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European city breaks

Forum, Rome. Image: GettyForum, Rome. Image: Getty

Europe’s great cities remain perpetual favorites for travelers. David Whitley looks back at their illustrious histories and asks what they offer today

The old world, it seems, isn’t old news. While new and in-vogue travel destinations come and go elsewhere around the world, it seems the great cities of Europe have an enduring appeal for US vacationers.

Office of Travel and Tourism Industries statistics for 2012 show that 18.5% of air passengers traveling overseas headed to Europe. That’s up a modest 3.9% year-on-year, but anecdotal evidence suggests 2013 bookings will be even stronger.

Tauck is reporting double-digit growth for European breaks, with corporate communications manager Tom Armstrong putting a lot down to widely available flights that aren’t overly long and US residents feeling a personal connection due to ancestry.

But other factors also come into play, including photogenic castles, awe-inspiring cathedrals and the ease of stringing together three or four cities, all with very distinct feels and in different countries, into one trip.

Steve Born, vice president of marketing for the Globus group, pinpoints the history, personalities, culture, architecture, food and art as the main attractions of Europe’s cities.

“I’d say the appeal is all of these things bundled into the authentic character of these cities,” he says. “Character that can’t be replicated in cities in the US or elsewhere.”

There’s a variety in European cities that lends itself to repeat visits too. Melissa da Silva, president of Contiki Vacations, says millennials are attracted to London as a starting point from which to explore more of the region.

“It’s not so intimidating for first-time travelers to land in an English-speaking country, and visitlondon.com does a great job of targeting and speaking to the youth market.”

The 2012 Olympics have had an effect too — there seems to be unanimous agreement over an upswing in enquiries about London. Cost is another factor helping to boost European bookings, according to Lauren Volcheff, vice president of marketing at Tourism Holdings.

“The average nightly rate of European hotels has gone down 4.7% compared to last year, which contributes to the increase in bookings.”

The affordability factor is key to the appeal of central European cities such as Berlin, Prague and Budapest. But the market for European trips is by no means homogenous. “It’s all about matching clients with vacation choices that fit their lifestyles and budgets,” says John Caldwell, president of MLT Vacations.

First-timers may desire classics such as Big Ben, the Colosseum or the Eiffel Tower, but others are drawn to Italian designer shopping, grazing authentic tapas bars or experiencing the energetic change that has swept through former communist countries.

Choice, as well as culture, lures people to this compact continent. Here we take a look at some of Europe’s top city break options, whatever your clients’ tastes and interests…

BERLIN

Go for: Edge and nightlife.

Why: So many creative types have moved to the German capital from across the world that English is like a default first language. Alternative Berlin Tours (www.alternativeberlin.com) does a great job in showing off the city’s edgy sidestreet art tours, workshops and nighttime crawls to computer hackers’ dens and abandoned tower blocks.

Berlin’s epicenter of cool is ever-shifting — the Kreuzkolln neighborhood is the current hip hub — but many of the former hotspots, particularly in Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, still have a wonderful live-and-let-live character.

Berlin’s modern history is also fascinating. Many walking tours take routes around key Nazi- and Cold War-era sites; parts of the Berlin Wall still stand, too. The stretch along Bernauer Strasse is now an open-air museum, while the Berliner Unterwelten tours (www.berliner-unterwelten.de) from Berlin-Gesundbrunnen station head through Cold War nuclear bunkers.

Also in Berlin’s favor is surprising affordability — hotels are remarkably inexpensive — and a series of weird attractions. The Sunday afternoon Bearpit Karaoke (www.bearpitkaraoke.com) in the Mauerpark, where beer-swillers gather in an amphitheater to cheer on gamely heroic karaoke desecrations, is a classic example. As are the techno-dancing metal sculptures of the Monsterkabinett (www.monsterkabinett.de).

Sample: Solar Tours has seven nights in Berlin, staying at the three-star Comfort Hotel Lichtenberg, with flights from LA, from $1,458 per person. www.solartours.com

MADRID

Go for: Food and drink.

Why: Various Spanish regions have their specialties — Galicia in the north west for seafood, Valencia for paella, the Basque country for tapas that border on art — but Madrid pulls all of them together in one place.

Adventurous’ Appetites evening tapas tour (www.adventurousappetites.com) is a great starting point for anyone wanting to delve into the various options. Once the initial education is complete, Calle de la Cava Baja is the best street for tapas crawling. It’s lined with dozens of bars, all of which serve their own specialties.

But Madrid caters to more than just the palate. In the Museo Nacional Del Prado, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid has three of the world’s great art museums within a mile of each other. The latter is home to Picasso’s defining masterpiece, Guernica, but a day can be set aside for the Prado alone.

For visitors who prefer artistry with a ball, Real Madrid is the most successful soccer team in history. Pilgrimages to Real’s Bernabeu Stadium (www.realmadrid.com) can be topped off with a self-guided tour that goes pitch-side and into the changing rooms.

Sample: MLT Vacations offers a seven-night break to Madrid, including accommodation at the two-star Best Western Hotel Los Condes and direct flights from Atlanta, from $1,131 per person. www.mltvacations.com

PRAGUE

Go for: Architecture and art.

Why: Prague is home to a panoply of architectural styles. The spindly gothic spires of St Vitus Cathedral soar alongside the Romanesque St George’s Basilica, inside the world’s largest castle complex, while neoclassical theaters, baroque churches and painted renaissance houses are found across the Old and New towns. There are modern-day stars too, like Frank Gehry’s whimsical Dancing House, opposite Jirasek Bridge.

Art nouveau is best represented, though, the masterpiece being the Municipal House on Republic Square. Public art is also a big draw, largely due to artist David Cerny (www.davidcerny.cz). His irreverent works include two statues with rotating hips, relieving themselves into the Czech Republic-shaped pool outside the Franz Kafka Museum, plus freaky alien babies climbing up the Zizkov TV Tower.

A new breed of microbrewers is challenging the established breweries. Pivovarsky Dum (www.gastroinfo.cz/pivodum) and U Medvidku (www.umedvidku.cz) sells its own concoctions on the premises, while the confusingly titled Prague Beer Museum (www.praguebeermuseum.com) is in fact the best bar in which to sample micro brewery beers from around the country.

Also recommended are the history-packed Jewish quarter and the atmospheric cobbled streets of the Mala Strana District, home to more than its fair share of odd museums. Alchemy, miniature art and the KGB, anyone?

Sample: MLT Vacations offers a six-night, three-star Prague stay, plus Delta return flights from New York, from $1,179 per person. www.mltvacations.com

ROME

Go for: History and culture.

Why: Rome never fails to leave visitors awestruck. The weight of history can be found around every corner: the symmetrical perfection of the Pantheon, the towering ruins of the Colosseum, the millennia of stories ready to spring to life in the Roman Forum.

The best way to explore the ancient Roman sites is to get a good guide who can bring them to life. Context Travel (www.contexttravel.com) runs over 50 walks, led by PHD- or MA-level scholars.

Then there’s the Vatican. Again, advanced-booked, small group tours are recommended to beat the ticket lines and the hordes fighting to see Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

Archaeology and Roman history fixes can be had in the Capitoline Museums — the world’s oldest museums — while the Catacombs are a vast burial ground on the outskirts of the ancient city.

It would be a mistake to think of Rome as some sort of heritage mausoleum, however. Eating Italy Food Tours (www.eatingitalyfoodtours.com) shows off the best of the city’s ever-changing culinary hotspots, while the Monti district is a hive of bohemian bars. For all the top designer brands, head to Piazza di Spagna.

Sample: Alitalia offers a seven-night stay in Rome at the four-star Eurostars Roma Aeterna, plus return flights from Miami, from $1,768 per person. www.alitalia.com

BUDAPEST

Go for: All-round charm.

Why: It’s hard to think of what Budapest doesn’t have going for it. There’s the beautiful architecture — it doesn’t get much better than standing by the mosaic-tiled roof of the Matthias Church on Castle Hill, staring down over the Danube at the huge gothic Parliament Building.

It’s also wonderfully budget-friendly — bar and restaurants checks are about as low as they get in Europe, while a whole host of boutique, design-conscious hotels come in under the magic $150-a-night marker.

Margaret Island, a long sliver of land in the Danube, is classic lazy-sunny-afternoon territory for those who want to rent a bike and leisurely pedal between cafes, while the 7th district is home to a proliferation of ‘ruin pubs’ — abandoned courtyards turned into giant, grungy outdoor bars. Kazinczy utca is the best street for finding them on.

Surprisingly good Hungarian wines — hunt down the Bikaver and Tokaji varieties — and a host of thermal bath complexes up the indulgence quotient (the Szechenyi Baths in the City Park are best for people-watching).

But Budapest is best at the distinctively bizarre. Memento Park (www.mementopark.hu) gathers together an enormous collection of communist statues, while the Hospital in the Rock (www.sziklakorhaz.eu) takes visitors on a tour through a wartime cave hospital turned nuclear bunker.

And the newest craze? Room-escape games, where small groups are locked in a basement and have to solve a series of clues within an hour in order to escape. Parapark (www.parapark.hu) is the top option for these.

Sample: Tourico Holidays can arrange stays at the four-star Soho Boutique Hotel from €89 ($118) a night, with return flights from New York from $1,240 per person. www.touricoholidays.com

WHAT ELSE?

Up-and-coming Belgrade: Cool design hotels and high-quality, great-value restaurants have recently mushroomed in eastern Europe’s under-the-radar star. The renowned party boats on the Sava and Danube Rivers give the Serbian capital serious nightlife credentials too.

Music… Vienna: The home of Strauss, Haydn and Mozart is predictably brimming with regular classical music performances, while the Vienna Boys’ Choir and dancing stallions of the Spanish Riding School fit the same stately vibe.

Unexpected beauty… Kiev: Many visitors are surprised to find a gorgeous architectural city in the Ukrainian capital — full of handsome churches with gleaming golden domes and rock-carved monasteries to offset the giant communist-era monuments staring across the river.

Islands and beaches… Dubrovnik: The stunningly preserved Old Town and city walls are this Croatian city’s calling cards, and easy ferry access to a host of idyllic islands makes it the perfect sun-seeker’s choice.

Family-friendly… Lisbon: Easy access to beaches, lots of funicular railways, a castle with great views and the enormous Oceanario aquarium in the Parque das Nacoes makes Lisbon a good bet with kids.

PUBLISHED IN THE FALL 2013 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork

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