It's not the "old Europe" anymore. Among the broader changes travelers can expect to see throughout the Continent this year:
CLEAN AIR Trains used to have both smoking and nonsmoking compartments, but now entirely smoke-free cars are standard in much of Europe. Smoking is not allowed anywhere on trains in Great Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Norway, Sweden or Poland. Smoking areas (clearly marked) are still offered on some trains in Spain, Denmark, Finland and most of Eastern Europe.
BORDER CONTROL Several Eastern European countries, including Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Baltic States, have recently done away with border controls for travel within Europe. This means you can now go from country to country without stopping to show your passport. Switzerland was scheduled to join in this past week.
RENTALS Because of the high cost of hotels and the sinking economy, short-term apartment rentals are becoming more popular. Budget travelers can stay in spacious accommodations with a kitchen (generally stocked for a self-service breakfast) for the price of a moderate hotel room.
Amsterdam: This Dutch metropolis is ever changing - and ever crowded with fun-loving sightseers. Visitors line up to see its three top sights: the Van Gogh Museum (vangogh museum.nl), the Rijksmuseum (rijksmuseum.nl, with Rembrandts, Vermeers and more), and the compelling Anne Frank House (annefrank.org). Lines are long for buying tickets. To avoid the wait, buy your tickets on the museums' Web sites.
The Van Gogh Museum offers the world's finest collection of Vincent's paintings. From now through June, it's filled with even more. The special "Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night" exhibit gathers the artist's nighttime works from other museums, including the world-famous "Starry Night."
On sunny summer days, the Rijksmuseum offers a fun "lunch-box-with-a-blanket-in-the-park" deal (about $17 with museum entry or $6 for just the boxed lunch and a loaner blanket). There are plenty of picnic spots on the pleasant museum grounds between the Rijks and Van Gogh museums.
Attractions: Gin drinkers can learn the fine points of the liquor, create their own blend, and then have a bartender mix it on the spot at the new House of Bols: Cocktail & Genever Experience. (And a few blocks away, beer lovers can soak up the recently reopened Heineken Experience.)
Fans of handbags, and perhaps even their reluctant spouses, will enjoy the hardworking Tassenmuseum Hendrikje (Museum of Bags and Purses), which fills an elegant 1664 canal house with artifacts from 500 fascinating and creative years of bag and purse history.
On the parklike square called the Rembrandtplein, you can now experience Rembrandt's masterpiece, "The Night Watch," in 3-D by checking out a new, kid-friendly statue based on the painting.
The Royal Palace, on Amsterdam's Dam Square reopens to the public in June after three years of extensive renovations. When constructed in 1648, this sumptuous building was one of Europe's finest.
In the infamous Red Light District, a number of the windows that once displayed prostitutes now showcase the latest fashions - lit by lights that aren't red. The city government is trying to rein in the sex trade and give the area a bit of elegance.
Amsterdam's Central Train Station is being renovated and will remain a messy construction project that's expected to inconvenience travelers through 2012.
The towering, yet relaxed, Central Library nearby offers hundreds of fast Internet terminals and welcomes tourists to get online for free. While you're there, enjoy the dramatic views from its terrace and a reasonable meal from its slick top-floor cafeteria.
Due to a smoking ban, you'll enjoy fresh air in bars, cafes and restaurants throughout France. The smokers have scurried outdoors to sidewalk tables.
If you're traveling in France by railpass, it's increasingly important to book trips on the TGV bullet trains in advance, as there's a strict limit on the number of seats allowed for rail pass holders (tgv.com).
Paris: A new online reservation system for the Eiffel Tower may debut this year, allowing visitors to book a half-hour time slot and avoid the notorious lines ( tour-eiffel.fr ). At the Army Museum nearby, the section on 19th century French military history ("Revolution to Napoleon III") should reopen later this spring. The museum also has a new Charles de Gaulle wing, offering a 25-minute film plus a high-tech photo display.
The transit system has introduced a chip card (about $27) called the Passe Navigo DÃÂ©couverte, but for most tourists, the "carnets" (about $14 for a pack of 10 tickets) are still the better deal.
Paris' market streets delight many visitors. While Rue Cler (near the Eiffel Tower) has become quite touristy, Rue des Martyrs (at the foot of Montmartre) is edgier and a great way to connect with workaday Paris.
The Palace of Versailles is undergoing extensive renovation, so expect some closures. Repair projects may close its Opera House through June; the Petit Trianon may be closed or only partially open. Busy sightseers can save time and money by visiting Versailles with the Paris Museum Pass. It covers most major sights in and around the city and allows you to walk right by the long ticket-buying lines at places like the Louvre, the Orsay Museum, the Sainte-Chapelle chapel and Versailles ( parismuseumpass.com ).
Reims: The charming Art Deco city is now served by a speedy TGV train, making it an easy day trip from Paris. Reims is known for its Champagne tours, giant cathedral (with Chagall stained glass) and fascinating Museum of the Surrender.
Normandy : This year is the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings, so prepare for big crowds, especially June 1-10. A museum has opened at Dead Man's Corner, a critical crossroads between Omaha and Utah beaches that saw five torrid days of fighting in 1944.
French Riviera: Nice has dropped the entry fee for all city museums. Basically every sight in town - except the Chagall Museum and the Russian Cathedral - is free to enter. Antibes, just a short hop by train, has finally reopened its prized Picasso Museum after extensive renovation.
Travelers to Italy need to be smart to avoid needless lines and expenses while enjoying its ever-popular treasures.
Rome: The Eternal City can be eternally exhausting to sightseers with old information. The Vatican Museum, with the Sistine Chapel, is now open longer hours (8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. most days), so its notoriously long lines should be more merciful. And now you can book tickets online for about a $5 fee, biglietteriamusei.vatican.va .
The Roman Forum is no longer free. It's now included in a combo ticket (about $14, good for two days) that also covers Palatine Hill and the Colosseum. Palatine Hill, which strikes many visitors as a pile of old rocks, now features several recently restored rooms of the House of Augustus and a chance to see splendid ancient frescos.
The new Museum of the Imperial Forums, near Piazza Venezia, holds discoveries from the forums of Trajan, Caesar, Augustus and Nerva. It sounds important but isn't on my must-see list of ancient attractions.
Rather than looking up at the much-maligned Victor Emmanuel Monument, tourists can take the new Rome From the Sky elevator to its rooftop to enjoy a grand 360-degree view. Your bonus: From its roof you see everything in town, except this pompous, oversized monument.
Florence: The city now has a Web site for its top art museums. Tickets for the Uffizi and Accademia galleries (Michelangelo's David) are available for about a $5 fee at www.b-ticket.com/b-ticket/Uffizi . Most hoteliers will still book Uffizi tickets as a service to their guests (for free or a small fee).
To get to the top of Florence's cathedral dome, you face a congested climb. The line moves slowly, quarters are tight and the people you'll squeeze by need a shower. You'll enjoy a better view that includes the dome itself, often with fewer crowds, from the top of the adjacent Giotto's Tower.
Santa Croce Church, with tombs and memorials that make it a kind of Renaissance hall of fame, is very popular. Avoid its lines by buying your ticket at the leather school in the back, entering the church from there.
Venice : The city seems as crowded and greedy as ever. Vaporetto (water bus) tickets for a ride down the Grand Canal now cost nearly $10. The only way to visit the Doge's Palace, the city's top sight, is to buy a museum pass, which includes the less-visited Correr Museum. While it's a scheme, the advantage is that you can buy the pass at uncrowded Correr, then walk directly into the Doge's Palace without a wait.
Pigeon feeding has been banned on St. Mark's Square; officials say the pigeons are a health hazard and contribute to degradation of the city's monuments. Enjoying what was once perhaps the city's best cheap form of entertainment could now net you a $70-$700 fine.
You can skip the lines at the Accademia, Venice's finest art museum, by making reservations for an entry time at least a day in advance (easier by phone, at 011-39-041-520-0345, than online at the clunky Web site, gallerieaccademia.org ).
Milan: The city's underrated yet impressive Duomo Museum should reopen this year after an extensive restoration project. The Milan train station will remain a construction zone through 2009.
To get a discounted ticket at Milan's La Scala Opera House, show up at 1 p.m. to put your name on a list, then return at 5:30 p.m. in the hopes of getting a voucher.
Thanks to "The Da Vinci Code," tickets to see Leonardo's "The Last Supper" need to be booked a month or more in advance. You can reserve online, at www.cenacolovinciano.org , but you'll have more options for dates and times if you call, 011-39-028-942-1146.
London: The Monument, Central London's 202-foot column designed by Sir Christopher Wren to mark the spot where the Great Fire of 1666 began, should reopen this spring after a complete makeover. Its 311 steps lead to a city view. The Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum will reopen later this year. Aficionados of tea or coffee will find this quirky museum fascinating.
Pollock's Toy Museum is a delight for kids and parents. A funky old house in north London is filled with toys that predate batteries and computer chips. Also great for kids, Kew Gardens' new Rhizotron and Xstrata Treetop Walkway puts you high in the tree canopy, 60 feet above the ground on a scenic steel walkway.
Westminster Abbey: The excellent new audio guide (narrated by Jeremy Irons) helps take the sting out of a steep $18 admission price, which includes the device. Church entry is still free for legitimate worshippers, but you won't see the tombs, and officials are wise to camera-toting tourists who try to get in as worshippers.
Tours: With the fast-moving, irreverent, and entertaining New London Free Walking Tours, you always get your money's worth, if not more. Students give three-hour London tours for free, but they push for tips at the end and cross-promote their evening pub crawl ( neweuropetours.eu ). To see more but hear less, consider Fat Tire Bike Tours, which now offers four-hour tours in London ( fattirebiketourslondon.com ).
The Docklands : London's rising collection of skyscrapers has sprung up east of the city center. The pedestrian-friendly, high-rise office park hosts trendy restaurants, stimulating art, underground malls, peaceful parks, awe-inspiring subway stations and a museum.
Bath : In this town west of London, the long-awaited Thermae Bath Spa is in its second full year of operation. But if you've been to the great spas on the Continent, it will be an overpriced disappointment.
Cornwall: "Save the pasty" is the cry in Cornwall. The British government is currently seeking EU protection for the traditional Cornish meat pie. This means that only those pies made in Cornwall using traditional techniques and recipes can be called a "Cornish pasty" ( cornishpastyassociation.co.uk ).
Edinburgh : The city will host special events this year as Scotland celebrates the 250th birthday of its favorite bard, Robert Burns. Expect Edinburgh's streets to be dug up; a skeptical public seems to regret the huge investment it has made in a new tram system even before the 2011 opening.
The Culloden Battlefield: It has a new, $10 million visitors center. Its 360-degree movie screen surrounds viewers with attacking soldiers, taking you back to 1746 to relive the stirring battle won by the English over the Scottish clans.
Air travel: A new seaplane service connects downtown Glasgow and Oban, gateway to the Hebrides Islands. While pricey (about $120 one way), the trip takes only 30 minutes and provides a stunning view of the Highlands.
Cliffs of Moher: On the west coast of Ireland, one of the great free thrills of travel is no longer allowed. Rangers now keep visitors from getting near the edge of the towering cliff that marks the western edge of Europe.
GERMANY & AUSTRIA
Many sights in Germany and Austria have been renovated, making 2009 a good time to visit.
Munich: The famous glockenspiel at the New Town Hall celebrated its 100th birthday last year by restoring its 32 life-size figures. Other renovated sights include the Munich City Museum (which features five stories of city history), the dazzling Cuvillies Theater at the Residenz and the futuristic BMW Museum. However, the Halls of the Nibelungen at the Residenz, with ultraromantic images from Wagner's opera, will remain closed until 2010.
For a fun change of pace, explore Munich by bike for free with Discover Munich bike tours, which are now offered daily leaving from Marienplatz. These tours (and the use of the bike) really are free - just tip as you want after the 3.5-hour trip, which includes lots of information, silly jokes, and an hour to eat and drink at the Chinese Tower in the English Garden (discovermunichnow.com).
Wurzburg: The opulent Residenz Palace is undergoing a lengthy restoration. The glorious Imperial Hall should reopen in late spring, but if you want to see the sumptuous chapel, go before it closes in October for several years of renovation.
Berlin: Smoking is now banned in all restaurants. A new walking tour company, Berlin Underground Association, leads tours of World War II air-raid bunkers and flak towers (berlinerunterwelten.de). For a cheap and interesting place to stay, Berlin's new hostel, the Ostel, is filled with East German memorabilia, where you can "enjoy the countless clever and amusing reminders of everyday life in the GDR" ( ostel.eu ).
Smoking is now officially verboten in restaurants and cafes, although large places are allowed to build separate smoking rooms for their patrons. The country's train network will soon get a little snazzier with the addition of its newest and fastest train, the Railjet. It'll shorten travel times between Budapest, Vienna and Munich (and connect Vienna to Innsbruck and on to Zurich in 2010).
In Innsbruck, the futuristic Hungerburgbahn funicular has opened, allowing visitors to ride right from the center of town high into the surrounding mountains. The Hofburg, Innsbruck's lackluster version of Vienna's imperial palace, is under construction and will be only partially tourable this year. The much more interesting Tirolean Folklife Museum nearby reopens next month after substantial renovation.
From the Czech Republic to Greece, the eastern part of Europe is changing so fast that you could visit every year and feel as if you've experienced something completely new.
As the European Union subsidizes development in its relatively poorer countries, lots of EU money is flowing east. With this financial aid and the release of so much pent-up energy in the last generation, there's plenty of good news for travelers in 2009.
In countries formerly dominated by communism, people are now comfortable confronting that part of their history. New museums and exhibits devoted to the era are cropping up all over.
Eastern Europe offers the well-traveled a variety of intriguing places to visit that are easier on a bank account than some other European countries, as well as a chance to observe rapidly changing cultures as they settle into the European Union of the 21st century.
Budapest: The former "Statue Park," a motley collection of communist statues at the edge of town, has been expanded and re-branded "Memento Park." They've added a replica of "Stalin's Tribune," a giant platform once used for communist processionals -- the once 25-foot-tall statue of Stalin at its top was cut off at the knees during Hungary's 1956 Uprising, so this version includes only his boots. Temporary exhibits are housed in rough barracks built to resemble those used at Hungary's gulag-like communist prison camps.
The streets the capital city are going traffic-free. Zrinyi utca, which stretches from St. Istvan's Basilica to the Danube, is now a gorgeous pedestrian mall. And the city's opulent coffee house from the 1890s -- the New York Cafe -- recently reopened after decades of neglect. Today, after extensive restoration, it's the most lavish setting in Hungary (and arguably Central Europe) in which to enjoy an $8 cup of coffee.
Eger: Elsewhere in Hungary, the brand-new Salt Hill Thermal Spa complex awaits. The spa combines a cutting-edge bath complex (with 12 indoor pools and five outdoors), a natural terraced formation created by mineral-rich spring water, and a giant hotel still under construction. It's the most modern thermal bath in Hungary, and although it lacks the old-fashioned class of Budapest's spas, it trumps them in user-friendliness and overall wet R&R.
Like many other countries in Europe, it's opened its borders, so you can simply zip to and from neighboring countries without stopping for a passport check.
Slovakia kicked off the year by adopting the euro currency - if you have any old Slovak koruna rattling around in your change drawer, they're now souvenirs of a bygone era. The Slovak capital of Bratislava - long panned as one of Europe's dullest capitals -- is becoming "the next Berlin" on a smaller scale. Bratislava's strategic position on the Danube makes it an easy commute (or day trip) from Vienna by train or fast boat, prompting Bratislava and Vienna to work together to create a new "twin city" commerce super-zone. Bratislava's Old Town is enjoying steady improvement, and the city's hilltop castle is getting a major facelift (most of it will be closed for the next few years as long-destroyed outbuildings and gardens are replaced and the whole complex painted a pretty Habsburg yellow). But the biggest changes are slated for prime undeveloped real estate next to the Old Town and along the Danube: Foreign investors plan to pour billions of euros into the area, erecting a skyline of 600-foot-tall skyscrapers and a clutch of glittering new mega-malls.
Athens continues to upgrade its urban landscape, carrying forward a new wave of improvements sparked by the 2004 Olympic Games. The New Acropolis Museum, a glassy modern temple for ancient art, is set to open in June. Located at the foot of the Acropolis, the new museum houses artifacts and exhibits that were previously in the old hilltop museum (now closed). The Greeks are up-front with their hope that some day the new museum will also house the famous Elgin Marbles, now on view at the British Museum in London. They've actually built a room in anticipation of the (unlikely) return of those treasures -- which many Greeks consider British plunder. Cafes, street vendors, and frequent special events now border three sides of the Acropolis, thanks to expansion of the nearby pedestrian walkways of Dionysiou Areopagitou and Apostolou Pavlou.
Transportation connections in Greece are improving as the government builds new roads and railways with the help of EU subsidies. High-speed rail lines are being laid that will connect Athens to Patra (which has ferry links to Italy) and Thessaloniki. The Thessaloniki line will eventually extend all the way to Istanbul, as the vision of a futuristic all-European rail network speeds closer and closer to reality.