My travels over the last couple of years have mostly involved shorter trips to familiar destinations. So I admittedly found planning a trip to Europe this summer a bit stressful. Especially amid tales of lost luggage, delayed flights and general travel chaos.
Now, reflecting on the multi-country Europe trip with my family, I’m glad we went. I felt relieved that although some cities were crowded, we still had room to explore. And I’m happy to report we all returned with our luggage intact. While there’s far too much to cover in just a few paragraphs, here are some of my most memorable moments from Europe.
All roads lead to Rome
I’ve always wondered about that saying and where it came from. I had always thought it was due to the draw of this spectacular European city. But it turns out that by the fourth century, the Romans had built a network of roads spanning 53,000 miles, hence the well-known phrase.
This was not our first time visiting Rome. But we had been rushed in all of our other experiences of the city. This time I was determined to slow down and spend more time meandering, knowing that every corner here tells a story steeped in history—or might lead to an unforgettable pizza or gelato shop!
One of those meandering walks led us to a local barber where my son decided to get a haircut. My husband and I sat and watched, smiling as we tried (and failed) to follow the animated conversation between the shop owner, Massimo, and a younger stylist, Adreas, who was giving our son a much-needed trim. It was a simple moment, but one that will stay with all of us for a while.
Our stay in Rome was intentionally unguided with the exception of a one-day tour organized with ToursByLocals. We had wanted to tour the Colosseum and the Vatican, but realized a full day at each might be a daunting task with teenagers in tow. Fabio from ToursByLocals was fantastic and easily combined both of these locations into one informative and memorable day.
While there’s no shortage of hotel choices in Rome, we have never struck it as right for a city stay than we did with Donna Camilla Savelli. Thoughtfully restored, no two rooms are alike. The rooftop terrace is the perfect place to watch the sunset, with panoramic views of Rome. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the remaining three resident nuns—the oldest is 93! At Donna Camilla Savelli, guests are blessed to stay within the walls of the Santa Maria dei Sette Dolori convent. Located in the quaint neighbourhood of Trastevere, just a 15-minute walk over the river, the area seemed a world away in the best sense of the word. Spend the evenings listening to live music, exploring all the trattorias and pizzerias, and sipping reasonably priced and delicious local wine.
Shopping tip: If you’re at all into designer labels from Europe, check out Designer Outlet Castelromano McArthurGlen. Just 30 minutes outside of the city centre, this one-of-a-kind outlet mall features unique Italian designers relatively unknown to the North American market alongside many coveted high-end global designers. Prices are significantly lower than Canada and you can claim back your VAT (tax), resulting in tremendous savings.
Mythology and monuments in Athens
As one of the world’s oldest cities, Athens certainly holds its place as a destination housing some of Europe’s greatest treasures. Sometimes overlooked as merely a gateway to the Greek Islands, Athens is definitely a worthy stand-alone stop. Whether or not you’re a history buff, you can’t help but be captivated by ancient tales of Greek Mythology and of the ancient Romans.
An obvious place to start your exploration of the city is the Acropolis. We were able to navigate through the ruins on our own as there was good signage with plenty of explanation. Dwarfed within its columns, it was easy for us to envision the power once held within this mystic place.
In terms of getting around, transit is a great option (keep in mind that taxi fares double at night). The subway is not only an efficient mode of transportation, it also offers a great glimpse into the past. The Syntagma Metro Station, for example, houses an Archeological Collection. Here you’ll find relics that were excavated from beneath the city during the building of the subway system. It’s also well worth finding a hotel or a restaurant with unobstructed views of the Acropolis at night. Novotel Athenes is a well-located property offering a hearty breakfast. The rooms may be on the small side but their rooftop pool is ideal for cooling off during the day. Head to the rooftop bar, the perfect backdrop for sunset cocktails with the beautifully lit Acropolis in the distance.
Santorini and its stunning vistas
Long since the summer I spent working on Rhodes and Crete in my youth, Santorini has topped my Europe bucket list. So close yet so far on many occasions, this was definitely a much-anticipated stop on our itinerary. Clearly we weren’t the only ones with Santorini in our sights as the island was overcrowded with tourists.
While this didn’t dim my enthusiasm for such a beautiful and unique island, it did make me wonder how different the experience would’ve been in May or October. Georgia, another fantastic guide from ToursByLocals, confirmed that’s really the ideal time to visit.
Fortunately, she was able to take us to points that were absent of crowds. This allowed us to fully appreciate the majestic cliffs dotted with buildings awash in white and blue, with splashes of red and yellow. Georgia explained that these were the official colours of the country. Most surprising to me were the beaches of Santorini, unique in look and feel thanks to the volcanic nature of the island and ranging in colour from dark brown to charcoal to even red. Don’t miss Red Beach, with its maroon cliffs and sand; or the gleaming cliffs of White Beach made even brighter against the dark grey of the sand. Black Beach, with perhaps the darkest sand on the island, is also a quieter option than some of its sandy neighbours.
Sipping tip: In between beach-hopping and sightseeing, this little island also offers some deliciously interesting wine thanks to the rare grapes native to Santorini. There are 13 wineries in total to visit.
Tales from Montenegro
If you are hitting the Mediterranean on your Europe adventure, be sure to consider Montenegro. Our tour guide, Marina from MagicBay Tours said it best when asked to describe her passion for her country: “Montenegro is a cradle of diversity one cannot imagine exists in such a small territory. Rich history, unique heritage and mesmerizing natural beauty are what make Montenegro the hidden gem of the Adriatic.”
We were awed by the magnificent coastline and medieval towns and it was fascinating to learn about a country we knew so little about. Probably the most memorable moment of our time here was a visit to the small but beautiful village of Perast. Here we took a boat to Our Lady of the Rocks, a small manmade island created in the 15th century.
According to legend, on July 22, 1452, brothers from Perast, both fishermen, found a painting depicting the Virgin Mary when they went to fish around the reef. They took it home with them. After some time one of the brothers fell gravely ill. The other had a dream in which the Virgin Mary told him to climb the hill above Perast and pick certain herbs to make a remedy for his brother. He took a chance, and his brother recovered completely, a miracle. So they placed the painting in the local church.
30 years later they finished building a tiny chapel on the reef and moved the painting there. They named it Our Lady of the Rocks. Because of its importance to the locals, they finally decided to build her the proper church she deserved. But it would require building an island. For a hundred years they were sinking old wooden ships filled with rocks under the reef. For another hundred they were throwing huge rocks over those ships. It took them another hundred to finally finish the church. The tradition, known as Fašinada, has never stopped. Every year on July 22, locals surround the island with their fishing boats and throw rocks in recognition of the brothers, that painting, and the miracle it brought about.
A short but sweet layover in Barcelona
We had just a few hours left on our whirlwind tour of Europe. But I couldn’t let an exquisite city like Barcelona go unexplored. Josep from ToursByLocals was masterful in his efficiency, showing us how the architectural geniuses of the Modernisme era of the 19th century left their mark on this beautiful city. Reserve many days to explore the unique architecture that helped shape the Barcelona we know today.
We relied on Josep to curate some highlights, as time was not our luxury. My favourite takeaway was a glimpse into Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral. It’s hard to believe Gaudi could have had such unparalleled vision when he began work on this masterpiece in 1882. Still a work in progress almost a century after his death, stakeholders are hopeful it will be completed in 2026. Although the subject of much debate among citizens and the Catholic community, the Sagrada Familia is undoubtedly one of the city’s best treasures. Josep’s knowledge of all things Barcelona left us with an abundance of appreciation for the city. And he got us back to the airport with time to spare for our flight back to Canada!
Need more inspiration for your trip to Europe this year? Here it is:
Make merry at a European Christmas market
How to Spend 10 Culture-Filled Days in the City of Florence
An Adventurous Portugal Itinerary: From Porto to Lisbon on Two Wheels
Italy’s Parmigiano Reggiano is More Than a Pasta-Topper
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