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Once the Sun Goes Down, Venice Shines

I love Venice at night, and recently, I was reminded why. The evening started at one of my favorite Venice restaurants. The chef served up a seafood bounty from the lagoon, accompanied by deliciously grilled local vegetables and polenta. After dinner, twinkling from my sprightly Venetian white wine, I wandered through the tangle of back lanes, musty with history, pausing on lonely bridges to watch gondolas glide silently by. Finally, I turned the corner onto St. Mark's Square — perhaps the most beloved square in all of Europe, where the age-old glories of Venice still swirl. The lights were on, and the arrival of aqua alta (high water) had flooded the square, creating an array of reflections.

While Venice's splendid decay is undeniably charming by day, it's especially memorable after dark. Near the end of the day, the stifling crowds thin out as hordes of day tourists retreat to their cruise ships and mainland hotels. Then, as the sun goes down, a cool breeze blows in from the lagoon, the lanterns come on, the peeling plaster glows in the moonlight, and Venice resumes its position as Europe's most romantic city.

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Britain’s Royal Residences: Where the Queen Cools Her Crown

Chances are you weren't invited to the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle — neither was I — but that doesn't mean you can't visit Windsor Castle, where it happened, or other royal residences in Great Britain. In addition to Windsor Castle, London's Kensington, Buckingham, and Hampton Court palaces — and the more remote Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands — are great places to put yourself in royal shoes for a day.

British royalty has been calling Windsor home since the days of William the Conqueror — almost a thousand years ago — who built the first fortified castle on a chalk hill above the Thames. Later kings added on to his early designs, rebuilding and expanding the castle and surrounding gardens. Today it's the favored castle of Queen Elizabeth II, who considers Windsor her primary residence. She generally hangs her crown here on weekends, using it as an escape from her workaday grind at Buckingham Palace.

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Berlin Escapes: Three Easy Day Trips

Berliners joke that they don't need to travel anywhere because their city's always changing. And while you could spend weeks in Berlin and not run out of things to do, if you're in town for at least a few days it's worth considering visits to some nearby sights. Recently I tried out three easy day trips from the German capital.

First I spent half a day at Frederick the Great's opulent palace playground at Potsdam. Next, for a small-town experience that packs a huge historical wallop, I headed about an hour south to Wittenberg, where Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to a church door. And, on the opposite side of Berlin — and the sightseeing spectrum — I made a journey to the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, which commemorates the tens of thousands who died at this concentration camp during the Holocaust.

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Wrecks, Rafts, and Replicas: Scandinavia’s Remarkable Maritime Museums

Scandinavia's Viking days may be long gone, but its legacy of maritime exploration (and plunder) continues to capture our imagination. Tap into the region's seafaring heritage by visiting excellent museums in Stockholm, Oslo, and just outside Copenhagen.

Scandinavia's entrance into civilized Europe was swift and dramatic. On June 8, 793, a fleet of pirates came ashore on the northeast coast of England and sacked the Lindisfarne monastery, slaughtering monks, burning buildings, and looting sacred objects. Their victims called them "Normanni," "Dani," "Rus" — or worse — but the name they gave themselves came from the inlets and bays (vik) where they lived: the Vikings.

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Strasbourg: The Bicultural Crossroads of Europe

Nestled on the Rhine across the border from Germany, Strasbourg offers your best chance to experience the urban side of France's Alsace region. Each time I walk its people-friendly streets, I'm struck by how forward-thinking and inviting the city feels, with generous space devoted to pedestrians and bikes, sleek trams, and meandering waterways. With delightful big-city energy and a name that means the "city of streets," Strasbourg is the ultimate crossroads.

While the city dodged serious damage in both world wars, Strasbourg has a dizzying history. It was hit hard during the Franco-Prussian War, becoming part of Germany in 1870. After that, there was a period of harsh Germanization, followed by extreme Frenchification after World War I, a brutal period under Nazi rule during World War II, and then the strong need to purge all that was German after 1945. Now, while probably more definitively French than it's ever been, the city exudes a bicultural gentleness in its architecture and all-around ambience. Street signs are commonly bilingual, with both French and the Germanic Alsatian dialect.

After World War II, British prime minister Winston Churchill called for a union of European nations, with the goal of winning an enduring peace by weaving the economies of France and Germany together. Given that Strasbourg had changed hands between Germany and France so many times, it seemed logical that it be a capital (along with Brussels) of what would eventually become the European Union. And today, Strasbourg shares the administrative responsibilities of the European Parliament with Brussels and Luxembourg.

Most visitors come to Strasbourg to see its massive Notre-Dame Cathedral — and for good reason. On my last visit, I stood in front and craned my neck way back…and I still couldn't fit the facade into my camera's viewfinder. I tried to imagine the impact this unforgettable edifice would have had on medieval pilgrims. The delicate Gothic style of the cathedral (begun in 1176, not finished until 1439) is the work of a succession of about 50 master builders. The cathedral somehow survived the French Revolution, the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, and World War II.

An earlier church burned down in the 12th century, and Strasbourg was so wealthy that it rebuilt très fancy — with a lacy, innovative design — and tall (at 466 feet, its spire was the world's tallest until the mid-1800s). A matching second tower was planned but was never built, out of fear that it would place too much stress on the foundations. You'll see the famous spire from all over town.

Inside, enjoy the cathedral's marvelous stained glass — 80 percent is original, surviving from the 12th to 15th centuries. The cathedral's windows traveled a lot during World War II: hidden by the French in southwestern France first; then carted to northern Germany by the Nazis; and finally saved and returned by the Monuments Men (British and American troops dedicated to returning art to its rightful place after 1945). Travelers should note that the cathedral closes daily between 11:15 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Nearby is the wonderful Strasbourg Historical Museum, which sweeps through the city's complex and compelling history. You'll learn how Strasbourg was once fortified with concentric walls and 80 towers, which were then destroyed by French King Louis XIV in the 1680s. The museum also has an exhibit about Johannes Gutenberg, who worked here from 1434 to 1444, a section about the French Revolution, and a description of how the Prussians rebuilt the city after destroying parts of it in 1870, ushering in its glory days (1880–1914). The saddest section details life here in the Nazi years, and the happy finale explains Strasbourg's leadership role in the EU.

For a different slice of history, visit the Alsatian Museum, located in one of Strasbourg's oldest houses. Thanks to its many artifacts and printed English explanations, you'll learn much about Alsatian life and traditions from birth to death. Rooms you'd find in traditional homes are beautifully re-created here (wrapped around a fine old courtyard), and models explain the ins and outs of half-timbered construction.

End your day in Strasbourg's popular Petite France quarter. It's here where the river splits into several canals with weirs, a lock, and a swing bridge — all reminders of a time when trade came by river and watermills powered local industry. The district was slated for redevelopment but was saved by a progressive French minister of culture in the 1970s. Today, these fine buildings are protected and give us a sense of this pre-electricity world.

The history of Strasbourg — the capital city of the political pawn zone between France and Germany — is fascinating to contemplate. With its high-powered and trendy bustle and hybrid culture, it's one of France's most intriguing cities.

The interior of Strasbourg's cathedral includes an elaborately carved stone pulpit from the 1400s (lower right) and an exquisite gold-leafed organ (upper right).
(Photo: Rick Steves)

Strasbourg's half-timbered buildings provide a Germanic backdrop for an Alsatian meal on this riverfront terrace.
(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.

Lake Geneva: Switzerland’s Riviera

Arching around most of southern end of Swizerland's most southwest corner, Lake Geneva laps against the French border with a serene beauty. A collage of castles, museums, resort towns, and vineyards, this region merits a few days of exploration — though you can enjoy a swift overview of its highlights even in just one day.

Last summer I took time to relax and enjoy the tranquil and elegant city of Lausanne (the area's best home base). With a characteristic old town, towering cathedral, and delightful lakeside promenade, it has the energy and cultural sophistication of a larger city, but is home to only about 140,000 people.

The Romans founded Lausanne on the lakefront — but with the fall of Rome and the rise of the barbarians, the first Lausanners fled for the hills, establishing today's tangled old town a safe distance uphill from the lake. The steep city feels like a life-size game of Chutes and Ladders. Two-dimensional maps don't do justice to the city's bridges, underpasses, stairways, hills, and valleys. Even the Métro trains and platforms are on an incline.

Wandering the pedestrianized Rue de Bourg in the old town, I could see the multiethnic makeup of today's Switzerland on parade. Though the region's official language is French, the language situation is potluck, with German and Italian also prevalent. (Be careful to pronounce Lausanne correctly — "loh-zahn" — and don't confuse it with Luzern.)

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Europe’s Emigration Museums: Remembering the Long Goodbye

Every year millions of Americans visit Ellis Island, where their ancestors may have arrived from "the old country." But Europe has many excellent "Ellis Islands in reverse" — museums at the places where millions said goodbye to the land of their birth.

Few things are more poignant than a person willing to sacrifice everything in pursuit of a better life. That's the story of many hard-scrabble Europeans heading off to dreamed-of opportunities in far-off America. Others, who faced persecution or even starvation, really had no choice — it was leave or die. Museums in Ireland, Belgium, Germany, and Sweden tell some of these compelling stories.

On my most recent trip to Ireland, I checked out Dublin's new interactive exhibit, called Epic: The Irish Emigration Museum. With so much anxiety surrounding immigration in the US today, it was thought-provoking to learn how many Americans were just as worried about Irish immigrants 160 years ago.

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