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Top 10 Europe Cruise Ports

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

From Rome to Stockholm, Venice to Brugge, our sister site Cruise Critic’s European Hot List offers an opinionated take on the best of the best of Europe’s most fabulous ports.

What are your favorites? Scroll down to the comments section and tell us about the European ports you love most (whether they’re Baltic, Eastern Mediterranean, Western Mediterranean, close to home, or even somewhat farther afield—such as the Canaries and Northern Africa), and offer us some detail about what you love most about them!

1. Rome

Best Small Pleasure: Eating and drinking at one of the city’s famous piazzas, like Piazza Navona, Piazza del Popolo, or Campo dei Fiori; particularly delicious are the pastas (particularly the carbonara), pizzas and gelatos, though many cafes only serve pizza for dinner. Wash ‘em down with a glass of the house wine—white or red Italian wines always taste delicious.

Biggest Surprise: Stumbling across some of Rome’s most famous monuments by accident while meandering along winding, narrow streets when, suddenly, there’s the Pantheon, the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps; or the neighborhood of Trastevere, with its funky boutiques and numerous sidewalk cafes.

Touristy but Fabulous: A pilgrimage to St. Peter’s Basilica and Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.

2. Barcelona

Best Small Pleasure: A plate of tapas. Strolling along the beach in the fishing village of Barceloneta. An afternoon siesta.

Biggest Surprise: That Barcelona’s most famous cathedral—La Sagrada Familia, designed by native son Antoni Gaudi—is still unfinished more than 75 years after his death. Most fascinating was wandering around a cathedral-in-progress (as construction workers ply their trade around you) and also climbing the 365-winding, turret-esque stairs of the bell towers for a marvelous view.

Touristy but Fabulous: Wandering along Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s famed pedestrian boulevard and sipping wine at one of its numerous cafes. Also, make sure to visit Las Ramblas’ Boqueria, Barcelona’s fabulous food market, and Museu Picasso, not just for its collection of the artist’s work but also the 15th-century palace that houses them.

3. Venice

Best Small Pleasure: Tucking into a cheap—but delicious—plate of pasta with a local wine at one of the city’s numerous trattorias (Tip: Generally, the farther away from San Marco Square, the less touristy they are).

Biggest Surprise: Riding the vaporreto—a water version of a city bus—around the city. Exploring the nearby island of Guidecca (where the “real” locals live).

Touristy but Fabulous: San Marco Square is awesome! During the height of summer, try to visit early before it gets too crowded (and wear a hat in case one of the ubiquitous pigeons, well, you know). Riding in a gondola, at sunset, with a tenor belting out Italian arias.

4. Paris

Best Small Pleasure: Watching the world go by from a vantage point at one of Paris’ innumerable sidewalk cafes.

Biggest Surprise: As big as Paris can seem, it’s really just a collection of neighborhoods. With limited time to explore, pick a neighborhood and poke around its nooks, crannies, cathedrals, shops, parks, and museums. Taking a Turkish bath at the Hammam in La Grande Mosquee, then finishing off with a mint tea in the Moorish cafe next door.

Touristy but Fabulous: Riding to the top of Eiffel Tower. The Grand Louvre for a glimpse at the Mona Lisa (and everything else in the world’s biggest art museum). Haute chic shopping on the Avenue Montaigne (Chanel, Dior, Ungaro), Faubourg St-Honore (Gucci, Chloe, Hermes), and the Left Bank (Giorgio Armani, Yves St-Laurent, and Louis Vuitton).

5. Brugge

Best Small Pleasure: Supping at a sidewalk cafe on Belgium’s classic moules’ frites (mussels and fries), washed down with a local beer.

Biggest Surprise: The canals! You can take a boat ride that winds in and out of some fairly off-the-beaten-track (and quite beautiful) parts of Brugge.

Touristy but Fabulous: Hanging out in any of the town’s numerous squares—people-watching, eating and drinking, and shopping for lace and chocolate.

6. St. Petersburg

Best Small Pleasure: Dining on Chicken Kiev at the Grand Hotel’s sidewalk cafe just off vibrant Nevsky Prospekt. Strolling through the park opposite St. Isaac’s Cathedral.

Biggest Surprise: St. Isaac’s Cathedral, a splendid mid-19th century Orthodox church with highlights that include mosaic murals, granite pillars, and marble floors; its immense gold dome can be seen for miles around. St. Petersburg’s canals (you can take a boat ride a la Venice).

Touristy but Fabulous: The summer palaces—especially Pavlovsk and Pushkin.

7. Oslo

Best Small Pleasure: The murals in City Hall that depict scenes from life in Norway along with scenes highlighting resistance activities against the Germans there during World War II.

Biggest Surprise: Oslo’s got the perfect blend of art and culture, history, and lush scenery (green parks, gorgeous bays, and harbors). It’s an outdoor lovers’ city that reminds me of America’s Seattle.

Touristy but Fabulous: A short boat ride amidst the fjords (even locals occasionally deign to get onboard).

8. London

Best Small Pleasure: Lunching at “gastro” pubs like Chelsea’s Cooper’s Arms and Foxtrot Oscar.

Biggest Surprise: Gorgeous Kensington Park—head for the lake (you can rent lounge chairs) and don’t forget to check out the Princess Diana memorials (flowers, letters) tucked into the wrought iron gate of Kensington Palace.

Touristy but Fabulous: Riding around on the double decker buses (on the top deck!). Riding the London Eye, the city’s millennial Ferris wheel. Afternoon cream tea but not necessarily at the famed Ritz; more elegant experiences can be found at olde-British hotels like Brown’s. Shopping at the venerable Harrods.

9. Copenhagen

Best Small Pleasure: Kayaking through Copenhagen’s canals. Lunch at a sidewalk cafe at Nyhavn beside the canal.

Biggest Surprise: Climbing the seemingly endless spiraling staircase of the historic Round Tower; you can see why Russian Czar Peter the Great actually rode his horse to the top in 1716.

Touristy but Fabulous: Tivoli Gardens is a must-see; there are rides and amusements and restaurants ranging from casual snack shacks to Michelin-starred haute cuisine. If your ship overnights in Copenhagen, go after dark when the park is lit with twinkling lights as it’s quite magical. Take a guided tour of Copenhagen, via the canals, by boat.

10. Stockholm

Best Small Pleasure: Strolling along downtown’s waterfront promenade.

Biggest Surprise: The Swedish Archipelago. At sunset, as ships sail from the port of Stockholm to the open ocean, they pass through (takes a couple of hours) a gorgeous, glittering string of small islands, green, lush, and largely undeveloped aside from occasional brightly painted wood homes. This view alone is worth booking a balcony cabin.

Touristy but Fabulous:

A city tour from a boat. Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s walled, medieval-era old town. Head for Vasterlanggatan, the main drag, and explore from there.

Article from: SmarterTravel.com

Progressive Stockholm loves its traditions

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

With its steel-and-glass Modernist buildings and dedication to green living, Stockholm has the feel of a gleaming metropolis, but it offers a satisfying mix of old and new, from a well-preserved 17th-century warship to its glittering 20th-century City Hall.

Before you visit, study up at www.stockholmtown.com and when you arrive, buy a Stockholm Card, covering admission to nearly every sight and all public transit. (Only a Swedish meatball would drive his car in Stockholm; park it and use the excellent public transportation system instead.)

Stockholm, with 1.8 million people, is built on an archipelago of 14 islands woven together by 50 bridges. Gamla Stan, the city’s historic island core, is an Old Town of winding, lantern-lit streets, antiques shops, and classy cafes clustered around the Royal Palace. The palace hosts a fun, spirited Changing of the Guard ceremony, and contains the Royal Armory, with Europe’s most spectacular collection of medieval royal armor.

Famous Swedes include Astrid Lindgren, author of Pippi Longstocking (found in bookstores all over town), and Sweden’s most famous sculptor, Carl Milles, whose statues are strikingly displayed in Stockholm’s dramatic cliffside Millesgarden. But let’s face it. Most people know Sweden as the home of ABBA, the ’70s pop band whose bouncy songs are the driving force behind the hit play and movie “Mamma Mia!” Plans for an ABBA Museum in Stockholm were recently scrapped because of a dispute over costs, and the museum will instead become a traveling exhibition. Dancing queens — and kings — will have to wait to pay homage.

Even without ABBA, Stockholm has plenty of sights to keep tourists busy. For a trip back in time, Skansen is Europe’s original and best open-air folk museum. It’s a huge park with more than 150 historic homes, shops, churches, and schoolhouses transplanted from all corners of Sweden. The old interiors are wonderfully furnished, complete with guides dressed in traditional outfits. There’s folk dancing nearly every evening. Think of it as Swedish-culture-on-a-lazy-Susan, where visitors can sweep through the countryside and centuries of lifestyles without leaving the capital.

Near Skansen, the mighty warship Vasa is chemically petrified and housed in a state-of-the-art museum. Heralded as the ultimate warship of her day, the Vasa sank just minutes into her maiden voyage, with 450 crew on board. The year was 1628. The ship was top-heavy, with an extra row of cannons tacked on above and a lack of ballast below. A breeze caught the sails and blew it over. The ship spent more than 300 years at the bottom of Stockholm’s harbor. In 1961, with the help of steel cables and huge inflatable pontoons, the Vasa rose again from the deep. And the city managed to turn this titanic flop into a brilliant museum and one of Scandinavia’s great sightseeing attractions.

While churches dominate cities in southern Europe, in the Scandinavian capitals, city halls take the lead. It’s clear that Stockholm’s City Hall rules the city. Constructed in 1923, it’s an amazing mix of eight million bricks and 19 million chips of gilt mosaic. To see the interior, take the entertaining tour. And for the best city view, climb the 348-foot-tall tower (an elevator takes you halfway).

Stockholm’s dazzling Nobel banquet commences every December in City Hall, where the Nobel committee awards its prestigious prizes for chemistry, medicine, physics, economics, and literature.

At the Nobel Museum, opened in 2001 for the 100-year anniversary of the Nobel Prize, portraits of all 700-plus winners hang from the ceiling, shuffling around the room like shirts at the dry cleaner’s (miss your favorite, and he or she will come around again in three hours). The museum’s Viennese-style cafe is the place to get creative with your coffee … and sample the famous Nobel ice cream. All Nobel laureates who visit the museum are asked to sign the bottom of a chair in the cafe. Turn over your chair and see who warmed the one you’re on.

Nobel winners stay at Stockholm’s Grand Hotel. Even if you’re not an honoree, it’s still worth a visit for the best smorgasbord in town. Here are some of the traditional dishes you’ll find: herring, boiled potatoes, knackebrod (Swedish crisp bread), gravlax (salt-cured salmon flavored with dill and served with a sweet mustard sauce), and meatballs with gravy and lingonberry sauce.

If you just want to put on a heavy coat and drink a fancy vodka in a modern-day igloo, consider the fun, if touristy, Absolut Icebar. The room, windows, bar, and even the glasses are made out of ice.

While modern and progressive, Stockholm reveres its traditions. Whether you’re celebrating ingenuity at the Nobel sights, strolling through the cobbled Old Town, or crawling through Europe’s best-preserved warship, you’ll be amazed by Stockholm’s stunning past and present.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. His syndicated column runs weekly at seattletimes.com/travel

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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