It used to be that when you wanted to see Europe, you grabbed a backpack, a hostel directory and a train schedule, and simply went from city to city, relying on your wits and a good pair of walking shoes. That austere mode of tourism is still in practice, but contemporary travellers also have an incredible breadth of alternative ways to see Europe. From cycling around Austria to wellness tours in Italy to, yes, roaming through Scotland, there are so many unique opportunities to experience everything the continent has to offer.
KAYAK THE HISTORIC THAMES
No river in England has as much history as the Thames. As London’s main thoroughfare for centuries, the waterway has transported kings, queens, condemned prisoners and the literal building blocks of the city. See it from a different angle by kayaking from the Chelsea neighbourhood to the Tower of London—past the Houses of Parliament, London Eye and legendary Tower Bridge. Be sure to give right of way to barges, which still transport goods up and down the river.
Insider tip: The Thames has a huge tidal range. A good outfitter will gauge your paddling expertise to determine the safest time to be on the river.
RAMBLE ACROSS THE HIGHLANDS
Since ancient times, Scotland has protected the right to roam: Residents and visitors can walk across all public and private land, including forests, fields, lochs and mountains. For self-guided walks, the country has carved out a system of waymarked footpaths. Consider the West Highland Way, a 154-kilometre trail from Milngavie to Fort William. Walk as little or as long as you want, stopping for whisky at Glengoyne Distillery, haggis at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, and rest at the Best Western The Crianlarich Hotel.
SAVOUR SPA DAYS IN ITALY
The hottest trend in travel? Wellness tourism—where leisurely sightseeing is complemented by spa visits, guided meditation and farm-to-fork fare. And there are few better places to rejuvenate than amidst the rolling, sun-drenched hills of Tuscany. Italophiles can find their Zen on a small-group G Adventures tour from Rome to Florence, highlighted by yoga classes at Villa Borghese and atop the Palatine Hill, a Tuscan cooking class and a day in the spa town of Bagno Vignoni.
LAP IT UP IN BUDAPEST
The first rule of Budapest bath culture: Don’t tell anyone about Budapest bath culture. While hot springs in Iceland get all the glory, thermal spas in the Hungarian capital fly relatively under the radar. The palatial Széchenyi is the undisputed grande dame. It opened in 1913 and features 18 neo-baroque pools, ranging in temperature from 18 to 40 C. Other notables include the art nouveau Gellért Baths and the Turkish Rudas Bath, built by invading 16th-century Ottomans.
Insider tip: Be sure to try Hungarian goulash, a rich meat-and-vegetable stew seasoned with local paprika. Don’t forget to bring some paprika home.
TOUR BELGIUM BY WATER
The rivers of northwestern Europe have been used as transportation arteries since Roman times, delivering goods and culture across the continent. They also make an ideal route for exploring Belgium. River cruises wind through several historic cities and give you the convenience of unpacking just once. Visit Antwerp’s Cathedral of Our Lady to see Rubens’ famed altarpieces; in Bruges, climb 366 steps to reach the top of the iconic belfry, erected in 1240.
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CYCLE THE AUSTRIAN COUNTRYSIDE
You know those storybook villages from Disney movies and fairy tales? They really do exist—in Austria’s Wachau Valley. A short train ride from Vienna lands you in the charming town of Krems an der Donau, gateway to one of Europe’s top wine regions. Dotted with medieval churches, castle ruins and quaint cottages, the Wachau Valley is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The best way to explore this enchanting landscape is on two wheels. You don’t have to be a pro behind the handlebars: The terrain is mostly flat and guided tours move at a leisurely pace. Cycle along Krem’s cobblestone streets, passing a 15th-century gate and medieval houses. Village life fades away as you ride next to the Danube River, surrounded by lush vineyards. Celts planted the first grapevines here sometime around the fifth century BCE.
Most tours make frequent stops to snap photos and sip vino at local wineries, such as Weingut Knoll. Like most Wachau Valley wineries, it’s a small, family-run operation where grapes are picked and sorted by hand. More than 90 percent of the wine produced here is white, from Rieslings and rosés to the indigenous Grüner Veltliner.
Rolling into the little town of Dürnstein, park your bike on one of the winding streets and head up the steep stairs to Dürnstein Castle. Though in ruins today, it was once a mighty fortress that housed a famous prisoner: England’s King Richard the Lionheart. After your trek back down, stop for a schnitzel lunch and glass of chilled Riesling at Dürnsteinerhof, a small eatery with a sun-soaked courtyard.
Insider tip: By Austrian law, all bicycles must have at least two independently operating brakes, a clear headlight, red taillight, yellow reflectors on each pedal and wheel, and a bell. Helmets are also recommended.
HEAD INTO THE WOODS IN SLOVENIA
The word “safari” may evoke images of open-top jeeps rolling across the savanna, but Africa isn’t the only place for unforgettable wildlife spotting. Tucked between the Alps and the Adriatic, Slovenia is a hikers’ haven where you can wander primeval forests and cave systems, and embark on guided treks to glimpse majestic brown bears, wolves and Eurasian lynx. Even the medieval capital, Ljubljana, offers natural escapes—like sprawling Tivoli Park, which is great for casual bird (and people) watching.
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DRIVE GERMANY’S AUTOBAHN
A GPS-aided road trip is a fantastic way to discover vast and varied Germany, thanks to the country’s famous Autobahn highway system. The journey from Berlin to Munich, for example, takes five to six hours, but you can also plan side trips to beautiful cities like Leipzig, Dresden and Nuremberg. Remember to use your defensive driving skills and follow the rules of the road: Autobahn speed limits are higher than in Canada, and motorists can be aggressive.
RIDE THE RAILS IN NORWAY
Many travellers choose to see this Nordic nation by water, but it’s also a trainspotter’s dream. Norwegian State Railways operates a network of trains that run along the coast, through rugged fjordlands and up steep mountain inclines. The seven-hour rail journey from Oslo to Bergen, considered one of the most scenic in Europe, is among the world’s highest-altitude train trips.
Insider tip: A Eurail Norway Pass offers ample flexibility—with your choice of travel days and discounts for two or more passengers. Ask an AMA Travel agent for details.
TOUR TALLINN’S ARCHITECTURE
Over the centuries, Danes, Germans, Swedes, and both Tsarist and Soviet Russians have controlled Estonia’s coastal capital. That cosmopolitan history is evident in its architectural milieu, which ranges from a UNESCO-designated medieval old town to the grandly baroque Kadriorg Art Museum to the industrial-modernist Rotermann Quarter. The Estonian Centre for Architecture offers fully customizable tours to Tallinn’s many notable buildings and landmarks.
HONOUR CANADIAN HEROES AT JUNO BEACH
In this divided age, it’s worth remembering when individuals were willing to give their lives for the common good. So a trip to France’s northern coast has never been timelier, what with the 75th anniversary of D-Day upcoming in June. Here, the Juno Beach Centre is an essential pilgrimage: The museum, along with its windswept, bunker-studded beachfront, pays moving tribute to the 14,000 Canadians who fought bravely during WWII’s decisive battle.
Insider tip: From April 1 to October 31, the centre offers English and French tours led by young Canadians—guides who are about the same age as the soldiers who fought in the war.
GET THE WHOLE STORY IN NORTHERN FRANCE
Jean Irving has a special connection to Normandy: Her father was a member of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion and was dropped behind enemy lines shortly before the D-Day landing. Though her dad never spoke about his experiences, Jean, an AMA Travel counsellor in Calgary, jumped at the chance to visit the region with her AMA colleagues.
“Driving through these beautiful French towns, you could still see some of the damage done to buildings,” she says, adding that the guide of her Trafalgar Tours coach trip often told stories about the sites—stories you wouldn’t get from a travel handbook.
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Similar tours depart from Paris, giving visitors a chance to see landmarks like the Eiffel Tower. From there, you might detour through the Loire Valley—enjoying meals with local hosts at centuries-old chateaux—on the way to France’s most storied region.
Normandy has played a central role in French history since 1066, when William the Conqueror invaded England and became king. Those events are depicted in the 950-year-old Bayeux Tapestry, which can be seen in its namesake town, while William himself is buried at the Abbaye aux Hommes in Caen.
But for visitors like Jean, it’s the WWII monuments, including the Juno Beach Centre and Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, that are most memorable. “Everyone should learn first-hand about what happened there—hear the stories of the soldiers at museums,” she says. “If you don’t understand the war after that, you never will.”
SEE IT WITH AMA
Enchanting Danube (Uniworld)
An all-inclusive seven-night cruise with port visits in Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. Stay in a luxe river-view stateroom, enjoying onboard meals with unlimited beverages, your choice of daily excursions and more.
From $4,074, including port fees
AMA member savings of $125 per person (included in price) plus get $150 CAD onboard credit per person (on select sailings)
March to November 2019
Cycling the Danube (Exodus Travels)
Meander along the Danube from Vienna to Budapest on this eight-day cycling tour.
From $1,515 (tour-only)
April to October 2019