PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
DORMS FROM $18
At Prague's Czech Inn, you'll find everything you would expect in a modern hotel: Scandinavian-style furniture, exposed brick, a posh bar with a live DJ, and a lobby with white walls and brushed aluminum trimming that makes it look like a giant iPod. This is one of the new breed of "designer hostels" targeted at upscale backpackers who can afford a hotel but prefer the social interaction found in hostels. Located near Prague's city centre on a major tram line, accommodations are a mix of crisply-designed dorms and a few private rooms and apartments. Mind you, the buzzing bar on the main floor is bound to lure even the most exhausted tourists to quaff a pint of Czech beer.
Francouzska 76, Prague; 420 267 267 600; www.czech-inn.com
FROM $40 A PERSON
Only 30 minutes by tube from Heathrow Airport in a safe residential area, this is considered one of the top hostels in Britain. You can kip out in style on custom-designed "luxury bunks" with personal reading lights, or enjoy the amenities, which include a bar, a gym, an Internet café, a mini-supermarket, a large kitchen and a dining room. They'll even do your dishes for you. The hostel has 400 beds, ranging from private double and twin en-suite rooms to four- and six-bed mixed and same-sex dorms.
Ashlar Court, Ravenscourt Gardens, London; 44 208 746 3112; www.globetrotterinns.com .
FROM $37 A PERSON
Part of the Feetup Hostels chain (voted best in 2005 by Hostelworld.com customers), this Spanish gem in the heart of Valencia's historic Barrio El Carmen has just 10 double or twin balconied rooms tastefully decorated with the work of local artists. This hostel will also appeal to better-heeled, mature travellers interested in the city's nightlife since guests under 18 aren't admitted without a guardian. Features include free Wi-Fi Internet access in the lobby and rooms, continental breakfast, a tour desk, luggage storage and 24-hour reception.
Calle Cadirers 11, 46001 Valencia, Spain; 34 9639-14691; www.feetuphostels.com. Rates start at $37 a person.
EAST SEVEN HOSTEL
DORMS FROM $25
Situated in Mitte, Berlin's bustling art and nightlife district, the East Seven gives guests a comfortable perch from which to witness the city's startling rebirth. Recently renovated, the hostel boasts a design that is brash but inviting. Well-lit rooms are splashed with bright colours and feature comfortable pine beds and even baby beds for new parents struck by the travel bug. As for shared spaces, owners Pierre Ammon and Jörg Schöpfe have found the right balance between bohemian hip and homespun hospitality in the multicoloured retro lounge and a cozy back garden - both perfect places to make the transition from a day of gallery-hopping to a night of clubbing.
Ammon & Schöpfel GBR, Schwedter Strasse 7, Berlin; 49 3 0 936 222 40; www.eastseven.de. Doubles from $46.
DORMS FROM $25
That are few places you can stay in Europe - at any price - that have a history quite like the Celica. Located in Ljubljana, Slovenia, one of the most popular destinations among the breakaway states of former Yugoslavia, this hotel is a former military prison that has been reconstructed in co-operation with local and foreign artists.
Every room is literally a work of art: 20 former prison cells, complete with iron bars, have been turned into compact guest rooms with details such as a ceiling painted by Russian artist Maksim Isayev.
The Celica is part of Metelkova, a self-declared "Autonomous Cultural Zone" that has evolved into the capital's creative hub, with the hostel regularly hosting art shows, poetry readings, and concerts.
Metelkova 8, S -1000; 386 1 230 97 00; www.souhostel.com. Dorms from $25, "cells" from $31
DORMS FROM $31
Hostelling International, the world's largest hostelling organization, has jumped on the trend toward upscale hostels in a big way with five new designer hostels in Switzerland. Among the best is YHA in Scuol, a small town two hours from Zurich that is home to skiing, snowboarding and world-class thermal baths. With a unique design that places balconies and bay windows in unexpected places, the newly built hostel looks like a giant Jenga puzzle. The interior, however, is all smooth lines - its giant lounge features a massive fireplace and a panoramic view of the Lower Engadine Valley. The hostel recently won an award for its sustainable design.
Scuol Youth Hostel, Prà da faira, CH-7550 Scuol; 41 0 81 862 31 31. www.youthhostel.ch/scuol. Dorms from $31, four-bed rooms from $49 a person, including breakfast and evening meal.
QUIET FOR CARAVAGGIO
Palazzo Doria Pamphili
In a city as beloved by tourists as Rome, enjoying art in a relaxed or secluded setting can seem as elusive as meeting the Pope.
During the summer months, the crowds around the Trevi Fountain are so thick that tossing in the requisite coin calls for a pretty good pitching arm. And even the reservations you have to make to get into the popular Borghese Gallery do not guarantee a mob-free experience.
Fortunately, the Italian capital is a city of hidden gems as well as renowned attractions, as I discovered when I came across the fascinating but less-frequented Palazzo Doria Pamphili just off Via del Corso. Like the Borghese, the museum contains a wealth of paintings and statuary in a series of stately rooms. Unlike the Borghese, this artistic treasure trove is entered via a quiet piazza, doesn't require reservations and is virtually crowd-free.
For one blissful morning, I admired masterworks by the likes of Velasquez, Caravaggio and Bernini in silent, practically empty galleries. Best of all, the Palazzo Doria Pamphili isn't far from Ciampini, one of the city's best cafés.
Palazzo Doria Pamphili; 305 Via del Corso; www.doriapamphilj.it/ukhome.asp. Admission is $13.
ALPINE HOT SPRINGS
BAD RAGAZ, SWITZERLAND
$17 A DIP
For a champagne-tastes Swiss spa experience on a fondue budget, look no farther than Heidiland. Although the local tourist commission recently rebranded this region for the children's story set here, it's also a famed spa area.
In the canton of St. Gallen, for example, you'll find Tamina Gorge - the source of a huge mineral hot spring that gushes 37-degree water from the mountains down a fern-filled ravine. Discovered in 1038, it wasn't until 200 years later that local monks made good use of the water's purported healing powers. But today, the region thrives on spa culture.
At its core is the public bathhouse Tamina Therme in the town of Bad Ragaz. This spotless, modern building has harnessed the hot springs for several Olympic-sized pools - one open-air and two indoor - as well as waterfalls, grottos, bubble-massage seats and massage jets (they soothe).
Visitors can spend a full day relaxing with families and pensioners amid the bubbling pools and misty air. When you finally emerge from the buoyant waters, a woman dressed in hospital whites wraps you in a warm sheet.
Tamina Therme is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Admission is $17. For more information, call 41 81 303 3030 or visit www.spavillage.ch.
J'AIME LE NIGHTLIFE
The City of Light is, naturally, quite beautiful at night. But cheap spots to enjoy it can be difficult to find - unless you stick to the scene around the Seine.
LE BAISER SALÉ
58 RUE DES LOMBARDS
$26 A SHOW
This Paris institution bills itself as "Le temple de fusion" and it's exactly that - mixed music, a mixed crowd and mixed drinks in a laid-back atmosphere. Drinks are $6 to $9.
25 RUE DE ROI DE SICILE
$8 A PINT
It may be a few blocks from the uber-trendy Marais district, but this communist-kitsch hangout sports images of Soviet writers and military parades on the walls - painted red, of course - and draws sincere old lefties (Paris still has plenty). As for the music: The speakers blare The Clash and PJ Harvey. A pint of beer is around $8.
78 RUE VIEILLE DU TEMPLE
$4 A GLASS
It's undeniable: Parisians are beautiful. And as the bloggers who rave (and rant) about this place can attest, this is the place to look at them. Or maybe meet one. This small bar is known as a hook-up spot, but thankfully it doesn't feel like one. Glasses of wine start at $4.
CAVEAU DE LA HUCHETTE
5 RUE DE LA HUCHETTE
Although this is one of the oldest jazz clubs in Paris (you name an icon, they've played here), it draws lots of young clubbers into its cavernous deeps. Drinks are $9.
$40 A RUN
Want a big mountain adrenalin rush in the middle of summer? Climb in behind the driver of a bobsled fitted with wheels and hurtle down the 1,210-metre-long 1976 Winter Olympic bobsled track at Igls, Austria, near Innsbruck. Fourteen turns keep your descent interesting and speeds of more than 100 kilometres an hour are reached on the straight stretches. The summer schedule runs until Aug. 29. Groups of up to 16 can be accommodated, but in July and August couples or single riders are welcome every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 4 to 6 p.m. The price of a run is about $40 a person; the minimum age for riders is 14.
For reservations, visit www.sommerbobrunning.at or call 43 0 52 75 200 07.
FEEL THE HEAT
$16-$20 A SWEAT
In Finland, the sauna is such a revered institution that most large hotels have one. But even if you're staying on the cheap, you can work up a good sweat in Helsinki thanks to the city's public saunas. The Kotiharjun sauna (Harjutorinkatu 1; www.aatos.fi/sauna) is a centrally located, wood-heated option. If you have a friend in town who's a member, the Finnish Sauna Society (www.sauna.fi/inenglish.html) might be an option. Even if you're a total stranger, though, if you want to nosh on a pastry, sip some beer, do your laundry and take some heat all in one place, Café Tin Tin Tango is your one-stop destination (Toolontorinkatu 7; 358 9 2709 0972; www.ravintolaopas.net/cafetintintango). Fees range from $16 to $20.
LONDON'S BEST CATCH
FRYER'S DELIGHT $
Even in today's gastro London, it would be a disgrace to leave town without a serious helping of haddock and chips, plus the hangover that inevitably accompanies it. But while this Zagat-friendly city is forcing lesser chippies to close, finding a great one is still hit and miss. Thus, an honest recommendation is key. And who better to ask than a cabbie - fish 'n' chips are to cabbies here as doughnuts are to Canuck cops. Fryer's Delight is the favourite of drivers, who shuffle in between shifts for plates of fat chips and just-fried fillets (choose from six varieties of fish). But it's not for the squeamish. The decor hasn't changed since the Queen's silver jubilee in 1977 and everything is deep-fried in "beef dripping." That's just the way they like it.
19 Theobald's Rd.; 020 7405 4114; Plates from $12.25.
This used to be a hot spot for Eurail tourists taking their last (greasy) gasps of London before embarking the train to France. But now that the international terminal has relocated north, Fishcotheque caters to tipsy locals heading for the Tube after last call. The diner seating complements the friendly clientele -with whom you'll no doubt be on a first-name basis before you've even reached for the malt vinegar. Huge portions, as traditional as the fish 'n' chips themselves, are the norm.
79A Waterloo Rd.; 020 7928 1484; Plates from $12.85.
Fish Bone $$
Standards are consistently high at Fish Bone, in the scrubbed-up middle zone between naughty Soho and pastoral Regents Park. Calorie counters can opt out of the breading and have their fish (not just cod and haddock but sea bream and tilapia) char-grilled. But why would you want to forgo the breading when it's made from matzo meal and fried in non-greasy groundnut oil? If mushy peas are your style, have them here, where they are blended by hand on-site.
82 Cleveland St.; 020 7580 2672; Plates from $15.50.
Geales has always been posh, located, as it is, in the prettiest corner of Notting Hill. But a few years ago the owners chucked out the lace curtains and replaced the tired pine furnishings with black leather seating and white tablecloths. You can have any seaside delicacy here, from Duchy of Cornwall oysters to caviar to Loch Fyne smoked salmon. But if you're here to go traditional, order up a scampi and chips, or simply some sustainably caught Pacific cod, grab a pint, and then walk it off at the nearby Portobello Market.
2 Farmer St.; 020 7727 7528; www.geales.com.; Plates from $18.
Tom's Place $$$$
It has become fashion for top chefs - after having proved themselves to the critics with molecular fusion organic cooking - to turn their attentions to soul food. Fish 'n' chips being as "soul" as it gets for the British, it was the natural choice for Tom Aikens, the latest young celeb chef to make his mark on London. Tom's Place is where high-born Londoners from this Chelsea neighbourhood come to pretend they never turned their nose up at the poor man's delicacy. They zealously scoff their fish cakes, crab cakes and organic fillets with glasses of Rioja and half-pints of microbrew, and no doubt feel guilty about it in the morning.
1 Cale St.; 020 7351 1806; www.tomsplace.org.uk; Plates from $19.
EASTERN BLOC PARTY
$14 A NIGHT
The charms of East Germany were qualified at best. But that hasn't stop a wave of ostalgie, or nostalgia, for life on the other side of the Berlin Wall. Which might explain the success of the Ostel - a "communist retro" hotel.
Located in a Plattenbau, a cheap concrete apartment block, the furniture and fittings are GDR originals and reflect years of flea-market scavenging by the hotel's two young owners. The colour scheme is relentlessly pea green, mud brown and mustard yellow and it's hard to escape party boss Erich Honecker's spectacled gaze. It's not the decadent West, in other words, although concessions have thankfully been made with the bathrooms. As for prices? The six-person "pioneer camp" dorm defies capitalist logic at $14 a night, while a double bedroom with bath starts at $95.
Some Germans take exception to the commercialization of a complex chapter of their history. For a glimpse behind the Iron Curtain not far from Checkpoint Charlie, though, this hotel is hard to beat.
Wriezener Karree 5; 49 30 25 76 86 60; www.ostel.eu.
VIVE LA FRANCE LIBRE
MUSÉE DE LA RÉSISTANCE
It may not do much for your appetite. But in the spirit of 1968, even dedicated foodies in this gastronomic capital might want to schedule a stop at La Musée de la Résistance. Located in the belly of the beast - inside the former Gestapo headquarters - history hangs heavy here. This is where men and women were tortured. Klaus Barbie strutted down the halls. And artifacts include a spy's radio transmitter concealed in a suitcase and letters from the doomed. One young man writes to his wife, telling her he is to be shot the next day, wishing her well in life and ending, magnificently, "Vive la France!" Until June 29, the exhibit Underground Printers also shows secret photographs by Robert Doisneau of the men and women behind Resistance newspapers. Working clandestine presses around the clock, they scorned payment, saying that this was their way of fighting. And so they did, and died: Of the 1,200 people who put out these newspapers, 800 were caught and killed.
A sobering visit. But for a few euros, unforgettable.
14 avenue Berthelot; 33 04 78 72 23 11. Open 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday. Entry $6.
LOOT FOR LESS
DAVID LINLEY DOORSTOPS
In London, aristocratic
designer David Linley is
challenging Jasper Conran of the Conran Shop as the go-to retailer for elegant housewares. His Linley shops are pricey, but some of his chic wood accessories, such as this handsome sycamore door stop, can be had for the price of a cab ride. Linley's shops are located in Mayfair and Belgravia (www.davidlinley.com).
In Budapest, Folkart Centrum (Vaci Utca 58), the Hungarian capital's main pedestrian mall, is the place to go for authentic Magyar crafts, including textiles, ceramics, carvings and embroidery. Although the
latter is particularly hot in North America right now, these hand-embroidered
coasters were purchased
for a song.
PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
If you're visiting Prague this summer, be sure to sample a beton, a popular cocktail made with tonic water and Becherovka, the fragrant herbal liqueur revered by the Czechs. Better yet, pick up a bottle of the stuff to bring back home. Becherovka is available in Canada, but only in Ontario and Alberta.
A 750-millilitre bottle costs about $23 at the delightfully Old World production plant and museum in Karlovy Vary (www.becherovka.cz).
THE JOCK EXCHANGE
The Alps are alive with the sound of music - or is that La Marseillaise? Sixteen national teams will vie for Europe's top soccer prize until June 29, with four Swiss and four Austrian cities hosting 31 games. The final is being played at Vienna's 50,000-seat Ernst-Happel-Stadion.
Tickets If you don't already have a ticket in hand, the chances of finding one for under $50 are pretty much nil. That said, all of the host cities are setting up jumbo-sized screens in central squares, along with "fan zones," for ticket-less visitors to take in games (as well as plenty of schnitzel and pilsner). Vienna's Fan Mile is particularly impressive, with nine big screens and 86 food stands. For more information, visit euro2008.uefa.com.
Few sporting events have maintained their dignity quite like England's annual tennis love-in. Real grass remains the playing surface, royalty still hands out the championship hardware, and strawberries and cream are still stunningly popular (last year, about 28,000 kilograms of berries were served). And in another civilized turn, tickets are surprisingly affordable and attainable at the turnstiles.
Tickets Every day, about 1,500 tickets - starting at $50 - are reserved for sale at the quaintly named All England Tennis and Croquet Club for the Centre, No. 1 and No. 2 courts. (This does not apply to Centre Court over the last four days of the tournament, which this year runs from June 23 to July 6). Roughly 6,000 tickets are available each day for entry to the Grounds, including the No. 2 Court standing enclosure and unreserved seating and standing on Courts 3 to 19. These start at $10. And since this is England, the queuing process for tickets is fairly strict. www.wimbledon.org.
Tour de France
The world's most famous bike race brings new meaning to following a sport. Running from July 5 to 27, the 95th Tour (www.letour.fr) is made up of 21 stages and covers 3,500 kilometres. Trailing behind the hundreds of cyclists heading out from Brest, Brittany, will be thousands of fans (more than 12 million are expected to watch from the roadsides), a 20-kilometre-long procession of colourful sponsor caravans, and a media circus on motorbikes and in helicopters.
Tickets A prime roadside vantage point - which costs absolutely nothing - can yield hours of entertainment. Remember that it's best to arrive early in the a.m. if you want a decent spot. Several companies offer guided tour packages as well. For more information on these, visit www.letour.fr/2008/TDF/COURSE/us/voyages.html.
SHUCK IT UP
MORAN'S OYSTER COTTAGE
$47 A DOZEN
Drive through Clarenbridge in the west of Ireland, make your way to The Weir and you can't miss the whitewashed, thatch-roofed Oyster Cottage, an Irish institution operated by the Moran family for seven generations. Publicans and champion oyster openers (the operators of the cottage have held eight world titles), the Morans have drawn a clientele of oyster lovers that, over the decades, has included Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, Woody Allen and even the Emperor and Empress of Japan.
My advice is to get there early (busloads of visitors can arrive in the summer), and place your order right away as service can be slow by North American standards - but just right to accommodate the good conversation of the Irish. Order a pint of Guinness, sniff the sea air and the peat smouldering in the hearth, and get ready for an oyster feast.
The oysters, grown wild - raked and graded a 15-minute tractor ride away - are brought to Moran's door twice a day to keep up with the crowds. The Galway flat is an oyster second to none, which is a big thing for a shucker to say. But this oyster has the power to transport you to the water where it was reared. The salt air of the west of Ireland is in the very nose of the oyster as you bring it to your lips. The seaweed notes of the shoreline stride across your palate, and the firm, toothsome crunch of the oyster gives way to a dry metallic finish. Ocean on the half shell.
Moran's Oyster Cottage; 353 91 796113; www.moransoystercottage.com. A pint of Guinness, a half-dozen Galway oysters and another half-dozen garlic grilled oysters cost about $47.
LOOKING WON'T COST YOU
THE ART FACTORY
"The arts are dear to the Hungarian heart and soul," explains Dianne C. Brown, an art consultant for private and corporate services in Budapest, "but for a long time contemporary art languished in Hungary." Lately, however, things have changed for the better. New gallery districts are popping up around town, including clusters in the Falk Miksa area, on Kiraly Street, Rady Street and Varfok Street leading up to the Castle District. And then there's the new Art Factory Gallery and Studio, a two-storey warehouse with an auto-parts shop on the ground floor, broken windows up top and a rusty door, behind which emerges an almost magical scene: There are soaring ceilings, streams of sunlight and canvases anointed with brushstrokes of acrylic and oil - many of the paintings so large they almost touch the rafters.
This is a former furniture factory; the remnants of a red star illustrating the building's not-so-distant past. The Art Factory is a private working studio and exhibition space for four of Hungary's leading young artists: Dóra Juhász, Levente Herman, Márta Kucsora and Zsolt Bodoni, whose works have been shown from Miami to Milan. Little wonder then that savvy collectors are descending upon the city and snatching up relatively affordable works while the getting is good. But just looking is always free and you can buy a signed, limited-edition Bodoni printed on a pillow case for $75.
Art Factory Gallery and Studio: Váci Street 152-156; 36-209-549-941; www.budapestartfactory.com. Gallery hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday. The studio can be visited by appointment.
ROW, ROW YOUR BOAT
Near berlin, germany
STARTING AT $16
Kanadier can mean many things in German. A male Canadian, for one. Or, depending on who you ask, a canoe, kayak or any floating device that can be propelled forward with paddles.
Mind you, canoeing here has its limits. While there are two major rivers running through Berlin, as well as a vast network of canals and purportedly more bridges than Venice, rowing is illegal. Instead, head to the outskirts of the capital - both as an introduction to German canoeing habits and for a unique (and cheap) perspective on the city's surroundings.
One of the best places to start is the Havel River and the interconnecting lakes west of Berlin. Launching from the boat rental at the Griebnitzsee S-bahn station, you can explore the many castles and royal parks of Potsdam, paddle under the Glienicker Brucke (the bridge John le Carré made famous in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) and stop for lunch at any number of waterside cafés.
An hour's train ride southeast of Berlin is also the Spree Forest, which boasts more than 400 kilometres of waterways. It is home to Germany's indigenous Sorbian minority, known for its traditional dress, distinct Slavic language and homemade pickles. You're more likely to punt than to paddle here, though, so take a map.
Canoes rentals start at $16 an hour, then $6 every additional hour. For more information, visit www.potsdam-by-bike.de/kayak-tours or www.spreewald.info.com.
DENMARK WITH THE KIDS
If you're travelling to Europe with young kids, it's best to steer clear of Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Spain, where people love children but don't see the point of doing much to accommodate or entertain them.
No, if you want a place that appreciates the special recreational needs of children and offers diversions for families on a budget, you have to turn to the fun-loving Danes and their relatively new - 900 years or so - capital of Copenhagen. This, after all, is the adoptive hometown of someone whose work they undoubtedly know all too well: Hans Christian Andersen, whose wonderful fairy tales manage to speak to children without talking down to them.
And it's that spirit that seems to inform Copenhagen's countless affordable attractions for the young. Here are just a few.
$9 per child under 12
Opened in 1843, this tiny amusement park famously served as an inspiration for Walt Disney and his little business ventures. Sandwiched between city hall and the main train station, this verdant, neon-free park has the kind of charm you don't normally associate with midways. There are rides, of course, but the highlight has to be the 134-year-old Pantomime Theatre and its peacock curtain; its commedia dell'arte shows, with their broad, physical humour, need no translation and will leave little ones giggling hysterically.
Tivoli A/S 3 Vesterbrogade, 45 3315 1001, www.tivoligardens.com; open mid-April to mid-September.
$18 for children
Just a bus ride away from downtown Copenhagen in the suburb of Hellerup, this weird science centre occupies a former Tuborg beer-bottling plant. Kids can make like Bill Nye and test their perceptions of the natural world at about 300 exhibits, including a water area and a hall of mirrors.
Until Sept. 7, the Xtreme Expedition exhibit allows kids to get a sense of what it's like to be a penguin in Antarctica or an anglerfish - so unfairly depicted in Finding Nemo - sitting at the bottom of the ocean.
Tuborg Havnevej 7, Hellerup, 45 3927 3333; visit www.experimentarium.dk; open every day except over Christmas and New Year's.
The country's largest museum houses exhibits on everything from the first reindeer hunters to arrive in Scandinavia, around 13,000 BC, to an executioner's axe that probably cut off the head of Johann Friedrich Struensee, the 18th-century physician who almost single-handedly brought the Enlightenment to Denmark. Whatever, Mom and Dad. The museum also contains a children's museum, where kids can dress up in period costumes or pretend to set sail on a full-scale copy of a Viking ship to, you know, "make friends" in other parts of Europe.
Ny Vestergade 10, 45 3313 4411, www.nationalmuseet.dk; open Tuesday to Sunday.
$15 for kids under 12.
Normally, zoos are like indoor plumbing: being almost 150 years old is not an asset. But this lovely, updated park just west of downtown Copenhagen features more than 3,000 animals in humane enclosures, including musk ox and a large collection of birds. There's also a petting zoo for younger children.
Roskildevej 32, Frederiksberg. For more information, practise your Danish by visiting www.zoo.dk; open 365 days a year.
$45 for children
You can't - can't - take the kids to Copenhagen without making a side trip by car or train to Billund, home to the world's largest and oldest Legoland. It's basically a company town, with the amusement park built beside the original Lego factory. New this year is Pirate Lagoon and its adjoining swashbuckler-themed water playgrounds. But the star attraction is still Miniland, with buildings and characters made from more than 20 million Lego bricks - which, with the possible exception of green army men, are the best toys ever. And of course the kids can get a chance to sample the wares.
Nordmarksvej 9, Billund, www.legoland.dk; open March 15 to Oct. 26.
TAKE A LICKING
FIOR DI LUNA GEALTERIA
$5.30 A CUP
In Italy, it's hard to get bad coffee. As for gelato? Unless you're suffering from heat stroke at the Trevi Fountain and will settle for bland, overpriced tourist scoops, it takes a little research. Lucky for us, we have two daughters to help with the legwork. And after a year in Rome they discovered the city's ultimate sweet spot: Fior di Luna, or Moon Flower.
It's an unlikely paragon. Smack in the middle of Trastevere, the medieval quarter better known for bars and late-night carousing than fine food, the shop itself is plain. We strolled by it a dozen times before it occurred to us to go in.
Once we stepped inside, though, we kept coming back. Because unlike most gelaterie, Fior di Luna makes its own ice cream. The laboratario with stainless-steel vats is in the back. The milk and sugar are always organic. The fruit is always in season.
That's why you won't find fig gelato in the winter. Nor will you find cones, since the owners refuse to contaminate the eating experience with an "industrial" product. Here, you eat from a paper cup.
Marco Ronco, the man behind the counter, says half a dozen flavours are also made without milk, for those who are lactose-intolerant. A few are made without sugar. Most of the 30 flavours though - like banana, pistachio and vanilla - are Italian standards.
Still, under Fior di Luna's magic touch, the lemon makes you pucker, the strawberry is like eating the real thing. And if you're feeling adventurous, there's chili chocolate.
It was the richest chocolate I've ever tasted. And a few seconds later, my mouth started to tingle. Then Marco burst out laughing as I went into mild shock. "I like to create new things that the people like," he says.
Fior di Luna, Via della Lungaretta 96, www.fiordiluna.com. Hours: Noon until 1 a.m., closed Mondays. Prices from $2 to $5.30 a cup.
GIN WITH A TWIST
$3 A SHOT
This Belgian college town has no shortage of beer. But for a bargain lesson in its other signature drink - the precursor to gin called genever - drop in on "Professor Pol" at 't Dreupelkot. The owner of this canteen re-educates gin lovers with sips of $3 jonge, directs whisky lovers to barrel-aged varieties and gives tentative newbies fruit-flavoured pours. His success might explain all the bowing at the bar. Then again, genever is poured above the lip of the glass.
't Dreupelkot;12 900 Groentenmark. Drinks range from $3-$9.
Need a cheap place to stay while passing through Vlore, Albania? Fatjon Xhebraj has a couch for you to crash on. And he's just one of more than 500,000 members of this social networking website, which links people from 42,108 cities. Members post profiles (Xhebraj is male, 22, and speaks English), listing available couches. But some are less likely than others to become real time hosts. Tom Hamann in Antarctica, for example, describes his dormroom couch as a "six foot long, ugly tan number."
ART IN AISLE
$15 AND UP
Vienna art dealers are borrowing from a rather surprising retail model: The M-ARS supermarket, opened last year, offers a constantly rotating stock of about 1,000 juried pieces for prices ranging from $15 to $1,400. And just as a grocery store separates tinned fish from cabbages, M-ARS sorts paintings, photography and sculpture on shelves in different departments. Scanner checkouts complete the supermarket experience.
M-ARS; Westbahnstrasse 9; 43 18 90 58 03; www.m-ars.at.
Once the centre of East Berlin, Mitte is now home to the city's hippest galleries, coolest boutiques and most-hyped tourist attractions - which is why some locals dismiss the district as an empty façade of the "new" capital.
But there is one way for visitors to get beneath this veneer: lunch at a public kantinen. Launched in the postwar period, when workers' cafeterias served hungry German masses, canteens are run by institutions - ministries, theatres, universities - but are open to everyone.
Because they are often inside nondescript buildings, you do have to know where to find kantinen. And you have to be willing to stand in line (there's usually one for "insiders" and one for guests), serve yourself and engage your German. As for aesthetics, well, let's just say that's generally not the emphasis.
What travellers get, however, is a stuff-yourself-silly meal for under $12 (subject to official nutritional guidelines and strict hygiene standards) and the chance to rub shoulders with regular Berliners over traditional German fare - think meat - such as sausages, schnitzel and goulash.
Herewith, a guide to the best places to break bread with city cops, wonks and other locals not on a holiday.
ABGEORDNETENHAUS VON BERLIN
The office Berlin House of Representatives.
The working stiffs Municipal politicians and the odd suit from nearby Potsdamer Platz.
The dish There are daily veg, "light" and full-fledged daily dishes. The best bet, though, is the strudel in tomato basil sauce for $6.50.
The buzz For what it's worth, a canteen consortium named this "Canteen of the Year" in 2007.
The details Niederkirchnerstrasse 5 (main entrance, first right in grand foyer). Open 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
"FRANZ" KANTINE AM ALEX
The office This is the Berlin branch of the federal Ministry of Agriculture.
The working stiffs Civil servants and tourists on a break from the Marx Forum - the park with the famous statue of Marx and Engels.
The dish There are four daily dishes. One surprisingly gourmet option: Wine-poached salmon and fennel on tagliatelle for $7.
The buzz This place has "bio" (organic) certification. And it advertises that meals are prepared with iodized salt, for lack of other distinctions.
The details Alexanderstrasse 3 (entrance next to main doors on second floor). Open 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
KANTINE IM BERLINER
The office Not your typical workplace, darling. This is one of Berlin's renowned theatres.
The working stiffs Actors, technicians from the theatre, local business people and Bertolt Brecht pilgrims.
The dish There's a salad bar, sandwiches and homemade cakes. Or make a spectacle for about $7 with a plate of kangaroo stew in pepper cream sauce, served with bread dumplings and broccoli.
The buzz You want more than a glimpse "behind the scenes" of a big show and good food?
The details Bertolt-Brecht-Platz 1 (entrance behind the theatre and down the steps). Open daily 9 a.m. to midnight.
The office This kantine doesn't belong to any institution - but it's in the same building as the police station and is the most eclectic gathering place for Mitte locals imaginable.
The working stiffs Police officers, construction workers and parliament employees.
The dish Three meat-heavy daily specials. And beware the "vegetarian" options, like lentil soup - with pork bone. The best bet: Canadian wild salmon in beer sauce with salad and potatoes for $7.
The buzz The chef's GDR cooking certificate graces the wall. Go for the atmosphere, not the food.
The details Dorotheenstrasse 89. Open 7:30 to 11 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
HANNS EISLER ACADEMY OF MUSIC KANTINE
The office A music school.
The working stiffs Music students, music students, music students.
The dish Lots of meat (some in XXL portions) and a few rather German vegetarian alternatives such as rice pudding with cinnamon for lunch. A better idea: Hunter-style pork steak in a mushroom cream sauce with potato croquettes for $6.
The buzz This is also a great place to pick up a program of concerts, lectures and recitals - many free to the public.
The details Charlottenstrasse 55 (entrance around the corner on Traubenstrasse, behind a wrought-iron gate). Open weekdays 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Forget costly cabs. Or the horror that is a city bus at rush hour. Try these bike-sharing schemes in four continental capitals
FREE TO $3 PER HOUR
Europe's latest bike-sharing scheme is also the coolest. Simply find one of the dozens of terminals around downtown (some are only a few blocks apart), swipe a credit card in the meter, access the menu and choose your bike from up to 20 available. You can get a one- or seven-day pass - you'll need a security deposit - or bike by the hour (the first 30 minutes are free; you'll pay a euro or so for every additional half-hour).
For more information, visit www.en.velib.paris.fr.
$20 FOR THREE DAYS
This one's for locals - or friends thereof. But if you're going to be in town for a while and have a temporary address, you're in luck: Apply online for a Stockholm City Bike card, take it to your local bike stand and swipe it against the reader on the bike. You'll have 30 seconds to grab your bike and make your getaway. Return it within three hours to any bike stand in town.
For more information, visit www.stockholmcitybikes.se/en.
CALL A BIKE
$24 A DAY
Known for their efficiency, the Germans have come up with a bike scheme you can enjoy no matter where you are (Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Cologne and Stuttgart are all participants). What you'll need: Web access, a cellphone and a credit card. What you won't: a map. Register online or by phone and an agent will direct you to the nearest bike. Once you find it, call for the lock code and set off. When you're done, lock it to any bike stand or traffic sign and call to let HQ know the co-ordinates.
For more information, visit www.callabike.de.
Even hardy tourists would be wise to avoid the bracing wind of a winter cycle through Helsinki. But from June through August, there's no reason not to apply for a Citybike. There are 26 member stands located around this compact, bike-friendly town, and well-marked bike paths to boot.
For more information, visit www.hel2.fi/tourism/EN/suunnittele_liikkuminen.asp
LE NOSH C'EST BON
MAISON DAVID DELI
$28-$36 A POUND
From Langer's in Los Angeles to Schwartz's in Montreal, Jewish deli boasts many temples. And I've had the pleasure of indulging in most of them while researching my upcoming book on delicatessens.
But it was a tiny butcher shop in Paris that blew me away, that showed me the untapped culinary possibility of kosher noshes.
Maison David, found just off the fabled rue des Rosiers in the historic Jewish quarter, is run by master butcher Michel Kalifa, who will proffer up slices of creamy cured goose ($28 a pound) and delicate peppered duck ($35 a pound) that dissolves into stock upon the tongue. His aged sausages are hand-ground, darkly coloured and flecked with delicious fat. Some even come impregnated with white peppercorns or whole hazelnuts ($36 a pound). Keep in mind that Maison David isn't a restaurant, and they don't have sandwiches. Forget the mustard, rye and black cherry - this is deli as fine art.
Maison David 6, rue des Ecouffes; 33 1 4278-1576.
ITALIAN (YES, ITALIAN) ZEN
$8 FOR CAKE AND TEA
As a city most famous for decline, Venice has missed most of the modernist makeover that has overtaken the European tourism industry.
It is a surprise, then, to find a Japanese-themed B&B and tearoom just off a busy square in the traditional neighbourhood of Dorsoduro.
While the rooms upstairs start at $90 a night, this bamboo-filled Zen hideaway's highly-civilized afternoon tea is just $8.
The menu offers nine green teas from China and Japan, but the baked goods are standard Italian fare like biscotti, panini, even pizza. Some things about Venice can change only so much, it seems.
The Fujiyama B&B and Tea Room: Calle Lunga San Barnaba, 2727A; Venice, Italy; 39-041-724-1042; www.bedandbreakfast-fujiyama.it.
Jon Azpiri, Stephen Beaumon t, Adam Bisby, Naomi Buck, Laszlo Buhasz, Zoe Cormier, Douglas Gibson, Ellen Himelfarb, Jessica Johnson, Patrick McMurray, Eric Reguly, Amy Rosen, David Sax and Danny Sinopoli
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