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Bath’s Easy Urban Delights

England's best city within two hours of London is beautiful, historic Bath. The city is popular and expensive, but it's a joy to visit. And rather than deal with London's intensity right off the bat, I like to take the train from the airport to London's Paddington Station and then hop on a connection to this more relaxed and elegant example of urban England.

Bath was a joy even in ancient Roman times, when patricians soaked in the city's mineral springs. From Londinium (today's London), Romans traveled so often to "Aquae Sulis," as the city was called, to "take a bath" that finally it became known simply as "Bath." Today, a fine museum surrounds the ancient bathing site. With the help of a great audioguide, visitors can wander past well-documented displays, Roman artifacts, excavated foundations, and the actual mouth of the health-giving spring.

Bath later prospered as a wool town, building its grand abbey about 500 years ago — the last great medieval church built in England. The abbey's facade features a very literal Jacob's Ladder — with angels going up…and down. The interior has breezy fan vaulting and is lit with enough stained glass that it feels like the inside of a giant lantern.

By the middle of the 1600s, Bath's heyday had passed, and its population dropped to about 1,500 people — just a huddle of huts at the base of the abbey. Then, in 1687, King James II's wife, Queen Mary, struggling with infertility, came here and bathed. Within about 10 months she gave birth to a son. A few decades later, her stepdaughter Queen Anne came here to treat her gout. With all this royal interest, Bath was reborn as a resort.

Most of the buildings you'll see in Bath today are from the 18th century — the cityscape is a triumph of the Neoclassical style that dominated the Georgian era, most of it built from the same honey-colored limestone. Free, fascinating town walks are offered every day by volunteers who bring to life highlights of this Georgian heritage — such as the Circus and Royal Crescent building complexes.

The Circus is like a coliseum turned inside out, with Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian capital decorations that pay homage to its Greco-Roman origin — a reminder that Bath (with its seven hills) aspired to be "the Rome of England." About a block away, the Royal Crescent is a long, graceful arc of buildings — impossible to see in one glance unless you step way back to the edge of the park in front. You can go inside one of these classy facades at No. 1 Royal Crescent, now a museum where you can see how the wealthy lived in 18th-century Bath.

During the Georgian era, Bath was the trendsetting Tinseltown of Britain, where the filthy rich went to escape the filthy cities. A professional gambler named Beau Nash followed his clients (and their money) to this resort town — and then acted as its one-man tourism promotion department. He organized daily activities, did matchmaking, and helped spiff up the city. Today, his statue stands above the Roman baths.

You can see how natty Georgian-era folks dressed at the Fashion Museum — which exhibits historic garments from every era since the days when there were no right or left shoes, all the way up to the present. A major feature of the museum is the "Dress of the Year" display, ongoing since 1963. Above the Fashion Museum, you can view the city's historic Assembly Rooms, where card games, concerts, tea, and dances were held (before fancy hotels with grand public spaces made them obsolete).

After a day of sightseeing, street theater is a fun evening option and a ritual for me in Bath. The best hour and a half of laughs I've had anywhere in Britain is on the Bizarre Bath Comedy Walk. They promise to include "absolutely no history or culture" during their wander of Bath's back lanes. Listening to the guides is always a delight — they may tell the same old jokes, but they're spiced up with a sharp, ad-lib wit that plays off the international crowd.

I also enjoy the Thermae Bath Spa, particularly during chilly evening visits, when Bath's twilight glows through the steam from the rooftop pool. It's pricey, but it's the only natural thermal spa in the UK, and your one chance to actually bathe in Bath.

Another of my favorite cappers for a day in Bath is heading to a pub to have scrumpy — "hard hard cider." It's notoriously strong: When I last ordered it, everyone stopped what they were doing just to see what would happen.

From its evening indulgences to its elegant architecture, Bath combines beauty and hospitality better than most. It's a place drenched in history, but made for relaxation.

The ancient Roman spa that gave Bath its name is the town's sightseeing centerpiece, with temple remains and a fine museum. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

To imagine you're one of Bath's upper crust, cruise along the Circus, stately buildings that evoke the wealth and gentility of the town's glory days. (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 Lessons of Verdun

November 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I — "the war to end all wars," which cost an estimated 40 million lives. While there are no more survivors to share their stories first-hand, WWI sights and memorials scattered across Europe, especially in France and Belgium, do their best to keep the devastation from fading from memory.

Perhaps the most powerful WWI sightseeing experience is located about 140 miles east of Paris at the battlefields of Verdun. It was here in 1916 that roughly 300,000 lives were lost in what's known as the Battle of 300 Days and Nights. The longest single battle of World War I, it left the landscape barren for decades. Today, the traces of war are buried under thick forests, the soldiers' vast network of communication trenches overgrown — and haunted by their ghosts.

Plenty of rusty battle remnants and memorials are still accessible. A string of battlefields can be found along an eight-mile stretch of road outside the town of Verdun. From here it's possible to see (with a guided tour, rental car, shuttle bus, or taxi) the most important sights and appreciate the horrific scale of the battle.

You can ride through the eerie moguls left by the incessant shelling, pause at melted-sugar-cube forts, ponder plaques marking spots where towns once existed, and visit a vast cemetery.

To get a good overview, start at the Verdun Memorial Museum, which delivers gripping exhibits about the battle (with lots of information in English). The museum is rich in artifacts and works to pair German and French objects; for example, you'll see a circa 1916 loaded-up German rucksack right next to a French one.

In one part of the museum, a battlefield replica — complete with mud, shells, trenches, and WWI military equipment — is visible through the glass floor. You can learn about medical help in the trenches and leaps in technology (from X-ray machines to machine guns with synchronized firing, which prevented bullets from hitting airplane propeller blades). I found out that the majority of injuries in this battle weren't caused by machine-gun bullets, but by shrapnel: Every time an artillery shell exploded, jagged bits of the shell's casing sprayed like buckshot. On both sides, most men died without ever seeing the enemy.

Another key sight for visitors is Fort Douaumont, just northeast of Verdun. Constructed in 1885, the fort was the most important stronghold among 38 hilltop fortifications that protected France from a German invasion. Built on top of and into the hillside, it ultimately served as a strategic command center for both Germany and France at various times. Soldiers were protected by a thick layer of sand (to muffle explosions) and a wall of concrete five to seven feet thick. Visitors today can experience these corridors, where soldiers were forced to live like moles, scurrying through two miles of cold, damp hallways.

Visitors can also climb to the bombed-out top of the fort to see the round, iron gun emplacements that could rise and revolve. The massive central gun turret was state-of-the-art in 1905, antiquated in 1915, and essentially useless by the time the war arrived in 1916. From the perch at the top, looking out at fields leading to Germany and imagining the carnage in that horrible battle is an unforgettable experience. On the battlefield nearby, a young French officer named Charles de Gaulle was wounded; he spent the next 32 months as a German POW.

The nearby Douaumont Ossuary is the tomb of unknown French and German soldiers who perished in Verdun's muddy trenches. In the years after the war, a local bishop wandered through fields of bones — the remains of about 130,000 unidentified soldiers. Concluding that they deserved a respectful final resting place, he began raising money for the project — which was officially inaugurated in 1927. The building has 46 granite vaults, each holding remains from different sectors of the battlefield. The unusual artillery-shell-shaped tower and cross design of this building symbolizes war…and peace (imagine a sword plunged into the ground up to its hilt).

For all that's sobering to remember here, these Verdun memorials also offer visitors something beautiful to see: German, French, and European flags wave alongside each other, as if to exclaim, "We learned, and we won't do this again." Say what you like about the European Union, it's hard to deny what a great accomplishment it has been to weave together the economies of two historic enemies — and foster the empathy that comes with getting to know each other. In 1914, most French soldiers had never met a German, and vice versa — making it all too easy to carelessly kill each other. Thanks in large part to the EU, we live in a different world today, built on a solid foundation for maintaining European peace — a lesson that bears repeating as we mark the end of the Great War.

The Douaumont Ossuary holds the remains of more than 130,000 unknown French and German soldiers from the WWI battle in Verdun, France. (photo: Rick Steves)

In northeastern France, visitors can explore Fort Douaumont, with its miles of cold, damp tunnels built to avoid enemy artillery. The fort played a key role in the WWI Battle of Verdun. (photo: Rick Steves)

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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Nature and Romance in Italy’s Lakes District

Northern Italy's seductively beautiful lakes district — in the shadow of the Alps — seems heaven-sent for communing with nature. Though just an hour north of Milan, this area feels a world away from the business and bustle of Italy's second city.

In this romantic region, wistful 19th-century villas are overgrown with old vines that seem to ache with stories to tell. Stunted palm trees appear to be held against their will in this northern location. And vistas are made-to-order for poets. In fact, it was early nature lovers who wrote and painted here and put this area on the tourist map in the 1800s.

Tourists have several lakes to choose from, and all have their charms — especially Lake Garda and Lake Maggiore. But my favorite is Lake Como, offering the best mix of accessibility, scenery, sightseeing, and relaxation, with a heady whiff of aristocratic old days.

Lake Como is lined with luxurious villas, crowned by snowcapped mountains, and busy with fleets of little ferries darting from one cute town to another. The most famous town is Bellagio, the self-proclaimed "Pearl of the Lake" — a combination of old-world classiness and new-world luxury. Steep steps rise from the harborfront up to a smattering of sun-splashed squares. With spendy five-star hotels and high-end shopping, Bellagio pleases well-heeled travelers.

While a part of me enjoys the "tramp in a palace" feeling I get in Bellagio, my ideal Lake Como home is Varenna. Easily accessible by train from Milan, Varenna packs its 800 residents into a compact townscape on the less-developed side of the lake. Individual homes are defined only by their pastel colors, and the old town has no streets — just characteristic stepped lanes. The passerella — a lakeside promenade connecting the ferry dock with the old town center — is a fine place to stroll.

On Lake Como, villas face the lake with front doors that welcome visitors arriving by boat (and ferries arriving from Bellagio and Varenna). Many villas are owned by the region's "impoverished nobility." Bred and raised not to work, they eventually were unable to pay for the upkeep of their sprawling houses. While some villas have been bought by the region's nouveaux riches, others have been transformed into hotels or sightseeing attractions.

For garden lovers, Villa Carlotta is the best — especially in spring, when many of its flowers are in peak bloom. But the dreamiest estate is Villa del Balbianello, which perches on a promontory near the village of Lenno and was featured in the movies Casino Royale and Star Wars: Episode II. Built at the end of the 18th century on the remains of an old Franciscan church, the villa reflects the exotic vision of its last owner, explorer Guido Monzino. The real masterpiece here is the terraced garden and splendid loggia, where the land fits the architecture and landscaping in a particularly lovely way.

Though it lacks the cozy charm of Lake Como, Lake Maggiore is a suitable backup destination. The best part of any visit here is a wander through the exotic gardens and elaborate villas built by the wealthy Borromeo family, who lovingly turned several of the lake's islands into retreats.

Your handy transportation hub for these islands is the resort town of Stresa. While I find it generally lacking in character, it does have a fine waterfront promenade and stately 19th-century lakeside hotels dating back to when this town was on the Grand Tour circuit. Stresa is famous for its Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees, which served as an infirmary during World War I, hosting a recovering Ernest Hemingway. The writer later returned to the hotel, setting part of his novel A Farewell to Arms here.

But Stresa is mainly worthwhile as a jumping-off point for Lake Maggiore's garden islands. The best one is Isola Bella, dominated by a palatial villa boasting a grand hall with an 80-foot-high dome, paintings from the Borromeo family's private collection, and an 18th-century grotto, decorated from ceiling to floor with shell motifs and black-and-white stones. The terraced Baroque gardens, with the Borromeo family unicorn sitting on top, give the island the look of a stepped pyramid from the water.

The other main Borromean islands are Isola Madre, featuring the first Borromeo palace — dark and somber with a huge collection of dolls, marionettes, and exquisite 17th-century marionette theater sets — and Isola Pescatori, the smallest and most residential of the three, with a couple of seafood restaurants, picnic benches, views, and, blissfully, little else to do.

While you can visit Italy's lakes as a day trip from Milan, I recommend spending the night. You'll really feel the romance of Europe. Make it a point to stroll a waterfront promenade. As you pass under wisteria-drenched villas and caryatid lovers pressed silently against each other, you'll understand the importance of packing the right travel partner.

The town of Varenna on Lake Como is the perfect place to savor a lakeside meal or aperitivo. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

Villa del Balbianello, the home of explorer Guido Monzino and the setting of several Hollywood movies, perches dreamily over Lake Como. (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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In Studio: Roaming the Homes of Europe’s Top Artists

As a traveler, I find myself visiting the homes of lots of dead people. Some are over the top (Louis XIV's Versailles near Paris); some are haunting (the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam); others inspire poetic reflection (William Wordsworth's Dove Cottage in England's Lake District).

Many of my favorites are the home studios of artists — painters, sculptors, writers, architechts, composers. There's something about these special places that conjures the strange magic of creative work. Luckily for travelers, many have become museums that welcome visitors.

Perhaps the most high profile of Europe's home studios is Claude Monet's. The spiritual father of Impressionism, Monet spent 40 years cultivating his garden and his art at Giverny, 50 miles northwest of Paris.

Monet's actual sky-lighted studio is now a gift shop, but the artist's real workspace was his five-acre garden. A master of color, Monet treated his garden like a canvas, choosing and planting his peonies, irises, and lavender bushes for maximum effect. In turn, the flower beds inspired some of his most iconic artworks. He often painted en plein air — outside — sometimes on a footbridge that overlooked a Japanese-style pond choked with his precious water lilies. Strolling the pathways here is like witnessing an Impressionist painting come to life.

The concept of the artist's studio got its start in the Renaissance, when established masters maintained art workshops and taught apprentices. When Florence's city fathers started building a new cathedral in the late 1200s, they founded the Opera del Duomo (Cathedral Workshop), where the sculptures for the church and its bell tower were crafted (opera is the Italian word for "work").

Renaissance greats, such as Brunelleschi (who designed the cathedral's dome) and the sculptor Donatello, put in time there. Remarkably, the "opera" continues today within steps of the landmark cathedral, on the appropriately named Via dello Studio. Through the open doorway, you can see today's masters sculpting replacement statues and restoring old ones to keep the cathedral's art in good repair.

Over time, the typical studio became less a communal workshop and more a place of solo industry and reflection. Norway's greatest composer, Edvard Grieg, maintained just such a classic artist's retreat. He spent his last 22 summers, until 1907, at the Victorian-style home he called Troldhaugen, just outside Bergen. Quiet, lush, and secluded, the dreamy setting was ideal for soaking up inspirational fjord beauty.

But the house was often bursting with family and friends. To counteract the constant hubbub, Grieg built a simple, one-room studio at the water's edge, and every day he'd lock himself inside to be sure he'd get something done. The cabin had everything he needed, and no more: an upright piano, a desk overlooking the water, and a couch for naps. Gazing at his rustic desk, his little piano, and the dramatic fjord scenery out the window, you can understand how Grieg's music so powerfully evokes the natural wonder of Norway.

Artists from as far back as the Baroque era had figured out that the studio could double as a sales room. When Rembrandt's career took off in Golden Age Amsterdam, the great Dutch painter moved to an expensive home with a well-lighted studio. He would paint his famous Night Watch here, among many other masterpieces.

The artist lined the walls floor-to-ceiling with his paintings, and then invited potential patrons in to browse. Opening up the studio turned out to be good for business, so much so that Rembrandt also had a small office to keep up with his paperwork. (He wasn't terribly good at it, and eventually went bankrupt.) If you visit his reconstructed house today, you can see how he used its rooms to display art to potential buyers.

Perhaps the most unusual home studio I've toured is Salvador Dalí's place near Cadaqués, Spain (an easy day trip from Barcelona). As a kid, Dalí spent summers in this sleepy port town, and the eccentric artist came back years later with his wife, Gala. Together, they built a labyrinthine compound that climbs up a hill overlooking the Mediterranean.

Like Dalí's art, his home is offbeat, provocative, and fun. The eccentric ambience, inside and out, was perfect for a Surrealist hanging out with his creative playmate and muse. This place, and his partnership with Gala, became so important to Dalí that when she died in 1982, he moved away and never returned (he died in 1989).

Since then, everything in their home has been kept more or less as they left it, from playfully stuffed animals and mustachioed paintings to the couple's phallic-shaped swimming pool, the scene of orgiastic parties. In Dalí's studio, with its big windows drinking in light from the sea and sky, he painted for eight hours a day (he had cleverly innovated an easel that could be raised and lowered so he could staying seated while painting). Dalí lived large, but he worked hard, too.

Whether you're indulging in a fantasy in Dalí-land or floating serenely above Monet's water lilies, a trip to an artist's home studio can be a memorable highlight of any trip to Europe.

Composer Edvard Grieg retreated daily to this picture-perfect studio on a Norwegian fjord. (photo: Rick Steves)

Florence's Opera del Duomo workshop-studio has been going strong since the 13th century. (photo: Gene Openshaw)

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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Book Smart When Looking for Lodging in Europe

I used to travel with absolutely no hotel reservations. Europe 30 years ago was relatively ramshackle, things were cheaper, and because fewer people could afford to travel for fun, I faced much less competition for budget rooms. I could make decisions on the go, show up in a new town, and improvise my accommodations. But the tourism boom and rise of the Internet have changed everything. Today, booking hotels in advance is a critical part of trip planning — and a fun way to tap into the local scene before you even leave home.

If flexibility isn't a concern, book your rooms as soon as your itinerary is set. To get my pick of characteristic, family-run hotels in the heart of a town, I reserve several weeks — or even months — in advance. It's especially important to reserve as early as possible for stays that fall on holidays, during big festivals, and in peak season. In popular cities — such as London, Paris, Madrid, and Venice — it's smart to book far in advance year-round.

While a trusted guidebook remains the best place to start your search for a great place to stay, online tools such as booking sites and user reviews have improved some aspects of hotel hunting. Take advantage of their pluses — and be wise to their downsides.

Booking Sites

Hotel booking websites, such as Booking.com and Hotels.com, offer one-stop shopping for hotels. While convenient for travelers, they present a real problem for small, independent, family-run hotels. Without a presence on these sites, these hotels become almost invisible. But to be listed, a hotel must pay a sizeable commission…and promise that its own website won't undercut the price on the booking-service site.

Here's the work-around: Use the big sites to research what's out there, then book direct with the hotel by email or phone, in which case owners are free to give you whatever price they like. I usually ask for a room without the commission mark-up (or for a free breakfast or a free upgrade). Hoteliers are more likely to accommodate any special needs or requests if you're in touch with them directly. If you do book online, be sure to use the hotel's website. The price will likely be the same as via a booking site, but your money goes to the hotel, not to agency commissions.

As a savvy consumer, remember: When you book with an online booking service, you're adding a middleman who takes roughly 20 percent. To support small, family-run hotels whose world is more difficult than ever, book direct. I prefer that my hardworking hosts pocket the full value of my stay.

User Reviews

User-generated review sites and apps such as Yelp and TripAdvisor can give you a range of opinions about everything from hotels and restaurants to sights and nightlife. If you scan reviews of a hotel and see several complaints about noise or a rotten location, you've gained insight that can help in your decision-making.

With any crowdsourcing platform, take the reviews with a grain of salt — and watch out for fake reviews. Keep in mind that a user-generated review is based on the limited experience of one person, who stayed at just one hotel in a given city and ate at a few restaurants there. Though these evaluations aren't always the most well-informed or objective, they can still be helpful to gauge the amenities, service, and quirks of a place. If something is well reviewed in a reliable guidebook — and it also gets good online reviews — it's likely a winner.

Short-Term Rental Sites

Rental juggernaut Airbnb (along with other short-term rental sites) allows travelers to rent rooms and apartments directly from locals, often providing more value than a cookie-cutter hotel. Airbnb fans appreciate feeling part of a real neighborhood and getting into a daily routine as "temporary Europeans." Depending on the host, staying in an Airbnb can provide an opportunity to get to know a local person, while keeping the money spent on your accommodations in the community.

But critics view Airbnb as a threat to "traditional Europe," saying it creates unfair, unqualified competition for established guesthouse owners. In some places, the lucrative Airbnb market has forced traditional guesthouses out of business and is driving property values out of range for locals. Some cities have cracked down on the trend — many now require owners to occupy rental properties part of the year, and often stage disruptive "inspections" that inconvenience guests.

As a lover of Europe, I share the worry of those who see residents nudged aside by tourists. But as an advocate for travelers, I appreciate the value and cultural intimacy Airbnb provides.

With the right online resources, booking ahead is an easy and reliable way to ensure your trip is organized and takes full advantage of Europe's warm hospitality. You'll enjoy the peace of mind of a well-curated itinerary, and when you touch down in Europe, you'll have more time to experience its spontaneous charms.

Do your research on the big aggregator sites, but then book directly with a family-run hotel for a glimpse into the local culture. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

User-generated reviews can help you find an authentic, welcoming place in the heart of town — such as this hotel rooftop in Tangier — if you know how to sift through a wide variety of opinions. (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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The Highlights of Happening Helsinki

Helsinki — Europe's youngest and northernmost capital city — feels like an outpost of Europe. While it lacks the cutesy cobbles of Copenhagen, the aristocratic setting of Stockholm, or the futuristic vibe of Oslo, Helsinki holds its own among Nordic capitals with its creative spirit, zest for architecture and design, and a steamy love of saunas.

Perhaps the best way to understand Helsinki's origins is to take the short ferry ride across the harbor to the island-fortress of Suomenlinna (now a popular park). Little Finland was long caught up in the superpower chess moves of its big neighbors, Sweden and Russia. The Swedes dominated the country from medieval times until 1809, when they lost it to the Russians, who held it until 1917.

The Swedes built Suomenlinna in the mid-1700s to counter Russia's rising power. Peter the Great had just created his new capital nearby, at St. Petersburg, and he was eyeing the West. With five miles of walls and hundreds of cannons guarding the harbor, Suomenlinna squelched the Russian threat (at least for the time being). With all that activity, small-time Helsinki took off, becoming a boomtown in support of the grand strategic fort.

Helsinki is buffered by more than 300 islands, and its harbor is always busy. Frequent passenger ferries cross the Baltic Sea from Stockholm, Tallinn, and even St. Petersburg. The arrival of cruise ships — sliding through tight passages between the surrounding islands — energizes the city each day. Mighty ice breakers moored in their summer slumber are the only reminder of the bitter Baltic winters.

Almost everything worth seeing is walkable from the harbor. Most visitors head directly to Helsinki's fun harbor square, called Kauppatori. This colorful outdoor food bazaar is the place in town for a casual, quick-and-cheap lunch (moose meatballs are a favorite). Everyone from the Finnish president to visiting tourists stops by for a dash of local flavor.

Daily bus tours run from the docks for a rapid-fire overview of Finnish history and a quick look at the top monuments and churches. Or you can stretch your legs along Helsinki's grand boulevard, the Esplanade, leading from the water into town. With wide sidewalks and a friendly park sandwiched in the middle, this is the city's best stroll for window shopping, people watching, and sun worshiping.

Then delve into the boutiques of the Design District for some of Europe's most eye-pleasing fashion and home decor. A surprising number of global trends — from Marimekko's patterned fabrics to Nokia's pioneering mobile phones to the Angry Birds gaming empire — have been born right here in design-conscious Helsinki. (The local Design Museum displays these innovations and more.)

Helsinki is famous for its 20th-century architecture, from its central train station, an Art Nouveau masterpiece by Eliel Saarinen, to the modernist simplicity of the Finlandia concert hall by Alvar Aalto. The city also boasts beautiful and diverse churches: the gleaming white Lutheran Cathedral, a Neoclassical gem; the red-brick Russian Orthodox Cathedral, a reminder of Russia's long dominance here; and the underground Temppeliaukio Church, blasted out of solid granite and capped by a copper and glass dome.

There's also the little Kamppi Chapel. Sitting unassumingly on a city plaza, the spruce structure encloses a windowless cylinder of silence. Inside, indirect light bathes the alder-wood paneling in warmth and tranquility. Does it resemble Noah's Ark? The inside of an egg? Although it's a church, there are no services; it's open to anyone needing a reflective pause.

Overall, I find Finns to be pretty quiet and contemplative. I once wandered into a flea market in Helsinki, closed my eyes, and listened to the soundtrack of 300 Finns. It was almost silent — I could have been in a mountain meadow. So I was surprised to discover the Finnish love affair with lotteries and gambling. Slot machines and games of chance are everywhere, including restaurants and supermarkets, manned by Finns eagerly stuffing in coins. There's even a roulette lounge at the Helsinki Airport.

A more traditional touchstone of Finnish culture is the sauna. These days, with so many Finns affluent enough to have saunas in their homes (5.4 million Finns have 3.3 million saunas), some of the working-class spots I've long enjoyed have gone upscale. The chic Löyly complex is typical of the new trend, with its saunas finely crafted from warm woods, a restaurant serving fashionable Nordic cuisine, and a seaside terrace for lounging.

Helsinki seems designed to promote a sense of community, and when the weather warms, everyone takes full advantage. The city blooms with bikers, picnickers, runners, and walkers, and cafés push their tables out to the sidewalk. Café Kappeli, an Old World oasis of pastry and relaxation, sits proudly at the harbor's edge. It's the perfect spot to sip a coffee while waiting for your ship, already savoring your Helsinki memories.

Helsinki grew up around its busy harbor, overlooked by the gleaming white Lutheran Cathedral. (photo: Rick Steves)

Meditative spirituality and modern architecture converge beautifully in Helsinki's Kamppi Chapel. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

Suomenlinna Fortress — the second mightiest fort of its kind in Europe after Gibraltar — boasts five miles of walls and hundreds of cannon. (photo: Rick Steves)

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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Europe’s Wall-to-Wall History

I'm so glad borders and walls are out of fashion in Europe. The continent's many proud nations don't always get along, but they have learned to respect each other — making it possible for peace to flourish.

Historically, though, Europe has a rich past when it comes to wall building. At one point or another, most of Europe's great cities — Paris, London, Rome, Florence, Milan, Barcelona, Vienna, and many more — were all contained within walls, constructed during ancient and medieval times to defend against invaders. Most of these walls were torn down long ago to allow cities to expand beyond their historic centers. But some remain intact and well-preserved; in places like Dubrovnik (Croatia), Rothenburg (Germany), and Carcassonne (France), visitors can actually stroll atop these city walls.

One of my favorite ancient wall experiences is Hadrian's Wall, the remains of the fortification built by the Romans occupying Britain nearly 2,000 years ago. This great stone wall stretched 73 miles from coast to coast across the narrowest part of northern England, where Britannia stopped and the barbarian land that would someday be Scotland began.

More than just a simple barrier, Hadrian's Wall was a cleverly designed military rampart manned by 20,000 troops. At every mile there was a small fort guarding a gate. In recent decades, two of these forts have been turned into museums, where visitors can see the ruins up close, view ancient artifacts, and get a sense of life in this distant corner of Europe. Pondering these desolate ruins, you can imagine the bleakness of being a young Roman soldier stationed here centuries ago.

Hadrian's Wall is also much loved by hikers, who enjoy following the wall as it meanders up and down the natural contours of the land. For years, I never ventured beyond the museums and car-park viewpoints. But on a recent visit, I finally had time on a sunny late afternoon to hike the wall. Scrambling along Roman ruins, all alone with the sound of the wind, I took a moment to just absorb the setting — surveying vast expanses from rocky crags that seemed to rip across the island like a snapshot freezing some horrific geological violence in mid-action.

While a visit to Hadrian's Wall is intriguing, for me, the most poignant and memorable wall experiences are those from Europe's recent past. These walls — once produced out of fear and intolerance, now symbolize peace and progress.

For example, during the Troubles — the 30-year conflict that wracked Northern Ireland — so-called "peace walls" went up all over Belfast to separate the two sectarian communities — Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Unionists. But now, instead of helping to keep the peace by segregating the two groups, these walls offer a place for visitors to leave messages of hope.

Like the peace walls in Belfast, the Lennon Wall in Prague is slathered in graffiti and ideas about peace, love, and freedom. Back in Cold War times, when the Czech people were like birds locked in a cage, John Lennon and the Beatles' song lyrics gave them hope and vision. When Lennon was killed in 1980, this large wall near the Charles Bridge was spontaneously covered with memorial graffiti. Night after night, the police would paint over the "All You Need Is Love" and "Imagine" graffiti. And day after day, it would reappear. Today the wall remains a colorful and nostalgic place to visit.

Of course, the most famous wall from Cold War times is the 96-mile-long barrier that was built in 1961, encircling West Berlin and making it an island of freedom in communist East Germany. While most of the Wall was torn down decades ago, remnants remain, including at the Berlin Wall Memorial, where a long stretch has been preserved as a memorial to the victims of the Cold War.

The memorial features two museums and a long, narrow park that runs for nearly a mile alongside the most complete surviving stretch of the wall. The park is dotted with memorials and information displays, and occupies what was once the notorious "death strip" — the no-man's-land between East and West where an obstacle course of barbed wire, tire-spike strips, and other devices was designed to stop would-be escapees.

The memorial ends at the Mauerpark (Mauer is German for "wall"). Standing on a ridge next to a fragment of the Wall on a recent sunny Sunday, I survey the scene. The death strip now hosts the world's biggest karaoke party, kids run around the playground — and the Wall is now a canvas for spray-painters.

I've seen a lot of walls in my travels, and they're always a thought-provoking experience. They're also a hopeful reminder that while struggles remain, Europe has tackled differences — by tearing down walls and instead building bridges between its diverse citizens.

Wandering the ruins of Hadrian's Wall is a highlight of any visit to northern England. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

A few stretches of the Berlin Wall still stand, such as in the Mauerpark, where artists continue to leave their mark. (photo: Rick Steves)

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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