Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Europe
The most acclaimed example of formal French garden design, Versailles’ vast chateau gardens are famed for their geometrically aligned terraces, tree-lined paths, ponds and canals. Spreading west of the palace, the Versailles Chateau Gardens cover 800 hectares (1,976 acres) in the style of garden landscape artist, Andre Le Notre.
One of the most special aspects of the gardens is the 50 fountains which act as focal points, enhancing the geometrical design. From late spring to early autumn, the fountains come to life as part of the annual Grandes Eaux water spectacles. Garden highlights include the horses and chariot of the Apollo Fountain, the Grand Canal stretching off to the horizon, and the detailed parterres of the Orangerie.
Wherever you stroll, you’re bound to come across a grove, colonnade, fountain or sculpture that will surprise, delight and take your breath away.
The enigmatic black beach that is Reynisfjara is located just a few minutes outside Vik i Myrdal, halfway between Reykjavik and Höfn. It features amazing cliffs of mesmerizing basalt columns, and it is one of the most heavily photographed and documented sites in Iceland, mostly because it is home to the mysterious Reynisdrangar columns that protrude out of the stormy North Atlantic Ocean. Rumor has it that the stacks originated when three trolls, pulling a three-masted ship to shore, were petrified and turned into needles of rock after being caught by surprise by dawn.
But more than just a piece of Icelandic folklore, the cliffs surrounding Reynisfjara Beach also play an important role during breeding season, as they become host to several bird species, including the much sought-after puffin.
Taking prize place beside the Town Hall on Piazza Duomo, the Collegiate Church of San Gimignano, or the Duomo of San Gimignano, ranks among most impressive monuments of San Gimignano’s UNESCO-listed historic center. Behind its comparatively reserved façade, the church’s main claim to fame is its exquisite frescos, which date back to the 14th and 15th centuries, and remain remarkably unrestored. The bold colors and painstaking detail bring to life iconic biblical scenes including Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark, the Garden of Eden and dramatic depictions of Heaven and Hell, with highlights including works by Bartolo di Fredi, Lippo Memmi, Benozzo Gozzoli and Taddeo di Bartolo.
Adjoining the church, the small Museum of Sacred Art includes more works taken from the Collegiata and other San Gimignano churches, including a Crucifix by Benedetto di Maiano and the ‘Madonna of the Rose’ by Bartolo di Fredi.
Riding Europe‘s highest open-air cog railway is a popular pastime for visitors to Zermatt and the dramatic Gornergrat railway serves up jaw-dropping views as it winds its way to the summit of Gornergrat Mountain.
The 45-minute journey might be impressive, but the real highlight is the destination and the Gornergrat Bahn boasts the title of Switzerland’s second-highest train station (after Jungfrau), located at a dizzying 3,089 meters. On arrival, make your way to the dedicated viewing platform, where the views span 29 of Switzerland’s highest peaks, including the mighty Matterhorn and one of the longest glaciers in the Alps.
Inaugurated in 1997, Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, which was designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, is hailed as one of the most important architectural works of its time. Within its undulating and reflecting walls, you’ll find a rotating artistic wonderland of both modern and contemporary art.
The conception of this iconic museum was born out of a grand mission to revitalize Spain’s fourth-largest city, considered one of the nation’s most critical ports. Traditionally an industrial metropolis, the creation of Bilbao’s cutting-edge museum generated -- in its first three years -- over four million tourist visits and enough economic activity and taxes to more than pay for its cost.
During a trip to the riverside museum, you can wander its over 100 exhibitions, all interconnected and arranged around the central light-filled atrium.
Portugal’s most famous and prestigious university, the University of Coimbra is one of Europe’s oldest colleges and has become a popular tourist attraction in its own right. First established in Lisbon in 1290, the university moved to its current location in 1537 and today stands proudly at the highest point of the town.
Touring the vast hilltop campus unveils an array of historic architecture, most notably the imposing 18th-century University Tower, an important landmark of the Old Town, and the renowned 18th-century Biblioteca Joanina (João V Library), an elaborately decorated National Monument. Around 300,000 ancient books grace the shelves of the famed library and the richly decorated interiors are a show-stopping display of Portuguese art and architectural design, featuring two-tiers of exotic wood shelves, gilded pillars and intricate ceiling paintings by Lisbon artists Simões Ribeiro and Vicente Nunes.
More Things to Do in Europe
A warren of cave dwellings and caverns carved into the hillside of Matera’s old town, the Sassi di Matera are one of Italy’s most unique, yet still off-the-beaten-track sights. The labyrinth of troglodyte dwellings date back to prehistoric times and were lived in until the 1950s when the new city was built. Today, the site is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has served as a backdrop for a number of films, including Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
The Sassi di Matera are divided into two distinct districts – Sasso Caveoso, where the older dwellings give an authentic taste of cave life, and Sasso Barisano, where many of the caves have been repurposed as hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. The best way to explore is on foot, weaving your way through the narrow alleyways, and highlights include a series of cave churches with beautiful preserved frescos; the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitaro, an 18th-century house museum; and the MUSMA art museum.
As one of the most important pilgrimage sites of medieval Europe, Canterbury’s iconic cathedral is worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage status and remains an important center of Christian worship. Originally founded in 597 by St Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, Canterbury Cathedral is the oldest church in England still in use and largely regarded as the birthplace of English Christianity. The present day cathedral owes much of its structure to a series of 11th and 12th century reconstructions, with highlights including the 235-foot-high Bell Harry Tower and over 1,200 square meters of early medieval stained glass windows.
The cathedral also hosts the poignant shrine of St Thomas Becket, the one-time Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in the cathedral in 1170 at the hands of King Henry II's knights. Immortalized in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century book, The Canterbury Tales, which tells the story of a group of pilgrims traveling to visit the shrine.
The Catedral del Apostol is one of the most important shrines in Christiandom, as it is the said to be the final resting place of Saint James the Greater, one of the twelve Apostles. Its history is as storied and intricate as its architecture, having been razed and rebuilt numerous times during the Church's conflict with Spain's Muslim invaders.
The cathedral is a stunning masterpiece of baroque architecture, and each of its four directional facades depict different monuments to St. James and Jesus Christ. Guided tours explain the detail in each facade, and in Holy Years, when St. James' Day falls on a Sunday, you can travel through the Holy Door in the Eastern Facade. Inside the cathedral, you'll be treated to more stunning sculpture; as you walk through the crucifix-shaped interior, the edifices become more intricate and awe-inspiring, as the sculpture vividly illustrates scenes from the Bible.
The ancient Greek city of Ephesus, also know as Efeze. Famed for its Temple of Artemis, it is also one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Ephesus’s most spectacular site has to be the façade of the Library of Celsus. Constructed between 110 and 135AD, the library originally had three floors, but an earthquake destroyed the building in the 10th century.
Other sites include the Theater, Basilica of St. John, the Cave of the Seven Sleepers, Church of Mary, House of the Virgin, the Isabey Mosque, the Prytaneion, the synagogue and the Temple of Hadrian. All the sites are in varying states of disrepair. Unfortunately, all that remains of the Temple of Artemis, rumoured to have been four times as large as the Parthenon, is one column standing in a marshy basin.
The world’s famous Colosseum was built in 80 AD for the Roman emperors to stage fight to-the-death gladiator battles and hunt and kill wild animals, whilst members of the general public watched the violent spectaculars. Entry was free, although you were seated according to your social rank and wealth. Gladiatorial games were banned in 438 AD; the wild beast hunting continued until 523.
The Colosseum is amazing for its complex and advanced architecture and building technique. Despite being used as a quarry for building materials at various points in history, it is still largely intact. You can see the tiered seating, corridors and the underground rooms where the animals and gladiators awaited their fate. Today the Colosseum has set the model for all modern-day stadiums, the only difference being today's teams survive their games.