The island of wonders at the top of the world, Iceland shines under the glow of
United Kingdom: Stonehenge
Everyone loves a good mystery, and Stonehenge has provided an unsolveable one for centuries. This Unesco World Heritage Site is the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world, dressed using complex techniques and erected using precisely interlocking joints, unseen at any other prehistoric monument. Surrounded by chalk grassland and a rich supply of flora and fauna in the region, no one has figured out yet how this Neolithic and Bronze Age stone monument located in a on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England came to be. Or why. Many different theories have been put forward about who built it, when and for what purpose. But a definitive answer continues to be elusive. Go figure
United Kingdom: London
To look at how to reinvent a city to once again be the centre of the world, one just has to look at the British capital. For centuries, the leading global city, London went into a bit of a decline post World War II. A massive refurbishment and reinvention later, London is once again the city tourists are flocking to. At once historic, with a beautiful inner city, financial and political hub London is also a burgeoning centre for culture, music, entertainment, education, fashion, sport and retail. Erstwhile peripheral locations have transformed into hip new addresses, fancy architecture has transformed the skyline and improved transport connectivity have made the city more easily accessible to visitors from around the globe
A veritable monument to democracy, the Parthenon, dedicated to Athena Parthenos, was the most ambitious creation of the Athenians at the height of their power. Built between 447 and 438 BCE, the Parthenon is a double peripteral Doric temple with several innovative architectural features. Partially damaged over centuries, and even converted to a mosque under the Ottomans, it continues to be a magnificent presence looming over Athens. A vast restoration programme of the monuments of the Acropolis, including the Parthenon, has been under way since 1975. Despite this, it continues to be the centrepiece of tourism to the city, drawing people to marvel over its gigantic yet delicate proportions.
Set bang in the middle of the Mediterranean, the tiny island nation of Malta is an amalgamation of centuries of influences from different cultures, resulting in a unique one of its own. Most of the main island of Malta is rocky, with a coastline that has many coastal cliffs and numerous bays that provide good harbours. Tourists are attracted by a heady mix—limestone cliffs surrounded by the shimmering Mediterranean Sea, charming rural topography along with megalithic temples, hilltop citadels, ornate medieval churches and narrow medieval streets in old towns. Allow yourself ample time in Malta to discover a multitude of details that will cause you to linger—or regret leaving much too early.
France: The Louvre
Home to the world’s most famous painting, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the Louvre in Paris is unquestionably one of the finest art galleries in the world—and the most-visited. Home to thousands of classic and modern masterpieces, this is a living testament to European art. And, yes, it’s a destination in its own right: you can spend days, even weeks, here and still not have plumbed the depths of this massive collection. The Louvre houses some 380,000 objects from pre-history to the 21st century with 35,000 works of art spread over eight departments. Originally built as a fortress in 1190, the building was later reconstructed as a royal palace in the 16th century before the monarchy moved out to Château de Versailles. Today, it is fronted by the gorgeous landscaped Tuileries Gardens and the famous modernist glass pyramid.
One of the most unique landscapes in the world, the fjords, or long arms of the sea extending deep into land, are also among the most sought-after tourist destinations. The fjords, which cover the western coast of Norway, are the soul of the country—and its most magnificent attraction. Though one can drive through some of them, the fjords are, of course, best seen from cruise ships that offer spectacular views of these majestic valleys flanked by steep mountains. The ‘S’-shaped Geirangerfjord, a rugged gash in the landscape, is arguably the most beautiful, but there are many, many more. May is the best time to visit the fjords.
Switzerland: Mountain Rails
When a place is as pretty as Switzerland, taking a suitable ride is to do full justice to its splendour. Countless railway lines carry mountain enthusiasts up to mountain peaks, to the most beautiful panoramic spots, to tourist trails, to mountain hotels and beyond. The Swiss have divided the routes into categories such as panoramic, journeys, scenic routes, themed routes etc. There are many well-known trains like the Glacier Express, Bernina Express or the William Tell Express. Best of all, most of the mountain railways and cableways not already integrated into the Swiss Travel System give you a 50% fare discount—for example, on excursions to the Gornergrat near Zermatt and Mount Pilatus in Central Switzerland.
If ever a city was equated with a romantic destination, it would be this city of 117 small islands. Venice is today known for what connects these—the famous labyrinth of canals that were historically the main means of transportation for the city. The best known canal is, of course, the Grand Canal, which forms one of the major water-traffic corridors in the city. Some 400 bridges connect the islands for motor vehicles and pedestrians. Romantic ideas of the city have meant that the canals, often flanked by impressive architecture dating back centuries, have become tourist magnets. Add a sail in a gondola, and numerous books, poems and films have used the trope to build this image of this ‘floating city.
The image of the mafia is many people’s introduction to Sicily. However, this largest island in the Mediterranean is today an equal opportunity destination for the cultural traveller as well as those in search of natural wonders. From the smoking craters of Mount Etna to the relatively undiscovered beaches of its southern coast, there are many hidden nooks and crannies for hikers. Sicily has also long been at the crossroads of Mediterranean culture, and the island today is a fascinating palimpsest in which Greek temples, Norman churches and baroque palazzos emerge from the rich fabric. Given diverse influences over centuries, most of its cities have unique traits of their own, adding to the island’s charm.
Welcome to a rare European destination with a lot of sun. Andalusia, a rocky, sun-baked region on Spain’s southern coast, has a desert as well as golden sand beaches and beautiful natural ports, all soaking in the sun. It is also at a historical crossroads between Africa and Europe and this has created a distinct culture and architecture in cities such as Seville and Cordoba. The region also embodies much of what the world thinks of as Spanish: flamenco, tapas, matadors and bullfights. Its varied landscapes, balmy climate and the friendly, easy going nature of its population have turned it into one of the country’s most attractive regions.
If solitude is your thing, you could hardly better Lapland, the largest and northernmost region of Finland, also the most remote and sparsely populated. Lapland has vast and breathtaking wildernesses, just waiting to be explored—on foot, on skis or by sledges. Lapland is known for its space, pure air and big skies, along with wandering reindeer. Its far north is known as Sápmi, home of the Sámi people, though Lapland’s most famous resident is that genial giver of gifts at Christmas—Santa himself, at the Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi. Incidentally, the stunning aurora borealis is best seen from here and the Arktikum Science Museum displays the history and culture of Finnish Lapland and the Arctic region.
Idyllic Provence. That’s the abiding image of this alluring part of France. Hugging the Mediterranean, Provence of late has come to be associated with the gentle outdoors—cypresses, cicadas, wild thyme and lavender, red brick-tiled roofs, vineyards, a game of pétanque, a quietly lapping sea and rolling hills. And where does one go to experience this idyll? There are many options; the pristine Romanesque abbeys of Senanque and de Montmajour, the old town in Nice, traditional Provençal farmhouses. There’s also the Papal Palace in Avignon, while the narrow streets of Arles have been made instantly recognizable by Van Gogh.
Czech Republic: Prague
This magical city of bridges, cathedrals, gold-tipped towers and church domes has been mirrored in the surface of the swan-filled Vltava River for more than ten centuries. Almost undamaged by World War II, Prague’s medieval centre still remains a wonderful mixture of cobbled lanes, walled courtyards, cathedrals and countless church spires, all in the shadow of the majestic ninth- century castle that looks eastward as the sun sets behind it. Prague is also a modern and vibrant city full of energy, music, cultural art, fine dining and special events catering to every independent traveller’s thirst for his own unique adventure.
Slovenia is known for its mountains, outdoor recreation and ski resorts. Like many parts of Europe, it is architecturally grand, has historic cities such as capital Ljubljana, while its countryside is pine-forested. Add to that snow-capped peaks, turquoise rivers, stunning valleys, giant caves, Venetian-style coastline and the tourist magnet of Lake Bled, a church-topped islet with a cliffside medieval castle, and it is no wonder that Slovenia is fast emerging as a destination of choice for many travellers. Popular leisure pursuits include walking, cycling and hiking in the mountains, along with horseback riding, rafting, ballooning, caving and canyoning. And, of course, skiing. Though there is a quite sunny stretch of the coast too for those who just want to relax, like the beautiful coastal town of Piran. Not as crowded still, Slovenia is a gem waiting to be discovered.