpieces there are in the Hermitage; window-shopping and people-watching along Nevsky Prospekt; gliding down canals past the grand facades of palaces and golden-domed churches; enjoying a ballet at the beautiful Mariinsky Theatre; having a banquet fit for a tsar then dancing till dawn at a dive bar in a crumbling ruin – Russia’s imperial capital is a visual stunner and hedonist’s delight, best visited at the height of summer when the White Nights see the city party around the clock.
Dubrovnik’s Old City Walls, Croatia
Get up close and personal with the city by walking Dubrovnik’s spectacular city walls, as history is unfurled from the battlements. No visit is complete without a leisurely walk along these ramparts, the finest in the world and Dubrovnik’s main claim to fame. Built between the 13th and 16th centuries, they are still remarkably intact today, and the vistas over the terracotta rooftops and the Adriatic Sea are sublime, especially at dusk when the sundown makes the hues dramatic and the panoramas unforgettable.
Prague, Czech Republic
Prague’s big attractions – Prague Castle and Old Town Square – are highlights of the Czech capital, but for a more insightful look at life more than two decades after the Velvet Revolution, head to local neighbourhoods around the centre. Working-class Žižkov and energetic Smíchov are crammed with pubs, while elegant tree-lined Vinohrady features a diverse menu of cosmopolitan restaurants. Prague showcases many forms of art, from iconic works from the last century to more recent but equally challenging pieces.
On first view, startling Santorini grabs your attention and doesn’t let it go. The submerged caldera, surrounded by lava-layered cliffs topped by villages that look like a sprinkling of icing sugar, is one of nature’s great wonders, best experienced by a walk along the clifftops from the main town of Fira to the northern village of Oia. The precariousness and impermanence of the place is breathtaking. Recover from your efforts with Santorini’s ice-cold Yellow Donkey beer in Oia as you wait for its famed picture-perfect sunset.
Imperial Vienna, Austria
Imagine what you could do with unlimited riches and Austria’s top architects at your hands for 640 years: you have the Vienna of the Habsburgs. The graceful Hofburg whisks you back to the age of empires as you marvel at the treasury’s imperial crowns, the equine ballet of the Spanische Hofreitschule (Spanish Riding School) and Empress Elisabeth’s chandelier-lit apartments. The palace is rivalled in grandeur only by Schloss Schönbrunn and also the baroque Schloss Belvedere, both set in exquisite landscaped gardens.
Moscow’s Red Square, Russia
With the gravitational pull of a black hole, Red Square sucks in every visitor to Russia’s capital, leaving them slack-jawed with wonder. Standing on the rectangular cobblestoned expanse – surrounded by the candy-coloured swirls of the cupolas atop St Basil’s Cathedral, the red-star-tipped towers of the Kremlin, Lenin’s squat granite mausoleum, the handsome red-brick facade of the State History Museum, and GUM, a grand emporium of consumption – you are literally at the centre of Russia’s modern history.
Amsterdam’s Canals, The Netherlands
To say Amsterdammers love the water is an understatement. Sure, the city made its first fortune in maritime trade, but that’s ancient history. You can stroll next to the canals and check out some of the thousands of houseboats. Or, better still, go for a ride. From boat level you’ll see a whole new set of architectural details such as the ornamentation bedecking the bridges. And when you pass the canalside cafe terraces, you can just look up and wave.
Barcelona’s La Sagrada Família, Spain
One of Spain’s top sights, La Sagrada Família, modernist brainchild of Antoni Gaudí, remains a work in progress more than 90 years after its creator’s death. Fanciful and profound, inspired by nature and barely restrained by a Gothic style, Barcelona’s quirky temple soars skyward with an almost playful majesty. The improbable angles and departures from architectural convention will have you shaking your head in disbelief, but the detail of the decorative flourishes on the Passion and Nativity facades are worth studying for hours.
Straddling both sides of the romantic Danube River, with the Buda Hills to the west and the start of the Great Plain to the east, Budapest is perhaps the most beautiful city in Eastern Europe. Parks brim with attractions, the architecture is second to none and museums are filled with treasures. And with pleasure boats sailing up and down the scenic Danube Bend, Turkish-era thermal baths belching steam and a nightlife throbbing till dawn most nights, it’s easy to see why the Hungarian capital is one of the continent’s most delightful and fun cities to visit.
Castles & Mountains of Transylvania, Romania
The Romanian region that so ghoulishly inspired Irish writer Bram Stoker to create his Dracula has some seriously spooky castles. Monumental Bran Castle, south of Braşov, is suitably vampiric, but our favourite haunt has to be the 13th-century Râşnov fortress just down the road. The castles are nestled high amid the Carpathians, a relatively underexplored mountain range that’s ideal for all manner of outdoor activity, including hiking, trekking, mountain biking and skiing.
Bay of Kotor, Montenegro
There’s a sense of secrecy and mystery to the Bay of Kotor. Grey mountain walls rise steeply from steely blue waters, getting higher and higher as you progress through their folds to the hidden reaches of the inner bay. Here ancient stone settlements hug the shoreline, with Kotor’s slender alleyways concealed in its innermost reaches behind hefty stone walls. Talk about drama! But you wouldn’t expect anything else of the Balkans, where life is exuberantly Mediterranean and lived full of passion on these story-filled streets.
Magnificent ruins of its ancient civilisation are scattered across the mainland and islands of Greece, but it’s in its capital Athens that the greatest and most iconic of those monuments still stands. High on a rocky outcrop overlooking the city, the Acropolis epitomises the glory of ancient Greece with its graceful Parthenon, decorative Erechtheion and 17,000-seat Theatre of Dionysos. Other impressive ruins littering this resilient, vibrant city include the mammoth Temple of Olympian Zeus and two agoras (marketplaces; one Greek, one Roman) mingling with first-rate museums.
Straddling Europe and Asia, and serving stints as the capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, İstanbul is one of the world’s great cities. The historical highlights cluster in Sultanahmet – the Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace and Grand Bazaar. After marvelling at their ancient domes and glittering interiors, it’s time to experience the vibrant contemporary life of this huge metropolis. Cross the Galata Bridge, passing ferries and fish-kebab stands, to Beyoğlu, where the nightlife thrives from chic rooftop bars to rowdy taverns.
Lisbon’s Alfama, Portugal
The Alfama, with its labyrinthine alleyways, hidden courtyards and curving, shadow-filled lanes, is a magical place to lose all sense of direction and delve into the soul of the city. On the journey, you’ll pass breadbox-sized grocers, brilliantly tiled buildings and cosy taverns filled with easygoing chatter, with the scent of chargrilled sardines and the mournful rhythms of fado drifting in the breeze. Then you round a bend and catch sight of steeply pitched rooftops leading down to the glittering Rio Tejo and you know you’re hooked.
The Estonian capital is rightly famous for its two-tiered chocolate-box Old Town with landscapes of intertwining alleys, picturesque courtyards and red-rooftop views from medieval turrets. But be sure to step outside the Old Town walls and experience Tallinn’s other treasures: no visit is complete without sampling its stylish restaurants plating up fashionable New Nordic cuisine, its buzzing Scandinavian-influenced design community, its ever-growing number of museums – such as Kumu, the city’s award-winning modern-art repository – or its progressive contemporary architecture.
Whether you come to sublime, hilly Ohrid for its sturdy medieval castle, to wander the stone laneways of its Old Town or to gaze at its restored Plaošnik, every visitor pauses for a few moments at the Church of Sveti Jovan at Kaneo, set high on a bluff overlooking Lake Ohrid and its popular beaches. It’s the prime spot for absorbing the town’s beautiful architecture, idling sunbathers and distant fishing skiffs – all framed by the rippling green of Mt Galičica to the southeast and the endless expanse of lake stretching out elsewhere.