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Glasgow Surprises with Art, Design, and Culture

Glasgow, astride the River Clyde, is a surprising city — and Scotland's most underrated destination. Just an hour from Edinburgh (making it an easy day trip), Glasgow offers an energetic dining and nightlife scene, fanciful architecture, and top-notch museums — most of which are free. Today, this once-run-down city feels revitalized, and Glaswegians (sounds like "Norwegians") are eager to give visitors a warm welcome.

Locals here are some of the chattiest people in Scotland — and have the most entertaining (and impenetrable) accent. One once told me he was "British by passport, and Scottish by the grace of God." Their unpretentious friendliness makes connecting with people here a cinch. There's no upper-crust history, and no one puts on airs. In Edinburgh, people identify with the quality of the school they attended; in Glasgow, it's their soccer team allegiance.

In its 19th-century heyday, Glasgow was one of Europe's biggest cities and the second-largest in Britain, right behind London. It was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, and is said to have produced a quarter of the world's oceangoing ships. After World War II, the city was hit with tough times, giving it a gritty image. But modern Glasgow is rejuvenating itself with a thriving cultural scene and its trademark knack for design and artsy edge.

Glasgow tells its story throughout its vibrant streets and squares. At the heart of the city is George Square, decorated with a Who's Who of statues depicting great Scots, from top literary figures Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, to James Watt, who perfected the steam engine that helped power Europe into the Industrial Age. On the same square, in front of the City Chambers, stands a monument to Glaswegians killed in the World Wars.

Architecture buffs flock here to appreciate the unique Glaswegian flair evident across the city's Victorian facades, early 20th-century touches, and bold and glassy new construction. Most beloved are the works by Glasgow-born architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Mackintosh brought an exuberant Art Nouveau influence to this otherwise practical, working-class city with his stimulating blend of organic shapes and Japanese-inspired design.

You'll have several opportunities to experience Mackintosh's work in Glasgow. The Mackintosh at the Willow tearooms, dating back to 1903, are an Art Nouveau masterpiece where you can have a meal or tea, or pay to browse exhibits about the history of this place. During the industrial boom of the late 19th century, Victorian morals prevailed and the Scottish temperance movement was in full force. Tearooms like the Willow were designed to be an appealing alternative to pubs — places where women could visit unescorted, without risking an undesirable reputation.

Across town, the Mackintosh exhibit at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery hosts a collection of the architect's works. Housed in a grand, 100-year-old, Spanish Baroque-style building, the Kelvingrove is Glasgow's best museum — like a Scottish Smithsonian, with everything from natural history exhibits to fine artwork by the great masters.

Glasgow's artsy vibe extends beyond its museums, permeating city streets with eclectic mural art. City officials have cleverly co-opted street artists by sanctioning huge, colorful murals around town to prevent tagging. This creative problem-solving is typical of Glaswegians — taking counterculture energy and turning it into something positive. There's even a city map available that traces the city's best mural art.

To feel the pulse of the city, head to busy Buchanan Street, nicknamed the "Golden Zed" (Brit-speak for "Z"), for the way it zigzags through town. And as home to the top shops in town, it's also dubbed the "Style Mile." This is the place to people-watch, gaze up at the elegant architecture above the storefronts, and enjoy the talented buskers that bring the boulevard to life.

Live music is a major part of Glasgow's personality, and one of the best places to experience this is in the city's West End. I recently bellied up to the bar at the Ben Nevis Pub, where I expected to hear traditional Scottish music. But as the session got going, I was surprised to learn that the entire UK was represented in the band, with musicians from Northern Ireland, Wales, England, and Scotland. My Glaswegian friend pointed out that this is the fun reality of Glasgow, where tribes come together to make music. And that (as a microcosm of our world in general) is a beautiful thing.

The more time you spend in Glasgow, the more you'll appreciate its edgy, artsy vibe and quirky, laid-back personality. The city's earthy charm and the Glaswegians' love of life make it one of my favorite stops in Britain.

Buchanan Street is the heart of modern, commercial Glasgow — and it's a fascinating place to people-watch. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

The Kelvingrove Art Gallery houses everything from Mackintosh's Art Nouveau designs, to stuffed elephants and a natural history exhibit, to medieval armory. (photo: Gretchen Strauch)

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow his blog on Facebook.

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Sightseeing High and Low in Hilly Lyon

Smartly situated Lyon — just south of Burgundy, north of Provence, east of the Alps, and centered on a peninsula at the convergence of two major rivers — has long been a major culture hub. But its enjoyable cityscape is refreshingly untouristy, despite its welcoming old town, classy shops, worthwhile museums, and renowned cuisine. Just two hours from Paris by train, Lyon makes an easy one- or two-night stopover.

Lyon's sights are concentrated in three areas: historic Vieux Lyon (the old town, on the bank of the Saône River); the Presqu'île (the peninsula between the Saône and the Rhône), and Fourvière Hill, with its white Notre-Dame Basilica glimmering above the city.

I'd start my first Lyon sightseeing day with a funicular ride up Fourvière Hill — where the city was founded as "Lugdunum" by the Romans in 43 BC. From the Fourvière terrace, you can take in a commanding view of Lyon's old town, with its Renaissance roofs sporting uniform chimneys, and the Presqu'île's elegant 19th-century architecture.

The hill's landmark is the gleaming Notre-Dame Basilica, built in the late 1800s. Inside this ornate building, everything is covered with elaborate, gleaming mosaics that tell stories of the Virgin Mary. Next to the basilica, a chapel that predates the church by 500 years is capped by a glorious gold statue of Mary overlooking the city.

A short walk from the basilica is the fine Lugdunum Gallo-Roman Museum, built on the hillside, with views of two Roman theaters. You hear the term "Gallo-Roman" a lot in Lyon: As they established their vast empire, the Romans conquered the Gauls (the dominant proto-French tribe) and incorporated them into their culture. For several centuries, this substantial part of the Roman Empire was a Gaulish, or Gallo-Roman, civilization. In the museum you'll see Roman artifacts, including coins, tools, amphorae (jugs), and a tablet inscribed with a speech given by Emperor Claudius in AD 48. Outside the museum are a big theater, built under the reign of Emperor Augustus and still used today for concerts, and a smaller theater, acoustically designed for speeches and songs.

Back down the hill, Vieux Lyon offers the best concentration of well-preserved Renaissance buildings in France — vestiges of Lyon's Golden Age when it was the center of Europe's silk industry. Pedestrian-friendly lanes — punctuated with picturesque squares and courtyards — are made for ambling, window-shopping, and café lingering. You'll still find local silk here: On Rue du Boeuf, silk purveyor Brochier Soieries displays a binary-code "computerized" weaving loom and silkworm exhibit.

The many traboules (covered passageways) in Vieux Lyon once protected unfinished silk goods from the elements; they also worked as shortcuts, connecting the old town's three main north-south streets. Today, traboules provide a hide-and-seek opportunity to discover pastel courtyards, lovely loggias, and delicate arches.

After an exploration of Vieux Lyon, visitors have a fun assortment of museums to choose from. In a Renaissance mansion named for a wealthy merchant family, the Gadagne Museums offer two exhibits for one ticket price: a serious city history museum and a puppetry museum. The Museum of Fine Arts, in a former abbey on the Presqu'île, has an impressive collection, ranging from Egyptian antiquities to Impressionist paintings, and its inner courtyard is a pleasant place to take a peaceful break from city streets. Also on the Presqu'île are the Museums of Textiles and Decorative Arts, filling two buildings and sharing a courtyard.

On the east bank of the Rhône, the Resistance and Deportation History Center explains the clever strategies Lyon's Resistance members used to fight the Nazis during World War II, and the Lumière Museum is dedicated to the Lumière brothers' pivotal contribution to film. Nearby, Les Halles food market is a food festival — crammed with butchers, fishmongers, pastry specialists, cheese shops, and colorful produce stands, with food stands and mini restaurants mixed in.

Dining is one of the premier attractions in Lyon, which is regarded by many as France's foodie mecca — and, compared to Paris, the value is good. Here, great chefs are more famous than professional soccer players. Lyon's characteristic bouchons are small bistros that evolved from the time when Mama would feed the silk workers after a long day. The lively pedestrian streets of Vieux Lyon and Rue Mercière on the Presqu'île are bouchon bazaars, worth strolling even if you dine elsewhere. Though food quality may be better away from these popular restaurant rows, you can't beat the atmosphere.

After dinner, I like to go for a stroll to savor the city's famous illuminations. While Paris may call itself the "City of Light," Lyon is a leader in urban lighting design and hosts conventions on the topic. Each night, more than 200 buildings, sites, and public spaces are gloriously floodlit.

When I travel outside of Paris, I'm struck by all the wonders there are to enjoy in France. Lyon provides an elegant French urban scene — all with no hint of crass tourism.

Try some traditional cuisine in one of Lyon's 'bouchons' — simple, cozy bistros filled with character. (photo: Rick Steves)

Perched atop Lyon's Fourvière Hill, Notre-Dame Basilica has an interior covered with beautifully elaborate mosaics. (photo : Steve Smith)

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow his blog on Facebook.

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Experiencing Italy’s Renaissance in Person

Among the many things I love about Italy is how the Renaissance can be spliced into your travels. Imagine: In Florence you can sleep in a converted 16th-century monastery that's just a block from Michelangelo's David, around the corner from Brunelleschi's famous cathedral dome, and down the street from the tombs of the great Medici art patrons — and that's just for starters.

Before the Renaissance, Europeans spent about 1,000 years in a cultural slumber. Most art was made to serve the Church, and man played only a bit part — typically as a sinner. But around 1400, everything began changing.

The new "Renaissance Man" shaped his own destiny and was no longer a mere plaything of the supernatural. Belief in the importance of the individual skyrocketed, and life became much more than a preparation for the hereafter. This new "humanism" wasn't a repudiation of God; it was an understanding that the best way to glorify God was not to bow down in church all day long but to recognize the talents God gave you and use them.

And that's what the Renaissance Florentines were doing. Think of the extraordinary "class of 1500" living during that exciting time: Michelangelo was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo was hanging around with political bad boy Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli had the ear of power broker Lorenzo Medici the Magnificent. Lorenzo's son, Pope Leo X, gave big painting commissions to Raphael, who exchanged masterpieces with artist Albrecht Dürer in Germany. Dürer was personally converted to Protestantism by Martin Luther…who was excommunicated by Leo X…who had gone to school with Michelangelo.

Never before had artists been asked to do so much or given so much money and freedom. In the Middle Ages, unheralded craftsmen cranked out by-the-numbers religious art. During the Renaissance, artists no longer worked anonymously. The most successful ones — like Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael — achieved celebrity status, dictating their terms and creating as the spirit moved them.

Artists of the Renaissance deserved the respect they got. To create realistic paintings and statues, they merged art and science. They studied anatomy like doctors, nature like biologists, and the laws of perspective like mathematicians.

Enhanced by experiments with perspective, paintings became more true to life — and packed a bigger psychological punch. When you look at Leonardo's Last Supper, you don't think, "Isn't it amazing how the lines of perspective pull me right to the figure of Christ?" But subconsciously those lines powerfully direct your eye — and heart — to the center of the fresco, right to Jesus.

Leonardo — a sculptor, engineer, inventor, and scientist — typified the well-rounded Renaissance Man (and he wasn't a bad painter either). Indifferent to what his patrons thought, Leonardo often left projects undone. Of the few surviving paintings by his hand, two are unfinished — abandoned when something more interesting came along.

But Leonardo was far from a flake. From the notebooks he left behind, we see him as a keen observer and a fearless thinker: He dissected corpses, diagrammed the flight of birds, and formulated hypotheses about the movement of water.

Michelangelo was no less inventive than Leonardo, and he was equally famous. He split his time between Florence (his hometown) and Rome, where the money was. Over his long life, he ended up working for nine popes.

Michelangelo insisted he was a sculptor, not a painter. And though he preferred working in Florence, when Pope Julius II said, "Come to Rome and do a painting," he couldn't refuse. He spent years at the Vatican, frescoing the Sistine Chapel.

That chapel ceiling is the story of creation — and the essence of Renaissance humanism. When Michelangelo shows God giving Adam the spark of life, man is truly made in God's image, as glorious as his creator.

Raphael, the third of the big three, combined the quiet elegance of Leonardo with the raw power of Michelangelo. A bit of an upstart, Raphael rubbed elbows with his elder mentors in Florence for a time, but soon moved on to Rome.

There, the pope hired him to paint the walls of his library in the Vatican. In his huge fresco, called the School of Athens, Raphael celebrated the great pre-Christian thinkers — a shocking break from Church tradition. And to make the embrace of these once taboo figures even stronger, Raphael depicted the great thinkers of ancient Greece as the leading Renaissance artists and geniuses of his generation. Not only did Renaissance-era Italians appreciate the greats of the ancient world, they considered themselves in the same league. Renaissance humanism ruled.

Although the Italian Renaissance sputtered out by 1600, by then people from around the world were already coming to see its masterpieces. Especially in Italy today, visitors continue to set their sights on the great works of the cultural explosion that was the Renaissance.

Raphael's 'School of Athens' celebrates mankind's intellectual achievements and connection to the great minds of classical Greece. (photo: Rick Steves)

In the neighborhood around Florence's great cathedral, it's easy to time-travel back to the Renaissance period. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow his blog on Facebook.

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What’s New in Germany and the Netherlands for 2019

Germany is famously a work in progress — as is the nearby Netherlands — and that includes their sightseeing attractions. In 2019, there's good news and a few important warnings for the smart traveler.

To handle its ever-increasing number of visitors, Germany is busy renovating sights and transportation, beefing up security, and updating ticketing procedures for big attractions. For instance, in Berlin, advance tickets are now recommended for the DDR Museum, with displays about life in the former East Germany. The Museum Pass Berlin, which covers a number of top sights and lets travelers avoid long lines, now includes my favorite museum in town: the German History Museum.

While Berlin's famous Pergamon Altar (usually on display in the Pergamon Museum) is being restored, you can still see bits of it at a nearby temporary exhibit called "Pergamonmuseum — Das Panorama." The exhibit features a huge, wraparound painting of the city of Pergamon in AD 129, some original sculptures from the altar, the largest piece of the altar frieze, and digital 3-D models.

At Munich's Residenz Museum, the Halls of the Nibelungen (Nibelungensäle) — with mythological scenes that were the basis of Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen — have reopened after a 10-year renovation. Also in Munich, the Alte Pinakothek, a world-class collection of European masterpieces from the 14th to 19th century, has fully reopened after a long renovation. Now the Neue Pinakothek (paintings from 1800 to 1920) is closed for renovation for the next several years, but its highlights will be displayed at the neighboring Alte Pinakothek. (The nearby Glyptothek, with Greek and Roman statues, also remains closed.) Major transportation changes — including a new €4 billion S-Bahn tunnel and the renovation of Munich's main train station — will cause years of transit disruptions.

Visitors to "Mad" King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles in the Bavarian Alps must now pick up reserved tickets at least 1.5 hours before their tour time. Though it's best to book ahead, a percentage of castle tickets are set aside for in-person purchase, so if reservations sell out online, visitors can generally still get a ticket if they arrive early in the day.

Expect even more crowds in the Bavarian Alps in 2020, as the town of Oberammergau hosts the once-every-10-years Passion Play. Plan ahead — tickets are easiest to obtain in a one- or two-night package deal that includes hotel, ticket, dinner, and a shuttle.

In Frankfurt, rebuilding of the neighborhood recently rechristened as the "DomRömer Quarter," just off the central Römerberg square, is complete. This "new" development is actually a reconstruction of the half-timbered Old Town that had been destroyed during World War II.

In the Rhine River town of St. Goar, restoration at the mighty Rheinfels Castle means that parts of the grounds — including the tunnels — can only be seen with a guided tour (bring a flashlight for the dark tunnels). In Trier, the Karl Marx House now includes displays with a vibrant and thoughtful mix of historical artifacts, interactive exhibits, and contemporary art, which explain how the world impacted Marx and how he impacted the world.

There's also good news in 2019 about key cultural attractions in the Netherlands.

In Amsterdam, renovations are complete at the Anne Frank House. Tickets go on sale two months in advance, and are released gradually over the two-month period (if you miss out, keep checking back). If you can't get into the Anne Frank House (or don't want the bother of reserving), the Dutch Resistance Museum — just across town — is, for many, even more interesting (and never crowded). The Van Gogh Museum also has a new ticketing system: All visitors, even those using a sightseeing pass, must book a timed-entry slot online.

Just 30 minutes from Amsterdam, Haarlem is the hometown of Frans Hals, the portrait painter from the Netherlands' 17th-century Golden Age. While the main branch of the Frans Hals Museum still displays many of Hals' greatest paintings and works by other Dutch masters, a second venue is now open, covering modern art influenced by the Dutch master's themes and techniques.

Germany and the Netherlands are famous for being well organized. With more visitors than ever, each country is making sure those who know their options — and how to navigate the crowds — can enjoy the best experience.

Frankfurt's "new" Old Town, called the DomRömer Quarter, is a reconstruction of the half-timbered historic district destroyed during World War II. (photo: Rosie Leutzinger)

To venture into the tunnels at St. Goar's Rheinfels Castle, you'll now need to book a guided tour. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow his blog on Facebook.

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What’s New in France for 2019

France has a rich history, an impressive infrastructure, and a tourism industry trying valiantly to cope with its big crowds. Travelers who plan ahead enjoy big rewards.

Paris' most famous landmark, the Eiffel Tower, has a new look. A glass wall now rings its base for security reasons, with one access point at each side, meaning you can no longer wander freely under the tower. Visitors should allow an extra 30 minutes to go through screening. Also, summit tickets for the top are no longer available on the second level of the tower; it's smart to buy them online in advance.

Paris continues to upgrade its many marvelous exhibits. The Cluny Museum, with its famous "The Lady and the Unicorn" tapestries, is undergoing a multiyear, room-by-room renovation. Expect some changes and room closures until at least 2020.

The Parisian transportation system is also getting some improvements. After a century of paper tickets for the Métro and buses, smartcards are slowly taking over, including the Navigo Easy Pass, which is better for travelers, as it can be shared and topped up.

At the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, timed-entry tickets are now required for the tower climb, even if you have a Paris Museum Pass. Reservations are available only on the same day (starting at 7:30) on the JeFile app or at ticket machines on-site. Another Paris landmark, the towering, modern La Grande Arche de La Défense, has reopened, allowing visitors to take an elevator to the top. While it's pricey, and you can enjoy better views elsewhere, just visiting the La Défense district gets you into a fascinating slice of Paris that most tourists miss.

A new trend in Paris dining is "bus restaurants." Diners listen to soft jazz as they glide along Paris' most famous boulevards on an elegant double-decker bus. For about the same price as a dinner cruise in a boat on the Seine, you can dine for two hours with Paris rolling by outside your window.

Northwest of Paris, the towns of Normandy are getting ready to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings on June 6. Throngs of visitors will make this a difficult time to be there, and accommodations near the beaches are already booked up. Fortunately, in high season guided tours in English will be offered for free (or very cheap) at the following key WWII stops: Arromanches, Longues-sur-Mer, American Cemetery at Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc, Utah Beach Landing Museum, and Juno Beach Centre.

I love France's high-speed rail system, and now it's better than ever. With the completion of a high-speed line to the city of Rennes, the trip from Paris to the spectacular island monastery of Mont St-Michel now takes only three hours: about two hours on the train to Rennes and then an hour on a railway-run bus, which drops you right at the island's main gate.

There's also some good news for château lovers: Construction work is finally complete at the Loire Valley's Château d'Azay-le-Rideau, which is set on a romantic reflecting pond, with a fairy-tale facade and beautifully furnished rooms.

Like other popular destinations, France is dealing with the damaging effects of heavy tourism. In the Dordogne, the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume prehistoric cave — one of the only caves in France where you can see original drawings, not replicas — no longer accepts reservations, making it next to impossible to get in. Local guides may have access to tickets — contact a guide at least six months in advance. For a much less frustrating and equally impressive alternative, consider the replica caves at Lascaux.

To the south, in Nîmes, the Roman World Museum is finally open after a decades-long wait. High-tech exhibits show off 5,000 artifacts in an eye-catching state-of-the-art building next to the Roman arena. One of its strengths is its rich collection of Latin-inscribed stones and mosaics — some discovered when digging the museum's parking garage.

In the alpine resort of Chamonix, the valley's most spectacular lift, the Aguille du Midi cable car, takes you to magnificent views at 12,602 feet — and each year its popularity seems to climb as well. To beat the crowds (and afternoon clouds), it's best to ride the lift early — no later than 8:00 (reservations are unnecessary if you arrive at the lift before 7:30).

And in happy news for small, family-run hotels and bed-and-breakfasts — and for savvy budget-conscious travelers — French hotels listed on third-party booking websites no longer have to match those prices on their own websites, allowing them to offer lower rates or special upgrades if you book direct.

Equipping yourself with good information — and using it — will save you time and money. And that leaves you more time and money to enjoy the many attractions — historic, scenic, edible, and drinkable — that make France such a rewarding place to experience.

After several years of being covered in scaffolding, the Château d'Azay-le-Rideau has returned to its romantic glory. (photo: Rick Steves)

To get the best views on the Aguille du Midi gondola in the French Alps, try to be on board first thing in the morning. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow his blog on Facebook.

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What’s New in Spain and Portugal for 2019

Like many travelers, last spring I visited Barcelona dreaming of seeing Antoni Gaudí's breathtaking Sagrada Família church. When I got there, the ticket office was closed, with a posted sign: "No more tickets today. Buy your ticket for another day online." Thankfully, I'd known to book tickets in advance.

Along with Sagrada Família, Spain's sights to book ahead include Barcelona's Picasso Museum, La Pedrera, Casa Batlló, and Park Güell; the Palacios Nazaríes at the Alhambra in Granada; and the Royal Alcazar Moorish palace, Church of the Savior, and cathedral in Sevilla. Barcelona's Casa Amatller and Palace of Catalan Music, and Salvador Dalí's house in Cadaqués all require a guided tour, which also must be booked ahead. Advance tickets for the Dalí Theater-Museum in nearby Figueres are also a good idea. While it may be technically possible to buy tickets on-site, in my guidebooks I simply say you must reserve in advance. It's much smarter.

Barcelona continues to evolve. After a long renovation, the Maritime Museum has reopened, displaying 13th- to 18th-century ships (restoration continues on the later-century ships). The El Raval neighborhood is rising up as the new bohemian zone. While this area has rough edges, its recently reopened Sant Antoni market hall, new Museum of Contemporary Art, and pedestrian-friendly streets contribute to its boom of creative shops, bars, and restaurants.

In Spain's northern Basque country, San Sebastián's old tobacco factory has been converted into the free Tabakalera International Center for Contemporary Culture, hosting films and art exhibits — and knockout views from its roof terrace. In Pamplona, a new exhibit gives a behind-the-scenes look at the town's famous bullring.

In the south of Spain, the cathedral in Sevilla now runs rooftop tours, providing a better view — and experience — than its bell tower climb. In nearby Córdoba, you can now climb the bell tower at the Mezquita, the massive mosque-turned-cathedral. But Córdoba's 14th-century synagogue is closed for renovation.

Spain's transportation is also improving: Uber is now available in both Barcelona and Madrid. Madrid's Metro has a new rechargeable card system: A red Multi Card (tarjeta) is required to buy either a single-ride Metro ticket or 10-ride transit ticket. Spain's high-speed Alvia train now runs between Segovia and Salamanca in about 75 minutes, making it faster than driving.

Portugal has fewer blockbuster sights than Spain and nowhere near the crowds. The only sight where you might have a crowd problem is the Monastery of Jéronimos at Belém, just outside Lisbon proper (buy a combo-ticket at Belém's Archaeology Museum to avoid the ticket line at the monastery).

Riding in most of Lisbon's classic trolley cars — a quintessential Portuguese experience — can also be frustratingly crowded (and plagued by pickpockets targeting tourists). A less-crowded option is trolley line #24E — which is back in service after a decades-long hiatus. Although this route doesn't pass many top sights, you can see a slice of workaday Lisbon. (Or, better yet, get your trolley experience in Porto, which has almost no crowds.)

On my last visit I realized that Lisbon's beloved Alfama quarter — its Visigothic birthplace and once-salty sailors' quarter — is salty no more (except with the sweat of cruise groups hiking its now-lifeless lanes). The new colorful zone to explore is the nearby Mouraria, the historic tangled quarter on the back side of the castle. This is where the Moors lived after the Reconquista (when Christian forces retook the city from the Muslims). To this day, it's a gritty and colorful district of immigrants — but don't delay your visit, as it's starting to gentrify just like the Alfama has.

In other Lisbon news, the Museum of Ancient Art finished its top-floor renovation, and plans to renovate its second floor in 2020. One of the city's leading restaurants, Pap'Açôrda, has moved to the first floor in the Ribeira market hall (a.k.a. the Time Out Market). It's still recommended and still serving traditional Portuguese cuisine.

In the pilgrimage town of Fátima, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in 1917, the new Fátima Light and Peace Exhibition run by the Roman Catholic Church complements a visit to the basilica, and offers a more pleasing experience than its more commercial competitors.

In Coimbra, ticket options for the University of Coimbra sights, including the beautiful Baroque King João library, now cover the nearby and impressive Science Museum — go there first to buy your university tickets and book your required timed entry for the library.

In Porto, the Bolhão Market is closed for a much needed renovation until mid-2020. In the meantime, vendors are in the basement of a nearby department store…carrying on the warm shopper relationships that go back generations.

Spain and Portugal have a continually evolving sightseeing scene, so it's important to travel in 2019 with the latest information to get the most out of your experience.

Lisbon's trolleys can get unbearably crowded, so have a plan if you want to ride one. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

Book reserved-time tickets online as far ahead as possible for Granada's Alhambra to ensure that you'll see its best part: the exquisite Palacios Nazaríes. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow his blog on Facebook.

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The Pros and Cons of Cruising in Europe

Recently I was on a massive cruise ship with 3,000 passengers blitzing the great ports of the Mediterranean — and having lots of fun. No, I'm not suddenly abandoning my independent travel principles and becoming a huge proponent of cruising. But I am impressed by the economy, efficiency, and popularity of this kind of travel…and, to be honest, I enjoy cruising.

I'm the first to admit that cruising doesn't appeal to everyone. For some, it's anti-travel. For others, it's the perfect vacation.

On our ship, I met people who seemed to be having a great time…most of them veterans of many cruises. I also met lots of budget-conscious travelers who told me that a cruise (which includes transportation, lodging, and food for one discounted price) is a wonderful value.

The per-day base cost for mainstream cruises beats independent travel by a mile. For a weeklong European cruise, a couple can pay as little as $100 per person per night — that's less than most hotel rooms in London or Paris. To link all the places on your own — with hotels, rail passes, boat tickets, taxi transfers, restaurants, and so on — would add up fast. And you can't beat the convenience and efficiency of sleeping while you travel to your next destination.

There are some negatives. There's no denying that the cruising industry contributes to water, air, and marine-noise pollution — but technology and consumer pressure are helping a bit. Environmental responsibility is such a hot topic that all the large cruise lines have website sections where you can evaluate their efforts. (Of course, this info is also intended to help market their cruises.)

And what about the impact on local economies and communities? Cruising can trample towns with sightseers who leave almost no money (since they eat, sleep, and buy their tours on board). On the other hand, most of those communities view cruise ships as an economic boost — which explains why so many ports are investing in cruise-worthy piers and terminals.

Conscientious travelers also want to consider issues of economic justice. Critics point out that the industry is built on rich tourists being served by crew members from poor countries. But I've talked to many people who work on cruise ships, and they've told me that the income they earn on a ship is far more than any employment prospects they have back home. And the remarkable loyalty of numerous crew members (working many, many years for the same cruise line) says a lot about this working arrangement.

There's also diversity to this style of travel. Cruising can accommodate a family with vastly different travel philosophies. It's possible for Mom to go to the museum, Dad to lie by the pool, Sally to go snorkeling, Bobby to go shopping, Grandma and Grandpa to take in a show…and then all of them can have dinner together and swap stories about their perfect days. (Or, if they're really getting on each other's nerves, there's plenty of room on a big ship to spread out.)

Cruising is especially popular among retirees, particularly those with limited mobility. Cruising rescues you from packing up your bags and huffing to the train station every other day. Once on land, accessibility for wheelchairs and walkers can vary dramatically — though most cruise lines offer excursions specifically designed for those who don't get around well.

And yet, I still have reservations. Just as people trying to learn a language will do better by immersing themselves in that culture than by sitting in a classroom for a few hours, I believe that travelers in search of engaging, broadening experiences should eat, sleep, and live Europe. Good or bad, cruising insulates you from Europe. If the taxi drivers in Naples are getting a little too pushy, you can simply retreat to the comfort of 24-hour room service, American sports on the TV, and a boatload of people who speak English. It's fun — but is it Europe?

Cruising might not be for everyone. But neither is my style of travel. And at least cruising gets people (who might otherwise stay home) out interacting with the world. Many of the people I met on my last cruise were enjoying (and benefiting from) the chance to broaden their perspective through travel…even if tethered to a big floating chunk of America.

Let's face it: Americans have the shortest vacations in the rich world. Some choose to dedicate their valuable time off to all-inclusive, resort-style vacations in Florida, Hawaii, the Caribbean, or Mexico: swimming pools, song-and-dance shows, shopping, and all-you-can-eat buffets. Cruising lets you toggle back and forth between the floating American-style resort each evening and a different European adventure each day. If you know how to use your time on shore smartly, it can be the best of both worlds. Bon voyage!

Cruising might not be for everyone, but it's an economic, efficient, and popular of mode of travel in Europe and beyond. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

Cruise staff prepare quality dishes that would cost a pretty penny in a top-end restaurant--but the food still pales compared with meals you can get in port, lovingly prepared with local recipes. (photo: Trish Feaster)

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow his blog on Facebook.

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