Island Hopping in Croatia: Five Islands Not to Miss

 

best beaches in Croatia

Lovrečina Bay, Brač Island, Croatia

Vacationers traveling to Europe in search of heavenly, paradisal islands often already know about destinations like Greece’s famed Ionian Islands, the Saronic Islands and the Cyclades Islands.  However, many travelers still aren’t aware that venturing further northwest into the vividly-blue Adriatic Sea will take them to one of the most beautiful and unspoiled countries in Europe: Croatia.  Sitting directly across the sea from Italy, Croatia is often called the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” and one of its sparking jewels is undoubtedly its postcard-like Dalmatian Coast.

Croatia has so much to offers vacationers that we’re simply not going to attempt to cover it all here.  This post won’t talk about the charming, Italian-like spots found on the Croatian peninsula of Istria.  It won’t discuss the cultural attractions found in its capital city of Zagreb.  We’re not going to cover the world-renown Plitvice Lakes National Park.  In fact, we’re even skipping the ancient cities of Dubrovnik and Split, both of which reside along the country’s Dalmatian Coast.  No, right now folks – we’re just focusing on islands!

Croatia has long stretches of amazing coastline and well over a thousand islands.  Many aren’t inhabited.  Some are natural parks.  Quite a few have thriving industries of wine, olive oil or lavender production.  Many have fascinating historical sites to visit.  Almost all have extremely good seafood, wine, rather friendly locals – and indescribably beautiful beaches. (Seriously, we cannot keep track of how many times a Croatian beach has made one of Condé Nast’s prestigious lists).  Visiting the islands in Croatia also gives one an interesting view of both Slavic and Mediterranean cultures.  So without further ado, here are five of our absolute favorite islands to visit in Croatia.

 

1. Mljet

Day trips tours from Dubrovnik

Aerial shot of Mljet Island, Croatia

If you have ever dreamt of getting temporarily stranded on a sunny, beautiful island, Mljet would fit the bill.  In fact, legend has it that Croatia’s eighth-largest island is where Homer’s forsaken hero was held captive by Calypso for seven years, and once you visit Mljet – you’ll have a hard time feeling sorry for poor Odysseus.  (Some Biblical scholars also claim that Mljet was the site of St. Paul the Apostle’s shipwreck).

Although very near the extraordinary city of Dubrovnik, Mljet is the epitome of pristine, unspoiled nature.  This is the perfect place to recharge the batteries in between your cultural and historic sightseeing in Croatia.  (In fact, I once intended to go to Mljet on a day trip from nearby Dubrovnik – and ended up staying four nights.)  Mljet is famed for its beautiful lakes, Lake Veliko and Lake Malo, and for its dense forests of Aleppo pine and evergreen oak.  It is undoubtedly the greenest island in Croatia.  So if you were looking at an aerial shot of Mljet, it would look like a ring of azure blue, encircled by a band of green forest – with an outer rim of turquoise sea.

The northwestern part of the island is a protected national park, spotted with basic-but-comfortable, family-run hotels as well as a large hotel in the village of Pomena.  The local seafood is excellent and fresh.  Although there is public bus transportation available on Mljet, the best way to get around the island is by bicycle.  While visiting Mljet your time can be spent bicycling around the island, enjoying extensive walking trails, relaxing on the crystal-clear seashores, and going swimming in the warm, saltwater lakes.

Other potential sightseeing activities on Mljet include kayaking, canoeing, hiking, caving and scuba diving.  There are also interesting ancient fortifications that can be visited – as can the scenic islet of St. Mary, which lies on Veliko Lake; the islet houses a beautiful, 12th-century Benedictine monastery.  Mljet is conveniently connected to nearby Dubrovnik by regular ferry service, and from Mljet it’s easy to sail northwest to the island of Korčula.

 

2. Korčula

vacation day trip from Split

Korčula's famed Old Town, Croatia

Reputed to be the birthplace of Marco Polo, the beautiful island of Korčula has a fascinating past.  Having been inhabited for thousands of years, Korčula has played host to Illyrians, Greeks, Romans, and later Slavic peoples.  At different points in time the island was ruled by the Kingdom of Hungary as well as the Italian maritime republics of Venice, Genoa and Ragusa.

When you exit the boat, it will seem very crowded before entering Korčula Town’s walled Old Town, which is often described as being a miniature version of Dubrovnik.  That being said, it’s busy for a reason as medieval Korčula Town is magnificently timeless once you begin meandering!  (The Land Gate, Cathedral of St. Mark, Town Museum and the Abbey Treasury all merit a visit).

After visiting Korčula Town we encourage you to get lost exploring the more rustic, laidback side of the island.  Housing picturesque vineyards, wineries, great walking trails, pretty beaches and traditional fishing hamlets, Korčula is also home to many interesting legends and traditions – including the traditional sword dance of “Moreška,” which originated many moons ago on the island.  And when visiting Korčula, be sure to taste the local white wines (mainly produced around the village of Lumbarda) and high-quality olive oil.

Despite the lack of a bridge to the Dalmatian Coast on the Croatian mainland, Korčula is well connected and easy to visit.  There are frequent ferries with the port town of Orebić on the Pelješac peninsula as well as ferry and catamaran connections from Korčula to Split, Hvar, Zadar, Rijeka, Mljet and Dubrovnik (in addition to several Italian cities during high season).

 

3. Hvar

vacation best islands Croatia

View of port in Hvar Town, Croatia

When you first arrive to Hvar by boat, you will immediately feel a more affluent vibe than you would on the other Croatian islands featured on this blog.  You will almost certainly see fellow tourists more gussied up – as well as an array of large yachts docked in the marina of Hvar Town.  This is not to dissuade you from visiting Hvar.  Hotel rates can be higher than elsewhere, but truthfully Hvar can be quite a fun place to spend a few days.  Its ambience is pleasantly lively, and there are great places to go for dinner, wonderful outdoor cafes and art galleries.  Its beaches, including those found at Uvala Dubovica and Grebišće, also merit a visit.

And it’s not entirely upscale everywhere.  The island of Hvar is home to spectacularly beautiful landscapes and generally great weather.  Compared to other Adriatic islands, it’s surprisingly fertile being blessed with pine forests, fields of lavender and scenic olive groves.  The island also produces some very good wines, and when exploring Hvar you’re likely to come across vineyards on its southern end as well as on its central plain.

Hvar’s history is also fantastic.  With the islands past residents pre-dating the ancient Greeks, it’s no surprise that the island’s town of Stari Grad is one of the oldest in all of Europe (it forms part of Hvar’s UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Stari Grad Plain).  There are several interesting ancient archeological sites on the island, and having housed an important naval base for the powerful Venetian Republic, Hvar’s medieval history and architecture are also very interesting.

Located very near Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, Hvar is well connected by ferry and catamaran to mainland Split and the nearby islands of Korčula, Brač, Vis and Lastovo.  Or if you’re captain of your own ship, you too can park your yacht in Hvar Town’s scenic port.

 

4. Brač

Brac Island Bol beach

Zlatni Rat Beach, Brač Island, Croatia

Also located in the lower stretches of Dalmatia, the Croatian island of Brač resembles paradise on earth.  Its famous beach, Zlatni Rat, (located near the port town of Bol) has frequently graced the covers of travel publications like Condé Nast – and understandably so.  There aren’t many cultural attractions on the island of Brač, where nature and tranquility are really the stars of the show.  It’s a great place for vacationers seeking sunshine and unique beaches.  (Lovrečina Bay is home to a particularly nice beach).  Freshly-caught seafood and locally-produced wines are very good, and Brač is also an excellent spot for those wanting to incorporate sports like windsurfing or scuba diving into their Croatian vacation.  The only risk with visiting Brač is that after spending a few days here, you may never want to go home!  The island is very well connected by both ferry and catamaran with Split, and there are often good connections during high season with the nearby island of Hvar.

 

5. Dugi otok

vacation trip to Dalmatian Coast

Veli Rat Lighthouse, Dugi Otok Island, Croatia

Moving north up the Dalmatian Coast, the island of Dugi otok forms part of a chain of islands located off the coast of the ancient city of Zadar.  Dugi otok is an ideal island to visit if you’re looking for somewhere less-touristy and undeveloped with a wild, natural sort of beauty.  Graced with dramatic cliffs, portions of the island’s coastline are absolutely striking.  Its beaches are equally magnificent, especially the one found in Sakarun Bay.  If you are interested in rock climbing, hiking, bicycling, fishing or scuba diving, Dugi otok is a great choice.  The southeastern part of the island houses the Telašćica Nature Reserve, which often offers nature tours to visitors.  And if you really want to see some unusual natural landscapes or enjoy unforgettable scuba diving, Dugi otok is also located near the unusual Kornati Islands National Park.

After arriving by ferry from Zadar, to extensively explore the island of Dugi otok you will need to rent a car.  While driving you’re likely to encounter vineyards, fruit orchards and picturesque lands used for sheep grazing.  And if you’re just interested in coming for the day, it’s always possible to base yourself in Zadar and make a daytrip to Dugi otok.  During your visit be sure to check out the iconic lighthouse found in the village of Veli Rat.

 

We hope you enjoyed reading about five great islands to consider including on your next trip to Croatia.  When visiting Croatia, you will undoubtedly want to visit the prime spots along the mainland coastline as well as several must-see areas located in Croatia’s interior.  However, we hope that you will now leave a few days in your itinerary for some well-deserved island hopping!

To view our vacation packages to Croatia, please kindly click here.  You will notice that we also have a variety of Escorted Tours should you prefer traveling to Croatia with a group.  At go-today, we can also customize itineraries for groups, and our Trip Builder tool will allow you to create your own individual trip based on your needs, interests and budget.  Should you wish to make a reservation or get more information on traveling to Croatia, please feel free to give our reservations staff a call at (800) 227-3235. 

Safe travels!

 

 

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On Vacation in Granada, Spain: Visiting the Immortal Alhambra

 

Granada sightseeing

In 2014, it is easy to forget that vast portions of what are today Spain and Portugal once belonged to the Moorish kingdom of Al-Andalus (where the sunny, Spanish region of “Andalusia” gets its name) for almost 800 years.

The Muslim conquest of Spain began in the 8th century when the Arabic caliph Al-Walid I sent forces from North Africa to invade Christian, Visigoth Spain.  After centuries of Muslim rule under the Umayyad dynasty, Al-Andalus eventually fragmented into smaller kingdoms ruled by various emirs and sultans.  The Nasrid kingdom of Granada, which ruled from the 13th to the 15th centuries, was the last Muslim stronghold in Spain, and no monument can give better insight to their world than the Alhambra in Granada.

Granada vacation sightseeing

During the era of Muslim rule in Spain, cities in Al-Andalus like Córdoba became cultural centers in Europe.  While much of Northern Europe was stuck in the Dark Ages, medieval Al-Andalus nurtured an era of great learning.  Many Greek and Latin ancient texts were actually preserved and translated by Muslim scholars, and their advances in philosophy, mathematics, medicine, science, and farming were frequently far ahead of Christian Europe’s.

For this reason, it is easy to understand why when the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, were handed the keys to the Alhambra from the last Nasrid sultan of Granada (Boabdil) in 1492 after a long-lasting siege – instead of destroying their enemy’s creations and beginning anew, they greatly respected the architectural and decorative styles they discovered inside the Alhambra palace-city.  After all, it was a great prize to be won – and the ultimate one for the Spanish monarchs as it signaled the completion of their “re-Conquest” of Spain.  They sought to preserve much of the original structures and to leave their own Christian, Renaissance mark on the newly-acquired royal city, which overlooked the city of Granada.  The result was a magical, Hispano-Muslim fusion.  It was very much a paradise on earth at the time – the essence of comfort, sophistication and beauty.

Andalusia Granada vacation Andalusia Granada vacation Andalusia Granada vacation Andalusia Granada vacation

Visiting the remarkably well-preserved Alhambra is like opening a door to an exotic, lavish and fascinating world of medieval Muslim sultans and Renaissance kings and queens.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and deservedly so.  Inside this cultural masterpiece visitors can marvel at the beautiful latticework shutters, lanterns, exquisitely-carved niches, and perfectly-proportioned patios and courtyards adorned with fountains and gardens.  Today the Alhambra is one of the most-visited cultural attractions in Spain, and it remains a source of immense pride for the locals of Granada.

Andalusia Granada vacation Andalusia Granada vacation Andalusia Granada vacation Andalusia Granada vacation

When visiting the Alhambra you are given either a morning or afternoon timeslot during which you have plenty of time to explore the complex.  (Morning tickets 8:30 am – 2:00 pm; afternoon tickets: 2:00 pm – 6:00 pm * 8:00 pm in high season).  The most popular attraction – for which you’ll be given a precise entrance time – is the Nasrid Palace area.  Otherwise, you can wander at will.  While the buildings are masterpieces of architecture and design, the grounds and surrounding views are just as gorgeous.  Below are the primary areas to visit:

 

The Kasbah (Alcazaba)

Granada sightseeing

In the 13th century, when the Nasrid sultan Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar decided to build his new city in Granada, Sabika Hill was selected as the ideal site because of its strategic, defensive potential.

Granada sightseeing

Located at the pointy, western edge of the complex, the Alcazaba is one of the oldest and most interesting areas of the Alhambra.

Dilapidated towers and walls of an existing 11th-century red castle were reinforced or built anew, and a triangle-shaped, military citadel took shape to house the troops and to defend the sultan and his palace-city against potential attacks.

Granada sightseeing

Inside this fascinating, largely-military section visitors can see remains of the former military district; the Adarves Gardens, which were converted from a defensive trench into gardens in the 17th century; and several impressive towers including the Torre del Homenaje (the highest tower in the complex), the Torre del Cubo, the Torre del Pólvora, and the magnificent, 13th-century Torre de la Vela.

 

The Nasrid Palaces

Spain vacation Granada

This is understandably what everybody traveling to Granada wants to see.  Strongly contrasting the fortress feeling of the Alcazaba, the palace area of the Alhambra is best described as pure artistic and architectural genius.  The various palaces you will visit that make up the Alhambra Palace were created over time by different sultans for their respective royal families.

Spain vacation Granada

There is no better way to get an understanding of the ancient world of the Muslim court than by leisurely exploring the beautifully-preserved palaces.  The Palacio del Mexuar is the oldest of the palaces.  Having been constructed during the reign of Ismail I (1314-1325), its grand hall was largely used for audiences with the sultan.  The Palacio de Comares, which was constructed during the reign of Yusuf I (1333-1354), is particularly famous for the architectural beauty of its patio.  The Palacio de los Leones, which was constructed during the reign of Muhammad V (1362-1391), is perhaps the best known of the Alhambra palaces.  Its Patio de los Leones, which was so named because of the lion fountain found in the center of the courtyard, is nothing short of breathtaking.

Spain vacation Granada

Inside the Nasrid palace complex, visitors can also tour an area created for Charles V, the Christian Holy Roman Emperor and grandson of the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.  When Charles V visited Granada 34 years after their conquest, like his Christian predecessors – he continued restoring the existing palaces (which had suffered as a result of the siege).

Spain vacation Granada

Charles V also created the first Christian Royal Palace by modifying some of the original Moorish palaces and adding additional rooms.  One particularly famous guest of the Christian Palace’s Imperial Suite was American writer and diplomat, Washington Irving, who wrote Tales of the Alhambra, after living in Granada in 1829.

 

The Palacio de Carlos V

sightseeing Alhambra Spain vacation

During Charles V’s visit to the Alhambra in 1526 with his Empress, Isabella of Portugal, they stayed in the aforementioned Imperial Apartments, which were constructed within the existing Nasrid palaces.  However, the Alhambra and its legacy made a tremendous impression on him, and he decided to construct a new palace on the Alhambra grounds – an imperial palace fit for an Emperor that paid homage to his grandparents’ long-fought “re-conquest” of Christian Spain.

sightseeing Alhambra Spain vacation

While construction began on the Renaissance-style, stone palace in the early 16th century, the roof was not completed until the 20th century.  The palace’s massive, circular courtyard is surrounded by two stories featuring sixty-four symmetrical columns.  It houses the Alhambra Museum as well as the Fine Arts Museum.

 

The Generalife

Granada Spain vacation

No visit to the Alhambra is complete without thoroughly exploring the nearby country estate of Granada’s lost long sultans.  Separated from the Alhambra by a ravine, in medieval times the Generalife was independent and not considered part of the palace-city.  Instead it was the nearest almunia or country estate belonging to the Nasrid sultans of Granada.

Granada Spain vacation

During the era of Muslim rule, the area surrounding the Generalife was largely used for farming and had numerous market gardens and orchards.  It was irrigated by the same complex, innovative system that provided water to the Alhambra palaces and medina (city).  The royal families would escape to the idyllic Generalife for a good dose of R&R.

Granada Spain vacation

Its inner palace resembles the other Nasrid palaces and contains a magnificent courtyard area that beautifully harmonizes the water, horticultural and architectural elements.  Visiting its gardens is also a real treat that should not be missed.

 

What else is there to see and do in Granada besides visiting the Alhambra?

Spain vacation tour

Granada is a popular, lively university town.  Visitors can enjoy very good live music – particularly flamenco – as well as fun, local tapas bars.  Strolling through its Old Muslim Quarter, the Albaicín (also spelled “Albayzín”) is fascinating.  While one rather touristy street is rife with souvenir shops peddling Moroccan goods, once you wander off to the smaller streets, the charm of this historic district is intoxicating.  As you walk higher and higher through its quiet back streets (save for a neighbor strumming his guitar) you’re likely to capture the timeless nature this neighborhood evokes.  It is well worth the climb for the priceless panoramic view of the Alhambra found in front of the Church of San Nicolás.

Spain vacation tour

Granada’s Renaissance Cathedral and Royal Chapel also merit a visit while on vacation in Granada.  Inside the Royal Chapel you will find the tombs of Spain’s most famous king and queen: Ferdinand and Isabella.

Spain vacation tour

And if you travel all the way to Andalusia to visit Granada and the Alhambra, consider adding the Spanish cities of Seville, Córdoba, Málaga or Cádiz to your itinerary.  (The Sierra Nevada Mountains are also located just to the east of Granada and are a popular spot for both hikers and skiers).

 

Practical Info on Visiting Granada:

Nearest airport:  Federico García Lorca Granada-Jaén Airport (flights from the United States will likely connect in Madrid, Barcelona or Lisbon).

Train connection: Granada is very easily visited by train.  High-speed rail is available from both Madrid and Seville

 

We hope you have enjoyed reading about the Alhambra, one of Spain’s most popular tourist attractions.  To check out our vacation packages to Spain, please kindly click here, or to customize an itinerary to Granada or Andalusia featuring the Alhambra, please click here to build your own package.  Alternatively, please give our staff a call at (800) 227-3235 so that we can help you with the booking process over the telephone.

Safe travels!

 

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Meet our go-today Team: Interview with Ken Haufle

 

Group vacation

Ken Haufle, on the rooftop of Gaudi's Casa Batlló in Barcelona

 

Role: Group Sales Agent

Home city: Bellingham, Washington

Current location: Lake Forest Park, Washington

 

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Q: How long have you been working in the travel industry?

A: 15 years

 

Q:  In the past you worked on the logistical and operational end of group travel.  Today however you are chiefly on the creative, sales side; walk me through the group travel sales process.

A:  I’ll start by saying that at go-today, we are very fortunate to have many repeat customers.  First-time clients often are referred to us or discover us online.  Passengers considering group travel can either submit a request directly on our website, or they can just give us a call to begin brainstorming itinerary ideas.

Everything we do is 100% customized, meaning that we don’t try to sell our clients a pre-packaged tour with set departures.  Some of our group clients already have a very detailed itinerary in mind – and we just make it happen for them.  Others only have a vague idea, and we work with them to determine what their interests are and then mold the itinerary to meet their needs.  Itineraries can be completely tailored to suit a group’s interests.  For example, some itineraries purely have a culinary focus, while others might narrow in on art history.  One unique itinerary I have done had an emphasis on the automotive industry in Germany.

Two additional points I will mention is that once the group is happy and the itinerary has been finalized, we lock in the exchange rate – so our groups don’t have to worry about currency fluctuations later on.  Each of our clients will also have a dedicated 3-person team.  The sales person helps in designing the perfect itinerary.  Afterwards a US-based operator will keep the group on track with all important deadlines related to ticketing, payment deadlines, dietary requirements, etc.  The third person arranges the specific services and acts as the emergency contact during the trip.  All three people are fully versed in the group’s itinerary, so there is never a new person on the scene trying to catch up.  That being said, your original sales person in Seattle is still around as a back-up.  It’s important that our relationship with the client isn’t over – we’re still available to assist.  So, it truly is a full circle of service.

 

Q: In your opinion, what are the advantages of people traveling in groups?

A: There are numerous advantages.  One without a doubt is that larger groups get better rates as shared costs are divided.  Another is simply that when you are traveling with a group, you are either traveling with people you know – or with people who share a common interest with you, which is great.

Another advantage is that private group sightseeing tours can also prove to be more convenient than typical sightseeing tours available to the general public.  For example, the coach and guide will come straight to your hotel, there is no need to find a public tour meeting point or to listen to a guide speak in several languages, and at the conclusion of the sightseeing tour, the guide and coach will take you back to your hotel.

 

Q: Generally, who are the group leaders that you work with?

A: Group leaders are often a family member, a sports coach, a teacher or a professor.  It might be a parish priest or pastor.  For food-and-drink itineraries, it is often a chef, sommelier – or a restaurant, bar or wine-shop owner.

 

Q: In your experience, how important is the role of group leader in the preparation phase – and then later when the group is on the road?

A: We definitely partner with the group leaders who are spearheading their groups, and that collaboration is truly essential to come up with a really fantastic itinerary.  In the beginning stages we really build a close relationship with the group leader to discover exactly what the group wants to get out of the trip.  Then while traveling, our emergency contact is often in contact with the group leader to make sure that everything on the itinerary runs smoothly.

 

Q: You have also spent time in go-today’s Barcelona, Spain office.  In your opinion, how advantageous is it that go-today has international offices?

A: One of the advantages that we have over our competitors is that we do all of our contracting in the specific destination for our European product.  This way, we can cut out middle-man markups that some of our competitors have to absorb.   For our non-European destinations, go-today is part of the TUI Travel Group of Companies, one of the largest leisure travel and tourism organizations in the world; this allows us to get advantageous rates from our sister companies throughout the world.

 

Q: Out of all the destinations you promote & sell, which one is your favorite?

A: I really enjoy itineraries that are “off the beaten path.”  Of course for logistical reasons, itineraries generally need to start and end in a major city, but venturing to the lesser-known places really grabs my interest.  It’s what I’m most passionate about.

 

Q: What do you like about your job?

A: In my former life in the cruise industry, I was always interested in product development.  However with cruises, the itineraries more or less stay the same every year.  Perhaps only a couple of new itineraries are created annually.  At go-today, I literally create brand-new itineraries every day, so I’m doing what I love x 365!  It’s very satisfying.

 

Q: You’re half German.  Any personal travel recommendations in Germany?

A: It’s more like 80 or 90%.  I love doing tours to southern Germany – especially Bavaria and the Black Forest.  From my travels there, I know many unique, smaller places that are fun to feature on a trip to Germany.

 

Q:  What are your hobbies?

A: Photography, hiking and exploring back roads and smaller towns.  And I really enjoy waterfalls and will definitely go for a hike just to see and photograph a waterfall.

 

Q: Did you follow the Winter Olympics in Sochi – if so, what was your favorite event?

A: I love the new slope-style events

 

Q: Favorite sports team?

A: Seattle Seahawks

 

Q: Favorite TV show:

A: My new favorite is The Blacklist

 

Q: Favorite kind of music?

A: I really enjoy classical.  I played violin most of my childhood, but today I enjoy a wide range from reggae to dubstep.

 

Q: Are you a dog or cat kind of guy?

A: I’m a cat kind of guy.

 

Q: Any expert advice that you’d like to pass on to your group clients?

A: Life is short – get out and travel!

 

Ken’s Travel Recommendations:

Group travel to Germany

Check out Hohenzollern Castle, one of Ken's favorite castles in Germany.

Group travel to Spain Barcelona

When traveling to Barcelona, make a day trip to the ancient city of Girona.

group travel to Costa Rica

Explore the rainforests that surround Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano.

group travel

When on vacation, factor in some time to wander off the beaten path to experience an area’s natural beauty.

 

For information on go-today’s Group Travel services, please kindly click here or call (800) 290-6685.

 

Safe travels!

 

 

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On Vacation in Saint Petersburg and Moscow: Discovering the Cultural Giants of Russia

sightseeing in Moscow

Ten days into the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games, we can be sure that the Russians certainly know something about figure skating, speed skating and the luge.  That being said, as last week’s Opening Ceremony illustrated, Russia has also produced some cultural champions – including many of the world’s best novelists, dancers, composers, choreographers and painters.  And while the ceremony’s organizers undeniably glossed over a few époques of Russian history, they surely showcased their finest.

Russian ballet sensations from the Bolshoi Theater, Mariinsky Theater, and the American Ballet Theater transported us to Imperial Russia with a beautiful reenactment from Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel, War and Peace.  There were tributes to artists like Marc Chagall and Wassily Kandinsky and to writers like Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Chekhov and Pushkin.  There was music from the Sretensky Monastery Choir, opera singer Anna Netrebko, and Tchaikovsky – with snippets from both Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.

Whether you have always dreamt of traveling to Russia or only recently became inspired from Sochi’s Opening Ceremony, we are here to tell you that traveling to Moscow or Saint Petersburg is like diving headfirst into a treasure chest of fantastic art museums, ballet, opera, symphony and literature!  And the following is a list of our five favorite cultural activities to include while on vacation in Russia.

 

1.  Attend a Ballet Performance

Ballet performance show Moscow St. Peterburg

Russia has a tremendous tradition of ballet dating back to the 18th century when the Imperial Russian Ballet was founded.  Some legendary Russian ballet dancers include Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, George Balanchine and Mikhail Baryshnikov – as well as Diana Vishneva and Svetlana Zakharova, who both performed in the Sochi Opening Ceremony.  Many of the world’s most prestigious ballet schools, companies, and dancers are Russian.  So when in Russia, consider attending a performance!  Saint Petersburg’s shining star is undoubtedly the Mariinsky Ballet Company, which performs at the Mariinsky Theater.  In Moscow, the Bolshoi Ballet, which was founded in 1776, is the foremost company, and its theatre – the Bolshoi is iconic for Russians.

 

2.  Check Out the Concert Halls

tickets symphony orchestra Moscow Saint Petersburg opera ballet Russia vacation Moscow Saint Petersburg tickets vacation

While Russian ballet and opera are perhaps more internationally renowned, it must be said that as with other performing arts disciplines – the Russians take their classical music seriously.  Its musical conservatories are some of the finest in the world having produced the likes of Tchaikovsky (who taught at the Moscow Conservatory), Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and many more.  If you want to incorporate a classical music concert during your Russian vacation, check out the upcoming programs for the following concert calls: the Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall, the Moscow Conservatory, the Saint Petersburg Academic Philharmonic, the Moscow International House of Music, and the Bolshoi Theatre Symphony Orchestra.

 

3.  Enjoy a Night at the Opera

Ballet opera tickets Russia

While you understandably might not want to attend a theatre play with all the actors speaking Russian, opera is a different ballgame.  The ambience, theatricality and high-quality are surely worth the experience.  Russia has a strong tradition of opera, and by attending an opera in Russian, you are likely to come across works by famous Russian composers – such as Tchaikovsky, Glinka, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky and Shostakovich – that are difficult to see performed outside of  Russia.  While many of the venues in Moscow and Saint Petersburg are often the same for opera as for ballet, the ticket costs can be quite a bit cheaper for opera.   Again, while the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi are the crème de la crème of theatres, the Mikhailovsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg is also a good choice.

 

4.  Incorporate Literary Sightseeing into Your Russian Vacation

literary sightseeing vacation Russia

Some of the best works of literature from the 19th and 20th centuries hailed from Russia.  Its poets, novelists and playwrights brought us Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, The Idiot, Boris Godunov, The Brothers Karamazov, Uncle Vanya, Notes from the Underground, The Cherry Orchard, Doctor Zhivago, Eugene Onegin, and Lolita.  Literature is very much woven into the very fabric of Russian culture, and you will find that Russians are in general extremely well read.  So if you are a literature fan, Russia is one of the most exciting literary destinations to visit!

There are several excellent literary museums to check out in both Saint Petersburg and Moscow.  In Saint Petersburg, be sure to visit the Dostoyevsky Memorial Museum, which is located inside his former apartment.  (You can also visit his grave in Tikhvin Cemetery).  While in Saint Petersburg, you can also visit the Nabokov Museum and the Anna Akhmatova Museum.

Literary cultural sightseeing Russia Russian literary vacation sightseeing  literary sightseeing attracions vacation Russia

Further south in Russia’s capital, a must-see literary sight is the Tolstoy House Museum in Moscow, which gives visitors a fascinating glimpse into Tolstoy’s family life.  (You can also visit his study where he wrote The Death of Ivan Ilyich).  If you want more literary sightseeing in Moscow, the Pushkin Apartment Museum on Arbat Street and the Chekhov House Museum also both merit a visit.

 

5.  Visit Moscow and Saint Petersburg’s Incredible Art Museums

Hermitage Museum sightseeing

You can really find some outstanding art collections in Russia, many of which were amassed during the days of Imperial Russia.  The Romanov’s patronage of artists – Catherine the Great in particular – contributed to the amazing collections found in Saint Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, which is located inside the former Imperial family’s Winter Palace.  While exploring Russia’s top art museums, you will see superb medieval icon paintings, Fabergé eggs, abstract masterpieces from Kandinsky as well as many works from Western European artists.  If you only have time for two art museum visits, make them the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.  Not only are they Russia’s best art museums, they are considered to be some of the finest in all of Europe.

Art sightseeing museums Russia  Winter Palace art sightseeing  subway stations Moscow

And even if you have no interest in visiting museums, you will still encounter works of art in Moscow simply by taking the metro!  Moscow is famed for its grandiose metro stations.  On some lines you can find stained-glass windows, baroque ceilings, marble columns, bas-reliefs, and gorgeous mosaics.  Metro stations to look out for include Komsomolskaya, Novoslobodskaya, Mayakovskaya, Elektrozavodskaya. Kievskaya, and Prospekt Mira.

 

We hope that you have enjoyed reading about Russia’s extensive cultural sightseeing attractions.  To view all our affordable vacation packages to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, please kindly click here.

 

Safe travels – and go Teams USA and Canada!

 

 

 

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Barcelona for Kids: 10 Sightseeing Attractions for Your Next Family Vacation to Europe!

best sightseeing for kids children in Barcelona Spain

Very often our clients ask us about kid-friendly destinations in Europe.  While budget, climate and safety are clearly key factors, parents are also often concerned about selecting a destination that has enough sightseeing attractions to interest both adults and children.  Many ask questions like “why fly across the Atlantic Ocean with our kids if we’re only going to go to the beach every day for a week?” or “I want to see the sights and experience the local culture, but will my kids adapt?”

You’ll be glad to know that there is a happy medium in there somewhere.  Some European destinations work very well for families – whether the kids are really young or teenagers.  Barcelona is one such placeSome of the obvious (but nevertheless important) benefits to traveling to Barcelona with children include the fact that this is a city with great flight availability, which means avoiding multiple flight connections (a major plus with young children).

best sightseeing for kids children in Barcelona Spain

The weather in Barcelona is generally pretty great. Even in the winter, it never gets cold enough to make you reluctant to venture outdoors and explore.

And due to the recession, right now there are good deals to be had in Spain.  Barcelona’s public transportation is extensive, reliable and inexpensive; the same type of ticket works on the bus, metro or tram.  And while it may sound silly, we know that little kids can be fussy eaters and loath to eat anything too spicy.  In general Spanish food is not spicy at all.  They have a few spicy items on the menu – like chorizo sausage – but for the most part, Spaniards only season their food with salt, pepper, garlic and parsley (especially in Mediterranean Barcelona).

best sightseeing for kids children in Barcelona Spain

While Barcelona as a city is large and very densely populated, the city has lots of outdoor space and is nicely nestled between coastal mountains and the beach!

So, the question remains – of all of Barcelona’s great sightseeing attractions – which work well with children?  Here’s a list of 10 great choices:

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1.  The Barcelona Zoo

best sightseeing for kids children in Barcelona Spain

The Barcelona’s zoo first opened its doors in 1892 right inside one of the most beautiful parks in the city, the Parc de la Ciutadella.  Even if you choose not to go to the zoo, the park merits a visit in its own right.  In addition to the zoo, the park houses a lovely lake (where row boats can be rented), pavilions, playgrounds, cafes and even the Catalan Parliament.  It’s an ideal place to have a picnic, rent a 4-seater bike or read a book under a shady tree.

If you decide to go inside the zoo as well, you can easily spend the entire morning or afternoon inside the park.  Once inside the zoo, you’ll find a very respectable collection of animals from all around the world – and they even host a dolphin show every few hours.  The space is lovely (many Catalan couples have their weddings in the zoo), not overwhelming, and very easy to explore with young kids.

(And if your child didn’t get his or her animal-fix at the zoo, Barcelona is also home to one of Europe’s best aquariums).

 

2.  The Tibidabo Amusement Park

mountain church Barcelona best sightseeing in Spain for kids best sightseeing in Spain for children

Tibidabo is the tallest mountain of a coastal mountain range called the Serra de Collserola, which borders the northwestern edge of Barcelona.  And at the very top of it, you’ll find an old-timey amusement park that dates back to the turn of the 20th century.  The panoramic views of Barcelona from the park’s 25 rides are the best you’ll find in the whole city.

The park isn’t really a place that teenage-children would go crazy over.  That being said, if you’re looking for something active to do with older children, there are many wonderful hiking trails in the Parc della Collserola (which Tibidabo forms part of).  And again, public transportation can take you to all of these places; no need to rent a car for some fresh air and exercise while in Barcelona!

 

3.  The CosmoCaixa Science Museum

Cosmocaixa best sightseeing for kids children in Spain

Photo of the Science Museum's flooded forest by Luiyo

This is one of the coolest science museums for children in Europe.  Inside it you’ll find an Amazonian rainforest complete with birds, piranhas and crocodiles; a geological wall that shows kids firsthand about the different types of rocks on our planet; a “room of matter,” which contains hundreds of interesting, interactive experiments to teach kids about physics and other areas of science; and lastly a planetarium, where kids can learn all about planets and stars.  The museum also regularly hosts interesting temporary exhibitions.

 

4.  The Fundació Joan Miró

best art museums in Spain for children

Photo of the Fundació Joan Miró by Carinny

While Barcelona is rife with truly outstanding art museums (the Picasso Museum, MACBA, the National Museum of Catalan Art, etc.) we know that it isn’t always easy to take young kids to an art museum.  If your kids are teenagers, it’s probably pretty easy to visit any of the city’s fine art museums, but for little children – long lines, cramped rooms and stuffy ambiences just don’t work.  Therefore, if you have little children and would like to take them to one art museum in Barcelona, we would suggested this one, which is dedicated to the Catalan, surrealist artist Joan Miró.  Miró painted in addition to doing pottery and sculpture.

As much of his art is abstract, colorful and full of symbols, it’s great for children.  Additionally, the museum is housed in a wonderful modern building designed by Catalan architect Josep Lluís Sert.  It’s a truly spacious and flowing space.  One last advantage of visiting this museum is that it’s located on Barcelona’s most-appreciated hill, Montjuic.  We’re calling it a hill but it’s actually a huge green space filled with gardens, parks and interesting sightseeing attractions.  If you pick several sights that you want to visit, you can easily spend a full day on Montjuïc, and during high season in the evenings – at the base of Montjuïc (near Plaza Espanya) there is usually a free “Magic Fountain” water show set to music that children love to attend.

 

5.  Montjuïc Castle

best sightseeing for kids families in Barcelona Spain best sightseeing for kids families in Barcelona Spain best sightseeing for kids families in Barcelona Spain

At the very top of the hill of Montjuïc stands this impressive, 17-century fortress.  In the past, it has played a major role in Spanish history.  Today, it’s an amazing historical playground for everyone to enjoy.  There are always many children there, running round and climbing on the various iron cannons situated around the castle.  The views from there of Barcelona are just incredible and well worth the trek.  There are many ways to arrive to Montjuïc. Many walk from Plaza Espana’s metro stop.  Others catch a public bus up or go as part of their Hop-on, Hop-off sightseeing tour bus.  There is also a funicular train that you can take using your regular metro ticket, which will bring you about half-way up.  To then ascend to the castle, some walk from the funicular train station; however, the most fun way to go (certainly for children) is to take one of the teleferic sky buckets (or cable cars) to the very top.  There is also a variety of sightseeing tours that feature Montjuic.

 

6.  The Football Club Barcelona Museum

best sightseeing activities in Spain for teenagers

FC Barcelona was founded back in 1899, making it 114 years old!

Love it or hate it, “football” is deeply engrained in European culture, and Barcelona’s team Barça (as it is commonly called) is one of the best soccer teams in the world.  If your child is a major soccer fan, touring Barça’s Camp Nou Stadium and Museum to see where Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández take the field is likely an experience he or she will never forget.

 

7.  Antoni Gaudí Architectural Sights

modernist Catalan architecture sightseeing best sightseeing for kids in Spain modernist Catalan architecture sightseeing

Most visitors to Barcelona cannot imagine traveling all the way to Barcelona without seeing at least one of the architectural works of Barcelona’s father of modernista architecture: Antoni Gaudí.  If you’re bringing your children, try to squeeze at least one Gaudí masterpiece into your itinerary.  If your child is old enough to remember and appreciate it, going inside of the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia is the cultural, spiritual and artistic experience of a life time.  However, if you feel that your kids are too little to wait in line, that’s okay too – but make sure you take a nice walk around the periphery of the site to admire the facades.  Again, if your children are old enough to handle a heavier sightseeing schedule, other fantastic Gaudí sites like Parc Güell , Casa Milà (La Pedrera) and the Casa Batlló are all well worth a visit.

 

8.  The Chocolate Museum (Museu de la Xocolata)

best museums for kids children in Spain

While most children might groan for a few seconds when they’re told that their parents are taking them to a museum, they won’t with this one!  Barcelona’s Chocolate Museum is located in a historic monastery in the Born neighborhood, one of the loveliest areas of Barcelona’s Old Town.  (It’s also very near Ciutadella Park in case you’re thinking of combining it with the zoo or a picnic in the park).

The museum explains about the origins of chocolate, how it made its way to Spain in the 15th century from the New World, and how a chocolate confectionery tradition developed in Barcelona.

 

9.  The History of Barcelona Museum – Plaça del Rei

best history museums for kids in Spain

Part of Barcelona's ancient Roman forum lines beneath the beautiful Plaça del Rei.

Again, this depends on the age of your children, but if they’re school-age – this museum is history come to life!   It’s a museum, but it’s also a 2000-year-old archeological site.  Barcelona was founded by the Romans, and in the gothic quarter of the Old Town (just down from the Cathedral) several stories down lie the excavations of Barcelona’s Roman Forum.  The way that they’ve created the museum is amazing as you are completely underground and walking on plastic or metal bridges atop the ruins.  This is a great experience for children to learn about what life was like in the original Roman colony of Barcino.

 

10.  The Beach!

best activities for kids on vacation in Spain

View from the Olympic Port, one of Barcelona's city beaches

And after all that sightseeing, everyone deserves some beach time!  If you’re coming in the summer (and the water temperature stays warm into September), the beach is an ideal place to take your kids after a morning of sightseeing.  If you prefer to stay in the city limits of Barcelona, go to the Barceloneta, Icària or Bogatell beaches.  All of them are accessible by metro, and you’ll find that it’s quite easy to rent chairs or umbrellas.  If you want less-crowded beaches, a short train ride of 30-40 minutes will take you to some beautiful spots like Sitges, Castelldefels or El Masnou.

 

We hope we’ve managed to convince you that Barcelona is a good European vacation destination for children!  If you’re interested in booking a vacation to Barcelona with go-today, please click here to take a look at all of our vacation packages to Spain, or if you would prefer to speak directly to one of our expert reservation agents please kindly call (800) 227-3235.  And keep in mind that all these places that we recommended are in the city of Barcelona.  Outside of Barcelona there are many wonderful excursions that are also ideal for families with children (click here to read about an unusual one!)  If you want to know about interesting excursions from Barcelona – and we can recommend many – just let us know so that we may help you create the perfect Barcelona itinerary for your family.

Safe travels!

 

Note: Spain was also featured in a previous blog post on affordable travel to Europe: 9 Tips for Vacationing in Europe – On a Budget!  As most families traveling with children are on a budget, please feel free to peruse this post to learn about the cheapest destinations in Europe, good-value vacation deals to Europe and the cheapest times of year to travel to Europe.

 

 

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On Vacation in Paris: What to See in the Montmartre District!

 

Bohemian artistic Paris

Rising high above Paris’ dazzling panorama, the historic Parisian district of Montmartre is unlike anywhere else in the “City of Light.”  And while it doesn’t possess the grand boulevards, vast parks and bourgeois housing of central Paris, it has charm, history, vigor and character.  It gives one the feeling of being in a magical, imperfect village – faraway from one of Europe’s largest capital cities.  So when in Paris on vacation, what is there to see in Montmartre?

wine Montmartre Paris cabaret shows Paris Montmartre Basilica Hill

Let’s begin with a bit of background.  Montmartre’s origins are ancient.  It is believed that it was originally a sacred place for druid priests, who in fact executed Saint Denis, the patron saint of Paris, on the hill of Montmartre approximately 1700 years ago.  It was always considered the outskirts of Paris, and because of its strategic position it was used throughout history as a military base during times of war.  The end of the 19th century however is when the unique character of Montmartre really began to take shape.

sightseeing in Montmartre district neighborhood sightseeing in Montmartre district neighborhood sightseeing in Montmartre district neighborhood

When Napoleon III decided to modernize central Paris, much of the medieval city was destroyed, and Paris’ poor inhabitants were pushed to the city’s edges.  At that time, Montmartre was outside of Paris’ official city limits, and it developed into an area known for its decadent nightlife.  Local convents produced wines, and the area attracted socialites, artists, entertainers, musicians and writers.  This was the infectiously lively birthplace of Le Chat Noir and of the Moulin Rouge!  The world entered the 20th century, and by this time Montmartre was firmly established as the artistic capital of Paris.  And the artists kept coming.

sightseeing in Montmartre district neighborhood sightseeing in Montmartre district neighborhood sightseeing in Montmartre district neighborhood

This was the Paris of Édith Piaf and Josephine Baker – of Le Corbusier, Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh – of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas and Langston Hughes!  While its character today has admittedly moved on, Montmartre still holds remnants of its artistic, bohemian heritage.  It hosts some of the best festivals in Paris, and while being rather small in size, it has enough interesting sights for you to dedicate an entire day of your sightseeing in Paris to exploring avant-garde, original, bold and timeless Montmartre.

And to get you started, here are seven sightseeing recommendations to check out on a day in Montmartre:

 

1.  Explore Montmartre’s artistic heritage

bohemian neighborhood Paris Picasso commune studio Paris Vicent Van Gogh House Paris

This is not just where they worked.  It’s where they lived.  Montmartre is where the great artists of the day as well as up-and-coming dreamers gathered.  They drank in cafes, played music, and danced the night away in cabarets.  You cannot disconnect Montmartre with its once thriving artists’ community.  They were here during the most exciting, important movements of 20th-century art.  Just a few of its better-known residents include Salvador Dalí, Max Jacob, Kees van Dongen, Guillaume Apollinaire, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Raoul Dufy, Maurice Neumont, Amedeo Modigliani, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Maurice Utrillo (who was actually born in Montmartre).

Toulouse-Lautrec poster Escape Montmartre Salvador Dali Musee-Montmartre-Renoir

While exploring the neighborhood’s artistic past, it’s worth paying a visit to the Musée de Montmartre, which is housed in Utrillo’s former residence.  (Pierre-Auguste Renoir also lived on the premises).  Cubism was born inside the workshops of Le Bateau Lavoir artists’ commune near the place Émile-Goudeau, whose original façade can still be seen today; Picasso lived here for 8 years.  It’s also worth paying a visit to the Espace Dalí Montmartre.  And while undoubtedly touristy (hey – even the French themselves do it) head to Montmartre’s Place du Tertre where one of the many local artists, some of whom are very talented, will still sketch your portrait.

 

2.  Check out the windmills turned dance halls

Moulin de la Galette

Windmills (or les moulins in French) are some of the very first images that spring to mind when one thinks of Montmartre.  In the 19th century, when Montmartre truly was a countryside setting people used to escape here for fun, a great view, a glass of wine and a slice of a galette (a type of cake that the local mill owners made).  Overtime as Montmartre grew, these mills kept producing the breads and cakes – but added ambience, wine, music and dancing.  These dancehalls or cabarets were famed throughout Paris, and the artistic community provided many of the cabarets’ most-frequent, lively patrons (including Picasso, Van Gogh and many others).

When visiting Montmartre today, you can still see two of the surviving, historic windmills, which were both referred to as the Moulin de la Galette.  While the Moulin Blute-Fin (located across the street from rue Lepic 88) is located on private land and today cannot be visited, the Moulin Radet can very easily be seen at the corner of rue Lepic and rue Girardon.  (A bistro is now located there called – you guessed it, the Moulin de la Galette).

France cabaret shows France cabaret shows

Another famous “moulin” located at the foot of Montmartre in the Pigalle district is The Moulin Rouge, which opened its doors in 1889 to Paris’ glamorous, cancan-loving crowds.  Mistinguett, Edith Piaf, Louise Weber (also known as ‘La Goulue’) represent several of the Moulin Rouge’s most-shining stars.  Today it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Paris.

 

3.  See Au Lapin Agile

Au Lapin Agile Au Lapin Agile

At the corner of rue Saint Vincent and rue des Saules, you’ll find another Montmartre landmark: Au Lapin Agile.  This mid-19th century cabaret resembles a rustic home in a countryside hamlet.  This was a favorite hangout for many artists in the Montmartre, and the cabaret setting was portrayed in many of their artworks.  (Click here to see Picasso’s painting titled “Lapin Agile” or here to see Maurice Utrillo’s painting titled “Lapin Agile”).  Even today, on most evenings you can still attend a traditional French cabaret show at this historic venue.

 

4.  See the vineyards on rue Saint Vincent

Montmartre winery

While small in size, these vineyards beautifully preserve a Parisian winemaking tradition that was originally introduced by the Romans and later flourished from the 12th century until the 19th century under the patronage of Montmartre’s Benedictine Abbey.  Today, it is the only part of Paris that still produces wine, and in the fall Montmartre hosts an autumn wine harvest festival that is truly a treat to attend if you’ll be in Paris in October!

French wine tours French gourmet sightseeing French wine festivals

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5.  Check out a local bakery!

culinary baking tours in Paris culinary baking tours in Paris culinary baking tours in Paris

Montmartre is rife with adorable bakeries, cafes and bistros, so factor some time in your Montmartre sightseeing schedule to relax and have a glass of wine or a café – and be sure to try some of the cakes, pies and patisserie goodies of Montmartre.

 

6.  Go inside the Basilica of the Sacred Heart

Basilica France Hill Paris

Although the Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur was initially disliked by some of Paris’ 19th-century residents, it is nothing if not impressive.  Atop Paris’ highest point, it was constructed out of Travertine marble in a Roman-Byzantine style and took just under 40 years to build (it was completed in 1914).  Its interior mosaics are magnificent, and it’s free to visit inside the basilica (although the crypt and towers do have a small fee).

 

7.  Go inside the church of Saint-Pierre de Montmartre

Paris churches Paris churches Paris churches

Having been consecrated in the mid-12th century, this church is one of Paris’ oldest structures.  It is also said to be the site where the Jesuit order was founded in the 16th century.  It suffered major damages during the French Revolution and had to be significantly rebuilt in the 19th century.  That being said, it is still an incredibly historic place to include on your Paris sightseeing itinerary.

We hope that you have enjoyed reading about Paris’ Montmartre district and that you will now consider giving it a full, leisurely day on your next vacation to Paris!  To view all our affordable vacation packages to Paris, France please kindly click here.

Merci et bon voyage!

 

 

 

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Tuscany’s Lush, Mountainous Interiors, Thermal Spa Caves and Flower Markets: Part 5 of 6 in our Tuscany Series!

 

Tuscany Italy square

Benvenuti a tutti!  As stated in the beginning of this blog series on Tuscany, our aim throughout has been to encourage you to visit some of Tuscany’s less-traveled roads since by doing this – you often stumble upon its prettiest and most authentic spots.  And while we certainly recommend that you visit Florence and Siena’s incredible art museums and monuments (frankly, it would be a shame not to), we’re hoping that also you’ll decide to give Tuscany a few extra days – to capture its true spirit.

And you certainly won’t be disappointed if you do!  After all, Tuscany is often described as Italy’s most beautiful region.  It is filled to the brim with cultural sightseeing attractions, serene countryside, ancient ruins, beautiful Mediterranean beaches, islands and national parks.  Home to the Renaissance, world-renown wine estates and a mouthwateringly-delicious cuisine, Tuscany has it all.  You truly can spend two weeks exploring it without getting bored for one second.  It also has the convenience of having two airports (Florence and Pisa), and for those wanting to visit southern Tuscany, Rome is often a better airport choice.

Car rental Florence

Tuscany is an ideal place to pleasantly travel by train or by car in Italy.

If you’ve missed any of the past posts on Tuscany, so far we’ve covered the provinces of Florence, Livorno and Pisa, Siena and Arezzo, and Grosseto (you can play a quick catch-up by clicking directly on their respective links).  And without further ado – today we’re continuing our tour of Tuscany with a spotlight on the provinces of Lucca and Pistoia!

Let’s begin with the Province of Lucca, which is located just north of the Province of Pisa, west of the Province of Pistoia and south of the region of Emilia-Romagna.  Like other provinces of Tuscany, the Province of Lucca has tumbling green hills speckled with olive groves, vineyards and farm houses as well as seashores that line the vibrant Mediterranean.  However, this province has several features that you won’t find elsewhere in Tuscany: mountainous, forested areas that could serve as the backdrop of any hiker’s dream, intricate cave systems – and a general absence of tourist crowds.

Ponte della Maddalena excursion Serchio River

The Maddalena Bridge, which crosses the Serchio River near the village of Borgo a Mozzano, served as an important crossing point for medieval pilgrims traveling to Rome.

The province’s capital city shares its name, and anyone who visits the city of Lucca realizes at once what a gem it is.  In terms of urban design, Lucca’s layout is orderly and Roman, and its intact, tree-lined, Renaissance walls are one of this city’s most splendid sights.

Medieval Italian cities in Italy

Lucca’s preserved city walls have become a favorite spot for tourists and locals alike to stroll, ride their bicycles or relax on a bench.

This beautiful city is also famed for its multitude of medieval churches and its rich musical heritage.  In fact, one of Lucca’s most famous sons was the composer Giacomo Puccini, and if you’re visiting Lucca in the summer during the annual Puccini Festival, it’s likely that inside a local church you can attend a concert featuring arias from his operas such as La Bohème, Tosca, Turandot or Madame Butterfly.

Duomo campanile of Lucca

The 950-year-old bell tower of Lucca’s Duomo plays a starring role in Lucca’s skyline.

The ancient Etruscans, Julius Caesar, Pompey, Dante and Napoleon are just a few of the fascinating characters that have played a role in Lucca’s lengthy history, and one fantastic remnant from Lucca’s ancient past to be sure to see is the city’s Roman amphitheater-turned-square, the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro.  After the decline of the Roman Empire, builders began building houses and shops directly into the stadium’s ruins.

Roman stadiums arenas in Italy

Lucca’s Piazza dell’Anfiteatro: imagine living where gladiators once fought!

Gardening fans will be thrilled with a visit to Lucca’s small-yet-charming Botanical Garden, which was commissioned by Napoleon’s second wife: Marie Louise, the Duchess of Parma.  (If you’re interested in visiting more gardens, we also strongly recommend a visit to the Villa Reale di Marlia in the town of Capannori, which is just a 15-minute drive east from Lucca.  This estate’s magnificent gardens were created by Napoleon’s sister, Elisa).

Churches in Italy

Four churches to visit while in Lucca include the Cathedral of San Martino (known in Italian as the “Duomo”), San Michele in Foro, San Frediano, and the Church of San Giovanni and Santa Reparata. Shown here is the 13th-century facade of the Basilica of San Michele in Foro.

Lucca also works as a great base to explore some of Tuscany’s most scenic landscapes.  A short drive (or train ride) north will take you to the lush, green, forested area of the Garfagnana.  The views here will knock your socks off – and they truly are unlike anywhere else in Tuscany.

Mountains in Italy

The Garfagnana region is home to Romanesque churches and quaint, traditional villages just waiting to be explored. It’s also a great spot for picking porcini mushrooms.

It’s an absolute paradise for those wanting to hike and get some fresh air in between days of sightseeing.  We recommend that you visit the nature reserve of the Parco Regionale delle Alpi Apuane, which is also home to the famed Cave of the Winds (Grotta del Vento), a fantastic cave system worth touring.

Italian mountain ranges

Tuscany’s Apuan Alps mountain range form part of Italy’s Apennines.

Some other places to include while sightseeing in the Garfagnana include the beautiful medieval town of Barga (home to several della Robbia sculptures), the area’s historic capital of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana (home to the historic Ariosto’s Castle) and the Verrucole Fortress in San Romano in Garfagnana.

Castles in Italy

Today Castelnuovo di Garfagnana's medieval castle houses an archaeological museum dedicated to the Garfagnana region’s prehistoric inhabitants.

After all that hiking and exploring, those in search of a bit of relaxion can visit the historic spa resort town of Bagni di Lucca.  And while not an official activity, it’s also fun to eat your way through these non-touristy areas of Tuscany.  It’s really easy to find affordable, tasty and traditional “Lucchesi” meals in off-the-beaten paths like these!

Italian spa resort towns

Much like the ancient Etruscans, visitors traveling to Bagni di Lucca can still soak in the hot thermal springs found at the Terme Bagni di Lucca.

And for those interested in wine tastings or olive oil tastings, the Province of Lucca is a great spot for both.  Two excellent wine regions to consider visiting include Colline Lucchesi and Montecarlo.

Italian olive-growing regions

Lucca’s olive groves in autumn.

But as we mentioned before, the Province of Lucca is not all misty mountains; it also has seaside!  Its coastline is home to many fashionable resort towns like Forte dei Marmi and Viareggio – with the latter being the host of some of Italy’s best Carnival celebrations.  But for your sightseeing planning, factor some well-deserved time in your schedule to simply relax on the beaches; most are sandy, calm and have facilities to rent chairs and umbrellas.  (And now we’re cheating a little bit here as we creep north into the Italian region of Liguria – but from Forte dei Marmi, you’ll only be a short distance from the five beautiful villages that make up Italy’s famed Cinque Terre: Riomaggiore,  Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare).

Italian Riviera Versilia Coast

The Province of Lucca’s stretch of the Riviera is known as the Versilia Coast. Seen here is the beach at Viareggio, the province’s second largest city after Lucca.

Heading inland and due east, the other wonderful province of Tuscany that we’re going to highlight today is the Province of Pistoia.  While Pistoia is much smaller than most of the other Tuscan provinces that we’ve featured such as Pisa, Grosseto, Siena, Arezzo and Florence – this often overlooked province still merits some time!

Italy Duomo San Zeno

While in Pistoia, is it worth visiting the Cathedral of San Zeno whose beautiful Romanesque facade dates back to the 10th century.

The province’s capital city, which is also called Pistoia, is very beautiful and easily visited from Florence (25 miles).  Pistoia, which was settled long before the Romans arrived, does have some very interesting sights to visit once you pass the trees, flowers and plants of its outer city and head for its medieval Old Town.  (Pistoia’s main industry is horticulture).  Be sure to check out its beautiful Duomo (Cathedral of San Zeno), the 14th-century Baptistery in Piazza del Duomo, Sant’Andrea and its famous sculpted pulpit by Giovanni Pisano, and the magnificent frescoes inside of the medieval chapel found in Piazza Garibaldi: Cappella del Tau.

The nearby town of Pescia is even more known for its horticulture.  In fact, it’s often called the flower capital of Tuscany.  Pescia is also home to some very pretty medieval architecture, but those who come are usually coming to frequent its flower markets.

Pistoia also has its share of natural wonders.  Its valley of Valdinievole is often referred to as the Valley of the Mists because of its abundance of thermal springs.  For hundreds of years visitors have come in droves to experience the healing properties of sulfurous thermal springs (or “terme”) in this province’s towns of Monsummano Terme and Montecatini Terme.  So if relaxation and pampering are on your vacation wish list, this is the place to be!

Terme Excelsior Tuscany

Seen here is one of the many spas found in the Tuscan resort town of Montecatini Terme.

One of the most deluxe sauna spa caves to visit is the Grotta Giusti Terme, while the nearby town of Montecatini Terme also has many thermal spa options (in addition to cute shops, cafes and restaurants).  If you rent a car, part of the joy of visiting this area comes from simply appreciating all the lovely little villages you’ll encounter, so keep that in mind – even if you’re not interested in going to Monsummano Terme or Montecatini Terme for a spa treatment.

thermal spas in Italy

Visitors flock to the Grotta Giusti Terme to relax inside its vaporous caves.

If you do decide to travel to one of these towns for a spa day, be sure to also make time to visit Montecatini Alto, the charming Old Town that rises high above Montecatini Terme; the views there are well worth the 10-minute funicular railway that you’ll have to take to reach the top.

Italian medieval hill towns

The quintessential, medieval Tuscan hill town: Montecatini Alto

For a look at our packages to Italy including a Fly & Drive Package please click here.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about the Tuscan provinces of Lucca and Pistoia!  These are the last of Tuscany’s provinces that we’re going to feature.  However, this blog series will conclude will one final post detailing amazing cities in nearby regions of Italy that blend very nicely with an itinerary to Tuscany.

A presto!

 

Updates:

Click here to re-read Part 1: Florence!

Click here to re-read Part 2: Pisa & Livorno!

Click here to re-read Part 3: Siena & Arezzo!

Click here to re-read Part 4: Grosseto!

 

 

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Vacation Escape to Dublin: Ireland’s Fantastic Capital City!

 

Ireland’s natural beauty has long been lauded throughout the world.  For many of us, Ireland conjures up idyllic imagery of green pastures, thatched farmhouses, verdant gardens, and pretty villages like Athlone, Kinsale, Kenmare and Adare.  We think of striking cliffs and a dazzling countryside blessed with weathered castles, stone cottages, stately manor homes, and historic monasteries like Glendalough, Clonmacnoise and Kylemore Abbey.

Natural beauty scenery Ireland

Ireland's famed Dingle Peninsula

Travelers to Ireland flock to the Lakes of Killarney and the Ring of Kerry.  They want postcard views of the Cliffs of Moher, the River Shannon, and the Dingle Peninsula.  The hills of Connemara, the rugged beauty of the Burren, the countryside of Kildare, and the Aran Islands off Galway’s coast welcome visitors to Ireland year after year.  All of this begs the question; are we giving the capital city of this admittedly-beautiful island country enough credit?  Has the Irish countryside raised the bar so high that we’re left blind to Dublin’s charms?

Dublin-river-liffey

The River Liffey in Dublin

We hope not, because Dublin merits a visit in its own right!  Words like charm are often used when describing tourist destinations, but laid-back Dublin is extraordinarily charming.  And it makes for the perfect getaway for visitors traveling from America or Canada.  You can’t beat the great availability of flights from North America to Dublin.  There is the ease of speaking a common language.  There is a terrific selection of hotels, superb restaurants and fantastic cultural attractions.  And it’s important to note that Dublin is much smaller (and less exhausting to visit) than some of Europe’s other capital cities like London, Paris or Rome.

Dublin sightseeing Ireland Ireland attractions sightseeing Christmas in Ireland Dublin sightseeing

In fact, Dublin is oh-so stroll-able that it’s very easy to sightsee, shop, and leisurely wander past neighborhood cafes, lively pubs, interesting museums, cool vintage shops, and art galleries; this city has seriously great energy!  That being said, should you choose to dedicate a few vacation days to Ireland’s beautiful capital city, here are 10 of our favorite sightseeing attractions in Dublin!

 

1. The Guinness Storehouse Tour

Ireland beer factory tour

Arthur Guinness began brewing ales in Dublin in 1759.

This dry stout has left its mark on Dublin’s culture, heritage – and streets.  As you approach the storehouse for a guided tour, you’ll pass building after building marked with the brewery’s name; you almost feel a bit like you’re in “the city of Guinness.”  The tour of the historic storehouse is interesting and fun, and it concludes with a delicious pint high inside the very cool Gravity Bar, which offers picture-perfect, 360° views of Dublin.

 

2. Kilmainham Gaol Museum

Dublin prison jail Dublin prison jail Dublin prison jail Dublin prison jail

A short walk from the Guinness Storehouse will take you to our next suggestion: Kilmainham Gaol.  A guided tour of this historic prison (and all visits are guided) will take you through some of the fascinating and often tragic events in Ireland’s history from the 1780s to the 1920s.  You will learn about the former penal policies and hear about some of its most famous prisoners, quite of few of whom were involved in the rebellions leading up to the Irish War of Independence.  We cannot recommend this tour enough.

 

3. See the Book of Kells in the Old Library of Trinity College

Trinity College Library The Book of Kells Ireland Ireland Sightseeing in Dublin

Found inside of the Old Library at Trinity College, this beautiful, painstakingly-illustrated and scripted manuscript is approximately 1200 years old.  An extremely rare treasure, the Book of Kells details the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and serves as a testament to the tremendous religious and scholastic value of the Celtic monasteries of Ireland and Scotland – when the rest of Europe was stuck in the Dark Ages.

 

4. Go on Dublin’s Literary Pub Crawl

Irish writers sightseeing tour Ireland Irish writers sightseeing tour Ireland Irish writers sightseeing tour Ireland

This is one of the best ways to spend an evening in Dublin!  Beginning in the Duke’s Pub, two actors will take you on a very entertaining spin through the grounds of Trinity College as well as several favorite pubs of Dublin’s literary sons and daughters.  Over a pint (or two) you can sit back and enjoy humorously-performed passages from some of Ireland’s literary masterpieces.  Hear the works of Samuel Beckett, Jonathan Swift, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde as you bounce from pub to pub; it’s plain good fun.

(Note: If this sort of thing strikes your fancy, consider also checking out the Dublin Writers Museum in Parnell Square).

 

5. Check out Dublin’s ordinary, neighborhood pubs

Nightlife in Dublin Ireland

The narrow lanes of Dublin's Temple Bar area still retain their original medieval look.

Part of Dublin’s charm comes from the fact that its locals are so laid-back and friendly, so make some time in your schedule to steer yourself off the tourist track to soak up the fantastic ambience in neighborhood pubs and bars.

While you find historic spots and great local craft beers, this isn’t just about drinking.  Very often the food is very good, and you’ll find that many pubs regularly have terrific live music sessions.

A few favorites to frequent include Brazen Head (great music), Abbey Tavern (great food & entertainment), The Sackville Lounge (great character), the Stag’s Head (great ambience), Davy Byrnes (referenced in James Joyce’s Ulysses, very good seafood), and the J.W. Sweetman gastro pub (best fish chowder we’ve ever tasted).

It’s especially fun to try going to the pubs when a hurling match is on!

 

6. Splurge on a nice meal

Dining in Dublin

Many excellent restaurants and gastropubs can be found along Dublin's River Liffey.

We’ve been going on and on about Dublin’s pubs, but at least one night on your trip to Dublin merits an upscale dining experience. This city has an absolutely fantastic restaurant scene!  Local chefs pride themselves on the freshness of local, Irish ingredients.  Some blend Irish produce with French culinary techniques.  Others offer innovative takes on delicious classics.  Think farm food – with a twist – paired with seriously impressive wine lists.

Some favorites to try include the Winding Stair, Chapter One, the Vintage Kitchen, l’Gueuleton, Eden, Dax and One Pico.

 

7. Buy Mom, Grandpa, Uncle Bobby or yourself an Aran wool knit sweater

Ireland Aran fisherman pullover

The wool, craft sweaters from the Aran Islands originated in the late 1800s.

These sweaters hail from the Aran Islands, and were originally made for fishermen.  Now you will see these sweaters all over the place in Ireland in souvenir shops, but we must admit – they’re lovely and very warm.  And you know your Mom will want one!

 

8. Tour the Old Jameson Whiskey Distillery

Jameson Distillery

Jameson's triple-distilled Irish whiskey was born in Dublin in 1780.

Set on the grounds of the original, 18th-century distillery in Dublin, the whiskey tour experience lasts an hour and takes you through the process of how John Jameson came up with the smooth whiskey that Ireland today exports all over the world.  Again, it’s a fun way to sightsee, and they offer various tasting options depending on how interested you are in whiskey production.

 

9. Travel to the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre to see Newgrange

Irish neolithic ancient sites Irish neolithic ancient sites

Located just north of Dublin near the Boyne River, this 5000-year-old Neolithic site will knock your socks off.  Think about it; this fully-intact monument is a passage tomb, the oldest astronomical observatory on the planet, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is much older than Machu Picchu.  It’s older than Stonehenge.  Why, it’s even a thousand years older than the pyramids of Egypt!  And much like Stonehenge, no one can be certain about its exact purpose.

Understandably so, Newgrange is very well regulated as they cannot allow massive crowds of people on site at the same time.  It’s best to take a tour here to ensure entry.  Whether you come on an official tour or decide to arrive on your own, it’s essential to follow the specific time slots allotted to you for your chance to go inside the monument.

 

10. Visit the Hill of Tara

Excursions tours from Dublin Sightseeing Excursions Tours from Dublin Stone of Destiny High King

Just southwest of Newgrange lies another giant in Irish history: the Hill of Tara.  This ancient, mystical spot was the royal seat of the High Kings of Ireland. Various ancient ceremonial monuments – including the Stone of Destiny – can be found atop the hill.  The view as well is amazing; on a clear day you can see over 20 counties of Ireland.

(Because of their proximity, it is possible to do a combo tour of Newgrange and the Hill of Tara)

 

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading our recommendations for what to see, do, eat, drink and buy on your next trip to Dublin!  For a look at our Dublin Escape package please click hereor click directly on the links to see all of our vacation packages to Ireland and sightseeing tours in Dublin.

We’ll end by saying that with Halloween being right around the corner, we feel safe in confessing that while we did not include a Dublin Ghost Tour on our Top 10 List, truth be told – we love a good ghost tour.

 

 

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Germany’s Harvest, Wine and Beer Festivals: Three Great Reasons to Visit in The Fall!

 

Germany traditional dresses

A few weeks into autumn, it’s a lovely time to be in Europe.  Local Europeans have returned from their summer vacations and are back in the swing of things.  The temperature is crisp and refreshing.  Life in the larger cities and towns is returning to an extremely pleasant, exuberant buzz.  Neighborhood cafes have their regulars back.  Crowds have disappeared around the main touristic, sightseeing attractions.  Jackets and coats have made their annual debut, and leaves are fading from green to lovely shades of yellow, red and browns.  All and all, it’s unbelievably cozy and inviting.

There are many benefits to traveling to Europe during the fall.  That being said, I’m about to narrow in on one of my favorite, fall experiences in Europe: Germany and its fabulous fall beverage celebrations!

oktoberfest beer glass

Beer production plays a significant role in German culture, and those traveling there can easily learn about local brews at one of the many beer festivals held throughout the country.

Oh yes, right now is an EXCELLENT time to be in Germany, and ultimately – during the fall and on through the winter season, Germany is the gift that keeps on giving.  This past weekend signaled the start of Bavaria’s Oktoberfest celebrations.  Visitors there dash from tent to tent, don dirndl dresses and lederhosen, and enjoy the traditional music and jovial, international scene.

German Beer festival Octoberfest

Munich just inaugurated its 180th year of the fair, which is safe to describe as the biggest beer (and folkloric) party in the land – or the world for that matter.

In addition to sampling the local brews like Paulaner and Augustiner, it’s also good fun to taste some of the traditional Bavarian fare.  (Click here for more information about this year’s Oktoberfest).

Traditional German snacks

Oktoberfest snacks include tasty sausages, sauerkraut, potato dumplings and pretzels.

Now if large crowds aren’t your thing, you’ll be happy to know that smaller beer festivals are held in quaint, beautiful little villages throughout Bavaria and Franconia during various months of the year.  Click here and here for more info.

Moving right along to another fantastic beverage, let’s continue with Germany’s wein!  Germany is a wine powerhouse.  Wine has been produced in this area since the Romans introduced it approximately 2000 years ago.  Most of the country’s wine is produced in the West, along the fertile banks of the Rhine River, and white wines are usually the shining stars of Germany’s overall production (with Riesling being its most famed).  That being said, in the past few years German red wines (particularly pinot noir, known in German as spätburgunder) have steadily been garnering the international wine community’s praise.

This is an exciting time to experience Germany’s wine country!  Wine estates have just recently finished harvesting grapes (generally happens during the end of August and beginning of September).

Germany wine harvest celebrations

Wonderfully-fun, harvest festivals will take place throughout Germany during the months of September and October.

The atmosphere and spirit of these festivals is exhilarating!  Outdoor wine stands abound for you to try the local vintages.  Streets and squares are decked out with traditional decorations, ribbons and leaf garlands.  Lively music fills the streets.  Parades and fireworks add to the merriment!

Some wine regions are better known than others, so no matter if you’re looking for something large and lively – or something small and local; chances are good that Germany hosts at least one festival that would wet your whistle!  The country has 13 wine regions, but for now we’re going to narrow in on seven of them!  Many of these areas have great fall wine festivals – as well as other great attractions to see in the area.  Depending on which area(s) you’re most interested in, you probably will want to fly into Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, or Munich and then rent a car so you can explore at a relaxing pace.  Wiesbaden is an excellent city for your hotel accommodations as you can easily explore much of these western wine regions from there.

 

The Moselle Wine Region (spelled “Mosel” in German)

Mosel Germany vineyards wineries

The vast majority of this wine region’s vineyards reside on the dramatic, steep slopes that line the Moselle River.

Most weekends throughout September, many of the villages in this region are playing host to local wine festivals.  This is Germany’s oldest wine region and where some of its most acclaimed wine whites originate.  Most of the wines produced in this dramatically-scenic region are made with Riesling grapes – and are generally more on the sweeter than the dry side.  If you want to visit Mosel during a fall wine festival, consider checking out the very lovely villages of Bernkastel-Kues, Traben-Trarbach and Winningen (home to the oldest wine festival in Germany).

Click here for detailed information on Mosel’s wine route.

Mosel villages wine region Germany Mosel river wine region Germany Mosel wine region

Other places to visit while in this wine region include the picturesque town of Cochem and the medieval village of Saarburg, located on the Saar River.  Just beyond its wonderful Old Town, you’ll encounter acre upon acre of gorgeous wine country.

Lastly, we also recommend that you visit the historic town of Trier, which lies just north of Saarburg, on the banks of the Mosel River.  Over 2000 years old, Trier is one of the oldest towns in all of Germany; because of its Roman monuments, it was made an official UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

Middle Rhine Wine Region (spelled “Mittelrhein” in German)

Mittelrhein Middle Rhein Rhine gorge

Katz Castle sits high above the lovely Rhine River towns of Sankt Goar and Sankt Goarshausen.

This is about as picture-perfect as it gets.  Its cultural and geographic value is so immense that the southern portion of the region – from Koblenz to Bingen – is a UNESCO World Heritage Site commonly referred to as the Rhine Gorge.  Lining this stretch of the Rhine River, visitors traveling to this wine region will encounter mind-blowingly beautiful countryside, historic castles, medieval monasteries and traditional villages like Rüdesheim am Rhein, one of Germany’s most well-loved destinations.

Mittelrhein Middle Rhine wine region Germany

The beautiful, wine-making town of Boppard hosts autumn wine festivals.

Other lovely towns to consider visiting include Braubach, Lorch, Bacharach, Boppard and Sankt Goar.  A very pleasant way to visit this stretch of the Rhine with its many castles and vineyards is to take a relaxing sightseeing river cruise.

 

Rheingau Wine Region

Rheingau wine region

The rich tradition of winemaking at Johannisberg Palace goes back 1200 years.

This wine region is home to one of Germany’s most prestigious wine producers, Schloss Johannisberg.  This palace and winery lie just west of the spa town of Wiesbaden.  Should you want to visit the estate, they regularly conduct visits and tastings, and afterwards you can enjoy the nearby thermal springs!

Additionally in this wine region, you will find some terrific red wines (mostly pinot noir) in villages like Assmannshausen.

 

Rhine-Hesse Wine Region (spelled “Rheinhessen” in German)

Traditional wine towns near Rhine River

The picturesque town of Oppenheim is a quintessential, wine-making town along the Rhine.

This is Germany’s largest wine-producing region, and the vast majority of the wines produced are white.

The city of Mainz and the surrounding villages along the river host wine festivals and markets throughout the year.  In addition to its wine offerings, Mainz is interesting to visit for many reasons.  Dating back to its origins as a Roman fort, Mainz has served as the setting of many major events throughout history including the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century.  The city’s Cathedral, which is over 1000 years old, is also a beautiful example of Romanesque architecture.

Germany wine region Rheinhessen

Mainz, whose Old Town’s main square is shown, is considered one of the world’s “Great Wine Capitals.”

Also within this wine region, you’ll find the very historic city of Worms.  This is the only German city to be selected as a member of the Most Ancient European Towns Network.  It is also highly connected to The Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther.

 

Palatinate Wine Region (spelled “Pfalz” in German)

Germany wine country Palatinate

The Palatinate is Germany’s second largest wine region.

Compared to Germany’s other wine regions, the Palatinate is known for its warmer temperatures and sunnier skies.  Almost all of its wine-making villages and towns host wine festivals throughout the year.  One interesting difference is that in the Palatinate, it’s common to add sparkling water to the local wines; this is what the locals drink and what you’re most likely to encounter at the festivals.

Palatinate wine region Germany

For almost 600 years, every fall - the village of Bad Dürkheim hosts one of the world’s largest wine festivals, where over 150 different wines are available to taste.

Also within this region, the town of Neustadt an der Weinstrasse (literally “new town on the wine route”) also hosts a very lively, grape harvest festival every October complete with costumes, processions and German wine queens!

 

Baden Wine Region

Baden wine region

Lake Constance (“Bodensee” in German) borders the southeastern stretch of Baden.

Known for its excellent wines, Baden is also commonly described as one of the prettiest corners of Germany.  Sitting right on the Rhine River across from the French region of Alsace, this is the warmest and longest wine region in Germany.

Wine regions of Germany

Some of Baden’s best wines are produced in the idyllic countryside of the Black Forest.

In addition to trying the local wines, this area is rife with great places to explore.  Lake Constance and the famed Black Forest are both easy to visit.  There are natural, thermal springs for those interested in relaxing in the invigorating springs after a day of sightseeing.

Rhine river cities Germany

View of an illuminated Heidelberg Castle and the Old Bridge

And if you do travel there, you should make time to visit the beautiful cities of Heidelberg, Freiburg and Baden-Baden.

 

Franconia Wine Region (spelled “Franken” in German)

Rhine River Marienberg Fortress

Panoramic view of Würzburg and its vineyards from the Marienberg Fortress

Last but certainly not least, this region lies to the east of the Rheingau and Rheinhessen regions, along the banks of the Main River.  It is a region that is consistently winning more and more recognition for its top-quality wines.  This is Bavaria’s only wine region, so if you want to taste amazing beer and wine on your vacation, this is a fantastic area to consider.  As with many of the other regions we’ve featured, Franconia’s wine villages and medieval towns play host to authentic, fun local wine festivals.

beautiful Germany towns

Würzburg’s magical Old Town at sunrise

Within the region, a visit to the historic city of Würzburg is highly recommended, and should you decide to make the drive to this wine region from Munich, an absolute must-see place is the beautiful, Bavarian city of Regensburg, whose medieval city center is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

We hope you’re good and thirsty after reading about Germany’s exciting fall harvest festivals!  Keep in mind that during the entire month of December, many of these cities – along with many others in Germany – will play host to beautiful, absolutely-magical Christmas Markets with the most famous taking place in Dresden, Würzburg, Munich, Frankfurt, Rothenburg, Nuremberg, Berlin and Cologne.

Traditional Christmas celebrations in Europe

In a few months’ time, Germany’s famed Christmas markets will open throughout the country. Shown here is one in Berlin. Germany is a magical destination for a winter vacation getaway.

We will write more about these shortly, but for now – join us as we raise our glass and say “prost!

For information on our best travel deals to Germany, please click here for a list of our packages, which include a Fly & Drive package as well as several Christmas Market escorted tours.

 

 

 

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Tuscany’s natural wonders: thermal springs, unspoiled beaches, natural parks and astonishing hill towns: Part 4 of 6 in our Tuscany Series!

 

Grosseto Italy Tuscany

 

After several weeks out on the road, I’m back; so please – allow me to gently drag you away from this week’s alarm clocks, appointments and traffic jams – back to the beautiful hilltops and shimmering seashores of Tuscany, Italy…!  When we last left off, we had traveled through the Tuscan provinces of Florence, Livorno & Pisa, and Siena & Arezzo.  We’d seen Renaissance masterpieces, magnificent wine country, azure coastlines, Etruscan tombs, leaning towers, cypress-lined lanes and splendid medieval architecture.  Today, we’ll continue our journey through Tuscany’s Province of Grosseto!

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Tuscany's best beaches

Cala Violina beach in Scarlino, Grosseto

Now this might be the province in Tuscany least familiar to you, but don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s not worth visiting.  Au contraire, many folks consider Grosseto to be the most beautiful of all of Tuscany’s provinces, and if we’re basing that purely on natural beauty and geography, I’m inclined to agree with them!

Grosseto ProvinceCharming Italian towns

Located at the southern tip of Tuscany, the Province of Grosseto is easily visited from either Rome or Florence – or even better, on your way from Florence (or Siena) to Rome or vice versa!  Grosseto is often referred to as the heart of The Maremma, a geographically spectacular, coastal region that includes part of Lazio (Rome’s province) and Tuscany.  Its beauty is famed throughout Italy.

The area is home to impressively picturesque towns, natural parks, magnificent beaches – and excellent, award-winning wines.  It is also rich with culinary traditions akin to the Slow Food Movement, which although prevalent all over the world today, was actually born in Italy; so I promise, you’ll eat well while visiting Grosseto!

As a tourist, one advantage of including Grosseto on your trip to Tuscany is the fact that this area truly represents that occasionally-hackneyed phrase “off the beaten path.”  With the exception of a few Romans in the summertime, locals here aren’t accustomed to hordes of tourists, sightseeing buses and souvenir stores.  So by including Grosseto on your itinerary, you’re in for a refreshing slice of an authentic, quotidian Italy!

Citta del Tufo, Tuscany, Italy

Pitigliano’s origins date back to the ancient Etruscans.

Let’s begin with the province’s eastern interior, an area renowned for its dramatic hill towns constructed high amongst a type of volcanic rock called tuff or “tufa” that is characteristic of this area.  Three of the area’s most remarkable towns to visit include Pitigliano, Sorano and Sovana, and paying a visit to any of them would likely be a highlight of your trip to Italy.  All three are utterly beautiful, unique to this area of Italy, and home to lovely, medieval architecture.

Città del Tufo Italy

When traveling from Rome to Siena, it’s ideal to visit Pitigliano, Sorano (shown) or Sovana en route.

A half-hour drive west of Pitigliano lies the historic, hilltop village of Montemerano.  As this village doesn’t receive visitors to the degree that others nearer to Florence do, enjoy Montemerano’s pleasantly ordinary, humble and timeless ambience.  If you come, be sure to check out the village’s gorgeous square: Piazza del Castello.

Historic hill towns in Italy

Montemerano, Tuscany: once inside this charming, medieval gem, you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped back in time.

After your visit of Montemerano, head north and in fifteen minutes you will arrive to another fantastic offering in the Province of Grosseto.  It’s time for a little R&R – again, it’s a must on any vacation!   Your destination is the town of Saturnia.  Since ancient times, the weary, sick (or those in need of pampering), have traveled to this area’s geothermal thermal springs.  The temperature of the water averages 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit, so after a day of sightseeing, consider a soak in Saturnia’s sulfurous springs’ waterfalls.  It’s relaxing as well as good for your health!

geothermal sulphur springs

Saturnia's geothermal spa waterfalls

And should we let the unwinding stop here – when we’re so very near wine country?  We shan’t!  While the vintages of nearby Montalcino and Montepulciano tend to garner more enological praise and attention, the wines of Morellino di Scansano are excellent and rather interesting!  People have been making wine in this area for thousands of years, and Scansano’s volcanic soil, altitude and geothermal springs have all contributed to the interesting (and tasty) quality of its wines.

Italian wine country

Incorporate tastings at local wineries into your sightseeing schedule!

Continuing with our sightseeing, the Province of Grosseto is rife with fascinating historical sights to include on your itinerary to Tuscany.  One such sight certainly worth a mention is the Rocca Aldobrandesca located inside the town of Arcidosso.

Medieval castles in Italy

Over 1000 years old, this historic fortress was constructed by the Aldobrandeschi, a Tuscan noble family (partial to feuding!) from the Middle Ages.

For those willing to climb, the fortress’ tower offers incredible views of the lovely town of Arcidosso, the encompassing valleys and the beautiful Monte Amiata, whose beautiful, fertile landscape will leave you in awe.

Italy countryside

Panoramic view from Monte Amiata of the surrounding towns and forests

Another historic town to consider visiting while touring the tip of Tuscany includes the ancient, walled town of Capalbio whose beauty has been recognized throughout Italy for over a millennium.  Having preserved its medieval appearance, Capalbio offers visitors great medieval architecture and spectacular views of the nearby Mediterranean Sea.

Medieval villages

The historic village of Capalbio

A visit to the Province of Grosseto would be incomplete without paying a visit to the province’s gorgeous capital city, which is also called Grosseto.  Despite the fact that Grosseto is the largest, most-populated city in the area, it too has masterfully preserved its historic heritage.  In the era of medieval family feuding and warring, the city was strategically very important and its defenses were constructed accordingly.  As a result today – you can still see its superb medieval walls and bastions as well as its gorgeous palaces and churches.

Tuscany Grosseto

The facade of the Cathedral in the city of Grosseto

And for history fans who want to travel even further back in time, the Province of Grosseto is home to some interesting ruins from the ancient Etruscan civilization.  If you want to dig deeper (no pun intended) into this area’s past, check out the archeological site of the Etruscan city of Vetulonia where you can still see ancient Etruscan walls, tombs and cemeteries.

Now if you’ve had your fill of sightseeing and just want some nice downtime in a drop-dead beautiful place, you’re just in time!  Along this spectacular section of the Mediterranean Coast you’ll find out-of-this-world beaches (we’re talking crystal-clear water), golf courses overlooking the sea, beautiful national parks and amazing islands.

Italy beaches coast

For those wanting to disconnect and enjoy some fresh air, consider spending a day in the Parco della Maremma.  Visitors to the park can hike along trails, bicycle to many a scenic spot, or check out the historical attractions found within the nature park.

National Parks Italy

Maremma Park: home to a remarkable number of plant and animal species, this seaside protected area is a true treasure.

Afterwards, I would suggest that the remainder of your time in the Province of Grosseto be spent along its magical, Mediterranean coastline – and in particular out on the promontory of Monte Argentario. If you’ve been hoping for postcard-panoramic views, here you go!

Italy Mediterrean coast Italian fishing villages Cala Grande, Mediterranean

As you drive out to Monte Argentario from the mainland, along the lagoon you’ll go through a town called Orbetello, which definitely merits a stop.  Like the rest of the area, it has a dazzling history painted with interesting strokes from the Etruscans, Romans, medieval noble families, maritime republics and even the Spanish who controlled the area at one point.  Its city walls date back to the 5th century BC.  Even if you just stop here for a meal, a stroll through town and some shopping – you’ll be glad you did.

Mediterranean towns in Italy

Orbetello lies in the scenic lagoon that separates Monte Argentario and mainland Grosseto

Afterwards continue out onto Monte Argentario itself.  The two port towns you will visit are Porto Ercole (“Port of Hercules”) and Porto Santo Stefano.  Both being smallish, it’s easy to visit both at a relaxing pace.  If you want to do specific historic sightseeing, there are several interesting medieval churches and Spanish fortresses in the area (after all, from a strategic point of view, in both ancient and medieval times, holding this promontory was paramount to defend against sea invasions).

Mediterranean villages in Italy

Historic Porto Ercole, Monte Argentario, Grosseto

However, you also should budget some time simply to wander and have a look around!  You’ll notice that Porto Ercole feels a bit more upscale with its shops, boutiques and restaurants.  Porto Santo Stefano on the other hand, feels more like a gorgeous, sleepy Italian fishing village.  The beaches of Monte Argentario are also exquisite.  Try L’Acqua Dolce, Il Pozzarello or Cala Grande.  (Truthfully though, you cannot err when selecting a beach here; they’re numerous and amazing).

From Porto Santo Stefano, you can catch the ferry out to the paradisal, rugged Island of Giglio.

Monte Argentario is also great for golfers.  Play a round of golf in the morning with views of verdant Tuscan countryside and the Mediterranean, go for a swim in a turquoise sea and finish off the day with a delicious Italian seafood meal paired with fantastic local wines.  Not a bad way to spend a day!

For a look at our packages to Italy including a Fly & Drive Package please click here.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about Tuscany’s Province of Grosseto and all its wonderful, hidden treasures that are often missed by travelers when vacationing in Italy.  Exploring Tuscany’s southern tip (again, very easily done by flying into Rome, Pisa or Florence and then renting a car) will give you some well-deserved, adventurous relaxation on your trip to Italy!  And by taking the Tuscan road less traveled, you’re likely to stumble across unexpected patches of unspoiled, authentic charm.  However, our journey isn’t over yet, so stayed tuned for the next part of our Tuscany series, which will spotlight the provinces of Lucca & Pistoia!

A presto!

 

Updates:

Click here to re-read Part 1: Florence!

Click here to re-read Part 2: Pisa & Livorno!

Click here to re-read Part 3: Siena & Arezzo!

Click here to continue reading Part 5: Lucca & Pistoia!

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