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Top Five Self-Guided European “Trips of a Lifetime” to Make Before You Die

You may as well admit it. You’ve always wanted to travel in Europe, whether or not you’ve already done so. And even if you’ve traveled there many times, you yearn to go back—-again and again. For as long as there’s been an America, Americans have been drawn back to Europe, like Spock to the mothership. “Beam me up Scotty!”

Whether this yearning to return is because many of our ancestors came from Europe…  Or because Europe has such a deep, rich and long-ranging history, much of it still there to wander around in… Or because it has amazing food and wine, to be experienced at charming restaurants, sitting at tables canopied by colorful umbrellas, and surrounded by flowers… Or because it has brought together awe-inspiring art and music and culture, and made it readily accessible for all to experience… Or because it is traversed by marvelous networks of transportation – trains and boats, trams and gondolas – making it possible to go virtually anywhere at any time from anywhere else, and to enjoy the going as much as the arriving… For all these reasons, the urge to “cross the pond” is strong. And the possibilities once you get there are extensive. Travel to Europe provides experiences and memories to last a lifetime.

The temptation, given the immense number of possibilities, is to make a whirlwind tour, jumping from country to country and place to place. Or, even worse, to hand over the reins of your trip and sign up for a group trip, either at whirlwind speed, or at a more modest pace, but in either case letting someone else be the decider about where you will go and what you will see and when and how.

A much better option is to plan your trip yourself, but with guidance. Each of the “Top 5” trips on this  Before you Die List is supported by a book in the Great Trips Series that fully carries you through every stage and detail of the trip, from planning and preparing, to making arrangements and booking planes, trains and drivers, to budgets and packing, to arrival and orientation, to day-by-day guidance of what to do and when and how to do it. You will have everything you need to make your own great trip, yet you will keep your freedom too. Start at the top of the Top 5 List, then work your way down it… Or jump down the list to your own first pick of where to start. But do start somewhere. “As you grow older, you’ll find the only things you regret are the things you didn’t do” (Zachary Scott).

Top Trip to Europe #1: Fabled France

Loire Châteaux, Mont St Michel, the Normandy Coast & Paris, City of Lights

On this unforgettable trip, you will fly into Paris and journey immediately by train to the charming medieval village of Amboise in the Eastern Loire Valley, your first home base, and your jumping off point for visiting five Châteaux, including the final home of Leonardo da Vinci. From there, you will travel, again by train, to Tours in the Western Loire Valley, and venture out into the countryside to visit three additional Châteaux. This total of eight Châteaux (and their gardens) will take you from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, and into the stories and intrigues, life and lifestyles of the Kings and their courts in ages gone by. Then you will move on to Mont St. Michel, where you will stay out on the Mont like the monks of old, with the water surrounding you at high tide, then receding entirely at low tide— racing in and out at the speed of a galloping horse.


Next, you will take another train to the small town of Bayeux, your home-base for exploring the tales and memories of the conquests and liberations that have taken place from and to this precipitous coastline… from William the Conqueror in the 11th century to the Allied troops in the 20th. Then on to Paris for five glorious days (and nights!) on the left bank, where you will travel the Seine by BateauBus (“Boat Bus”) to visit the art and architecture, cathedrals and gardens, markets and cafés.

Top Trip to Europe #2: Luminous Italy

Florence & the Hill Towns of Tuscany, Cinque Terre & the Amalfi Coast

As you fly into Florence, take up lodging, and learn “your neighborhood” for the next six days— on the left bank of the Arno River, near the Ponte Vecchio— prepare to be awed. There is nothing you have experienced so far in your life like standing before the Duomo for the first time.


While in Florence, you will have time to devote to art and cathedrals, sculpture and science, as well as to markets and shops, outdoor restaurants, evening music on the squares… and gelato.

From Florence, you will venture out on day trips to Cortona and San Gimignano, hill towns of Tuscany that date back to the Etruscans.

After Florence, you will move on to the indescribably beautiful towns of Cinque Terre, clinging to the rocks above the Ligurian Sea. And then to the Amalfi Coast, another incomparable destination that will etch itself on your memory forever.

Top Trip to Europe #3: Incomparable Capitals

London, Paris & Amsterdam

On this trip, you will divide your time among three of the most extraordinary cities in the world, each entirely distinct from the other. In London you will stay in a flat or hotel near Covent Garden, and learn “your neighborhood.” This will put you within a short walk of the Theater District (and the discount ticket booth at Leicester Square). So you will be able to take in two (or, better yet, three) superb London theater performances, with at least one of them performed at the rebuilt Globe Theater that harkens back to Shakespeare’s days. At Covent Garden, you will delight in the ongoing troops of open-air performers— mimes and musicians, acrobats and jugglers— as well as the shops and stalls with every conceivable offering of craft and art, adornment and style. There will be time to explore the priceless collections of art in the museums, some of it created by British artists, but much of it “taken” from countries and cultures around the world as a so-called right of Empire. You will stand in awe before the magnificent Cathedrals of Westminster and St. Paul’s, then sit inside to soak in the peace, and possibly take in an organ performance.

From London, you will travel by Eurostar to Paris, where you will immerse yourself for five days (and nights) in the delights and senses, art and architecture, gardens and music of this remarkable city.


Last you will move on to Amsterdam, a feast of canals and canal houses, art and history, museums and music, outdoor cafés and markets… and of small neighboring towns with familiar names like Delft and Gouda. Your time in Amsterdam will fly by in a mirage of sights and sounds, stories and experiences, and priceless encounters with the affable Dutch.

Top Trip to Europe #4: Stunning Vistas

Swiss & Italian Lakes &Alps

in anticipation of traveling to the Alps, and their lakes, picture the breathtaking scenes From Sound of Music. After flying into Geneva, you will board one of the impeccable trains of the Swiss rail system and travel to Lausanne on the far side of Lake Geneva. From the train station, the funicular will carry you up to the old town or down to the lakefront, where you will stay while you discover this charming Swiss town. From Lausanne you will travel by boat to the nearby town of Montreux, known for its Jazz Festival, then on to the legendary Castle of Chillon.

After Lausanne you will take a train to Lucerne, another captivating Swiss town on a lake. But this time the lake is one that you can walk across, using a covered bridge that dates back to the 14th century. Then on you will go by train to rustic Zermatt, at the foot of the Matterhorn, where the only transportation around town is by foot or by small electric vehicles, as well as a far-ranging network of gondolas, including one that will carry you up over the Alps and into Italy.


From Zermatt you will travel via the famed Glacier Express to St. Moritz, a beautiful and hospitable showplace that has its own lovely lake… with its own towering Alps in the background, and all the “ooh and aah” views that come with them. Then, traveling south across the Alps on the Bernina Express, you will cross into Italy and continue on by bus to the breathtaking shores of Lake Como—another unmatchable haven that you will love immediately and want to return to over and over again.

Top Trip to Europe #5: The Dazzling South of France

Cote d’Azur, Provence & the French Alps

After landing in Paris, you will hop aboard the TGV (“Train a Grande Vitesse”—“train of great speed”), where you will doze away your jetlag in comfort while you traverse France at 200 mph in a little over three hours. But then, when the sparkling azure waters of the Mediterranean first burst into sight, you will snap into focus, and your train will slow to hug the coastline on its way to Nice. After three nights in Nice, you will move on by train to the small coastal town of Cassis, with its immaculate white stone market square, and its boat rides out to see the Calanques—towering limestone cliffs, rising straight up out of the Mediterranean Sea to heights of up to 1,854 feet.

Leaving Cassis you will make your way back along the coast to Provence and the walled city of Avignon, second city of the Popes, with its “Pope’s Palace” and Cathedral, its bridge of childhood song, and its pedestrian streets and square, surrounded by cafés and restaurants and lined with trees. Then north until you reach the French Alps, where you will stay in lovely Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, site of the first Winter Olympics in 1924 (elevation 3,320 – 15,780 feet). Then on to Annecy, cupping one end of a stunning glacial lake, with its own backdrop of mountains, where you will walk the narrow cobbled streets of Old Town and travel by boat or by bicycle to other small towns bordering the lake.

And so… Where will you begin? And when? Can you go? Should you go? Can you afford to go? Can you afford not to?

Taken in order… Start with Trip #1: Fabled France, or with another trip of your choice. Just begin somewhere. Plan to take your first of these trips next year at the latest, and then take another trip each year from that point on (or, at the very least, one every two years).

Yes, you most definitely CAN go and, yes, you SHOULD go. Use the guidebook Your Great Trip to France, or the guide associated with another of the trips if you chose to travel in a different order, to know exactly how to plan and arrange and prepare for and make your trip.

Yes, you CAN afford to take these trips through some combination of saving and priority shifting. And, no, you cannot “afford NOT to.”

These are the trips of a lifetime that will become part of you and will change forever how you see life and the world. By making these trips, you will bring home stories and treasures, as well as changes in how you live your life from day to day. We now eat lunch on our front porch, using the tablecloth we brought home from market day in Tremezzo on Lake Como. Many days we cook sea bass in a lemon butter sauce, and fresh spinach lightly sautéed in olive oil, just the way we liked it when we were sitting at a lake-side restaurant in Bellagio. We take the time out of our busy work days to talk together and laugh together, and to look out across our terrace gardens towards our own lake. And we turn on music first thing every morning. Once your perspectives and views have been broadened by travel, your eyes will be opened, and there will be no going back…nor would you want to.

Carolee Duckworth Independent Travel Associate

Carolee Duckworth is an avid traveler, an expert trip designer, and co-author (with Brian Lane) of the books Your Great Trip to France, Your Great 5-Day Trip to Paris, and Your Great 5-Day Trip to Loire Châteaux, available on amazon.com. Coming soon: Your Great 5-Day Trip to Normandy and Your Great 5-Day Trip to the Côte d’Azur.

Visit GreatTripGuide.com for a free copy of our definitive guide to packing: "How to Pack Like a Pro," and to receive periodic emails with new trip itineraries and travel tips. Ignite your passion for travel, while preserving your independence.

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