For many Americans, Europe is the ultimate dream destination. Whether you’re attracted to its cobblestoned villages steeped in history, its museums filled with artistic masterpieces, its rich and varied landscapes, or its wealth of gourmet food and wine, the allure is unmistakable. Even if you’ve been to Europe before, there are plenty of untouched corners you surely missed the first (and second, and third…) time around. Here are a few of our favorite places to visit in Europe — on and off the beaten path — for all types of travelers, from history buffs to culture vultures to foodies.
Tried and True: Rome’s intimate neighborhoods and stylish modern streets have sprung up around some of the most magnificent relics of the ancient world. First-time visitors should make the requisite pilgrimage to the Colisseum (prepare to wait in line), where beasts and men met their deaths before crowds of thousands. Then head over to the nearby Forum, the center of ancient Rome; this area is best approached with a good guidebook to help you envision what these ruined buildings looked like in their prime. Venture underground to see the catacombs where the city’s first Christians were buried — including, temporarily, the Apostles Peter and Paul. More historic treasures abound in the extensive Vatican Museums (Sistine Chapel, anyone?), St. Peter’s Basilica and the city’s hundreds of churches and palazzos.
Been There, Done That? Located on the physical and cultural boundary between Europe and Asia, Istanbul is nearly as ancient as Rome — but entirely in a class of its own. Shaped by both Christian and Islamic cultures, Istanbul is a sometimes chaotic blend of churches and mosques, Byzantine mosaics and bustling bazaars. The two most famous historic attractions are the massive Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia), a sixth-century Byzantine cathedral converted first to a mosque and then to a museum, and the Blue Mosque, a distinctive 17th-century house of worship topped by six minarets. Don’t miss Topkapi Palace, a relic of the Ottoman Empire that now houses a museum — including the famous sultan’s harem.
Tried and True: Ireland’s lush Ring of Kerry is located on the Iveragh Peninsula in the southwestern part of the country. This coastal road wends its way through tiny villages and over rolling green hills, overlooking steep rocky cliffs and wide sandy beaches. The standard way to see the Ring of Kerry is by car or tour bus, but you might also consider taking the slower route and renting a bike. One particularly scenic place to cycle (or hike) is Valentia Island, the westernmost point in the British Isles. There you’ll find the untouched landscapes and quaint villages for which Ireland is famous.
Been There, Done That? For truly stunning coastal views, skip the touristy French Riviera and head for Croatia’s Dalmation Coast (called the “new” French Riviera), where rugged mountains tower over the shimmering waters of the Adriatic Sea. The relative lack of tourism here has left beaches and fishing villages unspoiled. The main highlight is the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik, with its beautifully restored Old Town — but you’ll also want to take a scenic ferry ride to some of the outlying islands off the coast, including Hvar, Korcula and Brac.
Museums and Culture
Tried and True: From the theaters of the West End to the countless museums and galleries throughout the city, London’s cultural offerings would take months to fully explore. There’s something for every interest. Love Shakespeare? Check out the reconstructed Globe Theatre on the banks of the Thames. Interested in learning something new? London’s museums range from the huge and famous (like the British Museum, with artifacts from around the world) to the intimate and obscure (try the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood). Best of all, most of Britain’s museums are free.
Been There, Done That? Though not as easily accessible to American visitors as London, St. Petersburg is home to its own storehouse of cultural treasures. Most of them can be found in the Hermitage, one of the largest art museums on the planet. Don’t even try to see everything — instead, pick a few wings of world-class paintings to explore thoroughly. Don’t miss the Winter Palace, the oldest of the museum’s four historic buildings. While the Hermitage brims with Western European art, there’s plenty of native work on display in the Russian Museum a few blocks away. Beyond museums, the city boasts a number of gorgeous churches, and internationally renowned ballet stars take to their toes at the Mariinskiy Theatre.
Tried and True: Though it’s not as much of a bargain as it used to be, Greece is still one of the cheaper countries in Europe to visit — not to mention its millennia of historic sights and its stunning island scenery. A recent price comparison found a five-star hotel in Athens for 163 euros, compared to 270 euros for a five-star hotel in London during the same time period. (To avoid inflated hotel rates, steer clear of visiting Greece during Easter and summer festivals.) Most of the key historical sights in Athens are located within walking distance of each other, saving you money on transportation. There are plenty of inexpensive snack foods to be found, such as pita sandwiches and spinach and cheese pies. Reasonably priced ferries are available from Athens to the most popular Greek Islands, including Mykonos, Naxos and Santorini.
Been There, Done That? Like much of Eastern Europe, Hungary offers crumbling castles, historic villages and pristine landscapes — many of the star attractions of Western Europe but with fewer tourists and lower costs. (A recent search turned up a five-star hotel in Budapest from just 133 euros for the same time period mentioned above.) Hungary’s well-developed tourist infrastructure makes it once of the easiest Eastern European destinations to visit, and the distinctive language and culture of its citizens — who call themselves the Magyar — make a trip here utterly unique. Start your trip in Budapest, founded as the joining of two separate cities, Buda and Pest, situated on opposite banks of the gently flowing Danube River. Most of the historic sights are found on the west bank in Buda, including Castle Hill and the romantic Old Town. Other cities worth a visit are Eger and Pecs.
Food and Wine
Tried and True: The wealth of gastronomic tours of France out there speaks to its reputation as the gourmet destination in Europe. France is renowned for its world-famous winegrowing regions, from Cognac and Bordeaux in the west to Champagne and Provence in the east. You can’t really go wrong visiting any of country’s vineyards — and if you’re on a tight budget, rest assured that even the least expensive table wines in France are likely to be of high quality. Of course, France has plenty of gourmet food to go with your wine — you’ll find hundreds of types of cheese, exquisite pastries and regional specialties galore (like coq au vin, cassoulet and quiche lorraine).
Been There, Done That? Known mainly for its Port wine industry, Portugal offers excellent wine and food at quite affordable prices. The most famous wine region is the Douro Valley to the north, offering not only spectacular wines but also stunning landscapes dotted with vineyards, rolling hills and deep gorges. Don’t miss sampling both the Port and Madeira wines, but many table wines are worth a try too. Portugal’s proximity to the ocean means that its fish and seafood dishes are true standouts. There are also a number of excellent regional cheeses to try, such as the sheep cheese from the Serra do Estreia or Alandroal goat cheese.