Old world’s new look

 

www.RickSteves.com

Great Britain will likely be taking a deep breath (and perhaps a sigh of relief) this year as it recovers from a busy 2012, when it hosted both the Olympics and Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, but it remains a dynamic destination. In Germany, urban renewal is giving Hamburg’s city center a new look. In Paris, the Picasso Museum, closed in 2011 for renovations, should finally reopen this summer. The Cinque Terre, Italy’s picturesque Riviera, is back to normal after two of its towns were badly damaged in a flood in the fall of 2011.

Across Europe, many of the amenities that tourists enjoy are being updated or rebuilt, new exhibits are being organized, and new museums and other facilities have opened or will open later this year. Here’s a rundown.

ENGLAND

One of the biggest changes is to the London skyline, which now boasts Europe’s tallest building, designed by Renzo Piano, the co-architect of Paris’ Pompidou Center. Rocketing 1,020 feet above the south end of London Bridge, the Shard (www.the-shard.com), which shimmers in the sun and glows like the city’s nightlight after dark. The tip houses a 15-story stack of observation platforms enclosed in glass which opened to the public in February.

Visitors hoping to capture some of the Olympic afterglow can soon visit the new Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The northern part, opening this summer, will feature footpaths, playgrounds, and picnic-friendly greens. The southern half, highlighted by the twisty red Orbit, is slated to open in spring of 2014. Visitors will also be able to swim in the pool where Michael Phelps won his 18th gold medal, as construction is underway to open up the Aquatics Centre for public leisure.

Travelers interested in royalty will delight in the newly refurbished Kensington Palace, (www.hrp.org.uk/KensingtonPalace) which now hosts a worthwhile series of exhibits on its most notable past residents, including William and Mary, and the Hanovers (the “Georges”). The highlight is the exhibit on Queen Victoria, who was born and raised in this palace.

The wizarding world is abuzz over the “Making of Harry Potter” studio tour in Leavesden, a 20-minute train ride from London. The attraction lets Potter-philes see the actual sets and props used in the films, along with exhibits about how the special effects were created. Visitors must book a time slot in advance (www.wbstudiotour.co.uk).

In the charming city of York, in northeast England, the noble Kit Kat, Aero bars, and Chocolate Oranges are now featured in a fun attraction dubbed “Chocolate: York’s Sweet Story” (all three confections were famously born in York). Visits start with a film and guided tour before flowing into a virtual chocolate factory.

Two relatively new museums in Liverpool and Glasgow celebrate the heritage of these proud and scrappy port cities. The Museum of Liverpool is packed with interactive displays covering everything from the city’s music and sports background to housing and health issues. Glasgow’s Riverside Museum of Transport and Travel sports high-tech displays, a re-creation of a 20th century street, and plenty of recollecting Glaswegian seniors. Its vast collection includes stagecoaches, locomotives, the world’s oldest bicycle, and the Glenlee, one of Glasgow’s five remaining tall ships (docked outside the museum).

GERMANY

Reopening in Munich this May is the Lenbachhaus, home to the world’s largest collection of early Modernist Blaue Reiter paintings. The refurbished galleries now also host a first-rate collection of international contemporary art.

In Bavaria, the new Museum of the Bavarian Kings occupies a grand former hotel on the shore of the Alpsee, adjacent to the fairy-tale Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein castles.

St. Kilian’s Cathedral — the main church in Wurzburg, and the fourth-largest Romanesque cathedral in Germany — has reopened following a 3.2 million-euro renovation. The ornate stucco decoration inside has been spiffed up and the cathedral’s two organs restored.

Hamburg’s city center is taking on a new look, thanks to the urban renewal project called HafenCity. Built on 400 acres reclaimed from disused docklands right along the Elbe River, this roughly 15-block area in the city center is filling up with “starchitect”-designed buildings and waterside cafés. The anchor is the gigantic, architecturally striking Elbphilharmonie complex, home to a concert hall, hotel, apartments, and shopping center (due for completion in 2015).

HUNGARY

In Budapest, riverboats operated by the transit authority now connect strategic locations throughout the city. Although not as quick or convenient as Budapest’s subway or trams, the boats are a romantic, cheap alternative to pricey riverboat cruises on the Danube.

Up on Castle Hill, the Royal Wine House has closed (at least temporarily), but the nearby House of Hungarian Wines has reopened, offering a survey of Hungary’s wine-growing regions.

AUSTRIA

At St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, visitors can ride an elevator up to the newly opened Cathedral Treasury. The substantial treasures of the cathedral had been ignored in the nearby (and outmoded) cathedral museum, so they’ve been moved into the church, filling a space high above the nave on the west portal wall.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna is reopening its Kunstkammer (Cabinet of Wonders) exhibit to show off the lavish curiosities the Habsburg emperors gathered to impress their friends and enemies.

Vienna’s train stations will be in disarray for the next few years, as the city rebuilds its central station and remodels several others. The wonderful Westbahnhof (West Station) has already been beautifully renovated — with the 1950s shell now filled with a modern mall of services, shops, and eateries.

FRANCE

After a bit of a shakeout in the recently refurbished Impressionist galleries of the Musée d’Orsay, paintings have settled into permanent locations, offering a fresh view of this rich trove of masterworks. The long-closed Picasso Museum should finally reopen in summer 2013. Meanwhile, the Rodin Museum is undergoing a major renovation until 2014. While statues will be moved around and some rooms will close altogether, the museum’s lovely gardens will remain open.

There are several intriguing new tour options in Paris. Classic Walks offers new Easy Pass tours that allow you to skip the lines at major sights such as the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower (www.easypasstours.com). TripUp’s pedicab tours, helmed by hard-pedaling drivers, are a charming way to experience Paris at a snail’s pace (www.tripup.fr). If rumbling around Paris in a funky old Citroën 2CV convertible à la Inspector Clouseau sounds like your kind of fun, check out Paris Authentic (www.parisauthentic.com) or 4 Roues Sous 1 Parapluie (www.4roues-sous-1parapluie.com).

The city’s Velib bike program is now more accessible to visitors, who can buy a one- or seven-day subscription online (http://en.velib.paris.fr). This is a fun way to tootle between sights — the first 30 minutes of any trip are included with your subscription; after that there’s a small fee for each additional 30 minutes.

At Versailles — the number one side-trip from Paris, just a half-hour away — some rooms of the Queen’s Wing of the main palace may be closed for renovation in 2013. A new shuttle bus is whisking visitors from the Versailles train station to the Trianon Palaces and the Domaine de Marie-Antoinette, on the far side of the palace’s vast grounds (www.phebus.tm.fr).

At Mont St-Michel, the causeway that’s long brought tourists to the dramatic island abbey was closed to car traffic in 2012 (and will eventually be replaced by a new bridge). Instead of parking along the causeway, drivers now leave their cars on the mainland and either walk, ride a free shuttle, or hop a horse-drawn wagon to the island.

Along the Riviera, the big news in Nice is the reopening of its 100-year-old onion-domed Russian Cathedral, claimed by many to be the finest Orthodox church outside Russia.

ITALY

Florence’s Uffizi Gallery is still undergoing a massive, years-long renovation that bodes well for travelers. Although a few rooms are off-limits, many more rooms have been opened to the public, such as the Caravaggio Rooms and the new “Foreign Painters Section,” featuring mostly Dutch/Flemish painters (including Rembrandt) with some Spanish and French artists.

Also in Florence, Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance-era Baptistery doors — featuring the original 10 bronze panels from the Gates of Paradise (1425-1452) — have been newly restored and are now back on display at the Duomo Museum.

Florence’s Galileo Science Museum, which was recently renovated, has rearranged and dramatically updated its exhibits. Engaging video screens (in English) have been added to many rooms to help illustrate inventions and scientific principles.

In Venice, the Accademia, which is known for its great collection of Venetian Renaissance art, is open but still in a constant state of disarray, with a major expansion and renovation dragging on for years.

Formerly presented every other year, the Venice Biennale — a world-class, contemporary fair — is now an annual event. It alternates between visual art in odd years and architecture in even years. The exhibition spreads over the Arsenale and Giardini park, and usually runs from June through November.

The Cinque Terre, Italy’s picturesque Riviera, is back to normal after two of its towns were badly damaged in a flood in the fall of 2011. The towns and nearly all the trails of the region are once again ready for prime time. A handy (but pricey) new parking garage has opened at nearby La Spezia’s train station, making it easier and safer for day-trippers to leave their cars and hop the train to the Cinque Terre.

In fashion-forward Milan, travelers can now visit the high-end concept store called Excelsior in the Galleria del Corso, which feels more like a design museum than a retail store. A conveyor belt carries shoppers from level to colorful level to the beat of pulsing music, passing electronic art installations on the way. Even if you can’t afford the $1,000 shirts, you might enjoy the basement food hall with its good food at reasonable prices.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com.

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