By Jim Ferri
People who relish traveling don’t set off to go to a place; they set off to enjoy an experience.
While some experiences are serendipitous, and others planned in advance, the common denominator of the good ones is they create wonderful memories you carry forever.
In my many years of wandering all over Europe, I’ve had my share of the good ones. Some of them – I’ll list 12 of the top ones here – I’d recommend to any traveler.
I’d gladly do each again, they were that memorable and enjoyable.
Enjoy a Fairytale Evening
The Greek island of Santorini (Thira) is a near-magical island of picturesque white villages clinging to towering cliffs. It’s most famous, however, for being the place that gives you a front-row seat for the most spectacular sunset you’ll see anywhere.
Many travelers to Santorini only see the incredible sunsets from the main town of Santorini. Instead, go to Oia on the end of the island where the sunset is followed by a fairytale setting little lights twinkling all over town.
Although Ola is a town that survives on tourism, it’s much nicer and cleaner than the crowded village of Santorini. You’ll want to stay in Oia overnight since the drive to other points on the island after dark can be grueling.
Go On Top of the World in Zermatt
Take a series of cable cars from Zermatt up to nearly 13,000 feet and you’ll be rewarded with spectacular Alpine views of Switzerland, Italy, France and the famed Matterhorn.
Although you can travel there any time of year – it’s a favorite for hikers – I think it’s best in the winter when snow gives everything a beautiful look. And yes, it’s cold up there but there’s also a restaurant where you can relax.
While it’s worth the trip for the view alone, just be aware that the cost of the lift and your Zermatt hotel in high season can be as steep as the mountains you’ll be viewing.
Enjoy Ireland’s Pub Culture
The pub has played a unique roll in Irish culture since it was the place to get news and meet there after a hard day in the fields. Today it’s still a gathering spot, lively and unforgettable as locals fill the pubs to enjoy a bit of “craic,” or traditional Irish fun.
The best places to enjoy this uniquely Irish experience is out west in cities such as Galway and Dingle where pub music reaches its zenith. Galway has a youthful population and a bohemian spirit, which helps fuel the festivities.
Galway is also where you’ll hear traditional Irish music performed by some of the country’s best traditional musicians. There’s nothing quite like sipping a drink, elbow-to-elbow with a crowd of locals, as the melody of fiddles and song fills the air.
Get Up Close With the Incredible Lipizzaners
The Lipizzaner, the star of Vienna’s famed Spanish Riding School, originated in Lipica, Slovenia. It’s a small town just an hour’s drive from the capital of Ljubljana, and a stone’s throw from the Italian border near Trieste.
Originally part of the Hapsburg Empire, it was there in 1578 that the royal stud farm was built to develop the breed. Enter the farm today and you drive through beautiful pastureland lined with white fences, so picture-perfect you’d think you were in a movie.
Although I’ve always had a phobia about horses, I quickly realized that these Lipizzaners were all exceptionally gentle, a characteristic of the breed. Whenever you walk up to a stall, these gentle giants come over to have you rub their foreheads and cheeks. Amazingly they hardly ever make a sound.
Foodie Alert: Head for Brussels
If you enjoy great food and great chocolate visit Brussels. Once there head for the Place du Grand Sablon, a beautiful little square filled with cafés, antique stores, and chocolate shops. If you love all three, you’ll be in heaven.
We loved Pierre Marcolini Chocolates, a renowned chocolate shop unlike any I’ve seen elsewhere. It has some incredible items…chocolate walnut cakes, Napoleons, all sorts of things. Go up to the second floor and you can put together your own boxes of gourmet chocolates. Other nearby shops include the highly rated Neuhaus and Godiva, among others.
In the evening head for Rue des Bouchers, the street where the city’s butchers once plied their trade. It’s touristy and lined with restaurants, but it’s still a lot of fun. We had a great meal of mussels at the popular (and somewhat chaotic) Chez Leon where seafood, especially mussels, is the star of the show. What other restaurant do you know that serves approximately 400,000 people a year, and a ton (2,200+ lbs) of mussels every day?
Foodie Alert #2: Visit Europe’s Great Food Halls
Whenever I visit a foreign city, I often look for a food hall – or, at the very least, a supermarket – to get a sense of a city’s cuisine and culture. Some of the major European food halls have become destinations unto themselves.
For a great gustatory experience visit these high-end food emporiums during your next trip to Europe and pamper your palate;
London – Harrods Food Hall: When it first opened in 1834 it was a wholesale grocery store that specialized in tea. Today it arguably houses the most famous food hall in the world. With its painted ceilings, ornate display cases, and Old World ambiance, it certainly is a feast for the eyes. But the real feast begins when you sit down in one of its numerous restaurants.
Paris – Galleries Lafayette: You’re only a block away from the Opera on the floor above the Men’s department when you sit down in the gourmet food hall of Galleries Lafayette. But if you’re looking goods for a picnic or a sit-down lunch or dinner you’ve come to the right place. The store stocks more than 10,000 gourmet products, most of which are French. A great place for edible gifts and foodie souvenirs.
Berlin – KaDeWe: Its name is shorthand for Kaufhaus des Westens and the store is spectacular. On the sixth floor of this popular Berlin department store you’ll find an over-the-top gourmet food hall carrying almost any food you can imagine. But the real stars are its many specialty restaurants, where you can have a gourmet lunch or dinner at a cost lower than that at a good restaurant.
Munich – Dallmayr: It’s a luxury food hall and delicatessen that’s been serving European royalty for more than three centuries. Come here and you’ll get the royal treatment yourself in Dallmayr’s delicatessen, café-bar or its Michelin-starred restaurant on the second floor. It’s located in an elegant 19th-century building right behind the Rathaus (Townhall) on Marienplatz.
Stockholm – Östermalm Food Hall: Östermalm is a real Old World food hall set inside a beautiful medieval brick building. It’s filled with lots of different stands serving gourmet products, and it’s a great place to eat. Inside it you’ll find butchers, fishmongers, deli’s and other food purveyors, some of which have their own little restaurants.
Stay in the Prettiest Lakeside Village in Austria
When you see Hallstatt for the first time you just want to stare at it for a few minutes. Clinging to the shoreline of the five-mile long Hallstättersee, it almost looks like something out of a fairytale. Surrounded by towering mountains, it’s a charming 16th-century town stuck in time.
Adding to its charm is its lack of cars; at 9 o’clock in the morning the only things you hear are the swish of shopkeeper’s brooms or people chatting over coffee as they sit on their hotel balconies. Spend at least one night here, though, since it’s before the buses arrive in the late morning and after they leave in the afternoon, that Hallstatt is at its most charming.
Visit An Authentic Medieval Town
While there are numerous medieval walled towns and cities all over Europe, they’ve all become tourist towns. But in the Transylvania region of Romania there are authentic medieval towns that have not yet been turned into tourist haunts, places where people still live and work in medieval buildings built in the Middle Ages. It’s a window into authentic-Medieval Europe you’ll find nowhere else.
Two of them, Sibiu and Sighisoara, are standouts, and a 4-to-5-hour drive from the capital of Bucharest. They’re both picturesque little towns, very medieval and colorful, set amid a fairytale-looking countryside where people ride on horse carts and storks still build nests on people’s chimneys.
Hunt for the Best Pizza in Naples
If you enjoy something enough, why not try to experience the very best of it? I enjoy pizza.
With another couple, my wife and I and went to Naples, Italy, the birthplace of pizza, since I wanted to taste the perfect pie. Originally I was on the trail of Don Michelle, rated by Fodor’s and Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love (and Julia Roberts in the film of the same name), as making the best pizza in the world. On the other hand, we found their pies lacking quality and flavor.
When we told the desk clerk at our hotel where we had gone, he grimaced in typical Neapolitan-operatic fashion, rolled his eyes and threw up his hands. “That’s a tourist place,” he said. “I’ll tell you a much better place to go,”
Each neighborhood in Naples has a favorite pizzeria, and he sent us to Sorbillo, a neighborhood place only five minutes away, where we had delicious pies.
I’m told there are numerous neighborhoods in Naples. Obviously, I need to pay the city another visit.
Explore the Old German River Towns
With the rise in popularity of river cruises many old German river towns along the Rhine, Mosel, Danube and other waterways have re-emerged as important ports. Today they cater to boatloads of travelers rather than barges laden with goods, all in all, a wonderful transition.
Since some of these towns are far apart and off the beaten track, many travelers would have difficulty visiting them on their own. The best way to visit them is on a river cruise.
I did so on Grand Circle Cruise Lines’ “Great Rivers of Europe,” a two-week odyssey that brought me to many of these historic towns. Each morning we awoke in a different town and had plenty of time to explore both on small group tours with local guides, as well as on our own.
It was a great trip that brought us to a number of towns including, among others, Passau, Bamberg, Heidelberg, Koblenz, Regensburg, and Melk in Austria with its beautiful and historic abbey.
Train Across the Roof of Europe
In Norway take the Bergen Railway from Bergen to Oslo, or vice versa, across Europe’s highest mountain plateaus. It’s one of the highest railways in Europe, and one of the most scenic train rides in the world as you pass through green valleys and then across Europe’s “roof,” the barren yet beautiful Hardangervidda Plateau.
If you start from Oslo Central Station, the 300-mile trip takes approximately seven hours. Most people change trains at Myrdal to take the spectacular Flam Railway to the tiny town of Flam at the end of the Aurlandfjord 2837 feet below. It’s a spectacular one-hour ride through deep ravines and past cascading waterfalls. At Flam you can take the ferry up the fjord to meet a bus and another train to take you on to Bergen.
Spend a Day In Stockholm’s Djurgården
In Stockholm I loved the island of Djurgården, an oasis very close to central part of the city. Royal land since the 15th century, it encompasses beautiful parks and walking paths as well as several of the city’s most well-known museums and attractions.
The most notable, and popular, museum on the island is the Vasa Museum, home to a spectacular 130 ton, 226 foot-long 17th-century warship that sank in Stockholm harbor. There are numerous other museums on the island including the fascination Skansen outdoor museum, the first open-air museum in the world. It’s an incredible place, a large village of about 150 houses, shops and farm buildings gathered from all over Sweden where traditionally dressed interpreters make one feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. It’s all quite fascinating.