The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben in London.

The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben in London. Credit: iStock

Big things are afoot in ever-changing Europe. Travelers heading overseas this year will find spiffed-up museums, smarter public transit options and new sites to explore. What's more, two of the continent's premier attractions - the Eiffel Tower and Vatican Museum - now have online reservation systems that should help tourists avoid waiting in notoriously long lines.

Although there's never a shortage of things to do, travelers should be aware of some notable changes - tours of Ireland's Waterford crystal factory, for example, have halted. A host of churches and other sites are undergoing construction. And, of course, the recent volcano eruptions in Iceland continue to cause sporadic flight delays.

Here's a country-by-country look at what visitors can expect in Europe this year.

 

GREAT BRITAIN AND IRELAND

A key to experiencing Great Britain and Ireland smartly in 2010 is to embrace them not as "ye olde" destinations but as modern ones.

London

The city is busily preparing for the 2012 Olympic Games. Access to London's public transit system has been automated. If you don't buy and use the local transit pass - the Oyster Card - the Underground, or Tube, will cost you far more than it should.

Above ground, one of London's many free attractions - the Victoria and Albert Museum - just opened its new Medieval and Renaissance collection, filling 10 rooms with fancy slice-of-English-life artifacts (vam.ac.uk).

If you want afternoon tea and scones in London but feel faint at the steep price, try the modern Teapod, near the Tower Bridge, which advertises the "best-value afternoon tea in London" for $15 (teapod.org).

Oxford

The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology reopened in November after undergoing a $98 million renovation, and now hosts 39 new galleries and Oxford's first rooftop cafe.

Scotland

St. Andrews will be swamped with about 100,000 visitors July 15-18 when it hosts the British Open. Unless you're a golf pilgrim or a glutton for crowds, avoid the town at this time. In Edinburgh, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery will be closed until 2011, and Princes Street, a major artery, continues to be a mess as the city's new tram line is built.

Ireland

Until recently, Waterford was home to the largest and most respected glassworks in the world. The factory was shuttered in 2009. The famed "Waterford Crystal" is being made by cheaper labor outside of Ireland, but you can still stop in the visitors' center, a glorified gift shop with a film about glassmaking.

Dublin still has traffic snarls on its M-50 ring road. To ease congestion, tollbooths have been replaced with an automated tolling system. Buy an E-flow pass to cover the tolls (easiest at Dublin Airport). Even if you don't have a car, the bedroom communities of Howth and Dun Laoghaire provide quieter, cheaper lodging and are just a 25-minute light-rail ride from the city center.

Northern Ireland

Former IRA prisoners will take you on a new tour of Belfast's Falls Road area - a three-hour walk of the neighborhood from the perspective of Republicans (who'd prefer that Northern Ireland become part of the Republic of Ireland). Belfast's historic City Hall reopened in October after an $18 million renovation and once again offers wonderful guided tours of the marble and stained glass interior. Spinning next door is the Belfast Wheel, a tall, "temporary" Ferris wheel with spectacular views.

GERMANY

In Berlin, the formerly ugly and foreboding banks of the Spree River are now a delightful people-friendly park, with walks, thriving cafes and fake summer beaches. The changes make the once worthless Spree River sightseeing cruises one of the best ways to enjoy a restful hour here.

After being completely rebuilt, the Neues Museum once again houses the Egyptian Museum and the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti.

Those touring Bavaria should check out the Bavarian Palace Department pass, which covers admission to most of Bavaria's castles, including the Residenz and Nymphenburg in Munich, Linderhof and Neuschwanstein (but not Hohenschwangau). If you're planning to visit at least three covered sites, the 20-Euros pass will likely pay for itself.

Oberammergau's once-a-decade Passion play, an extravaganza starring 2,000 town citizens, will run from May 15 to Oct. 3. Unless you're attending, it's best to stay away during this busy time.

Several of Germany's museums and churches are undergoing restoration. Würzburg's glorious Imperial Hall at the Residenz, with its Tiepolo frescoes, is open following a two-year hiatus, though the adjacent and sumptuous Hofkirche Chapel - the architectural highlight of the city - will be closed through 2012.

ITALY

Rome

It may be the "Eternal City," but that doesn't mean it has stopped evolving. The Vatican Museum, starring the Sistine Chapel, now has an online reservation system (biglietteriamusei.vatican.va) that's a godsend. If you're visiting in the morning, a ticket reservation will save you big time. With the reservation - or if you're on a guided tour - you can bypass the long ticket-buying line. Without a reservation, it's better to visit in the afternoon.

Pompeii

It still offers the best look at Roman life in the first century. The long-closed House of the Vetti, Pompeii's best-preserved home, may reopen this year. (Even when closed, some of it is viewable from the doorway.) Pompeii's main theater is closed indefinitely, but the adjacent Piccolo Theater is open, offering a similar, though smaller, theater to explore.

Venice

The city is crowded, expensive and confusing. The famous and much photographed Bridge of Sighs, which connects two wings of the Doge's Palace over a canal, is surrounded by scaffolding - and will be for the next few years - due to restoration. Venice's city museums now offer youth and senior discounts to Americans and non-European Union citizens. The museums include the Doge's Palace, Correr Museum and the Clock Tower on St. Mark's Square.

Venice's top art museum, the Accademia, is still being expanded and renovated - expect some rooms to be closed this year.

Florence

The city still packs them in - and for good reason. The Accademia houses Michelangelo's buff, shepherd-boy masterpiece, "David." A few blocks away, the Uffizi Gallery has the best collection of Italian paintings anywhere; but it is undergoing a massive renovation and the reshuffling may affect your visit in 2010. Paolo Uccello's "The Battle of San Romano" may be out for restoration, but Raphael's "Madonna of the Goldfinch" is finally back on display after a laborious 10-year restoration.

Cinque Terre

This popular region - a string of five remote villages - is now protected as a national park and it's more welcoming than ever. While hoteliers are notorious for artificially bumping up prices, travelers have more negotiating power now, due to the economic downturn. Shop around before you commit to a room. The Cinque Terre Card, which covers a day of hiking in the region's national park, now also includes a free, three-hour bike rental; bikes are available through tourist offices in the towns of Riomaggiore and Vernazza. For many years there was no place for daytrippers to check luggage, but now you can store bags at Riomaggiore's train station.

SWITZERLAND

Countrywide, smoking is being phased out of eateries. Laws vary by city and canton (region).

Bern's famous bear pits have closed, and a more politically correct bear park has opened. Since 1857, Bern had been keeping its namesake bears in big, barren, concrete pits, but the city was forced to replace them with posher digs. Bern's Historical Museum houses the new Einstein Museum, with exhibits that place the hometown boy's accomplishments in the context of his personal life and historical times.

Elsewhere in Switzerland, Zurich's Swiss National Museum, which focuses on Swiss history, has a huge new wing. In Luzern, the Rosengart Collection now incorporates art from its former Picasso Museum, and the Swiss Transport Museum has a new two-story hall, stacked floor to ceiling with 80 vehicles from the past 150 years. Above the Lauterbrunnen Valley, a new via ferrata ("iron ways") course allows mountain climbing while attached to a steel cable, so adventure-seekers can scramble down from Murren to Gimmelwald with a licensed guide.

SPAIN

The pope plans to come to Spain in November to visit Barcelona and Santiago de Compostela.

Santiago

The Camino de Santiago - Europe's most famous and trendy medieval pilgrimage route - runs from France across the north of Spain to Santiago de Compostela's cathedral, which holds the purported remains of St. James. While huge in the Middle Ages, walking "The Way of St. James" nearly died out after the Renaissance. In the 1960s it became popular again, and today about 100,000 hikers make the trek each year.

In a year when St. James' Day (July 25) falls on a Sunday, Santiago's archbishop proclaims a Holy Year of St. James, inviting the faithful to visit the tomb of the apostle. This year, the city will be busy with special events, culminating in the pope's visit Nov. 6. Make your reservations soon - up to 10 million pilgrims are expected to visit during 2010.

Barcelona

In Barcelona, Antoni Gaudí's masterpiece, the Sagrada Família (Holy Family Church), should have the roof of its central nave finished this year. With the scaffolding gone, services can be held inside the church.

Madrid

Madrid has a new, centrally located police office called SATE that offers emergency aid to victims of theft. They'll help cancel stolen credit cards and assist in reporting a crime (Plaza de Santo Domingo at Calle Leganitos 19, 902-102-112). Also new for visitors, Madrid's Plaza Mayor tourist office has daily guided walks in English for only $6.

For the biggest news in the region, you'll need to check back in 2025, when Spain and Morocco hope to have completed a train tunnel under the Strait of Gibraltar connecting their two countries.

FRANCE

Paris

The biggest news is, of course, in Paris, where smart travelers should know about the Eiffel Tower's new online reservation system (toureiffel.fr), which lets visitors pre-purchase tickets in 30-minute windows. Facing the Eiffel Tower, Champ de Mars Park used to be the scene of families lounging on picnic blankets and kids chasing Frisbees. No longer, as keep-off-the-grass signs have returned. Thankfully, zones on the periphery still let you enjoy a sprawl on the lawn.

Meanwhile, Paris' wonderful Picasso Museum has closed for a 30-month (some think longer) expansion. The Musee d'Orsay is also doing major renovations. At the Louvre, construction is under way on an Islamic Art wing, due to open in 2011. The pre-Classical Greek section is currently closed, and the Classical Greek pieces will likely be reorganized. The Army Museum's recently renovated Arms and Uniforms section covers French military history from Louis XIV to Napoleon III. And for those who enjoy city vistas more than abstract art, you can now get a cheap escalator-only ticket at the Pompidou Center, skip the higher-priced museum, and ride the escalator directly to the top for the view.

Waits of 60 to 90 minutes are the norm at the Catacombs, where millions of skeletons unearthed from former Paris cemeteries have been neatly and eerily stacked, filling miles of tunnels. If you arrive later than 2:30 p.m., you may not get in. The Catacombs recently reopened after a spate of vandalism caused it to shut down. Security has been improved, and the loose skulls have been wired into place.

Versailles

Versailles is wrapping up its multiyear renovation project, and all parts should be open. While Europe's greatest palace is the big draw, the vast royal park with the Domaine de Marie-Antoinette (the queen's frilly rural escape) is attracting crowds, too. Most of the palace is covered by the Paris Museum Pass (parismuseumpass.com), which for most travelers is a better deal than LePasseport, which is sold at the chateau and online (chateauversailles.fr).

EASTERN EUROPE

Eastern Europe continues to work hard to build its growing tourist industry. From Prague to Poland to Turkey, there are plenty of changes in the works for 2010. Wherever your whirl, you'll find that many of the natives speak excellent English and are forever scrambling to impress their guests. Any rough edges left over from the communist era simply add to the charm and carbonate your experience.

Czech Republic

Prague, the most-visited city in the region, is nearing completion on the first phase of the restoration of its iconic Charles Bridge, expected this year. Built in the 14th century, it offers one of the most pleasant and entertaining 500-plus-yard strolls in Europe. And now old-fashioned gas lighting will make an evening walk across this landmark even more of a joy.

Croatia

In Dubrovnik, the fortress on Mount Srd - the peak hovering just above the Old Town - is reclaiming its status as a tourist attraction. Workers are repairing the cable car that once linked the city to the fortress (dubrovnikcablecar.com). When the work is completed (likely this summer), it will be easier for visitors to enjoy the mountaintop's views and a new war museum about the 1991-1992 siege of Dubrovnik.

Poland

In 2012, Poland, jointly with Ukraine, will host the Euro Cup soccer championship, so a wave of new construction is refreshing dingy old quarters.

In Krakow, Poland's historic capital, the big news is that Oskar Schindler's factory - where the German businessman did his creative best to save the lives of his Jewish workers during World War II - is being converted into a museum, opening in mid-2010 (mhk.pl). At this site, where Steven Spielberg filmed some of the scenes in "Schindler's List," exhibits trace Krakow's World War II experience.

At Auschwitz, individuals may no longer enter the Auschwitz I part of the concentration camp memorial on their own at busy times (May-September, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.). During these peak hours, you'll need to join one of the memorial's organized tours or hire a private guide. The famous "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Sets You Free) gate is now a replica, after the original was stolen and then recovered last December.

Since 2010 marks the 200th birthday of Polish-born composer Frédéric Chopin, Poland is celebrating the Year of Chopin (chopin2010.pl) with special concerts and events - and the Chopin Museum has gotten a high-tech face-lift.

SCANDINAVIA

Each of these Nordic and Baltic countries is dominated by a capital city that offers sightseeing fun and a distinct cultural flavor. And they're all well connected by air, sea, or train, making it easy to sample several cities in one trip. Whatever year you decide to visit, remember that Scandinavia is best in summer.

DENMARK

For much of 2010, Copenhagen's most-photographed statue, The Little Mermaid, will be traveling, just like you. She'll be visiting Shanghai, China, to represent Denmark at the World Expo. If you visit her rock pedestal in the city's harbor, you may see a different interpretation of this Danish icon, created by Chinese sculptors. For the next-best thing to the real deal, head to Tivoli Gardens amusement park, where a more accurate replica of The Little Mermaid will be on display. In Copenhagen's Christianshavn area, Our Savior's Church (Vor Frelsers Kirke) reopens this year after a lengthy restoration. On the transportation front, Copenhagen's CityCirkel Bus no. 11 offers an inexpensive one-hour overview of the city. You can hop on and off as you like, and the quiet electric bus is small enough to traverse the narrower streets of the Old Town.

NORWAY

Oslo’s once traffic-congested and slummy waterfront is undergoing huge changes. Cars and trucks now travel underground in tunnels; the zone in front of the City Hall has become a pedestrian-friendly plaza; and a string of upscale condos and restaurants enjoys prime fjord views. Nearby, locals are taking full advantage of their splashy Opera House. The sleek, modern building's roof, which slopes right down to the fjord, doubles as a public square — a popular place to go for a panoramic stroll or to enjoy an outdoor concert (bands perform on a stage floating in the fjord). In 2011, Oslo will host the World Ski Jump Championship. In preparation for the event, the famed and venerable Holmenkollen Ski Jump is being completely rebuilt and is scheduled to open by mid-2010. The new, cantilevered jump has a tilted elevator and empties into a 50,000-seat amphitheater. Out on the Norwegian fjords, you can take a tour on a super-fast rigid inflatable Zodiac boat that is designed to slice at top speeds through the fjord. Passengers don full-body weather suits, furry hats and spacey goggles, making everyone look like crash-test dummies. As the boat rockets across the water — pausing at some particularly scenic spots for narration from your English-speaking captain — you'll be thankful for the gear, no matter the weather. FjordSafari, based in Flam, operates these tours on the Sognefjord (fjordsafari). Tours costs $85 for a two-hour tour, $110 for a three-hour tour, and similar adventures are cropping up elsewhere in Scandinavia.

SWEDEN

In June, Stockholm’s cathedral will host the royal wedding of Crown Princess Victoria, heir to the Swedish throne, and Daniel, her personal trainer. Visitors should expect a very crowded and boisterous city (and jam-packed hotels), as the whole country celebrates.

FINLAND

Helsinki has an exciting new sight: the Ateneum. This National Gallery of Finland has the largest collection of art in the country, including local favorites as well as works by Cezanne, Chagall, Gauguin and Van Gogh.

ESTONIA

Its capital, Tallinn, is just two hours by boat from Helsinki. Upon arrival, head for the Travelers’ Tent, a youthful and creative tourist office that offers lots of helpful information as well as several spirited tours (tallinnfreetour.com). Also in Tallinn, the Estonian History Museum in the Great Guild Hall is closed for renovations until 2011; in the meantime, its collection is housed in Maarjamae Palace, outside of town (and not worth the trip).

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