“Pray look better, Sir… those things yonder are no giants, but windmills.” – Don Miguel de Cervantes
In this case, ‘those things yonder’ happen to be ornately decorated towers in Mudejar (Moorish) style. Said pinnacles adorn the town of Alcalá de Henares, birthplace of famous Spanish writer, Miguel de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote) and today a place of pilgrimage by literary, history, cultural and architecture nerds alike. A UNESCO heritage site, it was the only Roman town in the Madrid region, even attaining “Municipium” status. Conquered and rebuilt and reconquered and rebuilt again means that Alcalá’s (literally ‘citadel in Arabic) architecture is a hodgepodge of various styles, cultures and epoques; even the site of the city moved back and forth a few times. Most notably was the Moorish conquest, as they left the most visible footprint on the city, the impressive Mudejar architectural style seen here. Cervantes was born here, and although his family moved away during his childhood, the city still reveres him, hosting the Cervantes Festival every October. Even more impressively, each April 23rd, the King of Spain awards the prestigious Cervantes Award for literature at Alcalá’s esteemed University of Alcalá. Get to Alcalá de Heneres by commuter train (40 min) from Madrid station Atocha or Chamartin, if you buy tickets from the machine.
Probably the most famous of Ireland’s six national parks is Connemara, hugging the central section of the Wild Atlantic Way (a 2,500km route following Ireland‘s western coast). More of a cultural region than anything else, Connemara is a region in northern Galway, although its purple-and-gold bogs and savage mountains seem fall from the colourful bustle of Galway City. Diamond Hill is the jewel in the crown of the Twelve Bens Mountain Range, and is easily the most accessible part of the surrounding region. On a backdrop of the Twelve Bens, from the summit, gaze out over the lakes of Connemara (made famous in France by singer Michel Sardou’s 1981 Lacs de Connemara), the late Victorian Kylemore Abbey (that is most certainly not a castle, despite common perception), as well as narrow inlets leading to the Atlantic Ocean. The hike itself is not hard if you are reasonable fit, though there are shorter versions for those who are not. Diamond Hill is a great introductory hike in the region, but once summited, the best way to get to the heart of Connemara is to get away from its visitor centres and instead head off to its villages and rougher hills – places like Roundstone Harbour, Clifden town, Errisbeg Hill and the bogs of the Marconi Monument spring to mind. Curl up by a turf (peat) fire in a cheery pub with a hand wrapped around a pint while chatting with the locals (or listen to them speaking Irish Gaelic!) to really get under the skin of this romantically remote and forlorn part of Ireland.
City of Arts & Sciences (Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias), Valencia, Spain
Some of Europe’s strangest architecture can be found in Spain – from Bilbao’s famous Guggenheim Museum to Gaudi’s everything (Casa Mila, Casa Batllo, Parc Guell and of course Sagrada Familia Cathedral). As one of the 12 Treasures of Spain and Valencia’s most visited site, the bizarre architecture of Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences deserves to be on the same list. Covering roughly two kilometres of the former riverbed of the River Turia, this bizarre complex is a homage to modern arts and architecture, yes, but also to science, culture and technology. An opera house, a science museum, an IMAX cinema, a vastly diverse park with walking paths along an open-air arts gallery, an aquarium and a concert venue make up this colourfully bizarre futurist complex. Contrasting strangely with Valencia’s old town, both halves of the city are worth the visit!
Bathed in soft, chilly rays of sunshine, the ancient cobblestones, facades and walls of ancient Prague add a warm glow of luminescence on a chill winter day. Though the cold can be biting, winter is the perfect season to pay this amazing city a visit. Not only are crowds thinner, but the city is alive with Christmas – from some of the best Christmas markets in Europe to live seasonal concerts to streets dancing with trees, wreaths, lights and more. Roasted chestnuts, hot wine and local sweet rolls are made and sold on every corner. It is impossible to escape the festive attitude – especially when the snow sweeps in, dusting and blanketing every surface with a layer of soft, white snow! Follow this steep, narrow street up the top of Prague where you’ll come face-to-face with a castle of epic proportions, layered with stones and stories, overlooking not just Prague but a good chunk of Czech Republic (or Czechia) as well. Prague is a perfect Christmas destination in the making!
In the heart of Slovakia’s capital Bratislava, under the shadow of the imposing white walls of 17th century Bratislava Castle, is the aptly-named Blue Church. Initially painted in light pastels to lighten up the oval-shaped interior, this church dedicated to Elisabeth of Hungary was later repainted in dozens of shades of blue: the walls (both interior and exterior), alter, mosaics, the tower, the roof tiles. All varying degrees of blue, azure, cobalt, sapphire, cerulean, periwinkle, indigo. Built at the start of the 20th century, the evocative church utilises Hungarian Art Nouveau style. Art Nouveau is a short-lived but wildly-popular style that took Europe by storm at the turn of the century, and is characterised by its use of natural shapes and structures, curvy and fluid lines, as well as incorporation of graceful plants and flowers. Though this movement was started in the UK, it was France where it really took off, influencing architectural styles, art, sculpture and design across the main urban areas of Europe. This wildly unique style’s life was cut short by the sharp simplicity of Art Deco and even worse, the drab boxiness of Modernism – but not before the elegance of the Art Nouveau movement had spread its wings throughout Europe. From Riga to France, this Art Nouveau’s fingers left behind some of the strangest and most intriguing architectural wonders in modern Europe.
One of France’s Most Beautiful Villages and one of the most charming towns one can expect to stumble onto in Europe, the tiny, spiral-shaped village lost in the middle of France is reminiscent of another era. The fortified town was built in the Middle Ages, and though Pérouges has no castle, it does feature a fortified church (with extra-thick walls), as well as an enticing maze of weaving streets, all eventually ending at the Place de Tilleul. Today the quiet centre of this tiny village and site of a delicious local restaurant, Place de Tilleul was one the thriving marketplace of bustling Pérouges during medieval times. Crumbling into dust until recent years, the village has seen a seen an upturn in tourism, saving the cobblestoned marvel from becoming a ghost town like so many other quaint but behind-the-times places across Europe. Here in Pérouges and its romantic Place de Tilleul, one can briefly capture a glimpse into another world, a peek into another era, before slipping out through the village gates and back towards the main road that leads to nearby town Meximieux and the 21st century. Pérouges is most quickly approached on foot via the road Route de Pérouges from Meximieux but a far more picturesque way to approach the village is via the forest track along Aubepin Pond.
Welcome to Ostrów Tumski, or Cathedral Island, hugging the Odra River in the centre of Wrocław. The oldest region of the city, Ostrów Tumski is no longer an island, though this ancient place is still home to some of Wrocław’s most impressive religious sites, as well as adorable cobblestoned streets. The orange-roofed Church of the Holy Cross is a brick, Gothic-style church that was once used by ethnic Germans while the city was still behind German lines before WWII (Wrocław has at times been a part of Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, Habsburg Monarchy, Prussia, German Empire, Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany). For both a bird’s eye view and a dive into the religious and civil history of the city, a visit to Wrocław Cathedral is in order – culminating with a not-for-the-faint-hearted climb up one of its massive towers. The origins of the present structure date to the 1150s after the Polish conquest of the region of Silesia and the founding of Wrocław as its capital, though the cathedral was rebuilt following various trending styles through the ages. Today a thriving student town as well as one of Poland‘s (and Eastern Europe‘s) most important financial, cultural and commercial hubs, Wrocław is place of beauty, intrigue, and good-natured charm.
Under a Sud Tyrol sun, the narrow trail quietly weaves to and fro through leafy forests and thick undergrowth as it climbs the steep slopes of Mt Kronplatz. Germanic though the name may sound, the mountain is most assuredly in Italy, not far from the cute village of Brunico. Though admittedly, this region of northern Italy was actually Austrian before the wars of the 20th century. The cool thing about Mt Kronplatz is how fluently it masters the double seasons when so many other mountainous places don’t. Ever since the rise of popularity in the luxury ski resort in the French Alps, Alpine destinations have forgotten to tell the world how fantastic exploring the Alps is during the summer. At Kronplatz, it too has a fancy ski resort, attracting wealthy skiers from all over the world during colder months. But during the summer, the mountain bursts into lush forests and rich meadows blanketed in a brilliant quilt of wildflowers. For those adventurous souls who love to hike, there are (steep) trails that wild their way up the mountain, as well as mountain bike trails that head back down it. For those who want the view but not the strenuous effort, or for hikers that prefer a one-way trip, simply take the gondolas! Repurposed during the summer, the network of skiing gondolas are perfect for getting up and down Mt Kronplatz while still providing epic views of the Alpine slopes. At the top, enjoy rich views, including this one of a mountaintop cross-like shrine on a sublime backdrop of the majestic Alps, before heading into the cafe for a deliciously well-deserved lunch and cold beer at the repurposed ski resort!
Wooden houses on the edge of Aurlandsvangen, Norway
Wooden clapboard houses, dipped liberally in sombre yet sharp colours, hug the cold shores of one of the most beautiful fjords in all of Norway, the massive Sogneford. The village of Aurlandsvangen is located on one of the fjord’s thinnest and most stunning branches: the narrow arm of Aurlandsfjorden. Its sister arm, Nærøyfjord, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Home to a mere 770 people, the little houses of the village cling happily along the edge of the fjord. In this place, where the river weaves through the . mountains to cascade into the fjord, life is simple. Due to the influx of tourists, however, it has gotten more complex lately. When people travel sustainably, there is little impact on the destination. However, tiny fjord villages like Aurlandsvangen or nearby Flam have been overwhelmed with visitors, receiving double or triple their population daily in season. While visiting small communities such as these is great in that tourism spending strengthens the villages’ local economies, too large an influx who simply ‘pass through’ on the way to somewhere else (without spending locally) only succeed in leaving a negative footprint. Be mindful of local cultures and communities when you travel and make sure your euros stay in the local destination and don’t go to faraway international corporations.
Moscow is filled with wonders: golden domes, brick-red towers, huge parks, Stalinistic skyscrapers, broad avenues, elegant theatres, brightly-coloured Orthodox churches. It is a city of considerable fortune (reflected in its extremely high rent prices) that draws people in from all walks of life, either to live there or simply visit this place. Perhaps this vast array of cultures accounts for the vast array of noteworthy architecture. One such example is the so-called House of Friendship, as known as the Arseny Morozov House, located on the far side of the Kremlin. Built at the turn of the century, this fin de siecle folly (fake castle) was modelled after the exotic and eclectic Monserrate Palace in Sintra, Portugal. The design of the House of Friendship includes twisted columns, encrusted shells, and lace-like stonework. Built for party-loving Arseny Morozov, it later became the Proletcult Theatre in the 1920s. This was the branch of Soviet theatre branch tasked with ideology and propaganda, evoking industrial, factory, farming, and other such motifs without much regard towards plot. Sadly, the only way to visit the luxurious and bizarre interior is to attend a concert or lecture held at the house. Instead, gouge yourself on the eclectic exterior while roaming the streets of Moscow in search of the city’s most extraordinary architectural designs – of which it has no shortage!
The Tower of London as seen across the Thames River, England
The infamous Tower of London. It has a reputation for horror – death – torture. While not 100% wrong, this was the view propagated in the 16th century (did you know that only seven people were executed at the Tower of London up until the 20th century?) In fact, most executions instead took place on Tower Hill, and even then, just 112 people were executed over 400 years, a number far lower than we’d expect considering the harsh laws during the time. The dark threat of being ‘sent to the tower’ doesn’t come from Medieval times at all, but rather the 16th/17th centuries where darkness had to be hidden under the surface of polite society – so the Tower became a popular place to send unwanted royals or nobles. At one time a royal residence, a palace, a prison, a menagerie, a royal mint, a treasury and a fortified vault for the Crown Jewels, today’s Tower of London is one of London‘s top tourism destinations, and the most visited castle (not including palaces, which are quite different) in Europe – nearly 3 million visitors cross its threshold every year. The Tower’s oldest section, the White Tower, dates back 1078; other expansions date largely to the early Middle Ages, including exertions by Richard the Lionheart, Henry III, and Edward I. All of this combined makes the Tower of London one of the UK‘s most impressive cultural heritage sites, and for this, it has been recognised by UNESCO. Due to the vast amount of visitors, it is hard to properly visit the Tower of London – best advice is to avoid school holidays and visit in the low season (late September just after school starts but before holidays begin or in the dark days of winter in January or February). Though it can never entirely escape its dark past, it may not be as dark as you thought.
Vedrette di Ries-Aurina Natural Park in Sud Tyrol, Italy
The Dolomites is a loosely defined mountainous area in northern Italy comprising of peaks, villages, waterfalls, parks and a strong Germanic identity leftover from post-war. border changes with Austria. The Vedrette di Ries-Aurina Natural Park (Naturpark Rieserferner-Ahrnin German). Crowned with high, rugged peaks and low, lush valleys, the park is a paradise for golden eagles, peregrine falcones, wild deer, and diverse Alpine flora. Cold, clear mountain lakes shimmer like lost marbles amongst the jagged peaks of the Dolomites carved out of the rough mountains by ancient glaciers. Waterfalls like the nearby Cascate di Riva continue to chisel away at the Vedrette di Ries-Aurina’s Alpine canvas. Best of all, ancient forests spread their leafy branches in a canopy over the chocolate-coloured earth, their leaves whispering in the wind. This is a place overlooked by the rush and buzz of the high-sprung 21st century routine. From creaking pine bridges and wooden stairs to soft, springy earth underfoot, the Vedrette di Ries-Aurina park is a place best explored and appreciated while travelling on foot. (One recommended start is at the Cascate di Riva, as there is a small car park just off the main road).
The 12th century Chateau des Adhémar remains one of the last true examples of Romanesque architecture, a style defined by rounded arches, thick walls, squat towers and sturdy pillars. This study, box-like castle was built atop a sunburnt hill which overlooks the orange-tiled, sunny town of Montélimar (located in the Drôme department in the south of France). Appropriated by the papacy in the 14th century until 1447 when it re-entered the Kingdom of France, the castle has been used as papal residence, an armament for several conflicts and wars, a citadel, a prison, a country residence, and now a contemporary art museum. In fact, Chateau des Adhémar was largely saved in the last few centuries as it was put to use as a prison. The famed loggia, or loge, with the striped design and rounded windows attached to the main keep was added during the Renaissance to ‘beautify’ what was considered a ‘plain’ Romanesque design. The beautiful Renaissance loggia was also built to add light to formerly gloomy rooms as well as show off the expansive countryside on Chateau des Adhémar’s toes. Located in the inner courtyard is the ancient 11th century St Pierre Chapel. Once a part of the wide-reaching monastic network centred at the Monastery of Ile Barbe in Lyon, the simple Romanesque chapel was later incorporated into the castle complex by the powerful Adhémar family. Today, the castle is a fine example of Romanesque and Renaissance architecture, as well as the modern art movement. It offers splendid aerial views of Montélimar and is a perfect stop on a road trip heading from Lyon to Nimes, Avignon, Montpellier or any other destinations in Southern France!
See Other Fascinating Places in the South of France
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.
Andalucia is one of Europe’s most enchanting places. Vast tracts of farmland stretch to the horizon, dotted with snug farmhouses tucked among the golden and chocolate-coloured foothills. Rugged landscapes colour the foreground while the jagged spires of the Sierra Nevada Mountains set the backdrop. Beautiful Andalucia is home to the famous pueblos blancos, the magnificent white villages peppering the golden brown hills of southern Spain. In this region, time seems to slow to a standstill. People take time to live their lives slowly, to appreciate the simple joys of everyday. Groves of oranges and olives climb the sunburnt slopes until they finally disappear over the hill crest. The over-abundance of oranges and olives, not to mention tomatoes, grapes, almonds, cereals, and sunflowers is evident – pop-up open air markets are everywhere, in each village. Old wooden tables groan under the weight of the fresh produce – aficionados of the farm-to-fork movement at its purest! Vineyards, too, abound in Andalucia and further afield in Spain. It’s easy to find good yet cheap wine (no need to ever spend more than €10 per bottle…). Better yet, enjoy a cold glass of delicious sangria while basking under the Andalucian sun in villages like Grazelama, Zahara de la Sierra, or the town of Ronda. There are a lot of incredible places to watch a sunset, but the green and golden checkered fields, bone-white villages and rugged landscapes – not to mention the cloudless skies – make for some pretty spectacular performances. Best enjoyed with a sangria in hand…of course.
The Warsaw Mermaid Statue in Warsaw’s Old Town, Poland
There are multiple mermaid statues flopping their way through Europe. Completely unrelated to the mythical selkies of western Ireland and only loosely related to Copenhagen’s The Little Mermaid, the Syrenka, or Mermaid of Warsaw, is the official symbol of Poland‘s capital. Popular legend has it that while swimming by Warsaw, the Mermaid decided she liked it so much that she would stay. Local fishermen were frustrated with competing with her for fish, so they attempted to catch her, but like most mermaid stories, the men fell in love with the mermaid’s song and let her free. She was then captured by a wealthy merchant, but upon hearing her cries, the fishermen rushed to her rescue, and ever since, she’s been a warrior mermaid armed with sword and shield ready to protect Warsaw. A lesser-known version claims that the mermaid came to the rescue of a lost prince and he founded Warsaw in her honour. A final version and tie-in with Copenhagen is that the Danish Little Mermaid and the Warsaw Mermaid are sisters from the Baltic Sea, separated by their respective capitals. No matter which legend you favour, the Mermaid remains Warsaw’s symbol and protector, and there is a small but lovely statue in her honour in the centre of the Stary Miasto (Old Town square) for visitors to pay homage to the city’s protector.
The natural border between the nations of Poland and Slovakia, there are ample opportunities to literally walk across the border while hiking the mountain trails (thanks to the EU, this is all okay). The Tatras are a little-known mountain range in southern Poland, but offer some of the best hiking in Europe. Compared to the Alps, the Tatras may seem small – but they are also a road not taken by many. Zakopane, Poland’s capital of the Tatras, is the busiest town in the region (also known for skiing), but most of this mountain range is woven with rustic trails that meander through quiet forests and quaint villages. The Tatra Mountains eke a sort of majestic silence – hiking through their quiet backcountry transports you to another world where villagers still organise outings to go mushroom-picking, celebrate local traditions, song and dance, and bake traditional dishes with little influence from outside the region. Here, timeless landscapes nearly untouched by modern times abound. The bustling Zakopane is an easy starting from, as it’s the most well-known city in the Tatras, but it’s also the most crowded and least authentic. Consider instead starting from one of the a smaller towns far off the beaten track – one example is the Rajcza, a little south of Bielsko-Biala. Of note, the town of Zywiec (home of Zywiec Brewery) isn’t far. Near Zakopane is the amazing mountain fortress Niedzica Zamek. Small towns like Poronin or Nowy Targ are also lovely! No matter where you head into the Tatra Mountains, you won’t be disappointed; every inch of the Polish and Slovakian Tatras is magical.
Vltava River in Prague, Czech Republic from Charles Bridge
Charles Bridge is surely one of the world’s most famous bridges. Built in 1357 and the only means of crossing the thundering Vltava River until 1841, both Charles Bridge and the Vltava River have played a strategic and economic role throughout the city’s history. Prague’s location on the Vltava River has long been important for trade and shipping between eastern and western Europe, and that economical power, along with Prague’s famous bridge that connects its timeless old town with the majestic Prague Castle, have all helped to bounce Prague to international acclaim. Though always beautiful, there are two moments where Prague becomes nearly divine in beauty. The first is Prague covered in soft, brilliant snow, the pure white of the fallen snowflakes contrasting beautifully on the dark, ancient stones that make up the Gothic architectureof Charles Bridge, the Castle and most of the Old Town. Alone under the evening blizzard with snow underfoot, the smells of chimney smoke, hot wine and roasted chestnuts intermingle in the air, as the air itself rings with the jubilant sounds of the famed Christmas market – the perfect picture of Christmas bliss. The second time when Prague becomes almost unbearable with beauty is when bathed in the brilliance of the Golden Hour, both at sunrise and sunset, when the incandescent light glitters off the richly-coloured stones and the ancient architecture to make you feel as if you are part of a fairytale, or a painting. Sunrise is preferable – this way, you will avoid the crowds. Sunset, as seen above, will not disappoint either.
See More Reasons Why Eastern European Cities are so Magical
Autumn colours light up the palate of Kazimierz Dolny’s castle gardens. Kazimierz Dolny is a small, quirky village in eastern Poland within easy day trip striking distance of Warsaw, Poland’s capital. Though a short-lived season, Poland is vivid in autumn – September being a spectacular month for a visit, as the entire month seems to follow the rules of the Golden Hour usually attributed only to brief moments at sunrise or sunset. After weaving Kazimierz’s bustling medieval streets, head up the hill where you will pass the zamek – the lower castle – before climbing the path to the 19-meter tower, or the upper zamek. The view from here over the castle gardens, town and Wisla River (Vistula River in English) is simply splendid. Before the castle was built, the hilltop housed a beacon to warn surrounding settlements of impending attacks. Once upon a time, there was even a drawbridge, a moat, and five floors. Though you can’t climb more than one storey up now, the castle, gardens and tower are all a mystical and magical place made even better when doused in the golden autumn sunlight.
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Barreling through parts of Switzerland, France, Austria, Italy, Germany, Liechtenstein and Slovenia, the Alps are Europe’s premier mountain range. Though Mont Blanc is the tallest, there’s far more to this rich mountain range than the graceful, snowy peak of Mont Blanc. The snow-capped mountains and rugged landscapes of the Alps have always played an important role in the cultures that are contained within them. Mountain passes doubling for trade routes through these Alpine peaks have encouraged the castles, settlements, villages, towns and roads that sit within their harried shadows. In the past century or so, the majestic slopes of the Alps have given life to some of the top ski resorts and destinations, such as Chamonix, Megeve, Aosta, Cogne, Innsbruck, Zermatt, Interlaken, and so many more. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the pristine air and utter remoteness of the Alps were appreciated by wealthy Europeans looking for long holidays abroad to ‘improve their health’ who often chose resorts and villages in the Alps, usually preferring Switzerland. The Alps contain some of the original European ski resorts, and it has only been in recent years, however, that the Alps have been widely appreciated by both travellers and the tourism industry as a summer destination, building up summer infrastructure for hiking and mountain biking paths, zip-lines, horse-riding, swimming in Alpine lakes, Alpine summer cuisine, local artisans and crafts, and more. Switzerland has some of the most well-known peaks, top resorts and most adorable Alpine villages and valleys and is therefore recognised as the all-around Capital of the Alps.