The best thing about Europe-trotting is the accessibility. If you have a few days at the end of a business trip or a free weekend during a study aboard, you can hop onto a night train or a bargain flight and go anywhere on the continent. When I’m short on time, I bypass the huge metropolises and enjoy the mid-sized towns. Why bother wasting time on intra-city transportation and waiting in long lines when you can step into a small town, find your way around within a day and have more enough to keep you busy? Here are some of my favorite cities for a two to three day visit.
Aix calls itself the “Town of Water and Art”. Journey three hours out of Paris and experience genuine Provence. There are plenty of things to see: marvel at the architecture of Cathedrale Saint-Sauveur and Eglise Saint-Jean-de-Malte, enjoy the numerous fountains, and familiarize yourself with modern art at Foundation Vasarely. But as it is Provence, take plenty of time to relax and enjoy the culture. Enjoy a glass of rose on Cours Mirabeau, a shady boulevard that was once the fashion center of town and browse the art shops tucked away on every corner.
Playwright George Bernard Shaw once announced, “If you want to see heaven on earth, come to Dubrovnik.” Dubrovnik is located on the Southern coast of Croatia, which is quickly becoming one of Europe’s hot spots. This gorgeous Renaissance/Baroque city overlooks the Adriatic Sea from its limestone cliff. The marble-paved streets are lined with churches, palaces, and seafood restaurants. Come during the summer festival, which starts July 10th and runs for 45 days filled with music, dancing, and art.
Located three hours south of Budapest by train, Pecs is one of the most charming cities in Hungary. Filled with both Turkish and Christian influences, Pecs is known for its diverse and beautiful architecture. The large university, Romanesque cathedral, catacombs, porcelain museums, world-class ballet, opera, and symphony are must-sees. The best time to visit is during the International Music Festival, which runs during the last week of June and the first week of July. It coincides with a folk arts and crafts fair featuring hand-painted porcelain and great wine from the vineyards of Villany. My friend Amelia and I decided it would be romantic to wander lost in the streets of Pecs and tried our best to lose our way. But it proved impossible, as the city is too small and full of landmarks.
Wanting to immerse ourselves in Tuscan flavor, my backpacking buddies and I decided to stop in Siena, Italy on the way to Rome. The train ride through endless vineyards is a treat enough. Finally, you arrive in Siena–a medieval town revolving around the city square of il Campo. The first thing you’ll notice is the intoxicating scent of jasmine. The second is the plethora of delicious pizza shops and gelatorias. The locals are great too–when lost late one night (it wasn’t as romantic as I thought it would be), a convivial local sang “Hey Jude” with us and gave us a ride back to our pension.
This important Basque city is a favorite of my friend Zach. It is an eclectic blend of cobblestone roads and modern high-rises. Getting around the city is part of the fun: the metro system is one of the best in Europe, and the friendly locals are always willing to help. It is located near beautiful beaches and Guernica, the subject of a Picasso painting. The highlight of Bilbao is the Museum Guggenheim, which is an extraordinary building with great modern art exhibits. Experience the joy of a tapas cafe as you devour you a caÃ±a and jamon serrano.
Not to challenge George Bernard Shaw, but Switzerland is my heaven on earth. Interlaken literally means “between two lakes” and is nestled in the Swiss Alps. Known for being an extreme sport town, it offers parachuting, paragliding, skiing, white water rafting, and cannoning (jumping off small cliffs into freezing cold water). The less adventurous can take advantage of the plentiful hiking or biking trails. Switzerland is expensive in general, but every visitor needs to see the Alps up close.
Best of luck discovering your perfect spot!