European city highlights: Belgium, Italy, Spain, France and Greece

European city highlights: Belgium, Italy, Spain, France and Greece

by Melissa Shock
Stripes Europe

Europe is rich in culture, history and fun, so take time to travel. Get out of your comfort zone, go off base and venture beyond your community. Get going to one of Europe’s incredible cities!

Cologne, Germany
Cologne is Germany’s fourth-largest city with more than 2,000 years of history. Ancient Roman archeological sites and the Roman-Germanic Museum give insight into the city’s omnipresent Roman past. Climb the 509 stone stairs of the famous cathedral, Kölner Dom, for extensive views over the entire city and Rhine. For a local specialty, drink Kölsch beer, and to declare your love, bring your sweetie and a padlock to the love locks, a charming addition to the Hohenzollern Bridge. With 40 museums, hundreds of galleries, famous shopping streets and a pulsating nightlife, Cologne really does have it all!

Bruges, Belgium
This romantic, medieval town near Belgium’s coast has fairy-tale charm. With picturesque cobbled streets and dreamy canals, it’s no wonder why Bruges is a favorite travel destination. A chocolate lover’s nirvana, the world’s best Belgian chocolates can be tasted at one of 50 local shops. To see a true relic, stop by the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a small but beautiful Gothic church that houses a vial of what is said to be Jesus’ blood. Take a boat tour through the canals, or bicycle the tree-lined streets to Damme for windmill sighting.

Normandy, France
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the WWII D-Day Landings at Normandy. More than 160 events take place from May to August. Take a tour of the memorials, museums and 50-mile stretch of famous beaches; then, explore old army bunkers, tanks and Atlantic wall defenses. Next, head to the iconic island commune of Mont Saint-Michel; connected to the mainland by a causeway, the village and abbey sit high on a ridge, surrounded by sea and record-high tides. The combination of green countryside and the English Channel’s rolling waves makes Normandy a great year-round destination.

Verona, Italy
A top tourist destination of northern Italy with strong artistic heritage, Verona is also the setting for three Shakespearean plays, including “Romeo and Juliet.” Head to the courtyard off Via Cappello to see Juliet’s balcony and statue; Romeo’s home is just around the corner on Via Arche Scaligere. Be sure to also visit two impressive Roman sites still in use; the Roman Theatre overlooking the river offers outdoor summer plays and concerts, while the Roman Arena on the Piazza Brà, has hosted prestigious operas since 1913.

Madrid, Spain
No other city is more alive and energetic than Madrid! Spain’s capital and largest city, with its modern infrastructure yet historic neighborhoods, is a hub of music, art, architecture and culinary delights. Visit the Prado Museum for the biggest collection of European art. Stroll over to Buen Retiro Park to people watch. Head to the Cathedral and Royal Palace for eclectic architecture, then catch the sunset from the Temple of Debod. Top off the night with tapas and Spanish wine in some of the city’s several hundred restaurants or the unique Market of San Miguel.

Athens, Greece
The birthplace of western civilization has had a period of urban renewal. Today, Athens reflects a cosmopolitan city with a vibrant street life, relaxed lifestyle, deliciously healthy food and arguably Europe’s most stunning pedestrian promenade. Overlooking the city, the Acropolis, crowned by the iconic Parthenon temple, is a top destination. Athletes should sign up early for the Athens Marathon set for Nov. 9. This is the ultimate classic marathon experience dating back to 490 B.C., when an Athenian messenger ran 26 miles to Athens carrying the news of the democracy’s victory. 

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