Finding the hidden gems of Europe
Getting off the tourist track in major European cities.
Any guidebook can show you how to see Europe's high points, but you run the risk of experiencing the same clichéd vacation as countless previous travelers. Here, from a secret London restaurant to in-the-know Rome boutiques, are 14 reasons to look beyond the obvious.
Kalamiotou Street, at night
It's been three years since Greece became the epicenter of Europe's debt crisis, but you'd hardly know it strolling the center of Athens at night. Eclectic restaurants and crackling night life animate a maze of streets steps from the Acropolis and the Greek Parliament.
Instead of tucking into a heavy taverna dinner, head to Melilotos — 19 Kalamiotou St., (30-210) 32-22-458 — hidden in the fabric district off Ermou Street. Its family-run kitchen specializes in fusion cuisine, using produce from the Greek islands. Here, Athenians in the know linger over fried Creten feta laced with ouzo and watermelon; a tangerine-infused pasta from Chios Island; and squid-ink tagliatelle flecked with smoked trout.
Around 10:30, the area morphs into a booming bar scene, starting when the Dude bar across the street, a paen to "The Big Lebowski," opens its nondescript doors. Around the corner, facing St. Eirini church, throngs of young Greeks crowd the outdoor tables at Tailor Made — Plateia Agias Eirinis 2, (30-213) 004-9645 — a micro-coffee roaster by day, drinking spot by night, with drinks like the Porn Star Martini, made with passion fruit.
Many Greeks are not spending money on vacation or even gas, but they will pay to nurse a drink for 8 euros (about $10, at $1.26 to the euro) in a lively setting rather than sitting home and moping. If you're in town, you may as well join them.
— Liz Alderman
In Barcelona, it's all too easy to simply shop the multistory outposts of Zara or Mango. Or to weave through racks of psychedelic-print tunics from thelabel Custo Barcelona. Or to wander around the sprawling home-design emporium Vincon.
But those who value craftsmanship over mass-produced goods should make the effort instead to explore the narrow streets in the southern part of the Raval neighborhood. "It's a new part of the Raval that's growing with new shops," said Ramon Sole, a Barcelona native and a co-owner of Amato Sole, a housewares and furniture shop that opened in the area in December 2010.
At Amato Sole (amatosole.com), many of the items for sale, from mirrors fitted within old window frames to wooden chairs inlaid with iron, are handmade in the second-floor studio by Sole, an industrial designer, and his partner, Annamaria Amato, an architect from Sicily. The couple take a modern, conscientious approach to sourcing their materials, scouring local markets for tattered, broken furniture that they then restore or re-purpose to create cool, imaginative pieces with a back story.
Every few months local artists are invited to exhibit works in the shop — a melding of creative genres that transpires as, Sole said, "the art combines with our furniture."
The couple, who live above the studio, plan to expand their business later this year by opening a second shop and studio space in the Gracia neighborhood (at Carrer del Perill 39). For a limited time during the expansion they'll open their store by appointment only, so check the website. Then snake through Raval and ring their bell to discover this charming (and well-hidden) gem.
— Ingrid k. Williams
Soviet War Memorial/Street Art
From the paint-slathered remnants of the Berlin Wall to Daniel Libeskind's Holocaust memorial, Berlin is awash in historical testament. But one of the city's most fascinating monuments is well off the tourist trail, in the middle of Treptower Park, which runs along the Spree River in the former East Berlin.
Built after World War II to commemorate the thousands of Soviet soldiers who died in the Battle of Berlin, the huge Soviet War Memorial is at once a moving work of midcentury political art and a ludicrous piece of Stalinist pomp. The central axis leads from a statue of a grieving Mother Russia across a long, landscaped plaza to a 70-ton bronze statue of a soldier brandishing a rescued German child and standing triumphantly atop a crushed swastika. Lining the plaza, which is an actual burial plot for some 7,000 Red Army soldiers, are 16 raised stone sarcophagi, each bearing a quote by Stalin and a frieze depicting some act of Soviet heroism. The compositions — machine gun-toting soldiers stacked like sardines, children throwing grenades — are vaguely classical, like social realist tableaus as conceived by a Hellenistic artisan.
To lighten the impact, venture down the street to the former Western district Kreuzberg, where you'll find another kind of historical remnant, albeit newer in origin: several murals by the Italian street artist Blu, whose work here dates from 2006 to 2009. In one, a giant pink figure made of hundreds of tiny, writhing men looks out with hollow white eyes. In a city where public art can feel like history having an argument with itself, the murals act as an oversize color-blocked rejoinder to the monumental Soviet severity you just left behind.
Bakken amusement park
Be careful as you step from Central Station and plan your big outing in the Danish capital. Across the street, the Tivoli Gardens are like a verdant vortex that sucks in all passing travelers, luring them with flashing lights, old-time rides and open-air concerts. Fortunately, a folksier, cheaper, larger and more historical alternative is tucked away to the north of the city. In a forested area known for revelry and entertainments since the late 1500s, Dyrehavsbakken, known as Bakken, bills itself as the world's oldest amusement park.
True or not, Bakken (bakken.dk) certainly has more Old World bona fides than its inner-city cousin, to say nothing of a more bucolic setting: some 2,700 acres of woodland filled with hiking paths, green fields and free-ranging deer. Better still, the price tag to enter Bakken is far lower: Admission is free for all ages.
Once inside, you'll find everything from Bakkens Hvile, said to be the oldest remaining music hall in Denmark, to Scandinavia's only "5D" cinema, where moving seats and special effects like wind, water and mist create a full sensory experience. But the marquee attraction is the vintage 80-year-old wooden roller coaster, one of the 30-plus rides spread across the grounds.
The solidly middle-class park also draws some unusual characters each year. To celebrate Bakken's opening day, generally in March, and the last day of its season, typically around the end of August, motorcyclists by the hundreds converge for a mass rally. For people who prefer to arrive by sleigh, Bakken has hosted the World Santa Claus Congress every summer since 1957. So, when the high-price, high-gloss, highly crowded Tivoli seems like too much, Bakken is indeed a gift.
— Seth Sherwood
Rumeli Castle's spires aren't as heavily touted as those jutting from the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, but this 560-year-old Ottoman fortress — across town from Galata, where tourists flock to buy spices at the Grand Bazaar — is no less spectacular. Nestled in Sariyer, a neighborhood on the European side of the city, the majestic, well-preserved fort, which is now a museum (entrance, 5 Turkish lira, or about $2.70 at 1.83 lira to the dollar), was built at the narrowest point of the Bosporus by Sultan Mehmed II, who originally positioned hundreds of soldiers at its gates and used it to control river traffic.
Today, its location away from the city's tourist centers usually keeps crowds at a minimum. Which is one of the reasons — in addition to the winding, woodsy paths inside and the unparalleled views of Istanbul — to go there. Rumeli's canonical, tiered Halil Pasha Tower and its satellite watchtowers stand guard over a bench-lined maze of trees, steep staircases and crumbling steel doors. Catch a glimpse of the gloomy dungeon, then hike to the highest points and enjoy the spectacular view. The Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge sparkles to the left, while the green hills of Asia frame the sailboats, ferries and tanker ships chugging the Bosporus. Giant Turkish flags flutter proudly across the water, a beautiful sight at sunset. End the day with a 15-minute stroll down the water to Bebek, Istanbul's chicest neighborhood, for a Turkish coffee or a raki, the cloudy liquor whose local popularity, much like Rumeli's, has survived the ages.
— Karen Leigh
Bunkier Sztuki Contemporary Art Gallery
Visitors to Krakow might easily spend their entire trip within the confines of the Old Town's medieval main square, where they'll find the Gothic spires of St. Mary's Basilica, the tiny early-Romanesque Church of St. Adalbert, and the Renaissance-style Cloth Hall, which today houses the National Museum's Gallery of 19th-century Polish Art. For sustenance, it's simple to land at one of the many restaurants and cafes that ring the square; most offer outstanding views and, predictably, overpriced food and drinks.
Instead, walk two blocks down Plac Szczepanski to the edge of the Old Town, where a blocky complex houses the Bunkier Sztuki Contemporary Art Gallery (bunkier.art.pl; admission 10 zloty, or about $3 at 3.25 zloty to the dollar). The structure is not dissimilar to a war bunker — hence, the name — and is one of the best places to track down contemporary art and cultural events in the city. Inside, you might see a simulation of the world after the fall of capitalism, or a site-specific Dada collage accessed through a long, dark hallway.
Outside, the museum's adjoining Bunkier Cafe is a pleasant place for a light lunch or postgallery coffee break. With sandboxes for the children and Polish beers for their parents, it is a local favorite and a much cooler alternative to the crowded main-square spots. The mismatched tables set on a wide patio — enclosed and heated in the winter, open-air in the summer — provide ideal perches for people-watching as strollers cross the leafy Planty Park, which encircles the Old Town.
— Ingrid k. Williams
It's Not Just Fado
For generations, Lisbon's reputation has been wrapped up in fado, the centuries-old folk music that drifts like teary, windblown tissue from the city's timeworn fado houses, which are de rigueur stops for travelers. Anyone who has spent an evening listening to those softly plucked guitars, lovelorn lyrics and wailing female vocalists will probably think that the Portuguese capital is a haven of heartbroken fishwives pining away for distant sailors.
Banish those notions. Lisbon has a diverse live playlist that features everything from jazz to African music — if you know where to look.
"Right now there are some really cool things happening in Lisbon," said Luis Filipe Rodriuges, music editor of Time Out Lisbon. "We also have an amazing free jazz scene."
For instance, the venerable, well-respected Clube de Portugal (hcp.pt) has a densely packed program of Portuguese jazz bands, touring acts, jam sessions and performances by the house orchestra. For a lively night of percussive beats and dancing, there is the newly reopened B. Leza, (blogdibleza.blogspot.fr), an African club in a warehouse near the Tagus River. Live music from the Cape Verde islands is a particular specialty, along with singers and bands from Angola, Mozambique and Brazil. The spirited soundtrack is the perfect antidote to fado-induced melancholy.
— Seth Sherwood
Redchurch Street, a hub for the gentrification that has swept London's East End in recent years, is usually filled with people who are browsing boutiques and enjoying flutes of vintage Champagne or gourmet coffee. Nearby, restaurants tout the occasional Michelin star and food to match anything you'd find in the traditionally tonier West End. But just off the main thoroughfare, on a peaceful circular plaza amid red-brick Victorian apartment blocks, is a restaurant that offers a brief glimpse at the unvarnished character of the area's renaissance.
The Rochelle Canteen is part of a former school that now houses a gallery, studio and event spaces (arnoldandhenderson.com). A locked green gate and a confusing panel of buzzers greet visitors intrepid enough to track it down. On a recent afternoon, a reporter had to wait for a delivery man to follow inside.
Beyond the gate is a schoolyard and a modern European kitchen installed, along with a handful of tables, in a former bicycle shed. The bicycles are now locked up in the open, amid more tables occupied by a decidedly eccentric-looking group of diners. At 2 o'clock on a recent afternoon, a pair of dandies in full evening dress, down to bow ties and white scarves, devoured plaice with tomatoes and a green sauce, and roast partridge with pearl barley and artichokes, with every sign of enjoyment. At another table, a professorial-looking lady in black-framed glasses delivered a treatise on the history of flat-pack furniture.
The menu, as much hearty as it is arty, changes regularly. But on that afternoon it featured a perfectly spiced North African lamb stew, a delicate rabbit terrine and a rich honeycomb ice cream. All were priced at a maximum of 6.50 (about $10.25 at $1.58 to the pound) for appetizers and desserts, and 17.50 for entrees.
— Ravi Somaiya
The All-Russian Exhibition Center
The hectic, honky-tonk Soviet fairground now called the All-Russian Exhibition Center — north of the city center and originally known as V.D.N. Kh., or the Exhibit of the Achievements of the National Economy — is peppered with monumental sculptures that brag of the glory of the Soviets.
In the ecstatic sculpture "Worker and Collective Farm Worker," two figures, seemingly bursting with strength and promise, reach skyward, he with a hammer, she with a sickle.
Look for gorgeous details from the Stalin era, like rows of streetlights built in the shape of stalks of wheat and the gilded dazzle of the Friendship of Nations Fountain. A fat stack of grain gleams in the middle of it, ringed by golden maidens in native dress, holding their products aloft and celebrating their luck at being born Soviet.
But what I especially like about the center (vvcentre.ru/eng) is how it has been reborn — reinvented, again and again, as Russia struggled for survival after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, small merchants moved into the cavernous spaces built as showcases for shipbuilding or electrification and set up stands selling homeopathic honey, and sugar-frosted deep-fried doughnuts, and televisions, and gem-encrusted silver jewelry from the Caucasus.
Many of my favorite afternoons in Moscow have been spent in the pavilion built to celebrate Armenia, where the light slants through windows onto inlaid tables. Couples drink thick sweet coffee while a single violinist plays, and you pause and pause, and pause again, before venturing back outside.
— Ellen Barry
Paris at daybreak has little to offer creatures of the night. But starting at 5 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings, Pouic Pouic, a sliver of a bistro that opened last June in the St.-Germain-des-Pres neighborhood, serves serious food to post-party-goers with big appetites. Diners craving breakfast may go for ham-and-cheese omelets or maybe spaghetti carbonara (which is, after all, eggs and bacon with pasta instead of toast); meat lovers can opt for veal chops, cheeseburgers, steak tartare and entrecotes.
Pouic Pouic — 9, rue Lobineau; (33-1) 43-26-71-95 — offers a larger selection at lunch and dinner, including starters like chicken and foie gras terrine, and main courses like squid ink pasta with mussels and wild chanterelle mushrooms, and pig cheek with creamy puréed potatoes.
The décor is simple, with dark wood walls and bright posters, and the atmosphere just noisy enough. From the round table near the kitchen you can watch the 25-year-old Romanian-born chef Michael Pascale make magic from his open kitchen. Jacques Damitio, the owner (and an ex-notary public and ex-winemaker) or Anne-Sophie, his English-speaking daughter, may join you for a chat. Expect to pay 35 to 45 euros for a three-course meal (a deal for Paris); the wine list is small but creative and reasonably priced. A welcome alternative to familiar bistros overrun with Anglophone tourists.
— Elaine Sciolino
Basilica of San Vitale
For all of the magnificence exhibited on the exterior of Florence's Duomo — Brunelleschi's dome, Giotto's campanile, the ornate marble facade, the grand bronze doors — its interior is comparatively dull. After shuffling inside with swarms of tour groups, one discovers a hollow, cavernous hall with little of the artistic splendor that is displayed outside.
So, why not leave this Renaissance masterpiece to its throngs of admirers and instead seek out a church with an interior as impressive as the Duomo's exterior?
Ravenna, on the country's eastern coast — just a two-hour drive from Florence — was the seat of Byzantine power in Italy until the eighth century. Today, this handsome city attracts a relative trickle of tourists compared with the crowds that descend upon Florence. Yet hidden within Ravenna's ancient structures are breathtaking mosaics, the most impressive of which can be found in the Basilica of San Vitale.
Built in the sixth century, the Basilica of San Vitale (ravennamosaici.it; admission, 9.50 euros) is one of the finest examples of early Byzantine architecture. Although its small dome and unadorned facade are sober in comparison to Florence's showy Duomo, its interior is awash in exquisite mosaics. In fact, the dazzling mosaics housed inside the church are regarded as among the most important Byzantine artworks that exist outside what is now Istanbul.
Gaze upon the bold hues enlivening the early Christian iconography, which incorporates styles from both ancient Rome and medieval Europe (see depictions of Christ both bearded and beardless). Admire the glittering tiles of green and gold that depict the Byzantine emperor Justinian; his wife, Theodora; and their considerable entourage. And above all, savor the delicious calm over which these figures now rule.
— Ingrid K. Williams
Armin-Wolf baseball stadium
Regensburg, at the confluence of the Danube and Regen rivers in eastern Bavaria, survived World War II largely intact — a lucky break, considering that it was the site of a Messerschmitt bomber factory. Today it's one of Germany's top tourist destinations, with a perfectly preserved medieval town center; the cathedral where Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, served as cardinal; a ruined Roman fort; and a famed cafe called Wurstkuchen, beside the Danube, that's been serving bratwurst and beer since 1320.
But why not take a break from Regensburg's antiquities and travel 10 minutes beyond the city center to a very different sort of attraction: a baseball stadium. Opened in 1998 on the site of a former limestone quarry, the Armin-Wolf Arena, named after a local sports writer and baseball booster, reflects Germany's burgeoning fascination with America's pastime.
This 4,500-seat stadium, with its groomed infield and outfield, red-clay base paths and 400-foot center-field wall, could hold its own with any Double-A minor league ballpark in the United States. And the level of play, while hardly up to American standards, is rapidly improving. The Regensburg Legionare (named after the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius' third legionnaires, stationed in this distant outpost of the Roman Empire beginning in the second century) won the German championships for the third year in a row in 2012. Several of their alumni have signed United States Major League contracts, including the outfielder Max Kepler, an $850,000 bonus baby now playing in the Minnesota Twins farm system. The 2013 baseball season begins next April.
— Joshua Hammer
If Via Condotti, with its big-name labels, is not your style (or your price point), there are lots of smaller boutiques clustered on a few choice streets in the historic center, where they share space with antiques dealersand plenty of cafes to stop in for a coffee.
The streets around the Pantheon, and Via Urbana in the Monti neighborhood of Rome near Santa Maria Maggiore, are lined with small boutiques with offbeat "Made in Italy" brands like a.b., Malloni and Reset, as well as upscale Spanish brands like Hoss.
On Via Urbana, try DOP, at Via Urbana 25, (39-06) 4890-6412, and LOL (lolmodartedesign.com), both warm yet minimalist boutiques with everyday wear in muted colors. Near the Pantheon, Spazio Espanso, at Via dei Bergamaschi 59/60, (39-06) 9784-2793, and its nearby sister shops Sempre, at Piazza della Pigna 7, (39-06) 679-2879, and Mam, at Via delle Coppelle 73/A, (39-0668) 13-6168, feature slightly offbeat cashmeres, wools, silks and cottons.
— Rachel Donadio
This year, Stockholm's top must-see art event was not held at the stately Nationalmuseum or at the city's well-regarded modern art museum, Moderna Museet. Instead, those cognoscenti flocked to a pier on the outskirts of the city to see a solo exhibition from the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei at Magasin 3 (magasin3.com; admission, 60 Swedish kronor, about $8.85 at 6.8 krona to the dollar), a gallery in an industrial warehouse near the ferry terminal where cruise ships arrive from Riga and St. Petersburg.
It's in this out-of-the-way location that Magasin 3 has been staging exhibitions from significant contemporary artists for 25 years. Past shows have featured international art-world luminaries, including Walter De Maria, Juan Munoz and Bruce Nauman. Currently, the gallery is hosting an exhibition of works by the German artist Anton Henning, who dabbles freely in stylistic imitation and voyeurism. It is called "Too Much Skin, Taste & Turpentine" (through Dec. 9).
After admiring the art, visitors can browse the shelves in the gallery's library, sip espresso and nibble on homemade cakes in the cafe, or contemplate the appropriateness of scaling the celadon monkey bars — actually, a sculpture by the Swedish artist Truls Melin — that are outside.
— Ingrid K. Williams