Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands is worthy of a visit lasting a week or two, and even then you will be hard-pressed to fit everything in! Every visitor should start with a lengthy canal tour over and around the web of canals that spider through the oldest parts of the city. The canals date back some 600 years and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site in their own right, as well as taking the visitor past fabulous architecture and important sights, such as the Anne Frank Museum. History aficionados will not want to miss Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum, a commemoration of the horror of the Holocaust. Art works by masters such as Van Gogh and Rembrandt must be seen ‘in the flesh’, at one or more of the many museums and art galleries to be found in the city. Take a trip out of the city limits to Keukenhof to see the fabulous seasonal flowers in bloom – or, if you visit out of flowering season you can pop into the Tulip Museum instead. De Walden, Amsterdam’s largest and best known red light district, is worth a visit too, although you may find that prosaic attitude towards the sex industry takes away some of its seedy mystique, and quite a lot of the romance of the idea too! The cannabis coffee shops deserve a mention too, especially as many of them work hard to display their unique style with fabulous and ornate décor, quite apart from the thrill of ordering a joint to smoke with a coffee. Sample the traditional Dutch food, cycle along the plentiful cycle tracks and remember to bring some shopping money – Amsterdam has some great retail opportunities along with everything else she has to offer!
The only city in the world to cover two continents, Istanbul lies on the very edge of Europe, trailing across the Bosphorus into Asia. The city is nearly three thousand years old and has been known as Byzantium, then Constantinople before being called Istanbul. With so much history and so many perfectly preserved buildings you will find it hard to do and see everything that Istanbul has to offer. The Grand Bazaar, operational since 1461, is a covered market which attracts up to 400 000 visitors per day. The 3 000 stalls sell anything and everything, including carpets, herbs and spices, leather goods, gold and jewellery amongst much more. The Aya Sophia is a perfect example of Istanbul’s adaptability, changing over its lifetime from church to mosque to museum. It has been renovated recently and is well worth setting aside an entire day for. Istanbul has many mosques and fabulous ancient buildings, many of which are in excellent condition and still in use today. Try out a genuine ‘Turkish bath’ at the exquisite Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam, right in the heart of the city, and admire the wealth of exhibits on display at the many museums in the city.
Better known now, thanks to the movie In Bruges which starred such greats as Ralph Fiennes, Brendan Gleeson and Colin Firth, Bruges is a provincial capital some 50 kilometres from Brussels, on the coast of Belgium. Almost uniquely in Europe Bruges has a distinctive sound, as well as unique visual features, thanks to the 13th century belfry which houses some 48 bells. A full-time bell-ringer, or carillonneur, is employed by the city to exercise the bells on a regular basis. Because Bruges has remained mostly intact the medieval centre of the town has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. Of especial interest is the Church of our Lady, which is believed to be the world’s tallest brick tower, thanks to her 122m tall spire. The church is also home to a magnificent sculpture, Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child – the artist’s only sculpture to have left Italy while he was still alive. Of course, Belgium is famous for her chocolate and Bruges is no exception, offering fabulous and delicious treats along with a wealth of interesting facts about how the chocolate trade took hold in the country.
Named for the Greek Goddess Athena, Athens is a truly ancient city, as evidenced by such magnificent sights as the marketplace of Agora, where fabled figures such as Plato and Socrates mingled with friends and colleagues, keeping a finger on the pulse of the lively and vibrant city. The Acropolis (which means ‘high city’) stands proudly looking over Athens, an awe-inspiring sight to all. She is surrounded by carefully sorted and arranged fragments, signs of the local authorities determination to restore the temple and many surrounding buildings to their former glory, undoing centuries of neglect, vandalism and souvenir-hunting. But Athens is not all about her proud and ancient history. Modern Athens is a bustling vibrant city with a fabulous nightlife, bursting with restaurants offering delicious snacks and meals, both traditional Greek and international dishes, lively nightclubs and fabulous shopping opportunities. Make sure you visit one of the many open-air cinemas before you leave!
Venice has captured the imagination of nearly everyone who has heard about this beautiful, ancient and elegant city that is slowly but surely being overtaken by the rising water. Travel by gondola, serenaded by your guide, past fabulous architecture and under tranquil and peaceful bridges. Stroll through the squares and explore hidden lanes, discovering small shops and kiosks selling wonderful souvenirs and goods. Venice was known for fabulous masked balls, held by the pinnacles of society, in her heyday and it is still possible to see some of the ornate and intricate masks used at such events. Superb artworks can be seen, and by choosing the right time of day to visit you can avoid the crowds of tourists that flock to the museums and galleries at peak times. Venice is surrounded by small islands, some now uninhabited, others featuring hotels, restaurants and houses. Make the effort to explore some of the more famous islands, such as Poveglia, the Plague Island. This small and tragic spot, a mere half-mile from Venice was first used to quarantine those infected with the plague, especially sailors and travellers from ships coming into Venice. With the soil rumoured to consist of 50 per cent of human remains the island would have had a dark aura over it just from this piece of its history. However, Napoleon used the island as a weapons cache, a fact that was discovered by his enemies, leading to many small battles being fought over the island, adding yet more to the body count. More recently, a mental hospital was opened on the island, whereupon one of the doctors there carried out cruel and psychotic experiments on his charges. Now uninhabited, the lonely island is well worth a visit, especially by those in search of ghosts.
London is the grand dame of all cities in the world, the heart of the formerly impressive British Empire and home to explorers, playwrights and businessmen from all walks of life. London, even today, has a vibrancy and zest that is hard to find anywhere else, and all too often, tourists return to their hotels, footsore and weary, almost asleep on their feet, but still without having seen, smelled or experienced everything that London has to offer. There are so many places to visit, sights to see and activities to try out in London that you are sure to want to return again and again, just to try and get a taste of everything this fabulous city has to offer. The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben are close to St Paul’s Cathedral, which in turn gives out onto the embankment along the Thames. Take a boat tour and visit the Tower of London or Greenwich, that stupendous complex that seems almost unchanged from the days of Henry VIII. Visit modern art galleries to see cutting-edge brand new works or visit museums to see the works of ancient masters, now close on half a millennia in age. Street performers, comedians and street artists can be seen as you wander through the packed streets of London, buying vintage clothing, pictures painted while you wait or souvenirs to hand out to loved ones back home.
Rome is a fabulous old city and is best seen on foot. Unlike London, where you can pop down one Tube station and emerge miles away, mere feet from the next attraction, Rome suffers from fairly unreliable public transport. However, walking in Rome is no hardship as the weather is generally good and there is plenty to see on the way; from authentic pizzerias to leather craftsmen hard at work. It is said that Rome itself is the best museum in Rome, but there are actual museums, galleries and exhibits that are worth the visit, such as the Galleria Borghese. Rome is packed full of art and you will not find it difficult to find somewhere to admire paintings, sculpture and other glorious pieces to admire and photograph. Stroll over the Ponte Sisto and admire the unusual ‘eye’ the ocular feature in the middle of the bridge, as you drink in the atmosphere and buzz of modern-day Rome. Fashionistas can revel in the wonderful Italian clothing stores, purchasing ruinously expensive top designer gear or taking a chance on new, up and coming designers, while those with more earthy tastes can sample fabulous Italian ice cream or gelato, freshly baked pizzas and superb fresh pasta, all teamed with tasty Mediterranean cuisine. The seven hills of Rome (actually there are more than seven!) offer great views of the city, all from different perspectives, so do be sure to climb to the top of more than one of them! Finally, and especially if you are religious in any way, detour around the Vatican to admire the beautiful and elegant heart of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church. If you are lucky you may even catch a glimpse of the Pope himself as he goes about his business.
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Barcelona is possibly better known today as the home of the football club of the same name, but it remains a fantastic city to visit. The first landmark that will strike you is the imposing, and still unfinished, Sagrada Familia, an enormous cathedral designed by Antoni Gaudi that is due for completion in 2026 or thereabouts, one hundred years after the architect’s death. Antoni Gaudi is responsible for enormous swathes of Barcelona, having designed prolifically for many years; this has resulted in entire neighbourhoods of the city being designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Do try and take in a performance of the Magic Fountain, an airy and illuminated display of light, water and music that attracts around 2.5 million people every year. The artist Picasso was a son of Barcelona and the city honours their most famous son with the Picasso Museum – although the city also has many samples of works by other famous artists too. In Barcelona you can travel from medieval times, as evidenced by the Barrio Gotico, to sparkling modernity at Camp Nou, the home of the famed Barcelona Football Club – a perfect treat for footie fans from anywhere in the world! Against all the above, there is a tapestry of traditional Spanish cuisine, vibrant flamenco dancers, souvenirs and keepsakes and the joie de vivre that is pure Espana!
Some people think of Berlin as being a dull and rather strict city, where fun is frowned upon and earnest endeavour is celebrated. This is not entirely accurate… While Berliners may indeed work exceedingly hard, they can party hard too! The very daring can try out nightclubs like Insomnia which offers a platform for interested parties to fully explore their sexuality with like-minded strangers! For the historically minded there are over 200 museums in Berlin, as well as world-famous landmarks like the Brandenburg Gate, now a proud symbol of a unified Germany. Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing place between East and West Germany is also a powerful reminder about those long-ago days and is well worth a visit. For a more light-hearted outing, take a boat on one of Berlin’s 70 lakes or visit fabulous Berlin Zoo, which is home to an immense variety of animal species (up to 16 000 animals from 1 500 different species). Berlin Zoo is Germany’s oldest zoo, but needed to be built up, almost from scratch, after the Second World War which left on 91 animals on the premises. It is highly recommended that you visit in spring, if possible, as that is when all the baby animals are born!
It would be easy to dismiss Paris as a known quantity, so often featured in movies and books that all her secrets are known, even before you get to the city, but this is a fallacy. More than the marvellous sights and wonders of Paris, what sets this city apart is the thrilling atmosphere and cosmopolitan ambiance that infuses her streets, stalls and apartment blocks. Places to look out for include the stately Notre Dame Cathedral, so well-known from the Hunchback of Notre Dame and many other films and stories, the Eiffel Tower, instantly recognisable as a landmark of Paris, the romance capital of the world and, of course, the Louvre, home to Leonardo Da Vinci’s iconic painting, Mona Lisa, along with a series of treasures, artworks and significant relics from all over the world. Stroll, hand-in-hand, alongside the Seine, or stop for a coffee or glass of wine at an outside café as you watch the world go by. Sample exquisite cuisine, and understand, perhaps for the first time, how France has acquired such a great reputation for excellent food! The theatre in Paris is superb, and you can see a ballet, an opera or a musical performance with just a little forethought and some advice from your hotel!