Europe in a Flash ... quick tastes of Italy, France and Spain
In the interest of maximizing your vacation time, I would recommend flying to Madrid on a Friday evening flight. There are always Air Canada flights departing around 8pm during the week which would get you into Madrid by noon the following day. Stay awake until your regular bedtime to get over the jet lag asap!
Day Two - Four (Madrid)
Accommodations: We would recommend staying near Puerta del Sol. It’s very central and also near the main subway line so you won’t have to far to walk in case you want to take public transit (their subway line is quite good and safe) to get around and access the train station.
Madrid is very cosmopolitan (it can feel like it lacks the cultural feel of other Spanish cities but there is still much to see!). Here are a few points of interest:
Prado – A beautiful museum and home to the largest collection of works by Valasquez and Goya as well as a very large collection of Italian renaissance work. (www.museodelprado.es)
Palacio Real – The Royal Palace and gardens are quite beautiful. The Royal family no longer live there so it is now a very well maintained museum. The gardens are free to see but you must pay admission to get into the Palace.
Plaza Mayor – Madrid is full of magnificent square. Plaza Mayor is the largest and most beautiful. While a bit of a tourist trap, it’s still worth having a drink at one of the many patios, for dinner I’d recommend going off the beaten path and leave the square unless you want to get ripped off.
El Corte Ingles – Madrid is good for shopping, there are as many Zaras as there are Starbucks in Toronto I think. While I’ve never bought anything there, El Corte Ingles is the largest and most popular department store in Spain, like Harrods in the U.K. but not nearly as upscale...still worth checking out though.
Madrid is a beautiful and busy city, it’s worth taking some time just to walk around and discover it. Gran Via is a large thoroughfare, a bit like Yonge Street, very typical of large Spanish cities...you’ll also notice many tributes and statues of Don Quixote in Madrid (such as the one in Plaza de Espana) and throughout the country!
Day Four - Six (Barcelona)
Travel: I would recommend taking the train from Madrid to Barcelona, it only takes about 3 hours. They depart quite frequently throughout the day.
Accommodations: Anything near Las Ramblas and as close to Placa d’Espanya as you can get is most practical as it is in the middle of everything and close to the subway line which is good not great but does the trick. Taxi Drivers have been known to scam customers.
Barcelona is one of the best cities in Europe and quite unique from the rest of Spain in terms of architecture and language. They have their own dialect as they are Catalan. Lots to see here:
Gaudi: He was an artist and architect and Barcelona is home to most of his most beautiful architectural masterpieces including:
Sagrada Familia: An amazing church that literally looks like it’s growing out of the earth...or melting depending on how you look at it. A must see!
Parc Guell: A public park designed by Gaudi which is full of artistic treasures.
Gaudi Apartment (La Pedrara): An actual residential building designed by Gaudi. They offer tours which include walking up to the roof...this guy must have been smoking something good.
Las Ramblas: The main pedestrian street which cuts through the middle of Barcelona to the ocean is a great place to walk. Although beware at night, it’s pretty safe but is known for pick pocketing. At the end of Las Ramblas, by the water, there is a string of night clubs...very touristy. You’re better off checking out the bars located on smaller street off Las Ramblas.
Food and drink: Barcelona is a great place for both. Eat all the Tapas you can and check out the Champagnaria, a crazy bar in Barcelona, popular with locals and tourists. It’s a bit crazy but worth checking out and taking in some tapas and Cava...the Spanish answer to champagne.
Beaches: While it might be tempting to check them out, they’re pretty dirty and very packed. I’d hold off until you get to France.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg in Barcelona. There’s lots more to see including the Olympic village, the Picasso Museum, the Bari Gothic neighbourhood and the National Museum of Art of Catalunya located at Montjuic. Whether you actually go into the museum or not is up to you but the views of the city from that location are amazing, particularly at night.
Day Six - Ten (Nice, Monaco, St. Tropez, Eze)
Travel: A train ride from Barcelona to Nice would take about 11 hours and there are no direct trips. That said, I’d recommend flying. .
Now we’re getting to the good stuff. A completely different feel from Paris and the rest of the country, as there is a much stronger Latin influence. The food and landscape are unique and the people are much more laidback, a stark contrast to the elitist attitude in cities like Paris and Bordeaux (not to say I don’t love those cities too).
Nice is a great place to base yourself while exploring the Riviera, you can get to nearly any city worth seeing on the Mediterranean in less than 30 minutes. It’s also economical since hotels in Nice as cheaper than in other cities in the Riviera.
Accommodations: When we stayed in Nice we stayed at the Hotel Le Grimaldi. Great rooms, quite large for local standards, fair prices and great location near the main pedestrian streets and a 5 minute walk from the beach. If you’re looking for something with a kitchen, not a bad option if you’re into picking up food at the local market which is amazing, I’d recommend the Citadines Promenade located right on the Promenade des Anglais which is the main street that runs along the beach. The rooms are not fancy but large clean and functional. If you want to treat yourself, check into the Negresco. I stayed there once, worth every euro!
Nice, and the entire Riviera for that matter, is less about museums and churches and more about walking around, exploring the architecture, beaches, shops and food, food, food! I’d suggest you take a day to do just that in Nice before venturing out to the other hot spots along the coast. Once you’re ready to leave this city, here are a few of the others I’d recommend visiting for the day:
St. Tropez: It is the most difficult to get to as there is no train station in town (apparently Bridget Bardot boycotted it so it wouldn’t draw in so many tourists but it’s worth the trek). There are lots of options to get there, you can take a strain to St. Raphael and then a ferry to St. Tropez or you can travel by ferry directly from Nice to St. Tropez. There is also a bus you can take. I took the train/ferry route but I’d ask your hotel what they’d recommend as schedules change depending on the time of year. It’s a beautiful city for walking around and having a drink or meal by the marina. Also a good place for spotting stars.
Monaco: The most beautiful city on earth as far as I’m concerned. It’s about a 30 minute train ride from Nice. After you’ve explored and walked through its street you have to stop for a drink or a meal (it’s a bit pricey but you won’t really find anything cheap in Monaco) at the Cafe de Paris which is right across the Hotel de Paris and the Casino. It’s the best place in the world for car and people watching. As for other points of interest, the Princess Grace gardens and church where she got married are cool to see. Depending on the time of year, you can also get in to the Grimaldi Palace.
Eze: Up in the mountains back from the Mediterranean coast, Eze looks completely different from Nice and the other cities on the Riviera. It’s has a medieval feel and has the most amazing views of the coast. Great place to walk around and have a meal. If you want a really incredible meal and a fantastic view of the coast and the ocean I would check out Chateau Eza, home to a fantastic Michelin-starred restaurant. It’s quite pricey but for lunch they have a good prix fixe menu. The best way to get to Eze is by train, about 30 minutes from Nice.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, there are so many other cities to see on the Riviera like Villefranche-sur-mer, Antibes, Menton, Cannes and Grasse among others but those would be my top picks!
Day 10 - 12 (Florence)
Travelling between France and Italy is surprisingly difficult. Their airlines and train systems don’t seem to interact well in terms of offering direct route options. That's often the case between European countries. Direct flights from Nice to anywhere in Italy are very expensive for direct and very lengthy for indirect flights. This is one of the few times I’d recommend taking a night train. The ride from Nice to Florence is about 8 hours. I’d recommend springing for first class!
Florence is a city of incredible art. There’s SO MUCH to see including Ponte Vecchio, the Baptistry and the Statue of David. I was looking online for a comprehensive guide. here is link that pretty much captures all the hot spots: http://goitaly.about.com/od/florenceitaly/tp/florence.htm.
Food: When we went, we never had a bad meal in Florence. Authentic Italian food everywhere!
Another thing that’s worth doing in Florence is shopping. Great for leather and clothes in general.
Day 12 - 14 (Rome)
Rome is an amazing city with so much to see so pace yourself. You’ll never see it all in just a couple of days so it’s all about prioritizing. Here’s a list of spots you should make sure to hit:
Vatican – Which includes the Apostolic Palace, St. Peter’s Basilica and the incredible Sistine Chapel
Spanish Steps – Beautiful spot and right in the heart of the shopping district (Via del Corso). Great time to take some nice photos.
Trevi Fountain – Don’t forget to make a wish. They say if you throw a coin in the fountain you’ll one day return to Rome.
Coliseum and Forum – Can’t really go to Rome and not check this out.
Valla Borghese – An amazing park
Piazza Navona – One of many squares in the city but by far the largest and most beautiful.
Accommodations: I’d recommend something near the Spanish Steps. It’s pretty central. Just make sure you’re not staying near the Termini station as it can be a little sketchy.
Food: Unfortunately most restaurants in the city are tourist traps. If you want a great meal and reasonable prices I’d recommend visiting the Jewish quarter one night for dinner. You can get great Italian fare where many of the locals eat.
Day 14 - 17 (Paris)
Best way to get to Paris from Rome is to fly.
You could easily spend a week to see Paris, however, for this approach, here's what you can squeeze it into a few days.
Accommodations: I’ve stayed in good and bad hotels in Paris. A nice area to stay in is St. Germain. It’s the best place to be at night in terms of restaurants and bars. Keep in mind, the entire city is very accessible by foot or subway – the best subway system I’ve ever used. I’ve stayed at the Lutetia Concorde and the Villa Saint-Germain. Both good value for money and well located.
Here’s my list of things to see but the sights are certainly not limited to these:
The Louvre: A must see, but pace yourself. Once you get in look at a map of the museum and plot out which works you want to see. It’s impossible to see it all so you need to prioritize. I do recommend running first to see the Mona Lisa as it gets crowded - so get there early and run for it - then you can take your time throughout the rest of the museum.
Notre Dame: You can’t go to Paris and not visit this church. It is likely still under repairs of the horrific fire, but it is worth going to see and it is right next to Paris City Hall which is also a beautiful building.
Trocadero/Eiffel Tower: You have to see the Eiffel Tower but in my opinion it’s not worth paying the money to take the elevator to the top...unless you’re going to eat. The best time to see it is at night when it’s all lit up and the best vantage point is from Trocadero which is also the name of the Metro stop.
Champs Elysees/Arc de Triomphe: A great walk but avoid eating there. It’s unnecessarily over-priced. In terms of shopping, contrary to popular belief, there is much better shopping on Rue Saint-Honore which is one street east of the Champs Elysees or in Saint Germain.
Musee d’Orsay: Of all the galleries I’ve visited in Europe, this is my favourite. Not only for the impressive collection of impressionist and realist art, but for the building itself. It’s a converted train station...very cool!
Jardins des Tuilleries: This is basically the front yard of the Louvre and worth walking through. The best way to see it is to leave from the Louvre on your way to the Champs Elysees. You’ll also pass by Place de la Concorde.
Paris Opera House: I think it’s the most beautiful building in France. Very cool to take a tour of the inside as well. If you’re lucky you can also score some last minute tickets to see a symphony.
Saint Germain des Pres: The heart of the left bank, it’s basically old school Paris at its best and is home to some of the best cafe’s, many of which have been there for over 100 years. Some of the most notable are Les Deux Magots and Cafe de Flore. You have to do a patio lunch at least once at either of these too.
Food: I could go on forever about food in Paris. The great thing is that it’s pretty hard to have a bad meal...the trick is to avoid tourist traps. I would stick to the bistros in Saint Germain and the Latin Quarter and it’s always a safe bet to go with the prix fixe menu. It’s the freshest ingredients and usually a great value. A couple of things I never skip when I’m in Paris is brunch at Laduree. There are two locations but the one on the Champs Elysees has a dining room. Brunch is expensive but worth every penny in my opinion. Also, you’ll need a reservation. The other thing I always do is go for a falafel in the Jewish Quarter. The best place for it is L’As du Falafel near Rue des Rosiers. The best ever and super cheap. There are usually line ups in the street but if you can handle the wait, try to eat there instead of doing take out. It’s a cool spot (lots of celebs go there but you wouldn’t expect it from looking at the place) and the entire menu is amazing!
Day 18 (Home...boo)
Fly home from Paris (if you can make yourself leave)
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