Torino & the Alps, Italy

Torino mountains

Panorama of Torino & the Italian Alps, Italy

Torino, like much of Northern Italy, falls far off the tourism map. When most of us hear the word, “Italy,” we think of rural Tuscany, fairy tale Venice, or the artsy Florence. Italy equals Mediterranean ocean views, Roman temples and gelato by the beach, right? Not necessarily. Northern Italy is like a country unto its own. Nothing at all like southern Italy, Northern Italy is Alpine and mountainous, fast-paced and serious, and in the winter it gets cold and snowy. Those who live here seem more Swiss than Italian (and those who live in the northwest Dolomites region are more Austrian than anything else!). The grand city of Torino (which you may know as “Turin”) is certainly one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. The eclectic architecture, genuinely happy (and multilingual!) people, elegant streets, mountainous backdrop, delicious cheeses as well as amazing pizzas and wines make Torino a city full of surprises. But if you really want a treat, take the time to hike up the hill, Monte dei Cappuccini on the other side of the Po River to see the whole of Torino spill out below you. On a magnificent backdrop of the towering Alps, the glittering Po River and the beautiful red roofs with white walls, the enormous spire if the Mole Antonelliana rises up to the sky, as if reaching for the heavens. Originally built as a synagogue in the late 1800’s, the building (which now houses a cinema museum) sports the highest work of masonry in all of Europe. After a day wandering the grand avenues, splendid squares and wee alleyways, take your time to drink in this aerial view of Torino – it is well worth it!


Pro tip: Whether you believe in its divinity or not, the museum about the Shroud of Turin explores a fascinating piece of history and worth the visit. Visit here for practical info.


Where to visit next? More amazing places to discover in Northern Italy.


This post was originally published in July 2014. It has since been revised and updated. 

 

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Munich Cathedrals, Germany

Munich, Germany

Frauenkirche & Cathedral of Munich – Munich, Germany

One of Germany’s most beautiful cities is Munich, capital of the famed region of Bavaria. Munich is a city filled with stunning architecture. Its skyline is pierced with spires of churches and cathedrals and towers and its ground is laid with cobblestones. The city centre is filled with architectural wonders – palaces, halls, great houses, beer halls, churches, towers. In the above photo, the spire to the right is from the Cathedral of Munich, while the twin spires to the left are from the Frauenkirche. It is in the Frauenkirche where you’ll find a footprint indented in the floor. Legend has it that this is the Devil’s footprint – the builders needed help finishing the church and the devil offered his aid to finish it. From the front door, the columns form an illusion to block all of the windows so the Devil thought that it would be a dark, damp church and no one would want to go there. When he realised that the builders tricked him, he was so angry he stomped his foot down in anger – hence the imprint of a foot on a stone by the door. (A less exciting explanation could be a the footprint of the master builder himself). Whatever you believe, it makes a good story!


Pro Tip: Take the free walking tour of Munich as you’ll learn about this legend and more – a perfect introduction to Munich! 


More Beautiful European Cities

 

Vaduz City Centre, Liechtenstein

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Vaduz City Centre, Liechtenstein

The Principality of Liechtenstein is a micro-country snuggled deep within the massive mountains of the Alps. With 38,000 citizens spread over several ‘cities’ (each with a couple thousand people, they are more like villages), Liechtenstein feels more like a single vast town than a proper country. But a real country it is – and for a long time, this real country was known as a millionaire and billionaire tax haven. Headquarters to many international companies and banks, Liechtenstein has one of (if not the highest) GDPs per person in the world and one of the lowest unemployment rates – 1.5%! The  small capital of Vaduz has a distinctly Germanic Alpine feel – the above town hall and cathedral fit the style perfectly. Yet the quirky modern art displays and the glossy windows of the fancy banks remind us that Liechtenstein rests firmly in the 21st century. Sitting on a backdrop of mountains and castles, some of which are still owned by the royal family, Vaduz fells fallen out of a German fairy tale – the Brothers Grimm and the Black Forest do not seem so far away. Though you can drive from one end of the country to the other in 30 minutes, this micro-country packs a bundle: admire formidable fortresses like Vaduz Castle and visit the museum in Gutenberg Castle, hike through the dark Alpine forests in the summer and ski the dark snow-capped mountains in the winter, wander the streets of Vaduz, Schaan and Balzers, or enjoy a glass of the locally-grown red wine.


Visit More Places in the Alps Mountains
  1. Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany
  2. Annecy, France
  3. Megève, France
  4. Valnonty in the Valle d’Aosta, Italy
  5. Sacra di San Michele Monastery, Italy
  6. Innsbruck, Austria

 

The Canals of Amsterdam, Netherlands

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The Canals of Amsterdam, Netherlands

More than 100 kilometres (60+ miles!) snake their way in, around, and through the historic city of Amsterdam. Known throughout the world for hookers and weed, there is far more to this city than just that. Amsterdam is one of Europe’s great capitals and it isn’t afraid to show it. It is made up of 100+ kilometres of canals, 90+ islands, 1,500+ bridges and countless of the famed Hanseatic facades. Its geography means that it is a compact city – growing up rather than out. When people move into the upper floors of apartments, it’s usually easier to carry large furniture up through the window via a crane rather than up the winding, narrow staircases. Yes, many people come here for the Red Lights and the weed cafes, but if you can pull yourself away, go for an evening stroll through the backstreets and back canals – there, you will see the ‘real’ Amsterdam, the behind-the-curtain Amsterdam. Catch a glimpse of what the city really is – a work of art created and constructed around miles of glittering and glimmering canals.


More Beautiful European Canals Worth a Visit
  1. Bruges, Belgium
  2. Ghent, Belgium
  3. Annecy, France
  4. Strasbourg, France
  5. Copenhagen, Denmark

 

Wrocław, Poland

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Rynek of Wrocław, Poland

Sometimes you just need a place to cheer you up – something that the city of Wrocław (pronounced Vraat-swauve), snuggled in the southwestern corner of Poland, does quite easily. From the circular, room-sized painting of the Battle of Racławicka to the colourful city squares to the funny little gnome statues hidden around town to the cheery student dive bars, Wrocław is one of Poland’s most enjoyable cities where fun and beauty are the currency. One of Poland’s biggest student cities, Wrocław is a city where anything goes. Enjoy the view of Ostrow Trumski, the cathedral complex on the other side of the Odra River before joining the innumerable number of students in the city’s parks and terraces for a cold beer and an afternoon picnic.


Other Beautiful Places to Visit in Poland
  1. Warsaw: Poland’s Capital City
  2. The Colourful City of Poznan
  3. Gdansk, Capital of the Baltic Sea
  4. The Artsy Village of Kazimierez Dolny
  5. Lublin: The Bridge to the Eat

 

Bratislava, Slovakia

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Hlavné námestie (Main Square), Bratislava, Slovakia

Did you know that Bratislava and Vienna and the closest (geographically-speaking) capital cities in Europe? Just one hour by train, and only 55 miles as the crow flies! Bratislava is also directly between Vienna and Budapest. There are Americans commute that same distance every day! Therefore, there is no excuse not to add Bratislava to your Austrian/Hungarian itinerary. Not only that, but Bratislava is still relatively “undiscovered.” While Vienna and Budapest may be grander and more inherently beautiful, they are also unavoidably touristic. In many ways, this is a good thing (i.e., foreign languages such as English, French, Spanish, Russian, etc, are prevalent), but this does take a way a little from the experience. To really get into the heart of central/Eastern Europe, Bratislava provides an excellent gateway. A smaller, and easily walkable city, Bratislava affords a quaint Old Town, a magnificent and glowing castle on the hilltop, many fine restaurants for very affordable prices, a lovely promenade along the Danube, funky statues and street art (including Cumil), and an overall fun and relaxed scene. During winter, everything is covered in a light layer of snow, pure and white. At Christmastime, Christmas markets abound, full of handmade gifts and trinkets. Meanwhile in the summer, sunny days blanket the city, glistening off the Danube–reminding us that it is, indeed, the Blue Danube.

Prague, Czech Republic

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Prague, Czech Republic

Bathed in early-morning light is the only way to visit Prague’s Staré Město, or Old Town. If you only see one Eastern European city, it will probably be Prague. Why? Prague is without doubt one of the most beautiful cities you will ever behold–possibly the most beautiful European city (in my opinion anyway, alongside St Petersburg, Tallinn, Dubrovnik and Ronda). It is also one of the most international–in the space of minutes, no matter the season, one will hear not only English and Czech, but also Polish, Russian, Italian, French, Spanish, German, Swedish, Portuguese, Danish, Slovakian (should I continue? You’ll hear them all!), as well as plenty of non-European languages. It seems that everyone has discovered the Czech capital–but don’t let that stop you! Prague’s magnificent old town, its massive castle, its picturesque views from Castle Hill, its delicious beer, its unbelievably low prices, and its generally quaint yet elegant appearance is to die for! Its central location makes it easy to visit, as a 5-hour drive in any direction will get you to : Berlin, Bratislava, Budapest, Częstochowa, Dresden, Graz, Krakow, Munich, Nuremburg, Vienna, or Wroclaw !  While in town, be sure to go shopping–they have some of the cheapest prices you’ll ever see–but most importantly, be sure to rise and shine early at least once, because Prague during the sunrise is, well, utterly beautiful!

Grenoble, France

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Grenoble, France

Voici la ville de Grenoble, the Gateway to the Alps. And here we are, looking through an actual gateway! Grenoble, while generally acknowledged to be a “modern” city – and far from the top of the (very long) list of Beautiful French Cities – it is still well-known for its easy access to the Alps and all that comes with these spectacular mountains. Busy with hikers in the summer and skiers in the winter, inactivity is a malady quite unknown to the city. That said, stop for a coffee, pastry or ice cream in many of the cafes downtown, and you won’t be disappointed! For fantastic views, weave your way up the steep, narrow paths up through the stone buildings in various states of ruin until you finally reach the Bastille – where you can expect a magnificently beautiful panorama !

Linz, Austria

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Linz, Austria

Resting on the banks of the famous (though not always blue) Danube, Linz has neither the splendour of Vienna nor the musical reputation of Salzburg. However, what Linz does have is the ability to let visitors truly integrate into Austrian culture while avoiding the crowds of Linz’s two overwhelming neighbours. Situated almost equidistant from both Vienna and Salzburg, a quick stopover in Linz is both easy and logical. A city almost always overlooked because it didn’t manage to produce nearly as many musical genii as Austria’s other cities, it did manage to create the Linzertorte, a type of lattice-topped pastry filled with jam, which one can eat while learning German from cheerful shopkeepers, biking down cobble-stoned lanes, and watching swans float down the Danube. And that, in itself, is reason enough to visit!