Best Towns, What to See and Do, How to get Around, and More

“Wendy, we’ll be in Rome and Paris for four days each. I’ve been there many times, but my partner has not. He wants to see touristy places—the Eiffel Tower, the Sistine Chapel, etc.— and I like to do things off the beaten path. Any suggestions?“

–Amy R.

Amy, since it wouldn’t be fair to keep your partner away from such iconic sites, my suggestion is to explore them together in a way that’s new and different for you. For instance, ascend the Eiffel Tower at night via an Eiffel Tower Illuminations tour or take a behind-the-scenes tour that includes the Tower’s engine room that powers its hydraulic lifts. As for the Sistine Chapel, consider a private tour tailored to your interests. Any of these skip-the-line tours will also leave you with more time for the off-the-beaten-path sights on your own to-do list.

“Hi Wendy!  Do you have a list of 10 best little towns in Europe?”

—David C., San Francisco

David, it’s tough enough to choose the “10 best little towns” just in Tuscany or the Cotswolds, let alone in all of Europe. It’s also important to define “best” because, when it comes to historic European towns, there’s a fine line between charming and touristy: The more charming a town, the more tourists it attracts, and crowds tend to erase the magic. That said, if I had to recommend a smattering of my personal favorites that are worth the trek no matter how tourist-filled, I’d point you to Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Eze, and Beaune in France; Capri town, Positano, and Ravello on Italy’s Amalfi Coast; Rothenburg in Germany; Mdina in Malta;  Dubrovnik and Hvar town in Croatia; Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic; and Kotor in Montenegro.  If you click to TripAdvisor’s list of the world’s best destinations and then click on “More” and on any of the European countries listed, you’ll find many more little towns recommended.

“Is it wise to travel by car around central and northern Italy in January?”

–Patti M., Milwaukee

Patti, if you’re sticking mainly to cities—as most people do in wintertime, given short days and inclement weather (cities have lots you can do at night or when it rains or snows)—I’d take the train. Italy is not an easy place to drive at any time of the year, much less the middle of winter. There are unexpected road rules (and fines), and signage can be confusing. Additionally, car rental is really pricey in Italy, given the cost of rental insurance and the fact that credit cards that provide collision-damage coverage in other countries won’t cover you in Italy. If you want to explore the countryside, consider arranging for a smart combo of train travel and private drivers.

“Hi Wendy, I’m traveling to Amsterdam and Rome. I want to minimize use of credit cards. What is your advice on bringing money? Should I get travelers’ checks and cash them at a bank to get euros?”
 –John D., Albany, New York

John, I’m not sure why you want to minimize use of credit cards because the right credit card—one that does not charge foreign-transaction fees—can be the least expensive way of making purchases overseas. There are several Capital One and Chase cards with no foreign-purchase fees (here’s one of my favorites).  It’s also easy to withdraw cash from ATMs in Europe—and expensive only if your bank charges substantial withdrawal fees. Choose the right bank and you can avoid ATM fees. Travelers’ checks really aren’t necessary anymore. If you’re worried your cash could get stolen, they may give you peace of mind, but they’re not likely to save you money.

“Wendy, we’ll be in Paris for three days. I know about the Paris Museum Pass and have made reservations for The King’s Grand Apartment Tour at Versailles. Are there any lesser-known places that you would suggest we see?  Thank you.”

—Candace H., Peoria, Arizona

Candace, my favorite thing to do in Paris is to meander through its charming neighborhoods. While Le Marais, the Ile Saint-Louis, and Saint-Germain-des-Pres may not be lesser-known, there are always so many new discoveries to make along their narrow, winding side streets. Even if you’ve window-shopped in Le Marais, for instance, you may not have popped into the galleries lining the Place des Vosges, grabbed a falafel from L’As du Fallafel, or devoured the Maison Georges Larnicol chocolate boutique. If it’s raining in Paris, you’ve got a ton of lesser-known hidden-gem museums to choose from. Two of my personal favorites are the Musée Carnavalet, focused on the history and people of the city of Paris, and the Music Museum, a collection of unique and rare historic instruments. Bon voyage!