Europe has a rich history, an impressive infrastructure and a tourism industry trying valiantly to cope with its big crowds. Travelers who plan ahead enjoy big rewards. Here's what you need to know before you vacation in France, Spain, Portugal, Germany and the Netherlands this summer.
Paris was rocked by the recent fire at Notre Dame, and the effect on tourism remains unknown. The cathedral will be closed to visitors indefinitely, and tour companies are canceling bookings and offering refunds. The day after the fire, the Paris Tourist Office tweeted that it continues to welcome travelers and can offer assistance at its welcome centers, on its website (en.parisinfo.com) and through its hotline (+33 1 49 52 42 63). Meanwhile, there are many churches throughout the city with distinguished history, architecture and art (see sidebar).
The Eiffel Tower has a new look. A glass wall now rings its base for security reasons, with one access point at each side, meaning you can no longer wander freely under the tower. Visitors should allow an extra 30 minutes to go through screening. Also, summit tickets are no longer available on the second level of the tower; it’s smart to buy them online.
Another Paris landmark, the towering and modern La Grande Arche de La Defense, has reopened, allowing visitors to take an elevator to the top. While it’s pricey, and there are better views elsewhere, just visiting the La Defense district gets you into a fascinating slice of Paris that most tourists miss.
The Parisian transportation system is also getting some improvements. After a century of paper tickets for the Metro and buses, smartcards are slowly taking over, including the Navigo Easy Pass, which is better for travelers, as it can be shared and topped up.
A new trend in Paris dining is "bus restaurants." Diners listen to soft jazz as they glide along Paris’ most famous boulevards on an elegant double-decker bus. For about the same price as a dinner cruise in a boat on the Seine, you can dine for two hours with Paris rolling by outside your window (bustronome.com).
Northwest of Paris, the towns of Normandy are ready to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings on June 6. Throngs of visitors will make this a difficult time to be there, and accommodations near the beaches are already booked up. Fortunately, in high season, guided tours in English will be offered for free (or very cheap) at the following key World War II stops: Arromanches, Longues-sur-Mer, American Cemetery at Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc, Utah Beach Landing Museum and Juno Beach Centre.
I love France’s high-speed rail system, and now it’s better than ever. With the completion of a high-speed line to the city of Rennes, the trip from Paris to the spectacular island monastery of Mont St-Michel now takes only three hours: about two hours on the train to Rennes and then an hour on a railway-run bus, which drops you right at the island’s main gate.
There’s also some good news for château lovers: Construction work is finally complete at the Loire Valley’s Château d’Azay-le-Rideau, which is set on a romantic reflecting pond, with a fairy-tale facade and beautifully furnished rooms.
To the south in Nimes, the Roman World Museum is finally open after a decadeslong wait. High-tech exhibits show off 5,000 artifacts in an eye-catching, state-of-the-art building next to the Roman arena. One of its strengths is its rich collection of Latin-inscribed stones and mosaics — some discovered when digging the museum’s parking garage.
And in happy news for small, family-run hotels and bed-and-breakfasts — and for savvy budget-conscious travelers — French hotels listed on third-party booking websites no longer have to match those prices on their own websites, allowing them to offer lower rates or special upgrades if you book direct.
SPAIN AND PORTUGAL
Like many travelers, I visited Barcelona last year dreaming of seeing Antoni Gaudi’s breathtaking Sagrada Familia church. When I got there, the ticket office was closed, with a posted sign: "No more tickets today. Buy your ticket for another day online." Thankfully, I knew to book tickets in advance.
Along with Sagrada Familia, Spain’s other sights to book ahead include the Picasso Museum, La Pedrera, Casa Batllo and Park Guell in Barcelona; the Palacios Nazaries at the Alhambra in Granada; and the Royal Alcazar Moorish palace, Church of the Savior, and cathedral in Seville. Barcelona’s Casa Amatller and Palace of Catalan Music, and Salvador Dali’s house in Cadaques all require a guided tour, which also must be booked ahead. Advance tickets for the Dali Theater-Museum in nearby Figueres are also a good idea.
After a long renovation, Barcelona’s Maritime Museum has reopened, displaying 13th- to 18th-century ships. The El Raval neighborhood is rising up as the new bohemian zone. While this area has rough edges, its recently reopened Sant Antoni market hall, new Museum of Contemporary Art and pedestrian-friendly streets contribute to its boom of creative shops, bars and restaurants.
In Spain’s northern Basque country, San Sebastian’s old tobacco factory has been converted into the free Tabakalera International Center for Contemporary Culture, hosting films and art exhibits — and knockout views from its roof terrace. In Pamplona, a new exhibit gives a behind-the-scenes look at the town’s famous bullring.
In the south of Spain, the cathedral in Seville now runs rooftop tours, providing a better view — and experience — than its bell tower climb. In nearby Cordoba, you can now climb the bell tower at the Mezquita, the massive mosque-turned-cathedral.
Spain’s transportation is also improving: Uber is now available in Barcelona and Madrid. Madrid’s Metro has a new rechargeable card system: A red Multi Card (tarjeta) is required to buy either a single-ride Metro ticket or 10-ride transit ticket.
Portugal has fewer blockbuster sights than Spain and nowhere near the crowds. The only sight where you might have a crowd problem is the Monastery of Jeronimos at Belem outside Lisbon (buy a combo-ticket at Belem’s Archaeology Museum to avoid the ticket line at the monastery).
Riding in Lisbon’s classic trolley cars — a quintessential Portuguese experience — can also be frustratingly crowded (and plagued by pickpockets). A less-crowded option is trolley line number 24E, back in service after a decadeslong hiatus. Although this route doesn’t pass many top sights, you can see a slice of workaday Lisbon.
On my last visit I realized that Lisbon’s beloved Alfama quarter — its Visigothic birthplace and once-salty sailors’ quarter — is now inundated with cruise groups. The new colorful zone to explore is the nearby Mouraria, the historic tangled quarter on the back side of the castle. This is where the Moors lived after the Reconquista (when Christian forces retook the city from the Muslims). To this day, it’s a gritty and colorful district of immigrants, but don’t delay — it’s starting to gentrify just like the Alfama.
In the pilgrimage town of Fatima, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in 1917, the new Fatima Light and Peace Exhibition run by the Roman Catholic Church complements a visit to the basilica, and offers a more pleasing experience than its more commercial competitors.
In Coimbra, ticket options for the University of Coimbra sights, including the beautiful Baroque King Joao library, now cover the nearby and impressive Science Museum — go there first to buy your university tickets and book your required timed entry for the library.
In Porto, the Bolhao Market is closed for a much-needed renovation until mid-2020. In the meantime, vendors are in the basement of a nearby department store, carrying on the warm shopper relationships that go back generations.
GERMANY AND THE NETHERLANDS
Germany and the Netherlands are famously works in progress, and that includes their sightseeing attractions. In 2019, there’s good news and a few important warnings for the smart traveler.
To handle its ever-increasing number of visitors, Germany is busy renovating sights and transportation, beefing up security and updating ticketing procedures for big attractions. For instance, in Berlin, advance tickets are now recommended for the DDR Museum, with displays about life in the former East Germany. The Museum Pass Berlin, which covers a number of top sights and lets travelers avoid long lines, now includes my favorite museum in town: the German History Museum. Visitors to the Reichstag, where the German parliament convenes, must show their passports for entry (in addition to reserving in advance).
While Berlin’s famous Pergamon Altar (usually on display in the Pergamon Museum) is being restored, you can still see bits of it at a nearby temporary exhibit called "Pergamonmuseum — Das Panorama." The exhibit features a huge, wraparound painting of the city of Pergamon in AD 129, some original sculptures from the altar, the largest piece of the altar frieze, and digital 3-D models.
The Berlin Wall Memorial’s documentation center was updated a few years ago with fresh exhibits, including audio accounts from escapees and guards, and a fascinating in-city hike that takes you along a former stretch of the wall. In Berlin, the Charlottenburg Palace reopened its "Old Palace" (Altes Schloss) Porcelain Cabinet, a melding of trompe l’oeil painting and stucco work displaying more than 2,700 pieces.
In Munich, the Alte Pinakothek, a world-class collection of European masterpieces from the 14th to 19th century, has fully reopened after a long renovation. Now the Neue Pinakothek (paintings from 1800 to 1920) is closed for renovation for the next several years, but its highlights will be displayed at the neighboring Alte Pinakothek.
Visitors to "Mad" King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles in the Bavarian Alps must now pick up reserved tickets at least 90 minutes before their tour time. Though it’s best to book ahead, a percentage of castle tickets are set aside for in-person purchase, so if reservations sell out online, visitors can generally still get a ticket if they arrive early in the day.
In Frankfurt, rebuilding of the DomRomer Quarter, just off Romerberg square, is complete. This “new” development is actually a reconstruction of the half-timbered Old Town destroyed during World War II.
In Amsterdam, renovations are complete at the Anne Frank House. Tickets go on sale two months in advance, and are released gradually over the two-month period (if you miss out, keep checking back). If you can’t get into the Anne Frank (or don’t want the bother of reserving), the Dutch Resistance Museum is, for many, even more interesting (and never crowded). The Van Gogh Museum also has a new ticketing system: All visitors, even those using a sightseeing pass, must book a timed-entry slot online.
Just 30 minutes from Amsterdam, Haarlem is the hometown of Frans Hals, the Dutch portrait painter during the 17th-century Golden Age. While the main branch of the Frans Hals Museum still displays many of Hals’ greatest paintings and works by other Dutch masters, a second venue is now open, covering modern art influenced by the Dutch master’s themes and techniques.