Here's a rundown of what's new and changing in Europe this year, to make your trip more fun and to shorten the time you spend standing in line for must-see sights.
PARIS As always, there's news at the Louvre. Videoguides on portable consoles (5 euros rental) provide commentary on about 700 masterpieces. The new Islamic art section -- with its eye-catching glass roof -- is installed in the Cour de Visconti courtyard of the Denon wing.
Other museum openings and closings include the recently refurbished Impressionist galleries of the Musee d'Orsay. After a bit of a shakeout, paintings have settled into permanent locations, offering a fresh view of this rich trove of masterworks. The long-closed Picasso Museum should finally reopen this summer. Meanwhile, the Rodin Museum is undergoing a major renovation until 2014. While statues will be moved around and some rooms will close altogether, the museum's lovely gardens remain open.
There are several intriguing new tour options in Paris. Classic Walks offers new Easy Pass tours that allow you to skip the lines at major sights such as the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower (easypasstours.com). TripUp's pedicab tours, helmed by hard-pedaling drivers, are a charming way to experience Paris at a snail's pace (tripup.fr). If rumbling around Paris in a funky old Citroen 2CV convertible a la Inspector Clouseau sounds like your kind of fun, check out Paris Authentic (parisauthentic.com) or 4 Roués Sous 1 Parapluie (4roues-sous-1parapluie.com).
The city's Velib bike program is now more accessible to visitors, who can buy a one- or seven-day subscription online (en.velib.paris.fr). This is a fun way to tootle between sights -- the first 30 minutes of any trip are included with your subscription; after that, there's a small fee for each additional 30 minutes.
PROVENCE Along the Riviera, the big news is the reopening of the 100-year-old onion-domed Russian Cathedral in Nice, claimed by many to be the finest Orthodox church outside Russia.
THE ALPS Through 2014, you won't be able to cross from France to Italy by cable car, as the lift from Helbronner Point (near Mont Blanc) down to the Italian valley station of La Palud is closing for renovation. (You can still side-trip to Italy by bus from Chamonix to Aosta.) Gondolas will continue operating on the Mont Blanc lift up from Chamonix to the Aiguille du Midi and over to Helbronner -- but only in summer and, even then, only in good weather.
ALSACE Colmar's famed Unterlinden Museum is scheduled for renovation sometime this year. When that happens, the jewel of the museum, Grunewald's gripping Isenheim Altarpiece, will likely move to the nearby Dominican Church, where it should remain on display while the museum is under construction.
Germany and Austria
BERLIN Getting into the Reichstag, Berlin's parliament building (with its striking 155-foot-tall glass cupola), has been difficult over the past few years due to changing security and entrance procedures. Things have finally settled down and the process is clear: To visit the dome, it's best to make a free reservation online several days in advance at bundestag.de. Once you have a reservation, simply report to the visitors' center at the appointed time.
MUNICH In the Residenz, the downtown palace of the Bavarian kings, the mythological scenes decorating the Halls of the Nibelungen are not on view, undergoing restoration at least through 2014. Reopening is the Lenbachhaus, home of the world's largest collection of early Modernist Blaue Reiter paintings. The refurbished galleries now also host a first-rate collection of international contemporary art.
BAVARIA The new Museum of the Bavarian Kings occupies a grand former hotel on the shore of the Alpsee, adjacent to the fairy-tale Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein castles. If you have free time between your castle tours and a higher-than-average curiosity about arcane Teutonic dynasties, this might be worth a stop. For most visitors, though, the highlight is the view of the lovely lake from the museum's top floor.
St. Kilian's Cathedral -- the main church in Würzburg, and the fourth-largest Romanesque cathedral in Germany -- has reopened after a 3.2million-euro renovation. The ornate stucco decoration inside has been spiffed up and the cathedral's two organs restored.
HAMBURG The city center is taking on a new look, thanks to the urban renewal project called HafenCity. Built on 400 acres reclaimed from disused docklands right along the Elbe River, this roughly 15-block area in the city center is filling up with "starchitect"-designed buildings and waterside cafes. The anchor is the gigantic, architecturally striking Elbphilharmonie complex, home to a concert hall, hotel, apartments, and shopping center (due for completion in 2015).
VIENNA At St. Stephen's Cathedral, visitors can ride an elevator up to the newly opened Cathedral Treasury. The substantial treasures of the cathedral had been ignored in the nearby (and outmoded) cathedral museum, so they've been moved into the church, filling a space high above the nave on the west portal wall.
The Kunsthistorisches Museum is reopening its Kunstkammer (Cabinet of Wonders) exhibit to show off the lavish curiosities the Habsburg emperors gathered to impress their friends and enemies. Meanwhile, in the upstairs gallery known as the Gemaldegalerie, curators have been busily rearranging the paintings.
Vienna's most impressive and crowded palace, Schonbrunn, now has an online ticketing system. It's possible to avoid the admission lines there by reserving a timed-entry ticket at the palace's website in advance (schoenbrunn.at).
Vienna's train stations will be in disarray for the next few years, as the city rebuilds its central station and remodels several others. The wonderful Westbahnhof (West Station) already has been beautifully renovated -- with the 1950s shell now filled with a modern mall of services, shops, and eateries.
ROME Visiting the Vatican Museum is now easier. Often you can buy same-day, skip-the-line tickets from the tourist-information office in St. Peter's Square; it will cost the same price you'd pay if you had reserved online (15-euro ticket plus 4-euro reservation fee).
FLORENCE Massive crowds line up to see Florence's cathedral -- the Duomo -- which is free to enter. Here's how to skip the line: If you're already planning to visit the cathedral-related sights -- the Duomo Museum, Baptistery and Campanile -- that require a combo-ticket to see, buy your ticket first at the less-crowded museum. You're allowed to use it to enter through the cathedral's exit, bypassing the lines at the front door.
The Uffizi Gallery is still undergoing a massive, yearslong renovation that bodes well for travelers. Although a few rooms are off-limits, many more have been opened to the public, such as the Caravaggio Rooms and the new "Foreign Painters Section," featuring mostly Dutch/Flemish painters (including Rembrandt) with some Spanish and French artists.
From April through September, the best late-hours sightseeing is at the Palazzo Vecchio, the fortified palace where the Medicis ruled. The site generally stays open until midnight. Also, the Palazzo Vecchio's tower has reopened to visitors, providing a great cityscape view.
The Galileo Science Museum, which was renovated recently, has rearranged and dramatically updated its exhibits. Engaging video screens (in English) have been added to many rooms to help illustrate inventions and scientific principles.
VENICE The Accademia, known for its great collection of Venetian Renaissance art, is open but in a constant state of disarray, with a major expansion and renovation dragging on for years. The upside is that crowds have died down, so there's no longer a need to reserve tickets in advance.
To make the most of cruising the Grand Canal on a public vaporetto (water bus), catch the boat at Piazzale Roma (just before the crowded train-
station stop), where you'll have your choice of seats.
Formerly presented every other year, the Venice Biennale -- a world-class, contemporary art fair -- is now an annual event. It alternates between visual art in odd years and architecture in even years. The exhibition spreads over the Arsenale and Giardini park and runs June 1 through Nov. 23.
THE CINQUE TERRE Italy's picturesque Riviera is back to normal after two of its towns were badly damaged in a flood in the fall of 2011. The towns and nearly all the trails of the region are once again ready for prime time. A handy (but pricey) new parking garage has opened at nearby La Spezia's train station, making it easier and safer for day-trippers to leave their cars and hop the train to the Cinque Terre.
LONDON The city now boasts Europe's tallest building, designed by Renzo Piano, the co-architect of Paris' Pompidou Center. Rocketing 1,020 feet above the south end of London Bridge, the Shard shimmers in the sun and glows like the city's night-light after dark. The tip houses a 15-story stack of observation platforms enclosed in glass.
Visitors hoping to capture some of the Olympic afterglow can soon visit the new Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The northern part will open July 27, on the anniversary of the opening ceremonies, and will feature footpaths, playgrounds and picnic-friendly greens. The southern half, highlighted by the twisty red Orbit, is slated to open next spring. Visitors will be able to swim in the pool where Michael Phelps won his 18th gold medal, as construction is under way to open up the Aquatics Centre for public leisure (pronounced LEH-zhoor in Britain).
Travelers interested in royalty will delight in the newly refurbished Kensington Palace, which now hosts a worthwhile series of exhibits on its most notable past residents, including William and Mary, and the Hanovers (the "Georges"). The highlight is the exhibit on Queen Victoria, who was born and raised in this palace.
The wizarding world is abuzz over the opening of the "Making of Harry Potter" studio tour in Leavesden, a 20-minute train ride from London. The attraction lets Potter-philes see the actual sets and props used in the films, along with exhibits about how the special effects were created. Visitors must book a time slot in advance (wbstudiotour.co.uk).
BATH Visitors to the Roman and Medieval Bath, a 90-minute train ride west of London, can now avoid lines -- worst on Saturdays and any day in summer -- by buying advance tickets online (romanbaths.co.uk).
Near Bath, visitors can explore Avebury Manor and Garden, the subject of "The Manor Reborn," a four-hour BBC documentary on the refurbishment of the 500-year-old estate by a team of historians and craftspeople. Nine rooms decorated in five different styles show the progression of design trends from Tudor to Queen Anne to early 20th century. A limited number of timed tickets are sold each day.
YORK The noble Kit Kat, Aero bars and Chocolate Oranges are now featured in a fun attraction dubbed "Chocolate: York's Sweet Story" (all three confections were famously born in York). Visits start with a film and guided tour before flowing into a virtual chocolate factory.
Renovations continue at the stately York Minster. While the Great East Window remains behind scaffolding, several examples of the window's stained glass can be viewed up close in the Orb, a space-age-looking vessel located inside the Minster.
LIVERPOOL AND GLASGOW Two relatively new museums celebrate the heritage of these proud and scrappy port cities. The Museum of Liverpool is packed with interactive displays covering everything from the city's music and sports background to housing and health issues. Glasgow's Riverside Museum of Transport and Travel sports high-tech displays, a re-creation of a 20th century street, and plenty of recollecting Glaswegian seniors.