Guest Post: Jim Byers’ Insider’s Guide to Europe in the Spring

Feb 19, 2016

Welcome to another installment of Jim Byers’ Insider Guides: This time, Jim gives us an exclusive look at what to see and do in Europe. Perfect for  Spring trip across the pond!

Enjoy!

London in the Spring. Photo from flickr by Petro Antunes

Daffodils and tulips in bloom. Sidewalk cafes shaking off their winter slumber. And fewer tourists to bump into.

Not only is Europe less crowded in spring, but it’s also cheaper; a key factor when you take the low Canadian loonie into account. Here are some of my favourite spots in Europe, gleaned from trips taken over the past couple of years.

LONDON

A walk along the south shore of the Thames River reveals magnificent views of London. Jim Byers Photo

This city can be frighteningly expensive. But I’ve found some fun and affordable neighbourhoods, including my new, favourite part of the city. The area around the Southwark tube station is a thriving region on the south side of the Thames River, but only a short walk or subway ride to the main attractions of London, including The Globe Theatre, Big Ben and the Tate Modern. It’s also a fantastic area on its own, with a huge variety of shops, bars and restaurants. Byron is a fun burger chain with great burgers and thick shakes that make you feel like you’ve stepped into an Archie comic book in the 1950s. It’s located on one of the best streets of London, The Cut, where you’ll find bike shops, cool pubs and everything from Indian to Hungarian food. The Young Vic Theatre is also on The Cut.

The area around Waterloo Station in South London is filled with quirky, interesting pubs, shops and restaurants. Jim Byers Photo

Around the corner at Waterloo station, the Fire Station is a cool pub/restaurant that’s fashioned out of, well, an old fire station. Take a walk from there to the Thames and be rewarded with fine views of the Houses of Parliament, then take a stroll on the south side of the Thames, where walkways and boardwalks will skim you past the London Eye, the Tate Modern and more. You’ll get great views of St. Paul’s and Tower Bridge, too.

St. Paul’s is just one of the many great London sights you can see by strolling along the Thames River in South London. Jim Byers Photo
The Hotel Ibis London Blackfriars has small but tidy rooms a short walk from the Southwark tube station. DON’T MISS: Borough Market has a truly outstanding selection of fruits and veggies and food spots. One of Europe’s best markets. Travelzoo London Deals

AMSTERDAM

Try Puccini Bamboni for excellent chocolates in Amsterdam. Jim Byers Photo

They’ve been working hard to fix up formerly seedy areas in the city centre. Last time I was there, a beautiful chocolate shop called Puccini Bomboni had opened up near the Old Church, an area previously known as a place where the homeless slept on benches.

Amsterdam is justly famous for its beautiful canals. Try a boat tour for a great view. Jim Byers Photo

I took a nice boat tour of the city’s famous canals when I visited. The commentary was a little dull but we passed the Anne Frank House and glided past beautiful homes and bridges burnished with bright red geraniums and brilliant green deck chairs where folks sat and sipped coffee – or something stronger. The city is filled with richly decorated “brown cafes,” some of them dating back hundreds of years.

Amsterdam is famous for its cozy, “brown cafes.” Jim Byers Photo

One awesome way to see the surrounding countryside is on a bike and boat tour with Cycle Tours. On my trip, we cycled during the day from one beautiful town to another, where we were met each night by a small boat that served as our floating hotel. We’d eat dinner and chat or listen to music on the boat, then motor on to a new destination and cycle again. The terrain is relatively flat but quite striking; with giant windmills, perfect gardens, peaceful cows and tiny rabbits darting through the fields. It’s not cheap, but The Dylan Hotel in Amsterdam has stunning rooms and wonderful food, not to mention a quiet courtyard where you can sip a glass of Champagne or specialty cocktail.

DON’T MISS: The Rijksmuseum was given a wonderful makeover a couple years back. You’ll find Rembrandt’s masterpiece, "The Night Watch", as well as great works by the likes of Monet and Vermeer, including his famous painting “The Milkmaid.” Exquisite. The Van Gogh Museum is equally impressive.

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LJUBLJANA

Ljubljana has a wonderful river and plenty of colourful architecture. Jim Byers Photo

This city is the capital of Slovenia, which I’ve taken to calling “The Tiny Perfect Country,” a nod to former Toronto Mayor David “The Tiny Perfect Mayor” Crombie. The country as a whole is sensational, with touches of Croatia, Italy, Austria, Hungary and more. The capital (more or less pronounced Loob-lee-anna) feels a bit like a smaller version of Salzburg, as there’s a small castle on a hill and onion-dome churches scattered around the town. Thankfully, however, there’s no one hawking Mozart chocolates and Mozart tea towels. The Ljubljanica river (don’t ask me to pronounce that one) winds through the city and you’ll find tons of sunny cafes and lovely restaurants lining its banks.

Ljubljana also has lovely squares and fountains, and great shopping districts. Jim Byers Photo

There are a couple of fine, quintessentially European squares where you can watch locals and tourists mingle, and they have a great farmers market that features some of the deepest-coloured cherries (in season, of course) I’ve ever seen. Copova Ulica is a cool pedestrian street with pretty fountains and tons of charm. It’s not an expensive city, either. Three-star hotels in Ljubljana can be found in March, for example, can be found for $100 a night and up and four-star properties for $150 to $200, or even less. Not only is it reasonably priced, but I found the Slovenian people to be absolutely marvellous and welcoming. This is one part of Europe where they always seem to be happy to see tourists and appreciate someone noticing them in a continent full of cities like Rome, Berlin and Barcelona.

Lake Bled is one of the prettiest spots in Slovenia and just a short distance from the capital of Ljubljana. Jim Byers Photo

DON’T MISS: About an hour away is Lake Bled, an unattractively named but serenely scenic spot with an icy, green-blue lake, a hilltop castle and a postcard-perfect island at one end with a pretty church. All of this framed by the Slovenian Alps in the background, a lovely walkway around the lake’s perimeter and romantic, man-powered boats to take you around. If there’s a prettier lake in Europe, I haven’t seen it.

LISBON

The views from Fort Sao Jorge in Lisbon are fantastic. Jim Byers Photo

I’d somehow never been until a visit last spring. But I fell in love with the place, and the warm, friendly people. The city is built on a series of small hills, so you’ll find great views almost everywhere you look. There are tons of terrific cafes, many of them situated in parks overlooking the city below. You’ll also get fab views from the top of the arch in the main Comercio Square near the Tagus River. Be sure to take the city’s famous No. 28 tram, which rattles up and down steep streets and swoops around corners in a way Canadian streetcars don’t get a chance to do. Folks swear by the cafes in the Chiado District, and they’re lovely. But I preferred my morning walks through the Alfama area and on up the winding streets to Fort Sao Jorge, where you’ll find commanding views of the city and the river. Be sure to stop at a cafe for the famous Pasteis de Nata egg tarts that just ooze out over your tongue and go down way too easily. Pasteis de Belem is the most famous spot to try them. The 25 de Abril Bridge is definitely worth checking out (nearly a dead ringer for the Golden Gate in San Francisco), as is the Belem waterfront, site of the famous Monument to the Discoveries.

The Belem district of Lisbon has fantastic monuments and towers along the Tagus River. Jim Byers Photo

They use the Euro here, but you can still get a good meal for $10 at a family restaurant, and good bottles of wine can be found for $5. On top of all that, the weather is usually in the mid-teens in spring. Not quite swimming weather, but if you’re from Canada it’s pretty close. And there are excellent beaches in suburban Lisbon. The four-star Hotel Portugal is in a fun, lively part of town and has nice rooms for around $150. Around the corner, the Mundial has a fantastic rooftop patio.

Sintra is a magical area a short drive from Lisbon, with fairytale castles and hilltop fortresses. Jim Byers Photo

DON’T MISS: The hilltop castles and villages of Sintra that are just an hour away from the city. They’re very romantic and beautiful, with fantastic views, lush, Mediterranean gardens and colourful characters.

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You can email the author at jim@jimbyerstravel.com or follow him on Twitter at @jimbyerstravel. Jim also can be found on Instagram @jimbyerstravel1.

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