May 2015
Escape From Venice: Veneto’s Top 5 Alternatives

Most of Veneto’s 70 million annual visitors begin and end their experience in Venice, yet the region has far more to offer than just one world-famous city. Beyond its capital, Veneto features everything from lush vineyards and modern resorts to pristine beaches and thermal baths. The following destinations provide a perfect way to plan a trip to Veneto without once setting foot in overcrowded Venice.

1. Verona

Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet lived and died in Verona, a city known for its rich artistic heritage. Placed on the prestigious World Heritage List because of its well-preserved architecture, the city serves as one of northern Italy’s major centers of tourism. Though details of its origins and early history remain a mystery, Verona became a major player during Roman times, when its location at the intersection of major roads made it an important commerce hub. In addition to its abundance of medieval structures and Roman ruins, Verona is a dynamic city with plenty of modern things to do, including shopping, dining, and bar-hopping.

2. Padua

A picturesque city known for its dense network of arcaded streets, Padua is one of Veneto’s true architectural gems. The easiest way to get the feel of this old city is by exploring its bridges, which cross various branches of the Bacchiglione River. Home to an 800-year-old university where Galileo Galilei once worked as a lecturer, Padua remains young at heart, its student population infusing the old neighborhoods with a vibrant atmosphere and contemporary outlook. After exploring the cobblestoned streets of the old town, head into the surrounding countryside to see a series of elegant 16th-century villas designed by celebrated architect Andrea Palladio.

3. Vicenza

Palladio was born in Padua, but you can see many of his finest villas in and around Vicenza, one of Italy’s wealthiest cities. Known to architecture buffs as the “City of Palladio,” the ancient settlement dates back to 3rd century BCE, when the semi-mythical Euganei tribe populated the area. Romans called the city Vicetia or Vincentia, meaning “victorious,” turning the growing settlement into one of the major hubs of their vast empire. Today, graceful Vicenza combines the elegance of Renaissance architecture with the modern vibe typical of Italy’s thriving, cosmopolitan cities. Discover the famous local cuisine by including a few of the traditional eateries and fresh markets on your Veneto itinerary.

4. Treviso

Known as home of Italy’s favorite dessert tiramisu, the medieval city boasts many notable places to visit that most foreign tourists rarely get to see. Just half an hour from Venice by train, the city retains the calm atmosphere that made it a popular retreat for 18th-century aristocrats. Easily explored on foot, Treviso contains a compact town center of Romanesque and Gothic buildings enclosed by well-preserved medieval walls. The city sits on the confluence of two major rivers, surrounded by a lush countryside packed with stately homes and idyllic villages seemingly frozen in time many centuries ago. Explore the region by bicycle, or go native and rent a scooter.

5. Malcesine

A handsome little medieval town nestled between the shores of Lake Garda and the slopes of Monte Baldo, Malcesine lures visitors with its winding lanes and pleasant shops. Easily accessible from both Venice and Verona, this overgrown village serves as a convenient base for exploring the charms of Italy’s largest lake. In an area known for offering many outdoor activities, Malcesine features a well-known 14th-century castle, built by the della Scala rulers of Verona. Climb the castle tower for sweeping views over the lake and the little town, or take a cycling trip to the nearby village of Cassone, home to one of the shortest rivers in the world.

Land of history, architecture, and natural beauty

There’s more to a Veneto vacation than just exploring the canals of Venice. See this land steeped in history and studded with architectural gems by exploring its small towns and verdant countryside, ideal for quiet vacations far from the jostling crowds and big-city traffic jams.

May 2015
Florence’s Top 5 Architectural Gems

Italy’s architectural jewel, Florence remains one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Add these five attractions to your Florence itinerary, and discover the masterpieces of some of the most admired artists of all time without ever stepping foot into a crowded museum or gallery.

1. Duomo – Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore

The symbol of Florence and its main church, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore remains best known for boasting the largest brick dome ever constructed. Engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi, one of the greatest names of the Italian Renaissance, the impressive dome crowns one of the biggest Gothic cathedrals in the world. Brunelleschi won the commission for the dome only after a fierce battle with Ghiberti, a celebrated goldsmith and sculptor. His innovative 4 million-brick dome and machines used to build it served as an inspiration to young Leonardo da Vinci, who helped create the bronze ball atop the structure’s lantern. If you have time to spare on your cathedral tour, climb the 464 steps to the top.

2. Baptistry (Battistero)

One of the oldest structures in the city, the Baptistry is over nine centuries old, erected between 1159 and 1128. Famed for its domed ceiling decorated with detailed mosaics, the building stands on top of another, much older structure rumored to have been an ancient Roman temple dedicated to the god Mars. Most sightseers come to see the building’s famous doors, featuring panels depicting hope, faith, charity, humility, fortitude, temperance, justice, and prudence. The bronze images on the eastern doors, masterpieces by artists Andrea Pisano and Lorenzo Ghiberti, so moved their famed colleague Michelangelo that he reportedly christened them the “Gates of Paradise.”

3. Giotto’s Bell Tower (Campanile di Giotto)

Round off your visit to the famous Duomo and the Baptistry with a sightseeing tour of Giotto’s Bell Tower, another standout structure in the city’s World Heritage-listed town center. Located on Piazza del Duomo, one of Italy’s most-visited tourist attractions, the 14th-century tower is almost 90 m (280 ft) tall. Designed by and named after one of the city’s best-known Renaissance artists, the tower represents a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, featuring seven bells and ornate exterior styling. You can enjoy the tower reliefs, statues, and carved panels from the ground, but for a bird’s-eye view of the square below, climb up the structure’s narrow staircase.

4. Basilica di Santa Croce

Basilica di Santa Croce serves as Florence’s largest Franciscan church, completed in 1385 and known for containing the tombs of some of the most illustrious names in Italian history. The final resting place of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Rossini, and Galileo, the church features 16 frescoed chapels painted by Giotto and his pupils. The building’s floor plan follows the figure of the Tau cross (the shape of the letter T), the symbol of St. Francis. Designed in the austere style favored by the Franciscan order, the church also contains a simple yet elegant chapel designed by Filippo Brunelleschi.

5. Basilica di San Lorenzo

Most of the principal members of the Medici family lie entombed in the Basilica di San Lorenzo, one of the city’s oldest churches. Though consecrated in 393, when it stood outside city walls, most of the current structure dates to the 15th century and represents one of Italy’s finest examples of early Renaissance architecture. Just off the left transept is a sacristy designed by Brunelleschi, with decorative details by Donatello. Michelangelo, who designed the Medici tombs in the 16th century, worked on the unfinished facade and planned the attached library, world-famous for containing over 11,000 manuscripts and 4,500 printed books.

Stroll through architectural history

Despite the city’s large size, Florence sightseeing remains a pedestrian-friendly activity, and you can see most major architectural attractions by taking a walking tour of the old town. Discovering the city’s rich heritage does not require standing in long museum lines or exploring far-flung art galleries. To see notable works by some of the world’s greatest artists, put on a pair of comfortable shoes and take a leisurely stroll through Florence’s storied streets.

May 2015
Going Green in Munich: The Bavarian Capital’s 5 Best Parks and Gardens

Munich may be thought of as a city of laptops and lederhosen, but a tour of its parks and gardens quickly proves there’s much more to Bavaria’s capital. The following things to do in Munich combine history with natural beauty, offering you an ideal way to discover the green side of the city.

1. English Garden

A standout among Munich’s attractions, the sprawling English Garden is one of the largest public parks in the world. Covering a vast area of over 370 hectares (910 acres), the grounds stretch from the city center all the way to its northeastern limits. Created in the 1780s by famed inventor Benjamin Thompson, the park originally covered a much smaller area but over time expanded along with the city. Primarily landscaped according to the informal style of gardening popular in 18th-century Britain, the park also includes a number of more exotic elements, including teahouses, pavilions, pagodas, and temples. Explore the meadows and ponds dotting the gently rolling terrain, or take advantage of nearly 80 km (50 mi) of biking and hiking trails.

2. Nymphenburg Palace (Schloss Nymphenburg)

Although millions of visitors converge on Munich for its annual beer festival, few of them ever find their way to the garden oasis of Nymphenburg Palace. Designed by architect Agostino Barelli and completed in 1675, the majestic structure originally served as the summer retreat of Max Emanuel, the long-awaited heir to the Bavarian throne. The palace and surrounding gardens are open to the public and house several museums, so you can stroll through the site’s impeccably manicured areas and also learn something about German history. Try to find your way to the former royal stables, which house one of the largest collections of horse carriages in Europe.

3. Westpark

The perfect place for taking a long break from the bustle of the big city, Westpark is one of Munich’s newer green areas. Designed by landscape architect Peter Kluska for a 1983 international garden show, the park covers an area of about 70 hectares (180 acres). In addition to Chinese and Japanese gardens, the grounds also boast large sections dedicated to growing and displaying about 500 different rose species. Look for Thai pavilions and Nepalese pagodas, where you can rest your mind and body, or head to the park’s artificial lake to see impromptu competitions between model-boat enthusiasts.

4. Theresienwiese

Munich’s two-week beer festival takes place in Theresienwiese, a place soaked in history and filled with major landmarks. If you were visiting in 1810, you would invariably end up at this 42 hectare (100 acre) site, where Princess Theresa and Prince Ludwig celebrated their wedding. Today, you can celebrate the world-famous Oktoberfest in the company of six million other visitors. If you come before or after the big event, you can take extra time to discover the park’s major features, which include a church dedicated to St. Paul and a statue symbolizing the state of Bavaria.

5. Munich Botanischer Garten (Botanic Garden)

A pleasant green space where you can rest your weary feet after a long sightseeing tour, the Munich Botanic Garden boasts more than 14,000 species of plants spread over nearly 20 hectares (45 acres). Designed to educate the public and train students of a nearby university, the garden preserves many rare plants and bee species. An extensive greenhouse complex includes 11 rooms recreating different climatic conditions, ideal for growing bromeliads, cacti, succulents, cycads, and ferns. Don’t miss the renowned garden collection, which astoundingly includes over 2,700 different species. An island of greenery in the middle of a big city, the grounds also contain an ornamental courtyard and insect pavilion.

A breath of fresh air

There’s no better way to get the feel of a city than by exploring its parks and gardens. Though it serves as a modern business center of Germany, at its heart Munich remains a city of green spaces. To escape the crowds and get a breath of fresh air, pack a picnic and head to one of the city’s sprawling urban parks.

May 2015
Spain’s Other Coast: Must-Visit Destinations Along the Atlantic

For their Spain vacation, most visitors head straight for the wildly popular Mediterranean coastline, forgetting to include the picturesque destinations of the country’s northern shore on their itinerary. The regions of Galicia, Asturias, and Navarra, spread along the Atlantic coastline, contain big cities and small towns, as well as hundreds of pristine beaches backed by a rolling countryside of rustic villages and lush valleys.

1. Gijon

Located in Asturias, which brings rural Spain right down to the sea, Gijon combines the best aspects of a historical urban center and modern seaside resort. Gijon lives and breathes the sea, its favorable location on the Bay of Biscay largely responsible for its reputation as a prime surfing and fishing vacation destination. The town’s many beaches draw a diverse crowd of visitors, from families with small kids to young weekend revelers exploring the region’s lively party scene.

2. Ribadeo

Small in terms of area and population, Ribadeo nevertheless boasts a big heart, seen in the warm smiles and unreserved hospitality of the city’s natives. Bathed by the Atlantic waves, the city’s daily life remains linked to the sea. Most people come here for the beaches, but Ribadeo and the surrounding area also contain many historical monuments and ancient sites. You can spend hours wandering the city’s historical streets, or spend days exploring the tidal estuary, a safe haven for dozens of species of native birds.

3. Vigo

Galicia’s largest city, Vigo boasts enough beaches to keep you busy for the duration of your trip, however long you choose to stay. Situated on a picturesque bay, the city seems tailor-made for family vacations by the sea. The most popular beaches draw huge crowds at the peak of the season, offering modern facilities and proximity to good dining, shopping, and entertainment. You can always get away from the lively beach crowd by taking short day trips out of the city. The surrounding area serves as hallowed ground for history buffs, featuring everything from ancient Roman ruins to outstanding examples of Romanesque religious architecture.

4. Ferrol

The natives of Ferrol may be most proud of their city’s rich naval history, but this Galician tourist hub rewards visitors with a lively seaside atmosphere and fine beaches offering outstanding conditions for swimming, surfing, and fishing. For many years, most people knew it only as the birthplace of infamous Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, but today Ferrol draws attention with its colorful neighborhoods and busy harbor, protected by an imposing 18th-century fortress. Boat tours remain the best way to discover this Neoclassical architectural gem, though you can always choose to explore the area on foot or by bicycle.

5. Llanes

If you ever think you already know and love all of Spain’s finest beaches, head to Llanes, part of the country’s “Green Coast.” Tiny in terms of population, Llanes thrives as an active fishing port, its economy boosted by a growing tourism sector. Over 30 white-sand beaches draw an increasing number of tourists, packing the little town’s shops and restaurants and infusing the area with that cosmopolitan feel usually reserved for big seaside resorts. An exploration of the town’s back streets reveals numerous historical sites, including a section of the old town walls dating back all the way to the early 13th century. The best way to soak up some coastal color and learn about regional history remains taking part in traditional fiestas, an age-old way of honoring religious customs and celebrating local saints.

The “real” Spain

Many Spaniards living along the Atlantic coastline consider their part of the country the “real” Spain. Asturias, after all, remained the only section of Spain never completely conquered by the invading Moors. Including these unconquerable regions on your Spain itinerary offers you a chance to discover a land of distinct cuisine, rich cultural heritage, and pristine coastal areas, dotted by more sandy beaches than you could ever explore in a single trip.

May 2015
Croatia Vacation
A Quick Guide to the Country's Top 5 Islands

One of Europe’s secret treasures, the small islands scattered along Croatia’s coastline hide a trove of sandy and rocky beaches, offering everything from sailing and skinny-dipping to family-run wineries and all-night dance parties. Add any (or all!) of the following islands to your Croatia itinerary to discover the Adriatic’s pristine nature, untamed beaches, and romantic atmosphere.

1. Hvar

Croatia’s celebrity magnet, Hvar boasts undisputed status as the country’s most fashionable island destination. Centered on Hvar Town, a Venetian-era settlement rivaling Dubrovnik in terms of architectural and cultural heritage, the island offers both quiet coves and lively beaches. Its rugged landscape carpeted by lush vineyards and intersected by hiking trails is allegedly the sunniest place on the continent. Though many visitors spend their entire vacation exploring the island capital’s narrow streets and chic bars, you can set off on an adventure through the lavender-scented interior or kayak to the nearby islets and reefs.

2. Brač

Boasting one of Croatia’s most-photographed beaches, Brač serves as a top water-sport destination in the Adriatic. Visitors from around the world converge on this small island throughout the year, drawn by its diving, kayaking, parasailing, windsurfing, and wakeboarding opportunities. The island’s main urban center is Bol, boasting an atmospheric old town of narrow pedestrian streets and handsome stone houses. Once a sleepy fishing village, Bol now features a long seaside promenade lined by comfortable hotels, making it an ideal base for day trips into the island’s interior. Despite its popularity among the athletic set, Brac remains a relatively tranquil destination: families with kids will feel as at home here as adventure-seeking adrenaline junkies.

3. Vis

The farthest inhabited island off the Dalmatian coast, Vis is home to a mere 3,400 year-round residents. This number considerably increases at the height of the tourist season, when sun-seeking vacationers invade the island’s pristine beaches. A Yugoslav naval base until just over two decades ago, the spot remained off-limits to foreigners until 1989. Today, Vis serves as a chic summer getaway, drawing international foodies with its traditional “konobe” (taverns) and world-famous cuisine based on fresh local seafood. While on the island, you can learn how to fish and cook your catch, as well as visit several renowned wineries responsible for some of Croatia’s finest organic red wines.

4. Pag

Long known to foodies for its traditional cheeses, Pag now serves as Croatia’s premier party destination. One of the island’s larger settlements, Novalja long remained a low-key family resort known for its clean beaches and calm sea. Today, the lively town draws revellers with its seafront bars and clubs, which remain open 24 hours a day and host regular after-dark beach parties. Known as the “Croatian Ibiza,” the island is a popular haunt of Croatian celebrities and a young crowd of affluent pleasure seekers.

5. Lopud

Tiny Lopud sits just off Croatia’s southern coast, its sandy beaches a huge draw for day-trippers from nearby Dubrovnik. Relaxed and pleasantly free of car traffic, the island provides a tranquil alternative to some of the country’s flashier and more expensive vacation destinations. Lopud’s only settlement serves as home to fewer than 300 people and provides a quiet base for trips into the island’s herb-scented interior. If you don’t feel like heading back to busy Dubrovnik at the end of the day, settle into one of the family-run hotels here, where spare rooms come with good food and priceless seafront views.

Something for everyone

With over a thousand islands and islets to choose from, a Croatia vacation provides a varied range of destinations sure to please the most demanding of globetrotters. The coast’s most popular spots boast pristine beaches and handsome towns filled with modern hotels, bars, clubs, and shops. Ideal for water sports, hiking, cycling, or simply basking on the warm sand, Croatia’s islands promise to surprise and delight you on your next Dalmatian adventure.