A cool guide to Europe
Here’s a lesson in how to make a 19th-century fortress even better. The original Brest Fortress, constructed in about 1830, helped protect the Soviet Union from marauding European invaders, including during World War II, the Germans. Eventually, having been battered by thousands of Hitler’s troops, it fell. When it was liberated once more, the Soviets decided to turn the crumbling hulk into a memorial for fallen soldiers and called it Hero Fortress. Then they added not one but two humongous Brutalist statues. One, called Thirst, depicts a dying soldier crawling towards a river; the other (pictured here) is just the head and shoulders of a square-jawed giant looming over the scene and threatening you to take a swing at what is now Belarus if you dare. We wouldn’t.
Sure, if you’re after a buzz you can always have a crack at normal skydiving, but anyone already game enough to jump out of a plane and plummet to earth probably won’t mind taking the adrenaline levels up another notch. Enter heli skydiving, which – you guessed it – involves a helicopter instead of a small plane. The Millennium Tandem Team in Hungary are the thrill-seekers behind this venture, and will take you up in a Mil Mi-8 troop transport helicopter. The one-minute freefall takes place over Lake Balaton, an hour’s drive from Budapest, and the scenic views from an altitude of 4000 metres are out of this world – if you’re brave enough to keep your eyes open.
Forget the Swiss Alps. Word on the street is that the hottest new paragliding playground in Europe is Georgia. With the rugged, snow-capped Caucasus Mountains providing a near-perfect setting for high-flying antics, there are multiple locations, including Gudauri and Mestia, where anyone seeking an adrenaline rush can take to the skies. Fly Caucasus is the go-to paragliding team in the region and flies year-round. Its experts are more than happy to cater to your anxiety levels – if all you want is a relaxing experience they will glide you through a super cruisy scenic flight, but if you’d prefer to soar off the highest point in Georgia, they can make that crazy wish happen, too.
If you think Rome’s Colosseum is impressive, wait till you get a load of the Croatian version. Of the approximately 200 Roman amphitheatres left in the world today, Pula Arena is the only one to have four complete corner towers. Much like its Italian cousin, gladiators took to the amphitheatre, cheered on by 20,000 spectators sitting on the stone tiers or standing in the gallery; in the Middle Ages, it was used for knights’ tournaments. These days, as well as being the starting point for most visitors coming to the city, it hosts replica gladiator duels during summer, the Pula Film Festival, concerts, ballet and sporting events.
There are hotels by the ocean, but there are not too many hotels in the ocean. Punta Grande Hotel, in El Hierro in the Canary Islands, is one of the rare latter varieties. The accommodation, which currently holds the record for smallest hotel in the world, literally sits atop a lava rock that extends into the sea. If you choose to secure one of only four rooms, each one facing the ocean and nautically inspired, be prepared for a truly off-the-grid experience.
If you’re aching to be at one with nature but are too fancy for camping, then this treehouse getaway is exactly what you need. Located in the historic region of Aquitaine, Cabane 7ème Ciel sits seven metres above the ground and is an evergreen destination for two. Plus, the tree trunk goes right through the room for genuine treehouse vibes. Couple that with the stunning views of the Gave d’Oloron and you’ve got yourself a pretty relaxing time.
What do you do with an abandoned wine factory located on a prime stretch of untouched coastline on the Greek mainland? Turn it into a super luxe hotel, obviously! And that’s exactly what acclaimed architecture firm K-Studio has done, transforming the dilapidated 1920s property into Dexamenes Seaside Hotel. Old wine tanks have been converted into 34 boutique guestrooms, while adjacent buildings have been renovated into a taverna, history room, bar-lounge and bakaliko (meeting point) where local crafts and produce are sold. Design wise, it’s all muted tones, clean lines and plenty of timber, glass and steel finishes – think a Greek take on the minimalism aesthetic. With the Ionian Sea just a stone’s throw away, this is barefoot luxury at its best.
You can almost imagine the Hollywood starlets reclined on chaises longues at this classy boutique hotel that sits atop a rocky outcrop on the border with Monaco. Built in the 1920s and reimagined for modern luxury travellers in 2009, this 40-suite bolthole is the place to be in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. And while we can all appreciate that the best way to arrive is on a yacht – there’s a private dock, of course – the only place you’ll want to be once you set foot on dry land is by the pool. Its expansive dimensions coupled with its proximity to the shimmering Mediterranean Sea – oh, and the old-school high-dive platform, ample loungers and poolside bar – offer up charm and ambiance relaxante in spades. Monte-Carlo Beach and its pool are open to guests from March to October.
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to live near a lighthouse, here’s your chance. Across the sea, on the Islet of Viirelaid, both the lighthouse keeper’s house and the lighthouse complex offer accommodation for the nautically inclined traveller. With every window looking out to the sea, the keeper’s house comes with seven bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, separate fireplace room, and wood-fired sauna and hot tub. The complex is more suited for company events or private parties, with a whopping 50 beds.
Get this: the first evidence of habitation of what is now Bulgaria’s second-largest city has been dated back to the sixth millennium BCE during the Neolithic era. Then it was a Thracian settlement and ever since has been home to a mess of invaders, from Goths to Turks. These days in Plovdiv it’s possible to explore a Roman amphitheatre – built by Emperor Hadrian when the city was called Philippopolis, and only excavated in the 1970s – and the atmospheric Old Town with beautifully painted wooden buildings and cobbled laneways.
What do you get when you combine an ancient bathing culture with free-flowing booze, laser lights, cracking DJs and hundreds of people in various states of undress? Only the biggest SPArty in Europe! It’s wet, it’s wild and it’s a rite of passage if you’re ever passing through Budapest on a Saturday. Held in the historic Széchenyi Baths, which is the largest medicinal bath complex in Europe, the weekly parties kick off at 10.30pm and rage long into the night. There are two thermal pools to swim between – you better believe the temperature of both is cranked up to hot and steamy – set against the epic backdrop of an ornate Baroque Revival palace. It makes for a pretty incredible sight, although you’ll probably be too busy knocking back novelty-sized cocktails and splashing water in your mate’s face to notice.
If Burning Man were underground – hard to imagine, we know – and had a Portuguese accent, it would be this summer arts and music festival set on the edge of a lake in the cultural region of Alentejo. Stretching over five days, Waking Life features a chorus of sound from people, instruments and machines, and provides an intimate and immersive experience for its goers. The lineup is meticulously curated to showcase fresh talent, while the artwork is meant to stimulate and provoke interaction. Did we mention it’s alongside a beautiful lake?
Say hello to the one place where glass ceilings are welcome. The clear domes of the Levin Iglut igloos offer a panoramic view of the Arctic sky and pristine snowy fells of Lapland. If you’re worried about the cold, there’s no need. Aside from heated glass walls, the igloos also boast in-floor heating and luxuriously dressed beds complete with down covers and fur throw. Absolutely perfect for a cosy night in under the stars. Tip: it’s worth spending the extra for a Prime Superior igloo for a front-row view of the stars and snow.
Wind from Zermatt through three stunning alpine cantons to St Moritz on what is possibly Switzerland’s most famous rail ride. Not that express means you’ll be going fast. The 291-kilometre journey takes eight hours, with the express part relating to the fact this train doesn’t stop at any of the local stations. From your comfy seat with panorama windows you’ll see the Matterhorn, cross the highest point of the Oberalp Pass at 2033 metres, traverse 291 bridges and pass through 91 tunnels. It’s such an eye-popping ride you’ll probably want to do it twice – once in the winter when the snow is at its peak, then again in spring when you get the perfect combo of green valleys and snowy mountaintops. Earlier this year, the Excellence Class launched and it certainly ups the ante, with guaranteed window seats, five-course meal, an exclusive bar and a concierge who can fill you in on all aspects of the journey as you roll along. Pro tip: if you’re travelling from Zermatt to St Moritz try to snag a seat on the left-hand side of the train.
Carved over the centuries by the forces of wind and water, the Blue Hole on the island of San Lawrenz is part of a limestone rock formation that makes for a spectacular entry and exit point for divers. Colourful coral, tubeworms, sponges and marine life cover the walls of the 15-metre hole, plus there’s a large cave and archway to explore. With diving here available year-round, it’s easy to see why it’s one of the islands’ most popular and stunning dives. Tip: it’s common for the Blue Hole to be busy in the afternoon, since divers will come here as the wind picks up and makes other dive sites around the islands less accessible.
Not so much a ladder as a whole lot of stony steps, this hike isn’t the longest you’ll ever do but it is one steep mofo, rising 940 metres from Kotor’s Old Town along the old city walls and up to the Krstac Pass. For centuries, it was the only connecting road between Kotor and Cetinje, the former Royal Capital of Montenegro. As you’re traipsing up the 70-plus switchbacks, just imagine what it would be like if you and your donkey were carrying bounty for the king – Petar II Pertrovic-Njegos, the prince bishop, once ordered a billiard table be bought over the pass – as well as your bottle of water. The hard work is worth it for the spectacular views of the Bay of Kotor and the mountainous landscape surrounding you.
You may think nothing good can come from a break-up, but this quirky space, located in Zagreb, celebrates the art of hearts rent asunder and romantic dreams dashed. Fun fact: when their four-year relationship broke down, artists Olinka Vistica and Drazen Grubisic joked they should put the possessions left over after their split into a museum. Now, this crowd-sourced collection has been recognised as one of the most innovative museums in Europe. Probably not the place for a first date, though.
Look, we admit it’s probably going to get a little chilly, but for adrenaline junkies and lovers of extreme water sports, leaping into rapids, abseiling down waterfalls and slip-sliding down gullies should shove any thoughts of the cold to the back of their minds. Area 47 offers the chance to get wet in the Ötzal Valley, which runs through Tyrol. With tours ranging from beginners to expert level, there’s a full day of peak excitement waiting for everyone.
Fast catching up to Iceland as one of Europe’s most Instagrammable locations, just one glimpse of the Faroe Islands is all it takes to understand why. Wild, untouched and insanely beautiful, this rugged cluster of 18 volcanic islands has an otherworldly feel about it, and a magic you don’t just find anywhere in the world. Located somewhere between Norway and Iceland, in the North Atlantic Ocean, its total isolation adds to the drama of the scenery, which is all craggy cliffs, green valleys, snow-capped mountains and deep fjords, with a smattering of shaggy sheep (fun fact: there are more sheep than people here). Even the small towns and villages, made up of colourful buildings and grass-roofed cottages, are ridiculously photogenic. We could go on, but it’s one of those places you just have to see for yourself.
What if someone told you there was a secret European country with a classic medieval capital, a mini Venice without the crowds and 2017’s World’s Best Female Chef (trust us, she’s only gotten better since then)? Oh, and it also has one of the longest cave systems in Europe, world-class wineries and as many adrenaline thrills as you can chase.
Do all that and you’ll still only have scratched the surface. And it’s all within just a couple of hours’ drive. Capital Ljubljana is a tale of two cities separated by the winding Ljubljanica River. Cafes line its banks with spritzes lighting up like beacons in the afternoon sun as the young Ljubljana population jostles for the best seats. Stroll the cobblestone lanes past buskers and artists and find a seat in one of the many quaint restaurants for a Slovenian seafood feast. There’s a handy underground craft beer scene, too. Get along to Lajbah for a selection of the country’s best and some local live music. It’s very cool.
Now head south and in about 45 minutes you’ll arrive at Postojna Cave Park, a 24,000-metre-long karst system with a rickety train dating back to the mid 1800s that transports visitors deep into the darkness. Keep an eye out for the five-metre-high bright white stalagmite called Brilliant. It grows at less than 10 centimetres every thousand years, so we’ll let you do the numbers. Also find the eyeless baby dragons that live deep in the bowels of the cave. Yes, we did say baby dragons.
The same distance south again will see you arriving in Piran. Part of the Slovenian Riviera and sitting on a peninsula that juts into the Adriatic Sea, it was ‘owned’ by Venice in the 15th century and shares certain architectural characteristics. It has its own charms though, not least of which is the lack of crowds. Starting at Tartini Square, stroll through the maze of Venetian-style buildings housing shops, bars and cafes. Be sure to catch a sunset from an outdoor table at Cafinho – it has the best music selection in town.
Speaking of the best, in 2017 a former diplomacy student was awarded the world’s best female chef on the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Located in the stunning Soča Valley – itself surrounded by the snow-capped Julian Alps – chef Ana Ros’s Hiša Franko is a gastronomic experience like no other. With dinner consisting of 23 courses and a matching wine option – her specialty is tortellini, but not as you know it – make sure you have a designated driver. Even more so if you decide to stop in the Goriška Brda region on the drive in. It pays to spend a night in what is the Slovenian equivalent of Tuscany, since the wine on offer is world class.
The lush Soča Valley offers a lot more than simply food and wine. Go white-water rafting on the ridiculously emerald green Soča River, zipline across 250-metre-high gorges, mountain bike, skydive, kayak, ski, snowboard… If you base yourself in Bovec, you can pick a different adrenaline thrill each day. You’ll probably want to finish up with a crafty at the Thirsty River Brewery as the sun sets.
Slovenia’s size allows for a full tour of the country to be accomplished in under a week, but that would hardly be cool. Take your time and discover your own secrets in the coolest of the cool European destinations. Oh, did we mention Žalec's beer fountain?
If you’re anything like us, a trip to the local produce market is always high on our just-got-here-need-to-eat agenda. Sometimes, however, the unusual aromas and slippery floors of death can put a damper on our hunger. Not Rotterdam’s high-end offering, designed by local architects MVRDV and combining food hall, art space and apartment building. It’s the first of its kind in the world, and features a mural of market produce created by Arno Coene and Iris Roskam that’s been printed on aluminium panels and set into a huge internal arch. When you’re done ogling the roof, there are more than a hundred fresh food stands, as well as restaurants, food shops and a massive supermarket.
Beer, glorious beer – if that’s a mantra of yours, do we have a treat for you. Any good beer aficionado knows that Belgium, and in particular the town of Leuven, is an important location on the ale trail as it’s home to the world’s biggest brand-name brewery, AB InBev. But Leuven also lays claim to having what’s widely considered the longest bar in Europe: Oude Markt. This lively city square comprises 40 bars, with every single building on the pedestrian-only thoroughfare (apart from two pharmacies) serving froffies. Outdoor terraces blend into one another, and patrons – beers in hand – spill out onto the central walkway in what can only be described as one enormous street party. Steer clear of the obvious tourist bars and head to De Kroeg, which claims to be the square’s oldest cafe, or Café Belge and its impressive selection of beers. Proost!
A hunter in Canada once told us that bears who’ve been stealing local winegrowers’ grapes taste the best. You might have to take his word for it, even in Slovenia where limited numbers of these lumbering beasts are hunted in forests where their numbers have become unsustainable. The best spot to find yourself some bear sausage is direct from the maker at places like Ljubljana’s Central Market. We suspect it doesn’t taste like chicken.
To even begin to get your head around the concept that is Copenhagen’s most ambitious dining venture, Alchemist, it’s worth looking at the mind-boggling stats: four kitchens, 10,000 bottles in the cellar, 40 seats, 30 chefs, 20 waiters, two sensory experience rooms, 50 courses and one insanely talented 27-year-old head chef, Rasmus Munk. After closing in 2017, Alchemist was due to reopen at press time with a renewed appetite for challenging the limits of a meal. Using a concept called Holistic Cuisine – incorporating ethical and social issues with art, theatre, science and technology (a former signature dish, pictured right, of lamb heart tartare with cherry sauce encouraged diners to become organ donors) – Munk and his army of chefs meticulously create boundary-pushing dishes that stimulate the senses. So how do you finish a five-hour feasting extravaganza? With a traditional Chinese tea ceremony.
Although completely unassuming on the outside, within Berlin’s Bar Jeder Vernunft a glittering festival awaits. Stellar comedy acts and musical performances are staged within a tent festooned by a glitzy sea of mirrors and decorated with red velvet curtains, strings of lights and candlelit tables. Before the show starts, check out the seasonal menu on offer, or book a three-course meal in advance, with the starter and main course served prior to the show, and dessert in the intermission.
Really, it does what it says on the tin. This is a combination of brains versus brawn, mentality versus muscle. In venues across London, hard men get in the ring to move their pieces then slug it out in three-minute rounds. The win comes from either a checkmate or a KO. The next big bout, Oktoberfist, takes place on 5 October, but if you’re keen to give it a go classes are held in Islington on Saturday mornings.
Competing with the fairytale charm of Bruges, cobbled lanes of Antwerp and all-mighty lure of Brussels, it’s no wonder the medieval city of Ghent has managed to keep a low profile. Currently considered one of Belgium’s best-kept secrets, we have a sneaking suspicion this port town is about to start popping up on must-visit lists everywhere. A wealth of classical architecture is on display in the streets, and as one of Belgium’s oldest cities it’s home to more listed buildings than anywhere else in the country. Don’t miss the chance to feel as though you’ve been teleported back to the Middle Ages with a visit to Gravensteen Castle, while St Bavo’s Cathedral is a stunning example of Gothic design (it’s also home to The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb – the most stolen artwork of all time). Speaking of, some of Belgium’s best art collections are housed in Ghent. Get a closer look at them at MSK, the Museum of Fine Arts, STAM, the City Museum and S.M.A.K., the Museum for Contemporary Art. And with the largest student population in the Flanders region, you know there’s going to be some cracking places to eat, drink and let loose. Grab a drink in one of the many bars in the trendy district of Patershol, catch a gig at Vooruit and tuck into a steaming bowl of waterzooi (chicken soup) with a side of French fries and mayo. This is Belgium, after all.
You’ve probably heard a lot about the benefits of salt lamps and salt therapy rooms, which are said to cure a myriad of allergies, respiratory difficulties and skin conditions. So it should come as no surprise to learn there’s a wellness centre located 135 metres below the ground at one of Poland’s oldest working salt mines. The air in Wieliczka Salt Mine, which is a maze-like subterranean labyrinth of passageways and chambers, is completely pollution-free and rich in micronutrients – the ideal conditions for a successful health resort. Whether you’re visiting for the day or staying overnight, treatments include medical tests, massages, cardio training, aerobics classes and breathing exercises. Look, it may not be considered a traditional pamper sesh (there’s certainly no mani-pedi combos on offer), but we’re certainly not going to complain about a new-and-improved immune system.
There must have been a time when the good citizens of Dundee thought their new museum might never happen. Originally slated for 2014, the doors finally swung open in September 2018. But they say good things come to those who wait and Scotland’s first museum dedicated to design is jam packed with inspiring exhibits. Even if you don’t wander inside, architect Kengo Kuma’s jaunty, angled creation that cantilevers, in part, over the River Tay is one worth casting an eye upon. For his first commission in the UK, Kuma looked to nature and Scotland’s rugged northeastern coastal cliffs for his vision. The curving concrete walls of the museum are made from 2500 pre-cast rough stone panels each weighing up to 3000 kilograms. As an added bonus, history buffs will love that Discovery, the ship used by Scott and Shackleton on their Antarctic expeditions, is moored outside.
File Bucharest under Europe’s most surprising city, because this is one destination that doesn’t get the kudos it deserves. Romania’s capital, long thought of as nothing more than a stopover on the way to Transylvania, is finally coming into its own with a lively nightlife, interesting array of museums and galleries, plenty of green space and cheap beers. While the mark of Communism is still evident throughout the city – the menacing Palace of Parliament (the heaviest building in the world, and the second largest administrative structure behind the Pentagon) is the most extreme example – there’s also a beautifully mismatched collection of Orthodox churches, Byzantine apartment blocks and Art Nouveau manors well worth ogling. Trendy cafes, one of the prettiest bookstores this side of Paris in Carturesti Carusel, and a noticeable lack of tourists, long lines or crowded attractions only further validate Bucharest’s newly minted cool status.
When you picture an island resort, your first thought probably isn’t of a collection of luxury tents tucked away on a forested private island in the Stockholm archipelago. Admit it – you went tropical island vibes, didn’t you? Island Lodge is a 40-minute boat ride from the Swedish capital, and it’s just as indulgent as any five-star beachside resort. There are seven dome-shaped tents, each with a wooden deck. The interiors resemble the set of a magazine shoot and showcase the latest in Scandinavian design – we’re talking plush linen, reindeer skins and wood-fire stoves. Meals are prepared using seasonal, local and organic produce, and served up at a sea-front dining setting. Massages can be arranged, and there’s also a hot tub, floating sauna and wine cellar. Who needs palm trees and fruity cocktails when you’ve got this sort of cosy comfort?
Glittering turquoise waters, secluded sandy coves, sunny days and warm nights – all this and more natural splendour is just a 20-minute flight from England’s Cornish Coast. Yes, you read that right. This is the UK. So what is this secret paradise the Brits have been keeping from us? St Agnes, a tiny landmass in the Isles of Scilly. Measuring less than two kilometres in width, it’s the most southwesterly island in the archipelago and consists of a community of 72 people, a few cute cottages, bird sanctuary, pub and an ice-creamery – you know, all the remote island essentials. You can camp (or glamp) at Troytown Farm, and days become surprisingly busy as you squeeze in kayaking, swimming, stand-up paddleboarding, walking and birdwatching. Don’t forget to have a meal at the Turk’s Head pub either – the views from the beer garden are the best on the island.
From the outside it looks like your run-of-the-mill place of worship, but step inside and you might find yourself questioning whether you’ve stumbled upon the lair of a prolific serial killer. Sedlec Ossuary, also known as the Church of Bones, is a small chapel in Kutná Hora decorated entirely with human bones. Thankfully, they aren’t the remains of murder victims, and have instead come from the tens of thousands of people buried in nearby Sedlec Cemetery. In 1870 a local woodcarver began working his dark magic on the bones, creating macabre highlights like a fetching 2.5-metre bone chandelier, an insanely detailed family crest, bone candelabras, skull candleholders and crosses crafted from hip and femur bones. Creepy? You bet. Cool? Abso-bloody-lutely.
Norway may be home to polar bears, walrus, reindeer and moose, but there’s one particular creature that lures animal lovers like no other: whales. On a cruise with Majestic Whale Encounters it isn't just any old cetacean you’ll be getting to know, though. During this nine-night tour you’ll not only be cruising fjords to spot humpbacks and other marine life, you’ll also be pulling on a wetsuit and actually diving into the ocean to swim and interact with orcas. Taking a dip with these inquisitive and highly intelligent animals is a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. There’s no need to worry about these gentle giants taking a cheeky chomp out of you. Norwegian orcas eat only herring.
If you ingested a diet of Disney films as a child, chances are you probably dreamed of growing up, meeting your Prince (or Princess) Charming and living happily ever after in a castle. While we can’t do much about the royalty part, you might be interested to hear about Pałac Warmątowice Sienkiewiczowskie, a real-life castle you can stay in. It’s situated in the Legnica region of Poland and was originally built in 1602 as a fortified manor complete with epic moat. Almost destroyed in World War II, it has since been restored to its former glory and now accommodates up to 10 guests across five elaborately furnished guestrooms. If that’s not fairytale-esque enough for you, dense woodlands where deer, birds and small forest creatures reside surround the castle – how’s that for some Snow White vibes?
Who said a landslide had to bring you down? In the case of this Sardinian gem, it was the start of something heavenly. Located near the town of Baunei, Cala Biriola was formed when the landscape fell away about half a century ago, leaving behind a semicircle of smooth white pebbles surrounded by towering limestone cliffs and turquoise water. At one end of the beach, there’s also a natural rock arch. The walk in is epic, but you can easily take a water taxi from one of the local villages. Do that early in the morning and you’ll practically have this picture-perfect scene to yourself. Oh, there are plenty of fish in this sea, so don’t forget your mask and snorkel.