1. London is… colour
Forget the grey skies and industrial brick walls still stained with smog, London is arguably the most colourful city in Europe. From big red buses to lively London characters, hail an infamous black cab and if your mouth’s not ajar by Euston, we guarantee it will by the time Big Ben dings his dongs.
Stay somewhere that creaks under the hammering of London chatter and if you’re an early-riser (or if the jetlag permits) catch the city in its majestic morning light, before the mass exodus of commuters disrupt the calm. Almost post-apocalyptic – and in a city of eight million inhabitants – it’s not often London rests so serenely. Find breakfast in the crease of an alleyway or inside bijou cafés serving hot pastries and espresso. Britain may not be renowned for great coffee, but in a city of 270 different nationalities, you’re bound to find one that executes the perfect strong black.
For something equally sedate, London’s major art galleries and museums all offer free admission, while the glitzy West End is constantly flush with exciting new productions. Scratch a little deeper and you’ll find much more than mainstream musicals, including immersive theatre and free improv comedy, it pays to dart into a dank London pub down an otherwise derelict side-street, for that is where the laughter bellows.
2. Switzerland is... surprising
Switzerland's got more charisma (and Christmas pumpernickel) to compete with the best of Europe, and yet it’s still relatively undiscovered. A charming standalone nation of traditional Europe (no thank you EU), it's a mecca of charming townships, modern-thinking cities and countryside with grass that’s greener than green.
For days when you need a bish, bash and wallop in your life, The Museum Tinguely documents the life works of Jean Tinguely, one of Switzerland’s most revered artists. During his life, Tinguely specialised in sculptural machines and kinetic art; great honking pieces of moving mechanical sculpture which he put together by any means possible, whether that meant stringing bicycle wheels to musical instruments, or scrap metal to porcelain dolls.
In Switzerland you can also take the train to the highest station in Europe. Jungfraujoch sits at an altitude of 3454 metres and is better known as the ‘Top of Europe.’ After a staggeringly pretty journey by cogwheel train you will arrive in a fresh air wonderland, with stunning views across The Aletsch glacier: Europe’s largest.
And then there’s Basel itself. Sitting on the Rhine in northwest Switzerland, it boasts one of the most scenic settings in Europe. Move over Geneva, this is one of the best preserved (and arguably the prettiest) nuggets of traditional Europe, with narrow cobblestone streets and crooked townhouses. Best explored by foot, the shopping streets are closed to car traffic, allowing for easy exploration.
3. Germany is… romantic
So much so, they even have their own Romantic Road. The perfect scenic route for a self-drive holiday.
For followers of all things beautiful and Bavarian, and it helps if you’re a beer lover too, Germany’s Romantic Road, albeit well-travelled, is still one of the most rewarding self-drive itineraries in Europe. Stretching from Würzburg to Füssen with 350 kilometres of road in between.
The starting point is Würzburg. With a focal hilltop castle and a storybook town crammed with gingerbread houses, spires and clock towers, it’s Grimm Brothers meets traditional Bavarian beauty. Spend a full day and at least one night here before journeying to Neuschwanstein. Nestled in the foothills of the Alps, you may not recognise Neuschwanstein by name but you’ll definitely recognise its castle; famed for inspiring the iconic Disney castle, their silhouettes are almost identical.
Weaving your way through the lush back roads of Tauber Valley, past flower-dappled meadows and rolling green pastures, you’ll arrive in Rothenburg, and one of the many walled cities along the Romantic Road. Rothenburg is particularly pretty come nightfall, when the lanes are deserted but remain aglow with dimly lit streetlights.
In Nördlingen, take the 2.7km leisurely stroll along the historic walls. As a town located in the crater of a meteorite impact and with panoramic views from the St George‘s bell tower, it’s full of impressive Kodak moments. From here travel to Munich - spending as much or as little time in the beer-famed city as you like - and finish up in Füssen, where the route (but not the romance) officially ends.
4. Milan is... a masterpiece
Bet you thought it would cost more than €8 to view one of the world’s most important art masterpieces? And yet that’s how much you’ll have to dig into your wallet to visit Santa Maria delle grazie; a church and Dominican convent in Milan. It’s also home to Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, which sits rather modestly on the wall of the convent’s refectory.
Yes we know. €8 (that’s barely $NZ12) to be in the same room as a Da Vinci showpiece. The church admission is actually free but Leo’s mural will cost you €6.50 plus €1.50 booking fee. The only catch is that you will have to book in advance. Due to temperature regulations, only 25 people are allowed in the refectory at a time but it’s well worth the advance payment.
This is a painting that was slapped on the wall by Da Vinci way back in 1495, using a new technique which is now known as ‘secco’. For little more than 11 dollars you get to stand in the same room that 522 years earlier, a master of the arts stood and held a palette of dry plaster, paint and water. That’s a bucket-list life experience for the same price as a cheap bottle of (Aussie) wine.
From Milan, you should explore Lake Maggiore because you’re just 90 minutes from this Italian beauty. An enormous stretch of Sapphire blue, the true showstoppers are the Borromean Islands, which you can discover while staying at either (or both) of the lake’s two main towns, Stresa and Verbania.
6. Athens is... history
It’s Athens. Where do you even start? Of course there are the must-dos: The ancient citadel of Acropolis perched above the city, and the iconic fluted columns of the Parthenon still standing in (almost) all their glory. There’s also the Panathenaic Stadium (or Panathinaiko) which is an ancient arena constructed in 1896 for the first modern Olympics, and built entirely from marble. In terms of archaeological prowess, this is a city that certainly gives Rome a good run for its money.
The lesser-known Athens’ highlights include the tiny neighbourhood of Anafiotika. More Greek island than Greek city, the sleepy narrow streets are flanked by white stone churches and leafy lemon trees. For panoramic vistas of Athens in its entirety, climb Vrahakia and stop at the top of Aeropagus Hill; there’s no better place to soak up sweeping views of Acropolis.
You might want to bring your marmite as breakfast isn’t a big meal for the Greeks. They prefer to down rocket-fuel coffee and snack later on. Unless your accommodation is a resort/western environment then the breakfast might not be quite what you expect - all the better to fill up later in the day with plentiful Greek delicacies - olives, moussaka, feta, fish and of course, ouzo.
Start with a thimble of the potent potion at Ouzeri Lesvos Restaurant, not many people know about this gorgeous Athens hangout, but once found, this little gem delights. Do it like a true Athenian and combine the ouzo with beautiful Greek tapas.
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