By Jim Ferri
I’ve lost count as to how many times I’ve been to Europe. A few hundred, I’d guess. I’ve lived there, worked there, and eaten and drank my way across most of it.
What’s interesting is that I never tire of it. I love its cornucopia of cultures, its endless tables of regional cuisines, its museums, its people, its abundance of experiences.
When people find that I travel so regularly, they often ask what’s my favorite place. To tell you the truth, it’s a question I can’t answer.
For me, travel is a series of constantly changing experiences, and there is no “best.” Every destination and experience is unique. Even when I return numerous times, I still savor its newness because the experience is always in flux.
But anytime you fall so hard for a place, however, especially one so diverse, you tend to develop some preferences. Nevertheless, although there is no one “best,” there are many places I’d return to again and again, too many to list here. But I think the following places in Europe offer such unique experiences every traveler should experience them at least once in their lifetime.
Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way
A 1,500+ mile (2,500km) route along Ireland’s west coast, the Wild Atlantic Way envelops much of Ireland’s most spectacular scenery. It’s the longest defined coastal route in the world, meaning that it’s well mapped and signposted. And no, you don’t have to drive the entire thing to get the thrill.
It includes such spectacular places as the Ring of Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula, and fantastic Galway, all the way up to the Inishowen Peninsula in the north.
Take this spectacular drive and when you get to Carrigaholt on the Loop Head peninsula in County Clare, be sure to stop in the Long Dock, a local pub/restaurant serving gourmet food. Leave room for dessert – its homemade ice cream is incredible.
Seville is a city of seduction that entices you with its beauty, food, history, and laid-back attitude. It’s a place where time stands still, and you’ll feel you’ve gone back to the Spain of a century ago. It’s firmly entrenched in the traditional way of life of past centuries, more than most other places in Spain.
Visit its lofty and immense cathedral that holds the tomb of Christopher Columbus. And visit the nearby Real Alcázar, the Royal Palace, is one of the most incredible palaces anywhere and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
And come hungry since Seville is a city where people are serious about their food. (In fact, Seville is the birthplace of tapas.) You won’t go hungry here since you’ll find plenty of excellent restaurants, bodegas and cafes tucked in everywhere.
I’ve been to Sicily twice before and just returned from a third trip. It was the longest and most comprehensive of my trips, and I’m still astounded by the experience.
Because of its importance for Mediterranean trade routes, Sicily has always been prized as a colony. It has been conquered and colonized by the Greeks, Romans, Normans, Arabs and many others, each leaving their cultural imprint on the island.
From the temples in Agrigento to the incredible Arab-Norman art in the Cathedral of Monreale outside Palermo, Sicily is a remarkable place. Its architecture ranges from classical Greek to medieval to Baroque, its cuisine is the most exotic and varied in Italy, and its landscape, which ranges from verdant valleys to an active volcano, is extraordinary.
You’ll find Sicily to be a cultural cornucopia found nowhere else. Plan to spend at least a week.
A Greek Island (but not on a cruise ship)
A Greek island cruise is a wonderful way to get a taste of this beautiful part of the world. But the problem with an island cruise is one only gets the merest of tastes, sort of like taking one bite of an appetizer rather than enjoying the entire meal.
Part of the wonderfulness of the Greek islands is the tempo of everyday life on each of them. And you need to be there from early morning to late at night to see what makes them unique and spectacular.
Much-visited Santorini, for example, the central town on the island of Thira, is renowned for its spectacular sunsets. But they are much better when viewed from the more northern village of Oia, a sight few, if any, cruisers ever get to witness.
If you want to savor the island experience, spend at least two nights – preferably three – on Santorini (Thira), Mykonos, or one of the other islands in the Cyclades.
Cornwall is that toe of land jutting out into the Atlantic in southwestern England. It’s much better known to Brits than vacationing Americans, and I’m sure they’re happy to keep it that way.
It’s a slice of old England with a bucolic landscape where country roads run amok through pasture and forest, and there’s no lack of beautiful views almost everywhere you turn. It’s filled with picturesque old villages with names like Polperro, Falmouth (one of the embarkation points for the D-Day landings), Penzance, and Mousehole (pronounced “mow-zall,” locals are quick to point out). Its world-famous Eden Project is composed of two biomes with plants collected from many diverse climates and environments. It’s the largest greenhouse in the world and could comfortably hold the entire Tower of London.
While away your Cornwall evenings in a pub or restaurant, dining on the seafood for which the region is renown.
Lake Geneva, Switzerland
Lake Geneva, on the border of Switzerland and France, is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. The largest in Switzerland, it’s known as Lac Léman to Francophiles.
Here you can visit the ancient and beautiful Lavaux vineyards, a spectacular UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site where the vines tumble down to the lakeside. But one of the best experiences you’ll find here is a day trip on one of Switzerland’s Belle Epoque lake steamers. It’s an experience you’ll find nowhere else.
The real attraction of the ride is the opportunity to visit the haute–lac, the upper part of the lake between Lausanne and Montreux, the latter home to the world-renowned Jazz Festival of the same name held every July.
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Most tourists ignored Belfast until the great Titanic Museum opened there several years back. Since then the spectacular museum has drawn millions of tourists. What they’ve found is a fascinating city that’s an intriguing mix of the old and new.
Spend a day (or, better, two) and visit historic St. George’s Market (open Fridays only), stately Queen’s University, and beautiful Belfast Cathedral, with its 130-foot stainless steel spire protruding through a glass platform above the altar. And take a Black Taxi tour of the city to get an insider’s look, especially of the old Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.
Visit the Crown Liquor Saloon, one of the more fine old pubs in Belfast. Grab a bite at the Dark Horse, a sandwich and coffee house that appears unassuming from the outside but inside everything is an antique, right down to the loo (although the plumbing is modern).
Hallstatt, in the Salzkammergut Region of Austria, is considered the most beautiful lakeside village in the country. A 1½-hour drive east of Salzburg, it’s a Region of beautiful meadows and mountains, best known to Americans for the opening scenes in the “Sound of Music.”
Hallstatt almost looks like something out of a fairytale. In fact, when you first see it, you almost want just to stand and stare. It’s a charming little place stuck in time. The lack of autos – all non-residents must park outside of town – only adds to its allure.
But don’t visit Hallstatt on a day tour or you’ll never fully appreciate it. Spend at least one overnight here since it’s before the buses arrive in the late morning and after they leave in the afternoon, that the town is most charming.
If you’re adventurous, visit the Salzwelten, the town’s famous salt mine in the mountain behind the village. You reach the mine via a funicular on the western edge of the town.
Most travelers could not tell you where to find Slovenia on a map. Wedged between Northern Italy and Croatia, it’s not even half the size of Switzerland. But its capital Ljubljana makes up for its small size in significant ways.
Ljubljana is quite different than other capitals. It’s an immaculate city, with streets filled with people shopping, walking or sitting in outdoor cafés. And it’s comfortable and easy to visit on foot since much of it is traffic-free. I love its fountain-studded plazas and beautiful cobblestone streets.
Seemingly everywhere you look you see Baroque, Art Nouveau (some of the best preserved in this area of Europe) and 20th-century architecture. It’s a real “Old World” city…perfect for whiling away a few hours over a cup of coffee or beer in a cafe.