Though perhaps younger than some of the cities of the Mediterranean, Riga, the capital of Latvia, has over 800 years of history – with most of that history turbulent. Latvia’s location along the Baltic Sea has long made it an important strategical spot for centuries. In the Viking era, the fearsome Scandinavian warriors often came to the Baltics during their annual raids, though the Baltic raids weren’t considered as good as those of England or France. In medieval times, German and Teutonic knights and Swedish kings stamped in and out of Riga and Latvia – really the Baltics in general – taking control of it or simply raiding it in times of need. In more recent times, the Soviets laid claim to this little Baltic nation, in its quest for control over trade and military might in the Baltic Sea. From above, we see a forest of Gothic spires rising above Riga, and below down at street level, we see a beautiful rainbow of bright colours and Art Nouveau façades adorning each street, square and alleyway. Riga is an easy place to wander and explore – Art Nouveau architecture rears up randomly throughout the city, narrow alleys wrap themselves around unique buildings, small streets open up into large squares home to impressive churches, guildhalls, markets, mansions and other magnificent edifices. It is perhaps for this splendid blend of styles, creativity, history and beauty that Riga Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Neither Slovakia nor its capital city of Bratislava are places that often make travel wish-lists of grand tours of Europe. At the heart of Eastern Europe, Bratislava and Slovakia in general has always been a place swept under the rug of larger powers. Though Bratislava may not have the charm of some other Central and Eastern European cities (such as Prague, Vienna or Krakow), its cobbled streets, ancient churches, quirky statues and mosaic roofs are well worth the wander. And then of course there is the castle, rebuilt “recently” after a fire gutted the estate. Today, its shimmering white towers float in the fog on a hilltop above the city. Though Slovakia is on the Euro, the country is still good value for money, and the fact that it isn’t as famous as its neighbours means that you won’t be fighting tourism crowds while still enjoying a fairly authentic experience. Start by wandering the old narrow streets in the morning – you’ll probably have them all to yourself at this hour. Visit the castle and the Blue Church, say hello to Cumil then have some lunch – be sure to try some Slovakian crepes (called palacinky) as well as a glass of local beer such as Bazant Radler. If you stay for the evening, you’re in for a treat – Bratislava is meant to have a great nightlife scene and is quite popular with hen and stag parties!
Pro tip: Bratislava is only about an hour away from Vienna, and the cities make a good combination (Vienna is bigger but Bratislava is far more cost effective). Bratislava Airport is a good alternative access point to the region to Vienna’s airport.
From farmer’s markets to flea markets, ice cream stands to crêperies, from sunshine to rainy days, Place Saint Léger, tucked within the bright, colourful streets of Chambéry, has seen it all. Chambéry is a small but beautiful French town not far from the Italian border and comfortably snuggled in the foothills of the French Alps. In fact, on a clear day, the Alps are clearly visible; on a rainy day, you may just make out their massive silhouettes in the fog. Chambéry’s air is much cooler and crisper than the air of larger nearby cities like Lyon or Torino. It’s surprisingly colourful here, as if Poland‘s vibrant market squares have been transported to Western Europe and imposed upon a French city. Despite its small size and vaguely-remote location, Chambéry is a bustling mini-metropolis. Street after street exudes colours from their painted facades. Neighbours stop to chat, tourists wander the streets in small groups, cafes fill with patrons. Everywhere, there is an air of tranquility. This is a place where one eats heartily, walks slowly, breathes clearly, and relaxes entirely.
Pro tip: Looking for something unique? Head to Place des Éléphants to see Chambery’s strange centrepiece: the Elephant Fountain! It is exactly what it sounds like, a fountain made of 4 elephant sculptures. For hikers and outdoor lovers, Chambéry is a good base to explore the western fringes of the Alps and still enjoy the charms of a sizeable city.
Interlocked islands, rambling streets, sloping hills, Vikings history, lapping waves—welcome to Stockholm. This is a city on the water. A city composed of islands. One of Europe’s cleanest, greenest cities. Bright and colourful, upbeat and happy, lively and hard at work, Sweden is a sparsely-populated yet very advanced nation. It has a long history, yet is one of the most modern and progressive country in Europe. Perhaps it’s the cold—it make you work faster?—perhaps it’s the language—structured and to the point—or the just the culture—they are known for their directness—but it is hard to beat the Swedes for a nicer, greener, more progressive or harder-working nation where every piece of information is given so directly and every person has the right to walk anywhere they want (even on private property). Well—except perhaps for Norway. Or Denmark. But don’t tell that to the Swedes! 😉
Of all forms of transportation, trains and trams are certainly the most romantic. Visit any city that still uses its old-fashioned trams, and you can’t help but smile at them, reminded of black-and-white films and all that they come with. In the evening light, old-fashioned trams are even more picturesque and romantic – and downtown Antwerp is no different. While the central square of Antwerp is both beautiful and well-populated with tourists, most of the old town is quiet and empty, the kind of streets where one can hear the rustle of leaves and tap, tap of shutters against walls. You walk along the tram tracks, lost in a zig-zag of backstreets lined with brick houses, searching for a restaurant or perhaps just going for an evening stroll, when suddenly in the dim haze, you see a small light in the distance. No more is all quiet; you can hear the clacking of the tram’s wheels against the iron, you can see the swaying motion of the carriages as the tram takes the bend. Flattening yourself against one of the buildings, you watch as the round headlight grows bigger and bigger until finally, the tram chugs by you, disappearing around the next corner–leaving you alone on the street once more with nothing more than the rustle of the wind to keep you company.