Kiev’s first UNESCO site, the 13 spires of the 11th century Byzantine St Sophia Cathedral contrast wildly with the more modern concrete blocks courtesy of communism. Named for the famous church-turned-mosque the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul/Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia is one of the best architectural relics of the Kievan Rus. With ground broken in 1011, St Sophia’s Cathedral celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 2011! Like many religious buildings, its history has been far from peaceful. St Sophia was pillaged in 1169 and again in 1240, leading to abandonment and disrepair, including the loss of irreplaceable wall paintings. It was later damaged again in the 1500s when Poland and Ukraine joined forces in a misguided (and doomed to fail) attempt to unite the Catholic and Orthodox churches. It was claimed by several Orthodox communities – notably, the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church and the Moldavian Orthodox Church, who made repairs to St Sophia in the Ukrainian Baroque style. The Soviets wanted to destroy the cathedral and turn it into park, and indeed they managed to do so with St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery at the other end of the boulevard. But its popularity and reputation caused many to speak for the cathedral and St Sophia was saved, instead being turned into a history museum. And today, due to arguments over which branch of Orthodoxy should hold the rights to this ancient place, St Sophia remains a museum, frequented more by tourists than by members of the Orthodox community.
Pro tip: Things in the Ukraine follow their own rules and opening hours. Be sure to arrive early and be ready to wait if they say its not open. Special rates for students. Be sure to visit St Michael’s afterwards!
Temperate Glasshouse in Kew Gardens, London, England
The Kew Royal Botanic Gardens are some of the finest botanical gardens in the world. Spread over 121 hectares (300 acres), wander amongst some 50,000 plants found across this UNESCO World Heritage site outside London. The jewel of Kew Gardens is the beautiful Temperate House. This Victorian-era glasshouse – opened 1862 – was built to be the stunning entrance to the royal gardens when the rail line was complete. Things didn’t go to plan, and the railway station was moved to the other end of the park. The building itself is quite marvellous, containing thousands of panes of glasses (replaced after more than 100 WWII-era bombs rocked Kew), while the thousands of plants within this iron and glass dome are even more so. The Victorians had an intense curiosity. Those who could afford to went on adventures to all corners of the Earth in search of the new and exotic to bring back to mother England – or more likely, sponsored an explorer to go off in their name. Those who couldn’t afford the adventures themselves would instead satisfy their curiosity by going to palm houses, world fairs, circuses, museums, curiosity cabinets, exhibits, wax halls, and other such places. Housing 1,500 plants from 5 continents and 16 islands, the Temperate House covers plants within the temperate zone (where most of the world population lives, the temperate zone is sandwiched between the polar and tropics – including North America, Europe, China, Australia, southern Africa, and parts of South America). While at the Temperate House, wander the narrow alleys between plants before climbing up to the viewing platform for an aerial panorama of the ecosystems below and the wrought and cast iron structure above. Whether or not you have an interest in biology and ecosystems, Kew Gardens and its glasshouses are a fascinating place – both pulling you into the past with its Victorian glasshouses as well as looking towards the future at the effects humans have on the planet, and working to conserve and protect the Earth’s flora.
Pro tip: Visit the Palm House while you’re at Kew Gardens. When you’re in Belfast, be sure to visit the Palm House in Belfast’s Botanical Gardens and in Dublin visit the National Botanic Gardens – all four glasshouses are designed by Victorian-era architect Richard Turner. Also while in Kew, be sure to check out the beautiful glass art by artist Dale Chihuly.
Despite its unfortunate name, Cockburn Street is a lovely wee street that leads from Waverley Train Station in the New Town up into Edinburgh‘s spectacular Old Town. Much of the Old Town still follows its medieval street plan, comprised of a network of cobbled streets, narrow closes and wide avenues. Edinburgh’s Old Town is full of grander, glitz and history. Wander up to Royal Mile (High Street), marvel at the cathedrals, churches and museums, walk along grand buildings, watch street performers, duck into lively pubs and cosy cafes, before finally arriving at Edinburgh Castle, an idyllic fortification that perches on a huge crag formed by a now-extinct volcano. Alongside Edinburgh’s New Town (built in the 18th-19th century), Edinburgh’s city centre is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is the most significant cultural hub of Scotland. Because of limited space and advantage of living within the defensive wall (now gone), the Old Town became home to some of the world’s earliest “high rise” buildings as early as the 16th century. Though boasting certain advantages, the tightly-packed atmosphere was vulnerable to flames, and the Old Town is marked by the Great Fire of Edinburgh of 1824, which obliterated huge portions of buildings on the south side, and their rebuilding in Victorian times led to the accidental creation of numerous passages and vaults under the Old Town. Another blight on Edinburgh was the 20th century slum clearances, when the rundown, overpopulated slums of Canongate were cleared out in the 1950s to make room for grander buildings. Despite these darker elements of Edinburgh’s past, the Edinburgh of today is a busy, lively and fun place to be.
Pro tip: Looking for a wool or tweed souvenir? Avoid the shops on High Street as unfortunately a lot of that is made in China these days. You can’t go wrong with traditional Harris Tweed, made solely on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides and with each weaver certified to the brand’s high standards.
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.
Bruges is a truly fairytale place (thanks, In Bruges). Quaint canals are lined romantic facades, graceful weeping willows, cosy cafés and lovely quays. Canals are crossed with romantic bridges – of which each one is different from the same as the next. Like Venice, they function as streets, a unique way to get around the city. In fact, Bruges is sometimes nicknamed the “Venice of the North” (though it is not the only city to hold the name – see below). The historic centre of Bruges (a UNESCO world heritage site) is a small, quaint, romantic place. Compact enough to comfortably walk the whole city, Bruges still has a lot going on, not to mention, it is eye candy for art and architecture lovers! From the Belfort (belfry and its famous bells) to the Provincial Palace, Ghent Port and City Hall – not to mention all of the churches, gates, bridges, administrative buildings and even ordinary houses – there is no shortage of historic and beautiful sites upon which to feast your eyes on this spectacular medieval city.
Pro tip: Bruges is a busy, busy place. Therefore, try to visit in the off season. To make the most of your visit, be sure to stay over at least one night – many of the tourists are day trippers from Brussels. After the day crowds thin out, go for a wee nighttime stroll – with the city all glittering and reflecting, it adds a new layer of magic to this place! Also, Belgian fries and Belgian waffles are more than just stereotypes – they are perfection and delicious. Best place to get both are often the wee food trucks and hole-in-the-wall chippers!
Ireland is one of the richest destinations when it comes to Neolithic heritage, in particular, Neolithic era tombs. Here in Ireland, we still have thousands of them. Capping most hills and mountains is some kind of cairn, usually small and inconspicuous. Two regions are particularly concentrated: Sligo and Meath (though interestingly, Celtic Neolithic societies stretched all the way to Scotland, Wales,Bretagne, and Galicia). The biggest of the Neolithic tombs is found in Meath. UNESCO site Newgrange is one of Ireland’s wonders. Built around 3,200BC according to archeologists, the Newgrange monument is an enormous mound/ cairn that encloses a single, 19-metre-long passage tomb ending in 3 burial chambers where cremated remains were once placed. Inside, the passage is narrow but visitors are still able to walk (unlike the tombs at Carrowkeel where you have to crawl…). Walls are adorned with spirals and other basic forms of megalithic rock art, and the tomb’s roof uses corbelling, an ancient drystone technique that makes the tomb waterproof without even requiring mortar! Even with the thousands of tombs they’ve left behind, we know very little about the ancient Celtic Neolithic people of Ireland. One thing that is evident is that astronomy was very important to them. In fact, Neolithic people had a good understanding of sun, moon, and stars including solstices and equinoxes. Newgrange is aligned with the Winter Solstice, therefore for 6 days in mid December, the sun shines through the “roofbox” (that narrow slit above the door of the tomb) to the lighten the chamber with sunlight. Amazing!
Pro tip: If you want to visit for the Winter Solstice, you can enter the lottery (with about 30,000 other applicants for 100 available places!) Or head to one of the other Neolithic sites for similar alignments. For Newgrange, in general we recommend booking in advance, and going early in the day. However, Newgrange Visitor Centre will be closed for most of 2019 so while works are going on, you can’t book in advance, but to compensate, tickets are free and first-come basis during the works. Best to visit in the off season or early, around 9 am. Nearby site of Dowth is also amazing – you can’t get inside anymore, but you’ll have it all to yourself. Or head to the Hill of Tara.
Irish author George Bernard Shaw once said “If you want to see heaven on earth, come to Dubrovnik,” – and yes it is that pretty. The white-stone marvel overlooking the dazzlingly blue Adriatic Sea is a true architectural beauty. By day, Dubrovnik, also known as Ragusa, is a tangled canvas of azure, orange and pearl-grey, and by night, it is a cheery glow of yellows and gold brushstrokes. Dubrovnik is made up of an array of wide boulevards and narrow alleys, a jungle of styles – Baroque, medieval, gothic. It wasn’t always so. In 1991, after the not-so-peaceful breakup of Yugoslavia, poor Dubrovnik was besieged for more than 7 months by the Yugoslav People’s Army in the scarily-recent year of 1991. The Old Town in particular suffered greatly at the hands of this pointless shelling, and it took more than a decade to painstakingly return Dubrovnik to its former glory (a fate that mirrors that Warsaw and Dresden after WWII, and most likely Notre Dame de Paris after the 2019 fire). Today, Dubrovnik is under a different kind of siege. While Game of Thrones, Instagram and cruise ships have succeeded in putting Dubrovnik on the map, it has gone too far. The explosion in popularity has pushed poor Dubrovnik to the brink of unsustainable overtourism, an affliction that unfortunately also affects other well-known destinations like southwest Ireland, Barcelona, Iceland and Prague. They are now staggering cruise ship arrivals to spread out the numbers, but until big cruise ships are forbidden to dock in small and medium-sized cities (Dubrovnik has just 45,000 inhabitants!), the problem will persist. For the sake of historic and heritage preservation, do not travel on big cruise ships (nothing over 250 people…) or coach tours as these forms of mass tourism are ruining national monuments.
Pro tip: As stated, do not travel on the big cruise ships. Instead, visit Dubrovnik in the off season (Oct-early April). If you’re dead set on arriving by sea, take the ferry from Bari, Italy across the beautiful turquoise Adriatic Sea – not only is it a lovely way to travel, it is cost effective and saves you a night of accommodation. Food here is similar to Italy – expect a lot of pizza and fish!
In the centre of the wildly beautiful city of Krakow is the eclectic structure known as Wawel Castle. Commissioned by King Casimir III in the 13th century, Wawel Castle is a strange mix of nearly all the popular architectural styles of the 13th – 18th centuries – including medieval, gothic, Renaissance (particularly Italian), Baroque, Romanesque and more (neo-classical seems the only important style of the time missing from the list). The Wawel we see today is much altered from the original structure – parts were destroyed by fire, leading to other parts added on or rebuilt entirely. When it was occupied by the Prussian Army, it was changed to meet new needs and new standards – Wawel’s was modernised and its interior re-styled. Defensive structures were changed, and some buildings were removed. Long the residence of Polish kings during Poland‘s Golden Years and beyond, Wawel overlooks one of Poland’s most spectacular cities. In fact, Krakow is one of the few urban centres not razed during the devastating WWII (due to Hitler using it as a base camp). Today, as one of the largest castles in Poland, Wawel Castle is a member of UNESCO world heritage sites (alongside Krakow’s historic downtown). Inside, find museums and exhibition on art, architecture, history, ceramics, weaponry, gold, and even articles from the Orient. To visit is also the cathedral, the ‘lost’ basements where the foundations show what once was there, and cave leading to the banks of the river nicknamed “the Dragon’s Den,” home to the legendary Dragon of Wawel lived.
Pro tip: Wawel can be quite busy – try to visit in the off-peak season (or at least earlier in the day) if you can. Admission costs vary, see more here. Free admission is on Mondays from 9:30am – 1pm in April – October, and Sundays 10am – 4pm in November – March. Don’t miss the nearby fire-breathing dragon, a monument to the Wawel Dragon legend (it breathes fire in 5 minute intervals and can be activated by SMS).
One of Romania‘s most beautiful and fascinating cities is certainly the colourful and vibrant Sighisoara. Snuggled into the heart of the hauntingly beautiful region of Transylvania, the dazzling and historic medieval town centre is one of the best preserved in the country, a fact that has not escaped UNESCO. Perhaps most famous for as the birthplace of Count Dracula (otherwise known as Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler), Sighisoara is colourful and historic town. Cobblestone streets, soaring towers, ancient walls, vibrant shop fronts, this town embodies everything you’d want in a medieval town – a photographers paradise. Settled in the 12th century (officially entering the registrars in 1191), Sighisoara was a frontier town settled (and defended) by German saxons at a vulnerable time in Transylvanian history when the region was ruled by the King of Hungary. A town built into the ruins of a Roman fort proceeded it, followed in 1337 by an urban settlement considered a regal city. For centuries, Sighisoara was an important and influential city in Central and Eastern Europe. With a strong and successful economy dominated by Saxon Germans (what’s new…), Sighisoara was a recognised haven for craftsmen, artisans, merchants and guilds. Not all of Sighisoara’s history was positive though. After a fairly successful medieval age, 17th and 18th century Sighisoara saw terrible fires, plagues, occupation, sieges and other horrors.
Pro tip: Though beautiful during the the day, don’t miss the city at night! In one of the towers, there is an impressive array of leather-working. For some of the best food in the city, head to the wine cellars of Gasthaus restaurant, just outside the walls. Great views from the Church on the Hill – climb it via the covered staircase and descend via the graveyard.
The Palais des Papes is a massive heap of fortified and sacred medieval stone built for the king-like popes during the schism with the Catholic Church in the heart of ancient Avignon. Six rebellious popes ruled Western Christianity from this impressive – and costly – building. (In fact, the Palais des Papes was so expensive that it nearly burst the papal purse). Built during the 14th century, the old palais (of Benedict XII) and the new palais (of extravagant Clement VI) form the largest Gothic building constructed during the Middle Ages! And during the 14th century, the Palais des Papes once held about 2,000 volumes – considered to be the largest library of its time. This impressive library attracted bibliophiles and scholars from afar, and the Palais des Papes became a place of great study. It was also within the walls of this immense palace that the Church was able to centralise and create a standardisation of services and operations – mostly to meet the needs of the popes and the Church with less regard to its common flock. The church administration workers (known as the Curia) grew from a modest 200 to 500 people plus 1,000 laymen at the Palais des Papes in less than 100 years. Today, the Palais des Papes is a UNESCO site, and is well worth the visit from a historical and architectural perspective, as the Palais des Papes is both a great historical turning point and one of the best exemplars of Europe’s great Gothic constructions.
Pro Tip: You can buy a ticket for both the Palais des Papes as well as the Pont d’Avignon, so be sure to pocket your ticket when you visit the palace! Great views from the Parc Rocher des Doms park of the whole of Avignon and beyond.
“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.
Pro tip: Get to Alcalá de Heneres by commuter train (40 min) from Madrid stations Atocha or Chamartin , if you buy tickets from the machine. Madrid stations aren’t always manned, and buying tickets can be complicated, so be sure you leave extra time to buy tickets
The year 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of independence from Russia for the Baltic States (think Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) – even if in the middle of that century of independence they lost it and were forced to regain it again, thanks to WWII. And yet, the Old Town of Vilnius is one of the largest medieval towns still in existence today (and therefore is protected by UNESCO). By day, it is a popular place with locals and tourists alike, relaxing in the cafes, strolling the narrow alleys and broad avenues, chilling in the parks and squares, mingling with the locals in restaurants and hole-in-the-wall bars. For great views, you might climb the ancient Gediminas Hill to the remains of the crumbled castle – or to the top of the opposite Hill of the Three Crosses, a more modern viewpoint. It is a place full of great (and budget-friendly) restaurants and bars frequented by lively locals and tourists alike, making it an ideal place for a friends weekend, a fun solo getaway, or a hen/stag party!
A sort of Spanish Versailles, Aranjuez Palace is a massive royal complex roughly an hour from Madrid, though it is lesser-known than its French counterpart. A former royal residence established during the era of Philip II in the early 1500s, the Palace of Aranjuez once functioned as a seasonal residence, inhabited by the royals and their entourage each springtime. Encapsulating the utter extravagance and overabundance of the wealth, power and influence the royal family once held, the palatial space allowed them to host enormously opulent and excessive Great Gatsby style parties. Though today the Spanish royal family is little more than a symbol, it is still a powerful symbol of conservatism, religion, and traditional values, not always keeping up with the modern world. Today however, the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, a UNESCO protected site, is open to the public as a museum, displaying art, furniture, royal artefacts and more, offering a cheeky peak behind the royal curtain of what being part of the Spanish royal family and its court actually meant. To get there, take the local commuter train from Madrid’s central stations to Aranjuez and walk 15 minutes to the palace at the centre of town; last entry is one hour before closing.
The Trinity Column in the Hauptplatz of Linz, Austria
A city that has been trying to free itself from its Nazi past (it is where Hitler spent his childhood) has elected in the Alt-Right party again in 2017. And yet – it was the first Austrian city to account and make up for its own Nazi past. From renaming streets to erecting monuments to victims and resistance heroes, Linz is still attempting to crawl out from that dismal past. The Trinity Column, a plague column in Linz’s main square – called the Hauptplatz – represents thanksgiving for the ending of the violent plagues that swept through Austria. Though Linz has had a turbulent past, the city founded by the Romans in 799 is now a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network and was the 2009 European Capital of Culture. Enjoy strolling its charming (and surprisingly colourful) streets, lounging along the Blue Danube (on a sunny day!) and exploring the birthplace of Mozart. Taste one the of city’s famous Linzer tortes or even take the fin de siecle Pöstlingbergbahn, the steepest mountain rail in the world!
Visit Other Cool Off the Beaten Path European Cities
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.
This structure needs no introduction. Perhaps the most famous landmark in the world, did you know that in the beginning of its existence, the Eiffel Tower was nearly unanimously hated by artists and citizens alike? French writer Guy de Maupassant disliked it so much that he’s said to have routinely dined in the tower’s restaurant as it was the one place in Paris where the tower was not visible. Indeed. The Eiffel Tower was built over a two-year period to welcome people to 1889’s World’s Fair, the 100-year anniversary of the storming of the Bastille (fairgrounds included a reconstruction of the Bastille!). At the time, the World’s Fair was a big deal, and much like today’s Olympics, huge constructions were built to impress Fair visitors; each year’s host trying to out-do the previous host (the now-nonexistent London Crystal Palace was another famed World Fair creation as was Seattle’s Space Needle). The Eiffel Tower was France’s response. Originally meant to be demolished at the end of the Fair, it quickly became not only the symbol of the 1889 World Fair, but also the symbol of Paris, the most visited (paid) monument worldwide, and for 41 years, the world’s tallest building. Designed by Gustav Eiffel (the man who designed the interior support system of New York’s Statue of Liberty), the Eiffel Tower is still a unique, iconic and wildly-beloved monument of France and the City of Lights. France is a country resistant to fast change, but if they eventually came to love the Eiffel Tower as a symbol of fin de siècle France, hopefully the Louvre Pyramids, Centre Pompidou, and other modernist or postmodernist designs will eventually be welcomed as symbols of a modern Paris. (Or not?)
Cobblestones underfoot reverberate with the echoes of footsteps, the clink of silverware at a local cafe and the laughter of children playing in the narrow alleyways. The perfectly preserved medieval streets and facades of ancient Tallinn directly contrast with the advanced techosphere hidden just beneath the surface of the city nicknamed the ‘Silicon Valley of Europe.’ It has one of the highest ratio of start-ups per population throughout Europe – Skype being the most famous of them all. The capital of Estonia has slowly become recognised as one of the main IT centre of Europe – Tallinn currently provides NATO’s cybersecurity (home to the NATO Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence), it is set to house the headquarters of the European Union’s IT agency, and has been ranked as the most competitive financial hub of Northern Europe. Quite the achievement for this beautifully small and oft forgotten capital tucked into a remote corner of Europe! Tallinn is perhaps the perfect blend of old and new: the medieval streets and architecture of Tallinn, including the Viru Gates in the photo, have merited the city a spot on UNESCO‘s list – and yet, it also catches the eye of many the enterprising digital start-up. The Viru Gate, a barbican within the ancient city walls, was part of Tallinn’s medieval defensive walls that still encircle much of the city. Though partially destroyed to accommodate horse-drawn carriages and trams, the Viru Gate still dispenses Tallinn’s unique flavour in the brisk Baltic air.
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.
Interior Statues of the Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera), Austria
Pure decadence, exorbitant elegance, genteel allure, stunning beauty. Welcome to the Staatsoper, Vienna’s State Opera House. The first of the extravagant buildings on Vienna‘s most famed street, the Ringstrasse (now a designated UNESCO site), the Staatsoper was opened to the genteel Austrian public in 1869. Built in the Neo-Renaissance style, the building was surprisingly unpopular with said genteel Viennese. (It somehow was not considered grand enough. You have to wonder about that genteel 19th century high society…). Then on the fateful night of March 12th, 1945, inferno rained down upon Vienna’s opera house, dropped by US bombers. Fire poured from the sky, bombs exploded in the streets, and flames ate their way through the Ringstrasse. Though the angry flames could not get into the walled-off foyer and fresco-filled stairways, the auditorium and 150,000 costumes for 120+ operas went up in smoke. When WWII was finally over, it was debated: shall we rebuild the originally unpopular building as per original design, or do we redesign it to modern tastes? Thank goodness the former option was chosen, and the Wiener Staatsoper was rebuilt in all its former glory (and happily, it is now beloved by Viennese and foreigners alike). Today, you can’t visit musical Vienna, home (at one point or another) to such musicians as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Chopin and Mahler, without visiting the opera. Loiter inside the foyer for a bit and if you have time, buy yourself a ticket to the opera or ballet. If you’re a budget traveller, queue in the ‘standing’ line in the afternoon to buy a €3 or €4 ‘standing’ ticket (arrive 3hrs prior to the show’s start; once you’ve got your ticket, tie a scarf to mark your spot and head out for a bite to eat). Be sure to dedicate plenty of time to explore the palatial building – frescos, statues, paintings, vast staircases and awe-inspiring architecture await!
Most people think that the iconic hexagons of the Giant’s Causeway are contained in that single bridge-like ’causeway’ – but this is not true. In fact, the dramatic hexagonal spires one sees at the Giant’s Causeway continue for over a kilometre from the UNESCO site! Hugging the Northern Irish coast of County Antrim is a several-hundred-kilometre path called the Causeway Coastal Route. Easy to break up into walkable chunks, hiking the Causeway Coastal Route is the best way to truly experience the Giant’s Causeway and Northern Ireland’s phenomenal countryside and clifftops. Start at the ruined castle of Dunseverick and follow the coast for 8km (5 miles) – the hiking is easy, the views are breath-taking and the path is quiet. Little by little, you’ll slowly build up to the iconic Giant’s Causeway. In the meantime, you’ll enjoy dramatic cliffs, impressive sea stacks, and hexagonal columns. Walking on a soft carpet of rolling emerald fields dotted with grazing livestock and laughing horses, you’ll navigate stiles, listen to the distant sound of crashing waves, hunt for Spanish Armada gold (supposedly long discovered but you never know!) and learn about the legendary Irish giant, Finn McCool, credited with creating the Giant’s Causeway. But that’s a story for another day…
Sur le Pont d’Avignon, France (On the Avignon Bridge, France)
Another day, another bridge. In contrast to the super-sleek, ultra-design Zubri Zuri Bridge in Bilbao, the Pont d’Avignon is one of the world’s most famous traditional, historic bridges – not unlike Prague’s Charles Bridge. The Pont d’Avignon is famous largely because of the classic French nursery song about it (Sur le Pont d’Avignon/On y danse, On y danse/Sur le Pont d’Avignon/On y danse tous en rond) – even though the song is wrong. It’s unlikely people ever danced ‘sur’ (on) the bridge; lacking for space, it’s far more likely that they danced underneath…Today the bridge only crosses half the Rhone River, the rest having been washed away (learn more about the Pont d’Avignon’s history here). Rising majestically behind the broken bridge is the Palais des Papes – the Papel Palace – which was the seat of 6 ‘rebel’ popes in the 14th century. During the Avignon Papacy, in 1305 the Palais became the papal residence when French Pope Clement V elected to move the papal centre of authority to Avignon in an effort to avoid facing the chaos in Rome (in all fairness, I’d be inclined to think the same thing…the Eternal City is eternally chaotic). Though succeeding in centralising power and church regulations, the Avignon Papacy also succeeded in consuming most the papacy’s purse by constructing this overwhelmingly extravagant Palais des Papes. Today, this magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the largest and most important constructions in the Gothic style in Europe – with its massive halls, extensive dining rooms, glamorous bedrooms and beautiful chapels, it’s easy to why. You can buy a combined ticket in order to visit both sites. For a nice aerial view, climb up the hill Rocher des Domes afterwards.
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Escalinata Staircase in Teruel, the Aragon region of Spain
Though the Escalinata Staircase technically a purpose-built construction – meant to connect the centro de la ciudad to the railway station – the Escalinata Staircase has become so much more. The town of Teruel, an easy day trip from the modernist city of Valencia, is often called the “town of mudéjar architecture” (meaning Moorish-influenced architecture), notably Teruel Cathedral. The region of Aragon’s densely-concentrated Mudejar architecture (construction corresponding with the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance) is now under the domaine of UNESCO. Mudejar architecture developed after the Reconquista and subsequent expulsion of the Moors from Spain in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. This style was created by those who stayed behind, called moriscos, or Muslims that converted to Christianity. While the stairs were constructed in the early 1900s, the style chosen is neo-Mudejar. It also pays homage to the infamous Lovers of Teruel, a rather ridiculous story. Unable to marry his sweetheart due to his financial status, the hero leaves to make his fortune in 5 years, but miscounts the number of days and returns just after she marries. The overly devout and prude heroine refuses to kiss her dying hero for she is now married (by less than 12 hours, mind you), and he dies. The following day at his funeral, she finally kisses him and dies herself (of what, who knows. Guilt? Loneliness? Grief?) Moral of the story? Perhaps it is simply to chose your spouse wisely, marry out of love… and learn how to keep track of things!
The origin of the name la Petite France, has a less-than-lovely origin – it comes from the Hospice des Vérolés (House for the syphilitic) which during the German occupation was called Franzosenkrankheit (French disease). While the name’s origins may not be charming, the alleyways, canals and houses most certainly are charming! Alsace, the region of France where Strasbourg is located, has a complicated history, flashing back and forth between France and Germany for much of it’s past. In the Middle Ages, la Petite France was the economic centre of the city, and Strasbourg as the region’s most important city. La Petite France once comprised of many merchants, millers, tanners, fishermen and other tradesmen and artisans. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, la Petite France (‘little France’) seduces history, culture and architecture buffs with its quintessential streets, half-timbered architecture, colourful houses, quiet riverbank, and charming shops. At Christmastime, the Strasbourg Christmas Market is one of the most famous in Europe and is generally agreed upon to be the best Christmas market in France. Hot wine, sausages, and sauerkraut are local favourites – especially when the weather turns cold! The impressive Strasbourg Cathedral was the world’s tallest building from 1647 to 1874 (so, for 227 years!), and today, it remains the 6th-tallest church in the world. It is the sandstone from nearby Vosges that gives the cathedral its unique pinkish hue.
6/6/1993 – darkness falls as the flames begin to lick the walls, the floors, the tower as the dark wood turns to ash. Built in 1150 in the magnificent Sognefjord, the Fantoft Stave Church was carried piece by piece to its current site near Bergen by a kind soul named Fredrik Georg Gade 1883 to save it from demolition. 100 years later, it was burned to the ground. What happened? In short, Norwegian Black Metal happened. A genre unfortunately synonymous with church burnings, this beautiful piece of history was lit afire by Varg Vikernes from the one-man-band, Burzum, who, in poor taste, later used a photo of the church’s burnt shell for his ‘Aske’ (Ashes) album. Convicted of 4 acts of arson (and other crimes), Varg is locked safely behind bars, though he apparently has ‘fans’ who applaud his crimes. Destroyed or not however, the Norwegians, much like the Poles after WWII, refused to give in, and instead painstakingly reconstructed the building to its original state. Today, the beautiful Fantoft Stave Church sails into its forest landing in all its original glory, one of the last remaining stave churches (many of which are UNESCO sites), or medieval wooden churches whose name comes from the pinewood support posts (stav in Norwegian). Fantoft has been through a lot, but for now, it rests in tranquility in the whispering woods below Bergen.
The most magical part of the day is sunrise. Some will argue that it is actually sunset, and while a sunset is beautiful in itself, sunrises often exude more beauty simply because, like a leprechaun, they are so rarely seen. If you can rouse yourself from bed at least once while travelling – or if you are required to due to an early bus/train/plane departure – take a few minutes to appreciate the soft, glowing light at the start of another day. The best way to do that is to find a place where you can sit down and enjoy the rising sun – a hilltop, your balcony, a local lake or river, a charming cafe, or in this case the market square. Settle down with a steaming cup o’ joe and a tasty local breakfast as you watch the world come to life. In Wrocław, enjoy the stunning colours, silent air, soft light and intricate facades of the spacious rynek (main square) before the day’s crowds begin to fill the plaza. One of Poland’s most spectacular cities, Wroclaw does not lack for attractions – aside from the rynek, visit pretty Ostrow Tumski or Cathedral Island, the adorable gnome statues scattered around the city, the stunning circular Racławice Panorama (a 19th century panoramic depiction of the Kościuszko Uprising, miraculously hidden and saved during WWII), the massive pile of stone that is Centennial Hall (a UNESCO site), and any one of the number of snazzy restaurants and bars in the city centre, many of them inspired by the dense student population. As an added bonus, as the year draws to a close, it’s your last chance to visit Wrocław while it is an official 2016 European Capital of Culture (which is not to say that a 2017 visit won’t be just as amazing…). While seeing Wrocław at sunrise is enchanting, the city will continue to enchant you all day long!