Welcome to Europe.
There simply is no way to tour Europe and not be awestruck by its scenic beauty, epic history and dazzling artistic and culinary diversity.
Europe’s almost unmanageable wealth of attractions is its biggest single draw: the birthplace of democracy in Athens, the Renaissance art of Florence, the graceful canals of Venice, the Napoleonic splendour of Paris, and the multilayered historical and cultural canvas of London. Less obvious but no less impressive attractions include Moorish palaces in Andalucía, the fascinating East-meets-West brew of İstanbul in Turkey, the majesty of meticulously restored imperial palaces in Russia’s former capital St Petersburg and the ongoing project of Gaudí’s La Sagrada Família in Barcelona.
There’s a huge diversity of natural scenery: rugged Scottish Highlands with glens and lochs; Norway’s fabulous fjords, seemingly chipped to jagged perfection by giants; the vine-raked valleys of the Loire; and the steppe-like plains of central Spain. If you’re looking for beaches, a circuit of the Mediterranean’s northern coast reveals one gem after another. Or strike out to lesser known, yet beautiful coastal regions such as the Baltic and Black Seas. Mountain lovers should head to the Alps: they march across central Europe taking in France, Switzerland, Austria, northern Italy and tiny Liechtenstein.
Raise a Glass
Europe has some of the best nightlife in the world. Globally famous DJs keep the party going in London, Berlin and Paris, all of which also offer top-class entertainment, especially theatre and live music. Other key locations for high-energy nightlife include Moscow, Belgrade, Budapest and Madrid, while those hankering for something cosier can add Dublin’s pubs or Vienna’s cafes to their itinerary. Continue to party on the continent’s streets at a multiplicity of festivals and celebrations, from city parades attended by hundreds of thousands to intimate concerts in an ancient amphitheatre.
Once you’ve ticked off the great museums, panoramic vistas and energetic nightlife, what’s left? A chance to indulge in a culinary adventure to beat all others, that’s what! Who wouldn’t want to snack on pizza in Naples, souvlaki in Santorini or even haggis in Scotland? But did you also know that Britain has some of the best Indian restaurants in the world; that Turkey’s doner kebab is a key part of contemporary German food culture; and that in the Netherlands you can gorge on an Indonesian rijsttafel (rice table)? Once again Europe’s diversity and global reach is its trump card.
- The Netherlands
- Czech Republic
France is about world-class art and architecture. It seduces with iconic landmarks known the world over and rising stars yet to be discovered. This country's cultural repertoire is staggering – in volume and diversity. And this is where the beauty of la belle France lies: when superstars such as Mademoiselle Eiffel, royal Versailles and the celebrity-ridden French Riviera have been ticked off, there’s ample more to thrill. France is, after all, the world's top destination with some 85 million visitors each year who flock to the land of the Gauls to feast on its extraordinary wealth of museums, galleries, ateliers (artist workshops) and hands-on cultural experiences.Gastronomy
Food is of enormous importance to the French and the daily culinary agenda takes no prisoners: breakfasting on warm croissants from the boulangerie, stopping off at Parisian bistros, and market shopping are second nature to the French – and it would be rude to refuse. But French gastronomy goes far deeper than just eating exceedingly well. Its experiential nature means there is always something tasty to observe, learn and try. Be it flipping crêpes in Brittany or clinking champagne flutes in ancient Reims cellars, the culinary opportunities are endless.Art de Vivre
The rhythm of daily life – dictated by the seasons in the depths of la France profonde (rural France) – exudes an intimacy that gets under your skin. Don’t resist. Rather, live the French lifestyle. Embrace the luxury of simple, everyday rituals being transformed into unforgettable moments, be it a coffee and croissant in the Parisian cafe where Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir met to philosophise, a stroll through the lily-clad gardens Monet painted, or a walk on a beach in Brittany scented with the subtle infusion of language, music and mythology brought by 5th-century Celtic invaders.Outdoor Action
The terroir (land) of France weaves a varied journey from northern France's cliffs and sand dunes to the piercing blue sea of the French Riviera and Corsica's green oak forests. Outdoor action is what France's lyrical landscape demands – and there's something for everybody. Whether you end up walking barefoot across wave-rippled sand to Mont St-Michel, riding a cable car to glacial panoramas above Chamonix, or cartwheeling down Europe's highest sand dune, France does not disappoint. Its great outdoors is thrilling, with endless opportunities and the next adventure begging to be had. Allez!
There's something undeniably artistic in the way Germany's scenery unfolds – the corrugated, dune-fringed coasts of the north; the moody forests, romantic river valleys and vast vineyards of the centre, and the off-the-charts splendour of the Alps, carved into rugged glory by glaciers and the elements. All are integral parts of a magical natural matrix that's bound to give your camera batteries a workout. Get off the highway and into the great outdoors to soak up the epic landscapes that makes each delicious, slow, winding mile so precious.Pleasures of Civilisation
You'll encounter history in towns where streets were laid out long before Columbus set sail, and in castles that loom above prim, half-timbered villages where flower boxes billow with crimson geraniums. The great cities – Berlin, Munich and Hamburg among them – come in more flavours than a jar of jelly beans but will all wow you with a cultural kaleidoscope that spans the arc from art museums and high-brow opera to naughty cabaret and underground clubs. And wherever you go, Romanesque, Gothic and baroque classics rub rafters with architectural creations from modern masters such as Daniel Libeskind, David Chipperfield and Frank Gehry.Gastro Delights
Experiencing Germany through its food and drink will add a rich layer to your memories (and possibly your belly!). You'll quickly discover that the local food is so much more than sausages and pretzels, schnitzel and roast pork accompanied by big mugs of foamy beer. Beyond the clichés awaits a cornucopia of regional and seasonal palate-teasers. Share the German people's obsession with white asparagus in springtime, chanterelle mushrooms in summer and game in autumn. Sample not only the famous beer but also world-class wines, most notably the noble Riesling.High on History
Few countries have had as much impact on the world as Germany, which has given us the Hanseatic League, the Reformation and yes, Hitler and the Holocaust, but also the printing press, the automobile, aspirin and MP3 technology. It is the birthplace of Martin Luther, Albert Einstein and Karl Marx, of Goethe, Beethoven, the Brothers Grimm and other heavyweights who, each in their own way, have left their mark on human history. You can stand in a Roman amphitheatre, sleep in a medieval castle and walk along remnants of the Berlin Wall – in Germany the past is very much present wherever you go.
Epicentre of the Roman Empire and birthplace of the Renaissance, this European virtuoso groans under the weight of its cultural cachet: it's here that you'll stand in the presence of Michelangelo's David and Sistine Chapel frescoes, Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Primavera and da Vinci's The Last Supper. In fact, Italy has more Unesco World Heritage cultural sites than any other country on Earth. Should you walk in the footsteps of ancient Romans in Pompeii, revel in Ravenna's glittering Byzantine treasures or get breathless over Giotto's revolutionary frescoes in Padua? It's a cultural conundrum as thrilling as it is overwhelming.Inimitable Style
In few places do art and life intermingle so effortlessly. This may be the land of Dante, Titian and Verdi, but it's also the home of Prada, Massimo Bottura and Renzo Piano. Beauty, style and flair furnish every aspect of daily life, from those immaculately knotted ties and seamless espressos to the flirtatious smiles of striking strangers. The root of Italian psychology is a dedication to living life well, and effortless as it may seem, driving that dedication is a reverence for the finer things. So slow down, style up and indulge in a little vita all'italiana (life, Italian style).Endless Feasts
It might look like a boot, but food-obsessed Italy feels more like a decadently stuffed Christmas stocking. From delicate tagliatelle al ragù to velvety cannoli, every bite can feel like a revelation. The secret: superlative ingredients and finely tuned know-how. And while Italy's culinary soul might prefer simplicity, it's equally ingenious and sophisticated. Expect some of the world's top fine-dining destinations, from San Pellegrino 'World's Best 50' hot spots to Michelin-starred musts. So whether you're on a degustation odyssey in Modena, truffle hunting in Piedmont or swilling powerhouse reds in the Valpolicella wine region, prepare to loosen that belt.Spectacular Landscapes
Italy's fortes extend beyond its galleries, wardrobes and dining rooms. The country is one of nature's masterpieces, with extraordinary natural diversity matched by few. From the north's icy Alps and glacial lakes to the south's fiery craters and turquoise grottoes, this is a place for doing as well as seeing. One day you're tearing down Courmayeur's powdery slopes, the next you could be galloping across the marshes of the Maremma, or diving in coral-studded Campanian waters. Not bad for a country not much bigger than Arizona.
Spain’s diverse landscapes stir the soul. The Pyrenees and the Picos de Europa are as beautiful as any mountain range on the continent, while the snowcapped Sierra Nevada rises up improbably from the sun-baked plains of Andalucía; these are hiking destinations of the highest order. The wildly beautiful cliffs of Spain’s Atlantic northwest are offset by the charming coves of the Mediterranean. And everywhere you go, villages of timeless beauty perch on hilltops, huddle in valleys and cling to coastal outcrops as tiny but resilient outposts of Old Spain.
A Culinary Feast
Food and wine are national obsessions in Spain, and with good reason. The touchstones of Spanish cooking are deceptively simple: incalculable variety, traditional recipes handed down through the generations, and an innate willingness to experiment and see what comes out of the kitchen laboratory. You may experience the best meal ever via tapas in an earthy bar where everyone's shouting, or via a meal prepared by a celebrity chef in the refined surrounds of a Michelin-starred restaurant. Either way, the breadth of gastronomic experience that awaits you is breathtaking.
Art Imitates Life
Poignantly windswept Roman ruins, cathedrals of rare power and incomparable jewels of Islamic architecture speak of a country where the great civilisations of history have risen, fallen and left behind their indelible mark. More recently, what other country could produce such rebellious and relentlessly creative spirits as Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso and Antoni Gaudí and place them front and centre in public life? Here, grand monuments to the past coexist alongside architectural creations of such daring that it becomes clear Spain's future will be every bit as original as its past.Fiestas & Flamenco
For all the talk of Spain's history, this is a country that lives very much in the present and there's a reason 'fiesta' is one of the best-known words in the Spanish language – life itself is a fiesta here and everyone seems to be invited. Perhaps you'll sense it along a crowded, postmidnight street when all the world has come out to play. Or maybe that moment will come when a flamenco performer touches something deep in your soul. Whenever it happens, you'll find yourself nodding in recognition: this is Spain.
Poland’s roots go back to the turn of the first millennium, leaving a thousand years of twists and turns and kings and castles to explore. WWII history buffs are well served. Tragically, Poland found itself in the middle of that epic fight, and monuments and museums dedicated to its battles – and to Poland’s remarkable survival – can be seen everywhere. There’s a growing appreciation, too, of the rich Jewish heritage. Beyond the deeply affecting Holocaust memorials, synagogues are being sensitively restored, and former Jewish centres such as Łódź and Lublin have heritage trails, so you can trace this history at your own pace.Castles to Log Cabins
The former royal capital of Kraków is a living lab of architecture over the ages. Its nearly perfectly preserved Gothic core proudly wears overlays of Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau, a record of tastes that evolved over centuries. Fabulous medieval castles and evocative ruins dot hilltops around the country, and the fantastic red-brick fortresses of the Teutonic Knights stand proudly in the north along the Vistula. Simple but finely crafted wooden churches hide amid the Carpathian hills, and the ample skills of the highlanders are on display at the many skansens (open-air ethnographic museums).Heart-Warming Food
If you’re partial to good home cooking, the way your grandmother used to make it, you’ve come to the right place. Polish food is based largely on local ingredients like pork, cabbage, mushrooms, beetroot and onion, combined simply and honed to perfection. Regional specialties like duck, goose and trout keep things from getting dull. As for sweets, it’s hard to imagine a more accommodating destination. Cream cakes, apple strudel, pancakes, fruit-filled dumplings and a special mania for lody (ice cream) may have you skipping the main course and jumping straight to the main event.Fresh-Air Pursuits
Away from the big cities, much of Poland feels remote and unspoiled. While large swathes of the country are flat, the southern border is lined with a chain of low-lying but lovely mountains that invite days, if not weeks, of splendid solitude. Well-marked hiking paths criss-cross the country, taking you through dense forest, along broad rivers and through mountain passes. Much of the northeast is covered by interlinked lakes and waterways ideal for kayaking and canoeing – no experience necessary. Local outfitters are happy to set you up for a couple of hours or weeks.
From the Roman remains of Hadrian's Wall to London's incomparable theatre scene, England is full of astounding variety. In the cities, the streets buzz day and night, filled with tempting shops and restaurants, and some of the finest museums in the world. After dark, cutting-edge clubs, top-class performing arts and formidable live music provide a string of nights to remember. Next day, you're deep in the English countryside or enjoying a classic seaside resort. There really is something for everyone, whether you're eight or 80, going solo, or travelling with your friends, your kids or your grandma.Time Travel
A journey through England is a journey through history. But not history that's dull and dusty – history you can feel and re-live. You can lay your hands on the ancient megaliths of a 5000-year-old stone circle, or walk the battlements of a medieval fortress – just as they were patrolled by chain-mail-clad defenders many centuries ago. Visit the sites of the legend of King Arthur, the sonnets of Shakespeare and the palaces of monarchs – past and present. Then fast forward to the future and you're admiring 21st-century architecture in Manchester, or exploring the space-age domes of Cornwall's Eden Project.English Spoken Here
While England has developed a culture and tradition that may appear complex, much of it will be familiar – on the surface at least – to many visitors, thanks to the vast catalogue of British pop music, films and TV programs that have been exported around the world. The same applies when it comes to communication – this is, after all, the home turf of the English language. For many visitors this means there’s no need to carry a phrasebook, although you might get a little confused by local accents in places such as Devon or Liverpool.Easy Does It
Travel here is a breeze. Granted, it may not be totally effortless, but it's easy compared with many parts of the world. And although the locals may grumble (in fact, it's a national pastime), public transport is very good, and a train ride through the English landscape can be a highlight in itself. But whichever way you get around, in this compact country you're never far from the next town, the next pub, the next restaurant, the next national park or the next impressive castle on your hit list of highlights. The choice is endless.
The legacies of Dutch Masters such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Frans Hals, Hieronymus Bosch, Piet Mondrian and MC Escher hang on the walls of the Netherlands' world-renowned museums, along with contemporary Dutch works.The Dutch influence on construction spans more than a millennia, from Romanesque and Gothic medieval magnum opuses to Dutch Renaissance creations, revolutionary, Golden Age gabled houses and engineering endeavours including canals, neoclassicism, Berlage and the Amsterdam School, Functionalism, modernism, structuralism, neorationalism, postmodernism and neomodernism, with trailblazing structures making their mark on the cityscapes.Landscapes
Geography plays a key role in the Netherlands' iconic landscapes. More than half the pancake-flat country is below sea level, and 20% has been reclaimed from the sea, making rows of polders (areas of drained land) omnipresent. Uninterrupted North Sea winds have powered windmills since the 13th century, pumping water over the dykes, and milling flour and more. Some two-thirds of the surface is devoted to agriculture, including fields of tulips.Cycling
The flat, fabulously scenic landscapes make cycling in the Netherlands a pleasure (headwinds not withstanding). Cycling is an integral part of life and locals live on their fiets (bicycle): more than a quarter of all journeys countrywide are by bike, rising to more than a third in big cities.Experiencing the wind-in-your-hair freedom of cycling is a breeze. Bike-rental outlets are ubiquitous, and the country is criss-crossed with some 32,000km of cycling paths, including the Dutch 'motorways' of cycling, the long-distance LF routes. Grab some wheels and start exploring.Café Culture
When the Dutch say café they mean a pub, and there are thousands of them. In a country that values socialising and conversation more than drinking, cafés are places for contemplation and camaraderie. Many cafés have outdoor terraces, which are glorious in summer and sometimes covered and heated in winter. Most serve food, from bar snacks to fabulous meals. The most atmospheric is a bruin café (brown café), named for the nicotine stains of centuries past – the ultimate place to experience the Dutch state of gezelligheid (conviviality, cosiness).
Everyone who visits the Czech Republic starts with Prague, the cradle of Czech culture and one of Europe’s most fascinating cities. Prague offers a near-intact medieval core of Gothic architecture that can transport you back 500 years – the 14th-century Charles Bridge, connecting two historic neighbourhoods across the Vltava River, with the castle ramparts and the spires of St Vitus Cathedral rising above, is one of the classic sights of world travel. But the city is not just about history; it’s a vital urban centre with a rich array of cultural offerings, and a newly emerging foodie scene.Castles & Chateaux
The Czech Republic's location at the heart of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire has seen a long history of raiding tribes, conquering armies and triumphant dynasties. This turbulent past has left a legacy of hundreds of castles and chateaux – everywhere you look there seems to be a many-turreted fortress perched above a town, or a romantic summer palace lazing peacefully amid manicured parkland. The number and variety of Czech castles is simply awe-inspiring – everything from grim Gothic ruins clinging to a dizzy pinnacle of rock, to majestic, baroque mansions filled with the finest furniture that Europe’s artisans could provide.Folklore & Tradition
The Czech Republic may be a modern, forward-thinking nation riding into the future on the back of the EU and NATO, but it is also a country rich in tradition. This is most apparent in South Bohemia and Moravia, where a still-thriving folk culture sparks into life during the summer festival season. During this time, communities from Český Krumlov to Telč to Mikulov don traditional garb, pick up their musical instruments – and wine glasses – and sing and dance themselves silly, animating ancient traditions in one of the best examples of ‘living history’ in the Czech Republic.Where Beer Is God
The best beer in the world just got better. Since the invention of Pilsner Urquell in 1842, the Czechs have been famous for producing some of the world's finest brews. But the internationally famous brand names – Urquell, Staropramen and Budvar – have been equalled, and even surpassed, by a bunch of regional Czech beers and microbreweries that are catering to a renewed interest in traditional brewing. Never before have Czech pubs offered such a wide range of ales – names you'll now have to get your head around include Kout na Šumavě, Svijanský Rytíř and Velkopopovický Kozel.
Croatia's extraordinary island-speckled coastline is indisputably its main attraction. The first thing that strikes you is the clarity of the water. When it's set against a dazzling white pebbly beach, it sparkles with a jewel-like intensity in shades of emerald and sapphire. There are long sandy and shingly stretches too – perfect for lazy days spent lounging and devouring trashy holiday novels. If that all sounds too relaxing, there are myriad water-based activities at hand to lure you off your sun-lounger – snorkelling, diving, kayaking, windsurfing and sailing, just for starters.The Edge of Empires
Precariously poised between the Balkans and central Europe, this land has been passed between competing kingdoms, empires and republics for millennia. If there's an upside to this continual dislocation, it's in the rich cultural legacy that each has left behind. Venetian palazzi snuggle up to Napoleonic forts, Roman columns protrude from early Slavic churches, and Viennese mansions face off with Socialist Realist sculpture. Excellent museums showcase treasures that cover the gamut of European history, from the prehistoric to the post-communist, telling a story that is in equal parts fascinating and horrifying.Beauty on the Inside
Shift your gaze for just a moment from the glittering waters, and chances are an almighty mountain will loom into view. The Dinaric Alps, which stretch all the way from Italy to Albania, hug much of the coast. The limestone karst has bequeathed a wonderland of craggy peaks, caverns, river canyons, waterfalls and ridiculously picturesque lakes. Head further inland and things flatten out again into rolling farmland. Active types will find plenty of chances to get among it on the numerous hiking and biking trails – while the more adventurous can have a go at rock climbing, rafting and ziplining.Cultural Feast
If you're lucky enough to cross the tourist/guest barrier and be invited into a local's home, you'll soon become acquainted with the refrain 'Jedi! Jedi! Jedi!' (Eat! Eat! Eat!). Sharing food and drink plays a big part in the culture here, which speaks both to the nature of Croatian hospitality and to the quality of local produce. Simple home-style cooking is a feature of family-run taverns, but increasingly a new breed of chefs are bringing a more adventurous approach to the table. Meanwhile, Croatian wines and olive oils are making their mark on the world stage, garnering top awards.
It’s heart-warming to know there’s still a country where the term ‘fairy tale’ can be used freely – from its most enduring literary legacy to its textbook castles. In a nutshell, Denmark gets it right: old-fashioned charm embraces the most avowedly forward-looking design and social developments. The country wins a regular place on lists of both the most liveable and the happiest nations on earth. You won’t have to search hard to find much-prized hygge, a uniquely Danish trait that has a profound influence on the locals’ inestimable happiness. Hygge is social nirvana in Denmark: a sense of cosiness, camaraderie and contentment.Quality of Life
While many countries are noticeable for the ever-increasing gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, Denmark seems to be populated by the ‘have enoughs’, and the obviously rich and obviously poor are few and far between. This egalitarian spirit allows the best of the arts, architecture, eating and entertainment to be within easy reach of everyone. Indeed, the best catchword for Denmark might be ‘inclusive’ – everyone is welcome and everyone is catered to, be they young, old, gay, straight, and whether they travel with kids, pets or bikes in tow. Cities are compact and user-friendly, infrastructure is modern, and travel is a breeze.The Danish Aesthetic
It’s true, Denmark doesn’t have the stop-you-in-your-tracks natural grandeur of its neighbours, but its landscapes are understated – pure and simple, often infused with an ethereal Nordic light. Such landscapes are reflected in the Danish design philosophy towards fashion, food, architecture, furniture and art. Simplicity of form and function come first but not at the expense of beauty. And so you’ll find moments of quintessential Danish loveliness on a long sandy beach, beside a lake, admiring a Renaissance castle, on the bike lanes of Bornholm or in a candlelit cafe that has perfected the art of hygge.History & Impact
The world first took notice of Denmark more than a millennium ago, when Danish Vikings took to the seas and ravaged vast tracts of Europe. How things have changed. These days Denmark captures global imagination as the epitome of a civilised society, and it punches above its weight on many fronts: progressive politics, urban planning, sustainability, work-life balance, design and architecture. Recent global crushes, freshly exported from Copenhagen, include a city cycling culture, the New Nordic culinary movement, and brilliantly addictive TV drama series.
Impossibly steep-sided Norwegian fjords of extraordinary beauty cut gashes from a jagged coastline deep into the interior. Glaciers, grand and glorious, snake down from icefields that rank among Europe's largest. Elsewhere, the mountainous terrain of Norway's interior resembles the ramparts of so many natural fortresses, and yields to rocky coastal islands that rise improbably from the waters like apparitions. Then, of course, there's the primeval appeal, the spare and staggering beauty of the Arctic. And wherever you find yourself in this most extraordinary country, these landscapes serve as a backdrop for some of Europe's prettiest villages.The Call to Action
Enjoying nature in Norway is very much an active pursuit, and this is one of Europe's most exciting and varied adventure-tourism destinations. Some activities may be for the young, energetic and fearless, but most – world-class hiking, cycling and white-water rafting in summer; dog-sledding, skiing and snowmobiling in winter – can be enjoyed by anyone of reasonable fitness. On our travels we've encountered 93-year-old snowmobilers and whole families racing down rapids. Whether you're here for seemingly endless summer possibilities, or in winter for the soul-stirring northern lights, these activities are an exhilarating means of getting close to nature.Scandinavian Sophistication
The counterpoint to Norway's ever-present natural beauty is found in its vibrant cultural life. Norwegian cities are cosmopolitan and showcase the famous Scandinavian flair for design through the ages. Bergen, Trondheim and Ålesund must surely rank among Europe's loveliest cities, while contemporary Arctic-inspired architectural icons grace cities and remote rural settings alike. Food, too, is a cultural passion through which Norwegians push the boundaries of innovation even as they draw deeply on a heartfelt love of tradition. At the same time, a busy calendar of festivals, many of international renown, are worth planning your trip around.Wonderful Wildlife
When it comes to wildlife, Norway has few peers in Europe. Here you can watch whales – humpback, sperm and orca, depending on the season – off Andenes, Stø or Tromsø, while the interior offers up wild reindeer atop Hardangervidda and elsewhere, prehistoric musk oxen, ponderous elk (moose) or beguiling Arctic foxes. Birdwatching, too, is a highlight, from the puffins of Bleik to the migratory seabirds of Runde and Varanger. But the real prizes inhabit Norway's High Arctic, in Svalbard, where polar bears and walruses are the poster species for a wilderness of rare and dramatic beauty.
In some ways, visiting Sweden feels like walking right into a fashion or home-decor magazine. There are no boring outfits on the streets of Stockholm, and the care with which houses, cottages, cafes and public spaces are decorated and kept up throughout the country is truly inspiring. But Swedish style is never too showy; form and function are tightly linked in this society known for valuing moderation, practicality, order, simple lines and clever designs. Whether you decide to shop for your own versions or just enjoy the scenery, it’s hard not to fall for the cool aesthetics of this place.Landscape
Truth be told, the best thing about Sweden is its natural beauty. To really appreciate this country’s charms, you have to leave the city behind. Whether that means sailing across an archipelago to visit a lonely island or trekking along a kingly trail through the northern wilderness just depends on your preferences – why not try both? Hiking, camping, cycling, skiing, skating, boating, fishing and foraging for mushrooms and berries are all major Swedish pastimes, and it’s easy to get in on the action from just about anywhere in the country.The Sami
The northern part of Sweden is home to the indigenous Sami people, whose traditionally nomadic lifestyle is built around reindeer herding. Sami culture, including handicrafts, homes and villages, methods of transport and style of cooking, is one of the many things a visitor can become immersed in while spending time in Lappland: spend a night or two in a Sami reindeer camp or take a dogsledding tour. If you’re on a more limited schedule, have a meal in a Sami restaurant or pick up some handmade Sami woodwork or leather goods to take home as a souvenir.Vikings & History
Ancient rune stones poke up out of the grass in parks all over Sweden; huge stone-ship settings and unobtrusive burial mounds are almost as common. Walled medieval cities and seaside fortresses are regular stops on the travellers’ circuit. Viking ruins and the stories surrounding them are very much a part of the modern Swedish landscape, and it’s easy to feel as if you’re walking through history when you wander around the country. In fact, you are. As a bonus, several Swedish museums do an excellent job of distilling and explaining that history in fascinating ways.
The Finland you encounter will depend on the season of your visit, but whatever the month, there’s something pure in the Finnish air and spirit that’s vital and exciting. With towering forests speckled by picture-perfect lakes, as if an artist had flicked a blue-dipped paintbrush at the map, Suomi offers some of Europe’s best hiking, kayaking and canoeing. A fabulous network of national parks has well-marked routes and regularly spaced huts for overnighting, and you can observe bears and elk deep in the forests on nature-watching trips.Summer Days
Finland’s short but sparkling sunny season sees the country burst into life. Finns seem to want to suck every last golden drop out of the summer in the hope that it will sustain them through the long, dark winter months, and there’s an explosion of good cheer and optimism. With surprisingly high temperatures for these latitudes, summer is a time for music festivals, art exhibitions, lake cruises, midnight sunshine on convivial beer terraces, idyllic days at remote waterside cottages and bountiful market produce.After the Snowfall
Winter has its own charm as snow blankets the pines and lakes freeze over. The best way to banish the frosty subzero temperatures is to get active. Skiing is great through to May. Other pursuits include chartering a team of dogs, a posse of reindeer, or a snowmobile for a trek across snowy solitudes, lit by a beautiful, pale winter sun; catching the aurora borealis (Northern Lights) after your wood-fired sauna; drilling a hole for ice fishing; and spending a night in a glittering, iridescent ice hotel.City Lights
Finland isn't just vast expanses of pristine wilderness. Vibrant cities stock the country's southern areas, headlined by the capital, Helsinki, an electrifying urban space with world-renowned design and music scenes. Embraced by the Baltic, it’s a spectacular ensemble of modern and stately architecture, island restaurants and stylish and quirky bars. And the ‘new Suomi’ epicurean scene is flourishing, with locally foraged flavours to the fore. Beyond Helsinki, Tampere and Turku in particular are lively, engaging cities with spirited university-student populations.
An underpopulated island marooned near the top of the globe, Iceland is, literally, a country in the making. It's a vast volcanic laboratory where mighty forces shape the earth: geysers gush, mudpots gloop, ice-covered volcanoes rumble and glaciers cut great pathways through the mountains. Its supercharged splendour seems designed to remind visitors of their utter insignificance in the greater scheme of things. And it works a treat: some crisp clean air, an eyeful of the cinematic landscapes, and everyone is transfixed.The Power of Nature
It's the power of Icelandic nature to turn the prosaic into the extraordinary. A dip in a pool becomes a soak in a geothermal lagoon; a casual stroll can transform into a trek across a glittering glacier; and a quiet night of camping may mean front-row seats to the aurora borealis’ curtains of fire, or the soft, pinkish hue of the midnight sun. Iceland has a transformative effect on people, too – its sagas turned brutes into poets, and its stories of huldufólk (hidden people) may make believers out of sceptics. Here you'll find some of the world's highest concentrations of dreamers, authors, artists and musicians, all fuelled by their surrounds.Nordic Nirvana
Don't for a minute think it's all about the great outdoors. The counterpoint to so much natural beauty is found in Iceland's cultural life, which celebrates a literary legacy that stretches from medieval sagas to contemporary thrillers by way of Nobel Prize winners. Live music is everywhere, as is visual art, handicrafts and locavore cuisine. The world's most northerly capital is home to the kind of egalitarianism, green thinking and effortless style that its Nordic brethren are famous for – all of which is wrapped in Iceland's assured individuality.A Personal Experience
The warmth of Icelanders is disarming, as is their industriousness – they’ve worked hard to recover from financial upheaval, and to transform Iceland into a destination that, thanks to its popularity with visitors, can host five times its population each year. Pause and consider a medium-sized city in your country – then give it far-flung universities, airports and hospitals to administer, 30-odd active volcanoes to monitor, and hundreds of hotels to run. How might they cope? Could they manage as well as the Icelanders – and still have time left over to create spine-tingling music and natty knitwear?
Hungary’s scenery is more gentle than striking. But you can’t say the same thing about the built environment across the land. Architecturally Hungary is a treasure trove, with everything from Roman ruins and medieval townhouses to baroque churches, neoclassical public buildings and art nouveau bathhouses and schools. And we're not just talking about its capital, Budapest. Walk through Szeged or Kecskemét, Debrecen or Sopron and you’ll discover an architectural gem at virtually every turn. Indeed, some people go out of their way for another glimpse of their favourites, such as the Reök Palace in Szeged or the Mosque Church in Pécs.In Hot Water
Hungarians have been 'taking the waters' supplied by an estimated 300 thermal springs since togas were all the rage and Aquincum was the Big Smoke. They still do – for therapeutic, medicinal and recreational purposes – but the venues have changed somewhat. Today they range from authentic bathhouses dating from the Turkish occupation and art nouveau palaces to clinical sanatoriums straight out of a Thomas Mann novel. More and more though, you'll see clear chlorinated waters in organically shaped pools that bubble, squirt and spurt at different rhythms and temperatures alongside requisite wellness centres offering a myriad of treatments.Eat, Drink & Be Magyar
Hungarian food remains the most sophisticated style of cooking in Eastern Europe. Magyars even go so far as to say there are three essential world cuisines: French, Chinese and their own. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but Hungary's reputation as a food centre dates largely from the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th and, despite a fallow period under communism, their cuisine is once again commanding attention. So too are the nation's world-renowned wines – from the big-bodied reds of Eger and Villány and white olaszrizling from Badacsony to honey-sweet Tokaj.Folk Culture
Hungary has one of the richest folk traditions still alive in Europe. With exquisite folk paintings found on the walls and ceilings of the tiny wooden churches of the Bereg region and the wonderful embroidery that the women of Hollókő stitch to decorate smocks, skirts and slippers, this is often where the country comes to the fore artistically. Traditional music, played on a five-tone diatonic scale on a host of unusual instruments, continues to thrive as well, especially at táncházak ('dance houses') – peasant 'raves' where you'll hear Hungarian folk music and to learn to dance too.
Long, sandy beaches and fine weather reel holidaymakers into Bulgaria’s Black Sea resorts each summer. Bulgarian inlanders are helplessly drawn to the freshening sea breeze and miles of turquoise water. Foreign visitors, too, are wise to Bulgaria’s coast, thanks to gorgeous seaside resorts such as Primorsko (and prices that compete well with Western Europe). Even the coast's two big cities, Varna and Burgas, have attractive beaches within minutes of their urban hearts. And while Sunny Beach, Sozopol and other favourites are thoroughly developed, there are still plenty of undiscovered coves north and south of the major hubs.Churches & Religious Art
No visitor to Bulgaria can fail to be impressed by its religious art, from vast gold-domed churches to miniature icon paintings. Sofia’s Aleksander Nevski Church and 10th-century Rila Monastery draw visitors and pilgrims galore, while Tryavna’s wood carvings and Bachkovo’s apocalyptic murals are gathering fame. But Orthodox churches in even the tiniest villages have much to admire: emotive paintings of saints, often set in carved wooden screens (iconostases), appear magical when bathed in flickering candlelight. Almost as spectacular are the settings of many sacred buildings: granite cliffs, thrashing streams and lonely mountain passes.Mountains & Forests
Bulgaria’s untamed landscapes quicken the pulse of hikers, mountain bikers and skiers. Seven mountain ranges ripple across the country; glacial lakes sparkle between these snow-dusted peaks, and tangles of forest conceal wolves, bears and lynx, a glimpse of Europe’s primeval past. Networks of trails and hizhas (hiking huts) allow access to such raw beauty as mist-cloaked panoramas in the Stara Planina range and sunrise from Bulgaria’s second-highest peak, Mt Vihren (2915m). Between trekking among Rodopi villages, thundering across ski fields in Bansko or birdwatching in Pirin National Park, Bulgaria has much to delight (and exhaust) lovers of the great outdoors.Ancient History
Whispers of history emanate from Bulgaria’s fortresses and ruins. Caves secreted in Bulgaria’s river-sculpted wilds hold traces of Neolithic settlements. The mysterious Thracians left behind dazzling hauls of gold and silver, and tombs that can be explored to this day. The Romans built cities of breathtaking scale, the bathhouses, walls and amphitheatres of which sit nonchalantly in the midst of modern cities such as Varna and Plovdiv. Successions of tsars strutted along the ramparts of Tsarevets Fortress at former capital Veliko Târnovo. And these histories are no less relevant today, with Thracian art and Bulgaria’s victory over the Ottomans continuing to inspire.
The Carpathian Mountains draw a wide arc through the centre of the country, leaving a swath of exposed rocky peaks surrounded by groves of pine and deciduous trees, and stretches of bright green meadow below. The harsh geography has limited human habitation, and the woods are filled with deer, elk and bear. Europe's second-longest river, the Danube, marks Romania's southern border with Bulgaria before turning suddenly northward and emptying into the Black Sea. The delta provides sanctuary for 300 species of bird and 160 species of fish. The sprawling marshes account for the largest expanse of reed beds in the world.Castles & Medieval Towns
Transylvania, the land that gave us Dracula, has no shortage of jaw-dropping castles pitched precariously on rocky hilltops. There's spooky Bran Castle, of course, with its spurious connection to Bram Stoker’s fictional count, but don’t overlook beauties such as Hunedoara’s 14th-century Corvin Castle or King Carol I’s sumptuous 19th-century pile, Peleş Castle. In medieval towns like Braşov, Sighişoara and Sibiu, cobbled walkways support chic streetside cafes, while a cacophony of sounds emanating from student bars and clubs echo off the Gothic and baroque facades in lively Cluj-Napoca. Transylvania’s Saxon villages boast fortified churches that date back half a millennium. Folk Culture For centuries, a highly productive peasant culture thrived in much of Romania. The hilly geography and lack of passable roads necessitated the emergence of hundreds of self-sufficient villages, where old-school crafts such as bread-making, pottery, tanning and weaving were honed to an art. Folk museums, particularly the open-air skansens and village museums, are a must. Many isolated hamlets, where the old folkways are still practised, are museums in themselves. This is most evident in Maramureş, where oversized hay racks, horse carts and stately wooden churches dominate, and towns and villages have seemingly stepped out of the Middle Ages.Outdoor Activities
The rocky peaks of Transylvania and Moldavia, snow-capped from mid-October in some years, call out for conquering, and well-marked trails lead to summits from all directions. There are less adventurous but no less rewarding walks through woods, meadows and villages in other parts of the country. The Danube Delta is a vast and unique protected wetland and makes a perfect backdrop for fishing, boating and, especially, birdwatching in spring. In summer, from mid-June to early September, the action moves to the Black Sea coast. Beach resorts fill up with swimmers, divers, sunbathers and partiers, who come for the all-night, open-air clubbing marathons.