Americans get the shortest vacations in the industrial world. With so little time, the pressure is on to make all the right choices when planning a trip. But how to select the right destination? Readers naturally want to know the best, but it's just as important to know the worst. With that in mind, I've pulled together a round-robin of my candid opinions on the best and worst European destinations. Here goes:
OXFORD VS. CAMBRIDGE
Let's start with the British Isles and its dullest corner, southern Scotland. It's so boring that the Romans decided to block it off with Hadrian's Wall. But don't skip Hadrian's Wall; it covers history buffs like me with goose bumps (or goose pimples, as the English say).
London, York, Bath and Edinburgh are the most interesting cities in Britain. Belfast, Liverpool and Glasgow are quirky enough to be called interesting. Oxford pales next to Cambridge, and Stratford-upon-Avon is little more than Shakespeare's house -- and that's as dead as he is.
SKIP THE RIVIERA
The British are masters at milking every conceivable tourist attraction for all it's worth. Stay away from booby traps like the Devil's Toenail (a rock that looks just like a ... toenail), Land's End (you'll pay, pay, pay) and cloying Clovelly (a one-street knickknack town selling useless goodies).
Tune out the hype around Ireland's Blarney Stone (slobbered on by countless tourists), Spain's Costa del Sol resorts and the French Riviera in July and August. These are among Europe's most overrated spots.
Geneva, one of Switzerland's largest and most sterile cities, gets the "nice place to live, but I wouldn't want to visit" award. It's pleasantly situated on a lake -- just like Buffalo is. If you want a Swiss city, see Bern or Lucerne instead.
Germany's famous Black Forest disappoints more people than it excites. If it were all Germany offered, it would be worth seeing. But I'd say the average American visitor who's seen more than three trees in one place would prefer Germany's Romantic Road and Bavaria, or the Rhine and Mosel country -- all high points that cut the Black Forest down to stumps.
After Prague, Krakow (Poland) and Budapest (Hungary) are Eastern Europe's best cities. Bucharest, Romania's capital, has little to offer. Its top-selling postcard is of the InterContinental Hotel. Norway's Stavanger, famous for nearby fjords and its status as an oil boomtown, is a large port that's about as thrilling as ... well, put it this way: Emigrants left it in droves to move to the wilds of Minnesota. Your time is better spent at Sognefjord, Norway's most spectacular fjord. The most boring countryside is Sweden's (yes, I'm Norwegian).
Honeymooners should try these tiny towns: Beilstein on Germany's Mosel River; Hallstatt on Austria's Lake Hallstatt; Varenna on Italy's Lake Como; Aeroskobing on an island in southern Denmark; and Gimmelwald, high in the Swiss Alps.
The most pleasing French chateau is Vaux-le-Vicomte, near Paris. The best Gothic interior is found in Paris' Sainte-Chapelle church. The top two medieval castle interiors are Germany's Burg Eltz on the Mosel River, and northern Italy's Reifenstein. Lisbon, Oslo, Stockholm, Brussels and Budapest are Europe's most underrated big cities.
TOO MANY CASTLES
I'll close with a lightning round of "ultimates": the ultimate medieval walled town in Germany (Rothenburg), prehistoric stone fortress in Ireland (Dun Aenghus), Riviera port town (Vernazza), hike in England's Lake District (Catbells above Keswick), neighborhood pub in London (The Anglesea Arms), castle in North Wales (nope, I still can't pick just one) ... and pedestrian market street in Paris (Rue Cler).
Having stuck my neck out to say all this, I must add that it's always fun -- and necessary -- to reassess opinions (mine have certainly changed over the years). These are just my personal feelings after more than 100 months of European travel. As you sort through these "bests" and "worsts," go ahead and disagree. Don't let any travel writer limit your freedom to find your own ultimates.