France is always working to show off its rich heritage in innovative ways. You'll see some impressive changes this year.
The big news in Paris is that the extensive, multiyear makeover of the Picasso Museum is nearing completion. The museum, which will reopen in June, is home to the world's largest collection of Picasso works, representing the full range of the artist's many styles (check museepicassoparis.fr/en for the latest).
Also in Paris, the Rodin Museum (musee-rodin.fr/en) will stay open, though some rooms will close from time to time while renovation continues through 2015; on the plus side, visitors can enjoy some rarely displayed pieces and temporary exhibits (included in the ticket price). The museum's gardens -- one of Paris' best deals at only 1 euro -- also remain open.
Online reservations for the Eiffel Tower, notorious for its lines, are easy if you book at least a month in advance (tour-eiffel.fr/en). You can print out a paper ticket or have the ticket sent to your mobile phone. An attendant scans the bar code on your phone, and voilà, you're on your way up.
Paris is going green: The Left Bank expressway from near the Orsay Museum to the Pont de l'Alma has been converted to a pedestrian promenade and riverside park. Modeled on the city's popular Velib self-serve bike rentals, the Autolib's electric car program (where users can pick up a car in one place and drop in another), is a smashing success (autolib.eu/en).
In Arles, the new Fondation Van Gogh facility, which opened at the Hotel Léautaud de Donines on April 7, is the talk of the town, with several original Van Gogh paintings in the opening exhibition (bit.ly/1iDfhka).
France's second city, Marseille (marseille.fr), underwent a massive 3.5-billion-euro face-lift as part of its designation as a European Capital of Culture last year. The pedestrian zone around the Old Port was redesigned -- it's now as wide as the Champs-Élysées -- and a new tramway system is up and running.
In Normandy, June 6 will mark the 70th anniversary of the landings of the Allies on French soil during World War II, and there will be huge D-Day commemorations around this date (the70th-normandy.com). New at the Caen Memorial Museum (bit.ly/QzUmDZ) is the restoration of German General Wilhelm Richter's command bunker next to the museum.
At Mont St.-Michel (ot-montsaintmichel.com), 2014 is the last year for the causeway that tourists have used for more than 100 years -- it's slated to be demolished by 2015 and replaced by a bridge. Restoration of the island's ramparts may block some island walkways.
And, as 2014 marks the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, all will not be quiet on the Western Front. WWI buffs will find plenty of special exhibits and a surge in activity at many sites in commemoration of the battles that hit Europe in 1914.
Even when it's hot, crowded or on strike, Italy is enchanting. More than any other Western European country, though, travelers to Italy need up-to-date information to save both time and money.
Florence is notorious for long lines. Thankfully, ticketing and line-skipping options for the city's blockbuster sights continue to improve. The Firenze Card (firenzecard.it), which admits you to 60-some museums for 72 euros (around $99), is now good for these cathedral (Duomo) sights: Baptistery, Campanile bell tower, dome climb and Duomo Museum. If you want to see any single cathedral sight without a Firenze Card, you'll need to buy the new 10-euro ($14) combo-ticket. It's still free to enter the cathedral, itself, and have a look at Brunelleschi's sublime dome from the inside.
At Florence's Uffizi Gallery (uffizi.com), known for Renaissance art, there's an exciting change. A new gallery is devoted to Michelangelo, with his famous Doni Tondo painting of the Holy Family as its centerpiece. It's the only easel painting that's definitely known to be by the master's hand.
Volterra (volterratur.it/en) has my vote for the best less-touristed hill town in Tuscany. Its new Alabaster Museum, featuring workmanship in the prized local stone from Etruscan times to the present, has opened within the 15th century Pinacoteca painting gallery.
In Rome, there's good news for those traveling on a budget or who enjoy eating in bars (or both). A pleasant practice traditionally found in northern Italian cities has migrated south: the aperitivo service. Bars set up an enticing buffet of small dishes, and anyone buying a drink (at an inflated price) gets to eat "for free." Drinks generally cost 8 to 10 euros, and the spread is out from 6 until 9 p.m. Some places limit you to one plate; others allow refills.
Venice (venice-tourism.com) is working hard to cope with its mobs of visitors. As ever-growing waves of tourists wash over the city every year, residents are struggling to ward off the trash (and trashiness) left in their wake. Picnicking remains illegal anywhere on St. Mark's Square, and offenders can be fined.
Structural renovation work on the iconic bell tower that looms over St Mark's Square is finally finished; a titanium girdle wrapped around the underground foundations now shores up a crack that appeared in 1939. The city's top art gallery, the Accademia (sbas.fi.it/english/ accademia), is undergoing a seemingly never-ending renovation, with major rooms still closed. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection (guggenheim.org/venice) has also done some rearranging, largely to accommodate the recently bequeathed Schulhof Collection, which brings the museum's holdings up to the late 20th century with works by Rothko, Calder, de Kooning, Warhol, and many others. Peggy would have loved it.
While Germany sits in the driver's seat of Europe's economy, it doesn't take a cultural backseat either.
A multiyear renovation project continues at Museum Island, filled with some of Berlin's most impressive museums (bit.ly/1eVd7Nn for more information). Beginning in the fall and continuing until 2019, the star of the Greek antiquities collection in the Pergamon Museum -- the Pergamon Altar -- will be closed to visitors. The museum's north wing (formerly home to other classical antiquities) is already closed; the south wing remains open. In the meantime, some classical Greek artifacts can be seen at the nearby Altes Museum. Reserved, timed-entry tickets are no longer required at the Pergamon and Neues museums.
To the south, travelers sleeping in the Bavarian town of Fuessen are now entitled to the Fuessen Card (fuessen.de/en.html), paid for by the hotel tax. This card allows free use of public transportation in the immediate region (including the bus to "Mad" King Ludwig's famous castle -- Neuschwanstein), as well as discounts to major attractions.
In Frankfurt, the new European Central Bank building, with its glistening twin towers topping out at 607 feet, is scheduled to open in November. The "New Frankfurt Old Town" construction project, stretching from the cathedral to the city hall, is also under way. It will include up to 35 new buildings, several of which will be reproductions of historic structures destroyed during World War II air raids.
In Nuremberg, the Imperial Castle, or Kaiserburg, has reopened after a restoration (bit.ly/1pmWleQ). Visits to the castle's "Deep Well" (which, at 165 feet, is, well, deep) are now accompanied by a guide. Wittenberg's Town Church of St. Mary's -- which was Martin Luther's home church for many years -- is being renovated. From early 2014 to early 2015, the nave of the church will be closed, and no organ concerts will be held. Planning ahead, Germany's many Luther sights (especially in the Luther cities of Wittenberg, Erfurt and Eisenacht) are gearing up for a very festive 2017 (on a Lutheran scale, anyway) -- the 500th anniversary of Luther kicking off the Protestant Reformation in 1517 (visit-luther.com/home).
For travelers, Great Britain is a work in progress, richly rewarding those who visit with up-to-date information.
London continues to grow and thrive post-Olympics. Free Wi-Fi is everywhere, bus transportation is more efficient than ever, and the city's freshly scrubbed monuments have never looked so good. Some of the biggest changes are in East London, where the 2012 Olympics site has been turned into Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (bit.ly/1h5LP5V). It's great for Londoners, but a bit far from the center for most tourists.
The Shard (the-shard.com), a shimmering glass pyramid that soars 1,020 feet above the Thames in central London, started welcoming visitors to its observation decks last year. Perched in the building's pinnacle, the decks offer great views of the Tower of London (directly across the river), St. Paul's and the South Bank (underfoot). But a visit to the top costs a jaw-dropping 25 pounds ($40) for advance tickets -- not worth it for most visitors.
Years ago, the venerable Tate Gallery (tate.org.uk) split in two, with the original site dedicated to British art and the new site -- the Tate Modern -- filled up with modern art. An extensive renovation at the Tate Britain has wrapped up, which means even better gallery spaces in the oldest parts of the building. Now, the Tate Modern is adding a new wing (currently under construction, yet opening bit by bit), allowing the museum to expand beyond its current European and North American focus with exhibits on Latin American, African and Asian art. A new space called the Tanks (formerly underground oil tanks) is already open and hosts live performances, film screenings and installations.
Hold onto your codpiece: Shakespeare's Globe (shakespearesglobe.com) now boasts an indoor theater, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. It's an intimate space designed to use authentic candle lighting for period performances -- and allows the Globe to stage plays year-round.
Greenwich's famous Cutty Sark, the last and fastest of the great tea clippers, was gorgeously restored in 2012 after a devastating fire. It's now suspended within a glass building, allowing visitors to walk on its decks, through its hold and below its gleaming golden hull. Multimedia and hands-on exhibits bring the ship's record-breaking history to life (rmg.co.uk).
Finally, after nearly 5,000 years, Stonehenge has a decent visitors center
(english-heritage.org.uk). The new center features artifacts found at the site and a 360-degree virtual view of what the stone circle looked like back then. The highway that once ran adjacent to the iconic edifice has been closed. Instead, people start at the visitors center -- situated more than a mile west of the stones -- then take a shuttle (or walk) to the stone circle. Advance reservations are required, and tickets feature a timed entry window (though a few walk-up tickets are available each day).
In York, the renovation of the Great East Window at York Minster (yorkminster.org) continues, with temporary exhibits that explain the project, such as the painstaking process of removing, dismantling, cleaning, and restoring each of the 311 panels. The Minster's new undercroft museum focuses on the history of the site and its origins as a Roman fortress. Thirsty tourists will appreciate a new activity in town: an intimate, tactile and informative 45-minute tour of the York Brewery
(york-brewery.co.uk), a charming little microbrewery.