First-Time Europe

  • 5 Weeks

If you only visit Europe once in your life, you’ll want to experience its famous cultural cities.

London is calling. The former capital of a huge empire is a city of massive museums, regal parks and electrifying nightlife.

Take the Eurostar to Paris and prepare to be seduced by the Eiffel Tower, Versailles and the Louvre. The art theme continues in Amsterdam where you can admire works by Van Gogh and Rembrandt and cycle alongside shimmering canals. Next travel to cosmopolitan, hedonistic Berlin in Germany where it’s possible to see the remains of the wall.

Prague in the Czech Republic is a city of intangible medieval magic. Budapest could be Prague’s twin offering refined music, riverside architecture and a youthful nocturnal scene. Vienna is known for its Habsburg history and gilded coffee bars.

Time to hit southern Europe. Start in glorious Venice with its canals and gondoliers, jump on a train to the Renaissance time capsule of Florence, and then proceed to Rome, home to the Vatican and Colosseum.

Leapfrog southern France to Spain stopping in Barcelona where Gaudí meets Gothic, before having a grand finale in Madrid, HQ of heavyweight art and all-night partying.

Mediterranean Europe

  • 5 Weeks

Think Europe doesn't do beaches? Think again – it does, but with lashings of culture on the side, as you'll find during this romp along its southern shores.

Fly to Spain and claim your sun-lounger at one of Europe’s warmest year-round beaches in Málaga, an emerging art city with a museum to native son, Picasso. Follow the coast up to Valencia next, a complex mix of antique and modern, and the culinary home of paella. Pay homage to Catalonia in Barcelona where you can soak up the seaside ambience of Gaudí's city, while investigating the pedestrianised La Rambla and another Picasso museum. Cross the border into France, then beach-hop along the Côte d'Azur to Nice with its palm-lined seafront. Take the twisty coastal corniches to beguiling Monaco and, afterwards, spend a day or two inland in the beautiful villages of Provence.

Return to Nice and take the train southeast to historic Rome. Continue south to energetic Naples, peer into ill-fated Pompeii and explore the narrow footpaths and ancient staircases of the precipitous Amalfi Coast. Cross Italy to understated Bari, from where you head across the Adriatic by ferry to the Croatian pearl of Dubrovnik with its marble streets, baroque buildings and spectacular city walls.

Bus it south through Montenegro and Albania – two of Europe's lesser known but underrated destinations. Pause at the walled town of Kotor in the former and the white crescent-shaped beaches of Drymades in the latter.

Greece's Ionian Islands are next and the best is Corfu where Greek mythology and ancient castles are complemented by some fine scimitars of sand. Take a ferry to Patra and a bus on to venerable Athens, capital of the ancient world, guarded by the Acropolis. Move on to the port of Piraeus for an island-hopping expedition of the Cyclades, dreamy islands that include sophisticated Mykonos, laid-back Paros and volcanic Santorini. When you've had enough of Greek salads, set sail for Turkish port Kuşadası from lush, mountainous Samos.

Visit ancient Ephesus, one of the greatest surviving Graeco-Roman cities. Travel by bus north along the Aegean coast to the ruins of Troy and Çanakkale, the harbour town that's the base for visiting Gallipoli Peninsula. Finish in beautiful, chaotic İstanbul: when you've had your fill of sightseeing you can relax in a hammam (Turkish bath).

From London to the Sun

  • 3 Weeks

Combining the best of both worlds, this itinerary begins with the urban powerhouse of London and ends with soaking up the sun in Spain and Portugal.

Enjoy several days in London for museums, galleries, street markets and clubbing, then take a train to Bath to appreciate Roman and Georgian architecture and thermal baths. Save time on the way back for Oxford, the fabled university town, a maelstrom of bikes, boats, brains and dreaming spires.

Back in London, take the Eurostar from grand St Pancras station to Brussels, the ethnically diverse headquarters of the EU known for its chocolate, art nouveau architecture and French-Flemish culture.

The Eurostar will whisk you southwest to romantic Paris. Having dipped into the City of Light’s cultural sights and gourmet delights, make side trips to D-Day beaches north of Bayeux and the iconic abbey of Mont St-Michel, which reaches for the sky from its rocky island perch.

Head by rail south, stopping at lively Toulouse. Detour to the fairy-tale fortified city of Carcassonne. Cross into Spain, pausing at supercool Barcelona, where you can indulge in traditional Catalan cooking as well as more avant-garde Spanish cuisine.

Zip north to Basque seaside resort San Sebastián, with its envelope-pushing food scene, and then to the curvaceous Museo Guggenheim in happening Bilbao. Turn south, making a beeline for energetic Madrid, for some of Europe's best galleries and bars. From here plan day trips to Toledo, the so-called ‘city of three cultures’, and enchanting Segovia.

Continue south to Granada to explore the exquisite Islamic fortress complex of the Alhambra. Continue your Andalucian adventures with the one-of-a-kind Mezquita of Córdoba, before dancing flamenco in Seville. Get the bus to Portugal's captivating hillside capital Lisbon where you can eat custard tarts by the sea, or listen to fado in the lamplit lanes of the Alfama. Sidestep to the wooded hills of Sintra, home to fairy-tale-like palaces and gardens.

Further north lies Unesco World Heritage–listed Porto, a lovely city to explore on foot. Finish off your Iberian ramblings in the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês, where you can hike amid scenery little changed since the 12th-century founding of Portugal.

Scandinavian & Baltic Highlights

  • 4 Weeks

Three weeks is sufficient for the classic sights of northern Europe, though you can easily spend longer. Extra time allows detailed exploration and side trips to quieter places.

Start in Danish capital Copenhagen, the hipster of the Nordic block, admiring the waterfront and museums, and enjoying world-class eating options. Make day trips to the cathedral and Viking-boat museum at Roskilde, 'Hamlet's' castle Kronborg Slot at Helsingør; Denmark's second but no-less-trendy city Aarhus with its incredible art at ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum; and the country's top tourist attraction, Legoland.

Take the train to charming Stockholm. Sweden's capital spills across 14 islands with Gamla Stan the oldest and most beautiful. Side-trip to university town Uppsala, Sweden's spiritual heart, and spend the night. Creative and happening Göteborg, the country's second city, has interesting galleries and museums, including a great one for kids. Kids will also be thrilled by Liseberg, Scandinavia’s largest amusement park.

It's a 3½-hour bus ride to Oslo, where you can check out Munch's work in a stunning setting. Norway's capital has plenty of museums and galleries, plus the iconic Oslo Opera House, the centre of its massive waterfront redevelopment project.

From Oslo, take the long but scenic 'Norway in a Nutshell' rail day trip to Flåm and ride the world's steepest railway that runs without cable or rack wheels. Continue by boat and bus along the stunning Sognefjord – Norway's deepest fjord with rock walls rising up to 1000m over the water, to Bergen. Admire this pretty town from a cable car and explore the quayside Bryggen district of historic buildings. From Bergen take a side trip to the mighty 20km-long emerald-green Geirangerfjord, a spectacular Unesco World Heritage Site.

Return to Stockholm for a cruise circuit of the Baltic. First stop in quirky, design-diva Helsinki, a great base for exploring the natural wonders of Finland. Don't miss Unesco World Heritage–listed Suomenlinna, a fortress set on a tight cluster of islands connected by bridges.

Wind up proceedings in the Baltic States starting in Tallinn, the charming Estonian capital where the Old Town is a jumble of turrets, spires and winding streets. Next is Latvia's gorgeous art nouveau Rīga followed by Lithuania's capital Vilnius, the baroque bombshell of the Baltics with its Old Town of cobbled streets and church spires providing a fitting finale.

The Alps to the Balkans

  • 4 Weeks

If you fancy visiting gorgeous towns on the shores of brilliant-blue lakes surrounded by turreted Alpine peaks, followed by a sojourn through the capitals of Eastern Europe, then head to Switzerland and jump on this itinerary.

Start with a few days in the spectacular Swiss Alps, ideal for hiking in summer and skiing in winter. Visit the oft-overlooked Swiss capital of Bern, and sophisticated, lakeside Zürich. Take the train to the top of Jungfrau (it's Europe's highest station) before heading down to visit lovely Lucerne where candy-coloured houses are reflected in a cobalt lake.

Turn east into Austria next where, on the banks of the Danube, you’ll find elegant Vienna where you can tour the Habsburg palace Hofburg, world-class museums and the city's legendary coffee houses. Track south into Slovenia, pausing by emerald-green Lake Bled and nearby, but much less-developed Lake Bohinj with the picturesque Julian Alps as the backdrop. Both locations are great for outdoor activities, offering kayaking, mountain biking and trekking.

Time to decamp to Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, a holiday paradise of sun-dappled islands, limestone cliffs, ancient towns and Mediterranean cuisine. Aptly named Split on the Adriatic displays an interesting split between tradition and modernity, and guards Diocletian’s Palace, one of Europe’s most incredible Roman ruins. Further south, the walled marble town of Dubrovnik is heavy with history and tourists. Inland and across the border in Bosnia and Hercegovina lies Sarajevo. Forget its grisly recent past, this is a city on the rebound and a good place for winter activities, especially skiing in the nearby mountains.

Travel east through Serbia stopping off in gritty but lively Belgrade to experience its famous nightlife and explore historic Kalemegdan Citadel. Then take a train to the relaxed Bulgarian capital of Sofia with its cityscape of onion-domed churches and Cold War–era monuments.

A train zips you through the mountains to Bulgaria's loveliest town, Veliko Târnovo, laced with cobbled lanes and surrounded by forested hills. Finish off in seaside Varna, your base for Black Sea beaches, archaeology museums and enormous parks.

Eastern Europe Today

  • 4 Weeks

Forget the stereotypes of the grim and grey 'Eastern Bloc' of the early 1990s – this half of Europe is one of the most dynamic and fast-changing places in the world.

The natural starting point is Berlin, once a city divided but now a veritable music, art and nightlife mecca. Despite wartime bombing, there is plenty of history here from the Reichstag to the Holocaust Memorial and Checkpoint Charlie.

Cross the now nonexistent iron curtain to Poland's capital Warsaw, a vibrant city that's survived all that history could throw at it and was meticulously restored after WWII. Further south is beautiful Kraków, the amazingly preserved royal capital which miraculously was spared destruction in WWII. The centrepieces are the stunning Wawel Castle and Cathedral and the Rynek Glówny, Europe's largest medieval town square.

Cut across Slovakia into the Czech Republic and another remarkably intact medieval city Prague which has one of Eastern Europe's most romantic and architecturally impressive historical centres.

Moving back east, you’ll encounter the Hungarian capital, Budapest, where you can freshen up at the thermal baths and party at numerous pubs and bars.

Romania had to wait a long time for its place in the sun, but it has come, especially in dynamic capital Bucharest with its emerging museums, trendy cafes and the world’s largest parliament building.

For another side of Romania, make a beeline for Transylvania where you can sharpen your fangs at 'Dracula's' castle in Bran and enjoy the gorgeous old towns nearby.

Head north into Western Ukraine where epiphanies are rife in charming Unesco World Heritage–listed Lviv whose cityscape, like Kraków’s, miraculously survived WWII. Continue on to bustling Ukrainian capital Kyiv, one of the former Soviet Union's more pleasant metropolises, before journeying into the past on a train to Minsk in Belarus to see how things were under communism.

Take another train to modern-day supercity Moscow, where the imposing Kremlin and adjacent Red Square are guaranteed to strike you with awe. Finally, head north to the old imperial capital of St Petersburg, where you can spend several days touring the Hermitage and other gorgeously restored palaces.