Tag Archives: europe

rainbow umbrellas hover over a street of shops and restaurants in Istanbul turkey

Winter Is Europe’s Secret Season

Savvy travelers love Europe in winter and not just because they can avoid the sticker shock and tourist crowds of peak season. It’s easier in winter to feel connected to local life, as it’s easier to meet the local people and see how they really live. More time may be spent indoors, but museums feel like your own private galleries, and it’s easier to get into the most in-demand restaurants for fabulous meals. Insider experiences, charming scenery, and great food are all accessible and available, as the travelers below discovered, if you just know the right trip designers who can help you make the most of this cozy time of year. Here’s what it means to get a WOW trip.


NORWAY: “We were in the middle of a herd of hundreds of reindeer, watching them and admiring their beauty inside an Arctic wonderland.”

Traveler Julie Silbermann feeding reindeer in Norway.

Julie Silbermann spent a day with Sami people and got to help feed their reindeer.

“WOW! What a trip we had to Finnmark in northern Norway! We can’t thank Wendy enough for connecting us with Jan and Miriam for our trip March 7-15. They crafted an exciting trip of one adventure after another. We flew to Alta, which is 400 miles inside the Arctic Circle, and stayed at the Sorrisniva Arctic Wilderness Lodge. It is remote and incredibly beautiful. We stayed in a room overlooking the river and mountains with floor-to-ceiling windows. We went dog sledding, snowshoeing, and ice fishing. We even caught Arctic char, which our guide, Kalle, expertly cooked for us inside our warming tent for lunch! We were very lucky to see the Northern Lights on three out of four nights, and Helle knew just where to bring us to see the spectacular light show.

One of our most special expeditions was spending the day with the Sami people, helping them herd and feed their reindeer! We were in the middle of a herd of hundreds of reindeer, watching them and admiring their beauty inside an Arctic wonderland. Just an amazing experience. Big thanks to Trygve Nygard, Kalle, Helle, and Emilie for their special care on our expeditions. Everything was taken care of for us—there wasn’t a detail left to chance.” —Julie Silbermann

Read more reviews of Norway trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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PORTUGAL: “In the Alentejo region we experienced an outstanding lunch with a wine pairing, horseback ride, cork factory and hikes…”

The river Guadiana and the village of Mertola. Alentejo Region. Portugal

The river Guadiana and the village of Mertola im Alentejo Region, Portugal. Photo: Shutterstock

“This was our first trip using a recommended Wendy Perrin trip planner. We travelled to Portugal March 8th—March 15th, 2024. It was a special trip to celebrate our son’s graduation from college. Our trip was planned by Goncalo and Joanna. WOW! What an amazing trip they planned for us. The accommodations that they chose for us were fantastic! Very unique and customer oriented. The destinations and route they planned—from Lisbon to the Alentejo region and the West Region—were perfect. Our driver, Sandru, was amazing and he made sure everything was taken care of when we reached our destinations. (He also knew our itinerary and was always able to answer questions.) Sandru went above and beyond to make our trip very special.

We had a wonderful cooking class and gastronomic tour with Lara in Lisbon and even attended a Benefica Football game. In the Alentejo region we experienced an outstanding lunch with a wine pairing, horseback ride, cork factory and hikes. In the West Region, a full day tour which included Obidos, Nazre, and Alcobaca. The details were taken care of for us, from tours to restaurant reservations, it was the best trip I have ever been on. I can’t wait to plan our next trip with a Wendy Perrin recommended trip planner.” —Lori Bentley

Read more reviews of Portugal trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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NORWAY: “My focus was seeing the lights (we saw them twice, yippee!), but the entire trip turned out to be way better than we expected due to the fun activities Torunn planned for us.”

The aurora borealis in Norway, photo taken from traveler Kathye Faries.

The aurora borealis over northern Norway. Photo: Traveler Kathye Faries

“Seeing the Aurora Borealis has been on my bucket list for ages and it was time to make it happen! With Wendy’s help we were connected with Torunn, who planned a terrific 10-day adventure for us in northern Norway in February, 2024. I worked with Karin Andresen on many of the details and Karin did a wonderful job too. My focus was seeing the lights (we saw them twice, yippee!), but the entire trip turned out to be way better than we expected due to the fun activities Torunn and Karin planned for us.

We started in Alta, well north of the Arctic Circle, and stayed at a great property outside of the town in a beautiful setting on the banks of a frozen river. We went snowshoeing (easier than I thought it would be) and ice fishing with Kelle of Glod Explorer, and his husky Bruno. Jim caught an Arctic Char so our lunch was as fresh is it could get! Sitting in a lavvu, around a fire, sipping hot chocolate and eating fresh-caught fish was a real treat. We also took a snowmobile ride at night at Bjornfjeld Mountain Lodge. We were cozy in a beautiful mountaintop glass igloo, cooked our dinner over a fire and looked for the lights. On our last day in Alta we spent several hours dog sledding in the beautiful Finnmark forest and on frozen lakes, which was one of the highlights of the trip. Our guide, Hannah, ran the Iditarod two years ago and was so expert on the trails. We loved our day with her and her dog teams.

While en route to our next destination (we saw moose, reindeer and foxes along the way), we had lunch with Johan, a Sami elder, in the village of Maze. His family has raised and herded reindeer for generations and his sons are poised to take care of the business someday. We learned so much from him about his profession, about the Sami, and got to meet some of his reindeer. Fascinating.

In Karasjok we stayed at one of the most unique, exceptional small properties we’ve ever seen. Every cabin and all of the furniture in each of the 7 cabins has been built by hand from natural materials. This place is a hidden gem, set in the forest and truly magical. On property were 45 Alaskan Huskies who were very friendly and loved “cuddles” from everyone. One of our days was spent with Magrit, a Sami woman who has spent her entire life raising and herding reindeer. We went with her by snowmobile, up high in the mountains, to see and feed some of her family’s herd. We spent time in the forest around a warm fire and she shared stories with us about her life. On our last day there, I went dog sledding with the Alaskan Huskies—it was an exciting ride where the dogs broke a new trail in deep, newly fallen snow on the frozen lake. It was a wonderful experience I will never forget.

The last few days of the trip were spent in Oslo where our expert guide took us to the Nobel Peace Prize Museum (very, very moving), and the National Museum (which houses Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”). We saw several contemporary buildings—the Library and the Opera House—watched some young men run from the sauna and jump into the 32-degree water of the harbor (yikes!); and toured the Vigeland Sculpture Park.

The Aurora was as wondrous as I expected and we were so lucky to see it. Northern Norway is a beautiful part of the world with clean water, clean air, warm and friendly people and so accessible to the outdoors. When we asked local guides (who grew up in Alta and Karasjok) if they ever wanted to move away, their answer was NO!!!! We could understand why.

The trip was so smooth due to Torunn and Karin’s expertise. Prior to and during the trip we made a few itinerary adjustments and all went perfectly. All of the guides and ground transportation services were there when and where they were supposed to be, and the outfitters and lodging choices were a great fit for us. We are so glad we saw the lights but we are also so appreciative of the adventures we experienced on this wonderful, enchanting trip.” —Kathye Faries

Read more reviews of Norway trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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PARIS: “A fashion expert who took us to neighborhood boutiques featuring up-and-coming Parisian designers…”

Louvre Museum at night, Paris, France

The Louvre Museum at night, Paris. Photo: EdiNugraha/Pixabay

“This was a trip for our daughter’s college graduation. She was interested in fashion, food and the Louvre.

Let’s start by how incredibly smooth our airport arrival was! Upon exiting the aircraft, we were whisked away by Mohammad, who led us through customs, helped us with our luggage and delivered us to our driver. This alone was worth using Wendy Perrin! I bet we saved 2 hours not having to wait in the line at customs.

Jennifer, our trip planner, did a great job planning our tours and making our dining reservations! We were very impressed with each tour guide—private 1/2-day tour of the Louvre could not have been better! We loved our croissant-making class and our chef was fabulous. We were pleasantly surprised with our tour of the Dior museum—so unexpected and maybe one of our most favorite things. We had the museum to ourselves and our guide was fantastic! Jennifer secured a fashion expert who took us to neighborhood boutiques featuring up-and-coming Parisian designers and this was a real treat! We loved meeting the shop owners and we felt like locals shopping for the afternoon.

Each and every restaurant reservation that Jennifer procured provided the best table in the restaurant with amazing views of the Eiffel Tower. One of the restaurants surprised us with a sparkler in my daughter’s dessert, which was so fun.

We would definitely use Jennifer again in the future.” —Kim Brown

Read more reviews of Paris trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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FINLAND: “An exciting jaunt by snowmobile to learn how to ice fish on a frozen lake and then dog sledding on a snowy day…”

The cozy and warm Glass House Suite at the Arctic Treehouse Hotel in Finland.

Between outdoor adventures, Michael Ruma warmed up by the fire in his Glass House Suite. Photo: Traveler Michael Ruma

“My wife said she’d like to see the aurora borealis and, with Wendy’s help, we were quickly introduced to Leigh, who created a delightful week of fun in Finland.

We hopped an easy flight from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, which lies directly on the latitude of the Arctic Circle. An efficient, private transfer brought us to the Arctic TreeHouse Hotel. Met with warm blueberry juice, we checked into our Glass House suite. Our room had a centrally located living room with an enclosed wood burning stove along with two bathrooms, one of which had our very own dry sauna.

Advised to download the Aurora app, we learned about the KP index which predicts the probability of witnessing the northern lights. Fortunately, after dinner at the hotel, a notification from the app informed us at 9pm the chance was high! Intent on seeing the natural phenomenon, we bundled up and hiked up a trail to a 50-foot observation tower specifically designed for viewing the lights. Finnish myths say the lights are caused when a fox runs across the Arctic landscape whipping up snow from its tail, sparking the lights in the night sky.

Regardless of the cause, we were blessed by an hour display of a gray hazy line emerging in the distance and evolving into a bright green glow right in front of our eyes. As we watched and photographed the sky, the lights blew around us along our walk back to our room.

Our next two days were filled with other Arctic adventures which included an exciting jaunt by snowmobile to learn how to ice fish on a frozen lake and then dog sledding on a snowy day in the beautiful and vast northern Finnish countryside. We concluded our trip with a train ride from Rovaniemi back to Helsinki. On our last day in Helsinki, we splurged and dined at Restaurant Savoy.

We would happily come back to Finland for a future visit either in the winter to take in the unique night sky, but this time much further north, or during the summer to take in the lively and sunny long days in Helsinki filled with so much to see, taste, and do. Delighted by its vast country, small polite population, and compact capital, its seasonally focused food, and its matter-of-fact and kind people. We had such fun in Finland.” —Michael Ruma

Read more reviews of Finland trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

START A TRIP TO FINLAND

SICILY: “Getting to know Sicilians—over good conversations, culinary experiences, archaeology hikes, tours, food and wine—was the highlight of the entire trip.”

Sicily coastline Italy

The view of Sicily’s coastline and region, Italy. Photo: Pixabay/kirkandmimi

“We are just back from an AMAZING, perfectly planned and executed trip to Sicily. Marcello is the gold standard of travel planners. He created a perfectly curated, balanced itinerary and checked in daily to make sure all was going smoothly. We could not have covered as much as we did (in nine days) without having private drivers, who were excellent. We covered a lot of ground in Sicily with a full schedule each day, but somehow it never felt rushed.

While January might not be the ideal time to visit Sicily (with the weather less than cooperative!), we saw, learned, engaged, and met wonderful people all along the way—from Palermo and surrounding towns Monreale, Castelbuono, Cefalu to Villa Romana del Casale, Agrigento, Testa dell’Acqua, Noto, Siracusa/Ortigia to Mt Etna. More than anything, getting to know Sicilians—over good conversations, culinary experiences, archaeology hikes, tours, food and wine—was the highlight of the entire trip. Marcello’s selection of guides and hosts was superb.

Perhaps the highlight of many highlights was the final day at Mt. Etna guided by Salvo (a vulcanologist) followed by our visit to the Santa Maria La Nave Winery for a tour, wine tasting, and lunch hosted by Vera and Carmello. They epitomized the warmth, welcome and pride of purpose we found every day during this first visit to Sicily. We look forward to returning soon to this stunning, fascinating, history-filled island.” —Barbara Gross

Read more reviews of Sicily trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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PORTUGAL: “They planned a private evening visit after the castle was closed, and we had the entire place to ourselves…”

the colorful yellow and red turrets of Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal

The Pena Palace, in Sintra, Portugal. Photo: Pixabay

Goncalo and Patricia planned the perfect four-day stopover in and around Lisbon for our multi-generational family of eight. Spending a day in Sintra was a must on our list, and after being told that we would likely have to wait hours to get into Pena Palace even with advance tickets, they planned a private evening visit after the castle was closed, and we had the entire place to ourselves! This was a true VIP experience and a very memorable one for all of us!

We love trying all different local cuisines when we travel, so we did a food tour/food shopping in the morning that evolved into a cooking class in the afternoon, which everyone enjoyed. All of the restaurants Goncalo recommended were perfect, from the casual places while we were still fighting jet lag to the amazing dinner and Fado music show experience.

And, visiting Lisbon around the holidays, we had the added bonus of all of the beautiful lights and decorations around the city!” —Lauren Schor

Read more reviews of Portugal trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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PARIS: “…a market tour and curated cooking class in the beautiful home of a French chef near the Eiffel Tower…”

Caves Legrande is one of the oldest wine shops in Paris

Caves Legrande wine shop in Paris. Photo: Caves Legrande

Jennifer planned a delightful trip for us to Paris over New Year’s, with a good mix of culture and relaxation. Highlights included a day trip to Reims, complete with an intimate lunch with champagne pairings at a family-owned champagne house; a market tour and curated cooking class in the beautiful home of a French chef near the Eiffel Tower; and a private wine-and-cheese tasting at a historic wine shop with a young sommelier highlighting new and emerging winemakers from lesser-known regions in France.

Jennifer checked in with us regularly during our trip, seamlessly managing a few last-minute, unforeseen itinerary changes. Cannot recommend her highly enough—and am looking forward to all the fun she has in store for my return trip to the Champagne region with my friends later this year! —Katie Hausfeld

Read more reviews of Paris trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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ROME: “Our favorite experiences were exclusive visits to the Galleria Borghese and the Galleria Doria Pamphilj…”

charming cobblestone street with ivy in Trastevere, Rome, Italy.

Cobblestone street in Trastevere, Rome, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

“Nancy and I were lucky to have spent the first week of 2022 in Rome on a trip planned by Jennifer and her team.  Jennifer arranged for us to stay at the Hotel Eden while we were in Rome. The staff at the hotel were so nice to us and looked out for us during our stay.

Jennifer also arranged some great experiences during our time in Rome. By far, our favorite experiences were exclusive visits to the Galleria Borghese and the Galleria Doria Pamphilj with Alessia, our favorite guide during this trip. Alessia was able to navigate both galleries so that we saw the most we could during our limited time. and her knowledge of the art in each location was outstanding. Two other experiences which were highlights during our trip were a day trip to Naples/Pompeii with our guide Liberata and driver Salvatore, as well as a lovely food tour in the Trastevere neighborhood with Luca, where we got to sample some Roman delicacies.

We always felt looked after by Jennifer and her team. They would check in daily to see if we needed anything and they would lay out the itinerary for the next day. We feel so fortunate that we have found Jennifer and know that everything will be spectacular on a tour which she has arranged.” —Kevin Haney

Read more reviews of Rome trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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FRANCE & ITALY: “We wanted to do a road trip so we could see as much as we could…”

Monaco view from tete de chien rock, Provence.

Tête de Chien rock, Monaco. Photo: Philip Haslett

“We wanted to do a road trip around France so we could see as much as we could, while still having a few days in each place to relax. Philip and Evane created a perfect itinerary for us. We have driven in a handful of other countries, but we didn’t know what to expect driving in France. Philip and Evane advised us on what parts of the trip would be best to drive ourselves vs. which would have lots of traffic or headaches so it would be best to have a driver.

We had a few days in Paris to adjust to the time change before going to Champagne, where they arranged a private visit to Veuve Clicquot. In Lyon, our private guide took us to his family-owned winery in the Beaujolais. Philip and Evane even added the Piedmont region in Italy (since I told them how much my dad loved Italy and us being so close by), filling our time there with lots of Barolo and Barbaresco wines. Then we drove to Nice but stayed in smaller St. Paul de Vence with day trips around to see Eze, Monaco, Antibes, and all the spots along the Riviera.

Philip and Evane mapped out some smaller and cool towns that we could stop at while on our drives and provided great lunch restaurant suggestions at each stop. My dad’s favorite was in Dolceacqua, overlooking one of the bridges that Monet painted, while on our way from Fossano to St Paul de Vence. We are beyond thankful to Wendy for putting us in contact with Philip. It was a trip of a lifetime where it never felt like too much time in each destination, but it will always never be enough!” —Devan Ullman

Read more reviews of France and Piedmont trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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HUNGARY & POLAND: “On the Danube, a private boat to see the lights of nighttime Budapest…”

HUngarian Parliament building lit up at night, viewed from the Danube River Hungary

Parliament building, Hungary. Photo: Leonhard_Niederwimmer/Pixabay

“The absolute best thing we asked Gwen to add for us was VIP arrival and departure service at the airports. When we landed in Warsaw, we were whisked off to a private lounge, and the staff took our passports and handled all the details for us as we relaxed in the lounge. No lines, no frustrations with procedures, no stress. It was worth every penny. In fact, we loved it so much, we asked Gwen to add the VIP departure service to our flight leaving Budapest at the end of the trip. Once again, we hung out in a private lounge as everybody took care of our paperwork. We were escorted through private security and then to a private transfer right to the door of the plane where we were the first to board. Fantastic!

Other highlights of our trip to Poland and Hungary included:

  • In Krakow, our private tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau was so moving and impactful. Our guide’s father was a survivor of Auschwitz, and it was humbling to have him share with us. Guides really do make or break tours.
  • In Egar, a fantastic meal at the beautiful castle restaurant, with Hungarian wines paired to our various courses—the best meal of the trip!
  • On the Danube, a private boat to see the lights of nighttime Budapest.

I appreciated Gwen being willing to make changes for us as we moved through the itinerary. It was such a relief to know the logistics were handled and we had someone on call should anything change or become difficult.” —Sarah Wade

Read more reviews of Hungary and Poland trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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ITALY: “We went to a Barolo village and had the chance to visit a Barolo wine cellar for a private tasting and tour…”

Serralunga d'Alba castle, medieval village in Piedmont, north Italy

Serralunga d’Alba castle, a medieval village in Piedmont, North Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

“We were so very fortunate to be able to experience an impromptu trip to Milan and the Piedmont region in early January 2022—and we could never have done it without Jennifer. The trip was glorious. We went to a Barolo village and had the chance to visit a Barolo wine cellar for a private tasting and tour. Our guides in Torino and Milan were excellent, and we relished the opportunity to take in The Last Supper and other masterpieces with no crowds. Like NONE. In Piedmont, the weather was mild and we were able to spend a lot of time outdoors.  We made some wonderful memories and cannot say enough about how this trip abroad gave us a much needed change to start 2022.” —Gina Melton

Read more reviews of Italy trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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ISTANBUL: “All of our activities were private—from a cooking class to a river cruise on the Bosphorus…”

view of Bosphorus in Istanbul Turkey from deck of boat

View of the Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Tim Baker

“In January Karen and her team planned a perfect multigenerational trip to Istanbul for our family!  We were met off the plane and moved swiftly through the airport with VIP service, then transferred to our vehicle. All of our activities were private—from a cooking class to a river cruise on the Bosphorus (which I definitely recommend, to get an overview of the city when you arrive). We had the same driver each day in an immaculate vehicle equipped with wifi and always bottles of water.

Our guide, Cenk, was fabulous, so knowledgeable and he knew all the hidden gems to take us to—even diverting from our planned itinerary once he got to know us and had a better idea of things we would enjoy. In our short trip we were able to hit most of the highlights of the city without feeling rushed, thanks to Cenk. A couple of months before the trip we weren’t sure if we felt safe traveling to Istanbul, so I reached out to Wendy. Wendy suggested I speak with Karen, and I’m so glad I did!” —Lauren Schor

Read more reviews of Istanbul trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

START A TRIP TO ISTANBUL

FRANCE: “We didn’t just tour this small museum; Philip arranged for the museum director to spend three hours guiding us through it…”

Leafy town square with fountain in a picturesque village in Provence, France

Saignon, Provence, France. Photo: Shutterstock

“Our two-week trip to France in December focused on Provence and the Riviera. Philip created a wonderful itinerary focused on memorable experiences and lesser-known sights. The hotels he chose were excellent; we especially liked Mas de Pierre in the hills northwest of Nice. Our rooms in all hotels were both comfortable and spacious—a combination less often found in France. Philip suggested a glassblowing class in Antibes, and my husband and I made three glass pieces each (two vases, one bowl, two perfume bottles with fancy stoppers, and my favorite, my jellyfish in a glass globe).

The Riviera has lots of museums, but Philip sent us to one of his favorites, the remarkable Museum of Classical Art in the hilltop village of Mougins. We didn’t just tour this small museum that intersperses antiquities with Old Masters and modern art; Philip arranged for the museum director to spend three hours guiding us through it. What an enlightening experience.

Philip also arranged black truffle hunting outside Salon de Provence, which was interesting and surprisingly educational. (They use dogs now, not pigs, because dogs can be trained with food to back away from a truffle it finds. Pigs don’t, which is why many truffle hunters are missing fingertips.)  We had a delightful seven-hour private cooking class in Aix-en-Provence with a former chef who emailed us all the recipes for the dishes we’d made.

We went horseback riding in La Camargue, the wetlands area south of Arles between the two branches of the Rhône River. La Camargue is famed for its white horses, bulls raised for French bullfighting (the bullfighters have to snatch a ribbon from between the bull’s horns, not kill it), and pink flamingos. We had fun riding horses through this region on the ranch of a former bullfighter and seeing the bulls and horses he and his elegant wife raise.

A don’t-miss experience was Hotel Mirande’s Table d’Haute dinner in Avignon. We dined in the hotel’s tiny cellar kitchen on a nearly all-French evening (except the chef and sommelier, who spoke English), which tested my vocabulary but engaged us with locals and Belgian tourists.” —Jan Heininger

Read more reviews of France trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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TURKEY: “Late December/early January turned out to be a great time to travel to Turkey”

garden restaurant at Four Seasons Sultanahmet Istanbul Turkey overlooking mosque

The Four Seasons Sultanahmet, Istanbul. Photo: Four Seasons

Karen and her team did an excellent job planning our trip to Turkey. Every transfer and tour pick-up was prompt. The drivers and guides were excellent. We loved the hotels—The Four Seasons on the Bosporus was elegant and comfortable and the view spectacular.

Late December/early January turned out to be a great time to travel to Turkey. It was chilly (although luckily for us, it was a few degrees above normal, at least in Istanbul) but the sun was shining. In addition, there weren’t large crowds even at the most frequently visited sites.

We enjoyed the restaurants that Karen recommended, and appreciate that she switched restaurants between two evenings to avoid a traffic jam due to a soccer game being played along the route from our hotel to one restaurant. The tour plan was perfect and we maximized our time sightseeing. ” —Susan Sullivan

Read more reviews of Turkey trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Walking in Hans's house.

Farm Visits: WOW Trips That Get You Back to the Land Around the World

My mentor in the cheese industry used to spread out a detailed map on our big conference table. “To say a cheese comes from France means nothing,” he would exclaim. Specificity meant everything. A big wheel of Comté from the Jura mountains couldn’t be more different from the fresh, delicate buttons of chevre from the Loire Valley. Each cheese was full of clues about its home’s unique geography, culture, history, and identity.

The team having dinner with Hans and his family at Grøndalen Gård in Norway.

The farm’s hospitable owners welcomed the WendyPerrin.com Team into their farmhouse for a dinner featuring their delicious Nýr cheese. Photo: Timothy Baker

I thought of his words as we changed into green jumpsuits in the freezing night at Grøndalen Gård in Norway—it was 4 PM, and the sun had already set.

Milking one of the happy cows.

Florie proved the most adept in the group at milking the cows. Photo: Timothy Baker

Hans, who grew up on the farm, showed us how to rub a warm cloth over the cows’ udders before making a fist and milking. He handed out teacups so we could taste the sweet, still warm milk. As fresh as it gets!

Wendy tasting the still-warm milk from a teacup.

Wendy tastes the freshest milk you’ll find anywhere. Photo: Timothy Baker

“The cows give us so much,” Hans told us. “It is only right that we give them something, too.” At the farm, the calves spend the first few months of their lives with their mother, which is almost unheard of at dairies around the world. But at Grøndalen Gård, the cows’ happiness is at the heart of everything they do.

Visiting the happy cows at the barn.

The team checks out the cows (and their extra-plush bedding of straw) in the barn. Photo: Timothy Baker

After milking, we warmed up by the fire in their gorgeous, cozy farmhouse. Hans and his wife Anne Birte Olsen showed us photos of their four adult children, including their son Lars Kristian Grøndahl who is carrying the baton of the family business. Their family has farmed this land since the 17th century.

Hans telling the story of how Grøndalen Gård started producing Nyr.

Farmer Hans Arild Grøndahl recounts the story of creating his Nýr cheese. Photo: Timothy Baker

Grøndalen Gård makes a fresh cheese called Nýr, which tastes a lot like labneh (but also very much unique): smooth, creamy, tangy, and bright. We tasted spoonfuls before sitting down to a delicious, homecooked meal: blueberry soup topped with Nýr to start, epicly tasty burgers, a kale pie made with a bubbly Nýr topping, and Nýr ice cream for dessert with Anna’s Christmas cookies. Hans and Anna told us how they had gone folk dancing on their first date and showed us videos of their family carrying on the tradition.

Blueberry soup topped with Nyr.

A delicious chilled soup of foraged blueberries, topped with a dollop of Nýr. Photo: Timothy Baker

Only late into the evening did Lars let slip that their Nýr won a silver medal at the 2018 World Cheese Awards—we were in the company of cheese masters, albeit very humble ones.

I thought about my mentor’s words, and how Nýr couldn’t be made anywhere else in the world. These happy cows—my favorite was Selma—this family who has been farming for generations, this cold, stunning land, even the folk dancing videos on our phones, was absolutely singular. Also key to the experience? An introduction from WOW Lister Torunn Tronsvang, whose travelers are among the only ones Hans, Anne, and Kristian welcome into their home.

Anna and Lars preparing our desert with Nyr ice cream and homemade cookies.

Kristian and Anne plate dessert: scoops of frozen Nýr and Anne’s traditional Christmas cookies. Photo: Timothy Baker

A joyful update: A month after our return home from Norway, we received an email from Hans. “A very nice and pretty little female calf was born early this morning at 6 o’clock,” he wrote. “We thought the calf should be called Wendy.” Here’s brand-new calf Wendy, the latest addition to Grøndalen Gård. Now it’s time for her to cuddle and nurse with her mom!

Newborn calf named Wendy at Grøndalen Gård.

Newborn calf named Wendy at Grøndalen Gård. Photo: Hans Arild

Many of you write in to say that your trip highlight was a visit to a small farm. You love spending time with a local food-producing family and learning about their lives over a meal.  Read on for a small taste of the large variety of farm experiences to be had around the world. When you take a WOW trip, those are the sorts of moments you remember long after a trip has ended.

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Tuscany: truffle hunting and farmhouse lunch

Jessica Tolmach

Jessica Tolmach and family lunching at Agriturismo Torrenieri in Tuscany’s Val d’Orcia. Photo: Chef Fabrizio Fe

“A highlight was an outing with a truffle hunter and his dog into the hills and woods where the dog found truffles and after we were hosted at their farmhouse overlooking the valley while they served us a multi-course lunch of truffle-focused dishes that were scrumptious, along with their own wines. We also adored a private tour and lunch prepared for us at a little-known but spectacular vineyard in Chianti, with tastings paired with each course.  And, last but not least, we will all remember forever our lunch at an agriturismo farm with a most generous host and chef that happily went on for hours, on a glorious afternoon, on their patio on the edge of their fields, where we were served mind-blowing grilled meats and the best lasagna and tiramisu any of us has ever tasted. My boys wanted to stay and work on the farm and never come home! And I got his grandmother’s recipes!” —Jessica Tolmach

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Spain: meeting Iberian pig farmers

“An exceptional day was a visit to a family-owned Iberian pig farm in the Basque Highlands. The family was delightful. The farm was beautiful and we were treated to the many types of pork products produced by the farm. The owners were 13th generation of the family on this land, literally spanning hundreds of years. Amazing.” —Ann Wilkinson

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Peru: traditional Inca cooking techniques

“In Ollantaytambo on an organic farm, we learned the traditional Inca cooking technique of pachamanca and savored the delicious al fresco lunch while admiring the snow-capped peaks of Mount Veronica. Thank you, Wendy, for a delightful experience!” —Molly O’Neill-Emmi

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Ireland: sheep farm, making soda bread…

“We spent a morning at Tracey’s Farmhouse Kitchen, making (and eating) delicious soda bread, along with other delectables. Like all the folks we encountered, Tracey was an absolute delight, and we loved getting to go out to the countryside and spend some quality time with people who were so happy to share their lives with us…. Another absolute highlight of the trip is the Killary Sheep Farm. It’s on an absolutely beautiful fjord, and it’s fascinating to watch the sheepdogs in action and to participate in shearing the wool off the sheep. Tom, a 3rd generation proprietor, is eager to share his place, and it helps keep the lights on for these family businesses…” —Michael Kelberman

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Sicily: vineyards, fruit orchards, pasta making…

“A visit to Santa Maria La Nave Winery is a must. This area is known for its fertile soils, orchards, and particular grape varietals located on the northernmost flanks of Mt Etna. Vera, our wine expert, explained the recovery project of previously abandoned varietals on the property and the Casa Decima vineyard. The Grecanico Dorato and Albanello grape varietals were new to us and not something that can be found easily in the US. After a tour of the vineyards, we joined Lucia, an amazing cook, and Vera in the Zen building (our name for the structure). You walk in and immediately feel at home. A wall of glass overlooks the vineyards and mountains. Now, we got down to business with a glass of sparkling wine and a pasta-making lesson. Suffice it to say that Lucia did most of the cooking, and Vera paired the wine for a delightful afternoon in a beautiful location.” —Joe Lyle

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Vietnam: rice farm, fishing with locals…

“Another highlight of the trip was a day we spent in Vietnam doing local things in the countryside; we rode water buffalo, went fishing in a small boat with nets, met local rice farmers and learned how they grow their crops. It was such a special day meeting real people and learning about their lifestyle, and it would be something that we would’ve never been able to do on our own…” —Tara Murphy

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Panama: coffee plantation

“Our hike ended at a lodge with a restaurant, where we enjoyed lunch and a beautiful view of the Baru Volcano. We were then met by our coffee plantation guide, who did an excellent job of explaining the unique coffee varieties of the area, including the famed Geisha, showing us each stage of the growing and roasting process and then sampling by smell and taste the varieties of coffees made by the Kotowa Coffee Plantation. We have since ordered many pounds of this coffee as Christmas gifts.” —Mary McDonald

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Colorful houses and boat on a canal in Burano, Venice, Italy

Secrets of Europe: The Spots Most Travelers Miss

While most visitors to Europe head for the big tourist magnets, we encourage you to focus instead on the lesser-known, charming places where you won’t find the tour-bus crowds.  Europe is filled with hidden villages, empty coastlines, and locals-only hangouts—the can’t-miss places that too many uninformed travelers miss. Even in the big cultural capitals, if you arrange your trip through the right sources, you can gain entree to palaces, gardens, galleries, kitchens, and vineyards that are closed to the public but open to you because you know the person with the keys or the clout.  Read the examples below—a compilation that we are continually updating, as new traveler reviews come in—and be surprised by dozens of European experiences you didn’t know about. Here’s how to get your own WOW experience of Europe.


Local artisans & Christmas markets in Denmark

Jeannie Mullen at Frederiksborg Castle, outside Copenhagen, Denmark.

Jeannie Mullen at Frederiksborg Castle, outside Copenhagen.

“When I was looking for a place to spend Thanksgiving this year, Jan listened and delivered exactly what I asked for. What I did not appreciate ahead of my arrival was just how much of a kick-start to the Christmas season this trip would be. Copenhagen was already decorated for the ‘Jul’ season, and a number of Christmas markets had already opened on November 16th, the day of my arrival. The hotel that Jan chose was perfectly located on Kongens Nytorv (the King’s New Square) for the market on the square, harbor walks, and great shopping in general.

Britt, the guide that Jan arranged in Copenhagen, did a great job of introducing me to the art and architecture, urban development and repurposing of buildings and land, food and spirits, culture and moods of Copenhagen’s various neighborhoods. When I inquired about more local, neighborhood markets, she took me to a ‘pop-up’ Christmas market, off the beaten path, that was there for only two days. As we made our way out of the city on other days to Frederiksborg, Charlottenlund, Elsinore and Kronborg, she introduced me to locally made products, local artisans, craftspeople and leaders in design.

Jan alerted me early on that Copenhagen is a city known for its food and, in particular, its Michelin-star restaurants. When I expressed my interest, he used his ‘fixer’ to secure a table at Geranium (ranked the best restaurant in the world in 2022), one of the two 3-star Michelin restaurants in Copenhagen. It was an experience more than a meal, which included a private tour of the wine cellar and the kitchen. From beginning to end, a visual as well as gastronomic experience.

A word about the temperatures and the crowds: I’m always looking to get away from crowds, lines, and traffic, and I don’t mind traveling in the off-season to do so (as Wendy so often suggests). The weather in Copenhagen at this time of year alternates between cool and crisp with gorgeous, blue skies to heavy and overcast, with occasional rain. No worries if one packs with that in mind.

I cannot say enough about the lengths to which Jan went to make this trip seamless. Not one detail was missed. It was a terrific and different Thanksgiving getaway that has me prepped for Christmas earlier than usual.” —Jeannie Mullen

Read more reviews of Denmark trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Rich medieval history in Romania

The view of Bran Castle in Transylvania, Romania.

Bran Castle in Transylvania, Romania. Photo: Tim Baker

“I traveled to Romania on a last-minute graduation trip with my daughter, Amelia, in August 2023. We have done numerous trips with Wendy’s WOW List agents before and knew that finding an agent through Wendy was the only way to go. Even the destination of our trip was inspired by articles written by Wendy.

Since the trip was last-minute (before my daughter began her new career as a RN), and it was the height of tourist season, we wanted to pick a destination that was less traveled. We chose Romania, and Wendy matched us up with Raluca and Ioana. Important to us was connecting with the local people and understanding the country.

Raluca and Ioana set us up with a local guide, Tavi, whose personality matched well with us, which was a good thing since we drove around Romania for 10 days with him. We started in Bucharest, which was great for my daughter to learn what can happen to a country if you vote in a narcissist authoritarian as a leader and to understand what life was like under the latter parts of communist ruling. We had a university history professor give us a tour of an apartment frozen in time from the 1980s under communist rule. We enjoyed wonderful restaurants, an amazing art exhibit, and historical sites in the city.

In Transylvania we enjoyed visiting the Cris Bethlen Castle. It was particularly fun for us since one of our favorite horror movies, The Nun, was shot there. A local man who lives in town jumped in and gave us a detailed tour, including side stories on the actors during the filming. We went on an amazing mountain bike ride (about 20 miles) primarily in the hills and forests with some fun single track as well. The mountain bike guide had helped to build the trails, which will eventually connect a large portion of Transylvania for mountain bike tours.

We saw wonderful fortressed churches and cities throughout our trip, including the beautiful Sighisoara. Always enjoying them without crowds and with a random local who had the keys to let us in the church or describe some interesting tidbit of history through our guide as the interpreter.

We met a local weaver whose family had been doing traditional weaving for generations and who rescued a loom headed for destruction. We enjoyed a visit with a local herbalist whose herb garden was expansive and whose knowledge of remedies was sought out throughout the area. Here we enjoyed a dinner in her home, again understanding her story and her life and sharing ours. We enjoyed seeing the UNESCO site Viscri, supported by King Charles, and enjoyed the views from the fortressed church over the rolling hills.

We moved on to Brasov. Here we had a private tour of Bran Castle and had the opportunity to climb into the highest turret to view the mountain pass that the lookouts would use in centuries past. When we expressed interest in a hike, Tavi took us up a mountainside where he had helped a friend build a cabin. We met one of his friends, a local shepherd, and discussed bears threatening his flock.

Bottom line our visit was filled with unique experiences where we connected with the people of Romania and attempted to understand their stories. Romania is a beautiful, relatively undiscovered country with rich medieval history and more recent history of the rise and fall of communism. It is not as restored as other places in Western Europe, but its beauty, its history, and its people are wonderful to experience. The smaller crowds allow for a much more enjoyable visit than other European countries.”—Theresa Boone

Read more reviews of Romania trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Athens, Santorini, and Greece’s “beautiful little island” of Sifnos

Authentic buildings and clear water beach in Sifnos island in Greece.

Sifnos island in Greece. Photo: Shutterstock

“We recently returned from a lovely 10-day trip to Greece, which Jacoline and Evan planned for us. Our first stop was Athens. The private tour of the Parthenon was fabulous, as was the E-bike tour of the city. But equally memorable was the view from our hotel. We were traveling with another couple and Jacoline suggested we share the penthouse suite at the Perianth. What an incredible view of the Parthenon, especially in the evening when it was so beautifully illuminated!

We knew we wanted to visit Athens and Santorini but asked Jacoline to pick a third stop. She hit a home run with her selection of Sifnos, a beautiful little island where we took a fun cooking class and enjoyed a half day on a private skippered boat trip on the wonderfully blue Aegean Sea. The scenery was breathtaking. The small hotel Jacoline selected was lovely. The staff was extremely personable and made us feel very special.

On to Santorini, where we enjoyed wine tastings and an interesting tour of island excavations. Jacoline also arranged a private evening cruise on a 46-foot catamaran. We stopped several times for a quick dip in the sea, and the captain and first mate prepared a lovely dinner for us. What a wonderful way to watch the sunset.” —Debbie Grob

Read more reviews of Greece trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Friuli-Venezia Giulia, an off-the-radar culinary gem in northeastern Italy

Morning seascape of Adriatic sea with the Miramare Castle.

Miramare Castle in Trieste, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

Jennifer helped us plan a two-week trip to Friuli Venezia Giulia. The area is a melting pot of northern Italian, Austrian and Slovenian cuisines and has great wines (mostly white). Inexplicably, the region doesn’t seem to be on the tourist radar, so of course we decided that this was the place for us!

We had a guided tour on our first full day in Trieste. We learned about the long struggle for control of the city between the Venetian Republic and the Hapsburgs of Austria, and the resulting cosmopolitanism of Trieste. After two days on our own in Trieste, our driver took us to the Collio wine country, with a stop at Miramare Castle on the way.

The accommodation Jennifer suggested to us in the Collio was outstanding—just what we were hoping for! The property was lovely, with a spa and walking paths through the surrounding vineyards. Jennifer helped us with booking and transportation for lunch at a nearby restaurant we had set our hearts on. (Shout out to Stanley Tucci for his Friulian footnote in “Searching for Italy”!) We had our local guide back for a half-day trip to Gorizia, on the Slovenian border. Having discussed our interest in World War I with her, she arranged for us to make a short visit to an Italian war memorial that was nearby. We also spent an amazing day visiting local wine producers and sampling their wares. (Our favorites were Friuliano and Schioppettino!)

After our break in the countryside, we moved on to Udine. There we had another guided tour, learning about the tug of war fought over the area for centuries and the remarkable mix of historical influences at play. A highlight was seeing Tiepolo’s amazing ceiling frescoes. From our base in Udine, we visited the lovely town of Cividale del Friuli, with beautiful Lombard art and architecture, and day-tripped to Kobarid in Slovenia to learn about the Italian front in the First World War. So much of what we know about World War I is focused on Belgium and France. Learning about trench warfare in the mountains was fascinating and a highlight of our trip.

We also had a WOW Moment while staying in Udine: We had a private cooking demo in the kitchen with chef Anna Barbina and her mother, who serves as her sommelier. Anna made five traditional dishes for us to sample (with wine served by her mother, of course), then we had lunch in her osteria, AB Osteria Contemporanea, where she serves contemporary twists on traditional cooking. Heavenly! Anna and her mother were delightful and couldn’t have been more gracious.

Our final activity was a guided tour of Aquileia on our way back to Venice to fly home. Jennifer and her team delivered exactly the trip we were hoping for. FVG was full of beautiful scenery and art, brimming over with fascinating history, and the food and wine were simply spectacular. We’ve had many incredible meals in Italy over the years, but we had more standouts on this trip than any other. If food is your religion, you should make your way to FVG.” —Rachel Webber

Read more reviews of Italy trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Italy’s Borromean Islands in Lake Maggiore

Couple enjoying a boat ride on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy.

Aimee Reed got a perspective on Lake Maggiore that most travelers miss.

“We had the delightful experience of working with Maria for our recent Italy trip to celebrate my husband’s 50th birthday. She and her team delivered above and beyond all of our dreams for this amazing and unforgettable vacation. We were very interested in exploring less populated places, rich with history and local cuisine. We wanted a relaxed pace, time on the water, food and wine experiences.

We flew into Milan, were met by our driver, and traveled to Santa Margherita Ligure. Spent four days exploring the Cinque Terre, Portofino, and the surrounding areas. We spent a full day on the sea in a private luxury boat. Expertly guided tours through the five cities of the Cinque Terre and a sunset dinner in Manarola was the icing on the cake! Spectacular views! Every detail and logistic perfectly planned and executed.

We traveled next to Lake Maggiore where we stayed four nights in the exquisite Villa Amnita. Our local guide, Carolyn, who guided us through the Borromean Islands, was absolutely a joy to be with and extremely knowledgeable in the history of the region, the islands. She accompanied us for two half-day tours and tastings. The quality of the private tours was a standout service! Phenomenal guides who are passionate about their work and focused on delivering the most extraordinary experience. We enjoyed private boating excursions on the lake and even ventured into Switzerland for a day.

The final leg of our journey was spent in fabulous Milan shopping, touring the Duomo and admiring Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” We love Italy and are already thinking of our next trip to Florence, Rome and Tuscany!” —Aimee Reed

Read more reviews of Italy trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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The hidden charms of Croatia, Herzegovina, Montenegro via both land and sea

Aerial view at amazing archipelago in front of town Hvar, Croatia Mediterranean.

Aerial view of the archipelago in Hvar, Croatia. Photo: Shutterstock

“My husband, two children (ages 4 and 6) and I just returned from a 2.5-week trip through Croatia, Herzegovina, and Montenegro, coordinated by Ala and her fabulous team. The trip was, in a word, perfection—so thoughtfully planned out and orchestrated, with amazing guides, fabulous restaurant recommendations, and superb on-the-ground service. It was the first large international trip we’ve taken with our two kids, and it ended up surpassing all our expectations. My older child kept exclaiming, ‘Mom, Croatia is paradise!’ They’re not wrong.

Ala did a wonderful job of recommending hotels that were family-friendly, given the constraints she was working with (some areas in Croatia really just don’t have true luxury hotels yet like I am used to). One highlight was the Relais & Chateaux property Maslina, on the island of Hvar, which is a true gem—everyone should splurge and stay there. It’s located a 20-minute walk from Stari Grad (there’s a beautiful paved path that winds along the coast), had exceptional food, great rooms with gorgeous views, a truly attentive staff who took care of everything, and two great pools for the kids to enjoy—along with a kids’ club which my two children loved. While on the island we also had an incredible full-day private boat charter to the Pakleni Islands, fully arranged by Ala, and it was magical—we swam in beautiful azure waters, saw fish (it was my older child’s first time donning goggles to ‘snorkel’ and they loved it!); and took in incredible views. Many times, we were one of only a few boats located in our swimming area.

One of the things our family most appreciated about Ala was her ability to pivot on the fly and suggest plans that would work best for our younger children, as we were not sure what would and wouldn’t work for our kids. In Split, for example, Ala put us in a charming hotel right in the historic palace area, but its size and location meant it lacked the amenities my kids like (think pools, beach access, etc.). When I inquired about a good public beach to visit, knowing my kids would want some beach time on this stop, Ala was quick to help us set up an afternoon at Le Meridien outside of town (and coordinate transportation for us as well)—all on an hour’s notice. While not a traditional activity that most would plan—and not something I would have found on my own—it was perfect for my family, as the kids spent the day being fishes and I spent the afternoon reading a book seaside.

As I mentioned above, this was our first large, multi-country trip with our children and we didn’t know exactly what to expect—we were learning as we went. Ala made herself and her team available at all times—via WhatsApp or phone—to pivot and make changes as I requested. And, while I didn’t expect to, I ended up making multiple change requests! We were able to shift tour start times to better align with our schedule once we ended up on-continent, and we added/subtracted items as we realized what worked best for our family.

On our drive to Herzegovina, Ala was happy to flex our schedule on a day’s notice so that we could stop at Kravica waterfall, where one can swim at the base of the falls—something that our two kids really enjoyed! We bought small nets from the vendor at the base of the waterfall and one of my kids ‘caught’ their first fish—a huge moment for them! Our tour guides flexed their schedules to accommodate our children’s interests. In Mostar we ended up attending a Bosnian Street Food festival one evening, complete with a DJ and a bouncy house (something my kids were thrilled about!) because our guide made sure to mention it to us and show us where it was set up—it wasn’t something we ever would have found on our own.

The level of attention to detail and full-service offerings from Ala and team just made this trip such a dream. Our family had the best time and our two children are already asking to go back.” —Kim Segal

Read more reviews of Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Azores: a quick flight from the east coast for island adventures & a European feel

Lagoa des Sites Cidades on São Miguel Island in the Azores.

Lagoa das Sete Cidades on São Miguel Island in the Azores. Photo: Traveler Tony Ford-Hutchinson

“For those of us who live on the East Coast of the USA, the Azores are the closest point to somewhere with a European and Portuguese feel. One of our guides (an American ex-pat) described them as a cross between Iceland (they are so volcanic), Ireland (they are so green) and Hawaii (a holiday destination in the middle of an ocean). Our trip with our daughter, son-in-law and two granddaughters (aged 9 and 11) started with a direct 5.5 h flight from Newark airport. Flights arrive in San Miguel Island, the most populated, and we spent the first three nights in the luxurious Octant Furnas Hotel in Furnas, The hotel is surrounded by hot springs bringing boiling water to the surface. Highlights there were the food, including preparing and cooking a traditional stew which is buried in the hot ground for several hours, the hotel’s super warm, mineral swimming pool and a hike up a mountain side to Lagoa de Fogo (a lake in a former volcanic cone) followed by a swim on the beach. We then took a short flight to the volcanic Island of Pico famous for its mountain (a former volcano of course) and its outstanding white wine. During 5 nights in Pico, we took two day trips on ferries to the neighboring islands of Faial and Sao Jorge. Highlights were a trip through the lava tubes on Pico, visits to wineries and a hike around the Caldera on Faial. After flying back to San Miguel for our last 3 nights we were driven to our hotel on the Ponta Delgada harbor front (Octant Ponta Delgada). Highlights included a private whale watching trip with great sightings of three female sperm whales (one with a calf), an evening wine and food tasting tour, a morning food tour, a Jeep tour of the Lagoa das Sete Cidades and finally a tour of the tea plantations with an opportunity to make our own ice cream. Throughout the trip we had excellent local food and wine, including ultra-fresh seafood and excellent beef (cows outnumber people on the islands). A 5-hour flight home took us back to Newark with the realization that we still had 5 more islands to explore! Thank you to Goncalo and his co-workers for a great trip that left a multi-generational family very happy.” —Tony Ford-Hutchinson

Read more reviews of Portugal trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Locals-only beaches in Portugal

The river Guadiana and the village of Mertola. Alentejo Region. Portugal

The river Guadiana and the village of Mertola, Alentejo Region, Portugal. Photo: Shutterstock

“We wanted to take a family trip for two weeks to Portugal with our two young children, seven and two years old. We asked Goncalo and Joana to plan an authentic, off-the-beaten-path look into the south of Portugal and the Alentejo and Lisbon, and we had a perfect time. Portugal is incredible! And it’s possible to beat the summer crowds.

Everything was planned and executed perfectly from the minute we landed. We loved our day in Sintra and the coast at Azenhas Do Mar with our guide, Luís, and my son loved spending the day with our cooking teacher, Claudia. We loved our apartment at Lumiares in Lisbon and the breakfasts on the rooftop. One of the highlights was our Costa da Caparica beach day at Irmao. We felt like we were one of the only tourists, and it felt like a slice of life for young Lisboans. Joana also got us a reservation at Belcanto, a very special experience for a parents’ night out.

Another highlight of the trip was the people we met and the food at Craveiral Farmhouse. The kids loved to roam on their bikes, and we found our favorite beach and fish shack on the beach on the quiet coastline of Costa Vicentina. We didn’t hear any English at these beaches, and the water and coves were so unique. The most spectacular property we stayed at was Sao Lourenco do Barrocal in the Alentejo. We had such a special time there, with delicious food and hospitality. We are so grateful to Joana for making sure we had large rooms at each of our hotels, giving our family lots of space, and ease of rental car and drivers made everything stress-free. Portugal has quickly become one of our favorite places to visit, and we plan on returning to see more of this beautiful country!” —Gina Schulman

Read more reviews of Portugal trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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A “smaller jewel” in Italy’s Lake District

View of the island Isola San Giulio at the Lake Orta in Italy.

Island Isola San Giulio at the Lake Orta in Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

“We worked with Emanuela to plan our trip from Venice to Verona to the Lake Region. We had planned to go to Lake Como or Lake Garda. After our initial zoom call and emails asking about our particular likes and dislikes and goals for our trip, Emanuela suggested we skip the crowds that are visiting Italy this year and instead go to Lake Orta, a smaller jewel of a lake located just west of Lake Maggiore.

The hotel Emanuela recommended was delightful and our tour guides were outstanding. We could never have planned a trip like this on our own, which included tours of historical interest, culinary interest and hiking. We look forward to working with Wendy’s recommended tour planner for our next trip.” —Mike Brennan

Read more reviews of Italy trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Hydra, Greece “An island that we never knew existed but that quickly became our favorite…”

Typical white house with flowers on Hydra Island in a sunny day in Greece.

Typical white house with flowers on Hydra Island in Greece. Photo: Shutterstock

Jacoline made the most of our short trip and somehow turned every single day into a highlight. I never thought I could say that about a vacation! There were five adults on this trip, and we all had our favorites, which is a credit to her. Jacoline created experiences that we would have never done on our own, like spending time with a wonderful family on their farm, feeding their animals and making Spanakopita as part of a huge feast on their terrace, as well as private wine tours, personal guides to archeological sites, pottery classes, and a private cooking lesson on more amazing Greek food. We loved really getting to meet the people and understanding the culture.

We loved the unique boutique hotels, especially on Hydra, an island that we never knew existed but that quickly became our favorite. We never felt like a ‘tourist’ but more like students in a history class which we found fascinating. We had never heard of this island, but after talking with Jacoline, she booked us in a wonderful mansion-turned-boutique-hotel (Hydrea) that served us breakfast each morning on the terrace overlooking the water/town. Staff was very personable and allowed us to wander the property to look at the historic home. There are no cars or motorcycles, so we enjoyed the peace and quiet, especially after a few days in Athens. If you get a chance, don’t miss this gem!

We left Hydra to spend our last days in Oia (Santorini). Our pace picked back up for a grand finale day, touring vineyards before boarding our own catamaran for a half-day excursion which concluded with chasing the sunset. It was the perfect ending to the perfect vacation!! This was our third trip using Wendy Perrin’s services. We have had great experiences on each trip and they just keep getting better!” —Karrie Evans

Read more reviews of Greece trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Orthodox Easter celebrations & village stays in Romania

View from a medieval fortified church in Transylvania.

View from a medieval fortified church in Transylvania. Photo: Tim Baker

Raluca worked very diligently to plan our trip to Romania around Orthodox Easter celebrations, small village stays, and the chance to see spring flowers in the countryside. After landing in Bucharest, we left the next morning for Brasov, stopping at Peles Castle on the way. The castle visit was the only crowded time of our whole two-week trip but very interesting inside and out, and we began learning the complicated history of Romania from our excellent guide Andrei.

Our accommodations in boutique inns in Brasov, Sighisoara, and Cluj were all excellent, with a unique combination of traditional furnishing and modern amenities and excellent breakfasts in all. One of our highlights near Sighisoara was an afternoon and evening in a small village with Emese and family, touring her herb gardens, good conversations about her family’s history, and having a delicious traditional Easter meal. Our first small village stay was in Breb, in the beautiful Maramures region, with green fields with haystacks and distant snow-covered mountains. Our stay in The Village Hotel, a small group of restored traditional cottages, was wonderful. Dinners in a villager’s home were excellent, with everything self-sourced.

Next stop was the Bucovina area for Orthodox Easter celebrations. We attended midnight service, which involved passing lit candles, walking in and out and around the beautiful painted monastery, and responsive singing, all very moving. Back in Transylvania, we stayed in the very remote village of Valea Zalanului, in King Charles’ cottage. A very informative walk with a local biologist to look for flowers and discuss the area’s natural history was very worthwhile. In our last village, Viscri, we had our best chances to meet local craftsmen, including watching a Roma woman making boiled woolen slippers, a blacksmith visit, and a very educational time with a beekeeper who supplies King Charles with his honey. Lastly, Bucharest surprised us with its vitality, green spaces and wonderful old buildings.

Each area we visited was unique, with differences in architecture, language, food, and dress, due to the complicated ethnic and political history of the country. Because of this and the beautiful landscape, churches, cleanliness, and friendliness, our visit was very rewarding and enjoyable. We would not have been able to appreciate any of it if we had attempted to plan and drive ourselves or been part of a large group staying in nondescript hotels on the edge of town. All of our accommodations were exceptional, and we know that Raluca visits them all regularly to reassess. Monica checked once or more daily to adjust the schedule for weather changes, restaurant closings, etc. and made sure everything ran smoothly. We would without question recommend planning a visit to Romania with Raluca.” —Rod and Pat Hines

Read more reviews of Romania trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Portugal’s unexplored medieval towns

Cobblestone street decorated with green plants.

Cobblestone street in Portugal. Photo: Shutterstock

Goncalo and Patricia planned a wonderful and varied 9-day itinerary for us. This was our third trip to Portugal, so we wanted to visit places we had previously missed. After Lisbon we drove to Belmonte and explored the medieval towns of east central Portugal, including Sortelha and Trancoso. This is a beautiful, less traveled part of the country where we were often the only tourists walking the narrow, winding streets and eating our bacalhau (cod stew) besides local families in tiny cafes. We stayed in Belmonte’s Pousada and ate one of the best meals of our trip—an unexpected discovery in a fairly isolated location.

Next we spent three days in the Douro Valley where we enjoyed a private cruise down the Douro river and wine tastings at two Quintas. At Bomfim 1896, Goncalo and Patricia surprised us with a WOW Moment dinner accompanied by wines from the adjacent Quinta. Given the choice of ordering a la carte or giving Chef Pedro Lemos free reign to create whatever inspired him, we chose the latter. The evening was so much fun, as the chef and serving staff brought us a sequence of small plates that were as artistic as they were delicious.

We spent the last two days in Porto, which is charming but in mid-March already overrun with tourists. We look forward to working with Goncalo and Patricia on a trip to the Azores.” —Ruby Sinclair

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The Mediterranean islands of Malta and Sardinia

The famous arch of Blue Grotto in Malta.

The Arch of Blue Grotto in Malta. Photo: Shutterstock

“The nine-day itinerary Jason created for us to Malta and Sardinia in March was crammed with memorable experiences: entrance to the 4000 BC Hypogeum underground burial complex (tickets difficult to come by); a fascinating visit with a sixth-generation gilder; the tastiest private tour of a food market I’ve ever been on; a walk in the Sardinian countryside to see the island’s wild four-foot-tall horses; and—my favorite—a fabulous multi-course lunch set up just for us on an isolated cliff in Gozo above the crashing waves.

Jason’s ground teams were as interesting as the sights and scenery—our Malta guide, Martin, is a practicing Knight of Malta whose title goes back generations, as well as a professional photographer and former coach of Australia’s Olympic bobsled team (go figure); our driver there, Mario, is a former comptroller and auditor in addition to being an all-around great guy; guide Paola got her start translating for Tony Ryan when he was setting up his Ryanair empire in Sardinia; Marcello, our driver in Sardinia, had recently returned from the Polish border as a volunteer transporting Ukrainian orphans by bus to safety.

And if you ever want to feel like Bill Gates, now is your moment: Thanks to the VIP service Jason arranges at the airport, you wait in a private lounge before being escorted past the frenzied crowds to a town car on the tarmac that drives you to your plane, all before boarding officially begins.” —Priscilla Eakeley

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Alta, Norway

View of the Northern Lights in Alta, Norway.

Northern Lights in Alta, Norway. Photo: Shutterstock

“I first heard about Jan through the Wendy Perrin WOW List. Seeing the Northern Lights was on my bucket list, and Jan helped me plan every detail of the trip. The hotels were excellent, and we received many upgrades. Our hotel in Alta was particularly lovely, and our dinners there were incredible. Knowing how much we wanted to see the Lights, and being disappointed twice before in Iceland, Jan steered us to Alta, in the northernmost part of Norway. He said it would give us the best shot. How right he was! We saw them three out of three nights!

Much of this is due to the incredible guides Jan arranged. Despite the fact that it was cloudy and snowing the first two nights, our guides looked at all the weather maps and found the area that had the most potential to clear up. It was a real drive, but the clouds disappeared and the Lights danced.

Jan also suggested a visit to the area where the Sami live and herd reindeer. It was the best advice! These indigenous people live the same way their ancestors did, and it was a privilege to spend the day with them. Mathis, a Sami elder, met us and drove us over 30 miles on snowmobiles to watch the Sami move a herd of 2,500+ reindeer to higher terrain. After that, we snowmobiled back to his home, where he had prepared a delicious lunch of salmon and Arctic char. He generously and patiently answered all our questions and made us feel like welcomed guests. Our day with this incredible gentleman was truly the highlight of our trip, and it is an experience that will not be forgotten.” —Judy Wimpfheimer

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Lesser-known treasures of Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

Florence, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

Jennifer arranged for us to have Veronica as our tour guide while we were in Florence. Veronica was so warm and friendly. She had a fantastic knowledge of the area and was able to explain things in a fun and educational way. A highlight of the trip was a private visit to Palazzo Corsini, where we not only had Veronica’s expertise, but we also had the privilege of Countess Francesca, who grew up and still lives there, conduct the tour. We had such a wonderful afternoon. Another highlight was spending an afternoon visiting with local artisans of Florence. Veronica took us to places which we never would have found on our own.” —Kevin Haney

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The Bavona Valley, Switzerland, and off-roading in the Alps

old stone houses in Bavona Valley Switzerland

Bavona Valley, Photo: Switzerland Tourism /Jan Geerk

“The plan that Nina and her team put together for our two-week trip matched our interests perfectly. We had asked for a trip that would provide insight into the culture and history of Switzerland.  The trip was a delight. Some highlights were: walking through villages in the Bavona Valley where people live without benefit of electricity; making our own chocolate bars from scratch at perhaps the best boutique chocolatier in Switzerland; getting an in-depth tour of a cheese factory, followed by a wonderful lunch just for us where we could enjoy their products; a private musical performance featuring the Hackbrett, a kind of hammered dulcimer; and of course a visit to the charming town of Zermatt with amazing views of the Matterhorn.

It was our guides’ efforts that brought the trip alive and made our visit unforgettable. One guide, Pascal, drove us off-road through parts of Switzerland generally accessible only to hikers. We wound up at a picture-perfect Swiss Alpine Club hut where we enjoyed what was perhaps the best lunch of our trip. We are fortunate that Wendy’s WOW List connected us with Nina.” —Stephen Behnen

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Belfast and Derry in Northern Ireland

Giant's Causeway in a beautiful summer day, Northern Ireland

Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland. Photo: Shutterstock

“When I told Jonathan that I had recently watched the movie “Belfast” and loved the Netflix series “Derry Girls,” he suggested traveling off the beaten path to Northern Ireland. That was excellent advice, as we really felt like we were on an exciting adventure, instead of following a more predictable southern itinerary.

We started our magical two weeks in Dublin, then traveled to Belfast and Derry, where we toured The Murals and learned the sad but interesting history of political and religious conflict. Our hotel in Belfast, the Culloden Estate, upgraded us to a fabulous suite and provided us with tickets to the Titanic Belfast museum (fascinating—don’t miss it!).

On to the Donegal region for perhaps the most awesome sights of our trip during our hike up Slieve League, the highest sea cliffs in all of Europe! We stayed at Lough Eske Castle, another lovely hotel where we were treated like royalty.  It truly was a trip of lifetime that would not have been as memorable without the excellent guidance and advice from Jonathan and Katie!” —Karen Davis

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The Lofoten Islands, Norway

Northern lights explosion on snowy mountain range near coastline at Lofoten islands, Norway

Northern Lights in Lofoten Islands, Norway. Photo: Shutterstock

“When planning our two-week trip to Norway, we had discussed with Jan about cruising vs. driving—and he totally recommended the drive. We are so glad we took his recommendation. We started in Bergen, driving north through the fjords, and had constant awe-inspiring scenery. Jan arranged two different times we would be on the water in a fjord, so we did not miss the feeling of being on a cruise. We spent half a day on a RIB boat— just the two of us and the captain—gliding along the fjord waters.

Then we flew to the Lofoten Islands, where we stayed in a Rorbu in Reine. We had a fun WOW Moment when an excellent halibut dinner was prepared for us in our own room and we were able to enjoy this private time together watching the harbor with a great meal!  Thank you for arranging this!!  A couple of hours later, we stepped outside to a show of the Northern Lights—right there on our own porch!!

Finally, we flew up to Alta, above the Arctic Circle. The Sorrisniva Arctic Wilderness Lodge was absolutely incredible. Our room, with floor-to-ceiling windows, looked out over the Alta River, and you really felt a million miles from everything. We would have been content to stay there and never leave the grounds—but there was much to see and do!  We took a boat ride on the Alta River, with a BBQ lunch of salmon along the way. Very memorable. The visit to the Sami was so interesting—we were so glad to learn about this culture. And each night, we had our Chasing the Northern Lights Safari.

We travel to see the beauty of the world and explore famous sites, but the best part is always when there are opportunities to meet the people who live there and you have the chance to gain insights into their way of life, culture, interests, and way of seeing the world. We always come home feeling enriched from these experiences. Norway is a beautiful country with incredible people. What a pleasure to have been able to share their country for two weeks!” —Sally Boland

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Emilia-Romagna and unique private experiences in northern Italy

A picturesque vineyard in Modena, Italy

A vineyard in Modena, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

“This trip focused on Emilia-Romagna (Parma, Ravenna, Modena, Bologna) with an additional stop in Lake Garda. We had been to each of those towns before (except Modena) but this trip was so much more interesting, educational and memorable, thanks to Maria and Brian‘s planning. What makes working with Maria and Brian so special is the unique experiences they organize to suit your interests. We had a private winemaker/winery visit outside Parma that we’ll never forget, a magical visit with a violin maker in Cremona, fun experiences at the Lamborghini Museum and Imola Formula 1 racetrack, and a delightful visit to some beautiful villages in the foothills of the Appenines. Last but not least, since Emilia-Romagna is the food paradise of Italy, Maria booked several lunches and dinners at restaurants for us — something we don’t do too often — and all of them were fabulous, with staff that made us feel at home and the kind of down-to-earth menus that we love. So now we just have to decide where in Italy we want to go next, of course with Maria and Brian’s help.” —Elaine Patterson

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Private access in Tuscany and Umbria, Italy

Giardini Torrigiani, Florence.

Giardini Torrigiani, Florence. Photo: Brian Dore

“We were a couple of weeks away from travel, with everything paid, when COVID shut everything down. Maria assured us the trip would be waiting for us when we were ready to travel, and she delivered on her promise. Starting in Florence, drivers took us on the scenic route to Montefalco in Umbria, then to Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast, ending in Rome by way of Pompeii.

All the tours and activities were enjoyable and informative, but a few stand out. We had a WOW Moment surprise in Florence (Thank you, Wendy!) when we were led along back streets to the Torrigiani Gardens, the largest private garden in city limits in Europe. It’s been owned by the same family for centuries. After a tour of the spectacular grounds, the owner took us to the balcony in his residence and visited with us over wine and a huge assortment of antipasti – a wonderful experience.

On our drive to Umbria, we stopped for lunch and a tour at I Balzini, a small family vineyard and winery. Lunch was served on the patio overlooking the vineyards and gorgeous Tuscan scenery. The wines and food were delicious, and we’re looking forward to the arrival of wine we purchased there. Ristorante Bagni Delfino in Sorrento was special for the lovely sunset view on the water as well as excellent food. We ate well with a fun cooking lesson from Chef Andrea at Locanda Rovicciano in Umbria, a food tour in Rome, and one great restaurant after another. The trip was definitely worth the wait. Maria listened to what we wanted on this trip and gave us the trip we hoped for. Highly recommend!” —Elizabeth Marshall

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St. Paul de Vence, Eze, Dolceacqua, and other charming villages along the French and Italian Rivieras

Monaco view from tete de chien rock, Provence.

View from Tête de Chien rock, Monaco. Photo: Philip Haslett

“We wanted to do a road trip around France so we could see as much as we could, while still having a few days in each place to relax. Philip and Evane created a perfect itinerary for us. Philip and Evane advised us on what parts of the trip would be best to drive ourselves vs. which would have lots of traffic or headaches so it would be best to have a driver.

We had a few days in Paris to adjust to the time change before going to Champagne, where they arranged a private visit to Veuve Clicquot. In Lyon, our private guide took us to his family-owned winery in the Beaujolais. Philip and Evane even added the Piedmont region in Italy (since I told them how much my dad loved Italy and us being so close by), filling our time there with lots of Barolo and Barbaresco wines. Then we drove to Nice but stayed in smaller St. Paul de Vence with day trips around to see Eze, Monaco, Antibes, and all the spots along the Riviera.

Philip and Evane mapped out some smaller and cool towns that we could stop at while on our drives and provided great lunch restaurant suggestions at each stop. My dad’s favorite was in Dolceacqua, overlooking one of the bridges that Monet painted, while on our way from Fossano to St Paul de Vence. We are beyond thankful to Wendy for putting us in contact with Philip. It was a trip of a lifetime where it never felt like too much time in each destination, but it will always never be enough!” —Devan Ullman

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Stresa on Italy’s Lake Maggiore, and secrets of Venice

Venice-Italy-Canal

Venice, Italy. Photo: Leprince/Pixabay

Maria planned a wonderful 9-day trip to Venice and the Italian Lake District. We were met at the Venice airport and taken to our private water taxi that literally dropped us off right in front of Londra Palace, our beautiful hotel. Our trip coincided with the Venice Film Festival, so many people were waiting at the docks for one of the scarce transports. Our “taxi” pulled up, as scheduled, because Maria had made the reservation far in advance.

As we motored down the Grand Canal in our gorgeous watercraft, wind blowing through our hair, we knew this was going to be a very special trip. After a quick power nap, we headed off on an early evening “Cicchetti” walking tour, where we visited several local spots for Venetian appetizers and wines. The next morning, we met our guide for a visit to three islands. The first stop was Murano, where we enjoyed a tour of the famous glass factory, conducted by the son of the owner, who was also a grandson of one of the grand master artisans. We visited two other islands, observing the art of lace making by hand in Burano and the island of Torcello.

Venice was also the site of our WOW Moment. Although I won’t spoil the details, in case others may be treated to this same experience, let me just say that it was very special and a trip highlight. People applauded as we went by.

The remainder of the trip was spent in Stresa and Bellagio. The Villa Aminta was a lovely boutique hotel. We never would have found it on our own, nor the town of Stresa, for that matter. But what a wonderful location and lodging choice for three days. Every day in the Lake District was filled with a special experience—a private tour by the owner of a renowned wine cellar, a fun cooking class, a tour of the beautiful Villa Balbianello, where our guide had a key to allow us entry into rooms which were off limits to the general public….

While I have always enjoyed planning my own trips, there is no comparison to the benefits of utilizing the talents of a travel specialist. Maria had access to the best guides and knew the right people behind the important scenes. We received early check-ins and special welcome gifts at the hotels she chose. Her restaurant recommendations were wonderful. Kudos to Maria and her staff.” —Debbie Grob

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The island of Salina and other secrets of Sicily

coast of Cefalu, Palermo Sicily Italy

The coast of Cefalu, Palermo, in Sicily. Photo: Shutterstock

Marcello understood our desire to engage with local people and visit out-of-the way places that most travelers would miss. Trip highlights included hiking Mt. Etna with a vulcanologist, deepening our understanding of this mysterious, mystical mountain that Sicilians refer to as Mother; wine tasting/pairing with a sommelier expert on Mt. Etna wines, who introduced us to the special quality of wines grown in volcanic soil; a visit to the tuna factory on Favignana and the “Impossible Garden”, a dream realized by a determined woman who envisioned a garden in the midst of the rock quarries; shopping the local market with Maurizio, the entertaining and charismatic chef of Macalle in Ortigia, followed by a cooking class and meal, and many ideas to take home; hiking and sailing on the island of Salina, enjoying lunch where Il Postino was filmed, visiting a local caper farm, and enjoying the outstanding wines of the local vineyards; a visit to a water mill which has been grinding wheat into flour since the 1690s, a process that results in flour naturally low in gluten; and visits to many small, beautiful villages, walking and chatting with the men who congregate in the piazzas, enjoying a meal prepared by Annalisa in her home, gaining insight into their traditional way of life over centuries…

I could go on. Marcello and team created a trip of a lifetime for us. We returned home with a deeper understanding of the Sicilian culture, their love and loyalty to family, a well-deserved pride in their diverse and complex history, and their vision, hopes, and dreams for the future of Sicily.” —Cathy and Rob Unruh

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Meteora and Naxos in Greece

Varlaam monastery_Meteora_Greece-cr-Shutterstock

Varlaam monastery, Meteora, Greece. Photo: Shutterstock

“My son and I traveled in Greece together, and Mina’s team did a great job of identifying activities and places of interest for us. The most breathtaking place we went was Meteora, where we got to see, close-up and personal, the monasteries that were built on cliffs and how they functioned. The e-bike tour that we had there was incredible, especially the sunset—a true WOW Moment!

On the island of Naxos, on our river walk hike, our guide led us through the backcountry to unique places off the beaten path and showed us old water mills and different plants, wild herbs and vegetables that cover the landscape. Our catamaran day cruise was also an amazing experience, with snorkeling and great food. On the island of Crete, the landscape was truly beautiful and unique, and we were totally blown away by the Blue Palace Resort & Spa, with its spectacular view looking out on Spinalonga, especially in the mornings.

The people in Greece were so inviting, easy to talk with in English while teaching Greek words along the way, and so generous when serving us their delicious meals. My son and I are now officially addicted to tzatziki! Thanks so much for helping us plan this once-in-a-lifetime trip together.” —George Powers

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Before-hours and after-hours access in Paris

Luxemburg Palace and garden full of flowers in Paris.

Luxemburg Palace and Garden, Paris. Photo: Shutterstock

“This was the fifth time we have used Jennifer for a trip. The highlight was the WOW Moment she arranged for us: a tour of some quintessential gardens in Paris with a local guide, David, who provided us with a fun and educational experience and made sure that we enjoyed this WOW experience. Jennifer also arranged an after-hours tour of The Conciergerie, a before-hours visit to the Louis Vuitton Foundation, a special tour of the Opera House, and a fine tour of the Pinault Collection at the Bourse de Commerce.

One of the great things about Jennifer and her team is that they check in daily to make sure that you are enjoying the experiences they arranged and to see if they can help you with anything. They also make the entire experience go seamlessly, from having an airport greeter to transportation while you are in the city.” —Kevin Haney

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Quaint villages of Germany and private access to Neuschwanstein Castle

Neuschwanstein medieval castle in Germany, Bavaria land. Beautiful autumn scenery of Neuschwanstein ancient castle circled by colorful tree, amazing seasonal fall scene. Famous and popular landmark.

Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria, Germany. Photo: Shutterstock

Claudia provided a highly personalized Germany itinerary that exceeded all expectations. It was flawless. We traversed Germany both in geography and local culture, from Bavaria in the South to Hamburg in the North. We experienced the highs and lows of Germany’s history, from visiting Dachau concentration camps to the revelry of sharing a bier with locals in Munich during Oktoberfest.

We had a Porsche Carrera convertible with detailed maps and itinerary to visit many quaint villages, castles and churches as we drove from the Alps through the Black Forest and north along the Rhine River Valley. We had a private tour of Neuschwanstein where, along with the guide, we were the only three individuals with the keys to the Disney castle. We ate five-star cuisine. We took a ride to the highest point in Germany at Zugspitze. We slept in castles and strolled a university town. We even spent a day biking with locals in Hamburg. So much to see and do and memories made. Very exquisite.” —Wendy Duchene

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The Calabria region of Italy

Sunset over old famous medieval village Stilo in Calabria. View on church and city. Southern Italy. Europe.

Sunset over the medieval village Stilo in Calabria, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

“This was our first trip to Calabria, and we had no idea what to expect. Jennifer found really great places to visit—lovely villages, unique architecture, and experiences with local food and people. We spent one day on a sailboat enjoying the stunning coastline from Tropea to Capo Vaticano. We visited a Bergamont Farm and drove to the village of Bova where we took in a panoramic view of the ocean and countryside. We visited gorgeous churches in Tropea and grottoes and caves in Pizzo. On our last day, we thought the place we were staying might be too far a drive to the airport (we had a 6:45am flight), so she found us a perfect B&B, close to the airport but in a beautiful remote area. We had the whole place to ourselves and spent our last day relaxing by the pool—a perfect way to end our trip.” —Cindy Kelly

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Private boats along the cliffs of the Algarve and from Sintra to Lisbon, and other secrets of Portugal

Beautiful sandy beach near Lagos in Ponta da Piedade, Algarve region, Portugal

Beach near Lagos in Ponta da Piedade, Algarve region, Portugal. Photo: Shutterstock

Goncalo and his team planned a Portugal trip to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. They secured one of the few very best rooms with the best view at our resort on the Algarve, which we could not have obtained ourselves. Very few rooms at the very large hotel had ocean views, so this was a big deal (we even had two balconies facing the ocean).

All of their recommendations as to where to stay were great and took into account our preferences, which we discussed in a planning call. They planned great activities, like a lovely large private sailboat from Sintra back to Lisbon, a visit to an observatory (at night of course), and a private cruise along the cliffs of the Algarve. We would not have known about the lovely hotel converted from a farming village in the Alentejo if we hadn’t used a Portugal expert, and we wouldn’t have known which towns to visit. We loved the itinerary they planned and will use them again if we return to Portugal!” —Rita Solomon

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Ticino, Bellinzona, Rapperswil, and other secrets of Switzerland

View to Lugano city, Lugano lake and Monte San Salvatore from Monte Bre, Ticino, Switzerland - Image

Ticino, Switzerland. Photo: Shutterstock

Nina did a fantastic job of listening to our preferences to avoid the usual tourist spots and spend time off the beaten path. The hotels she suggested were exceptional. The views from our rooms at Villa Orselina and Coeur des Alpes were amazing, and we truly enjoyed the mountain-hut experience at Guarda Val. The guides they picked for us were great, particularly Anna in Ticino, who led us on a magical walk through the Bavona Valley; Nikki in Zermatt, who was a delight and took us on a great hike and gave us ideas for our next two days of hiking; and Albert in Zurich, who suggested a side trip to Rapperswil that was very enjoyable.

Nina’s suggestion of a first-class Swiss rail pass was excellent: We used it for boat rides in Ascona, Zurich and Lucerne, a bus ride in Ticino, and side train trips to Bellinzona, Lucerne, and Rapperswil.  Well worth it!  Restaurant suggestions were all excellent, from dinner in the castle in Bellinzona to dinner on the terrace of Sonnmatten in Zermatt. An exceptional trip.” —Gary Reading

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The Camargue, the Luberon, and the Verdon Gorge in Provence

Leafy town square with fountain in a picturesque village in Provence, France

Saignon, Provence. Photo: Shutterstock

“We requested an active trip in Provence, and Philip created the perfect itinerary for my daughter and me: We went horseback riding in the Camargue region, biking in the Luberon, canoeing in the Verdon Gorge. The local guides Philip arranged for us were amazing, ensuring we experienced the unique and out-of-the-way places known only to locals. They were fun, spontaneous, and adaptable. At a moment’s notice, they would take us up a hill to show us a great view, or walk us to the remote and charming village of Lacoste, or take us to get the best crepes at a place that was underground and accessible only if you know it is there. Each restaurant was more fantastic than the last. Incredible food, breathtaking views. A highlight: Le Petit Café in Oppède-le-Vieux. We also had a cooking class in a private home after picking the ingredients at the weekly market and sampling wines in a local vineyard. We could not have been happier.” —Kimberly Byron

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The idyllic Transylvania region of Romania

Valena Zalanului, guesthouses, Romania

Old-world villages in Romania. Photo: Beyond Dracula

“Our trip to Romania was a perfect mix of city and country, led by wonderful local guides who gave us a sense of Romanians past and present. Some of the special experiences that Raluca arranged for us were an afternoon carving wooden spoons with a fantastic wood artist; a day visiting a local market and cooking with a wonderful woman known for the herbs, jams, and handmade christening gowns she sells in Romania and abroad; and four days in the village of Viscri (up from the two days originally planned because we didn’t want to leave), where we visited shepherds in the hills as they milked 500 sheep, spent time with a family tasting delicious foods and homemade cherry brandy and learning to cook a few dishes, and watched the cows ambling home down the village street each evening.” —Lori Lander

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The Alentejo region of Portugal

Cork oak tree (Quercus suber) in evening sun, Alentejo Portugal Europe

The rolling hills, cork oak trees, and villages of the Alentejo, Portugal. Photo: Shutterstock

“We had only one week for Portugal—in peak season. Our goal was to somehow thread the needle between exploring a country we’d never visited, having deep and personal experiences, avoiding tons of crowds, not bouncing around too much, and relaxing. Got it? Goncalo put together an itinerary that fit exactly what we were looking for. He had us stay in three different, small, unique, hotels—Areias do Seixo (on the coast an hour north of Lisbon), Barrocal in the Alentejo, and Santiago de Alfama in Lisbon—and each really enriched our experience of the location.

Our favorite stop was the Alentejo region, and we would highly encourage others to include it in their plans. It’s beautiful, serene, has very special medieval towns, is extremely welcoming to visitors, and is much less visited than Lisbon, Porto, and the Douro Valley. Barrocal, a farm converted into a 5-star hotel, was a phenomenal homebase there. Our single favorite experience was visiting Herdade de Esparao winery, where we somehow spent almost six hours on a sweltering 104-degree day. Our private tour was followed by a private tasting and then an amazing five-course lunch with wine pairings. It was probably the best meal we had in Portugal.” —Jeremy Silverman

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Secrets of Italy’s Amalfi Coast

Positano on the Amalfi Coast, Italy

Positano on the Amalfi Coast, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

“We had two standout experiences on the Amalfi Coast, thanks to Andrea. One was an entire day seeing the coast by sea. We did not know what to expect when we arrived at the wharf—where there were so many tour boats—and were a little confused when a very large, beautiful yacht pulled up. My husband said, “You should have seen your face when they held up a sign with our name on it!” Captain Beni gave us an experience we will never forget, including a stop for a delicious meal at a restaurant high above the sea and accessible only by boat. A perfect day!

The second amazing experience was when our driver was taking us from Positano to Ravello and we were supposed to have a three-hour stop in the town of Amalfi. It was a gray, drizzly day, so our driver asked us if we would rather go to his friend’s winery. The owner gave us a very personal tour and then joined us for a lunch that his wife had prepared. It was so unexpected and right out of a romance movie.” —Carrie Hadden

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Unique private experiences in Malta

a dgħajsa, or a traditional water taxi, in the water off Vittoriosa Malta

Città Vittoriosa, Malta. Photo: Malta Tourism

“We took a four-day trip to Malta in November, when it is one of the warmer places in Europe. Jason and Damon listened carefully to our requests—wine tasting, some hiking, a boutique hotel in the center of Valetta, food experiences—and incorporated them all. Some of the special experiences were a private palazzo visit with a marchioness; a private wine tasting at the best vineyard on Gozo; a private visit to sample some of the bounties of the Maltese countryside; a private tour of the National Library—where, amongst other things, we saw the original certificate that President Roosevelt signed and sent to the Maltese people in 1943 to honor their valor in WWII; a private visit with the knight resident of Fort St Angelo and the head of the Knights of St John in Malta; a private tour of St. John’s Co-Cathedral and the Caravaggios after all the tourists had left; and tickets to the Hypogeum, which only allows 10 visitors an hour. Finally, they recommended and booked great restaurants within walking distance of our hotel!” —Tony Ford-Hutchinson

Read more reviews of Malta trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Andrea Phillips

Beat the Summer Heat in Europe with a Cool Trip Itinerary

Mediterranean Europe is in the grip of a record-breaking heat wave, and in some spots, tourist crowds, high humidity, or wildfires are making it worse. Fortunately, the itineraries designed for our travelers by WOW List experts are delivering relief. The trip reviews below show how your fellow travelers are beating the heat and provide great ideas for the rest of us, including:

  • Get out of the cities and onto (or into) the water. If there’s no sea or lake nearby, think higher elevations in the countryside.
  • Consider water-based transport between the locations on your itinerary. Take shaded, breezy boats, from ferries to private water taxis.
  • Include excursions on the water, from sailboat tours to river rafting.
  • Limit outdoor activities to the morning and evening.  Spend the hottest part of the day (the afternoons) in air-conditioned or underground places. Think modern indoor museums, gelato-making classes, tastings in wine cellars, crypts and catacombs.
  • Pick waterfront accommodations and rooms with breezy balconies. In inland cities, think hotels with rooftop pools.
  • Choose northern Europe over southern (as we’ve been advising since January). The Matterhorn, fjords, waterfalls, and snow-capped peaks hit the spot right about now.

Keep cool out there!

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Northern Italy and Lake Como: “We even had a private wakeboarding session one morning on the Lake!”

Andrea's daughter on her private wakeboarding session on Lake Como.

Claire Phillips wakeboarding on Lake Como, with Villa Balbianello in the background. Photo: Traveler Andrea Phillips

“My family of four, with two teen girls, had a wonderful and action-packed trip to Italy covering Umbria, Tuscany, Florence, Bologna, Lake Como and Milan, planned with Maria. We stayed at hotels that were the perfect fit (like the one in Florence that had a rooftop pool to beat the heat!), had the best rooms and locations and such personal service, all due to Maria’s connections. Italy was busy with travelers while we were there, but I can honestly say that it did not affect our plans at all, as Maria had it coordinated and timed out so perfectly.

Andrea's family enjoying the view of Florence from the rooftop pool.

Teens cooling off in the Grand Hotel Minerva’s rooftop pool in Florence, Italy. Photo: Andrea Phillips

This trip was also to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, and Maria had suggested two stops along the way that were very special. Wow, were they ever! Borgo Santo Pietro, a working farm and wellness resort in west Tuscany, and Grand Hotel Tremezzo, near Bellagio in Lake Como. Both resorts resembled something out of a dream. Beautiful landscapes, amazing service, delicious food, gorgeous rooms, and so many amenities. At Borgo Santo Pietro, you had the feeling of being in a fairy garden wherever you went, and around every corner, there was something new to discover.

The other amazing stop was the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, which is a standout feature on any Lake Como ferry ride, with its striking architecture, gardens and in-lake floating pool in front, so actually staying there was quite a treat! We enjoyed the spa, the many pools and casual restaurants, and even had a private wakeboarding session one morning on the Lake! That is a memory that will never be forgotten and made this stop my girls’ favorite! Maria also arranged a great private boat tour to visit Bellagio and the famous villas of the lake with a lovely private guide, who had access to go inside the villas and educate us on all of the historic collections and stories. It was fascinating!

Andrea Phillips

Andrea Phillips and family during their private cooking class in Umbria, Italy.

We had many other activities that were also highlights. In Umbria, we went canyoning through a roaring mountain river, had an in-depth local cooking class, a gelato-making class, and went truffle hunting with the cutest, yet very talented dogs. In Siena, we had lunch on the exact alleyway where the Mille Miglia Race of Classic Cars were driving through to enter Il Campo (definitely because of Maria’s connections in Italy!). In Lucca, we rode bikes around the medieval walls where we crossed paths with a special parade of classic Fiat 500s. In Bologna, we visited one of the world’s oldest universities, and in nearby Maranello, drove Ferraris through the streets of the town where they are made!” —Andrea Phillips

Read more reviews of Italy trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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The Turquoise Coast: “The stops were beautiful and the food amazing…”

Vanessa Hulme

Travelers Vanessa and Colin Hulme aboard their private yacht on Turkey’s Aegean coast.

Karen and her team planned an absolutely flawless vacation for my husband and me for 3 days in Istanbul and a 6-day cruise on a gulet along the Turkish coast. Our incredible guide in Istanbul, Sinan, not only showed us the tourist highlights, but out-of-the ordinary places we would never have found on our own. He also introduced us to real Turkish food, even going so far as booking a dinner reservation and pre-ordering a menu that suited us perfectly.

From Istanbul, we flew to Bodrum, and boarded our private gulet. We had never toured via a gulet, but it certainly exceeded our expectations. The crew was professional, accommodating, and went out of their way to make the trip special. The stops were beautiful and the food amazing.

We also had the pleasure of our most memorable WOW Moment in Datca, being the first and only guests at a hotel just prior to the opening! We had the facility to ourselves, were served a gourmet dinner that was overseen by the General Manager and Food Service Manager, and were offered a gorgeous suite for an overnight stay; to say this was very, very special is an understatement. (Thank you, Wendy, Karen and Mustafa.). Karen and those that work with her obviously have an in-depth knowledge of Turkey. This certainly made our trip both exciting and relaxing, both of which we requested.” —Vanessa Hulme

Read more reviews of Turkey trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Greece: “Our most favorite day of the trip was on a speed boat, where we traveled to the Blue Lagoon…”

Blue Lagoon in Tigani islet between Paros and Antiparos islands, Cyclades, Greece, with clear transparent turquoise waters.

Blue Lagoon in Tigani islet between Paros and Antiparos islands, Cyclades, Greece. Photo: Shutterstock

“We had one of our best family trips in years, thanks to Irene. We started in Athens, where Irene booked us in a spacious, modern ‘apartment’ at The Dolli, which had excellent service and food. The rooftop pool overlooking the Acropolis was a huge plus given the heat, and the day trip to the ruins at Delphi was a family favorite.

Then it was on to Paros, where we enjoyed the beautiful accommodations and staff attention at the Minois Hotel. Our teens loved the amazing outdoor space with our own small pool, as well as the resident cats. Our most favorite day of the trip was on a speed boat, where we traveled to the Blue Lagoon, went cliff jumping, and visited remote beaches in Antiparos and Despatiko. Nikos, our driver/guide, was fabulous, and we had a delicious lunch on board.

We then ferried to Santorini, where we stayed in the breathtaking Grace Hotel. The geology, ruins, and small towns in Santorini didn’t disappoint, and we enjoyed special attention at dinners that Irene arranged and various recommended restaurants, some ‘off the beaten path.’ We also loved our fascinating guided tour to Akrotiri, a town even older than Pompeii that was also destroyed—and then preserved—due to a massive volcanic explosion.

Our meals, guides, and hotels were all impeccable, and even with the heat and crowds, we always felt supported and well taken care of. We would highly recommend Irene to anyone planning a trip to Greece.” —Amanda Mandel

This trip was arranged by a WOW List candidate. Here’s what that means.

Ask Wendy

 

Tuscany: “Cool breezes throughout the day and evening—a welcome relief from the heat in Europe this summer…”

Scenic overlook of the Tyrrhenian Sea along the Amalfi Coast of Italy.

Scenic overlook of the Tyrrhenian Sea, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

“Normally we would not travel to Italy in July…too hot and too crowded. However, our goal was to see Andrea Bocelli perform at the amphitheater he built in Tuscany called Teatro del Silenzio in Lajatico, his hometown. The theater is ‘silent’ except for the one concert he performs there each year in July, and we felt it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The concert was taking place during the middle of our time in Italy, so we needed an agenda before and after.

Jennifer suggested we start our trip on the Tuscan coast, staying four nights at the Hotel Il Pellicano. This gorgeous, iconic property overlooks the Tyrrhenian Sea, providing cool breezes throughout the day and evening—a welcome relief from the heat in Europe this summer. Heaven in July! We then traveled inland to the countryside of Tuscany for the next four nights, where we would be closer to the Bocelli concert. Borgo Pignano is an elegant country estate close to the hill towns of Volterra and San Gimignano. A perfect location that we would never have found on our own. Again, the temperature dropped in the mornings and evenings, making it very pleasant for al fresco dining and touring.

While at these locations, Jennifer arranged for driver/guides to transport us to several wineries. A standout was Ornellaia. Not an easy tour to arrange, and Jennifer managed it!

The Bocelli concert was beyond our expectations. The tickets that Jennifer and her team secured were front and center, five rows back from the stage. We will never forget it. It was more than a concert, it was a masterful production with a full orchestra, ballet company, chorus and guest artists, from opera to pop. Magical.

Jennifer’s advice is invaluable to us, and we consider her a friend. We have used other WOW List advisors with the same excellent results and will continue to use Wendy Perrin’s great resources when we travel.” —Susan Ketchum

Read more reviews of Italy trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Copenhagen and the Danish seaside: “Not too hot… reasonable crowds, not too expensive, and very enjoyable…”

Lynn Herrick

Rainbow over Copenhagen. Photo: Traveler Lynn Herrick

“We rarely travel to Europe in the summer because of the heat and crowds, but we needed to be in Berlin in mid-July this year and wanted to add a week in another destination prior to reaching Berlin. Denmark was the PERFECT choice. Not too hot (even chilly some days!), reasonable crowds, not too expensive, and very enjoyable. Mads arranged our trip for us and he made it very easy. We did not mind driving in Denmark, so he arranged for a private car and put together an itinerary that gave us a flavor of the country. Our college-age kids traveled with us and there was enough to keep everyone engaged.

We loved, loved, loved Copenhagen. Our hotel was in the middle of all the action, and the city is extremely walkable and public transportation easy to navigate. Our first morning in town was our WOW Moment and it was perfect. We sailed (electric boat) around the city with a private tour guide and lots of fun snacks. It was a great introduction to the city, and the guide gave us lots of ideas for the rest of our trip.

We traveled to several cities after Copenhagen, visited castles, stayed at an inn that has been hosting guests since 1744, learned all about Hans Christian Andersen, visited museums, enjoyed a ferry ride, and stayed in a charming Danish seaside town with a great spa. We finished the trip with one more fun night in Copenhagen and stayed up late, as the sun seems to last forever…. Highly recommend Mads and Denmark for a special summer trip.” —Lynn Herrick

Read more reviews of Denmark trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast: “We did three boat trips (one sailboat and two motor boats), two cooking classes, and several wine tastings…”

Panoramic view of Fortresses Lovrijenac and old town of Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Fortress Lovrijenac outside Dubrovnik’s old town, Croatia. Photo: Shutterstock

“My wife and I worked with Ala. We stayed in Dubrovnik (Hotel Excelsior) for three nights, Hvar (Maslina Resort in Stari Grad) for four nights, and Split (Santa Lucia Heritage Hotel) for two nights. All three hotels were excellent, and the Excelsior and Maslina Resort were both on the water. The Santa Lucia Hotel was in the main square about three blocks from the water.

We wanted to relax, so we did minimal sightseeing. Instead we did three boat trips (one sailboat and two motor boats), two cooking classes, and several wine tastings, which we enjoyed very much. The people of Croatia are very warm and genuine people, and we loved the country. The drivers and tour guides selected by Ala were on time, very knowledgeable, and very nice.

The whole trip was a highlight, but I would say the top two were an eight-hour sailboat, where we then stopped for lunch on a small island, and the cooking class in Split. The food was excellent throughout. I would highly recommend Croatia, and specifically Ala and her team, to anyone who is considering their next vacation.” —Jeffrey Cohen

Read more reviews of Croatia trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Italy: “Lunch and snorkeling…Cruising the Arno river with a renaioli….Learning to row a Batela in Venice…”

Narrow canal with bridge in Venice, Italy. Architecture and landmark of Venice. Cozy cityscape of Venice.

Venice, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

Maria did an excellent job of planning a balanced trip of cultural sightseeing and fun activities inside, outside, and on the water. After the overnight flight to Milan, we literally hit the ground hiking from Santa Margherita Ligure to Portofino, keeping our active boys moving while acclimating to the new time zone. Although a little risky with potential jet lag, this was a highlight hiking through the high serene hills for a couple of hours, with only the sounds of birds and a young wild boar and descending upon Portofino on foot. Portofino was a treat and the next full day at sea on a captained 40-foot boat to swim and visit the coastline at our leisure was awesome! Having lunch and snorkeling at San Fruttuoso was fantastic. Additional memorable experiences included:

    • Visiting the Ferrari museum and test driving Ferraris on the streets of Maranello
    • Touring the Accademia sculptures, the Uffizi and cruising the Arno river with a renaioli and our private guide Elvira
    • Staying at a palazzo in Montefalco: Maria was right—this is the balcony of Umbria, and the views are unforgettable!
    • Sightseeing through ancient Rome—including the Forum, Colosseum and Vatican museums—with very knowledgeable private guides (Valerie) and no lines!
    • Riding on the back of Vespas, seeing unique neighborhoods and parks in Roma
    • Learning to row a Batela in Venice w/ our own rowing instructor and having cicchetti (appetizers) and wine

Maria chose excellent hotels for our stays, and the rooftop bar lounge and pool in Florence was a great way to end every fun day.” —Mark Mazzatta

Read more reviews of Italy trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Budapest's Chain Bridge

Is a River Cruise the Easiest Way to See Europe?

Note from Wendy: My husband, Tim Baker, has been to all seven continents and more than 100 countries. He’s run with the bulls in Pamplona and bungee-jumped 225 feet. He’s lived on a yacht off Fiji and in a tent in Antarctica—as an expedition photographer for Greenpeace. He was living in Germany and traveling for work all over Europe, as director of photography for a newspaper, when I met him. So you wouldn’t think a cruise on the Danube—a river route he has driven countless times and whose cities he can navigate blindfolded—would hold much appeal. Yet he loved it. Here’s Tim on why his first river cruise, aboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Alsvin, was what the doctor ordered: 

Schonbuhel Castle, Melk

These are the colors of low season. That’s Schönbühel Castle, in Austria’s Wachau Valley, near Melk.

When I lived in Germany—for nearly five years—a lot of friends came to visit, and I always took them to see the castles along the Rhine and the Danube. I used to look at the passengers on the river boats, sitting on the top deck sipping wine, and think to myself: That’s got to be a great way to travel. Fast forward a decade, and I finally got to do it myself. It’s the easiest way I can think of to see Europe. Here’s why:

1. There are no logistics to worry about.

When we travel on land as a family, I’m the one who does the heavy lifting. As the dad, I’m the driver, the pilot, the baggage handler, the activity director, the concierge. On the cruise, I didn’t have to do a thing. I didn’t have to worry about where to park, or a rental-car fender-bender in some tight European parking garage, or hauling our bags from train station to hotel to train station to hotel. We unpacked in Budapest and repacked again seven days later in Passau, Germany. In each city on our route, when we got off the ship, the only logistical detail we had to worry about was what time the ship was leaving, to make sure we got back in time.

Viking Alsvin, Budapest

Our ship, docked in Budapest.

2. The ship drops you off in the middle of town.

You get off the ship and walk right to the main squares and sights. How cool is that? The ship is close enough that you can go back several times during the day; if you’ve bought something heavy or bulky, you can walk back to the ship and drop it off, then soldier on back to sightseeing. In Budapest we were docked right under the Chain Bridge. There isn’t a more convenient address in the city.

Thanksgiving dinner, Viking Alsvin

Our family’s Thanksgiving dinner on the Aquavit Terrace aboard the Viking Alsvin

3. There were no lines or waits.

When we arrived at the airport in Budapest, Viking representatives met us. A bus took us to the ship, and we just walked right onboard. There was no wait to board the ship, no wait for our cabin to be ready. Wherever we were on the ship, there was never more than a 30-second walk to get off. The only lines we encountered were at dinner time, when passengers start arriving at the dining room at 6:45 pm for a 7:00 pm dinner. If you arrive at 7:10 pm, it may be hard to seat four people together. That happened to us on Thanksgiving. But Viking offers a pub menu on the observation terrace, where you don’t have to sit through a long, drawn-out, multi-course dinner. We were more than happy to eat there—and were always served within just a few minutes of sitting down.

The lobby of the 190-passenger Viking Alsvin

The lobby of the 190-passenger Viking Alsvin. Wherever you are on the ship, you’re never more than a 30-second walk away.

4. Docked at cities, there often is free transportation to and from the ship.

In ports, Viking offers a handful of “included tours” that are featured as part of your fare. These are usually history-focused walking tours around towns and cities (there are more options for more extensive touring that incur a fee). Compare that with the cost of renting a car and driving a family of four. We actually did that, at the end of our cruise—we rented a car to drive back to Salzburg—and the rental car cost us $225 per day (not including the cost of parking in Salzburg).

View of Salzburg from its castle, Fortress Hohensalzburg

View of Salzburg from its castle, Fortress Hohensalzburg

5. There’s no nickel-and-diming, and you’re not stuck paying for things you don’t need or want.

Our Viking ship had just what we needed, with no frou-frou or myriad ways of trying to extract more money from me. I’ve taken ten ocean cruises with Wendy and the kids, and those big ships are chock full of stuff we never use. We don’t need a casino, a spa, nightly shows, a beauty salon, or 12 bars to choose from. On our river cruise, there was one bar—and when the bartender saw me, he automatically prepared my favorite drink. I was surprised to find they had a putting green and a shuffleboard court—those came in handy for the kids. The only thing I wished they’d had, but they didn’t, was a hot tub or a sauna—some place to get super-warm after walking around town all day in the European winter cold (some river cruise lines do offer hot tubs and saunas).

 

START PLANNING A RIVER CRUISE

 

Playing golf on the Viking Alsvin

Our boys playing golf on the Viking Alsvin, below the Chain Bridge in Budapest, November 2014

Note from Wendy: The cruise I chose for my family was a Christmas Markets cruise over Thanksgiving. Full disclosure: Viking River Cruises gave us two complimentary cabins. In keeping with my standard practice, there was no request for or expectation of coverage on Viking’s part, nor was anything promised on mine. The complimentary accommodations did not influence Tim’s opinions in the least. (Trust me, Tim is non-influenceable. I’ve tried for years.)

This trip originally took place in 2014. The story has been updated and fact-checked in February 2023. 

Christmas Market in Passau, Germany

The Christmas Market in Passau, Germany, where our cruise ended. It was an easy ten-minute walk from our ship to the market square.

illuminated Christmas market in the Old town of Colmar, Alsace France

What to Know About Europe’s Christmas Markets in 2022

After closures due to Covid the past two holiday seasons, most of Europe’s Christmas markets are finally expected to fully open again this year. These festive traditions are one of the best reasons to go to Europe in winter: You can see cities and villages illuminated for the holidays and fill your evenings with charming street scenes: stalls where artisans sell handmade local crafts, open-air choral concerts, ice skating and rides for kids, and a huge variety of piping hot street food, from local delicacies to hearty winter comfort fare and endless mulled wine.

Another advantage of Europe in the late fall or winter is lower airfares and hotel rates than you’ll find in the spring, summer, and early fall.  While the weekends of Christmas and New Year’s can be crowded (especially with locals), November, Thanksgiving break, early December, and early January deliver low-season value.

Some of the most iconic Christmas markets are in Austria (Vienna, Salzburg, Innsbruck, St. Wolfgang), Germany (Munich, Nuremberg, Regensburg, Berlin), and France (Strasbourg, Colmar, Reims), as well as Budapest, Prague, and Krakow.

Here’s how to make the most of them this holiday season.

Go early or go late—because market dates are extended.

Many European Christmas markets are running longer this year than they have in the past.  This means you can plan your trip to avoid the worst of the crowds and air-travel hassle, while still getting an undiminished dose of all that holiday cheer and charm.

“Some of these Christmas markets that once had a firm closure on December 24th are now lingering longer—some into January,” says Gwen Kozlowski, a WOW List travel specialist for Austria, Germany, and Eastern Europe. Salzburg’s main market is planned for November 17 through January 1.  The Christmas market in St. Wolfgang opens early too, on November 18.  Those lasting through early January include Vienna’s Christmas market at Schonbrunn Palace (open through January 4), Innsbruck’s and Prague’s (open through January 6), Berlin’s Christmas market on Breitscheidplatz (open through January 8), and the Jardin des Tuileries Christmas Market in Paris (open through January 8).

Mix the bigger city markets with lesser-known ones in small villages.

Every country has its big-hit Christmas markets in major cities, but the holiday spirit can be especially charming in areas you might not have considered during the winter. In France, the biggest and most famous Christmas market is in Strasbourg, but you could combine that with Metz or with smaller markets in Provence or Champagne, suggests Jennifer Virgilio, a WOW List specialist for France.

Or you could make Colmar your base and visit smaller markets from there, such as Turckheim and Kayserberg, advises Philip Haslett, another WOW List specialist for France.

Combine more than one region for different experiences and flavors.

Nothing is really that far apart in Europe, and the train network makes for easy, quick travel. So take advantage of that proximity by combining a couple of regions into a mini-Christmas-market crawl, with stops along the way to enjoy Europe’s other delights.

“I like to do a Christmas market road trip and start in Paris, then to Reims which is easily reached—and a bit of Champagne is never a bad idea!” says Philip. “From there you can take a high-speed train to Strasbourg, which takes about 1h20; and after Strasbourg on to Colmar, 30 minutes by train or an hour by car, but with some lovely stops on the way for wine tasting and a visit to the iconic Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle.”

Last year Philip planned a Christmas-week road trip for WendyPerrin.com reader Margaret Harvey, who reported back to us:

“We started off in Geneva, Switzerland, where we kicked off our trip with a Christmas market that was across the street from our hotel. Our next stop was Gstaad, which felt like a winter wonderland. After that we drove to Chamonix, where we stayed in what was my husband’s dream spot at the top of Mount Blanc. It was truly something, we had to take the most charming red train to get to our hotel. The stars there were unlike we had ever seen. After Chamonix we drove to Fossano, Italy, where we visited a castle and stayed in a suite that felt as if we were in an old Italian romance novel. Next, we went to Monte Carlo, where our hotel key gave us access to the Monte Carlo Country Club. My husband is an avid tennis fan and this was really special for us. We stayed on the top floor and had the most incredible view of the city and water. Following Monte Carlo we went to St Paul de Vence, where we relaxed in a spa hotel with a Mediterranean influence. Next was Aix in Provence, where we stayed at a dreamy chateau. After that we went to Avignon, where we stayed across from the Pope’s Palace. We ended our trip in Paris on New Year’s Eve.”

Reader Richard Goldin enjoyed his late-December road trip too, planned by Jennifer Virgilio. He reported:

“Jennifer arranged for a rental car, all hotels and recommended events and restaurants as we drove from Paris to Strasbourg, Colmar, Dijon, Burgundy and back to Paris. Each hotel chosen was extremely well located. There wasn’t a hotel that we would not go back to. We thoroughly enjoyed all of the Christmas markets, especially in a small town called Kayserberg, near Colmar.”

Book through a local fixer who can monitor the situation on the ground and rearrange your plans if necessary.

There’s always the possibility that a market could close or that any of many other speedbumps that have affected travelers over the past couple of years could crop up and impact your trip. “Plenty of markets have said that they’re opening and have already listed dates and times,” says Gwen. “But it’s important to be flexible and ready to make changes if/when something happens.” Last year, when Christmas markets in Vienna, Munich, and Salzburg closed at the last minute because of Covid, Gwen rescued reader Sarah Wade’s trip, sending her to Budapest, Warsaw, and Krakow instead. Sarah’s report:

“Our original plan had us going to Munich, Salzburg, and Vienna for 9 nights in early December 2021.  As we approached the time to depart we began to get notices from Gwen that one by one each city was cancelling the Christmas markets, and eventually Austria closed down entirely. Gwen’s team was on top of it each step of the way. They offered us alternatives, and we settled on an itinerary of Warsaw, Krakow, and Budapest.

Our three city choices were great. Some highlights:
*the gingerbread cookie baking class in Warsaw was wonderful.
*In Krakow our tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau was so moving and impactful. Our guide was incredible and we were so fortunate to have him explain the history of this terrible place to us. We found out that our guide’s father was a survivor of Auschwitz and it was humbling to have him share with us. Guides really do make or break tours.
*A private ornament-making session with a renowned hand-painted ornament business. They were even so sweet as to bake us an apple cake and our guide along with the owner sang us traditional Polish Christmas carols as we decorated our ornaments and the snow fell outside. Quite the experience!
*A fantastic meal at the beautiful castle restaurant in Egar with Hungarian wines paired to our various courses – the best meal of the trip!
*A private boat on the Danube to see the lights of nighttime Budapest.

I appreciated Gwen’s team being willing to make changes for us as we moved through the itinerary. Even though this was not the trip we had originally planned, we ended up with a trip that we all enjoyed. It was such a relief to know the logistics were handled and we had someone on call, should anything change or become difficult.”

If you’re thinking about a Christmas markets river cruise, watch the water levels in the Danube and the Rhine.

This year’s Christmas market cruises are nearly full, despite the extensive drought last summer that caused so many challenges, says Tom Baker, a WOW List river-cruise specialist. Low river levels forced a number of ships to change their itineraries, dock far from the planned port city, or move passengers to different vessels or to busses for making the journey on land.  While operations on the Danube have picked up in recent weeks, Tom reports, “the Rhine is still in bad shape, with vendors switching out guests to sister ships to make the navigational points.” The forecast for late fall and winter is not clear yet, so watch water levels or consider waiting until 2024.  Tom’s personal favorite holiday itineraries: “The Danube when it operates as Vienna, Salzburg, Passau, Regensburg, and Nuremburg—they have marvelous Christmas markets as well as vast cultural enchantment. Budapest markets are not as exciting, but the city is incredible and not to be missed. I also love the Alsatian Christmas Markets on the Rhine in Germany and France!”

older male traveler in a red vintage Fiat car touring ruins around Rome Italy

This Couple Traveled to Rome Right Before the Pandemic—and Went Back Again Now

One of Wendy’s tips for smart travel in 2022 is: Don’t dismiss relatively Covid-safe places just because you’ve been there before. A local trip-planning expert can devise a completely different itinerary that gives you a fresh look at a place, and you’ll also have a built-in familiarity and comfort level that can help in pandemic times.

That’s what reader Kevin Haney did. As a holiday present to each other, he and his wife, Nancy, always travel in January. This year, they chose the same place they’d gone in January 2020, right before the pandemic: Rome.

“There’s so much to see,” he told me over the phone before they left for the Eternal City plus excursions to Naples, Pompeii and a few surrounding vineyards. They’re even using the same WOW List expert again, Jennifer Virgilio. “Jennifer did our Rome trip in 2020,” Kevin explained. “She lives there, so she’s able to offer insight of things to do and get access to private experiences, which is even more useful right now with Covid.”

I emailed with Kevin toward the end of his trip to see how the experience panned out and what it is like to travel in Italy now.

What’s the vibe of the places you’ve visited? How crowded are they?

None of the places we visited were crowded. As our guides told us, that has been the one advantage to Covid. We are in Rome at the exact same time as our pre-Covid trip in January 2020, and it is noticeable how much less crowded places are.

Where have you felt comfortable, and where have you not?

We have felt comfortable everywhere on this trip. With just a little common sense, we have been able to avoid crowds at indoor events.

Are people wearing masks and following other Covid protocols?

Yes. The Italian people are very conscious of following the protocols. They believe following the protocols is their responsibility to ensure that things get better and can return to normal. They do not see it as a political issue.

What has Jennifer done so far that made you feel safer?

Jennifer and her team have been able to get us after-hours access to the Borghese Gallery and the Galleria Doria Pamphilj. We feel so fortunate to be able to experience these locations without the crowds, and we get the chance to learn so much with the expertise the local guides provide.

older male traveler wearing mask standing in front of Doria Pamphilj Palace Rome Italy

Kevin Haney at a private after-hours visit to the Doria Pamphilj Palace in Rome. Photo courtesy Kevin Haney

What other experiences have you had this trip?

We have also done a nightingale Trastevere food tour, a vintage Fiat tour, and a day trip to Naples and Pompeii. The crowds have been reduced from the past, but that allows you to enjoy the sights.

Is there anything you weren’t able to do because of the pandemic?

One tour, “A Focus on Caravaggio,” cancelled the day before we were to take it, as the guide got Covid and the people in her office had to quarantine because of exposure to her. We decided to spend that time exploring Rome on our own instead.

How have you found the transportation logistics—airports, trains?

Everything has gone very smoothly. Our planes were on time, and the trains we took on our day trip to Naples worked out well. The car service that we used was on time. None of the modes of transportation have been crowded or made us feel uncomfortable. Jennifer’s guides and drivers were all vaccinated and observed the Covid protocols of Italy. They made sure not to expose us to situations where we would feel uncomfortable and, when appropriate, adjusted the order in which to see things so as to avoid the crowds.

Is Italy different than before?

It was much better than expected. Everything was open and, because of the pre-trip planning and our guides, we always felt safe.

Where did you get your Covid test before returning to the U.S.?

We noticed that testing was readily available throughout Rome and Naples as it seemed like there was a tent to perform the test on every other corner, and our one guide who we had for Borghese and Doria Pamphilj was telling us she got tested once a week to make sure she was ok to perform tours.

Our pre-departure Covid test was performed at the hotel, thanks to Jennifer, so we had the results quickly and could enjoy our final day in Rome. Once we got our negative result, it confirmed why we use WOW List specialists like Jennifer when we travel to Europe, as it makes the trip go so smoothly.


 

We’re Here to Help

As a travel journalist and consumer advocate for the past 30 years—first as Condé Nast Traveler’s advice columnist, then as TripAdvisor’s Travel Advocate—I’m all too aware of the travel concerns that need to be addressed as a result of this pandemic. For many trips, you’d be wise to use an extremely well-connected, extremely knowledgeable, destination-specific, trip-planning specialist who can act as your local fixer. You’d be even wiser to find and contact that trip planner via The WOW List, which is the first step in my WOW approach to trip planning, created by popular demand from my longtime readers. It’s the approach used by the travelers who are submitting these trip reviews and getting benefits including priority status, VIP treatment, my advice from the start of your trip planning, and the chance to win a surprise, custom-designed WOW Moment on a third qualifying trip. It all starts when you tell us about the trip you want via the questionnaires on The WOW List.

The Wachau Valley, Austria

How to Do Europe Travel Now: Q&As with WOW Listers

We recently held two live Q&As about what it’s like to travel in Europe right now, and the overwhelming takeaway? It’s safer than you think, easier than you think, and more special than even we’ve been saying. The key is having a well-informed, well-connected trip planner in your corner—someone who is plugged into local life and knows the right people and on-the-ground strategies to optimize every step.

We’re focusing on Europe right now for a couple of reasons. For one thing, its countries are seeing high vaccination rates (in Portugal and Malta, for instance, 84% of the population has received two shots, compared with 56% in the U.S.). For another, there are rare opportunities available to travelers to Europe this fall and winter. We want to help you take advantage of them smartly and safely—and we know the trip planners who can do that, based on the trip reviews you’re sending us. It is absolutely possible to have extraordinary travel experiences this fall. Use the WOW List to find the smartest, most plugged-in trip planners and to get all the perks and benefits of being a WendyPerrin.com VIP.

In our first Q&A, we talked about Italy, France, Portugal, England, Ireland, Scotland, and Switzerland.

In our second Q&A, we checked in on Mediterranean islands (Sicily, Malta, Greece, etc.) and Austria and Eastern Europe, as well as Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and Switzerland again.

Get in touch!

Contact any of our featured WOW List experts below using Wendy’s introduction form—you’ll be designated as a VIP traveler and you’ll get all the other benefits of using Wendy’s WOW approach to securing an extraordinary, safe trip.

Austria and Eastern Europe  – Gwen Kozlowski
Read reviews of Gwen’s trips, and contact her through The WOW List

England, Scotland, and Ireland – Jonathan Epstein
Read reviews of Jonathan’s trips, and contact him through The WOW List

France (including Provence) – Philip Haslett 
Read reviews of Philip’s trips, and contact him through The WOW List

France, Italy, and England – Jennifer Virgilio
Read reviews of Jennifer’s trips, and contact her through The WOW List

Greece – Mina Agnos
Read reviews of Mina’s trips, and contact her through The WOW List

Italy – Andrea Grisdale
Read reviews of Andrea’s trips, and contact her through The WOW List

Italy and Switzerland – Maria Landers and Brian Dore 
Read reviews of Maria and Brian’s trips, and contact them through The WOW List

Malta – Jason Camilleri Allan
Read reviews of Jason’s trips, and contact him through The WOW List

Portugal and Spain – Goncalo Correia
Read reviews of Goncalo’s trips, and contact him through The WOW List

Sicily – Marcello Baglioni
Read reviews of Marcello’s trips, and contact him through The WOW List

Spain and Portugal – Virginia Irurita
Read reviews of Virginia’s trips, and contact her through The WOW List

Switzerland – Nina Muller
Read reviews of Nina’s trips, and contact her through The WOW List

 

Useful Articles

Many of you asked excellent questions. You can find answers in the following articles, as well as in our special Covid-19 section of WendyPerrin.​com where all this intel is collected.

Wendy’s Europe Exclusive: 14 WOW Trips For You

Once-in-a-lifetime Europe—none of the crowds, all of the perks!

I’ve been saying for a while now that if you’re fully vaccinated, this fall is a golden window of opportunity for travel to Europe.  The E.U.’s recommendation to limit unvaccinated travelers means fewer tourists, more authentic experiences, better pricing, and a safer environment for you. It’s a rare chance to experience Europe crowd-free and with an especially warm welcome.

So I’ve decided to help you take advantage of this opportunity—before pent-up demand is unleashed in 2022.  I’ve pulled strings with the local experts on my WOW List to get them to offer you once-in-a-lifetime experiences of Europe this fall and winter, with none of the crowds and all of the perks!   We collaborated to come up with 14 opportunities, all in countries that are open to U.S. travelers and have relatively low virus caseloads and high vaccination rates compared with those in the U.S.  An easy solution for looking up any country’s vaccination rate and Covid caseload is Our World in Data. Use the following links to compare any country’s vaccination rate and Covid caseload per million people with your home country’s. (Add a country to the graph by clicking its box in the lefthand column.)

These opportunities are so robust that they are available for a short time only and only if you contact the experts through the buttons below. These 14 custom-tailored trips will be optimized from start to finish by WOW List experts who will leverage their in-country relationships to maximize your delight, minimize your risk, eliminate hassles, and deliver unprecedented added value.

 

WHAT YOU GET
1.  Complimentary upgraded accommodation. Think terraces and balconies providing the best ventilation and views, and enhanced privacy and living space.
2.  Complimentary WOW exclusive access and insider experiences.  All are Covid-optimized, of course.
3.  Perks throughout your trip.  Think complimentary breakfasts, entrance tickets to sights, etc.
The bottom line: Your WOW List expert will work to ensure you get the ultimate value and experience based on your destination, timing, focus, and safety criteria. Want proof?  See these reviews from travelers who just got back.

IT’S EASY AND SAFE (RELATIVELY SPEAKING)
1.  These trips stick to the locations within each country that have high vaccination rates and low infection rates. 
Don’t misunderstand the U.S. State Department Advisory Levels, which apply to the entirety of each country, including less-safe areas where you won’t be going.  Would you nix a trip to Vermont because of Covid rates in Florida?  Also, check the dates on State Department advisories because some have not been updated in months and reflect a situation on the ground that is no longer the case.
2.  Flights to/from Europe are more Covid-safe than U.S. flights. 
That’s because almost everybody onboard has been vaccinated or has just tested negative (depending on the entry requirements of the country you’re flying to).  Also, as we know by now, the chances of becoming infected on an airplane are extraordinarily low.
3.  Europe’s entry rules are not as confusing or restrictive as some people are making it sound.  If you’re vaccinated, most of Europe is open to you. Entry requirements are here.
4.  Quick Covid tests for travel are easy to get now.  I use at-home mail-in tests both pre-trip and before flying back to the U.S.  Test options are here.
5.  We recommend single-country Europe trips.
This limits entry requirements and border logistics.
6.  WOW List experts arrange everything to be private, open-air whenever possible, socially distanced, masked when indoors, and compliant with local Covid protocols.

IT’S ONLY AVAILABLE HERE 
This combination of added values and experiences is available only through WendyPerrin.com for bookings made between today (September 15) and October 15.

WHEN TO BOOK
By Friday, October 15, 2021

TRAVEL BY
February 28, 2022

TELL YOUR FRIENDS
There may not be an opportunity like this again.  Plus, if you tell a friend who takes one of these 14 trips, it will qualify toward a WOW Moment for both you and your friend!  (See full details below.*)

CHOOSE FROM THE 14 DESTINATIONS BELOW

Click on the black button for your choice and submit the questionnaire.

 

AUSTRIA: For fairytale charm and festive cheer

If you’re fully vaccinated, you can go.

The Danube Valley’s wine harvest runs through mid-October, and the wineries are a lot more pleasant this year without the usual river-cruise day-trippers.  Outdoor dining lasts late into the fall, and Gwen knows which restaurant courtyards are most charming and warmed by heat lamps. In Vienna there’s plenty of sidewalk dining, and fresh-air excursions abound, given how hike-friendly the city is (remember the Vienna Woods) and bike-friendly too (bike lanes are removed from traffic).  Austria’s Christmas markets are scheduled to open in mid-November, and they’re another reason to spend time outdoors, sampling mulled wine and local specialties, enjoying the homespun stalls of artisan crafts and musical concerts under the stars. Don’t miss Salzburg, whose Christmas market stepped right out of a fairytale. Read reviews.

CLICK HERE FOR AUSTRIA

 

ENGLAND: For golden countryside and a Dickensian Christmas

If you’re fully vaccinated, you can go. 

The Cotswolds, the Lake District, and the Yorkshire Dales are ablaze in the fall; even London’s Royal Parks turn golden.  Stonehenge will be blissfully uncrowded for once and, thanks to new timed-entry systems, so will indoor landmarks such as the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey. With far fewer bus tours in places like the Cotswolds, roads will be less crowded too, making it easier to drive.  Jonathan knows which manor-house hotels have created elegant spacing for guests, with rooms spread out around estates; you could be in a coach house, a mews, or a gate lodge.  Fall and winter is game season (think venison, grouse, pheasant, partridge, rabbit), and it has never been easier to get into London’s best restaurants, many of which now have outdoor seating.  London dresses up for Christmas in mid-November, with spectacular lights and holiday markets, but if you can’t wait till then, Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated with bonfires and fireworks on November 5. Read reviews.

CLICK HERE FOR ENGLAND

 

GREECE: Because some Greek islands are open year-round

Unvaccinated travelers can enter with a negative Covid test.

Summer lasts here until mid- to late October.  After that it’s still sunny and pleasant for hiking, exploring classical sights and villages, and even day boat trips, with temps in the 60s in November and the 50s in December.  Many Greek islands shut down in late October or early November, but Crete, Corfu, and Rhodes operate year-round, offering traditional cultural and culinary experiences and festivities in the winter months.  November is a great time for sheep farms, olive orchards, and the wine harvest.  Indoor experiences can always be made private—from cooking classes in homes or local tavernas to private visits to the Acropolis Museum.  Mina and Faye handled thousands of travelers this past summer, and not one of them tested positive prior to returning to the U.S. Read reviews.

CLICK HERE FOR GREECE

 

IRELAND: From castles to cottages, feel the cozy warmth 

If you’re fully vaccinated, you can go.

Ireland was meant to be enjoyed in an Irish wool sweater, and the Cliffs of Moher and the Ring of Kerry were meant to be appreciated without the summer crowds marring their majesty (and your photos). The lit fireplaces of fall give off the scent of burning peat bricks mixing with the sea air.  But the best part of Ireland is the people—and the craftsmen and artisans you meet through Jonathan have more time in fall and winter to engage and show you how they make leather, glass, furniture, jewelry…or that aforementioned wool sweater (custom-made, of course).  Hotels get into the festive spirit in November—and many have created outdoor, covered dining spaces—but consider taking over a manor house with your family for Thanksgiving or a castle for Christmas.  Temperatures in December are like the Pacific Northwest’s (they tend not to dip below the 40s), but when you want to retreat indoors—say, to the theater in Dublin—you’ll find only vaccinated people, as you must produce your vaccine card to enter museums, restaurants, and other indoor spaces.  Read reviews.

CLICK HERE FOR IRELAND

 

ITALY: For la dolce vita, from the Amalfi Coast to Lake Como

If you’re fully vaccinated, you can go with a negative Covid test. 

This is the fall when the ultimate Italian fantasy might actually be within your grasp.  Start on the Amalfi Coast and Capri, where October is still bikini weather and, this year, free of the usual stampede of bus tours and cruise ships. In November head to Piedmont for truffle season (the White Truffle Fair in Alba runs until December 5).  Try truffle hunting, taste the local Barolo wines, watch artisanal cheese makers, cycle among the vineyards (electric bikes are available!), hike the rolling hills beneath the crisp blue skies….or do it all with your family in a villa for Thanksgiving.  On December 7 be in Milan for the start of the opera season at La Scala. Opera houses and other indoor venues in Italy feel safe because a Green Pass (the equivalent of a CDC vaccination card) is required for entry, but if that’s not safe enough for you, Andrea can get you private visits to the Duomo, La Scala, The Last Supper, Milan’s famed museums and stores, and any fashion designer’s atelier. At Christmastime the villas on Lake Como are usually occupied by their owners who are celebrating the holiday with their families, so there isn’t the same villa selection as in summer, but if a family home is preferable to Milan’s chic hotel scene, you could take over one with a heated indoor pool or jacuzzi.  Activities might include private cooking classes in your villa, skiing at Valtellina, or evening cruises on the Lake to admire the villages lit up with colors for Christmas. Read reviews.

CLICK HERE FOR ULTIMATE ITALY

 

ITALY: A feast for the senses in Rome, Florence, Venice, and Umbria

If you’re fully vaccinated, you can go with a negative Covid test. 

Fall is the ideal time for Umbria, whose picture-postcard rolling hills and medieval villages are a less crowded, more authentic alternative to neighboring Tuscany.  October and November are harvest months for oil and wine. Learn to cook al fresco in an olive grove, on a goat-cheese farm, in a vineyard….Remember, November is when Billie took her dream Italian cooking vacation culminating in Umbria.  When December starts, though, you’re better off in a city. Think Rome, Florence or Venice.  Maria and Brian can recommend an array of outdoor experiences, from learning how to ride a Vespa in Rome (where temps are in the 50s in December) to learning how to row a gondola in Venice.  Florence is more about indoor venues —museums, palazzi, legendary boutiques—but these feel safe because entry is limited to those with a Green Pass (the Italian equivalent of the CDC vaccination card). And this year museums are limiting group sizes indoors, so you can take in Italian masterpieces without a sea of heads in front of you. At Christmastime these cities’ holiday lights, outdoor Christmas markets, and gastronomic treats—tortellini in brodo, panettone, pandoro—will have you feeling like a local in a way you never can in summertime. Read reviews.

CLICK HERE FOR AUTHENTIC ITALY

 

MALTA: A Mediterranean island that’s warm in December!

If you’re fully vaccinated, you can go.

Malta’s 83% vaccination rate is the second highest in the world, and it’s easy to spend virtually all your time outdoors.  October is still warm enough for swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, or a romantic overnight sail to the island of Gozo, with dinner on the boat under the stars, followed by a morning swim in Crystal Lagoon off the island of Comino, with nobody else around.  Boating is possible into November and December too. Other Maltese experiences you cannot have anywhere else include a visit to a Ġgantija-era healing cave and excursions to connect with local farmers and artisans and enjoy rustic Maltese lunches in private olive groves or natural wineries.  As for private indoor experiences, Jason and Damon can arrange for private entry into St. John’s Co-Cathedral—a baroque feast for the eyes— after hours when it is closed to the public, a private meeting with a Resident Knight of Malta in his ancient enclave belonging to the Knights of St. John, and much more.  Read reviews.

CLICK HERE FOR MALTA

 

PARIS: For a festive Thanksgiving in the City of Lights

If you’re fully vaccinated, you can go. 

Paris is already busy for Christmas and New Year’s, so consider Thanksgiving.  By mid-November the City of Lights is all dressed up for the holidays. There are few better cities than Paris for strolling outside all day, and you’ll find delicious foods at its outdoor Christmas markets, which are scheduled to open by Thanksgiving.  (France’s best Christmas markets are in Strasbourg, of course, and they’re scheduled for November 26 – December 30, so consider tacking on time there too.)  If your goal in Paris is privacy and to live like a local, Jennifer has access to the most convenient and charming apartments with all the modern creature comforts.  If you prefer the services of a hotel and just want a room with windows that open or a balcony for fresh air, remember that there’s hardly a city with more “French balconies” than Paris. As for public indoor spaces, only vaccinated people are allowed entry into museums, the opera, restaurants, etc.  So, to get in and around, either you’ll need a French health pass that serves as proof of your vaccination or Jennifer can arrange for an antigen test for you every 72 hours that can also serve as your health pass.  Our readers who are in Paris now report that when they dine indoors, it’s reassuring to know that everyone else in the restaurant has passed the same requirements they have. Fashion lovers, consider Paris after the holidays—for the steep post-Christmas sales in January.  Read reviews.

CLICK HERE FOR PARIS

 

PROVENCE: Savor the South of France

If you’re fully vaccinated, you can go.

The light in Provence in winter is why so many famous artists moved there, and the sunshine makes al fresco lunches possible well into November. Provencal markets bustle in the fall, and in addition to the festive nougat and Banon cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves, black truffles must be sampled. Provence is France’s biggest producer of truffles, and truffle hunting starts in November, so ask Philip to arrange a traditional Provencal truffle hunt for you, topped off with a cooking class where you can cook with and eat the fruits of your harvest. Hike amid the glorious autumn landscapes and hilltop villages of the Luberon, and cycle through the wine country around Gigondas and Vacqueyras, where there are few cars and great eateries.  While Philip can arrange for private access to local landmarks—you can have, say, the Palace of the Popes to yourself after closing time—it’s really not necessary because the sites are not crowded now  and only vaccinated people are allowed entry (get your French covid pass here). The holidays bring local Christmas markets and ancient Provencal traditions such as the living nativity scene in Les Baux featuring real shepherds.  Consider celebrating Christmas with your family in a private villa with your own chef.  Read reviews.

CLICK HERE FOR PROVENCE

 

PORTUGAL: From vineyards to riverboats to subtropical islands…

Unvaccinated travelers can enter with a negative Covid test.

Temps remain in the 60s well into November, when it’s still warm enough for dinner outdoors at the many restaurants that now have significant sidewalk seating; heat lamps aren’t needed till late November.  This fall Goncalo can get you access to special sightseeing locations that normally either you can’t get into, you must pay extra to get into, or you must book more than a year in advance. Plus the most in-demand restaurants that normally require reservations a year ahead are now taking them just one week out.  In October head to the Douro Valley’s vineyards for the harvest.  Private river boats—which are much better for sightseeing than your typical river cruises—sail the Douro through the end of November and sometimes into December. When it comes time for indoor activities in December, remember that entry to some (but not all) indoor spaces requires proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test.  Winters are mild on the subtropical islands of Madeira—known for outstanding hiking opportunities—and the Azores, where you can also hike, bike, and off-road around the postcard-perfect lagoons. Read reviews.

CLICK HERE FOR PORTUGAL

 

SICILY: For the Italian island lifestyle in winter

If you’re fully vaccinated, you can go with a negative Covid test. 

Fall is the island’s best season if your goal is to combine culture and outdoor beauty. Autumn brings the olive, almond, and wine harvests, and sunny, mild weather that even in December is still in the 50s. Outdoor activities include exploring Sicily’s Greek and Roman ruins, hiking Mt. Etna, and cycling though nature reserves and wine country. Boating is possible through the end of October. Marcello and Matteo can make any and all indoor activities private—cooking classes (in a restaurant kitchen or palazzo), visits to private art collections and artists’ studios, wine tastings on wine farms—and, thanks to a less busy fall than usual, can open doors to private palazzi and other places not typically open or available in the fall. Consider basing your family in a villa for Thanksgiving or Christmas, on rolling hills with Mediterranean views, and having a different cultural or culinary adventure each day. Read reviews.

CLICK HERE FOR SICILY

 

SPAIN: Get there before the rest of the world comes back

If you’re fully vaccinated, you can go.

Before the pandemic, cruise ships clogged Barcelona’s harbor, disgorging tens of thousands of tourists daily. Now, before the cruise ships return, is your chance to have Barcelona to yourself. It’s also your chance to learn what all the Madrid buzz is about before the Spanish capital becomes the new It place and prices double.  Swank new 5-stars in Madrid include the Four Seasons, the Mandarin Oriental Ritz, and Rosewood Villa Magna (they’ve watched the buzz build and are getting in on the action). Both Madrid and Barcelona have plenty of parks and boulevards for soaking up the local scene in 60-degree weather well into November.  Virginia can have you tasting the finest Spanish wines, sherries, pintxo, and tapas outdoors until late November too—at her friends’ private wine estates and scenic farmhouses.  In December head south to Andalusia for open-air sightseeing at the Alhambra Palace and Generalife Gardens in Granada, the Royal Alcazars of Seville, and Medina Azahara in Cordoba; hiking and birdwatching in Andalusia’s parks; and the dancing stallions at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art. Of course, whenever it’s indoor culture you crave, Virginia can arrange for private after-hours visits to the country’s cultural magnets. Read reviews.

CLICK HERE FOR SPAIN

 

SWITZERLAND: Alpine charm, hikes, and thrills

If you’re fully vaccinated, you can go.

The southern canton of Ticino is a must for any traveler to Switzerland—from its palm-lined lakes with Mediterranean architecture to its verdant valleys with miniscule villages of stone houses—and the hiking is lovely through at least the end of October.  Amp it up with a helicopter ride to a private outdoor lunch at Rustico del Sole, 1,000 meters above Lake Maggiore.  Art hounds will enjoy the 8th Swiss Art Triennale, which this fall transforms the town of Bad Ragaz into Europe’s largest sculpture park, and the Kunsthaus Zurich, which will unveil its giant new art space designed by Sir David Chipperfield.  November and December bring Christmas markets (think Montreux) or basing yourself in a luxe chalet for winter sports (think kayaking on aqua-blue Lake Brienz amid snow-capped mountains). From medieval castles to bellsmiths’ workshops, all indoor experiences arranged by Nina are private, with the exception of the Glacier Express, the panoramic Alpine train route, since its new Excellence Class now provides more space per passenger. And we haven’t even mentioned chocolate fondue yet….  Read reviews.

CLICK HERE FOR SWITZERLAND

 

TURKEY: Open-air sights by boat and balloon

Unvaccinated travelers can enter with a negative Covid test.

You can sightsee and dine outdoors almost all the time through the end of November, and you can get around privately everywhere, not just via Karen‘s spacious, WiFi-equipped vehicles but via private boat and balloon too.  A gulet adventure is the perfect anti-pandemic vacation, and it’s possible through the end of October.  Then head to the only city on two continents, Istanbul (this was my experience of Istanbul during Covid), where one of Karen’s private yacht cruises up the Bosphorus halfway to the Black Sea is a must (see my slide show here).  Other outdoor experiences include cooking classes and backstreet food tours.  Top it off with Cappadocia—the unique lunar landscape with otherworldly rock formations and ancient cities carved into rock— for sightseeing by hot-air balloon and unforgettable hiking, biking, and ATV rides.  Read reviews.

CLICK HERE FOR TURKEY

 

WANT A DIFFERENT EUROPEAN COUNTRY?
Click to Ask Wendy, submit the questionnaire, and we’ll work our magic with the right local specialist to try to get you our special offer elsewhere.

* TELL A FRIEND AND POTENTIALLY GET “WOW MOMENT CREDIT”
If you tell a friend who books, takes, and reviews one of these trips, and the trip qualifies toward a WOW Moment for your friend, it will qualify toward a WOW Moment for you too!  Here’s how trips qualify.  Normally, every set of three qualifying trips earns you a WOW Moment during the third trip. This extra credit means you earn a WOW Moment with just two trips. So, if you’ve already earned one qualifying trip, then as soon as your friend qualifies, you will receive a WOW Moment certificate for use on a future trip.  If you’ve got no qualifying trips yet, then as soon as your friend qualifies, you’ll be halfway toward earning a certificate.  (To ensure that you receive credit, email info@wendyperrin.com with your friend’s name and email address when you tell them about this offer.) 

Barcelona Spain beach-June 2021

Barcelona Without the Crowds and Cruise Ships

Barcelona Spain beach-June 2021
Barcelona's beach was lively, even at 9:30 at night.
Barcelona Spain Sagrada Familia - market outside
But there were so few crowds at Gaudi's famous Sagrada Familia church that a market popped up outside. In pre-pandemic times, this street would have been elbow-to-elbow with tourists.
Barcelona Spain Sagrada Familia 1-June 2021 interior
I was mesmerized by the light coming through the stained glass windows. I never would have been able to take this picture in 2019. There would have been throngs of people all through this corridor.
Barcelona Spain Sagrada Familia interior
This was as crowded as it got in the main part of the nave.
Barcelona Spain Las Ramblas-June 2021
Las Ramblas were wide open.
Barcelona Spain Gotchic quarter street-June 2021
So were the tiny streets in the Gothic Quarter, which made it so much more enjoyable to wander and visit the shops.
Barcelona Spain La Boqueria Market June 2021
La Boqueria market was calm and I had plenty of space (partly because I visited late in the day).
people eating outside of vBasilica of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona Spain
But it's not like the city was empty or deserted — it was lively in all the ways you'd want it to be. People were eating at a cute café outside the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar.
Barcelona Spain port restaurants-June 2021
They were having late dinner at the restaurants along the port.
Barcelona Spain Vila Viniteca food
I ate well too. At Vila Viniteca, my guide and I sat for nearly two hours with one of the shop's managers, just getting to know each other and tasting delicious Spanish cheeses and wines and fresh salad. That's tomato bread on the left, a simple yet delicious Catalan tapas of grilled bread, fresh tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and salt served everywhere in Barcelona.
Barcelona Spain Vila Viniteca market with tomatoes-June 2021
But, as my guide pointed out, you have to use the right tomatoes for it.
3 women posing at La Manual Alpargatera, oldest espadrilles shop in Barcelona
Every shopkeeper I spoke to was thrilled that travelers were starting to come back. At La Manual Alpargatera, the oldest espadrille maker in Barcelona, the staff even applauded me and I got a special tour of the shop and even learned a bit about shoemaking!
Barcelona Spain La Plata tapas restaurant with bartender
The tapas and pintxos crawl experience is a little different because of the pandemic. At La Plata, beers are served in plastic cups and you have to order from your table.
Barcelona Spain Sagardi tapas restaurant with covered food-June 2021
And at Sagardi, the tapas are kept behind glass — you can no longer just grab them off the counter yourself. But the food is still delicious, and I saw many groups of friends out at night to grab a drink and a skewered snack.
Barcelona Spain Serras Hotel room
I found it so interesting (and helpful) that you can eat dinner earlier these days, if you prefer. Restaurants started opening earlier during the pandemic to account for curfews (now lifted), and so far they are continuing that trend. I wasn't able to stay up as late as a true Barcelonian, but maybe that was because I had this cool hotel room to come back to at The Serras.
Barcelona Spain Serras Hotel room-June 2021
The Serras Hotel is where Picasso had his first studio in Barcelona. The building overlooks the ocean, has a cool mod design, and my room had two balconies and a bathtub with a view!

 

When I posted photos of my experience at Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, taken just a few days after the country had reopened, the comments I got back were full of awe. Not awe of the eye-popping details of Antoni Gaudí’s elaborate and famously unfinished church, but of the lack of people crowding into it.

The Sagrada Familia is the biggest tourism draw in Barcelona (and arguably, in Spain), but if you were to visit now, you may not even realize it. Because as Spain welcomes back visitors, there is a special opportunity: You can have it to yourself. Travelers arriving directly from the U.S. don’t even need to show proof of vaccination or a negative test. All we have to do is fill out one simple health declaration form.

Barcelona, in particular, feels different as it emerges from the pandemic—in the best way possible. The Gothic Quarter isn’t clogged with tourists, you can actually stroll along Las Ramblas rather than be pushed along by the swarm, La Boqueria Market is calmer, shopkeepers have time to chat, restaurants are open for dinner earlier than usual so you don’t have to wait until 10pm to eat (though you can—there’s no curfew in Spain!), and museums have plenty of tickets.

The major reason for this change? No cruise ships. In years past, Barcelona had been Europe’s busiest cruise destination (more than 800 ships docked there in 2019), and the city’s mayor, neighborhood groups, and local organizations were all working to limit the swarm. Now, as a result of the pandemic, cruises are still extremely limited throughout the country. And when I visited in mid-June, I didn’t spot a single ship in the harbor (which I could take in from my balcony at the lovely Serras Hotel).

The beach, however, was buzzing. Masks are no longer required outdoors in Spain, and Barcelonians were reveling in the open air and warm weather. In fact, all of Barcelona had the vibe of a summer beach town that hadn’t been slowed down at all by the pandemic. At 9:30 pm on a Sunday, people were still out on the sand, playing beach volleyball, picnicking, and hanging out by the water. The restaurants and bars that line the beach and port were all open, and a few blocks away, in the little neighborhood of Barceloneta, spots were even livelier, dotted with groups of friends laughing, reconnecting, and watching football. The whole scene felt alive and fresh in a way that only a beach city can be—and after a year and a half in insular, cramped New York, I breathed deeper and more freely than I thought possible.

As I talked to locals (not only my guides, but shopkeepers, waiters, hotel staff, bartenders, cheesemongers, candymakers, cobblers), I realized they were no longer holding their breath either. Barcelonians are happy to have us back. If you’d asked them the same question in 2018 or 2019, you might have heard grumbles about the overwhelming waves of tourists spilling through the city. But now, the warmth is palpable.

In fact, the staff at one store (the oldest espadrille shop in Barcelona) were so happy to have international travelers back that they applauded me when they learned I was visiting from the U.S. I then spent an hour hanging out with them, learning about the store’s history, and swapping stories about our pandemic experiences. It was one of many moments during my two weeks in Europe that made me realize that (a) masks cannot hinder true connection and (b) the pandemic gave us travelers the unexpected gift of common ground with everyone we meet no matter where we go. And that’s not a downer—it’s common ground people were eager to discuss. Especially, if you’re chatting over a spread of Spanish wines and cheeses, which I did for a couple hours at Vila Viniteca, a wine distributor, shop and market founded in 1932 where I sat in a private wine cellar with my guide Veronica and a couple staff members as we sampled their wares.

If you find yourself grazing through Barcelona’s many snack spots like I did, be sure to save room for pintxos and tapas, because the restaurants are definitely open and ready for hungry guests. During the pandemic, they started opening earlier to accommodate an earlier curfew. But now that the curfew is lifted, many are still choosing to open at 7 or 8pm in order to serve more people (and, hopefully, make more money). When I visited, QR menus were the norm, and instead of grabbing snacks off an open bar, you had to sit and order at your table (you can read more about my tapas experience in Madrid), but the food was still delicious and the gregarious, fun atmosphere was still there, the crowds were merely smaller and had moved outside into the cool air.

Getting there

In addition to easy access to culture, food, and camaraderie, the logistics of getting to and from Barcelona are easy too. I flew into Barcelona from Paris, and filled out the required health declaration form online, received a QR code by email a few seconds later, and then showed it at a health-security checkpoint after deplaning. Totally hassle-free.

I also took a three-hour train ride from Barcelona to Madrid, and it could not have been easier or more relaxing. I booked my ticket online and I chose the quiet car for two reasons: First, so that I wouldn’t have to listen to loud talkers on their cell phones the whole way, but also as an added safety measure, since talking spreads particles and the train windows didn’t open. That said, I wasn’t too worried: I am vaccinated, and all passengers and staff were required to wear masks, plus I had a two-seater to myself, as did everyone else in my car. The train ride ended up being a surprisingly restful and enjoyable little break. It was very comfortable (air-conditioned, smooth, and nearly silent), and the scenery of villages and vineyards passing by was beautiful.

But even as I was pulling out of Barcelona, I was already missing it. The city is coming alive now, and it’s having a kind of aaaah moment to stretch, sparkle, and rejuvenate. Travelers who can get there soon, before all of the mass tourists and cruise ship passengers flood back in, will be revitalized by that energy (not to mention the joy of being in the Sagrada Familia without fighting for space and sightlines). We’ve all just spent more than a year living through the bad side of Covid; for pete’s sake, take advantage and reward yourself with the one upside.

Transparency disclosure: So that I could investigate Spain on your behalf, The Serras Hotel provided two nights’ complimentary accommodations, and Virginia Irurita arranged for two private guiding experiences.

 



Be a safer, smarter traveler: Sign up for Wendy’s weekly newsletter to stay in the know. And read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip.

castle on green hill overlooking Douro River in Portugal with text Europe's Latest Reopening Where You can go and what it will be like

Europe’s Latest Reopenings: Where You Can Go and What It Will Be Like

Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, Malta, Germany, the Czech Republic—so many countries in Europe have just opened or are about to. If you’re vaccinated, right now is a uniquely enjoyable and fun moment for experiencing these places without the usual tourist crowds and with a warm welcome from virtually everyone you meet. In this live Q&A, we talked about how to make your Europe trip easy and special.

You can watch the full Q&A above.

These were the over-arching takeaways:

  • Covid-related logistics—such as testing requirements, flight schedule changes, hotel availability, car rental—are much easier to handle than you might imagine. Based on what Wendy’s hearing from travelers, logistics and service levels are much better in Europe than in the U.S. this summer so far. Of course, such logistics are hugely diminished, or eliminated entirely, if you use the right local fixer who has the knowledge and resources on the ground. Just ask your fellow travelers.
  • Countries that are usually packed are experiencing a unique crowd-free moment.
  • There is value to be had if you travel now. In Portugal, for example, prices have dropped for 2021, but not for 2022.

You can read about Billie’s experiences in Greece, France, and Spain this month here:

As journalists, it’s our job to review and road-test trip designers—that’s how we curate The WOW List, and it’s how we make recommendations to you. You can reach out to the right local fixer for your needs by using Wendy’s WOW List of road-tested trip planners around the world. If you contact them this way, they’ll know you’re a VIP sent by Wendy, you’ll get all the benefits that come with that, and you can start your way to earning a WOW Moment from Wendy (a complimentary, exclusive, insider travel experience).

The travel specialists featured in our talk were:

•Portugal – Gonçalo Correia
Read reviews of Goncalo, and contact him through The WOW List to be marked as a VIP

•Switzerland – Nina Müller
Read reviews of Nina, and contact her through The WOW List to be marked as a VIP

•Malta – Damon Camilleri Allan
Read reviews of Damon, and contact him through The WOW List to be marked as a VIP

•Italy – Jennifer Virgilio
Read reviews of Jennifer, and contact her through The WOW List to be marked as a VIP

Covid-era travel intel and articles:

Many of you also had questions about other topics, and you can find answers in the following videos and articles, as well as in our special Covid-19 section of WendyPerrin.​com where all this intel is collected.

Thanks again to all who joined us and to all of you who are watching now. Sign up for our newsletter for info on our next talk, and please share our videos and articles with a friend who loves travel. Together we can figure out how to do it as smartly, safely, and meaningfully as possible. —Wendy, Brook, Billie, and Kristine

 


 

Be a safer, smarter traveler: Sign up for Wendy’s weekly newsletter to stay in the know. And read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip.

Madrid Spain Parque Madrid Rio with Pablo

The Wonderful Thing the Pandemic Revealed About Madrid

In Madrid, locals were going about their daily lives as normal—going to work, eating at restaurants, and relaxing in parks.
Madrid Spain Parque Madrid Rio with Pablo
Madrid has beautiful parks. Parque Madrid Rio runs along both sides of the Manzanares River and is criss-crossed by many pedestrian bridges, including Dominique Perrault Architecture's spiraling metal Arganzuel Footbridge.
Madrid Spain Parque de El Retiro formal gardens
Retiro Park is the city's backyard; Wander through formal gardens, run along its paths, chill out in the many shaded quads, or take a boat out on the lake.
Madrid Spain Parque de El Retiro glass house
The Glass Palace in Retiro Park was built in 1887.
Madrid Spain tapas at Casa Lucas
The tapas scene is alive and well. It looks a little different these days (you have to order from your table), but the goal is the same: good food and drink with good friends.
Madrid Spain Valor chocolate and porras
Hardest part of my job: testing out churros and chocolate. This is the offering at Valor, which serves my guide Pablo's favorite chocolate. Note that these fried dough sticks are actually porras, which are thicker than churros and smooth all around.
Madrid Spain San Gines chocolate and churros
These are the churros and chocolate at San Ginés.
front door to San Gines chocolate shop in Madrid
The shop has been serving this treat since 1894, and it usually has long lines of people waiting to give it a try.
Madrid Spain Puerta del Sol outdoor scene
Puerta del Sol is a city-center plaza near lots of shopping and food, but it was relaxed rather than mobbed.
Madrid Spain City Hall
The architecture in Madrid is beautiful. This is the city hall (Palacio de Cibeles), which also holds public events and exhibitions.
Madrid Spain National Library
The National Library of Spain is another stunner.
Don't forget to look up every once in a while as you walk through neighborhoods. The small residential buildings are charming too.
Madrid Spain Prado Museum
The Prado Museum had no line. I walked right up to the counter and bought my ticket to enter at the spur of the moment. I wasn't allowed to take photos inside, so you can't see it, but the interior was crowd-free too. Other than in the first gallery when everyone enters, I was alone in many of the rooms.
Madrid Spain local market where I got GF bread
I trekked to a local indoor market after one of my tapas waiters told me about a gluten-free bakery I had to try. I got there first thing in the morning just as it opened.
Madrid Spain Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor is usually a touristy square, ringed with not-so-great restaurants and filled with visitors and the hawkers trying to sell them stuff. Even this square was refreshingly empty.
Back at my hotel, the Palacio de los Duques Gran Meliá, I had windows that opened to a quiet street below.
Madrid Spain hotel breakfast garden Palacio de los Duques Gran Meliá
I could eat breakfast in a leafy garden each morning.
Madrid Spain rooftop view from hotel Palacio de los Duques Gran Meliá
And get fresh air and great views from the rooftop lounge. From left to right, that's the Teatro Real (Royal Theater), Almudena Cathedral, and the Royal Palace.

 

 

Do not skip Madrid. The Spanish capital is buzzing, and the buzz is building, not just because of the easing of Covid restrictions—e.g., restaurants and bars are open until 1:00 am, and masks are no longer required outdoors as of June 26—but because this underrated, often overlooked city is on the verge of becoming the new It place. In the post-lockdown quiet of no tourists, you can get to know its people and experience its charms like never before.

I visited about a week after Spain opened to U.S. travelers in June, and this is what I learned:

It’s about the people

Madrid doesn’t have an iconic draw, like Barcelona and its Sagrada Familia. Nor does it have an aura around its name, like Paris. “People don’t have a mental image of what to expect, because we don’t have a monument like the Eiffel Tower,” says my local guide, Pablo, as we explore the city. In fact, he tells me, many visitors have admitted to him that they weren’t sure whether they should come to Madrid at all. “They think it’s just the business capital,” he says. “It is less obvious, it is less right in your face, it’s less monumental than other cities. But travelers who spend two or three days here start to see the way people live, and they understand that this is what makes Madrid special.” Even in my short visit, I can see what Pablo means. Madrid is real. Real people live here, doing real things, being their real selves, going about their real lives whether you’re there or not. It doesn’t feel like the tourist magnet that so many other famous European cities can feel like.

This is a remarkable kind of place to drop into as a traveler. In Madrid, it means there’s no barrier to seeing—and joining in—how residents get around and do their thing. They’re on the same streets as you are. And, especially now, there is no feeling of a tourist bubble in Madrid. One reason is that there are very few tourists. Another reason is that Madrid is Madrid. It is a cool city that doesn’t have an attitude about being cool.

“Madrid is very welcoming to people from everywhere, because it’s a city of people from everywhere, like New York,” Pablo explains. “No one is really from here, so it’s welcoming.” I ask him how a visitor might experience that feeling of welcome, especially if they’re only here for a few days. “You could talk to anyone, and no one would ever make you feel like you couldn’t go anywhere because you weren’t rich enough or local enough. Madrileños have a very welcoming and accepting nature.”

It’s about the food

A surge of four- and five-star hotel openings in the past few years has not only elevated the level of accommodations and service in Madrid—such as the brand-new Four Seasons Madrid and the Gran Meliá Palacio de Los Duques (a 19th-century palace where I stayed)—but it has helped draw attention to the city’s growing world-class culinary scene.

In addition to David Muñoz’s three-Michelin-star DiverXO, Madrid has four more restaurants with two stars, and another 14 that have earned one star. Of course you don’t have to seek out Michelin distinctions to eat well in Madrid—even the most casual tavernas can turn out a stellar tortilla de patatas (try several so that you can join the local debate of onions vs. no onions).

The tapas process has changed due to Covid, though. You’ll no longer have to elbow your way through a mob to reach the bar, nor will you be able to grab skewered snacks yourself (in most places they’re behind a barrier or not even lined up on the bar at all). Instead, for now, you have to sit down at a table (indoor dining is permitted in Spain), scan a QR code for the menu or look for a chalkboard posted on the wall, and order from a waiter. Although some tourists who’ve read guidebooks may be disappointed by the lack of a tapas-bar mosh pit, in my opinion that attitude misses the point of this tradition. Tapas isn’t a contact sport—it’s a lifestyle. It’s about hanging out with friends over good food and drink in your favorite local places.

And such hanging out is happening. Even on a Tuesday night, I ate my way through several tapas bars where groups of friends, and couples young and old, were enjoying small plates and small glasses of beer (order una caña so you don’t get too tipsy). What’s more, there’s a potential bonus to this new way of doing tapas, if you’re open to it. In my case, it was chatting with my waiter, who taught me a few key phrases so that I could order vegetarian tapas more easily, and who also told me about a gluten-free bakery run by his friend that I visited at a neighborhood market the next day (and where I got to chat with the baker too).

The other aspect of tapas crawls that Covid has changed is the hour they start. During the worst of the pandemic, when restrictions mandated that restaurants close early, they started to open earlier too. So, instead of dining at 9:00 or 10:00 pm, people started eating at 8:00 or 8:30. For now, that seems to be sticking. “Three years ago it would have been crazy to hear someone say they wanted to eat that early, but now it’s sensible,” Pablo says with a laugh. “You can eat early, then go for a drink later.”

Just as we want to go to the places that don’t have their usual long lines right now, so do the locals. So, a longtime Madrid resident who normally would not bother to battle the tourist mob at Chocolatería San Ginés (which has been written up in countless guidebooks for its chocolate and churros) is more inclined to revisit such popular spots now. “There were places I thought I’d never again go back to because of the crowds,” Pablo tells me. “But this is the type of thing that we Madrileños are starting to do more—we are taking advantage of this parentheses in history.” And, with that, he insists that I too take advantage of the lack of tourists at San Ginés—but that I must also sample the chocolate at Valor (his favorite) and report back with my opinion. My favorite kind of assignment.

It’s about the arts

As much as I love all the food and desserts, Madrid’s world-class art scene is worth the visit alone: The Prado is renowned for its collection of Velazquez, El Greco, Goya, and Bosch; the Museo Reina Sofía boasts Picasso’s Guernica along with other masterworks of contemporary art; and the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza makes the third “point” of Madrid’s so-called Golden Triangle of art, with its impressive private collection of Western paintings. But there’s so much more: the Biblioteca Nacional de España (which has exhibits of works on paper, like one of illuminated manuscripts that I took in), the Museo de América, and the National Archaeological Museum; plus a slew of smaller galleries and hip cultural centers like the Matadero Madrid, a contemporary-arts hub in a converted slaughterhouse that presents exhibitions, events, and festivals across a wide range of disciplines. And right now is a great time to have these venues to yourself. For instance, there was no line at all to get into the Prado. I was able to walk right up and buy a ticket at the spur of the moment, and although there was an initial congregation of visitors in the first few galleries, I found myself blissfully alone in many of the rooms after that.

Madrid also has a big theater scene that offers Spanish-language versions of popular Broadway musicals and plays, plus a thriving “off Broadway” too. “Theaters were one of the first things to open,” Pablo points out to me, as evidence of how important they are to the lifestyle here. “On a weekend [pre-pandemic], there could be 100 to 140 performances around the city.” Theaters are currently open and operating at limited capacity, and more performances are in the works.

It’s about urban design

Madrid’s art isn’t just inside the buildings. It is the buildings. Take the time to stroll around: Grand palaces and frilly cake-like mansions are everywhere. I recommend a walk along Paseo del Prado toward the elaborate city hall and then down Calle de Alcalá toward Puerta del Sol, where, if you’re so inclined you might stop for a leches merengada ice cream at Palazzo or a cream pastry at La Mallorquina. Even the residential buildings are lined with petite iron-railed balconies that remind me of Paris.

Madrid’s green spaces are just as dramatic. Parque de El Retiro is a sprawling, sculpted green space on the east side, where a crystal palace glitters over a small lake at the top of the hill, and you can take rowboats out on a larger lake nearby. Even on a weekday, the park was alive: I saw a group exercise class, couples of all ages walking hand in hand, plenty of dog owners running their pets, and a surprising number of roller bladers. There are formal gardens and fountains and snack areas, but my favorite features of the park are the many shaded quads, perfect for picnics or just relaxing and reading up on what to do with the rest of your day.

On the west side of the city, there’s Casa de Campo, 16th-century royal hunting grounds that were converted into the city’s largest public park and forest preserve in the 1930s. If the trails, sports fields, and pool don’t provide enough outdoor activity for you, there’s also an amusement park on the grounds.

In between Retiro and Casa de Campo is the Parque Madrid Rio, a more recent addition that transformed the banks of the Manzanares River into a green space for biking, walking, and admiring the many pedestrian bridges that span the small waterway. Don’t miss the super-modern, spiraling-metal Arganzuel Footbridge or the 18th-century Baroque stone Puente de Toledo.

It’s the perfect time

This unusually quiet, post-lockdown moment has created an unexpected side effect: Being in Madrid now, when the city is remarkably free of tourists and when locals are seamlessly getting back to their normal lives, reveals what makes this place awesome. Tourists are going to realize it soon and descend in droves, so get here before it becomes a hot spot.

And give yourself enough days to dive in: Talk to people; stroll the streets; take in as many museums, galleries, theater, and dance performances as you can; and, of course, eat as much as you can too. The right travel fixer can spotlight the coolest experiences, open doors to more Madrileños than you could meet on your own, and connect you with a great local guide. Virginia Irurita, one of Wendy’s recommended travel specialists for Spain, matched me with Pablo, and it was like hanging out with an old friend who totally got me. I might just frame the piece of paper on which he wrote down all his favorite dinner and dessert spots.

Transparency disclosure: So that I could investigate Spain on your behalf, Gran Meliá Palacio de Los Duques provided two nights’ complimentary accommodations, and Virginia Irurita arranged for a half day of private guiding with Pablo.

 



Be a safer, smarter traveler: Sign up for Wendy’s weekly newsletter to stay in the know. And read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip.

Paris Louvre pyramid plaza empty right after Paris reopening after covid lockdown

Paris Is Having a Moment. Don’t Miss It.

I arrived in Paris on the day that France opened to travelers from the U.S. (June 9).  My job: Find out what had changed and how it feels to be there now.  Short answer: Not much, and amazing. Walking around the city felt like the first day of spring when everyone emerges from a long snowy winter excited to socialize outdoors again. In the Latin Quarter on Friday night, I watched an impromptu dance party coalesce. I saw friends reconnect as they walked along the Seine.  In the Jardin des Tuileries, I saw a man on a bike literally stop to smell the flowers and coworkers and couples picnicking in the shade. I found the city flickering with moments like that—quiet in all the right places and busy in all the right places. As an added bonus, the sun doesn’t set until about 10pm in June, so there’s even more time to take in the festive atmosphere.  In the few days since I visited, restrictions have been eased further:  Masks are no longer required outdoors as of today, and there will be no curfew starting June 20.

Paris is having a unique moment. Here’s what I found:

The feeling on the street

 

Paris was downright celebratory from June 9-13:  The curfew had just been extended from 9pm to 11pm—and those two hours made a world of difference. On the first night, I spoke to Parisians dining at the many jubilant patios along Rue Saint-​Honoré. “We have our lives back,” a woman told me as she sat outdoors with a friend who’d just returned to Paris. Nearby, I saw a young man carefully composing photographs with his prized old-school SLR camera; he explained that he wanted to capture the evening on film so that he could remember it. At another bustling restaurant, the owner gushed, “I opened five years ago, and this is the best Wednesday we’ve ever had!” And you can bet that the next few weeks will be even better: the curfew will be dropped completely on June 20.

Although indoor dining is now allowed with certain protocols, most people are still eating outdoors—not surprising, considering this is spring in Paris.

While eating, masks come off (except for the waitstaff), but anytime I walked into a store, hotel, gallery, or museum, people put their masks on and used the hand sanitizer dispensers placed prominently at the door. In fact, I saw so many people stop to use them that the etiquette seems rote by now. Masks are no longer required outdoors as of June 17.

What’s open and what’s closed

Cinemas are open, concerts are happening in small venues (indoor and out), the Opéra Bastille is open with a ballet of Romeo and Juliet, the Opéra Garnier is open for visits (performances are coming later), and most museums are open. The Eiffel Tower is the only big-ticket sight I encountered that was still closed, and it was scheduled to reopen on July 16. (In the meantime, an alternative for good city views is the Centre Pompidou’s Restaurant Georges.)

Shops are open all over the city, and the streets are full of people going about their lives. In Saint-Germain on a Saturday afternoon, the streets were bustling, the brunch spots were full, and there were lines at the boulangeries. Le Marais was hopping too. That night, I even stumbled on a champagne-filled art opening hidden in a courtyard.

Popular places that are crowd-free

Versailles
Versailles
Versailles
The Louvre
The Louvre
The Louvre's Mona Lisa room when I visited June 11, 2021
crowd in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre Paris France
The Louvre's Mona Lisa room when Wendy visited in 2012

 

While it seemed that the day-to-day venues of Parisian life were nearing normalcy, I did go to a few places that were definitely not back to their usual selves yet. And this was a very good thing.

Versailles was basically empty. On my Thursday mid-morning visit, there was no line to get in; in fact, there was barely anyone on the sprawling plaza at all. My guide Isabelle recalled that in 2019, a visitor could expect to wait two to three hours to enter the palace, even if they’d pre-purchased a ticket. Right now, we were able to walk right in, timed tickets in hand. The woman who took our passes said that in pre-pandemic times, Versailles saw 35,000 people a day. So far this season, the most she’d seen was 10,000—on the previous weekend.

Once we were inside the massive palace, I saw just how few people were there. In previous years, visitors would be so crammed together that they’d be jostling for personal space as well for views of the opulent rooms. But when we walked into the usually packed Queen’s bedroom, only two other guests were standing there. Isabelle whispered, “Oooh, this is incredible. I’ve never seen it like this.”

Outside the chateau, the gardens are so vast that it’s hard to believe they could be teeming with people. But they could. Yet they weren’t. We saw two busloads of students on a field trip, but those were the only big groups we encountered. Instead, I wandered manicured lanes of flowers, took the usual Instagram shots without worrying about random tourists walking through them, and shielded my eyes from the statues that had been re-gilded during the pandemic closure and were now so bright they hurt to look at. #VersaillesProblems.

“How long do you think this respite will last?” I asked Isabelle as we walked back to the train. “Months? Through the end of the year?”

“Weeks,” she said.

If you come after this unique window of post-lockdown calm, one way to ensure a less crowded visit is to leverage the connections of a local travel fixer. Jennifer Virgilio, a France specialist on Wendy’s WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts, can arrange for you to see areas that are off-limits to the general public, like the apartment of the mistresses and the horse stables.

The Louvre was similarly uncrowded. You can easily buy tickets online for a set time slot now, but I happened to be passing by when I saw a distinct lack of lines at the pyramid entrance, so I took my chances and tried to get a ticket on the spot. The guard at the empty rope queue was checking ticket times as a few people around me flashed their phones and walked in, but he didn’t hesitate to let me pass when I said that I wanted to go in and purchase a ticket for today. When I got to the ticket counter inside, there was only one family in line ahead of me, and then the clerk quickly sold me a ticket for the current time slot. The whole process took only a few minutes and was very simple, but I don’t know if buying tickets in person like that will continue to be possible as travelers return en masse. Note that if you do not have a pre-purchased ticket, you must enter through the Pyramid. The attendants at alternate entrances like the Pavilion de la Bibliothèque and Porte des Lions, the latter of which is a great secret for bypassing long lines, won’t let you in without one. (The door guards at the Musée d’Orsay were similarly strict: If you didn’t have a ticket on your phone, they would not let you pass. And that’s why I saw about a dozen people busily tapping at their phones to download tickets.)

Once inside the Louvre, I headed straight for the Mona Lisa. If there was any arbiter of how busy the museum really was, that was it. And my jaw dropped as I walked in. The long circuitous rope lines were empty, and only about a dozen people were milling about. I waited about two minutes while some teenagers took selfies in front of the painting, and then I had an unobstructed view. Remembering the photo that Wendy had taken of the same room jam-packed in 2012, I snapped a comparison. (See both photos in the slideshow above.)

The hottest ticket in town

Swiss artist Urs Fischer made giant wax sculptures that burn a little every day, like candles.
Urs Fischer's wax airplane seats, with candles
The building is the old commodities exchange, and it's a work of art itself.
I liked the shadows created by the glass dome.
Gallery view
Artist Bertrand Lavier placed artworks in 24 wood-and-glass cases built for the 1889 World Fair.

 

While I would never say someone should skip the Louvre or the d’Orsay, the museum that I most wanted to see on this trip was the Pinault Collection, Paris’s newest addition to the art scene.

This modern and contemporary art museum has moved into the historic, iron-and-glass-domed Bourse de Commerce, which was a commodities exchange for wheat, sugar, and other crops in the 1800s. Now it’s been repurposed as a home for the vast art collection of French billionaire businessman François Pinault, who restored the building to its peak glory, hired Pritzker-Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando to design the interior additions, and filled the galleries with some very interesting works (including a room of sculptures made from slowly melting wax). This kind of old-meets-new juxtaposition is exactly my thing, so it was at the top of my must-do list for Paris. But since it opened in May, it’s been the hottest ticket in town: Slots were being released in controlled batches and were selling out as soon as they were posted.  Jennifer, however, was able to get me in.

Local guides are even more valuable

If you’re a regular reader here, you most likely already know the great value that private guides bring to a trip. Not only can they bring a place to life with their stories and introduce us to the most interesting people (artists, chefs, musicians, sommeliers, fashion designers, whatever your interest), but now they can provide fascinating insights into this new Covid era we all share. I had a hundred questions for Isabelle about what it was like to be in Paris during the pandemic, and she was able to give me personal insight I never could have understood from reading the news. As we walked through the city, she pointed out how different businesses and even whole streets were affected, she shared personal stories from lockdown, she illuminated aspects of city life and culture that the pandemic temporarily changed, and added context to what I was seeing all around me.

Where to stay

The view from my balcony at Le Meurice, over the Tuileries.
A suite at Le Meurice
A cute "attic" room at Le Meurice
The elaborate regal decor is dotted with contemporary art, like the glass sculpture over the fireplace and a standing panel of photography.
Relais Christine's entrance courtyard
Room 11, where I stayed.
It has a private backyard. Other rooms have outdoor patios as well, that open onto a shared lawn.
A leafy nook for sitting with a glass of wine or a cup of tea.
The lobby at Relais Christine is more like a living room.
At Airelles Château de Versailles, Le Grand Contrôle, the furniture and artwork are replicas of 18th-century pieces.
One of the sitting rooms
The outdoor dining area looks onto the Orangerie.
The dishes, made by Limoges, are exact replicas of an 1833 set belonging to King Louis Philippe, the last king of France. He is the king who turned Versailles into a museum.

 

I tried out two very different types of hotels: a grand hotel that made me feel like I was living in a palace, and an intimate boutique relais that made me feel like I was living in a cozy mansion. Both had a few key things in common that made my trip feel safer and less stressful.

My first stay was at Le Meurice, an elegant palace built in 1835 with many distinctions: Queen Victoria stayed here in 1855, and it was the first hotel in Paris to have a telephone and, later, to have private bathrooms in each room. The amenities and service here continue to be as impressive as those, especially the views. Ask for a room facing the Tuileries garden directly across from the hotel; and open the French doors to let in fresh air and to see all the way from the Louvre to the Grand Palais and the Eiffel Tower. (The fifth and sixth floors have balconies; floors one through four have windows.) But don’t forget to keep your eyes open inside, too: There are contemporary artworks placed throughout the public spaces.

The hotel is in a prime location in the 1st arondissement right on Rue de Rivoli, within walking distance of the Louvre, the d’Orsay, and plenty of restaurants and shops on both the Right and Left banks. Don’t miss the hotel’s own newly reopened eateries either: Alain Ducasse’s Restaurant le Meurice has two Michelin stars.

My second stop was the Relais Christine, where the word charming might have been invented. You enter the hotel through a private courtyard rich with greenery; there’s even a little loveseat nook under a trellis where you can have drinks. Inside, the lobby and breakfast area are outfitted with gem-colored couches, textured wallpaper, and plush pillows. It is all very elegant, yet unstuffy and homey—like if you had a cool, down-to-earth duchess for a cousin and she invited you to stay for the weekend. Many of the 48 rooms have outdoor space, and #11 has its own private backyard. I loved how Relais Christine was right in the middle of the lively shops and restaurants of the Saint-Germain-des-Pres neighborhood, but tucked away just off the main roads on a small, quiet street.

At Versailles, there’s a new hotel that is getting a lot of buzz, the Airelles Château de Versailles, Le Grand Contrôle. It’s set in an 1861 palace building (called Le Grand Contrôle) originally used for schmoozing with ambassadors, artists, and other political and cultural bigwigs.  Each room is decorated differently with re-creations of period artwork and furniture, and the staff wear period-inspired uniforms as well. The entire venue has only 14 rooms, an Alain Ducasse restaurant, and exclusive guest perks such as access to areas of Versailles that are normally off-limits and after-hours tours of the palace.  The right local travel fixer, such as as the Paris specialist I used for my trip, can also plan these for you.

Transparency disclosure: So that I could investigate Paris on your behalf, Le Meurice and Relais Christine each provided two nights’ complimentary accommodations.  Jennifer Virgilio arranged for a day of private guiding with Isabelle, for which I paid 550 euros—and she was worth every cent!

 



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Naxos is the Greek Island You’ve Been Looking For

The island's long beaches are a big draw, but they're still not as crowded as on other islands.
Naxos is the largest of the Cyclades islands, but it feels homey and small.
The Portata, an ancient entry gate to a temple for Apollo
Naxos is lauded for its cheeses. These are made by the Koufopoulos family, who've been producing cheeses for four generations.
Kyriakos Tziblakis runs the market his grandfather started. Every shelf is packed with local items, from honey and olives to spices and clay pots.
Kitron liqueur is only produced on Naxos, and Katerina Probonas's family has been distilling it for more than 100 years.
Kitron comes from the citron fruit, which looks like a big green lemon but is more sour. Katerina's shop sells candied slices, and they are delicious.
Naxos Town, the main town on the island, is lined with whitewashed buildings and splashes of colorful flowers.
In town, families and children were playing in the main plaza, and shops and restaurants were open late.
sunset over sailboats Naxos Town Greece
Sunset from the Naxos Town plaza rivals the Santorini experience—and with none of the same crowds.

 

The Greek island of Naxos is known for its beaches and turquoise water, but it should also be on your radar for the food specialities produced here, the hidden-in-plain-sight history, and the tranquil atmosphere.

Even though it’s the biggest island in the Cyclades, Naxos has dodged the overtourism challenges of neighboring Santorini and Mykonos so far, largely thanks to the absence of large cruise ships. When Greece opened to U.S. travelers in May, I talked to Mina Agnos, one of Wendy’s recommended travel fixers for Greece, about where I should go. I put Naxos on my itinerary in order to get off the beaten path, see its lauded beaches for myself, and investigate whether the pandemic has changed the island experience.

The scene: relaxed and comfortable

On Naxos, it is easy to feel like the pandemic doesn’t exist. Workers at shops, hotels, taxis, and restaurants do wear masks, wait staff also wear gloves, and hand sanitizer is everywhere, but since most of daily social life happens outdoors here, the rhythms and behaviors don’t feel different. Tavernas have lots of tables scattered down adorable stone alleys, historical sights are in the open air, and the Aegean sea breeze blows over the beaches. Even the communal areas at my hotel, the 18 Grapes, were outdoors: a pool with socially distanced lounges, an al fresco bar, a breakfast area with floor to ceiling doors that opened to the pool deck; plus, all the 18 rooms also have private terraces.

At night, the island’s main town (called Naxos Town or Chora Town), had many open restaurants along its narrow winding streets, but especially right by the water. Families and children were playing in the main plaza, and shops were open late, staffed by chatty, welcoming locals whose masks could not hide their happiness to have travelrs back. Don’t miss the sunset overlooking the harbor.

So in all the ways that mattered, my time here felt like a “normal” slice of Greek island life. If anything, time on Naxos feels even more slowed down than usual.

The food: fresh and farmed right here

Naxos is mostly known for its beaches and turquoise water, and those are indeed stunning, but it’s worth a visit for the agricultural products alone—they have a special character thanks to the island’s green mountains, mineral-rich soil, windy micro-climate, and tens of thousands of sheep, goats, and cows. Its potatoes are known throughout Greece, and you can try the rich, yellow spuds with dinner at any taverna on the island. Look for the option to get them with cheese and you’ll be adding Naxos’s other masterpiece.  I spent some delicious time sampling the island’s signature wheels with a fourth-generation cheesemaker from the Koufopoulos family, which has a farm on the island and a cute, stone-walled shop in town. Gloved and masked (and with no one else in the store), Maria handed me slices of two Naxian cheeses renowned throughout the Cyclades islands: arseniko (Greek for masculine), a hard, pungent cheese; and the milder, sweeter Graviera Naxou. Next she offered me a very unusual sour cheese called xinotyro and a delicious herbed variety made special by the family.

Naxos has yet another culinary distinction: It’s the only place that produces Kitron, a citrusy liqueur made from the citron fruit. I sipped a glass with Katerina Probonas, whose family has been distilling the drink for 106 years, and which also makes jams, candies, and other products from the fruit. I was surprised at how delicious the dried, candied slices were, because the fruit on its own can be sour.

In between, I stopped at a market run by the Tziblakis family for three generations, where you can buy herbs, honey, olives and olive oil, traditional cookware and clay pots (for baking my new favorite Cycladic chickpea-stew recipe), and cheese from small farms that don’t have their own shops. Kyriakos, the proprietor, let me try a few more slices, and explained that not only was everything in the shop made locally, the displays were even decorated with paintings by his wife.

My guide, Katia, was friends with everyone, and people waved and said hello even from the stores we didn’t stop in. For anyone interested in a deeper dive into the agricultural and culinary scene on Naxos, she can arrange an all-day, progressive-meal tour, where you can stop at several Naxian villages and farms and eat a different course at each one.

The beaches: beautiful and not too crowded

As for the beaches, they were peaceful, picturesque, and not too crowded at this point of the season (and only a few weeks after the country reopened to travelers). The sandy stretches here are longer than on the other popular islands so there’s more space to spread out and walk.  There are several beach areas around the island, so you can hop around and find your favorite. I was walked to the seaside village of Agios Prokopios from my hotel, where you can either rent one of the chaise lounges that various establishments have lined up on the sand (some farther apart than others) or bring your own blanket. And food can be ordered from shoreline restaurants and eaten al fresco.

The history: under your feet and at your fingertips

The iconic image of Naxos is the giant marble Portata, a gate standing 16 feet high over the port since 530 B.C. It is the entrance to what should have been a temple for Apollo but was never completed, and the structure is unusual because it doesn’t face east as most ancient Greek temples do, but rather toward the island of Delos, where Apollo was supposedly born. It’s also unusual because it’s just sitting there on the hill — there’s no entrance fee, there’s not even an entrance gate, it’s a literal open-air museum on a small hill that you can climb at any hour of the day (it’s a particularly beautiful sunset spot). This lack of walls and barriers is very Naxian. The island has several ancient treasures scattered around, including the unusually shaped Temple of Demeter and a sunken Mycenaean-era city, and the entire top of Naxos town is part of the 13th-century complex where the Venetians ruled their Duchy of the Archipelago. So just walking through the streets, you can see (and touch) remnants of the past if you know where to look: a cross of the Knights Templar hidden in a sone wall, a fabric-measuring mark used by the Duchess when tailors who came to the castle door, granite foundations of a church from the 6th century BC, and (my favorite) an ancient marble column that now stands nonchalantly next to a fruit stand.

“This is not a monument,” said my guide Katia as we wound through the old castle streets lined with houses. “People live here—you can see their laundry,” she said pointing. “This is what makes Naxos special.”



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Aerial view of Athens Greece from airplane June 4 2021

6 Things I Learned About Taking an International Flight to a Recently Reopened Country

I’ve just landed in Greece, after a nine-hour nonstop flight from New York. Here are five things I learned about taking an international flight to a recently reopened country.

Check the situation at the gate at least an hour before boarding—it is likely to be hectic.

When I arrived at JFK two hours before my flight to Athens, I passed through security in less than a minute (really!), but at the gate I found a scene that was a mess. For one thing, the flight was packed—it was a big plane (2-4-2 configuration in economy) and nearly every single seat was taken, which meant that there were a ton of people huddled around the gate. But what made it worse was that everyone was queued up in a very, very long line for a reason that few people seemed to understand. Some thought it was the usual pre-boarding lineup. Others thought we had to get verified for something before we’d be allowed to board. Still others weren’t sure if this was a verification line only for people who had to show their Covid test and if there was a separate line for vaccinated people.

Delta representatives were at the gate, but they were not using a PA system to make announcements, just shouting occasionally—so you couldn’t hear anything. We all waited, wondering what we were supposed to be doing. I got the feeling that the airline staff was feeling the same way. As rules change and solidify for the countries we’re traveling to, the airlines are tasked with a lot of the prep work—and they don’t yet have good systems in place. This is why boarding was scheduled to start an hour before departure, but it was still a confusing hour. So if you’re the kind of traveler who usually saunters to the gate right around boarding time, do yourself a favor and (a) get to the airport at minimum two hours ahead of your flight and (b) head to the gate as soon as you get through security so that you can evaluate the situation and find out whether you need to start queuing up early for any verification process that has suddenly popped up.

In my case, it turned out that the airline staff wanted to look at everyone’s passport, boarding pass, and official Passenger Locator Form—a contact-tracing form from the Greek government that had to be submitted online prior to departure. (To make things more complicated, when some passengers had filled out the form, me included, they got confirmation emails that the QR-coded, approved document wouldn’t arrive in their email inbox until midnight on the day of their arrival in Greece—and since our flight was an overnight flight that started the day before, we only had proof of submission but not the actual approved form. In the end, the frazzled single Delta staff member tasked with checking the documentation allowed this, but there was a lot of stress among my fellow passengers as to whether they’d be allowed to board.)

Print everything out.

If you keep all your documents on your phone (boarding pass, vaccine/test proof, and any government-required health forms), you’re going to have to shuffle through a bunch of apps when an official asks to see each one. If it’s allowed, you might want to go old-school and print everything out on paper so you can hand over the stack in one fell swoop rather than wrestling with your phone. In fact, the Delta attendant asked me for a paper boarding pass—maybe it makes their lives a little easier too.

Carry a scarf—it’s even more important now.

This is a classic tip, but there’s a new reason why a scarf is part of my essential plane gear. Delta put a blanket and pillow on every seat (yes, even in economy) for the overnight flight, but I couldn’t help but wonder: How clean are they? How are airplane pillows sanitized? The blanket came wrapped in plastic, which I guess indicates that it came from the cleaners. However, the pillows were not wrapped in anything—it was just a pillow in a pillowcase, and I couldn’t tell if the pillowcases were disposable or had been cleaned, as they were just sitting there on the seat on top of the blanket. So throwing a scarf or an extra shirt over the top can act as a personal pillowcase.

Eat at a different time than everyone else.

We took off at 5:15 pm NYC time, and dinner was served shortly after we boarded. Of course everyone took off their masks to eat (quick shout-out to all the passengers, because almost everyone wore their masks correctly; and kudos to the Delta flight crew, who politely nudged noncompliant passengers throughout the flight). Even though I’m vaccinated, and I know that airplanes are pretty safe environments, I still didn’t feel entirely comfortable dining with a few hundred strangers with their masks off. So I decided to wait to have my meal until everyone around me had finished eating and put their masks back on. This had two additional perks: First, I was able to use the bathrooms before the inevitable post-meal rush left them nasty. Second, delaying my meal meant that I could go right to sleep after we took off and therefore get on Greece time more effectively (it was midnight in Greece when our flight took off, we landed at 10am, and I am writing this feeling well rested and ready to get on with my day). When I woke a few hours later, I could eat while everyone else was masked. (I had brought my own food, but if you prefer to eat what they’re handing out, ask a flight attendant to hold your meal.)

Look for open seats at the last minute.

On my way to the airport, I checked the seat plan on the Delta app to see if there were any open rows left on my flight. I already knew the plane was going to be packed, but I also knew there’d been a few of the paid “preferred” rows still available when I checked that morning, and I was considering using my miles to upgrade. But I wanted to wait until closer to the flight time because I also knew I’d be frustrated if I spent the miles expecting to have a two-seat row to myself only to have someone snatch up the other seat at the last second. It was a bit of a gamble, but it paid off: I got the aisle spot in a two-seat row, and no one took the window. I don’t know why that row was considered “preferred”—it wasn’t an exit row, and the seats were the same size as the others—but my 9,500 SkyMiles points purchase ended up being worth it. I had more space for my own Covid-related comfort, and I could stretch out to sleep. If you don’t want to upgrade to a premium class or even a comfort-plus category seat (which was sold out on this flight), you could try this hack and see if you can get a little more space at the last minute.

Get the VIP fast-track pick-up for when you land at your destination.

Ironically, the entry process once I landed in Greece ran a lot smoother, and took a lot less time, than the boarding process in New York. That’s partly because the ground staff in the country you’re traveling to probably knows exactly what they need and how the process works. But it’s also because Mina Agnos, one of Wendy’s recommended travel fixers for Greece, booked a VIP fast-track pick-up service for me: A guide met me with a sign before I entered the passport control area and whisked me past the line of other passengers. First I flashed my CDC vaccine card and my Passenger Locator Form (as promised, the official version with the QR code was in my inbox when I landed, although no one ended up actually scanning the code). Then my fast-track fixer brought me to a special, no-line window to get my passport stamp. Several dozen people were on the regular line, and I expect there would be even more of a crowd as our plane continued to unload all its passengers. Not only did this whole process take just a few minutes, but it also alleviated the stress of dealing with the unfamiliar logistics of our Covid-travel era. With my fast-track fixer at my side, I knew that if I ran into a problem, she could communicate with whatever authorities might have questions, aid me in solving them, and help me get any additional support I needed.


We’re Here to Help

Right now is a remarkable opportunity for global travelers who are vaccinated. When your friends say that travel is problematic as a result of the pandemic—rental cars aren’t available, service even at 5-star hotels is shoddy—the problem is they’re not planning their trips right! Travel can be spectacular now if you choose the right destination, know the savviest local fixers, and approach them the optimal way. Check out these recent trip reviews to see the difference that Wendy’s WOW approach to trip planning makes. And if you’re looking for a similarly carefree travel experience, contact us at Ask Wendy.

Europe map with pins-1646756_1920 CR Pixabay

The EU Opens to Canadians and Australians, but not Americans

The European Union will open its borders to visitors on July 1, but not to travelers from the United States. However, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand and 12 others all made the cut.

After several weeks of uncertainty (during which Portugal, Iceland, and Greece all planned to reopen to Americans, and then reneged), the EU formalized a plan and announced that residents from only a select list of countries will be allowed entry (entry is based on residency, not nationality). Everyone else is banned for now.

That list—published by the European Council and also agreed to by the non-EU countries of Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein—approves 15 countries that have met certain health criteria, including a 14-day COVID-19 caseload count that’s close to or below the EU average, plus an evaluation of each country’s overall COVID-19 response (ie., testing, contact tracing, treatment, reporting, containment, and “the reliability of the information”).

The list will be reviewed every two weeks. As of July 1, residents of the following countries will be allowed to travel to the EU:

  • Algeria
  • Australia
  • Canada
  • Georgia
  • Japan
  • Montenegro
  • Morocco
  • New Zealand
  • Rwanda
  • Serbia
  • South Korea
  • Thailand
  • Tunisia
  • Uruguay
  • China, subject to confirmation of reciprocity
  • The Council counts residents of Andorra, Monaco, San Marino and the Vatican as part of the EU, so they’ll be allowed entry as well.

U.S. residents eager to travel can choose among several other countries and islands around the world that are not banning them (including England, which just relaxed its rules so that U.S. residents can enter the country as long as they quarantine for 14 days on arrival). For quarantine-less travel options, see The Countries That Have Reopened to U.S. Travelers and What You’ll Find There for our regularly updated intel on those options. For more info about traveling within the U.S., bookmark “Every State’s Coronavirus and Travel Information.”

Canadians, Australians, and others allowed into the EU will find the world’s best Europe trip-planning specialists—those who can ensure smart logistics, no crowds or lines, and safe places to stay and eat—on The WOW List.

 

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A village street of Santorini is bright white and blue, with pops of pink bougainvillea flowers

Portugal, Iceland, Greece Will Not Open to U.S. Travelers Just Yet

A few weeks ago, we published this story with the news that three European countries—Portugal, Iceland, and Greece—would be opening their borders to U.S. travelers in June. Then one by one, each of the three countries reneged on those plans, citing safety concerns. As it stands today, U.S. travelers are not yet able to travel to Portugal, Greece, or Iceland. We will continue to watch and update as details develop.

Please note that the CDC still advises against all non-essential travel and the U.S. State Department maintains a global level 4 “do not travel” alert.

Greece

Until July 1, open to EU citizens and residents only. For dates beyond July 1, the Greek government has not yet decided which countries’ travelers will be admitted and under what restrictions. 

For more information, check with the U.S. Embassy in Greece and Greece’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Portugal

Open to EU and Schengen state citizens and residents only. U.S. arrivals were originally supposed to be welcome starting June 6, but that date has been postponed, possibly to July 1. 

Continental Portugal: No quarantine required

Madeira: 14-day quarantine required

Azores: arrivals have choice of showing proof of negative test within past 72 hours, taking a test upon arrival and quarantining until a negative result is returned, or a 14-day quarantine.

If you were able to land in Portugal now, you’d see that certain safety measures and restrictions are in place across the country. Face masks and six-foot social distancing will be mandatory, and restaurant payment must be contactless, but museums, monuments, palaces, churches, bookshops, libraries, and beauty salons will all be open, along with restaurants, cafés, patisseries, esplanades, and shopping centers that are smaller than 4,300 square feet. Beaches are with restrictions. Taxis and rental cars will be available (as well as some public transportation options).

Look for the national tourism board’s “Clean & Safe” certification at hotels and tourist sites. To earn the validation, a company must sign a Declaration of Commitment to certain hygiene and cleaning processes informed by the country’s Directorate-General of Health. Participation is free and optional, and Turismo de Portugal will carry out audits of those who opt in.

Flights:

TAP Air Portugal, a Star Alliance airline, is running nonstop flights from Newark to Lisbon; later in July, flights to Lisbon from Boston, Miami, and Toronto are due to start up again. In an optimistic turn, the airline also plans to launch new flights later this summer from Boston and Toronto to the Azores, and from Montreal to Lisbon.

Iceland

Open to EU and Schengen state citizens and residents only.

Testing upon arrival or 14-day self-quarantine

Thanks to its small population (the lowest population density in Europe), Iceland was able to keep its COVID-19 count in check. As a result, Prime Minister KatrÍn Jakobsdóttir recently announced that the country reopened to travelers from with the Schengen area on June 15—with some rules in place:

Before arrival, travelers must fill out a pre-registration form, which includes a declaration of health, recent travel history, personal details, in-country contact info, and coronavirus status and possible exposure. At arrival, they can choose between 14-day quarantine and a covid test (no tests are required for children born in 2005 or earlier). Starting July 1, the test will cost each traveler ISK 15,000 (about $115), but in the two weeks before that they will be free.

Results from the test will be delivered in about 24 hours.  If a traveler tests positive, they will be required to self-quarantine; if they do not have a place to do so, the government will provide a location at no cost. The government will also cover medical examination and treatment. There is one big question that is still unanswered: how many tests will be available each day. Early reports suggest it may be as low as 500.

Flights:

Icelandair will resume its flights from the U.S. No other airline is flying to Iceland from the U.S. this year.

This article was originally published on May 29. It has been updated.

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The London Eye Ferris Wheel

The August Vacation Value You’ve Been Looking For

Summer has a way of sneaking up on you. Suddenly it’s the end of June.  If you haven’t made your summer vacation plans yet, we can suggest a world-class trip that won’t require traveling too far or spending too much. August is an ideal time of year to visit one of our favorite cities: London.  It’s a short flight (relatively speaking), it’s not too hot or crowded in August, you’ll find reduced prices for airfare and hotels (and many museums are free), and of course there’s so much to see and do, not only in the city itself but in the plethora of historic villages and sights in the countryside that you can make easy day trips to (which we recommend doing either independently by train or with a private driver-guide). London in August is such a smart move that that’s when Wendy took her own family there—and you can read what each of her young sons had to say about it in Do’s and Don’ts For Your Trip To London and How and Where to  Spot Supercars in London (late summer is the optimal time for that).  Here’s more from Jonathan Epstein, Trusted Travel Expert for Britain, as to why London in August makes so much sense:

The Marylebone hotel London bedroom

Business travel to London dries up in August, which means more room and better deals in hotels, like The Marylebone. (Photo: The Marylebone)


Hotels are less expensive.

That’s because business travel to London dries up in August. “Corporate travel is the bedrock of higher rates in major cities,” says Jonathan. “In late summer, these bookings vanish in London.” What does this mean for you?  Deals.  Jonathan negotiates exclusive August offers for his travelers at top four- and five-star hotels.  Depending on the location, he might secure discounts on stays over three or four nights, upgrades, complimentary meals, or free cocktails. Ask him about his connections at prime hotels such as One Aldwych, Rosewood London, the Corinthia, the Marylebone, the Milestone and the Egerton. An apartment rental is another way to maximize value, especially if you’re a family or large group; learn more about that option in our London Vacation Rentals: Insider’s Guide.

The weather is better.

Unlike in many cities in Europe, August temperatures are mild in London.  Highs are between 68 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit—and who doesn’t want weather like that for sightseeing?

Everything is open, but the crowds are much smaller.

“In many cities like Paris and Rome, attractions and restaurants close in August,” Jonathan says, “but in London everything is still open!”  Because August is one of the slowest months of the year in London—with fewer tourists and fewer locals—you’re less likely to have to wait in lines or battle big crowds as you explore.

Buckingham Palace with guards London

Buckingham Palace opens to visitors only a few months each year—during the late summer. Photo: Pawel Libera/London and Partners

Late summer brings special events.

Buckingham Palace is only open to visitors for a short time each year. Guess when? During the late summer. This year, admission includes entry to “Royal Gifts,” an exhibition of official gifts presented to the Queen over the past 65 years.

Old Vic theatre exterior at night London

The Old Vic is one of London’s most famous theaters. Photo: Pawel Libera/London and Partners

It is easier to get great seats to London’s plays and musicals.

When tourists numbers go down—as they do in late summer—opportunities to see some of the West End’s famous theater productions open up. (You can see what’s playing at LondonTheatre.co.uk and find last-minute deals at TKTS.co.uk.)

This article has been updated; it was originally published in 2016.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Ancient walls and streets of Valetta, the capital of Malta. Photo: Shutterstock

Malta: Plan Your Trip!

Your Malta Trip Begins Here

Acre for acre, Malta is about as rich in history as they come. In this tiny Mediterranean nation (actually, an archipelago with three islands of note: Malta, Gozo, and Comino), you’ll find three UNESCO World Heritage sites, some of which are among the oldest free-standing structures left in the world. The capital of Valletta is a medieval gem—a fortified city built by the Knights of St. John but also a European Capital of Culture for 2018, with a new city gate designed by Renzo Piano—and the streets of Mdina are like an open-air museum. But Malta is not the beach destination you might expect—edged mostly by rocky cliffs rather than sandy stretches—and, at times and in spots, it can get overrun by day-trippers from cruise ships, rowdy students studying English, and Brits on package tours.

We can point you to a Malta specialist who delivers private, custom, WOW trips that take you to the most fascinating places and connect you to insider experiences you could never find or access on your own. But be prepared to spend a minimum of $700 per day for two travelers. If that’s doable, click below and complete the questionnaire. Your information is kept private.

Pricing tip: Trips start at $450 for a shore excursion for two travelers, or $700 per day for a multi-day custom itinerary for two.

 

Start your Malta trip here

View of Grainau's church with the Zugspitze behind. It is Germany's highest peak

Germany: Plan Your Trip!

Your Germany Trip Begins Here

Did you know that Germany has 20 castles you can sleep in? How about a hop-on, hop-off rail pass that lets you explore the entire country as well as seven of its neighbors? Two hundred long-distance cycling routes, many of them family-friendly? A Bavarian “Beer and Castle” trail that is just one of more than 100 well-signposted and intriguingly themed scenic drives? Add bargain-priced hotels and car rentals and you can see why this is one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations in Europe.

And yet, even in Germany, hiring a trip designer is a good investment. Why? Because only someone with inside knowledge can make sure you end up with the best of the best—the most sumptuous of those 20 castles, for instance, or the one that’s right for you. A Germany specialist can also arrange such perks as a private beer tasting, a vineyard picnic, a glassblowing workshop, or a tour of ancient Roman ruins led by a local historian. Finally, a specialist can save you more than time: By steering you toward good-value options and away from the overpriced ones, your trip planner can actually save you money.

We can point you to a Germany specialist who delivers private, custom, WOW trips that keep you away from the tourist crowds and take you to the most thrilling places you could never find or access on your own. But be prepared to spend a minimum of $800 per day for two travelers. If that’s doable, click below and complete the questionnaire. Your information is kept private.

Pricing tip: Trips have a 7-night minimum and range from $800–$1,600 per day per couple or $1000+ per day for families, depending on your choices.

Start your Germany trip here

 

Peles Castle, Romania

Romania: Plan Your Trip!

Your Romania Trip Begins Here

If your word-association-game answer to Romania is “vampires,” it’s time you learned a lot more about the country. Did you know that it’s home to the largest area of contiguous forest in central Europe, filled with brown bears, lynx, and wolves? That it’s dotted with 13th-century UNESCO World Heritage-recognized villages? That Prince Charles fell so in love with the Romanian countryside that he bought two centuries-old properties there—both of which you can overnight at when HRH isn’t visiting to admire the wildflowers? Trouble is, even Romanians get lost finding their way around, and star ratings rarely tell you the whole story when it comes to the hotels. That’s why it’s so helpful to use a Romania travel specialist who will keep you on the right path, introduce you to the people who will make their country come to life, and point you to the accommodations that deliver the best experience (probably more having to do with garden-fresh meals than thousand-thread-count sheets).

We can point you to a Romania specialist who delivers private, custom, WOW trips that take you to the most fascinating places and connect you to insider experiences you could never find or access on your own. Just click below and complete the questionnaire. Your information is kept private.

Pricing tip: Expect to spend at least $600 per day for two travelers for a trip that includes the loveliest accommodations, the most efficient transportation, the most delicious meals, special experiences, and a detailed itinerary that incorporates not just the must-see sights but the hidden gems too.

Start your Romania trip here

Hiking the Bucegi mountains, Romania

Hiking the Bucegi mountains, Romania

What a Barge Cruise Is—and Why Some Prefer It to a River Cruise

savoir vivre in front of chateauneuf barge cruise France CR Barge Lady Cruises
The Savoir Vivre. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises
The canals. Photo: Sara Tucker
Rear view of our boat. Photo: Sara Tucker
Front view of our boat. Photo: Sara Tucker
The view. Photo: Sara Tucker
Pastoral scenery. Photo: Sara Tucker
Goats. Photo: Sara Tucker
burgundy lock barge cruise France CR Kelly Weiss Barge Lady Cruises
The locks. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises
Locks. Photo: Sara Tucker
A castle. Photo: Sara Tucker
Taking walks. Photo: Sara Tucker
A stop to see the Hospices de Beaune. Photo: Sara Tucker
The strawberry soufflée. Photo: Sara Tucker
Cote d'Or wine. Photo: Sara Tucker
Another village we walked through. Photo: Sara Tucker
A stop ion Dijon. Photo: Sara Tucker
Our tour guide. Photo: Sara Tucker
The lounge on the Savoir Vivre barge cruise in France
The boat's lounge. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises
The lounge on the Savoir Vivre barge cruise in France
The other side of the lounge. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises
A state room on the Savoir Vivre barge cruise in France
The boat's staterooms. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises
The lounge on the wine and snacks overlooking the Burgundy countryside taken from the Savoir Vivre barge cruise in France
The view. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

 

If you have a hard time making sense of the phrase “barge cruise,” don’t feel bad. Luxury barging is such a tiny niche that it is practically unknown even in France, the country where the phenomenon originated. When I told my French friends that I was going on a barge trip (croisière en péniche), they thought I was going to rent the barge and pilot it myself while Patrick—my French husband, a retired safari guide—whipped up gourmet meals in a tiny kitchen. They thought we were going to take turns opening and closing the locks. (This type of DIY cruise, while possible, is not at all what we had in mind.) My American friends heard “barge” and thought “river cruise.” Almost everyone imagined something rustic.

A barge cruise is very different from a river cruise, starting with the size of the boat. A river ship usually carries 160 to 190 passengers, whereas the capacity of most barges is between eight and twelve. It’s like the difference between a 90-room hotel and a B&B. With one you’ve got your own TV and the option of having your own balcony; with the other you’ve got a captain who picks you up at the train station. Barges usually ply canals, not wide rivers—so, instead of cruising alongside highways and industrial areas on much of your route, your waterway is the equivalent of a country road. Another difference is speed. A long-legged person can walk alongside a moving barge without breaking a sweat. This has important implications. If you get tired of cruising, you have only to wait a few minutes for a set of locks, then hop off the boat and explore. You and the boat, which travels only a few miles per day, are never going to lose each other.

Families and groups of friends like barge cruises because they can book the whole boat and customize their shore excursions. Kids like them because there are bicycles, and farm animals, and castles, and a captain who will let you help him pilot the boat.

My first-ever barge trip was aboard the Savoir Vivre, an eight-passenger hotel barge that cruises a section of the Burgundy Canal. The 242-kilometer canal, completed in 1832, takes you deep into the heart of the French wine country, bisecting cow pastures, sheep meadows, woods, fields, and small villages. Starting in the village of Escommes, near Dijon, we cruised a total of 40 miles in six days, passing through 50 locks.

My trip, which took place in mid April, was arranged by Ellen Sack, the barge cruise expert on Wendy’s WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts. My assignment from Wendy: To learn as much as possible about barge travel, through firsthand experience, so that I might enlighten others.

The Boat

When enthusiasts say that barging is an “intimate” form of travel, they are not just talking about the size of the boat, although it all starts with that. Barges are narrow, flat-bottomed vessels originally used to transport cargo; their heyday lasted for about 20 years, until the invention of the railroad. In the 1970s, an enterprising British chap hit on the idea of taking transporter barges and turning them into floating hotels by adding a superstructure. The idea caught on, and a little industry was born. The Savoir Vivre is unusual in that it is a purpose-built hotel barge, not a conversion. Nonetheless, the eight-passenger vessel has to fit through the same locks as all the other barges. Its four cabins are small—Patrick and I took turns getting dressed—and the lounge doubles as a dining room. On the larger of the two observation decks, six is a crowd, but you are welcome to go up to the wheelhouse and hang out with the captain, who has the best view. Our captain, Richard Megret, was an easygoing Frenchman who had been barging for 20 years; he started out as a cook. He was also our bartender, waiter, guide, and chauffeur. When one of us had a birthday, Richard ordered the cake. When the dishwasher broke, he did the dishes by hand; then he fixed the dishwasher. We and the six other passengers spent most of our waking hours with him and Laura, our tour guide, and each other. This is what barge fans mean by “intimate.”

The Scenery

Unlike a river ship, a canal barge chugs along at four miles per hour, pausing every few minutes to pass through a set of locks. The shore is right there: You can practically reach out and touch it. On the Burgundy Canal, you’re a few feet from white cows and flocks of sheep. When you’re standing on the deck you can literally talk to the villagers strolling along the towpath with their fishing poles and picnic baskets and baby carriages. Children walk or ride their bicycles to the canal to watch the boats go by. They cluster on the little bridges that cross the canal. They sidle up to the uniformed men and women who work the locks by hand. At each set of locks is a small house where, up until the 1950s, the lockkeepers and their families lived; now the houses are abandoned or rented out and the lockkeepers zip up and down the canal on motorcycles. Most mornings, I left the boat on foot and walked through the village where we had moored. On these rambles, I might pass a boulangerie, a post office, a school, a church. I never had to cross a highway or wait for a traffic light. Cocks crowed. Cows mooed. Church bells rang. One evening we moored next to a field where a white horse and a red horse grazed. The young girl who came to fetch them called out a greeting. This, too, is what barge fans mean by “intimate.” You are, for a brief time, a part of French village life.

The Daily Routine

Breakfast is served in the lounge at 8:00. The table is laden with local goodies—pastries, cold cuts, cheeses. At 9:30 or 10:00, Laura arrives and you pile into the minivan. She hands out bottled water and peppermints. You drive through vineyards, woods, fields, and small villages to a castle, or a goat farm, or a monastery where, in the Middle Ages, the monks made wine in monstrous wooden presses. After the tour, you go back to the boat for lunch, which, like breakfast, is catered by a fine restaurant. You eat more than you should. Then you nap, or stroll along the towpath, or sit in a deck chair and watch for herons while the barge putters along. At 6:00, Richard opens a bottle of very good Burgundy and sets out bowls of olives and little puffs of choux pastry called gougères. Then you walk or drive to an excellent restaurant and eat too much food again. (This was another difference between our particular barge cruise and typical river cruises: On river cruises all meals are served on the ship, which means you may miss out on tastier, more authentic cuisine you could find in local eateries.)

Land Activities

Alongside the canal is a well-maintained towpath, once used by draft animals. Every set of locks is an opportunity to get off the boat and bicycle or walk along the towpath. When you reach a set of locks and you want to get off the boat, you have only to open a small gate and step onto the berm. This is also what barge enthusiasts mean by “intimate.”

In addition, there are daily shore excursions. Our tours were led by Laura Aplin, a British guide with a particular interest in sociological history—how people lived way back when. At Châteauneuf-en-Auxois, a medieval citadel, we learned what life was like when the castle was under siege. (Days were spent in boredom. Then a dead cow might fly over the wall, catapulted by the attackers in an effort to spread disease among the enemy.) We learned about 15th-century medicine at the Hospices de Beaune, made friends with the goats at a vineyard in Sainte Sabine, and learned how 12th-century Cistercian monks made wine at Clos de Vougeot. The tours generally lasted a couple of hours and involved a little bit of walking but not a lot. They were all fun. I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand reading little signs and wearing earphones when I go through a museum. (On river cruises, as opposed to barge cruises, the group tours ashore are so large that passengers must wear audio headsets in order to hear the guide.) And I will tell you straight out that I fell in love with Laura. Everybody did. We competed to sit next to her in the van.

The Food

An essential feature of barging is the food. It’s supposed to be outstanding, and with one exception—a new restaurant that our captain wanted to try out—it was. On the boat, meals are served family-style. Lunches are hearty: two or three kinds of salad, quiche, plus a main dish (either meat or fish) and a dessert. The Savoir Vivre is unique among hotel barges in that your evening meal is not on the boat but in a local restaurant, often in a gorgeous building that dates back to the days when Burgundy was a dukedom. One evening we walked along the canal and across a great expanse of lawn, past fountains, ponds, and weeping willows, to a former abbey, now a five-star hotel, where the only other guests (it was early in the season) were a couple of Londoners who were on a DIY barge trip to celebrate their upcoming nuptials. What did we eat? I honestly don’t remember, except for the baba au rhum, because the waiter set the bottle of rum on the table next to the dish. I do remember the amuse-bouche and the strawberry soufflé at Chateau Sainte Sabine, both of which were garnished with flecks of gold leaf.

The Bottom Line

Ellen’s daughter Stephanie Sack, a marketing specialist, told me that there are only 75 hotel barges in the world. The majority of them are in France. This is where Ellen first encountered barging in the 1980s, when the phenomenon was in its infancy. She now arranges barge cruises in ten different regions of France, as well as on canals and rivers in seven other European countries. (Such scope and expertise are partly why Ellen has earned the spot of barge travel specialist on Wendy’s WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts; the other reason is the glowing reviews we receive from our readers.)

The Savoir Vivre costs $3,500 per person for six nights, plus a tip of 5 to 10 percent for the crew. Is that a good deal? Let me put it this way: While a DIY cruise is theoretically possible, do you really want to order the food, pilot the boat, moor the boat, load the dishwasher, fix the dishwasher, stock the bar, or even order the croissants? I sure don’t. And how are you going to get to the beautiful castle if you don’t have a minivan, or figure out what you’re looking at when you arrive? I wouldn’t have wanted to do any of our shore excursions without Laura. At Châteauneuf-en-Auxois, in addition to old-time germ warfare (the flying cows), she showed us where the lord of the castle hid his jewels when the tax assessor came (hint: his wife sat on them), and what a fourteenth-century hot-tub party was like. Without her, we would have seen only a chair and a wooden tub.

For $675 per day, minimum, you get, minimum, an all-inclusive laid-back holiday with great food and wine, one that allows you to bicycle through the French countryside and stroll around small villages at your own speed, visit historic sites with an excellent guide, and travel in a small group.

That leaves the question of weather. The Savoir Vivre has one TV, some DVDs, sporadic Wi-Fi, a Scrabble game, but there’s not a lot to do on a barge when it rains. In fact, there’s not a lot to do on a barge, period, besides eat and sleep. Shore excursions make the days pass quickly, but I wouldn’t want to carry a dripping umbrella around Burgundy if I could help it. Barge season in Burgundy runs from April to October. April gets an average of nine days of rain, per regional weather statistics, May gets 13. There are eight umbrellas onboard the Savoir Vivre, just in case. If you want to play it safe, go in July.

To ensure you get the best barge trip possible, reach out to Ellen Sack via Wendy’s trip request form.  You’ll be marked as a VIP traveler and get these five benefits.

*Disclosure: Barge Lady Cruises provided our reporter, Sara Tucker, with a six-day barge trip through France, free of charge. In keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, coverage was not guaranteed and remains at our editorial discretion. You can read the signed agreement between WendyPerrin.com and Barge Lady Cruises here.

View of the pool and sea from the bar deck at the Tivoli Carvoeiro Algarve Resort, Portugal

Portugal is Suddenly Hugely Popular. This Is Why.

If it feels like everyone you know is suddenly interested in traveling to Portugal—or has recently been—you’re not imagining it. Tourism in Europe’s westernmost country has been soaring: Portugal was named the World’s Leading Destination at the 2018 World Travel Awards, the number of tourists visiting has continued to increase every year since 2014, and Madonna recently bought a house there. In fact, the country keeps beating its own tourism records, bringing in more people and generating more revenue all the time.

These days, the food and culture scenes are booming, and cities, beach towns, wine country, and idyllic villages are all benefitting from beautiful new hotels and improved tourist access, thanks to TAP Air Portugal’s increase in flights from the U.S. and its free stopover program, which lets travelers spend up to five nights in either Porto or Lisbon, depending on their route.

But of course, it’s not just numbers and logistics that make a travel destination worth the hype. It’s much more. Here are a few reasons why Portugal is suddenly getting so much buzz—and worth the praise.

stacks of Portuguese egg tarts on display at a bakery in Lisbon Portugal
Pastéis de nata (Portuguese egg tarts) are the signature Portuguese dessert, and my favorites come fresh out of the oven every few minutes at Manteigaria's bakery, at the Time Out market in Lisbon. Photo: Billie Cohen
pool at the Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort in Portugal
The updated Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort has a pretty pool and a golf course and is just a few minutes from the beach too. Photo: Minor Hotels
The menu at Anantara Vilamoura's Emo restaurant is inspired by the region's wine. Photo: Minor Hotels
wine bottles from several different Portuguese regions
The master class at the Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort introduced us to wines from several different Portuguese regions. Photo: Billie Cohen
beach with turquoise water in the Algarve Portugal
The water at the beaches in the Algarve is bright blue. Photo: Billie Cohen
Cabrita Wines is one of many vineyards in the Algarve
And the vineyards, including these at Cabrita Wines, are not far away. Photo: Billie Cohen
Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort, the Algarve, Portugal
View from the bar deck at Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort, the Algarve, Portugal. Photo: Billie Cohen
The Sky Bar at the Tivoli Avenida Liberdade has a great view over Lisbon
The Sky Bar at the Tivoli Avenida Liberdade has a great view over Lisbon. Photo: Minor Hotels
The lobby of the Tivoli Avenida Liberdade Lisbon Portugal
The inside is pretty cool too. Photo: Minor Hotels
blue and white old tile Lisbon Portugal
Everywhere you look in Lisbon, you'll find beautiful tiles, both with a historical feel…
green tile building Lisbon Portugal
…and modern.
Saint Anthony Festival Lisbon Portugal
During June, Lisbon is lit up with festivals for St. Anthony and St. John, and locals grill sardines outside every evening.
The passionfruit dessert at Bairro do Avillez, in Lisbon, is served in a chocolate "coconut."
The passionfruit dessert at Bairro do Avillez, in Lisbon, is served in a chocolate "coconut." Photo: Billie Cohen
brass carver atthe Museum of Decorative Arts in Lisbon, Portugal.
This brass carver was just one of the traditional artisans I got to meet on a tour of the workshops at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Lisbon. Photo: Billie Cohen
tile street art in Lisbon Portugal
Even outside the museums, Lisbon is a city full of beautiful, colorful street art. Photo: Billie Cohen
I was able to paint my own tiles at Lisbon’s Museum of Decorative Arts;
I was able to paint my own tiles at Lisbon’s Museum of Decorative Arts; they were not as pretty as the real ones. Photo: Billie Cohen
horse carriage outside the Tivoli Palacio de Seteais Sintra Portugal hotell
The Tivoli Palacio de Seteais hotel in Sintra used to be a palace, built in 1787 by the former Dutch Consul in Portugal. Photo: Minor Hotels
Tivoli Palacio de Seteais suite, Sintra Portugal
If it looks like a place for royalty, it is: Brad Pitt, David Bowie, Maria Callas, and Agatha Christie have all stayed here. Photo: Minor Hotels
The pool at the Tivoli Palacio de Seteais in Sintra Portugal
The pool at the Tivoli Palacio de Seteais in Sintra looks over the whole valley. Photo: Minor Hotels
seaside cliff village of Azenhas do Mar in Portugal
At seafood restaurant Azenhas do Mar Restaurante Piscinas (it's that rounded bank of windows down on the beach), you can pick your own fish and preferred cooking method Photo: Billie Cohen
The Pena Palace, in Sintra, Portugal,
The bright colors and the myriad tile designs of the Pena Palace, in Sintra, are stunning. Photo: Billie Cohen
view of Porto Portugal and Dom Luís I Bridge
Walk across the top level of Porto's Dom Luís I Bridge to snap this view of the city. I got to visit thanks to a free stopover with TAP Air Portugal on a trip to Rome with my mom. Photo: Billie Cohen
Palácio da Bolsa interior Porto Portugal
My mom and I took a private, after-hours tour of Porto’s most visited attraction, the Palácio da Bolsa. It was empty! Photo: Billie Cohen
business-class seats on TAP Air Portugal
The window business-class seats on TAP Air Portugal are roomy private nooks. Photo: Billie Cohen
The amenities kit is packed in an adorable oversized sardine can designed by a local artist. Photo: Billie Cohen
sardine cookies at Ria restaurant in Anantara Vilamoura Algarve hotel Portugal
Sardines are so popular in Portugal, even the cookies look them (but thankfully, they don't taste like them). Photo: Billie Cohen

 

It’s a good deal.

Portugal is inexpensive compared to a lot of Europe. The currency is the same euro, but your money goes farther—on food, drink, transportation. One simple example: The metro in Lisbon costs €1.45 per ride. In Paris, it’s €1.90. In London, it’s a whopping £4.90 (about € 5.50). In fact, the UK’s 2018 Holiday Money Report put the Algarve at the second-cheapest holiday destination worldwide (after Bulgaria). The annual report compares the cost of eight tourist items in countries around the world, including dinner for two with wine, a range of drinks, sunscreen and insect repellent.

It’s close.

From NYC, Lisbon is 6 hours 45 minutes nonstop. That’s about the same as the flight to London, but you’ll land in a place with much more sunshine and much cheaper everything. It’s also a shorter trip than to Barcelona, Paris, or Italy.

Airfare is low and stopovers are free.

Thanks to the rapid expansion of TAP Air Portugal, there are now many flights from New York, Boston, and Miami—and they are reasonably priced, without the no-frills corner-cutting of a low-cost airline. I’ve flown TAP in both coach and business class, long-haul and short (both on my own dime and on a press trip where TAP covered the flights), and I was pleased with the friendly service and how new and sleek the cabin looked. Even better, TAP offers a free stopover in Lisbon or Porto on its long-haul flights—so if you’re going to Europe, Africa, or even Brazil, you can tack on a one- to five- night stay in either Lisbon or Porto. Of course, Portugal definitely deserves its own trip—there’s enough to see. (One note: Getting through passport and customs control at Lisbon airport can be a slog—on two occasions, it’s taken me more than an hour. Make sure you leave enough time between any connecting flights.)

You can do city, seaside, and riverside village all in one trip.

Like most European countries, Portugal is not big—and that is a good thing. It means you can explore more ground in a short amount of time. And while you could spend weeks in each of Portugal’s different landscapes and not get bored, you can also hit several of them quickly and easily in one vacation. You’ll find turquoise water and soft-sand beaches in the Algarve, a cool green microclimate in Sintra (complete with lush, fanciful botanic gardens Monserrate and Quinta da Regaleira), olive and grape farms in the Alentejo, coastline cliffs in the southwest, and wine everywhere.

New hotels are emerging (and renovating) to meet the increased demand.

Over the past two years, more than 60 hotels have opened or been renovated, many in Lisbon and Porto, including new arrivals from Minor Hotels, a successful Asia-based brand that, tellingly, chose Portugal for its first European location. Its M.O. here has been to take over longstanding, beloved properties and update them to meet today’s culinary, design, and service standards

A few of its standouts include the Tivoli Avenida Liberdade Lisboa, which recently emerged from a stylish refresh: Its public spaces and guest rooms have a cool Art Deco sheen, its new seafood restaurant is fashionable but unstuffy, and the rooftop Sky Bar is worth a visit even if you don’t stay at the hotel. Its view of the city is gorgeous, the people-watching is fantastic, the walls and the waitresses wear striking designs by local artists, and the drinks are creative (including several mocktails).

Sintra’s Tivoli Palacio de Seteais is at the other end of the design spectrum: an 18th-century palace estate with a regal feel—think wallpapered banquet rooms, beautiful antiques, and a hedge maze. Guests can wander the formal garden, linger over a meal on the terrace, or sip lemonade (made from the hotel’s own lemon trees) while gazing at long, green views of the Sintra mountains. To complete the royal treatment, they’ll even arrange a horse-and-carriage ride to some of the area’s gardens.

In the south, the Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort is a newly revived base for seaside escapes: sunbathe by the palm-tree-lined pool, head to the area’s nearby beaches, go out for the night by the bustling Vilamoura marina, explore the region’s nature reserves and farmers’ markets, dine on fresh seafood at notable onsite restaurants Emo and Ria, and of course drink plenty of wine.

The food and restaurants are top-notch.

It is easy to eat well in Portugal: seafood, cheese, vegetables, fruit—you can sample local, fresh varieties everywhere. The warm bread and local olive oil served with most meals are worth the trip alone, as are the famous Portuguese egg tarts, pastéis de nata.

For a quick and informal sampling of some of Lisbon’s hottest eateries, go hungry to the Time Out Market; the outpost of Manteigaria bakery here churns out some of the best egg tarts in the country (I think they’re better than the more well-known ones made by monks out in Belem, for which tourists line up for hours). Of course before you have dessert, you should eat all your supper, and there are delicious options no matter where you travel. Select your own fresh-from-the-ocean fish at Azenhas do Mar Restaurante Piscinas, which is right on a dramatic beach near Sintra. In Lisbon, don’t miss the lively, indoor-piazza setting of Bairro do Avillez, one of Michelin-starred chef José Avillez’s restaurants (save room for the “passion fruit” dessert with coconut sorbet—it has a fun, creative presentation). No matter where you go, you will be able to try some form of the national dish, sardines; but for the classic preparation, visit Lisbon in June during the Feast of St. Anthony, when locals gather on the streets every night to grill sardines and enjoy festivals and concerts across the city.

As for drinks, the Portuguese are the world’s biggest consumers of wine, so you can trust that they know what they’re doing when it comes to indigenous wines and ports. Learn all about the country’s varied terroir at the Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort’s master class, taught by onsite guru António Lopes, who was named Portugal’s best sommelier in 2014. Then follow your tasting with a meal at the hotel’s wine-centric restaurant, Emo, where Lopes and the chef collaborated on the food and wine menus to ensure an ideal match.

Beyond the walls of restaurants and bars, there are plenty of other ways for food lovers to immerse themselves in the country’s culinary culture: For example, Virginia Irurita can hook you up with a fisherman in the Algarve. The region is famous for oysters and clams, and you’ll spend the day learning how to gather mollusks—and tasting them, of course.

History and creativity are on display everywhere you look.

Buildings and train stations (especially in Lisbon and Porto) are famously clad in colorful tile called azulejo, which recall the city’s time under Moorish rule in the Middle Ages. You can learn all about the tiles at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, or even paint your own at Lisbon’s Museum of Decorative Arts.  More modern artistic endeavors adorn city streets too, in the form of gorgeous murals (painted and mosaic) and stunning architecture (both modern like Santiago Calatrava’s Oriente train station in Lisbon, and historic like Sintra’s Pena Palace). There are plenty of official cultural institutions as well, offering something to match every interest, whether it’s history, arts, music, performance, sports or culinary. The right trip designer can get you behind-the-scenes or after-hours access to some of these places, so be sure to ask. For instance, you can get a private guided tour of the workshops at the Foundation Ricardo do Espírito Santo Silva; I met several of the bookbinding, furniture-making, and brass-carving artisans who are keeping Portugal’s craft traditions alive (it was one of the highlights of my 2017 travels). And Gonçalo Correia arranged an after-hours private visit to Porto’s most visited attraction, the Palácio da Bolsa.

Disclosure: Minor Hotels and TAP Air Portugal provided me with a complimentary five-day trip. In keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, there was no request for or expectation of coverage on either sponsor’s part, nor was anything promised on mine. You can read the signed agreement here. If you go: Ask Wendy to put you in touch with just the right travel planner for the trip you have in mind.

 

 

Be a smarter traveler: Read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter @wendyperrin, and Instagram @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

The Eiffel Tower and surrounding gardens, Paris

How to Avoid the Crowds in Europe

If you’re planning a trip to Europe this summer, you’ll want to arm yourself with a few strategies to avoid the kinds of bottlenecks—long lines, traffic jams, sold-out venues—that can hamper a European vacation.  We asked Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts to give us a few strategies for navigating tourist hot spots and to steer us toward some of their favorite lesser-known finds—seaside villages, scenic drives, urban centers, island getaways, and historic sites that attract smaller crowds but are every bit as lovely as their more popular rivals. Here are a few of their insider tips for Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, and the UK.

France

Louvre Museum at night, Paris, France

Visit the Louvre at night. Photo: EdiNugraha/Pixabay

Instead of visiting Versailles, consider Vaux Le Vicomte. This château was actually the inspiration for Versailles, so why not see the first one? It has a lot of history, and it’s amazing to visit and definitely less crowded.

Instead of visiting the Louvre first thing in the morning when everyone tries to arrive early to avoid the crowds, it’s a much better option to go during the late-night hours (Wednesday and Friday nights).

Don’t wait to buy tickets to key monuments. Prebooking tickets is always the best idea for popular attractions such as the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and the Catacombs. These lines can all be hours long if tickets are not prebooked.

—Jennifer Virgilio, one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for France. Read more of Jennifer’s tips in her Insider’s Guide to Paris with Perks, and use Wendy’s trip request form to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

the hilltop village of Gordes, Provence, France

Provence and its pretty villages, like Gordes, are incredibly popular so try to visit in shoulder season. Photo: Pixabay

Visit Provence in the off-season. Provence and the French Riviera together comprise the second-most-popular destination in France and one of Europe’s leading vacation hot spots. To avoid the crowds at the iconic sights, go out of season (May, June, and September). However, in every region there are yet-to-be discovered areas, and here is no exception.

Explore La Provence Verte, an area off the beaten tourist track. La Provence Verte, or the Haut Var, is an area situated between Provence and the Riviera and just to the north of St-Tropez. It is a perfect stop when traveling from one to the other and also where you can spend several blissful days. It has some exceptional vineyards and is truffled with beautiful villages, such as Tourtour, Cotignac, Sillans-la-Cascade, Bagnols en Foret, Seillans, Fayence—to name but a few. There are also some wonderful craftsmen, notably in Salernes, where ceramic artists have moved on from making tiles to some of the most wonderful artistic creations for every taste.

Arrange a private chateau visit. The 12th-century Cistercian abbey of Le Thoronet is also on the Haut Var bucket list, as is the privately owned Chateau d’Entrecasteau, where visits with the owner can be organized. To crown it all, a lunch at Bruno’s truffle restaurant will leave one of the most lasting memories of all of the incredible meals you have ever had in your life!

—Philip Haslett, one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for France. Read more of Philip’s tips in his Insider’s Guide to Provence and the French Riviera, and use Wendy’s trip request form to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Italy

Polignano a Mare, puglia, italy, seaside village

Don’t overlook Puglia, Italy. Photo: Pixabay/newneo47

Instead of Tuscany, savvy travelers should consider Umbria, a region right next door dotted with beautiful towns like Perugia and Assisi.

Think Puglia. In the Gargano area of Puglia, you find inexpensive osterias and trattorias that offer great food, and the sea is amazing, with hundreds of sandy beaches.

And Bergamo. Bergamo is one of the most important cities in Northern Italy, both historically and artistically. Bergamo Alta is by far the most beautiful and interesting part of the city.

And Maratea. The small town of Maratea in the region of Basilicata is a hidden gem with a beautiful coastline, great food, and lovely people.

Purchase advance tickets online for the Accademia Gallery, the Uffizi Gallery, the Vatican Museums, the Colosseum, the Doge’s Palace, and other major attractions. That way, you won’t have to wait in line when you get there.

—Andrea Grisdale, one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Italy. Read more of Andrea’s tips in her Insider’s Guides to the Amalfi Coast and Italy’s Lakes Region, and use Wendy’s trip request form to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Portugal

Queluz Palace, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Estoril Tourism Board

Stay outside Lisbon; Estoril, home of the Queluz Palace, is a good choice. Photo: Estoril Tourism Board

In the Lisbon area, base yourself in Estoril. The resort town of Estoril, 20 miles west of Lisbon, is a good base for tours of the capital and surrounding area. Another good choice is Arrabida.

In the eastern Alentejo, base yourself in Monsaraz. Everyone stays in the Evora area, but Monsaraz is incredibly beautiful, with great boutique properties from which you can explore Spain and Portugal.

In the Douro Valley, base yourself in the Côa Valley. Everyone stays in the area where the Six Senses Spa is located, but all the best quintas for wine are in the Côa Valley, the area of the Douro that is closer to Spain.

—Virginia Irurita, one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Portugal. Read more of Virginia’s tips in her Insider’s Guides to the Algarve and the Alentejo, Portugal, and use Wendy’s trip request form to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

the colorful yellow and red turrets of Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal

Know when to go to Pena Palace, in Sintra. Photo: Pixabay

Know when to go to Sintra’s Pena Palace. The most popular day-trip from Lisbon is Sintra, a castle-studded small town set above a rocky coastline in the forested hills of Parque Natural de Sintra-Cascais, and the most popular attraction in Sintra is the Pena Palace, an outstanding example of the Romanticism style of architecture. The Pena Palace is the last stop on most tours of Sintra, so your best bet is to arrive at its entrance at 9 a.m., when the ticket office opens, and to be among the first visitors to enter at 9:30 a.m. Weekdays are generally less crowded than weekends, but the only sure way to sidestep the crowd is to spring for a private (and pricey) after-hours tour.

Or skip Pena Palace for a less crowded but just-as-beautiful alternative. Also in Sintra, the Quinta da Regaleira is not nearly as crowded as the Pena Palace, but it is stunning, with beautiful gardens and manmade hidden tunnels (there are fascinating tales related to the beautiful Portuguese masonry). The small Convent of Capuchos and the Monserrate Palace are also a lot less crowded than the Pena Palace.

Some lines are worth the wait; others aren’t. The 16th-century Jerónimos Monastery is Lisbon’s most impressive monument. There are always two lines: one line to buy tickets to visit the cloisters, chapter house, etc., which is normally huge; and a different line to visit the actual church (the most impressive part of the building), which normally isn’t that long. You can easily skip the cloisters and visit the church with hardly any waiting time.

Don’t stand in line to see Porto’s famous bookstore. Livraria Lello, in Porto, is one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, and the lines are just hard to believe. Purchasing a ticket from the Lello website in advance will spare you the long wait to get in.

Another popular day-trip from Lisbon is the town of Óbidos, but don’t go on weekends. It will be full of Portuguese families and huge excursions from the senior day-care centers. Go there during the week.

Go medieval. The medieval castle and walled village of Marvão, lost in the middle of the Alentejo landscape, is a place where you really feel you are in very deep Portugal. You will certainly have no crowds here.

Arrange an after-hours tour of Porto’s most visited site. Palácio da Bolsa, the magnificent Neoclassical palace in Porto, is deservedly the most visited monument in northern Portugal. Go after hours, when you can have the entire museum to yourself.

—Gonçalo Correia, one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Portugal. Read more of Gonçalo’s tips in his Insider’s Secrets to Portugal, and use Wendy’s trip request form to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Spain

Spain town of Montserrat surrounded by rocky mountains

Montserrat is a great day excursion outside Barcelona, but avoid visiting in the morning if you want to beat the crowds. Photo: Pixabay

The time of day can make all the difference in the quality of your visit to Spain. Montserrat is a great day excursion outside Barcelona, but avoid visiting in the morning. Go after lunch. The place has half the visitors, and the Boys’ Choir sings on most evenings. Likewise, tour the cities of Toledo, Córdoba, and Ronda after lunch. Most of the crowd will be gone.

In high season, stay in hotels outside the city you are visiting, or in a non-touristy neighborhood: If you’re visiting Seville, stay in Carmona, a beautiful city with a great food market and an incredible parador housed in a castle. If you’re visiting Barcelona, stay in the Gracia Quarter. And if you’re visiting Madrid, stay in Toledo, Segovia, or Alcalá de Henares, a beautiful small city declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its university. Alcalá has a great parador, a great street full of tapas bars, and it’s very close to Madrid.

For a quiet getaway, go to La Granja, a beautiful town built around a great royal palace with an incredible garden, or Cáceres, in the Extremadura region, which has a great hotel with a three-Michelin-star restaurant called Atrio.

—Virginia Irurita, one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Spain. Read more of Virginia’s tips in her Insider’s Guides to MadridBarcelona, and Andalusia, and use Wendy’s trip request form to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

sailboats moored in turquoise water off a rocky shore in Menorca Spain

Menorca is the least crowded of Spain’s Balearic Islands. Photo: Pixabay

Instead of Ibiza and Mallorca, find peace and quiet on Menorca. If it just isn’t summer vacation without lying by the pool or taking a dip in the Mediterranean, head to Menorca, the least crowded of the Balearic Islands. The locals are friendly, and the vibe is relaxed. It’s great for families, or really anyone who would rather skip the beach parties and all-night discos found on Menorca’s sister islands, Ibiza and Mallorca.

Trade large beach resorts for coastal areas known for their natural beauty. The flysch in the Basque Country and the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic in Galicia are two of my favorite spots.

Architecture buffs will love the grand monuments of Leon, such as the Gothic Cathedral and Gaudi’s Casa Botines. It’s also got vibrant nightlife (check out Barrio Húmedo) and delicious local cuisine.

Asturias, in northern Spain, is a wonderful stop for nature lovers, with a beautiful landscape, rolling mountains, hiking routes, and scenic coastline. Highlights of Asturias include the Picos de Europa, an incredible natural park, and numerous pre-Romanesque monuments, particularly in Oviedo.

For big museums, like the Alhambra, hire a guide. A guide knows what’s important and what’s worth skipping; they’ll take you on a different circuit from the audio guides; and they know the people who work there, so they can sometimes slip you in ahead of a big group.

Ask Wendy if you’re seeking the best Spain expert to plan your trip.

United Kingdom and Ireland

Ireland

road and landscape of Beara Peninsula, Ireland

Ireland’s Beara Peninsula is just as gorgeous as the Ring of Kerry, and has much less traffic. Photo: Celebrated Experiences

The Ring of Kerry isn’t the only gorgeous drive. While the Ring of Kerry is so well known and often crowded in high season, there are many other gorgeous coastal drives in the southwest of Ireland, such as West Cork and the Beara Peninsula.

When you fly into Dublin, instead of heading south or west, go north. Belfast is an incredible city—so popular with Europeans yet still fairly off the beaten path for Americans. It is only two hours north of Dublin, and you can use it as a base to discover the great coastal drives of Northern Ireland, such as the Causeway Coast. It is also central to many Game of Thrones sites; world-class golf, such as Royal County Down and Portrush; the Giants Causeway; and so much more. Also, when you choose to go north, you can then make a second stop in County Donegal, which has some of Ireland’s best scenery and outdoor activities, such as horseback riding, hiking, rock climbing, surfing, and golf.

Take advantage of timed entries, a feature offered by more and more sites in Ireland. You purchase your tickets in advance and it limits the number of people at each time. The Guinness Storehouse, Kilmainham Gaol, Trinity College, and now Newgrange all have timed entries, which is great.

Scotland

River, Glencoe Highlands, Scotland

Explore the Glencoe Highlands. Photo: Jonathan Epstein

Let the crowds have the Isle of Skye, and explore the Northern Highlands instead. The Isle of Skye has become so crowded, and there are so many other parts of Scotland with truly majestic scenery that you can visit without the crowds. Some favorites are along the NC500, a great coastal road in the Northern Highlands. You can also take wonderful day trips by ferry from Oban, such as Mull. Ayrshire is a beautiful coastal area overlooking the Irish Sea, and a fun day trip from there is the isle of Ailsa Craig, where most of the word’s curling stones are made.

England

The south front of Chartwell, the home of Sir Winston Churchill between 1922 and 1964, Kent.

Chartwell, the home of Sir Winston Churchill between 1922 and 1964, is in Kent. Photo: National Trust

Some of England’s best off-the-beaten-path areas are on the southern coast. In the Sussex area there are beautiful historic properties such as Gravetye Manor and Amberley Castle, fascinating historic towns such as Arundel, fantastic gardens like Sissinghurst, historic homes like Chartwell (Churchill’s house) and castles like Hever (Anne Boleyn’s family). A bit further west you come to the New Forest and Dorset. Two of England’s best hotels are in the area: Chewton Glen and Lympstone Manor. A great day out is a visit to the Jurassic Coast.

—Jonathan Epstein, one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for the UK and Ireland. Read more of Jonathan’s tips in his Insider’s Guides to the Cotswolds, and use Wendy’s trip request form to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

 

Be a smarter traveler: Read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter @wendyperrin, and Instagram @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

The Taj Mahal, Agra, India

How to Never Wait in Line at a Tourist Attraction Again

Why waste your precious vacation time battling crowds and waiting in lines? Popular tourist sites the world over grow more congested every year and, sadly, the typical fixes—reserving an entry time, booking a “skip-the-line tour”—are not always a good solution. So I thought I’d share the best fixes I’ve found.

Reserving a time slot might make sense at an indoor museum (I wouldn’t show up at Rome’s Borghese Gallery or Florence’s Uffizi without one), but not necessarily at an outdoor monument. When I go to Paris, for instance, I want to hit the Eiffel Tower on a sunny, clear day; what if my entry time, reserved weeks in advance, coincides with rain and fog? Furthermore, I want to take my kids to the Louvre on a rainy day; what if I book skip-the-line tickets for what turns out to be a gorgeous day that we’d rather spend in the Jardin du Luxembourg? As for “skip-the-line tours,” aside from the fact that you can end up herded around in a big group with an annoying guide, they’re often not what they claim to be. A skip-the-line tour of the Vatican might get you past the ticket-buying line but not the security line. I’d rather be one of the handful of travelers who gets to eat breakfast at the Vatican and see it before it opens to the public.

By far the best way I’ve found to avoid crowds and bypass lines is to book your trip through the right travel fixer—someone who knows every insider trick at your destination and can leverage his/her superlative relationships there on your behalf. Such destination specialists can get you into sites at off-hours when they are empty and even into places that are off-limits to the public. The right person can get you past the mobs at Angkor Wat or ensure a crowd-free sunset at the Taj Mahal. You can even have Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia all to yourself. These Trusted Travel Experts can, in fact, arrange an entire trip that spares you from every line. And all you need to do is show up.

But if you prefer to D.I.Y. your trip, here are strategies that have worked well for me:

Find out if there’s a side or back entrance.

Rose Center for Earth and Science at the American Museum of Natural History

To avoid long lines, try an alternative entrance, like through the Rose Center for Earth and Science at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo: ©AMNH/D

Sometimes there is an alternate entrance with a shorter line or none at all. In Paris, my family entered the Louvre via the Porte des Lions and saved ourselves from an hour-long line at the Pyramid entrance. At the Museum of Natural History in New York City, if there’s a line at the Central Park West entrance, you can enter via the Rose Center for Earth and Space or via the 81st Street subway station.

Go at sunrise.

A lot of people assume sunset is best, but at many outdoor iconic monuments—Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Mount Sinai in Egypt, Petra in Jordan—sunrise is better. You get equally great light for photos but fewer crowds to spoil them. Sunrise is better for seeing neighborhoods too. In popular destinations that are touristy from 9 am till midnight, it’s from 6 to 9 am that you can see the locals living their everyday lives—green grocers opening their stalls, kids going to school, fishermen delivering their catch to the fish market, etc.

crowd in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre Paris France

Visit museums on a night they’re open late and you’ll likely avoid mobs like this one, in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. Photo: Wendy Perrin

Go at night.

Not all landmarks are accessible at night, but those that are are usually worth seeing at that time. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., for instance, is beautifully lit and especially poignant at night. Park rangers are actually there to answer your questions until 10 pm. Remember that world-class museums are usually open on at least one night of the week. London’s Tate Modern, as just one example, stays open till 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The Eiffel Tower admits visitors until midnight in summertime—and sparkles at night too.

night skyline of Washington DC with Lincoln Memorial Washington Monument and Capitol building

Some famous attractions, like the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. are more beautiful at night—and less crowded. Photo: Pixabay

Take the stairs.

A two-hour line at the Eiffel Tower. Photo courtesy Tim Baker.

A two-hour line at the Eiffel Tower elevators—which we skipped by taking the stairs. Photo: Tim Baker.

I’m no athlete, but I’ve climbed to the tops of dozens of bell towers, fortresses, palaces, and cathedrals, and I am here to tell you that the effort has always been well worth it, not just because of the views but because the great majority of visitors don’t make it there. Sometimes the journey itself is a highlight. If you’ve ever followed the circuitous, increasingly narrow route into the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, you know what I mean. My family saved at least two hours at the Eiffel Tower by climbing the 670 steps to the second floor and taking the elevator from there to the top, rather than waiting in the scary elevator line at the base.

Buy the right pass.

aerial view of Venice Italy and surrounding water

Venice, Italy. Photo: Pixabay

Some cities sell city museum passes that let you bypass the line. For instance, the Paris Museum Pass and the Vienna Pass let you skip the line at dozens of museums and monuments in those cities. If you don’t need a multi-day museum pass because there’s really only one museum you want to see, sometimes you can buy a combination ticket for just three or four related museums (the world-famous one you want to see, plus other lesser museums you’re not interested in). Buy the combo ticket at one of the lesser museums with no line, then use it to skip the line at the museum you want. For example, in Venice, a ticket to the four Museums of St. Mark’s Square allowed me to skip the line at the Doge’s Palace.

Arrive at the visitor center before it opens.

World-famous sites with visitor centers tend to attract a lot of tour buses. You want to arrive long before they do. At Gettysburg, for instance, be the first inside the Museum and Visitor Center when it opens at 8:00 am (April 1 – Oct 31). If you have no reservation for the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, get there before it opens at 7:00 am because that’s when tickets for that day are available on a first-come first-served basis.

 

Be a smarter traveler: Read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter @wendyperrin, and Instagram @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

The first port of call on the first-ever sailing of Silversea Cruises' new ship Silver Muse: Marseille, France

Cruise Report: Wendy’s Photos from Silversea’s Newest Cruise Ship

I’ve sailed on inaugural voyages before—I’ve even served as godmother of a cruise ship, smashing the bottle of Champagne at the christening—but, until last week, I’d never boarded a ship a mere three hours after it had left the shipyard. I was on the first-ever sailing of Silver Muse, the elegant new ship from Silversea Cruises that launched in Genoa and will call at 130 ports in 34 countries this year. We hit three of those countries—Italy, France, and Spain—on last week’s “shakedown cruise.”  Honestly, not much shaking down was required:  Silver Muse gleams from top to bottom.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about the Muse is the food.  There are eight gourmet eateries onboard—which is a lot for a 596-passenger vessel—including Italian, French, Asian, sushi, a steak house, a pizzeria, and a gelateria. There’s even a cheese bar at night in one of the observation lounges.  The food is sophisticated and imaginative, with ingredients sourced from around the globe—giant prawns from Madagascar, cod from Greenland, steak from an Argentinian estancia, lamb from New Zealand, burrata from the boot of Italy….you get the idea.

But what surprised me most on the ship was Gennaro, the charming Italian cobbler who has a little shop on the pool deck and custom-makes shoes while you wait.  I ordered up a pair of Capri sandals just so I could see Italian craftsmanship at work.  In 45 minutes I had perfect-fitting gold leather sandals.  To see the shoes, and photos from the rest of my Mediterranean coastal adventure, check out the pics below and follow my travels on Instagram.

And if you’re wondering whether Silver Muse is the right ship for you or a different one might be better suited to your trip goals, feel free to write to me at Ask Wendy.

 

This is how I’ll be leaving Genoa tonight — aboard @silverseacruises’ brand new ship, #SilverMuse.

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Okay, so this ship is not for light packers. @silverseacruises #SilverMuse

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Aboard @silverseacruises you get to choose which #toiletries you want. That’s Naru, my butler. #SilverMuse A post shared by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on

I’d be happy with just this for dinner. But it’s only the first course. #antipasto #SilverMuse

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It’s 64 degrees here in the Ligurian Sea. The pool deck is hopping. #SilverMuse A post shared by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on

It’s nice to think some people still use #stationery rather than smartphones. #SilverMuse

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Meet Gennaro, the cobbler from Preludio in Capri, who custom-makes shoes on the pool deck. #SilverMuse

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Ta-da! Thank you, Gennaro, for my new custom-made leather sandals. Time it took:45 minutes. Cost: $200. #SilverMuse

 

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Nice spot to dig into a book. But I’m headed over to that ferris wheel. #Marseille #SilverMuse

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Le Vieux Port of #Marseille, as seen from atop La Grande Roue (the ferris wheel). #SilverMuse

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Looking up the Rue de la Republique from the ferris wheel, Le Vieux Port, #Marseille. #SilverMuse A post shared by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on

Specialty of #Marseille: orange blossom navette (navette fleur d’oranger) #SilverMuse A post shared by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on

 

Chocolate olives. #Marseille #SilverMuse

 

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Coconut rice pudding. #yum #SilverMuse A post shared by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on

 

Follow more of Wendy’s travels on Instagram @wendyperrin!

 

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter @wendyperrin, and Instagram @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

View over the River Seine, Paris, France

A Trip to Europe:
Start with our Questionnaire

This pandemic has unleashed unprecedented travel hurdles, as well as opportunities, and we’re monitoring them all. Are you seeking a private, easy, custom-tailored, top-quality trip that minimizes the risk to you and others? We’ll recommend your smartest options and the best trip-planning fixer for your specific situation, and we’ll ensure you get VIP service. Here’s how it works:

1. Answer the questions below. Your information is kept private.
2. Press Submit.
3. Expect a reply within 24 hours (or 48 hours on weekends).

 


St. Basil Cathedral, Moscow Russia

Why You Should Go to Moscow in Winter

We all learned this lesson from our parents: Just because everyone else does something doesn’t mean you should do it too. When it comes to travel, that’s especially true. Who wants to follow the masses and be herded like sheep through the most popular tourist attractions at the most popular times of the year? No one—because in travel, the converse of that old lesson is true as well: Just because most people dismiss a destination at a certain time of year, that doesn’t mean you should dismiss it too. Places you wouldn’t think about visiting in their off-seasons are sometimes the exact places you should be exploring—offering better deals and a more authentic experience.

Moscow in winter is that kind of place. “The city is hip and happening, with a vibrant food scene,” says Greg Tepper, our Trusted Travel Expert for Russia—“and you won’t be nearly as cold as you think.” As for safety, “There are no security issues—that is, beyond the pickpockets you find in other major European cities such as Paris and London,” says Greg. “The days of gang violence in Moscow are long over (1990s) and there hasn’t been a terrorist incident in Moscow in many years. There simply is no anti-American feeling on the streets of Moscow, and visitors from the U.S. are treated just as any other travelers are.”

Greg is a big fan of visiting Moscow in the winter—so much so that he’s offering a complimentary special enticement for WendyPerrin.com readers: If you reach out to Greg via his WP trip-request form for a trip to Moscow (or St. Petersburg), you get your choice of a room upgrade at one of his recommended hotels, a half-day private expert guide, or a world-class theater performance.*

Here, Greg shares his top five reasons for visiting the Russian capital during the cold season.

  1. The value doubles

“The Russian ruble is down more than 50 percent against the U.S. dollar. In the winter and on the weekends, the hotels offer their lowest rates of the year. That compounds the savings to make Moscow more affordable than it has been in more than 20 years. Top Moscow hotels cost less than $370 a night, including 18 percent VAT and full breakfast!”

  1. Theater is at its best

“Travelers go to Russia for world-class opera, ballet and symphony. These are all at their best in the winter, which was always the ‘social season’ there. A wonderful bonus is that Russian operas are sung in Russian with English supertitles in the theater, making them so easy for English speakers to follow. (Italian and other foreign-language operas have Russian supertitles.)”

  1. Sites are less crowded—by far

“The summer crowds are gone by November, and Moscow’s world-class museums are empty.”

  1. The Dr. Zhivago effect

“Honestly, who doesn’t dream about snowy sleigh rides with a mink blanket, vodka, and mittens to keep you warm? No one ever forgets an evening stroll through Red Square with snowflakes drifting atop St. Basil’s Cathedral.”

  1. Russian hospitality means really warm buildings!

“You can stop worrying about being cold in Moscow in the winter. In fact, if you wear long underwear indoors, you’ll likely find yourself uncomfortably warm and start looking for a window to open to let in more cool air! Russians like it this way, so bring a big, warm coat (preferably fur, which is very much in fashion and not taboo there) and be prepared to take it off and check it at the coat-check the moment you walk indoors.”

What other destinations do you think are worth visiting in their off-season?

 

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

*Offer valid for travel between October 1–March 31, 2017. Suites are not included in the hotel upgrade offer.

bicyclists in Piemonte Italy wine country

Six Iconic Wine Regions That Are Made for Bicycling

I thought I knew how to ride a bicycle until I moved to France, where I discovered that you do not need special shoes—any old pair of five-inch heels will do. In France, I learned that helmets are for rugby and that a bike clip is what fastens your skirt to the saddle so your underpants won’t show (where I come from, it’s the thing that attaches your shoe to the pedal so you can pump like a maniac). I learned that wine is an energy drink—something farm hands and dockworkers have known for centuries—and that the best way to tour Burgundy, or almost any wine region, is on two wheels, sampling the local terroir as you go.

Here are some top wine areas for exploring on two wheels.

bicyclists in Piemonte Italy wine country

Piemonte, Italy. Photo: Butterfield & Robinson

A magical relationship exists between bicycles and vineyards, a symbiosis that has a lot to do with geography.

“The main thing is that the roads that vintners take to get to their grapes are paved small trails, perfect for biking,” says Tyler Dillon, a travel planner who has put together many vineyard biking trips. “Second, the distances between villages are just right, a comfortable 10 to 15 kilometers [about 6 to 9 miles]. They work well with mealtimes. You can ride for two or three hours in the morning, ending at noon in a small village that’s serving a Michelin-star lunch.”

Wine regions are accessible to cyclists of all skill levels.   

“The gradual changes in elevation that are suitable for growing grapes are also good for cycling. If you haven’t been training you can stay at the lower altitudes.”

The pace is just right.

“There’s also a certain pace of life that’s appealing. You’re immersed in a culture that’s based on seasonality, on a crop and cycles of nature. It’s a slower pace than in a big city, a pace that matches with biking. On a bike you’re forced to slow down and take it all in.”

Traveling on the ground helps you understand what comes out of the ground.

“To understand a bottle of wine you have to understand the region where it’s grown—the rocks, the soil, the humidity in the morning, what time the sun rises. That’s what you want to walk away from on a bike trip. You want to smell the lavender. You can’t do that in a car.”

Where to Plan a Wine Region Bike Trip

bicyclist in Burgundy france wine country

Burgundy, France. Photo: Butterfield & Robinson

Tyler names his favorite wine-country destinations for cyclists:

Burgundy: “Not too far from Paris, so you can catch a train there pretty easily. If you get off in Dijon and go south, every town you stop in you’ve seen on a bottle of wine.”

Piedmont, Italy: “A close second to Burgundy, with similar geography but like a big bowl, so instead of going from point A to point B you can do the trip in a circle.”

Rioja: “It feels a little more adventurous than the first two because the climate is more stark and Don Quixote–like. The vineyards spring out of the shale rock and it’s very dramatic.”

Bordeaux: “Great country roads and great food.”

Côte du Rhone: “Dry Mediterranean climate, shaley soil, and a rugged countryside with secluded pockets that feel like no one has been there since the Romans.”

Tuscany: “Hillier than Burgundy or Bordeaux or the Côte du Rhone; it feels like biking through a painting. It’s also quite hot. In hot climates, there’s a little more of a looseness and a celebratory feel in the culture and the wines are more flavorful. The geography is epic, with stunning vistas; when you bike through it you feel like you have a full orchestra behind you.”

To find the right Trusted Travel Expert to help plan your biking vacation, contact Wendy

bicyclists in Bordeaux france vineyards

Bordeaux, France. Photo: Butterfield & Robinson

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Berlin Wall, Germany. Photo: Context Travel

Berlin’s History on Foot: A Walking Tour

Berlin is a city of creative, laid-back people, where long conversations ensue after chance encounters with locals. It also has a long and complicated history: Once the center of a mighty empire, it grew infamous as the capital during the grim Nazi period, and then, for almost 30 years, as a city divided by a wall.

Since the 1990s, Berlin has seen social, political, and economic regeneration, and now it is a gripping city to explore, whether you survey the unique architectural complexes, walk the remnants of the Berlin Wall, or visit its vast heritage of museums and galleries. It’s also a popular one-day add-on before or after a European river cruise, and even during a Baltic Sea cruise.

But no matter how or when you visit, the flat terrain and clear grid of streets make Berlin an ideal city to explore on foot. For advice on how best to route a city stroll, we tapped Context Travel, our Trusted Travel Expert for cultural walking tours. Here are two itineraries, ideal for any urban explorers. You can choose to go it alone or hire one of Context’s “docents”—professors, art historians, chefs, and other interesting local people—to show you around.

The 20th century history walk:

2-3 hours

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. Photo: Context Travel

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. Photo: Context Travel

Though a sprawling city, Berlin has several important sites relatively close to one another that make for a good introductory walking tour.

  • Start at the Brandenburg Gate, a famous symbol of Berlin modeled on the entrance to the Acropolis, and the spot where Reagan urged Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Then stroll around it to see the Reichstag—where Parliament meets—just in its shadow.
  • Then make a U-turn and head toward the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial.
  • Afterward take in the sobering Topography of Terror museum, with its exhibitions documenting Nazi atrocities at the site where the headquarters of the Gestapo and SS once stood.
  • Finish up at Potsdamer Platz, a public square once bisected by the Berlin Wall and now a poster child of the city’s post-unification project.

The Wall walk:

4–5 hours

Berlin Wall, Germany. Photo: Context Travel

Berlin Wall. Photo: Context Travel

Berlin experienced the country’s post-World War II division like no other city in Germany, having been split by the Berlin Wall, which went up overnight on August 13, 1961 and was finally torn down in 1990.

Three key locations around Berlin will give you a comprehensive concept of the Wall: the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse; Checkpoint Charlie, an old crossing point between the Soviet and American sectors of the city; and the East Side Gallery, a section of wall covered with paintings done by artists from around the world.

We suggest the following route for your mauerweg (Wall walk):

  • Starting from the Memorial—a still-standing section of wall and a center that explains the construction of the border partition—take a short walk to Kieler Strasse to see the old East Berlin watchtower, one of the few such remaining structures; the tower has been turned into a museum by Jurgen Litfin, whose brother was the first person to be killed trying to flee East Berlin.
  • From there, following Invalidenstrasse down along the canal, come out to the Brandenburg Gate at Pariser Platz—the place where a peaceful demonstration on November 9, 1989, turned into a historic event which ended with demolition of the Wall.
  • Head south along Ebertstrasse, stopping to look at the remnants of the Wall at Potsdamer Strasse, one of the city’s main thoroughfares.
  • Walking through Leipziger Platz along Mauerstrasse, and turning to Friedrichstrasse, you will get to Checkpoint Charlie, an old crossing point between the Soviet and American sectors of the city.
  • Splash out on lunch at Tim Raue, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant next to Checkpoint Charlie. Despite its accolades, the atmosphere remains unflappably casual, with serving staff in Converse and the now-famous chef often seen working the room, chatting to diners. Or for a quicker stop, try West Berlin, a chic cafe serving exceptional coffee and pastries. Though located just past the tourist circus that is Checkpoint Charlie, the cafe is mostly frequented by Berlin’s creatives and offers a refreshing taste of local life.
  • The last stop on your tour should be the East Side Gallery, a section of wall covered with paintings done by artists from around the world. The best way to reach it is by subway: Walk to U1 Station Hallesches Tor, then ride the U1 line to Warschauer Strasse.

This entire route runs about seven miles and takes four to five hours; you can, of course, cherry-pick portions of the walk for a shorter version. Or you can join Context’s Walking the Wall tour, learning from an expert in 20th-century history about life on both sides of the Wall, and the hardships and moments of bliss that the city experienced during the Cold War.

 

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

San Sebastian Spain beach

5 Reasons to Go to San Sebastián This Year

Although it’s often overshadowed by other Spanish cities—like Madrid, Barcelona and Seville—San Sebastián shouldn’t be overlooked. Spain’s northwest city, also called Donostia, not only boasts centuries of Basque heritage, natural beauty, and cutting-edge culinary and architecture scenes, but it was also chosen as European Capital of Culture for 2016. Visitors to the city this year will be treated to more than 400 cultural activities, including exhibitions, concerts, plays, dance performances and special gastronomic events. And the best part is that most of them are free. Here’s why you should get in on the action asap.

The city’s best architecture is on display.

The opening of the Guggenheim in nearby Bilbao back in 1997 stoked the Basque country’s architecture and art scenes, inspiring the creation and renovation of several impressive institutions over the years. Since many of the Donastia/San Sebastian 2016 events are taking place at these sites, you’ll be able to appreciate the architecture boom as you’re taking in all the cultural activities.

The Tabakalera is a new contemporary art center housed in a former tobacco factory; Spanish architecture firm Vaumm unveiled the stunning Basque Culinary Center in 2011 to much critical acclaim; and the century-old San Telmo Museum has been reimagined as the Museum of Basque Society and Citizenship, with a very modern nature-inspired wing connected to the original 16th-century convent building.

San Telmo Museum, San Sebastian, Spain

The San Telmo Museum is now also home to the Museum of Basque Society and Citizenship. Photo: San Sebastián 2016

The Diocesan Museum of ecclesiastical art recently got a facelift from Spanish architect and Pritzker laureate Rafael Moneo (who also won the Mies van der Rohe award in 2001 for the Kursaal arts center, where the San Sebastian International Film Festival is held), and the Balenciaga Museum arrived in neighboring Getaria in 2011 to honor the home-grown, acclaimed international designer.

Art is everywhere.

You don’t have to stay inside to see some of San Sebastian’s best artwork (though you certainly could; the Tabakalera is hosting artists from around Europe in a series of temporary exhibits, workshops, and lectures). Stroll outside to see the public artwork for which the city is known: Jorge Oteiza’s Construcción Vacía (Empty Construction) is a landmark on the Paseo Nuevo waterfront promenade, for example, and Eduardo Chillida’s Wind Combs sculptures can be found at the foot of Monte Igeldo.

It’s a festival town.

San Sebastian is home to several annual festivals. From July 20 to 26, the international jazz fest Jazzaldia will be celebrating its 51st edition with the help of global stars such as Diana Krall and Gloria Gaynor. Classical music fans will descend on the city in August for the Musical Fortnight (Quincena Musical); and film buffs should plan to arrive in mid-September for the International Film Festival.

The DSS 2016 lineup is adding a few more events to the festival schedule. For instance, to celebrate Shakespeare400, visitors can participate in an interactive version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where they will be guests at Hermia and Demetrius’ wedding while enjoying a feast prepared by the Basque Culinary Center (June 21–­July 24).

san sebastian spain hiking trail

Explore nearly 600 kilometers of hiking trails. Photo: San Sebastián 2016

You can surf, hike, or just lie in the sun.

San Sebastian rivals its Spanish sister cities when it comes to location, boasting both a beautiful shoreline (it’s right on La Concha Bay) and a picturesque mountain backdrop (it’s in the foothills of the Pyrénées). As a result, the area has long been a mecca for surfers in search of some of Europe’s tallest waves. Bring your board to Zurriola beach to join in, or just watch from the shore. The beach right in town along La Concha Bay can get packed in summer with sunbathers, so for a little more room roll out your towel on Playa de Ondarreta, found on the other side of the Palacio de Miramar, or take a boat out to Isola Santa Clara to admire the city from its small beach.

For landlubbers, the center of the city is the starting point of a new hiking route, the 2016 Bidea, a 32-stage hiking trail extending nearly 600 kilometres through the mountains. It was completed for this year’s Culture Capital event.

culinary event in San Sebastian Spain

Culinary events are part of the DSS 2016 festivities. Photo: San Sebastián 2016

You can eat your heart out.

San Sebastian’s innovative chefs have converted the city into a gastronomic mecca which now boasts 16 Michelin stars—the most per capita in Europe and second only in the world to Kyoto. Experience this gastronomic revolution at three-starred Arzak, famed for modernizing Basque cuisine, or the mountaintop Akelarre, where the tasting menus are as stunning as the views.

For a more adventurous experience, try the Basque Culinary Center. This gastronomic university has a cafeteria run by the next generation of super chefs; visitor can also choose to don an apron themselves in cooking classes (some are in English).

Alternatively, you can easily subsist on the region’s own style of tapa: the pintxo. These generally consist of a small piece of bread topped with anchovies, tuna, or egg-and-potato tortilla, and are held together by an olive and toothpick. They go down particularly well with a glass of txotx, Basque cider, or txakoli, slightly sparkling local white wines. Make your way to the old quarter’s maze of bar-lined streets, where you can carry out your own pinxtos tasting tour, sampling traditional bites at Gandarias or modernized options at Fuego Negro or Zeruko.

Of course, the DSS 2016 program doesn’t leave out gastronomy, which you can explore in activities like On Appétit!. Each month local chefs are passing their aprons to European counterparts, who will be preparing dishes from their respective regions. Plan to stop by participating restaurants or attend a series of cooking show events. Bon appetit, indeed—or, as they say in Basque, dezagun jan!

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.


Meet our writer

Lily Heise’s work in tourism and travel writing have seen her blossom hunting in Kyoto, tracking down hidden Angkor temples and getting lost in the Argentinian outback. Her writing has been featured in CondeNast Traveler.com, The Huffington Post, Business Insider and Frommer’s Guides, and she also share tips on France, other travel destinations and romance on her blog Je T’Aime, Me Neither. You can catch up with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

A selection of pastries at one of London's best markets

The 5 Best Street Markets in London

This article originally ran on Luxe City Guides


 

By Chloe Jessica Payne

The Big Smoke is big on street markets, with hundreds of stalls criss-crossing the city selling everything from blooms to burgers to faffy bric-a-brac. And sure, heavyweights like Borough, Portobello and Camden have their charms, but if you want to avoid the fanny-packed hordes, we suggest you pack an appetite and pootle along to these…

Heavens to Betsy! Is that the sun you see peeping through the perennial blanket of clouds?! Well there’s no happier way to pass a sunny Sunday morning than by wandering through the historic Columbia Road Flower Market in London’s East End. You might not think much of a posy of flowers, but Columbia Road is about much more than just bouquets, Babs. Going like spit since 1869, the now up-and-coming area is dotted with gourmet stores, indie boutiques and lovely cafes – a rarity in a city that seems to be gripped in the throes of chainstore-itis. And after that (if you’ve still got some wind in your whistle), why not give the nearby, style-packed LUXE London Shoreditch itinerary a whirl?

Columbia Road Flower Market, Columbia Rd, E2, Tower Hamlets, London

The Columbia Road Flower Market

The Columbia Road Flower Market. Photo courtesy LUXE City Guides.

Let’s make this clear from the outset: we love Borough Market – and have yet to find a finer chorizo burger – but unless you want to spend a morning milling around with the world and his wife, venture one stop further on the Jubilee Line to Bermondsey, where only Londoners-in-the-know go. Here be Maltby Street Market, peddling all manner of tum-rumbling fare every Saturday and Sunday, with highlights including mead, fresh-steamed mussels, award-winning brownies, antique bits n’ bobs, handmade soaps, and take-home gourmet goodies.

Maltby Street Market, Maltby St, SE1, Bermondsey, London

Street market food, London

Some of the best food in London can be found at street markets. Photo courtesy LUXE City Guides.

London is a vast city to navigate, however, so depending on where you’re based, it’s a smart idea to check out the umbrella farmers market website which will guide you to your nearest organic food odyssey. Our particular faves include southern belle Oval, sleb-spotter Marylebone and the darling little Pimlico (the latter two feature in the LUXE London shopping itins too, natch). And so, off to the market you go!

London Farmers Markets, lfm.org.uk

More from Luxe City Guides

LUXE London guide
8 of Tokyo’s Top Fine Diners
Gin Lover’s Tour of the World
5 Stunning Spa Sanctuaries in Asia
Shopping on Rome’s Via dell’Oca

 

Be a smarter traveler: Follow Wendy Perrin on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Dürnstein, Austria

5 Reasons Not to Cancel a Trip to Europe

Note: This article was originally written in 2016 to address travelers’ questions about traveling after certain terrorism incidents. It is not related to the current coronavirus situation of winter 2020 and does not reflect our opinions and advice about traveling at this time. For information about traveling during the coronavirus outbreak, please see our article, Coronavirus: How to Keep Track of What’s Important.

Following last week’s terror attacks in Brussels, the U.S. State Department issued a Europe Travel Alert—and, to my mind, some people are overreacting. Before you cancel a trip to Europe, consider:

1. The State Department has issued a Europe Alert, not a Warning.

Travel Alert does not advise you to stay home. An Alert is for “short-term events we think you should know about when planning travel to a country.” That’s very different from a Travel Warning, which is for “when we want you to consider very carefully whether you should go to a country at all.” An Alert merely reiterates what we already knew: When you go to Europe, be vigilant.

2. If you’re a smart traveler, you’re already vigilant.

You already steer clear of big crowds, such as at major train stations, sporting events, and public gatherings—places where pickpockets and drunken hooligans are a far more likely threat than terrorists. You already avoid mobs at tourist sites—by going at optimal times of day or bypassing the lines. If you don’t, here’s how.

3. State Department advisories always err on the side of caution.

If you were running the State Department, would you want to be in a position where a terrorist incident occurs and you hadn’t warned people? No. You’d want to avoid blame. The State Department has nothing to lose by issuing an Alert. Furthermore, it has nothing to lose if the Alert is not followed by an attack. (That’s because the spin can be that the authorities’ beefed-up vigilance is working.) Remember that the probability that you’ll get caught in a terror attack is minuscule.

4. The State Department tends to paint wide swaths of the world with the same brush.

There’s an Alert for the entire continent of Europe, even though a terror attack is far more likely to occur in a big city than in country villages or coastal areas or Mediterranean islands. Even when it comes to the State Department’s country-specific advisories, don’t think that an Alert or Warning for a nation means that that country is dangerous throughout. Just because parts of Mexico near the borders are dangerous, that doesn’t mean you should avoid Cabo San Lucas. Would you avoid Orlando because a bomb went off at the Boston Marathon? Would you avoid Beverly Hills because of shootings in San Bernardino? If I still haven’t convinced you, consider that the State Department currently cautions people about traveling everywhere in the world.

5. People think they’ll be more worried at their travel destination than they actually will be.

Over the years I’ve had email correspondence and phone calls with hundreds of people who cancel trips for no good reason, lose a lot of money, and miss out on what could have been wonderful memories. I’ve also watched hundreds forge ahead with trips and tell me afterward how glad they were to have done so. I’ve noticed that people expect to worry during a trip more than they actually end up worrying. As it turns out, that’s human nature. Psychologists will tell you that people typically overestimate how emotional they will be. Once they’re in the actual situation, there are dozens of interesting and demanding immediate circumstances that occupy their attention—circumstances that they didn’t factor in ahead of time. Similarly, once travelers get to their destination, they become so preoccupied with sightseeing, shopping, and other activities that they forget they were supposed to be worried.

Whether you’re traveling to Europe or any country that’s in the news, if you’re concerned about safety, here are smart steps you can take to protect yourself and give yourself peace of mind.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

A Trip to The Netherlands:
Start with our Questionnaire

This pandemic has unleashed unprecedented travel hurdles, as well as opportunities, and we’re monitoring them all. Are you seeking a private, easy, custom-tailored, top-quality trip that minimizes the risk to you and others? We’ll recommend your smartest options and the best trip-planning fixer for your specific situation, and we’ll ensure you get VIP service. Here’s how it works:

1. Answer the questions below. Your information is kept private.
2. Press Submit.
3. Expect a reply within 24 hours (or 48 hours on weekends).

 


The Holocaust Memorial in Budapest

The Ultimate Jewish Heritage Trip in Israel Includes a Stop in Europe

Starting this spring, U.S. travelers who are passing through Europe on their way to or from Israel can take advantage of special new Jewish-heritage itineraries. “It’s actually very convenient to combine a tour of Israel with a stopover or a few days in Europe or North Africa,” says Joe Yudin of Touring Israel, Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Israel. “It’s a great way to break up a long flight while keeping the theme of the journey.”

Joe has teamed up with Europe specialists on The WOW List to create the customizable multi-country itineraries, which typically include visits to historic synagogues, Jewish museums and cemeteries, and restaurants specializing in traditional Jewish food. So far, these travel experts have created seven itineraries—six in Europe and one in Morocco—that tell a seamless story. “After all, the story of the Jewish people began in Israel 4,000 years ago,” says Joe, “and with the Roman conquest of Israel the Jewish nation was dispersed throughout the known world. These tours will focus on the connection of those events and be tailored to each traveler’s specific interests.

“Of course, travelers can also visit the usual iconic sites in those countries, just as a Jewish-heritage itinerary in Israel also includes visits to Christian and Muslim and secular sites.” The tours are hosted by guides specialized in Jewish culture and history and include opportunities to meet local Jewish community leaders. Highlights include:

* Morocco: In Casablanca, the Moroccan Jewish Museum, the only Jewish history museum in the Arab world.

* Spain: The Jewish Quarter of Cordoba and the Maimonedes Synagogue, built in 1315, as well as Jewish heritage sites in Barcelona, Seville, Toledo, and Gerona/Besalu.

* Portugal: The little towns of the Serra da Estrela and one of the oldest synagogues in Europe at Tomar.

* Budapest: The Holocaust Memorial in Budapest and the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives in the Great Budapest Synagogue.

* Prague: The Spanish Synagogue, as well as the ancient Old-New Synagogue and Europe’s oldest surviving Jewish cemetery, founded in 1478.

The Jewish Museum at Dorotheergasse, Vienna

The Jewish Museum at Dorotheergasse, Vienna. Photo courtesy Ouriel Morgensztern.

* Vienna: The Jewish Quarter of Leopoldstadt, the Jewish section of the Central Cemetery, and the Jewish Museum at Dorotheergasse, where a permanent exhibition gives a comprehensive insight into Jewish life and the Jewish history of Vienna.

* Italy: The Jewish Ghetto in Rome and a medieval Tuscan hill town known as La Piccola Gerusalemme, or Little Jerusalem, for the Jewish community that coexisted with the majority Christian population in the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century, the Medici rulers confined the Jews to a ghetto, and travelers can visit the synagogue, bakery, mikvah, and other remnants of Jewish heritage.

Spotlight on Venice
A destination of particular interest this year is Venice, which established a Jewish ghetto on March 29, 1516. The city and the Jewish community of Venice are marking the quincentennial with Venice Ghetto 500, a yearlong program centered on three main events: an opening ceremony at the Fenice Opera House on March 29; the exhibition “Venice, the Jews and Europe” at the Doge’s Palace (June–November); and the refurbishment of the Jewish Museum and restoration of three historic synagogues, a $12 million project begun in 2014.

In connection with the quincentennial, Touring Israel has teamed up with Maria Gabriella Landers and Brian Dore to offer a three-day, privately guided tour that comprises both prominent landmarks and little-visited sites. The following itinerary can be customized to suit individual travelers’ interests and time constraints:

Day 1: You’ll take a private water taxi to the dock of Ca’Sagredo, one of Venice’s oldest and most esteemed five-star hotels near the major sights. Although on the Grand Canal and close to the Piazza San Marco and Rialto, the hotel is a bit apart from the tourist thoroughfare. Home to one of the Venetian Republic’s wealthiest and most powerful families, this 42-room property is housed in the palazzo that was their fifteenth-century residence. Paintings of important seventeenth-century Venetian painters adorn the common areas, and there is a restaurant on site with seating on the Grand Canal.

In the late afternoon an English-speaking Venetian will meet you in your hotel lobby to accompany you on a bacarata, stopping in at some choice spots for ombra and cicchetti (wine and Venetian appetizers) during the traditional cocktail hour. This is a great introduction to La Serenissima through a truly local custom, and you can learn about Venetian gastronomy as you become familiar with the lay of the land.

Day 2. A local expert guide will lead you through the Jewish Ghetto. The term ghetto originates from the Venetian word getto, meaning the pouring of metal. Today the word has a negative connotation, but in 1516, when an enclosed neighborhood for Jews was created in Venice, it referred to the foundry that the district replaced. The Venetian Republic segregated Jews to placate the Roman Catholic Church, which had already forced the expulsion of Jews from much of Western Europe. Nonetheless, in the span of a few decades the Venetian Jews were able to overcome obstacles and establish a tight network of trade that involved the states bordering on the Mediterranean Sea. You will visit the ghetto and learn the historical importance and contribution of the Jewish population during the Serenissima Republic, and you will see the famous hidden synagogues, which are among the oldest and most valued in Europe. Your specialized guide will accompany you privately into three stunning synagogues and explain the ghetto’s history, art, and curiosities. After the ghetto tour, you’ll explore the Cannaregio neighborhood, a very interesting but little visited section of Venice. Enjoy lunch here at one of the restaurants that feature classic Venetian kosher cuisine. After lunch you’ll explore the Jewish Cemetery on the Lido, where the tombs date from 1389. The cemetery endured a long and tumultuous history until it was abandoned in 1938.

Day 3: Your guide will get you past the lines for the Basilica in the iconic Piazza San Marco and the Doge’s Palace, where, you’ll get to see the 500th-anniversary exhibit, a multi-media celebration of Jewish art, culture, and civic society throughout the history of the lagoon.

Day 4: On your final morning, you’ll get to take a private water taxi from your hotel to your point of departure (airport, train station, port, or Piazzale Roma).

For more information or to customize your own itinerary, contact Joe Yudin of Touring Israel.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

La Rambla, Barcelona, Spain

The Perfect Cruise Shore Excursion in Barcelona

The shore excursions sold by cruise lines can be touristy, overpriced, and inefficient. In this series, local experts in the world’s most popular ports recommend sightseeing itineraries for your time off the ship, so you can get the max out of your precious time in port.

The Perfect Port Day in Barcelona

Since its cruise port sits so close to the city center, Barcelona is a natural contender for independent shore excursions. We asked the whizzes at Context Travel to dream up the best ways to spend a day in the city. You can choose to go it alone or hire one of their “docents”— professors, art historians, chefs, and other interesting local people—to show you around.

Getting into Barcelona

Most cruise ships dock extremely close to the city center at the Moll Adossat terminal (moll means pier in Catalan); even if your ship doesn’t dock there, the other piers are nearby.

By bus — The Barcelona port authority operates a shuttle bus (the T3 PORTBUS, a.k.a. the blue bus) that takes passengers between Moll Adossat and Plaça de Colom. From this plaza at the base of Las Ramblas, you can easily get around on foot or by metro; the Drassanes stop on the green L3 line is nearby. To catch the bus, look for signs upon exiting the boat; the cost is 3 euros (about U.S. $3.30) round-trip, 3 euros (about $3.30) round-trip. Your cruise company may also run its own shuttle from the Moll Adossat to the World Trade Center, which is just a few minutes’ walk from Plaça de Colom.

By taxi — There is a taxi line at Moll Adossat, though sometimes the wait is long. The ride to Plaça de Colum should take about 10 minutes at a cost of roughly 10 euros (about $11). The ride to Plaça de Catalonia, Barcelona’s more central square, is about 20 minutes and roughly 15 euros (about $16.50).

By private car — You can pre-book a private car to whisk you back and forth in style, but it comes at a price; Context Travel offers the service for $50 each way.

Walking — It’s about a 45-minute walk to Plaça de Colom; the part of the city you’ll see is neither interesting nor beautiful.

Things to do

If it’s your first time in Barcelona:

Start your exploration at Plaça de Colom, where you’ll see a large monument to Christopher Columbus. The monument sits at the base of Las Ramblas, a historic, pedestrians-only avenue that runs north to the city’s main square, Plaça de Catalunya. Stroll up Las Ramblas to see some of the street performers and activity (though watch your purse); veer off to the right at some point to get lost in the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) and El Born neighborhoods in the Ciutat Vella (old city). The Barri Gòtic does have some heavily touristed streets, but it’s still possible to find quaint ones—we especially love exploring what remains of the historic Jewish Quarter.

Stop at the Born Centre Cultural, housed in a 19th-century covered market, to learn about the history of that neighborhood as well as all of Catalonia; then head to lunch at Bar del Pla for some tapas.

Catalan flags in Gracia, Barcelona, Spain. Photo: Context Travel

Catalan flags in Gracia, Barcelona, Spain. Photo: Context Travel

In the afternoon, head up Las Ramblas (by foot or via metro line L3) to Passeig de Gràcia, the main artery of the Eixample district. It is in this newer district that you’ll find Barcelona’s famous modernista architecture, particularly works by the three most famous modernistá architects: Antoni Gaudí, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and Josep Puig i Cadafalch. You’ll see the bulk of these on the Passeig de Gràcia itself, including Gaudí’s famous Casa Mila. Passeig de Gràcia is also home to luxury stores like Chanel. While walking the Passeig de Gràcia, look down at the paving stones beneath your feet—they are based on a design by Gaudí. The L3 line runs parallel to this avenue, so you can simply hop on the subway to the Drassanes stop and catch the next PORTBUS whenever it’s time to get back to the ship.

Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalonia, Barcelona, Spain. Photo: Context Travel

Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalonia, Barcelona, Spain. Photo: Context Travel

If you’ve already been to Barcelona:

Head to Gràcia, a village once well outside the city limits (now near the Lesseps stop on the metro’s L3 line). Far from the prying eyes of tourists, Gràcia is an ideal neighborhood for learning about Catalan culture and pride; for insight into the current political atmosphere and independence movement in Catalonia, Context Travel offers a three-hour walking seminar of the neighborhood. Have lunch in Gràcia at Can Xurrades, a local favorite for Catalan cuisine, particularly steaks from Iberian bulls (similar to Kobe beef); call in advance to reserve a table. Then head by metro down to Plaça Espanya for an afternoon of Catalan art: the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, a fantastic collection of Catalan visual art, is housed in the Palau Nacional; the nearby Caixa Forum has wonderful temporary exhibitions in a converted textile factory. Context arranges a three-hour walking tour of nearby Montjuïc hill that contextualizes the area.

To return to the port, make the five-minute walk from the Caixa Forum to the metro stop Plaça d’Espanya on L3. Exit at Drassanes, and return to the T3 PORTBUS stop to catch the shuttle back to the Port.

 

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbu

Istanbul Airport Layovers: The Best Way to Spend Them

An airport layover doesn’t have to mean that you’re stuck in the airport. In this series, local experts in the world’s most popular hub cities recommend sightseeing itineraries for every time frame.


 

If you’re passing through Istanbul, don’t miss the opportunity to get a glimpse of this city of two continents. The folks at Context Travel (a company on Wendy’s WOW List that runs cultural walking tours in cities worldwide) gave us ideas for how to spend a layover there. Just one word of warning: The hypnotic views of the Bosphorus and Golden Horn from a rooftop restaurant may make you miss your connecting flight—but would that really be the end of the world?

The Basics

U.S. citizens need a visa to enter Turkey, which you can obtain online before arrival.

How to get out of the airport: There are several ways of getting to and from Ataturk airport (IST), the international hub on the European side of the city, about 12 miles from its center. The first is the M1 metro line, which connects to other metro lines at Yenikapi, a district close to Sultanahmet. The ride takes 35 to 40 minutes and costs 4 Turkish liras (about U.S $1.35). The second option is to use Havatas, a private bus line from the airport to Taksim; buses leave every half-hour and cost TL 10-13 ($3.50-$4.50); the ride is approximately an hour. By taxi, it takes 45 minutes to an hour to get to the city’s historic center, depending on traffic. If you have limited time, a taxi is a good option, and costs around TL 40 ($14) each way, assuming that the meter is on and properly set. There are always a number of liveried taxis waiting at the airport’s international arrivals exit.

What to do with your luggage: IST offers luggage storage on the arrivals floor of both the international and domestic terminals. The daily fee is TL 20 ($7) for a suitcase, TL 30 ($10.50) for oversized bags.

Check with your airline before planning a layover in Istanbul: Some offer complimentary tours, shuttles, or hotel rooms for their passengers.

Sunset over Sultanahmet, Istanbul.

Sunset over Sultanahmet, Istanbul. Photo: Context Travel

If you have a 4-hour Layover

With fewer than six hours, it’s not worth attempting to get into Istanbul itself, but there are a couple of nearby neighborhoods where you can enjoy a meal. Atakoy Marina has several cafes and restaurants with a nice view of the Marmara Sea, including outposts of local chains Big Chefs, Midpoint, and Mado. The easiest way to get there is by taxi, for TL 10-15 ($3.50-$5).

If You Have a 6-Hour Layover

Start in the Sultanahmet neighborhood to see the Hagia Sophia; Topkapi Palace, where the Ottoman sultans lived and ruled; the Blue Mosque; and Sultanahmet Meydani (Sultan Ahmet Square, once the Hippodrome of Constantinople), home to the Serpent Column, the Column of Constantine, and the Walled Obelisk. Yenikapi is the closest metro stop to Sultanahmet, or you can switch from the metro to the tram at Aksaray, and get off the tram at the Sultanahmet stop, right near the Hagia Sophia. If you’re interested in the singular atmosphere of Istanbul’s colorful markets, don’t miss the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. All of these sights are walking distance from each other, but it takes at least two hours to explore each one—more if you really want to get a feel for the place.

If you have enough time and energy, or if you’ve been to Sultanahmet before, spend the day wandering around Galata and Karakoy, whose winding streets are home to local designers’ shops, art galleries, and an excellent museum, the Istanbul Modern. Galata not only has a rich history but, along with Karakoy, it’s the new hub of entertainment in the city, and perfect for a flavor of up-and-coming Istanbul. (The Karakoy tram stop, three past Sultanahmet, leaves you at the bottom of the hill under the Galata Tower.)

If You Don’t Have Time to Leave the Airport

The international departure floor has many cafes and restaurants with a range of cuisines. There are a number of lounges, some of which grant day-use access for around TL 100 ($35), including snacks, alcoholic and soft drinks, WiFi, and newspapers.


 

More Layover Solutions:

Tokyo Airport Layovers: How to Make the Most of Them

Amsterdam Airport Layovers: How to Make the Most of Them

Beijing Airport Layovers: How to Make the Most of Them

Barcelona Airport Layovers: How to Make the Most of Them

Great Paris Hotels for an Airport Layover at Charles de Gaulle

London Heathrow Layover: Great Hotels for a Stopover at LHR

Madrid Airport Layovers: How to Make the Most of Them

 

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

aerial view of Venice Italy and surrounding water

Italy Vacation Ideas for Every Age

When it comes to family-friendly destinations, Italy is near the top of the list—and not just because of all the pasta and gelato. Italians simply love kids (but really, is there anything they’re not passionate about?). They’ll welcome your rambunctious toddler into their restaurant, pinch your baby on the cheeks, give your teen all the free samples of local cheeses she can handle.

That said, not every part of Italy is perfect for every age. Here are examples of where you might not want to take your kids, and a better alternative for each.

For beach lovers

Don’t…

Expect a relaxed beach vacation on the Amalfi Coast; all those picturesque cliffs lack childproofing. If your kid isn’t old enough to reliably obey your instructions, you’re sure to be stressed. Plus, the best beaches are always a long walk or a boat ride away from wherever you’re staying.

Instead…

Base yourself in Lucca, and get your sun and sand in the towns of Forte dei Marmi, Pietra Santa, Viareggio, all of which have sandy beaches that gradually give way to gentle surf. Lucca itself is a flat city, and you can easily circumnavigate the old town on bikes without worrying about losing track of the kids.

For city lovers

Venice-Italy-Canal

Venice, Italy. Photo: Leprince/Pixabay

Don’t…

Risk losing your kid in Venice. It’s hard enough for adults to find their way around this maze of a city; imagine trying to retrieve a four-year-old who zipped around a corner ahead of you and now is nowhere in sight.

Instead…

Wait a few years; there’s simply no other place like Venice, and it’s great for families with kids seven and up. Arrive by train, and hustle out of the station first, camera in hand, so you can capture that magical moment when your kids truly grasp a city where the roads are made of water.

For Sporty Families

Lake Como, Italy

Lake Como, Italy. Photo: Fototeca ENIT/Gino Cianci

Don’t…

Plan to get around by bike in Tuscany. They’re called hill towns for a reason—you’ll be sweating for your groceries, either with offspring who leave you in the dust or groan about all the hills you’re making them climb.

Instead…

Head to Lake Como for waterskiing, wake-boarding, hiking, canyoning, and plenty of other ways to keep your kids’ veins running with adrenaline. For more mellow multigenerational groups, Mara recommends a kayaking-and-walking day trip from Bellagio, paddling around the point in boats and then re-crossing the peninsula on foot.

For the Overscheduled, Media-Obsessed Teen

Milan italy city center photo by Igor Saveliev Pixabay

Milan, Italy. Photo: Igor Saveliev/Pixabay

Don’t…

Drop your family in the countryside and then pack your days with outings to stave off teenage boredom.

Instead…

Spend an entire week in Milan or Naples, with little on the agenda other than coffee-drinking and people watching. Teens are attracted to things that feel relevant to their lives, and these two modern, vibrant cities fit the bill without feeling overrun by tourists.

For Wine Connoisseurs

outdoor dining Ca di Pesa Italy villa

Outdoor dining. Photo: Homebase Abroad

Don’t…

Pack your days with vineyard visits, even if there are bocce courts or hobby horses to keep your kids occupied at the wineries. Travel as a way to bring families together, not separate them.

Instead…

Do as the locals would, and don’t drink without food—an excellent example to set for kids, by the way. The right trip designer can arrange for a sommelier and chef to come to your villa and present a menu of local dishes paired with regional wines. The sommelier will help you understand how the two go together, and their guidance can be calibrated to any level of experience.

 

For a WOW trip in an Italian villa or estate for a groups large and small, Ask Wendy.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know. 

convertible cable car up Mt. Stanserhorn Switzerland

5 Cool Experiences You Didn’t Know You Could Have in Switzerland

Think you already know Switzerland, with its snowy peaks, perfectly timed trains, and delicious cheese? Think again. We’re not saying that these famous attributes aren’t indispensable parts of the Swiss experience—but we have uncovered new ways to see a place that so many of us already know and love. Read on for our five favorite twists on quintessential Switzerland. And if you want an extraordinary trip to Switzerland, Wendy knows the right people to help plan it—ask her.

1. Fondue in a Rickshaw

Fondükscha fondue tour in Switzerland

In the small town of Thun, Switzerland, you can hire a “Fondükscha” to give you a tour of the town while you eat fondue. Photo: My Switzerland

Of course you’ll want to try some cheese fondue when in Switzerland—it is the national dish, after all. But how about dipping your bread while being driven around in a rickshaw? In the small town of Thun, located between Interlaken and Bern, you can hire a “Fondükscha” to take you past the main sights of this beautifully intact medieval village while enjoying fondue, wine, cherry brandy, and tea. Swiss rickshaws are designed for the elements, with a closed-cab structure, sheepskin seat covers, and warm blankets to keep you cozy throughout the excursion.

 

2. Ride in an Open-Top Cable Car

convertible cable car up Mt. Stanserhorn Switzerland

To reach the summit of Mt. Stanserhorn, ride the world’s only convertible cable car. Photo: My Switzerland

You don’t have to be a world-class athlete to scale many of Switzerland’s majestic peaks; cable cars and funiculars will do the hard work for you. To reach the summit of Mt. Stanserhorn, in fact, you can hop aboard the world’s only convertible cable car, which runs throughout the summer. From the open-air top deck, enjoy 360-degree views reaching into France and Germany—and no cables to impede your sightlines. At the summit you’ll find a network of hiking trails and a revolving restaurant.

 

3. Take a Train from Glaciers to Palm Trees

Bernina Express train through Switzerland

The beautiful Bernina Express train through Switzerland has the UNESCO World Heritage status. Photo: My Switzerland

The UNESCO World Heritage stamp usually brings to mind ancient ruins or historic monuments. But in the case of the Bernina Express, it’s a train route that has earned this honor. Board the Bernina in St. Moritz, and three hours later you’ll have journeyed past glaciers, over the highest Alpine pass crossed by a train without a tunnel, and down into Tirano, Italy, where the snow-capped peaks outside your panoramic windows are replaced by Mediterranean palms.

 

4. Listen to Traditional Folk Music

Appenzel region of Switzerland

Just an hour from Zurich, the Appenzel region is quintessential Switzerland. Photo: My Switzerland

It’s a wonder that American visitors haven’t yet discovered Appenzell; though just an hour from Zurich, the region is quintessential Switzerland, loaded with gorgeous alpine vistas and a rich cultural heritage. You’d hardly be surprised to see Heidi herself come bounding across the rolling hills, dressed—as many locals today still are—in traditional attire. Come in August and you’ll get to enjoy Ländlerfest, one of Switzerland’s premier folk music gatherings, with performances by both well-established groups and talented young musicians.

 

5. Drive a Snow Groomer

snow grooming pisten bully machine in switzerland

In the resort region of Sattel, you can co-pilot a snow grooming machine. Photo: My Switzerland

Wishing to add some horsepower to your ski vacation? In the resort region of Sattel, you can co-pilot a snow grooming machine, with nothing but the enormous machine’s headlights to guide your way through the darkness of night as you prepare the slopes for the next day’s skiers. Finish your task by midnight and you’ll be rewarded with dinner at a mountainside restaurant.

What unexpected Switzerland experiences are we missing? Tell us in the comments below! And if you want to start planning your own Swiss getaway right now, ask Wendy for a travel specialist recommendation.

START YOUR OWN TRIP TO SWITZERLAND

 
Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Fireworks over London's Tower Bridge on New Year's Eve

The Rewards of Spending the Winter Holidays in London

London is magical during the holiday season. There’s a festive atmosphere everywhere you go, and the city is lively and vibrant with seasonal events, cultural goings-on and, of course, world-class shopping.

And, when you’ve got family in tow, there’s no better way to experience the holidays in London than by renting the right apartment. You can simultaneously feel at home and on vacation. You get more space for your dollar (remember that most London hotel rooms are tiny), a communal living area for family gatherings, and even a kitchen for preparing your own holiday feast.

To help you pull together a London winter getaway, here are ideas for things to do and where to stay, whether you’re bringing the whole family or just escaping for a romantic weekend alone.

What to Do

• Take a twirl around the Natural History Museum’s ice rink and then warm up with a hot cocoa. There are ice rinks across London, but this one is popular, as it’s only a short stroll from South Kensington.

• Check off a few people on your holiday shopping list with a visit to the beautiful Victoria & Albert Museum gift shop. They have an excellent Christmas display for a bit of artistic gift-giving inspiration.

• Join the crowds for holiday shopping on Oxford Street and Regent Street. The hustle and bustle combined with the glittering Christmas lights makes this a classic London experience during the holidays. Covent Garden and Carnaby Street are also extremely festive for shopping leading up to Christmas.

• Don’t forget the department stores! Get into the holiday spirit by visiting the holiday displays at Fortnum & Mason, Selfridges, Liberty and Harrods.

• November through the end of December, take a stroll along the Thames at the Southbank Winter Market. Get a glass of mulled wine and explore the wooden chalets selling gifts, sweets, and festive food and drinks.

Where to Stay

South Kensington is a top choice during the winter holidays, thanks to central location, excellent transport options, and great sights and dining. Walk to the ice rink at the Natural History Museum and spend a day visiting the sights along Museum Row. Shopping and the West End are just a hop, skip and jump away on the Tube or a bus. It’s a wonderful area for feeling like a local and enjoying cozy evenings in a comfortable home setting.

To find the right travel specialist for London apartments, reach out to Ask Wendy.

Be a smarter traveler: Follow Wendy Perrin on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Chateuneuf-en-Auxois, Burgundy, France

A Trip to France:
Start with our Questionnaire

This pandemic has unleashed unprecedented travel hurdles, as well as opportunities, and we’re monitoring them all. Are you seeking a private, easy, custom-tailored, top-quality trip that minimizes the risk to you and others? We’ll recommend your smartest options and the best trip-planning fixer for your specific situation, and we’ll ensure you get VIP service. Here’s how it works:

1. Answer the questions below. Your information is kept private.
2. Press Submit.
3. Expect a reply within 24 hours (or 48 hours on weekends).

 


Canal Barging: The Cruise Experience You’ve Been Missing Out On

Picture yourself floating gently along Europe’s winding waterways, dining every night on fresh local foods and spending your days exploring hidden nooks of France, Germany, and Belgium.

That’s the experience of canal barging—a very specific type of European cruise that has gained a very loyal following of sophisticated travelers, but which is still unknown to many.

That might be because the word “barge” isn’t very enticing—it doesn’t exactly conjure up the charm and luxury that these trips really offer. A better name for the experience would be “canal yachting,” says Ellen Sack, our Trusted Travel Expert for this kind of vacation, who’s been working in this unique part of the travel industry for 30 years.

But whatever you call it, this kind of vacation is something special—a way to see beautiful European countryside from the water without the drawbacks of a cruise. Even if you’ve been to Europe many times, or taken a river cruise, canal barging is a new experience.

barge cruise france

The Luciole cruises through Northern Burgundy and holds up to 14 guests. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

What exactly is canal barging?

Canal barging is a type of cruise that takes place on very small boats that wind through Europe’s manmade canals, some of which were built as far back as the 16th century, when cargo barges used them to ship freight around the region. Now that trucks, trains, and planes have taken over that job, the canals are used as sightseeing routes for small boats that are still called barges, even though they’re more like intimate floating hotels. As opposed to their predecessors, these come with all the high-end amenities: private chefs, private tour guides, and a captain who is often the owner of the vessel and an expert on the region. Days are filled with activities that enable you to delve into the rural areas’ artisan culture and laid-back lifestyle. On one day you might find yourself bicycling through fields, shopping at local markets, wine tasting at vineyards, or getting a behind-the-scenes tour of a chateau.

Canal barge vacations are similar to other cruises in that they have start and end dates and follow set itineraries. But since groups are very small—Ellen Sack’s company, Barge Lady Cruises, offers boats that carry 12 people or less, and none carry more than 24—guests have access to a lot of privately guided experiences. And if you don’t feel like sharing the boat, you don’t have to: A multigenerational family can book an entire barge to themselves, whereas if you’re a couple who’s feeling social, you can join a mixed boat.

Either way, the groups are always very small—not like a bus tour or cruise ship excursion. “It’s intimate, very authentic, very slow,” she explains. “You see the rural countryside from the water and get into a world that a traveler wouldn’t get into ordinarily. It’s really a lot more interesting than the name of the industry would imply.”

Where can you do it?

France is the main destination, and Sack has most of her boats there. But she also offers cruises in Holland and Belgium, Italy, Ireland, England, Scotland and Germany.

canal barge cruise itinerary

Canal barge itineraries include private tours, artisan food tastings, outdoor activities like bicycling, and visits to villages and markets. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises.

How does it differ from river cruises?

“The small size differs from every other cruise on the planet,” Sack explains. “It’s often confused with river cruising because both are on waterways of Europe, but our boats are much smaller, they go on canals and really small waterways.” And, she adds, barging is much much slower. “We go about 50 miles per week. You could walk faster. Whereas river cruises are larger—100 to 200 people—and they travel several hundred miles per week.”

The upshot is that barging will take you deep into a country’s rural areas, which are not accessible to river cruises (or big-ship ocean cruises either).

However, if you’re looking for a lot of nightlife, shopping, a more formal atmosphere, and city excitement, then canal barging is not for you. “It really is deep countryside and it is laid back.”

The other important thing to understand about barging is that it is not a customized trip. Itineraries are set, and have been crafted by Sack and her team based on more than three decades of experience and contacts in the area. “On all of our boats, whether it’s a family trip or anything else, we have strong programming,” Sack explains. “It’s not for people who prefer to wander around by themselves. Barging is for people who want everything taken care of, who want to eat gourmet food, who want to see sights with a private guide. If someone tells me that they want to spend ten hours wandering around village X, then barging is not for them.”

How to decide if canal barging is right for you:

Barging is for a certain kind of traveler.

•You like slow travel. Barging isn’t for travelers who want to hit a lot of countries and destinations in one trip. It’s for travelers who want to immerse themselves in an area and see parts of Europe they haven’t had access to before.

•You like good food. Barges have their own private chefs and usually include the chance to shop with the chef at a market.

•You like private, special-access experiences. Barge cruises stick to set itineraries, but the quality of the itinerary very much depends on the experience of the company you book with — which is why we recommend Sack’s company. She has great connections in Europe and is able to arrange for special experiences, like mustard tasting with artisans in Burgundy.

•You don’t care about dressing up. As Sack tells it, most of her travelers are comfortable in the informal setting of a barge. They aren’t looking to get dolled up and hit the town, and they don’t mind that they’re going to kick back for a week.

•You’re not looking for a custom-tailored trip. Barge cruises are turn-key—that is the point. They provide a luxury experience that is all laid out for you, so that you know exactly what you’re getting and don’t have to think about anything. And the best part: It’s all pre-paid. Every single meal, drink, activity, and guide (except for gratuities) is covered in your initial cost. “We call it a house party,” Sack says. “We want to treat you like you’ve joined a house party and everything is prepaid. You will never put your hand in your pocket.”

canal barge cruise food

Most canal barges have a private chef, who prepares meals with local foods every day. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

When to do it:

Since barge cruises travel where most tourists don’t—and offer private tours and experiences—anytime is a good time to go, even during the usual height of Europe’s tourist season.

In general, the barge season runs from April 15 to November 1 and is most popular in June and September. Mid-April through the first two weeks of May are what’s known as value season, where some boats offer 10 to 25 percent off their main season rates. But every boat differs; some might have their value season in August, and some don’t have a value season at all.

But Sack stresses that it’s the boat that makes the trip—not the date. “The weather doesn’t differ drastically, so there’s not a better or worse time to go. It’s more about finding the right boat for you.”

And finding the right boat for you is what Sack does best. Contact her through WendyPerrin.com to be identified as a Wendy Perrin VIP traveler (which means that Wendy will be in the wings offering advice and making sure your entire travel-planning experience is a positive one), and then talk to her about what you want in your vacation. Sack knows her boats, their routes, and their owner-operators extremely well and can tell you whatever you need to know. You can also peruse her Barge Lady Cruises website, which is packed with a ton of info. You’ll find pictures and blueprints of every boat, sample menus and photos of meals, a full itinerary, photos of the crew and past guests in action, and reviews from previous travelers on each specific vessel.

canal barge cruise deck

Canal barging is all about having a laid-back vacation. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

iceland volcano tour

Would You Take the Plunge Into an Icelandic Volcano?

Note from Wendy: During our Iceland adventure last month, while I made a day trip to Greenland, Tim and the kids ventured deep down inside a volcano. Here, Tim describes the experience—and his advice for anyone thinking of trying it.

Like adventure? How about being lowered the equivalent of 40 floors—in a window washer’s scaffold—into a volcano in Iceland? Never mind that its last eruption was 4,000 years ago and some scientists say there is no such thing as an extinct volcano. Or that Iceland is one of the most active volcano and earthquake zones in the world, and earthquakes could dislodge rocks onto the visitors below. Or that, if the power goes out or there is a malfunction with the scaffold, you’ll be stuck down there in the dark. Still interested? For this five-hour experience, they charge more than $300 per person.

If those facts haven’t deterred you—as they didn’t deter us—then maybe a trip Inside the Volcano is an adventure for you. Located a short drive from downtown Reykjavik, and across from the town’s closest ski resort, is the Thrihnukagigur volcano and the Inside The Volcano experience.

After a bus ride from our Reykjavik hotel, we took a 40-minute hike through lava fields to the basecamp. The path is rocky, and we needed to watch each step, but it’s a reasonably flat trek to the basecamp.

We hiked along this gravel trail to the volcano.

We hiked along this gravel trail to the volcano. Photo: Timothy Baker

Arriving at the basecamp, Doug tries to take a photo of a young Arctic fox as the fox plays with his camera strap.

Arriving at the basecamp, Doug tries to take a photo of a young Arctic fox as the fox plays with his camera strap. Photo: Timothy Baker

At the basecamp, we were outfitted with a hard hat; a harness, carabiners, and a lanyard to keep us from falling out of the elevator system; and a safety briefing (that assumed everything would be fine). Our favorite part of the safety briefing was learning to avoid the “iPhone Drop Zone”—meaning, the area directly under the scaffolding. It seems people using their iPhones as cameras tend to lose their grip on the device and…oops!

Charlie gets geared up at basecamp.

Charlie gets geared up at basecamp. Photo: Timothy Baker

Properly geared and trained (?), we walked the final push up the hill to the top of the volcano. A steel structure spans the 20-foot mouth of the volcano, and the scaffolding and loading ramp hang beneath it.

The final climb from basecamp to the entrance to the volcano is a little steep.

The final climb from basecamp to the entrance to the volcano is a little steep. Photo: Timothy Baker

Even in the middle of July, there was still some snow on the ground.

Even in the middle of July, there was still some snow on the ground. Photo: Timothy Baker

We strapped onto a safety line to walk the plank to the scaffold, then re-clipped the line to the scaffold itself. Along with a lift operator and five guests, we took deep breaths and secretly prayed that now was not the time for one of those frequent Icelandic earthquakes!

Doug is the first of our group to walk the plank to the window washer’s scaffold.

Doug is the first of our group to walk the plank to the window washer’s scaffold. Photo: Timothy Baker

The scaffold can hold six to seven people.

The scaffold can hold six to seven people. Photo: Timothy Baker

The ride down is a slow and steady seven-minute crawl. Wheels on the scaffold that would ordinarily be pressed against the side of a building are needed only for the first couple of meters of rock before you are dangling free of the walls. Nerves can be frayed here (especially after a small unexpected jolt on the scaffold), but already the lights on the scaffold are illuminating the extremely colorful rock walls and a blackened lava tube inside the volcano.

The feeling of being lowered on a window washer’s scaffold into a dark hole is a cross between sheer terror and exhilaration.

The feeling of being lowered on a window washer’s scaffold into a dark hole is a cross between sheer terror and exhilaration. Photo: Timothy Baker

The wheels of the window washer’s scaffold that would normally rest against a building rest against rock on the narrowest part of the trip.

The wheels of the window washer’s scaffold that would normally rest against a building rest against rock on the narrowest part of the trip. Photo: Timothy Baker

From the outside, the volcano looks more like a mound than a classic volcano. But on the inside, it is shaped more like a giant jug. You enter through a small neck at the top of the jug and pass through several meters of the narrow neck before opening into the massive magma chamber. We felt the air cool. Inside, the temperature is always in the low 40s Fahrenheit.

The main cavern comes into view.

The main cavern comes into view. Photo: Timothy Baker

Doug checks out the view straight up. A rounded Plexiglas roof keeps rain and small rocks from dropping onto you from the surface.

Doug checks out the view straight up. A rounded Plexiglas roof keeps rain and small rocks from dropping onto you from the surface. Photo: Timothy Baker

Thrihnukagigur is an exceptional volcano. Most volcanoes fill up with their own lava and harden. But Thrihnukagigur either emptied its lava or the lava sunk back into the earth and left the chamber exposed.

About 400 feet from the top, the scaffolding stops. We were struck by the sheer size and beauty of the place. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen—and, when I travel, I’m always on the lookout for things I’ve never seen. The Statue of Liberty could easily fit inside this volcano. Another way to appreciate the scale of the chamber is to watch the lift system return for the next batch of visitors as a gauge to the size of the chamber.

We start our exploration at the bottom of the main chamber as the lift goes back for more people.

We start our exploration at the bottom of the main chamber as the lift goes back for more people. Photo: Timothy Baker

The lift enters the neck of the volcano.

The lift enters the neck of the volcano. Photo: Timothy Baker

Floodlights illuminate the rock walls without overpowering the entire scene. This is a cathedral of geology. The rock walls are like giant fractals, with vivid patches of greens, blues, yellows, reds, oranges and golds. And every shade of black. It’s like looking at minerals through a powerful microscope, except that these minerals are the size of cars. Our guide told us the colors were caused by the extreme heat of the eruption superheating the naturally occurring minerals.

The scale and colors of the main chamber are breathtaking.

The scale and colors of the main chamber are breathtaking. Photo: Timothy Baker

Scorched walls of the chamber indicate extreme temperatures that were there thousands of years ago.

Scorched walls of the chamber indicate extreme temperatures that were there thousands of years ago. Photo: Timothy Baker

The next batch of visitors arrive at the bottom.

The next batch of visitors arrive at the bottom. Photo: Timothy Baker

The footing is a little treacherous, so we didn’t stray too far. We couldn’t just wander about without watching our every step because of loose rocks (probably rocks that fell to the bottom during the last earthquake). Ropes mark some of the trails and the no-go “iPhone Drop Zone”. With the floodlights directed to the walls and the small light on our helmets, we could see the floor. But only dimly.

Our time at the bottom was only about 30 minutes and went by in flash. We all wished we could have spent much longer. We re-boarded the scaffolding for the ascent and were soon back on terra firma. Well, as firma as Iceland gets!

Charlie checks out our ascent. Its 400 feet straight up to daylight.

Charlie checks out our ascent. Its 400 feet straight up to daylight. Photo: Timothy Baker

Charlie unclips from the safety line on the plank.

Charlie unclips from the safety line on the plank. Photo: Timothy Baker

While we were down inside the volcano, two helicopters bringing more travelers had parked near the basecamp. The helicopter ride, while much more expensive, is a great time saver for those on a short airport layover and is also an option for those who can’t do the 6km hike to the basecamp and back.

At the basecamp we were given traditional hot Icelandic meat (sheep) soup to help take the chill off the low-40s temps inside the volcano and the coolness of a cloudy Icelandic summer day.

Also at the basecamp, we got a chance to get close to and even hold a young Arctic fox that had adopted the base as its home. I don’t know how much longer it will be before its teeth and claws grow to a point where you won’t want to hold it and it doesn’t want to be held.

The highlight of the experience for the boys was holding the young Arctic fox. Geez, I hope they remember something when they study volcanoes in science class.

The highlight of the experience for the boys was holding the young Arctic fox. Geez, I hope they remember something when they study volcanoes in science class. Photo: Timothy Baker

Doug found a stick for the fox to gnaw on.

Doug found a stick for the fox to gnaw on. Photo: Timothy Baker

Doug explores a collapsed lava tube on the walk back.

Doug explores a collapsed lava tube on the walk back. Photo: Timothy Baker

After turning in our gear, spending time with the fox, and warming up with the soup, we started our 40-minute walk back to the main road for the ride home, stopping to learn more about the lava field and to explore several lava tubes.

Besides being able to say we were lowered into a volcano in Iceland, it was a truly unique experience and one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited, manmade or natural. It was well worth the angst and cost.

Tips:

* You do need to be in reasonable shape to attempt walking round-trip to and from the basecamp. The climb from the basecamp to the volcano is somewhat steep. But just take your time.

* Hiking boots were handy but any harder-soled shoe will work. Doug was fine in his cross-training shoes.

* It is chilly and you may want a fleece. Even in the summer.

* A small flashlight can be handy, especially for adjusting your camera.

* If you have a wide-angle lens, this is a great time to use it.

* If you can set your camera to different scenes, use the night-scene-plus-flash setting.

* You can buy t-shirts and other apparel at the basecamp.

20 Reasons Why You Should Go to Iceland

Wendy’s husband, Tim, here. I’m the one who surprised her with the trip to Iceland last week. In Iceland you can pack a diverse mix of dramatic landscapes—waterfalls, volcanos, geothermal pools, glaciers, geysers, black sand beaches—into just one short trip. Here’s a taste of what we saw in just six days there.

1. You can hike to a platform at the top of Skogafoss waterfall, on Iceland’s southern coast, but the best view is about three quarters of the way up. That’s where Charlie was standing when I shot this photo.

1 Charlie Skogafoss DSC_6932

2. Lupines galore in the foreground of a glacier near Vik, on Iceland’s southern coast

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3. You can walk between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates at Thingvellir National Park. The plates pull away from each other 2 centimeters every year. Thus all the volcanic activity in Iceland.

3 Charlie Thingvellir DSC_6416

4. Gullfoss waterfall, one of Europe’s largest, on the Golden Circle loop.

4 Gullfoss D30_9112

5. Go ahead and rent a car. The roads are in excellent shape and quiet, the wide-open scenery makes for stress-free driving, and the 90 km speed limit is strictly adhered to. Just be sure to purchase the windscreen/gravel protection insurance. This is Highway 1 on the southern coast.

5 south coast highway 1 near Eyjafjallajokull D30_9266

6. Located en route from Keflavik International Airport to Reykjavik, the Blue Lagoon makes for a reinvigorating antidote to jet lag after a long flight. Make sure you try the silica mud mask.

6 Blue Lagoon aerial overview D30_8886

7. The black sand beach at Dyrholaey, near Vik.

7 black sand beach DSC_6815

8. Right off the parking lot for the black sand beach, we got within 20 feet of dozens of puffins nesting on the cliff faces. So there’s no need to spend money on a puffin specialty tour.

8 puffin on black sand beach DSC_6800

9. One puffin takes flight.

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10. Seljalandsfoss waterfall, on Iceland’s southern coast. This is the waterfall you can actually walk behind.

10 Seljalandsfoss DSC_6668

11. Wear raingear if you plan to walk behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall the way Wendy did. You will get drenched.

11 Seljalandsfoss DSC_6706

12. Here’s Wendy emerging on the other side of Seljalandsfoss waterfall.

12 Seljalandsfoss DSC_6732

13. That’s Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano that erupted in 2010, shutting down European airspace for a week.

13 Eyjafjallajokull DSC_6776

14. Inside Thrihnukagigur volcano. If you don’t mind heights, and you’d enjoy riding a window washer’s scaffold up and down the equivalent of a 38-story building, and you don’t think the volcano will erupt while you are down there, then the Inside the Volcano tour is for you. It’s like being in a cathedral of geology.

14 inside the volcano DSC_7129

15. A collapsed lava tube near Thrihnukagigur volcano

15 lava tube DSC_7225

16. Thingvellir National Park, as viewed from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge—a rift where the North American and Eurasian plates meet.

16 Thingvellir D30_8997

17. The boys and I hiked back for a closer look at Myrdalsjokull glacier. No fences, no noise, no entry fee, nobody there. We really felt connected with the country.

18 glacier Myrdalsjokull D30_9482

18. There’s nothing special about this photo, except that it was 11:36 pm when I shot it through our rental-car dashboard while driving. One reason you can pack so much sightseeing into each day in Iceland (in summertime, at least) is that the days are so long.

19 Iceland sunset late at nightD30_9526

19. The lighthouse in Reykjavik Harbor

20 lighthouse entrance to Reykjavik Harbor D30_9938

20. Reykjavik, as viewed from the Lutheran church that is Iceland’s tallest building.

21 Rejkjavik viewed from church DSC_7311

21. And here’s the reason you might not want to visit Iceland: Whale hunting. On a whale watching tour out of Reykjavik, we saw one live whale…and two dead ones. Two Fin whales had just been killed by a whale-hunting ship in the very spot we were headed to. Fin whales are endangered and the second largest mammal, growing up to be 75 feet long. Iceland exports whale meat to Japan.

22 icewhale1

Capri, Amalfi Coast, Italy

How to Tip in Europe. And How Not to.

Forget the stress of planning flights, deciding what to pack, and figuring out how to get around…one of the aspects of travel that causes people the most anxiety is tipping. When should you do it? When shouldn’t you? Who expects it? Who doesn’t? And always, how much?

We went straight to our Trusted Travel Experts—handpicked by Wendy as some of the top travel specialists around—to find out the customary tipping rules all over Europe. From Amsterdam to Russia (with stops in France, Italy, Greece and more), we’ve listed the do’s and don’ts of tipping throughout Europe.

Amsterdam

bicycle at Amsterdam Canal

If you have enough time to leave the airport, explore Amsterdam’s canals. Photo: Context Travel

The Dutch are not big tippers, and a service charge is normally included, but good service should be rewarded: A small sum for a drink or 10 to 15 percent of the price of a meal. Rather than leaving the tip at your table as you depart, hand the money to your server. Just tell him or her how much you would like to pay in total when they collect the bill.

Learn more in our Insider’s Guide to Amsterdam and use Wendy’s trip request form to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Austria

Many restaurants now have a tip line on the invoice. The waitstaff at several restaurants have told me that they actually do get the tips when paid via credit card. Generally, 10 percent is fine.

Learn more in our Insider’s Guide to Austria including Vienna and the Danubeand use Wendy’s trip request form to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Czech Republic

Make sure to tip in cash; any currency works. I generally give about 10 percent at restaurants.

Learn more in our Insider’s Guide to the Czech Republicand use Wendy’s trip request form to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Croatia

red roofs by the sea in Split, Croatia

Split, Croatia. Photo: Wendy Perrin

Croatians are traditionally not a “tipping nation,“ but this attitude is gradually changing and people like waiters, bartenders, and taxi drivers are happy to get tips. 10 percent of the total bill should be perfectly fine. Tipping does not need to be in the local currency; US dollars and euro are widely accepted and appreciated. If you wish to tip, make sure you do so in cash, even when paying by credit card. Otherwise the tip will end up in the pocket of the business owner, and not the person who provided the service.

 Ask Wendy to find the right Trusted Travel Expert to plan your best possible trip.

England

London, England skyline

London, England. Photo: Pawel Libera/London and Partners – Visit London

In London the usual tip is 10 percent, but check the bill in restaurants, as some are inclined to include a service charge and you are not obliged to essentially tip twice. 

Learn more in our Insider’s Guide to London, and use Wendy’s trip request form to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

France

Sénanque Abbey in Provence

Sénanque Abbey in Provence

In French restaurants the tip is always included (usually 15 percent). However, as waiters will (rather craftily) say, “The service is included but not the tip,” and many establishments do use the official tip as extra profit. So waiters do still need tips, and in France the amount is generally determined by intuition, rather than as a fixed percentage of the bill. Leaving 10 euros will be a gesture of satisfaction, 20 euros (and up) a gesture of generosity and complete satisfaction. In particularly fine, expensive restaurants, double those figures. Note: If you put the tip on your credit card, the waiter probably won’t receive it.

 Ask Wendy to find the right Trusted Travel Expert to plan your best possible trip.

Greece

Tipping in Greece is sometimes expected, but it’s never required. It’s seen as a gesture of thanks for prompt and attentive service, and you are the judge of whether it’s warranted, but there are a few guidelines to keep in mind. When you take a taxi, it is usually enough to round up to the next euro. At upscale restaurants, a tip of 10 to 15 percent is standard. At tavernas, it’s customary to leave 2 euros on the table; at a café, from 50 cents to 2 euros. In hotels, luggage handlers usually get 5 euros, and on island hotels, guests typically leave 10 euros per day for maids, servers, and other hotel staff at the end of their stay. Alternatively, for a stay of three or four days, guests might leave 50 euros for all hotel staff to share, while tipping porters separately.

Learn more in our Insider’s Guides to Athens, Mykonos, and Santorini, and Ask Wendy to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Hungary

Make sure to tip in cash here (any currency works). About 10 percent for restaurants is just fine.

Learn more in our Insider’s Guide to the Czech Republicand use Wendy’s trip request form to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Ireland

Rock of Cashel castle on a hill in Ireland

Rock of Cashel, Ireland. Photo: Shutterstock

Tips are appreciated in Ireland, but the rules are slightly different. It’s not necessary to tip when bags are brought to your room, for instance, and in restaurants we suggest 10 percent. For bartenders, we suggest leaving a bit by rounding up the tab. For transfers and guide services, ten to fifteen percent is acceptable. You can also leave a euro or two for housekeeping.

Learn more in our Insider’s Guide to Killarney and County Kerry, Ireland and use Wendy’s trip request form to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Italy (Amalfi Coast and Lakes Region)

Positano on the Amalfi Coast, Italy

Positano on the Amalfi Coast, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

Tipping is appreciated but not at all expected. In restaurants and for taxi rides 10 percent is sufficient. If the person serving you is also the owner of the business, they would never expect a tip.

Learn more in our Insider’s Guides to the Amalfi Coast and the Lakes Region, and use Wendy’s trip request form to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Italy

Italians don’t tip in restaurants. Yes, we know you’ve read that there is a standard 10 percent. Or that the bill is rounded up. Or that you are expected to leave a little something. This is bunk. Italians don’t tip in restaurants. (Italian staff are paid a living wage and/or are members of the owner’s family.) You can tip, if you really want to. Or if you feel the service was extraordinary. Or if you simply don’t trust us. Go ahead. But Italians don’t.

Learn more in our Insider Guides to Florence, Venice, Tuscany, and Umbria, and use Wendy’s trip request form to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Norway

The Reinefjord in Lofoten. Photo: Andrea Giubelli - Visitnorway.com

The Reinefjord in Lofoten. Photo: Andrea Giubelli – Visitnorway.com

Tipping is not mandatory or common in Norway, but if you give your private guide or driver the equivalent of $100 after a full day, he will be very happy! But nobody gets grumpy if you do not tip.

Learn more in our Insider’s Guide to Norway, and use Wendy’s trip request form to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Russia

Red Square at night, Moscow, Russia

Red Square at night, Moscow. Photo: Dan Weisberg Photography

Moscow and St. Petersburg are not tipping cities, so tip no more than 10 percent at restaurants and always in cash. If you leave the tip on your credit card slip, your server is unlikely to get it.

Learn more in our Insider’s Guides to Moscow and St. Petersburg, and use Wendy’s trip request form to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Scotland

green lanscape of Isle of Skye Scotland

Isle of Skye, Scotland. Photo: Shutterstock

You don’t need to tip doormen or bellmen, but you should tip drivers, guides, and caddies 10 to 15 percent. It’s not a rule, but I always leave change for barmen and housekeeping. At restaurants, tip 10 percent.

Learn more in our Insider’s Guide to Scotland, and use Wendy’s trip request form to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Turkey

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

A 10 percent tip is customary in restaurants, and it should be offered in cash only, as servers prefer not to add it to the check. Also: locals do not tip taxi drivers.

Learn more in our Insider’s Guides to Istanbul and Cappadocia, and use Wendy’s trip request form to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

 

Do you have your own tipping experiences to add? Share your advice in the comments.

Outdoor Pool at Gellert Baths

How to Have a Kid-Friendly River Cruise: Advice From a 12-Year-Old

Note from Wendy: River cruises are not known for being kid-friendly. Ships are small, with no space to run; there are no children’s facilities or eateries; and there are rarely other kids onboard. But my 10- and 12-year-old sons loved their Danube cruise on Viking River Cruises’  Viking Alsvin. We sailed over the Thanksgiving school break, which worked well because the kids didn’t miss too much school and most Christmas Markets were open. The trip was fun, educational, and logistically a breeze, so I asked my older son, Charlie, to share his advice for parents who might be wondering whether they should take their kids on a river cruise.

Hi. I’m Charlie. I’m 12 years old, and I’ve been on ten ocean cruises, but this was my first river cruise. To me and my brother Doug’s dismay, we were the only kids on the ship. But we made the most of it. In the end, we had a great trip because we found fun things to do on the ship and because we were in port walking around most of the time anyway. Here is my advice for parents:

1. Get a ship that’s almost always in port.
We spent every day—and almost every night—walking around a new port. The ship served mainly as just our overnight hotel, so we never felt like we were stuck on it.

Passau, Germany.

We walked all day. This is Passau, Germany.

Budapest’s Castle

And we walked all night. This is Budapest’s castle.

Viking Alsvin Lobby

Mom made sure we returned to the ship exhausted.

2. Get an interesting observation deck.
We had shuffleboard on the observation deck, so we made a series out of it. Every day was a game, and whoever won the most games would win, so we were motivated to play every day. And while we played we could see views of the ports we were in.

Chain Bridge Budapest

That’s Budapest’s Chain Bridge.

Locks between Budapest and Bratislava

Those are locks between Budapest and Bratislava.

3. Check out the locks.
Try to be up on the observation deck when going through locks because it’s interesting to see how they work.

7 going through locks

 

8 touching locks

4. Find playgrounds in port.
European countries tend to have more exotic things in their playgrounds, and your kids likely will be wowed.

Playground in Passau

A playground in Passau

Passau Playground Ropes Course

The playground had a ropes course.

5. Don’t go around with the group from the ship.
They go too slowly for kids and are not interested in the same things you are. It was easy to get around on our own on foot or by subway.

Passau Candles

On the ships’ tours they don’t dip candles.

Vienna Ferris Wheel

And they don’t ride ferris wheels. That’s Vienna’s Riesenrad.

Outdoor Pool at Gellert Baths

And they don’t go swimming at the Gellert Baths. This is the outdoor pool.

The ship’s concierge arranged kid-friendly experiences for us too. For instance, in Austria at Melk Abbey we got to see the Minerals Room.

Melk Abbey’s Minerals Collection

Melk Abbey’s Minerals Collection

Minerals at Melk Abbey

There were lots of precious rocks.

Rocks at Melk Abbey

Doug and I took a photo of almost every rock.

The only time we went with a group from the ship was when we took a bus to Salzburg because Salzburg isn’t on the Danube.

6. While you’re walking around all day, try new foods.
There are many foods that you can find in Europe that you can’t find in the United States. There are also many European foods that you can find in the United States but they taste much better in Europe.

Schönbrunn Palace Christmas Market in Vienna

A donut at the Schönbrunn Palace Christmas Market in Vienna

Passau Christmas Market

A ½-meter würst at Passau’s Christmas Market

7. Back on the ship, eat upstairs on the Aquavit Terrace.
The food came quickly. It made for a yummy family dinner without having to sit in the dining room for two hours. The menu had six entrees, and I promise your kid would like at least one of them. We also loved Milan, our waiter who was so nice to us.

Kid-friendly Meal

Eat here for a kid-friendly meal.

Milan on Austrian night

Our friend Milan on Austrian night

8. Look for kid-friendly movies and TV shows in your cabin.
In our cabin they played The Sound of Music, which was great because we went to Salzburg where they filmed the movie and we recognized the gardens where the Von Trapp children played.

Salzburg Gardens

The gardens in Salzburg

9. Find board games in the ship’s library.
Our ship’s library had Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble, chess, checkers, and backgammon. There were also two computers there, so I could catch up on schoolwork when my laptop wasn’t working.

Viking Ship Library

We played board games here.

Charlie Laptop Bratislava

I had to do homework during the cruise.

10. Talk to the older passengers.
They liked talking to me and Doug, and they were easy to talk to. One even asked to play shuffleboard with us.

So my advice to parents is: If you plan on spending a lot of time in port, and if your kids are at least nine to ten years old, and you think they are mature enough, then you can consider bringing them on your next river cruise.

My dad has advice too:
The Easiest Way to See Europe: A River Cruise

And here’s my mom’s advice:
How to Make a Low-Season European River Cruise Awesome
Europe’s Christmas Markets: How to Plan the Perfect Trip

I also have advice for parents thinking of taking their kids on ocean cruises:  Things to Know Before Booking a Family Cruise: Tips From a 12-Year-Old.

View over Belgrade Serbia and Danube river from above in Zemun

How to Make a Low-Season European River Cruise Awesome

European river cruises have grown so popular that often the only time you can get a cabin is low season. But is a low-season cruise worth doing? I’ve taken six European river cruises now—at different times of the year—so I thought I’d lay out for you the pros and cons of low season; how to choose the right ship, cabin, and week; and how to transform a low-season cruise from average to extraordinary. The photos are from my extraordinary Danube cruise from Budapest to Passau aboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Alsvin in November 2014. The seven-day itinerary hit four countries: Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany.

The Pros and Cons of Low Season

Three Pros:

1. You pay less.
A cruise can cost $1,000 per person less in March, April, November, or December than in July or August. Airfare is lower too. Also, when the weather is cold, there’s no pressure to splurge on a balcony, since you won’t spend much time sitting on it. (I recommend a cabin with a “French balcony.” See below.)

Schonbuhel Castle, Melk

These are the colors of low season. That’s Schönbühel Castle, in Austria’s Wachau Valley, near Melk.

2. River towns are less crowded.
In high season, river towns can be packed with cruisegoers. In low season, they’re delightfully empty.

Melk Abbey Library

In low season you needn’t fight crowds at famous sites—such as inside Melk Abbey’s famed library of 16,000 ancient books.

3. Holiday markets
Festive Christmas markets, which tend to run circa November 22 – December 24, make every port more charming and fun. I’ve now gone Christmas-market-hopping in Central Europe via rental car, train, and boat, and the latter is by far the easiest. (For the reasons why, plus photos and tips, see Europe’s Christmas Markets: How to Plan the Perfect Trip.)

Bratislava Christmas Market

Bratislava, Slovakia, is charming both with a Christmas market and without one—but it’s better with one.

Three Cons:

1. It’s nippy up on that observation deck.
My favorite place on a river ship is the top deck, where I can watch history glide by and try to sneak into the wheelhouse to chat up the captain. But it’s chilly and windy up there in March and December, with temps in the 30s and 40s. Then again, that’s nothing that the right outerwear won’t solve. Of course, you can always descend one deck to the indoor glass-walled observation lounge and enjoy the neverending free supply of hot chocolate and cappuccinos.

Hungarian Parliament Building, Budapest

Passengers were bundled up as we passed the Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest.

2. Your river photos will be grayer.
Compare the photos in this post—all shot on a Danube cruise in November—with those from my July 2014 cruise on the same stretch of river.

Dürnstein, Austria

Dürnstein, Austria, November 2014: Misty but delightfully uncrowded.

3. Darkness falls early.
Fewer hours of daylight mean fewer hours for sightseeing. In November and December, it’s dark by 4:30 p.m. That’s no problem on a Christmas markets cruise, though; it’s a plus, in fact, since nighttime is when the markets light up and are at their most festive.

Bratislava Christmas Market Ice Skating

Here’s an example of the fun things you can do at night at a Christmas market. That’s my 10-year-old in Bratislava.

How to Choose the Right Ship, Cabin, and Week

Time it right.
I’m convinced I chose a great week of the year for my Viking cruise on the Danube: Thanksgiving. The Christmas Markets had just opened, the weather wasn’t too cold yet, the kids didn’t have to miss too many days of school, and the cruise fare was the lowest of the year. Fares for late-November 2015 start at about $1,760 per person for Viking, $1,900 for AmaWaterways, $2,500 for Uniworld, and $2,600 for Tauck. If you’re not going for Christmas markets, look for value in late April or early October.

Vienna Christmas Market

Vienna’s holiday market at Michaelerplatz two days before Thanksgiving 2014.

Ask yourself what shipboard décor, ambience, and indoor creature comforts you’ll want.
Given the cold weather, you’ll be spending almost all your time on the ship indoors. Do you want to live in a plush palace? That’s the ambience you’ll find on Uniworld’s splendidly furnished ships. The S.S. Antoinette, for instance, is the Versailles of river ships and has an indoor cinema and an indoor pool. When it’s freezing outside, splurging on such cold-weather niceties may make sense. If your goal is to spend as much time as possible off the ship exploring, however, you may prefer to spend your money on experiences in port, rather than on shipboard bells and whistles you may never utilize. On my six European river cruises, I have never once watched a movie in my cabin, let alone in a cinema; I’ve been too busy watching the river.

Viking Alsvin Veranda Stateroom

This was my veranda stateroom on the Viking Alsvin—a little tight, but comfy, warm, and efficient.

Decide how important it is to you to have a second shipboard restaurant for gourmet dinners.
Uniworld and AmaWaterways ships have two restaurants: the main dining room, and an alternative small restaurant featuring special creations of the chef. If sitting down to a two-hour, four- or five-course dinner each night is your idea of Nirvana, those ships are for you. If you’re like me, though, you’re snacking on so many delicious local specialties onshore throughout the day (especially if you’re at Christmas markets) that when you get back to the ship, there’s barely room in your belly for one course, let alone five. What I and my family loved about our Viking longship was that we could skip the two-hour dinner in the main dining room and instead grab a quick, easy meal upstairs on the indoor/outdoor terrace—an express-dinner option that exists on few other river ships.

 

Viking Alsvin Dining Room

Here’s the dining room on the Viking Alsvin.

Think about whether you’ll want a heated indoor pool, a hot tub, a sauna, or spa treatments.
After traipsing around in the cold all day, such things can be nice. Some ships have them, some don’t. The Viking Alsvin has none of them. Which was fine with me because I’d rather spend my money, and my precious time in Europe, getting my pool-and-spa fix off the ship. So my family went to the legendary Gellert Baths in Budapest—which had all the local atmosphere we could have wanted.

Gellert Baths, Budapest

The Gellert Baths in Budapest have a ton of local atmosphere.

Gellert Baths' Pool, Budapest

The Gellert Baths’ pools beat a tiny river cruise ship’s any day.

Consider a cabin with a “French balcony.”

On ocean ships I’ve got to have a balcony—I spend a ton of my time out there—but on river ships I find I don’t use one. That’s because only one side of the river is visible from your balcony, whereas if you’re up on the observation deck or in the indoor lounge, you can see both sides at once. My personal preference, no matter what time of year, is a “French balcony.” A French balcony is basically either a floor-to-ceiling glass door or an enormous picture window that you can open—for fresh air and photos—without paying for outdoor sitting space that you’re not going to use. (You can enjoy your open-air view while sitting indoors.)

How to Transform a Low-Season European River Cruise From Average to Extraordinary

Dress up your cruise with special insider experiences in port.
On our Viking cruise, we made some unusual advance requests of our shipboard concierge. As a result, we ended up with unique local experiences that we will never forget.


The first was in Bratislava, where my goal was for the kids to visit a Slovak school. The ship arranged for a guide—a mom with a child at a local school—to pick us up at the ship and give us a tour.

Bratislava School

Here’s our lovely guide showing us her son’s school in Bratislava.

Bratislava Schoolkids

Kids are the same in all countries.

Bratislava School Soccer

My children played soccer in the schoolyard with new friends.

The best surprise was yet to come.  

Our guide walked us back to Bratislava’s Old Town and to its 13th-century Franciscan Church, where an organist would be giving a concert.

Bratislava Franciscan Church Door

Doug got handed the key to the church.

Bratislava Franciscan Church

Bratislava’s Franciscan Church features a Baroque organ.

We got to sit upstairs with the organist while she played the concert, and then she let the kids try.  They got to play the organ and hear their notes resound through Bratislava’s oldest church.

Bratislava Franciscan Church Organist

The kids got such a thrill out of playing the famous pipe organ (as did their parents).

My other unusual request to the Viking concierge was for our stop in Melk, Austria. I had been to Melk Abbey twice before and wanted to do something new this time. The ship arranged for a guide to take us inside the Abbey’s Minerals Collection—a “library” of semi-precious stones housed in the former private library of the abbot. It’s not on the regular Abbey tour; it’s usually closed to the public, and you need a special key and guide to gain access. It’s an exquisite collection of at least 1,000 stones from around the world. Melk Abbey collected great rocks for the same reason it collected great books for its world-renowned library: Its goal was to capture the finest wisdom from around the world—both literary and scientific. Here’s a list of the minerals on display.

 

Melk Abbey’s Minerals Collection

Melk Abbey’s Minerals Collection

Melk Abbey Minerals

Cool minerals

Melk Abbey Minerals

More cool minerals

Melk Abbey Minerals Collection

The boys were fascinated. They took dozens of photos.

The good news is that Viking says it can replicate these special-access experiences for other interested travelers. In fact, Viking plans to roll out a pre-trip concierge service in 2015, so that booked passengers can make unusual requests like this well in advance of their cruise.

Book through the right Trusted Travel Expert.
The Trusted Travel Experts on my WOW List create similar WOW experiences in cruise ports worldwide. As an example, on my AmaWaterways cruise on the Danube last July, Gwen Kozlowski, my Trusted Travel Expert for Central Europe, had me making Habsburg-era strudel from scratch with a renowned chef in Budapest; touring the normally-off-limits Bergl Rooms at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna; and getting inside historic private wineries in Austria’s Wachau Valley with a local wine aficionado.

If you’re seeking the right travel agent to match you to the right cruise ship and cabin, reach out to Tom Baker, my Trusted Travel Expert for European River Cruises, but contact him via this trip-request form so he knows you’re a WendyPerrin.com traveler.

Not sure which which Trusted Travel Expert to contact—or which cruise line to choose? Click to Ask Wendy and shoot me your question.

 

Viking Alsvin, Melk

Returning to our floating home after our day in Melk, Austria.

Stay tuned for my 12-year-old son Charlie’s article about how to transform a normally non-kid-friendly type of travel—a river cruise—into a super-kid-friendly experience. Meanwhile, you may find these other articles helpful:

The Easiest Way to See Europe: A River Cruise
Which European River is Most Interesting for a River Cruise?
Europe’s Christmas Markets: How to Plan the Perfect Trip

 

Full disclosure: Viking River Cruises gave my family two complimentary cabins. In keeping with my standard practice, there was no request for or expectation of coverage on Viking’s part, nor was anything promised on mine. The other river cruise lines I’ve sailed on—so you know what I’m comparing Viking with—are AmaWaterways, A-Rosa, Grand Circle, and Uniworld.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Barcelona - Park Guell, Spain

European Cities that are Surprisingly Kid-Friendly

You’d be amazed how many of our frequent-traveling families prefer European capitals of culture to the beach.  So we’ve rounded up a few of our favorite European cities for vacations that are exceptionally kid-friendly yet also sophisticated enough for culture-vulture parents:

Berlin

The fantastic public transportation network is what puts Berlin over the top as a family-friendly destination. “Every place of note in the city is well served by public transportation,” says Gwen Kozlowski, who is one of the Eastern Europe travel specialists on Wendy’s WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts and who frequently takes her young son on European scouting trips.  “Getting around as a family is easy and a good value. The Berlin Welcome card provides from 48 hours to 6 days of unlimited transportation on the metro, S-Bahn (elevated train), and city buses, and each card covers one adult and three kids 6 to 14 years old; children under 6 are free.”  For families Gwen recommends the Adina Hackescher Markt hotel, where a two-bedroom suite costs less than a standard room in many of the city’s five-stars. Expose your kids to history at the Checkpoint Charlie House—but only later in the day, she advises, after all the tour buses have left.

For the best possible family-friendly trip to Berlin and to be marked as a VIP, contact Gwen through Wendy’s questionnaire. Read reviews of Gwen’s trips here.  

Paris

child playing with toy boats in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris France

Paris is filled with parks and playgrounds. That’s Wendy’s son Doug in the Jardin du Luxembourg when he was eight.

When you’re traveling with kids, you want engaging activities, easy transportation, and great spaces for downtime, and the City of Light ticks all of these boxes. Paris also has an increasing number of pedestrian zones and neighborhoods closed to traffic on certain days, and strollers, scooters, and various bike set-ups can easily be rented to get around. Many Paris museums have kid-friendly spaces and self-guided tours; make sure to download the children’s activity book before tackling the Eiffel Tower. If you’re seeking special private experiences, nobody is more plugged in than Jennifer Virgilio, one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for France, who can arrange hands-on activities such as an éclair-making class or an out-of-the-box tour that focuses on the city’s street art.  Renting an apartment in the right arrondissement can be a smart move for families too. Finally, when all you need is to burn off some energy, head to one of the many neighborhood parks and playgrounds, all well maintained and fenced in for safety.

Read Jennifer’s Insider’s Guide to Paris with Perks and, for the best possible family-friendly trip to Paris and to be marked as a VIP, contact Jennifer through Wendy’s questionnaire. Read reviews of Jennifer’s trips here.

Dijon

Burgundy might be best known for its wine, but there’s plenty else to keep the underage set happy in the region’s capital. Dijon, you see, was the capital of the Valois Dukes—who were once more powerful than the king—so the old center is full of well-preserved medieval architecture. At the farmer’s market, France Trusted Travel Expert Michael Eloy arranges for kids to help an organic farmer run his stall. He also sends families to the Parc de la Colombière, where young and old can tackle a treetop ropes course, and to the Place de la Libération, where parents sit and enjoy a respite at a café while the kids play in the fountains.

Read Michael’s Insider’s Guide to Burgundy, and for the best possible family-friendly trip to Burgundy and to be marked as a VIP, contact Michael through Wendy’s questionnaire. Read reviews of Michael’s trips here

Florence

Florence, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

Florence, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

“At first glance, Florence is intimidating for families because many of the famous attractions are museums and monuments that seem grandiose and overwhelming, even to adults,” says Maria Landers, Trusted Travel Expert for Italy. “But with a little research and planning, Florence—and by extension, Italy’s Renaissance history—can be made vibrant and interesting for younger visitors. Several of the city’s museums, including the Palazzo Vecchio and the Museo Galileo, offer guided itineraries for children, and the Bardini and Boboli gardens are perfect outdoor spots for romping and picnicking. Don’t forget to reward yourselves with healthy doses of gelato as you go!”

Read Maria’s Insider’s Guide to Florence, and for the best possible family-friendly trip to Florence and to be marked as a VIP, contact Maria through Wendy’s questionnaire. Read reviews of Maria’s trips here

Istanbul

Galata Tower and the street in the Old Town of Istanbul, Turkey

Galata Tower and the street in the Old Town of Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Shutterstock

Many of the city’s sites naturally appeal to youngsters: “The Rahmi M Koç Industrial Museum’s interactive displays are great for kids, who also love going underground to the Byzantine Cistern and spying fish in the water,” says Earl Starkey, Trusted Travel Expert for Turkey. Earl uses art as a kid-friendly window into Turkish culture, arranging private classes on pottery and ebru (the Ottoman technique of paper marbling), as well as cooking. Even the pickiest palates will be satisfied with pide—best described as Turkish pizza—and Istanbul’s ubiquitous fresh-squeezed juices. To escape the city’s hustle and bustle, take a ferry to the car-free island of Buyukada, where you can rent bikes or hire a horse-drawn carriage.

Read Earl’s Insider’s Guide to Istanbul, and contact him through Wendy’s “Start a Trip” questionnaire to be marked as a VIP and get the best trip possible.

London

National Gallery in Trafalgar Square London England

Many museums in London are free, including the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. Photo: Michael Heffernan/London and Partners

Free museums make London a great choice for families.  The Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum, the Tate Modern, the National Portrait Gallery,  the National Maritime Museum, the National Gallery, and the Museum of London are only the start.  “Anywhere else, visiting even half of these would ring up costs of at least $100 per person,” notes Jonathan Epstein, Trusted Travel Expert for the British Isles. He adds that traveling to London removes the language barrier that can trip up some kids—especially on their first adventure abroad. Epstein’s young son is a devotee of the pirate-ship climbing structure at the Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground. And then, of course, there’s Harry Potter: Families can visit sites featured in the books, or even tour the studios where the movies were filmed. Don’t miss this London advice from Wendy’s 14-year-old son: Dos and Don’ts For Your Trip to London.

Contact Jonathan through Wendy’s “Start a Trip” questionnaire to be marked as a VIP and get the best trip possible.

Barcelona

Sagrada Familia Barcelona Spain

Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia looks to some like a child’s masterpiece in sand. Photo: Pixabay

The Mediterranean climate makes it almost always pleasant to be outdoors (who wants to be cooped up inside with kids?), and there’s a fantastic beach area where can spend your afternoons after mornings spent exploring the city. Gaudi’s famous Sagrada Familia looks to some like a child’s masterpiece in sand—maybe that’s why kids are so drawn to his buildings and to the other Catalan Modernist structures sprinkled throughout the city. You could spend an entire day exploring how nature and architecture are woven together at Parc Guell.  And did you know that chocolate was introduced to Europe by the Spanish?  There’s a chocolate factory in Barcelona that will have your kids begging for a second trip.

Contact Spain expert Pablo Calvo through Wendy’s “Start a Trip” questionnaire to be marked as a VIP and get the best trip possible.

What European cities would you add to this list?

Be a smarter traveler: Read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter @wendyperrin, and Instagram @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Viking river cruise on the Danube