Visitors flock to Europe in huge numbers searching for iconic sights and experiences. Sometimes the crush of other travelers can overwhelm even the heartiest. Here’s my list of some hidden spots that are fascinating and not necessarily along the well-trodden paths. Florence is a shopping destination — Photo courtesy of Elyse Weiner
Visitors descend on Florence for the gelato and the Renaissance art. But it’s the art of shopping which attracts some of the greatest passion. Leather is the draw and cheaper goods can be found in the jam-packed San Lorenzo market.
Intel: The only place that still manufactures gloves in Florence itself is Mantova. The tiny shop is right over the Ponte Vecchio, and the nice ladies there will find just the color you are looking for. Don’t forget to check the sales basket.
Intel: For high-end leather trench coats and pocketbooks, the School of Leather in the Monastery of the Santa Croce Church is the place to go. Started by friars, the school and shop are in a magical setting of vaulted ceilings and frescoed walls.
Amsterdam . . . for Peace Seekers
Many traditions began in Holland which took centuries to catch on elsewhere – like old age homes and the stock market. One of the great Dutch ideas is the Begijnhof. Formed in the 1300’s, the Begijnhof is a place where single women and widows still live in peace around a quiet, grassy square, unmolested by the harsh world outside. This one is right in the center – along bustling Spui Square. As you enter and walk down the stairs to the medieval street level you can feel the calm wash over you.
Intel: The Protestant Church in the Begijnhof is where the English Pilgrims took refuge for a time until Dutch tolerance for others annoyed them too much.
Intel: Spui Square outside is home to a weekly book market on Fridays and an art market on Sundays.
London . . . for Escape Artists
Most first time visitors to London (and many repeaters) hit Westminster Abbey. A living receptacle of the city’s past as well as its present, the Abbey is where most of Britain’s Kings and Queens are buried, along with many of its most notable literary and artistic greats. It’s also where Will and Kate were married. The crowds are fierce, and one way to escape them is to exit the Abbey through the Cloisters or go through a gate marked “the Sanctuary” next door into a completely different world.
Intel: This truly is a sanctuary, known as Dean’s Yard, just steps away from the hordes of tourists waiting to get into the Abbey itself. This green square was once the Abbey infirmary herb garden, now a refuge of quiet surrounded by ancient schools and tranquil greenery.Dean's Yard near Westminster Abbey — Photo courtesy of Elyse Weiner
Barcelona . . . for Architecture Lovers
The quirky and eccentric architect Antoni Gaudi designed the Casa Mila a hundred years ago. Locals call the massive, undulating apartment building The Quarry or La Pedrera. It is still a modern marvel. When La Pedrera was first constructed, cars were the latest technological invention. The building is made so that tenants could drive up a central ramp and park right in front of their apartments.
Intel: Have drinks on the rolling roof, guarded by chimney sentinels who look like stone soldiers. In warm months, a bar offers amazing views of the city below at sunset.
Paris . . . for History Nuts
Paris is beautiful. A given. But a lot of people don’t know that it’s been gorgeous for millennia. While the crowds around the square at Notre Dame Cathedral jostle for the best snapshot, you should look for some travertine steps leading underground. Down there you will see what remains of Roman Paris. Two thousand years ago, the Romans founded the city here on a small island in the middle of the Seine River.
Intel: The best view of Notre Dame is from the rear. So go around back for flying-buttress heaven. Behind you is a tiny, graceful bridge. Cross over to the Ile St. Louis and head down the main drag to a small window with a big line. This is Berthillon, the city’s original ice cream shop with divine flavors like ginger and chocolate chile.
Jerusalem . . . for Soul Searchers
The Old City of Jerusalem fascinates anyone interested in the world’s major religions. A great way to get a feel for this ancient place is to take a walk atop the golden stone ramparts that surround it.
Intel: Another enchanting perspective is from the roof of the church of the Holy Sepulcher. The massive, clamorous church is built on the spots where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, entombed, and resurrected. Many pilgrims miss the roof. Go inside the Ethiopian Chapel just to the right of the main church entrance and take the steps up to the top to a completely different world. Rooftop view in Jerusalem — Photo courtesy of Elyse Weiner
Vienna . . . for Foodies
Once you’ve sampled all the fantastic cakes in Vienna, it’s time to venture further. The Naschmarkt offers exactly what you’d expect – shop after shop of all kinds of food. Cheese, snacks, sausages, sushi. The market’s been around since the 1500’s and offers a cornucopia of goodies to eat right there.
Intel: Down the block is the Secession. Formed by a group of avant-garde artists who seceded from the status quo, its basement is decorated with a four-walled, fantasy mural by the brilliant Gustav Klimt. With nudes, monsters, and a kaleidoscope vision, this beautiful and disturbing work will entrance.
Rome . . . for Art Lovers
Michelangelo, Leonardo, Bernini. All the great artists have decorated and designed churches in timeless Rome. Bernini’s Ecstasy of Santa Teresa is a marvel of religio-sexual fever garnering a lot of attention and a major plot point in a Dan Brown novel. But few know Bernini created an even more intense full-body sculpture of Beata Albertonia ravished by her faith. The marble statue reclines in the little visited church of Francesco a Ripa in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood.
Intel: Down the street is Da Ivo, considered by many locals to serve the best pizza in Trastevere.
Venice . . . for Boaters
Venice, of course, is built on water. There are few streets; it’s mostly canals. And instead of public buses, there are vaporetti. These city boats carry the bulk of locals and out-of-towners. Make sure to take at the least one vaporetto during your visit.
Intel: Gondolas are also a romantic way to get around, but they will cost you a lot of money for a half-hour cruise. So take a Traghetto instead. These gondolas quickly ferry Venetians across the city’s main artery – the Grand Canal. With only a few bridges spanning it, jump on a traghetto to get where you need to go – for a fare of about one euro. Locals know the cool thing is to stand up, they never sit down in a traghetto. Venice — Photo courtesy of Elyse Weiner
Pompeii . . . for Clean Livers
A lot of people who visit the fantastically preserved Roman city of Pompeii stop at the brothel. They marvel at the frescoes on the wall of the services once offered in that establishment. You can see the carved stone beds and imagine just how unpleasant the transactions might have been.
Intel: Just next door are the remains of the laundry, which once served the bordello. You can see the basins where sheets would have been washed and bleached.