What You Should Know About VAT Refunds

Posted July 2, 2014 by

(Photo: Getty Images/E+)

When visiting Europe, you'll find that many goods and services are assessed a "value added tax," or VAT. It's a tax on consumption rather than income, and it ranges from 15 to 25 percent. If you pay this tax when shopping abroad, you can often get your money back after you've returned home, since travelers are typically entitled to a refund for the VAT portion of prices for goods. But getting that refund can be a headache. Here are 10 things you need to know about claiming VAT refunds.


(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Refunds from Goods, Not Services

Countries generally exempt exports from VAT. So when you buy merchandise or other goods as a tourist, what you take home is considered an export. Accordingly, you are entitled to a refund for the VAT portion of the price.

On the other hand, when you stay in a hotel or eat a restaurant meal, those services are consumed locally rather than exported. Accordingly, tourists are not entitled to VAT refunds on those purchases. Some business travelers are allowed to recover VAT on services, but the process is so complicated that only large corporations with heavy business travel ever try to recover it.


(Photo: Thinkstock/Stockbyte)

VAT Can Be Big

VAT is the English-language term; other terms include IVA, TVA, moms, MwST, and a handful of unique local terms. EU (much of Western Europe) rules require that member countries impose a VAT of at least 15 percent; most rates are in the range of 19 percent to 25 percent. Many countries exempt some purchases entirely or apply reduced percentages on "essential" purchases such as food, rent, transportation, and medical services. A few countries also exempt certain regions from VAT or apply reduced rates because of quasi-independent status or to encourage economic development. Among Europe's reduced- or no-VAT areas are the Aegean Islands, the Azores, the Canary Islands, and the Channel Islands.

VAT rates in Europe's four non-EU countries are 25.5 percent in Iceland, 25 percent in Norway, 8 percent in Switzerland, and 18 percent in Turkey, again with some exempted or reduced rates. Check here for rates in all European countries.

Keep in mind that the VAT rate is the amount added to a pretax base price, not a percentage of the final price. Thus, a 20 percent VAT rate amounts to 16.7 percent of the purchase price.


(Photo: Daniel Farrell via flickr/CC Attribution)

It's Included in the Price

As a practical matter, merchandise prices you see in stores almost always include VAT. So do posted hotel rates and restaurant prices. The general rule is that what you see is what you pay. Online travel agencies (OTAs) usually post hotel prices inclusive of VAT—but not always, so check the fine print! Also, some localities impose the equivalent of sales taxes, in addition to VAT, on hotel accommodations, but they do not include these in the posted price; these additional taxes are usually quite low.


(Photo: U.S. Customs & Border Protection)

Your Goods Must Leave the Country

Most European countries allow you to recover VAT when you "export" an item. But you must prove that the goods actually left the taxing authority before collecting your refund. (For countries in the European Union, this means you must leave the EU, not just cross an internal EU border.) If you leave by plane, you have to show the goods after you pass through the customs formalities.

To qualify for a refund, the goods must be new and unused. If you buy some high-fashion accessories in Paris, for example, you shouldn't use them until you leave the EU.


(Photo: Thinkstock/Bananastock)

There Are Minimum Qualifying Amounts

Many countries establish a minimum price per item or daily value per store to qualify for a VAT refund. This minimum ranges from zero in Ireland, Germany, and the U.K. to CHF 300 (about $333 USD according to in Switzerland, €175 (about $237) in France, €155 (about $210) in Italy, €125 (about $169) in Belgium, and €90 (about $122) in Spain. Check here for detailed rates throughout the EU.


(Photo: Shops in Milan, Italy via Anton_Ivanov/

Where to Buy

Buy from stores that handle VAT-refund paperwork. Most stores that do this post a "Tax Free" or similar sign somewhere on a door or window; big department stores often have special VAT offices. On the other hand, street vendors, sidewalk artists, many small-town stores, and such generally don't provide this service, so you're out of luck when you buy from them.

When you buy, have the merchant provide the necessary paperwork, sometimes called a "cheque," and complete the paperwork before you leave the store. (You'll probably have to prove that you're from outside the country or VAT area.)

When you leave the EU or the country in which you bought the items, take the merchandise and the paperwork to the border station and have the documents stamped by a local customs agent. Typically, the agent will ask to see the items, so don't pack them in checked baggage—or, at least, be able to check bags after you've cleared customs. This is critical: You won't get the refund without the stamp.


(Photo: Paying with Credit Card via Shutterstock)

Work with Your Merchant

The easiest way to get a refund is to have the merchant handle it at the point of sale. Some merchants ask you to sign two credit card chits: one for the pre-VAT price and another for the VAT. You still have to do the paperwork and have it stamped, but when you clear the checkpoint, you just mail the completed paperwork to the merchant to prove that you really took the goods out of the area. When the merchant gets the paperwork, he or she tears up the credit card slip for the VAT. Alternatively, you sign one chit for the full price and the merchant later refunds the VAT to your card.

You can also avoid VAT by having a merchant ship the goods to you directly at your home address. In most cases, however, this isn't a good solution. Shipping charges can be very high, and you have to pay U.S. duty, even if you haven't used up your import allowance.


(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Let the Pros Do It

Two agencies specialize in facilitating VAT refunds. Typically, you want to shop at stores that participate in one of these agencies' programs; this will be displayed on a sign. Go through the purchase and customs paperwork, as described. Then, after passing through customs and getting your paperwork stamped, find an agency office to process the refund. The big agencies maintain refund desks in the departure areas of major international-gateway airport terminals, at some ship and ferry terminals, and at some downtown offices. Typically, you have a choice of getting a cash, check, or credit card refund. These outfits generally deduct as much as 30 percent of the refund amount as a fee for services.

Global Blue is the largest; it operates throughout Western Europe, as well as in several Eastern European countries, Argentina, Japan, Morocco, Singapore, South Korea, Turkey, and Uruguay. Premier TaxFree operates in a limited number of European countries but covers Jordan. Check the agencies' websites for more details.


(Photo: Sankarshan Mukhopadhyah via flickr/CC Attribution)

Buy at Tax-Free Airport Stores

You can avoid paying VAT by waiting to buy in a "tax-free" airport store, usually located after the departure formalities at major international airports. The post-customs areas of many big European airports are now more like upscale shopping malls than airports. But store prices at most airports are pegged to be just a little below local "high street" VAT-inclusive prices, not at the local price minus the VAT. Those fat markups help fund the airport.


(Photo: Thinkstock/Stockbyte)

Beware of the Gotchas

As noted, the paperwork and the customs stamp are critical to the process. Unfortunately, you can sometimes miss out on the chance to comply. One way to miss out is to buy from a supplier who doesn't do the paperwork. Independent artists, street merchants, and many other sellers don't participate in the programs and don't provide paperwork.

You can also miss getting the paperwork if you cross an unattended border. These days, you can pass out of a tax zone without encountering any customs office or official at all—for example, when you drive a rented car or take a train or bus through a lightly used border crossing. If you fly home from Geneva but return a rented car on the French side of Geneva International Airport, you'll find that the customs kiosks in the corridor between the French and Swiss lobbies of the terminal building are generally unattended by either country.

Some countries have work-arounds for these problems. Check the agency websites for details, preferably before you encounter a problem.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Things You Need to Know About Getting a VAT Refund.

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10 Cheapest Airlines for Flying to Europe

Posted May 12, 2014 by

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

For a long time, the only specialist low-fare airlines flying the Atlantic were charter affiliates of large tour operators, mostly European carriers hauling vacationing Europeans to the Unites States. Only a few airlines tried low-fare transatlantic flying without package-tour-market backup, including PeoplExpress and World Airways, but none lasted. Now, however, as the giant legacy airlines hike up their cheapest tickets, low-fare start-ups might again have a price "umbrella" under which to thrive, and a few are trying it out.

Currently, most low-fare transatlantic flights are still on European airlines affiliated with tour packagers. Two lines, however, are doing it without a built-in tour-market base. And more will probably follow. Here's a roundup of some of your primary low-fare transatlantic options, with notes on plane types, fares, and routes.

Test fares shown are in U.S. dollars, for round-trip travel in July on airlines with less-than-daily frequencies. Keep in mind that on some carriers, flying a few days later or earlier could make a difference of several hundred dollars in your fare. Also, on nonstop routes, competitors may offer lower fares on one-stop-connection itineraries. Except where noted, major OTAs and metasearch engines include flights on these low-fare airlines.


(Photo: Aero Icarus flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)


Airberlin is something of an anomaly: Although it started with a low-fare strategy and absorbed longtime low-fare carrier LTU, it is morphing into something more like a traditional airline.

Routes: Chicago, Ft. Myers, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York/JFK to Germany—mainly Berlin and Dusseldorf. It also offers connecting service from dozens of North American cities to dozens of cities in Europe.

Equipment: A330s, with economy in a relatively conventional two-four-two arrangement and at a tight 30-inch pitch, plus business class with flat-bed seats.

Sample Fares: Nonstop New York–Berlin starts at $1,079 plus $21 in online baggage fees on the lowest fare. Business class starts at $4,322.

Verdict: Airberlin is a good option. It has the best prices for economy nonstops to Berlin, with a product comparable to legacy airlines.


(Photo: William Mewes via flickr/CC Attribution)

Air Transat

Canada-based Air Transat is the only independent low-fare airline headquartered in North America. It relies heavily on traffic generated by its package-tour operations, but it sells a lot of air-only tickets.

Routes: Seasonal flights from 15 Canadian cities to Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Glasgow, London/Gatwick, Manchester, and Paris (and to warm-weather destinations in the winter). Most routes operate with less-than-daily frequency.

Equipment: A310s and A330-200s, with terribly tight nine-across economy seating but above-average 32–33-inch seat pitch, and one A330-300 with standard eight-across seating at a 31-inch pitch. All models have a few deluxe "club" seats that are comparable to premium economy on legacy airlines.

Sample Fares: Vancouver–London/Gatwick starts at $1,239 in economy and $2,726 in club. Air Transat charges extra for seats in pairs, seats with a view, and exit-row seats.

Verdict: Only fly Air Transat if cutting costs by almost $300 justifies 11 hours of misery in those awful nine-across seats.


(Photo: Aero Icarus via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)


Condor, once Lufthansa's charter subsidiary, is now part of the Thomas Cook Group of airlines and tour companies.

Routes: Seasonal flights to Frankfurt from Anchorage, Halifax, Las Vegas, Seattle, Toronto, and Vancouver, with winter flights from Florida and Vegas. It offers connections throughout North America and Europe.

Equipment: 767s, with economy in conventional seven-across seating plus options for extra-legroom seating, semi-premium economy, and business (which is really more like premium economy) with six-across seating.

Sample Fares: Seattle–Frankfurt starts at $1,517 in economy, $2,061 in semi-premium economy, and $2,548 in business.

Verdict: Condor is probably a good bet when competitor fares are much more expensive.


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Corsair, a former subsidiary of tour operator Nouvelles Frontieres, now belongs to the TUIfly group.

Routes: Corsair's lone North American route is from Montreal to Paris/Orly.

Equipment: A330s in the undesirable cattle-car three-three-three arrangement in economy, plus a "Grande Large" premium-economy equivalent.

Sample Fares: Fares start at $945 in economy and $1,500 in premium economy.

Verdict: When I tested prices, I didn't find that Corsair offered the best deals.


(Photo: Aero Icarus via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)


Once renowned as the "backpackers' airline" for its cheap tickets to Luxembourg, Icelandair is now hard put to beat competitors on most routes it flies.

Routes: To Reykjavik from Anchorage, Boston, Denver, Edmonton, Halifax, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York/JFK, Newark, Sanford, Seattle, Toronto, Vancouver, and Washington/Dulles, with onward connections to much of Europe. Many North American routes are seasonal.

Equipment: 757s, with economy at an above-average 32-inch pitch, "economy comfort," with the middle seat blocked, and "saga," comparable to legacy-airline premium economy.

Sample Fares: New York–Copenhagen starts at $1,169 in economy, $1,519 in comfort, and $2,337 in saga.

Verdict: When testing prices, I found that Icelandair offered the best deals for those who want a no-charge stopover in Reykjavik—a great opportunity if you haven't been.


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Also known as Eurofly or Air Italy, Meridiana's main claim to fame is that it offers the only nonstops from the U.S. to Southern Italy.

Routes: New York/JFK to Catania, Naples, and Palermo.

Equipment: 767s; I found no information on specifics, but on the basis of the number of seats, the planes have either a very tight pitch or are in a very, very tight eight-across configuration—worse, even, than nine-across in A330s. The airline also advertises a business class (but it's more like premium economy).

Sample Fares: New York–Naples starts at $1,363 with extra charges for checked bags and meals. Business class starts at $2,096.

Verdict: Meridiana is probably an OK choice if you're headed to Southern Italy and you want a nonstop schedule.


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Norwegian is the airline everybody has under a microscope as it challenges top legacy carriers on the world's most important intercontinental route: New York to London. It also posts fares and schedules for Los Angeles to London. Although its plans are not yet set in stone, the airline will likely start flying this summer.

Routes: To London/Gatwick from Los Angeles and New York/JFK, plus older routes from Ft. Lauderdale and New York to Copenhagen, Oslo, and Stockholm; from San Francisco to Copenhagen and Oslo; and from Orlando to Oslo. Flights on all routes are less than daily. Regulatory issues may delay the London routes.

Equipment: Brand-new 787s, unfortunately with the narrow nine-across economy seats, plus what looks to be a good premium-economy option.

Sample Fares: Fares start at $1,398 in economy and $1,947 in premium economy.

Verdict: It will be a good deal, as long as the legacy airlines allow Norwegian to retain the price advantage it currently posts.


(Photo: BriYYZ via flickr/CC Attribution)


Air Canada calls its new low-fare airline-within-an-airline "Rouge," and it has assigned Rouge to fly several (mainly leisure) routes to Europe and warm-weather beach destinations.

Routes: From Toronto to Dublin and Edinburgh and from Montreal to Athens and Venice.

Equipment: 767s at a 30-inch pitch in economy, plus premium economy at a 37-inch pitch.

Sample Fares: Fares start at $872 in economy and $2,205 in premium economy. For comparison, you could fly on Air Transat for $863 or on Aer Lingus, in economy, for $962. Major search engines show Rouge flights as Air Canada.

Verdict: Rouge is probably a better bet than Air Transat.


(Photo: Aero Icarus via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

XL Airways France

Still another tour-operator-based airline, XL Airways France flies to Paris from a handful of U.S. cities.

Routes: To Paris/Charles de Gaulle from Las Vegas, Miami, New York, and San Francisco, plus the only nonstops from New York to Marseilles; some routes are seasonal.

Equipment: A330s, with a punishingly tight pitch of nine-across in economy, plus a premium-economy class.

Sample Fares: New York–Paris starts at $1,210 in economy. For comparison, fare start at $1,477 on OpenSkies.

Verdict: XL Airways France is only worth it if you're willing to put up with hours of torture to cut your fare by a few bucks.


(Photo: Juanedc via flickr/CC Attribution)

Ryanair: Waiting in the Wings?

Michael O'Leary, Ryanair's CEO, publicly speculates about offering transatlantic flights with base fares starting at $10 each way. Yes, that's what he says, and he assumes that Ryanair will make big bucks off of fees for everything. Even though O'Leary is famous for his off-the-wall remarks—remember pay toilets?—you can't ignore a man who built Europe's largest and most profitable airline. If O'Leary actually does it, Ryanair would upend the market even more than Freddie Laker did four decades ago.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title  10 Cheapest Airlines for Flying to Europe.

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10 Unique City Tours Around the World

Posted May 5, 2014 by

(Photo: Magic Bus)

See a completely different side of a city when you break away from the mob of tourists following the guide with the red umbrella. On these 10 unique city tours, you'll venture into the Bronx with an old-school rapper, see abandoned buildings in Portugal's second city, and go longboarding through Amsterdam's most famous park. You're sure to come home with a camera full of authentic experiences that most visitors miss.


(Photo: Bats Over Congress Avenue Bridge via Shutterstock)

Never Unpack Your Travel Items

Crowds gather from March through October on the Congress Avenue Bridge to see a natural spectacle that has earned the resident bat colony celebrity status in Austin. Each night at dusk, 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from beneath the bridge, swirling like a black ribbon into the sky. For a unique perspective on the mass exodus, watch it from the water on a Congress Avenue Kayaks bat tour. With a small group of 10, you'll paddle under the bridge in sit-on-top kayaks. After encountering the bats, you can venture out on your own to see other sights on the water.

Details: The 90-minute kayak bat tour departs at sunset in season and is $30 for a two-person kayak.

Insider Tip: You can also watch the bats from the Four Seasons Hotel Austin's lobby lounge, which serves a "Batini" cocktail. Plan an August visit to coincide with the city's annual bat festival.


(Photo: Magic Bus San Francisco Tour)

1960s Summer of Love Tour, San Francisco, California

It's all peace, love, and bubble-spewing on this psychedelic hippie bus that takes you on a trip back to San Francisco's 1960s counterculture. The Magic Bus Tour stops at landmarks of the city's hippie movement; you can even join in a drum circle (this time without the purple haze). On the bus, a groovy guide/actor will share interesting stories and rock out with you to the music of the era. It's a multimedia adventure that evokes the decade's politics and attitudes through live action and video projections on the bus's retractable window screens. The tour hits Chinatown and the North Beach spot where Jack Kerouac hung out. You'll see Golden Gate Park and the crossroads of Haight and Ashbury streets, home of the Summer of Love, in a whole new light.

Details: The two-hour tour is $55 and starts at Union Square.

Insider Tip: Bring a jacket or sweater. It can be chilly at Golden Gate Park even if it's warm downtown at the tour's start.


(Photo: Rob Moody)

Downtown Yoga Tour, Asheville, North Carolina

Take your downward dog downtown in Asheville, North Carolina. On this Travelling Yogini Tour, you'll strike a pose and connect with your breath in several of the city's iconic spots. A yoga guide will start with beginner-level stretches and, as you move from Pritchard Park to the Flat Iron Building to the artsy Chicken Alley district, the poses will become more challenging. By the time you finish with a cooldown and meditation, you'll have heard about Asheville's history and architecture. Between flowing in and out of poses, you'll meet street performers, artists, and others who are out exploring the city.

Details: The 90-minute downtown tour is $20.

Insider Tip: Along the way, the yoga guide will point out funky boutiques and specialty shops, giving you interesting tidbits on the history and products so you can plan your apres-yoga shopping route.


(Photo: Berlinagenten)

Urban Home-Visit Tour, Berlin, Germany

Want an invitation to sit in a Berliner's flat and chat over coffee or beer? The Urban Living Tour, the ultimate insider's tour, will introduce you to three different Berliners in three different neighborhoods. You'll get to go inside their homes and spend an hour visiting and checking out their decor. The hosts you'll meet will depend on who is in town on the day you're visiting. It could be a set designer in an underground courtyard apartment or a photographer with an uber-luxe pad on a main thoroughfare built in the Stalin era. While you snoop around and see how they live, you'll hear about what drew them to the city and what they love about it.

Details: The 4.5-hour tour includes visits to three private apartments, drinks and sweets, sightseeing between the visits, transport, and a private guide. Prices vary based on how many people are taking the tour; see website for details.

Insider Tip: Keep an open mind and come with questions.


(Photo: Dominic Stevenson)

City Tour Led by Homeless Guide, London, England

See London through the eyes of someone who lives on the city's streets. Unseen Tours hires and professionally trains homeless and formerly homeless people to lead its walking tours of London Bridge, Camden, Shoreditch, and Convent Garden. See the stark contrast between historical landmarks and sites where the guides have slept, hear riveting personal stories, and discover tucked-away places few others ever experience. The tour ends at either a pub or a cafe, so you can carry on with your guide or group in a discussion that ebbs between the politics of street begging and the effects of gentrification on the East End.

Details: The tour runs $9 to $14 per hour and usually lasts about 90 minutes.

Insider Tip: On each tour, the company reserves two free spots for those who are either unable to pay or are accompanying someone as a caregiver. Wondering how much of the ticket sales goes back to the guide? About 80 percent. Unseen Tours was the winner for best tour operator for local experiences in the World Responsible Tourism Awards 2011.


(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

'Worst' Walking Tour, Porto, Portugal

This tour in Portugal's second-largest city is the antithesis of a tourist trap. Avoiding all of Porto's polished postcard-perfect sites, it takes visitors past decrepit homes and crumbling shops. Started by three out-of-work architects who stuck around after the country was hit hard by the recession, The Worst Tours will show you the not-for-tourists sites and guides will tell stories about the old markets and abandoned buildings, helping you understand what's behind Europe's economic crisis. Learn about Porto's architecture, history, politics, and urbanism from a few people who are "OK with not being popular or cool or the best in anything, least of all touring."

Details: Tours are two to three hours and are free.

Insider Tip: Let your guide know which parts of the city you've already visited and what your interests are, and he or she will create a route that shows you things you haven't seen.


(Photo: Urban Adventures)

Gwana Music Tour, Essaouira, Morocco

New this spring, the Gnawa Music Experience tour gives you a unique encounter with one of Morocco's off-the-charts popular trends: trance-like Gnawa music and its acrobatic dance moves. You'll be introduced to the addictive music's Afro-Moroccan culture and customs in the medina, where musicians will be jamming. Then, you'll step inside hidden domains typically inaccessible to visitors: You'll go into the home of a dancer to see him perform, watch a troupe master play a traditional lute-like instrument in his private quarters, and visit a temple where sacred rituals drive out evil spirits.

Details: The evening tour costs around $100 and lasts two to three hours.

Insider Tip: Both men and women should dress with respect, covering everything from the shoulders to the knees. At the end of the tour, your guide can recommend places to go dancing where you'll hear Gnawa music fused with Western and Latin music.


(Photo: TripAdvisor LLC)

Hip-Hop Tour, New York, New York

With a legendary hip-hop artist as your guide, Hush Tours will give you a truly entertaining experience in the Bronx and Harlem, the birthplace of the culture. Here, people on the street might recognize and give shout-outs to the Hush Tours guides—Grandmaster Caz, Kurtis Blow, and others—as they delve into four aspects of hip-hop culture: DJing, MCing, B-boy and B-girl dancing, and graffiti artistry. You'll see the important landmarks and check out where Biggie, Nas, and Jay-Z grew up on this fun tour.

Details: Tours range from two hours ($32) to four hours ($75).

Insider Tip: Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. At one point on the tour, you'll learn hip-hop moves and try them out on the streets.


(Photo: LiveToronto)

Date-Night City Tour with a Photographer, Toronto, Canada

Nothing against snapping a selfie with your iPhone, but on LiveToronto's Date Night Tour, you'll get enviable pics (without your arm) for posting on Facebook or printing in a photo book. Depending on your interests (sports, architecture, music, etc.), your personal paparazzo will plan a walking route to hit Toronto's key sites and set up photo ops. As you explore downtown's icons and hidden gems, your photographer guide will share interesting details about each landmark while capturing everything from classic poses to silly shots. Choose your own adventure: You can include the Harbourfront, the base of the CN Tower, Osgoode Hall, Roundhouse Park, and others.

Details: The 60-minute private tour is $100 to $200 per couple and includes 50 fully edited digital photos, which will be delivered within 24 hours.

Insider Tip: Don't surprise your significant other with this date-night tour—there are too many things to consider beforehand (including hair, nails, and a second outfit or pair of shoes for another look). The company runs tours for families and corporate groups, too.


(Photo: Vondelsurfing)

Longboarding Tour, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

You won't find this longboard tour through Vondelpark in your guidebook or officially operated by any local tour company. But check and there it is: Vondelsurfing, offered by a "semi-professional amateur" longboarder named Milan V. In the new sharing economy, websites like connect you with a vetted local guide. Here, Milan V. puts you on a long skateboard in the middle of Amsterdam's most popular park, hands you a rope, and pulls you behind a fixie bicycle for a couple of hours. It's a chance to see the park like a true hipster Amsterdammer, says Milan V., who has hosted beginners as well as seasoned longboarders.

Details: The two-hour tour is $24 and includes all gear, a drink, and photo/video of your ride.

Insider Tip: Vondelsurfing is fun in pairs of two, so you can switch and watch how the other is doing.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Truly Unique City Tours Around the World.

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10 Best National Parks Around the World

Posted October 18, 2013 by


National parks are kind of an American thing. After all, we established the first one (Yellowstone) in 1872. But it didn't take long for the idea to catch on overseas, and these days the international community can give even our most impressive parks a run for their money. If you love exotic wildlife, ancient ruins, and otherworldly scenery, you might want to add these 10 foreign national parks to your bucket list.


Fiordland National Park, New Zealand

Where else can you enjoy mountains, lakes, fjords, and rainforests in one park? Fiordland National Park, located on New Zealand's South Island, encompasses a massive almost 3 million acres (roughly 4,687 square miles) formed by glacial flows. The most famous of the park's 14 fjords is Milford Sound, which visitors can explore from all angles: Take a helicopter ride above it, cruise on the water, or go below (without getting wet) at the Milford Discovery Center's underwater viewing chamber, which offers 360-degree views of the ecosystem and rare black coral some 30 feet underwater.


Tikal National Park, Guatemala

You'll feel like you've traveled back in time at Guatemala's Tikal National Park, where ruins of an ancient Maya city-state (which housed approximately 100,000 people from the 6th century BCE to the 10th century CE) lie deep in the heart of the jungle. Remains of more than 3,000 separate buildings (including temples, palaces, and tombs) are preserved here. The massive archaeological site feels even more otherworldly as it is surrounded by 54,610 acres (roughly 85 square miles) of rainforest, now inhabited by a wide variety of wild animals such as monkeys, jaguars, snakes, sloths, and armadillos.


Kruger National Park, South Africa

Wildlife watchers, this is the park for you. Kruger National Park's almost 4.9 million acres (roughly 7,722 square miles) are home to an incredible variety of species: 49 fish, 34 amphibians, 114 reptiles, 507 birds, and 147 mammals—and of course that includes the "Big Five" of African game (elephants, lions, rhinos, leopards, and buffalo). There are numerous ways to traverse the park, from the wilderness walking trails (where you'll be accompanied by armed guards) to traditional safaris and 4WD trails.


Galapagos National Park, Ecuador

An astonishing 97 percent of the land area of the Galapagos Islands is part of this national park (the other 3 percent is the inhabited islands, on which tourists can find overnight accommodations, if they don't choose to do a cruise). To visit the park, you'll need to pay a $100 entry fee, and you'll have to be part of a tour that is accompanied by a Galapagos National Park certified guide—there's no doing this park solo. You'll be rewarded with one-of-a-kind wildlife spotting, including the giant tortoise, Galapagos Penguin, marine iguana, and blue-footed booby.


Kluane National Park and Reserve, Canada

Kluane National Park and Reserve is home to Canada's highest mountain (Mt. Logan), more than 100 species of birds (including golden and bald eagles), glaciers, and grizzly bears. Visit in the summer when this park, located in the southwestern corner of the Yukon, experiences up to 19 hours of continuous sunlight per day! Although more than 80 percent of the park's landscape is comprised of mountains and glaciers (more than 4,000 of them), the park still has plenty of greenery—there are meadows and forests that house wide ranges of wildlife, from mountain goats to Dall sheep.


Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, Japan

This national park consists of four different regions: The Mt. Fuji area (home to the highest mountain in Japan, fields formed by lava flows, and five volcanic lakes), the Hakone area (famous for its hot springs and botanical garden), the Izu Peninsula area (featuring the Mt. Amagi volcanic mountain range and Atagawa Tropical and Alligator Garden, which houses 29 reptile species), and the Izu Islands (a group of islands formed by submarine volcanoes).


Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Chile's Torres del Paine National Park is one of the world's most visually arresting places. Its glaciers, lakes, green forests, and rivers are framed by mountains and towered over by the Torres del Paine (granite pillars that rise more than 9,000 feet above the Patagonian steppe). Amid the beautiful scenery, you'll find more than 100 species of exotic birds (including parakeets and flamingos), guanacos (similar to llamas), pumas, and the endangered Chilean huemul (a species of deer).


Canaima National Park, Venezuela

The star attraction of Canaima National Park is Angel Falls, the world's highest waterfall, which drops for more than half a mile before hitting the rapids. The park itself is roughly the size of Belgium (12,000 square miles) and about 65 percent of its terrain is tepuis—plateaus of rock that create the amazing cliffs and mountains that make this park so picturesque. This national park is actually inhabited—it's home to the indigenous Pemon Indians.


Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

If you want to experience some of Africa's best wildlife viewing, Serengeti National Park is the place to do it. Every year, more than a million wildebeest, 200,000 zebras, and 300,000 Thomson's gazelles make their annual migrations from the northern hills to the southern plains, making for some amazing safari photo ops. Even if you come when the migration is not happening, you'll still likely see the Big Five, plus cheetahs, Nile crocodiles, monkeys, giraffes, and much more.


Swiss National Park, Switzerland

Switzerland's only national park is one of Europe's best-protected natural environments—hunting, mowing, off-trail hiking, and tree cutting are all forbidden within the park's more than 42,000 acres. (You can't even bring your dog.) The park's landscape is classic Switzerland, with Alpine forests and meadows, The Sound of Music-esque scenery (including edelweiss flowers), and mountain lakes.


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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Best National Parks Around the World.

Follow Caroline Morse on Google+ or email her at at


10 Amazing Wine Towns in Europe

Posted September 9, 2013 by


From medieval hilltops to breezy coastlines, European wine towns make for irresistible vacation spots. Local cuisines help form a food-wine symbiosis unique to each locale, and surrounding vineyards provide the perfect backdrop. Whether renowned or under the radar, these gastronomic playgrounds offer plenty to taste plus enough history and culture for days of exploration. So head down into the cellar, uncork a prized vintage or two, and toast to these 10 amazing European wine towns.



Beaune, France

Within its ramparts and narrow cobblestone streets, Beaune has one major priority: the production—and consumption—of wine. Dubbed the wine capital of Burgundy—itself one of the most famous viticulture regions in all of France—the small town has been obsessed with the drink since the Middle Ages, thanks in part to the lavish lifestyles of the Dukes of Burgundy. Today, it remains the region's center for wine trade and tourism. As you walk through town, undoubtedly in search of prestigious Pinot Noir-based vintages, stop at the Wine Museum, the Dukes' former residence, for a quick study in oenology, then enter the cellars at Marche aux Vins for a free tour and tasting. Across the way, the Hotel-Dieu, a medieval charity-hospital museum that hosts an annual wine auction every November, offers a sobering look into the lives of the sick and poor in the 15th century.

Uncork: Biodynamic wines at Joseph Drouhin, best tasted in the winery's historical Duke's cellar, built on top of 4th-century Roman fortifications.

Pair: In the snazzy, red-cloaked dining room at Loiseau des Vignes, opened in 2007 by Dominique Loiseau (wife of late chef Bernard Loiseau), choose from among 70 different wines by the glass to accompany the regional prix-fixe menu.



Bernkastel-Kues, Germany

Of the many wine villages on Germany's Mosel River, Bernkastel-Kues is one of the most well-known and oldest. Set in the Middle Mosel region, the town has the ideal terroir for growing prized Riesling grapes. Its steep, slate-covered hillsides are striped with vineyards and lead up to the ruins of Landshut Castle, a focal point for cruisers floating by in river boats below. In the town center, take time to admire the medieval market square lined with half-timbered houses, and stop to photograph the narrow and leaning Spitzhauschen ("Pointed House") that dates back to 1416. Continue on, strolling through small boutiques and breaking for a leisurely lunch at one of the many welcoming restaurants. Just be sure to open a bottle of the town's most legendary wine, Bernkasteler Doctor, which supposedly cured the 14th-century Archbishop of Trier of serious illness.

Uncork: More than 160 regional wines—including Riesling, sparkling Elbling, and fruity Kerner varietals—at the Mosel Wein Museum's Vinothek, housed in the cellars of the historical St. Nicholas Hospital.

Pair: Enjoy regional specialties complemented by a Riesling-focused wine list at Doctor Weinstube, a 17th-century hotel and tavern with an inviting, rustic dining room.



Montepulciano, Italy

Perched above vineyards and cypress-tree groves in the Italian province of Siena, Montepulciano is the biggest and highest medieval hill town in southern Tuscany. Panoramic views of the Val d'Orcia countryside render it a perfect setting for movies like The English Patient and Under the Tuscan Sun, but it is most famous for its Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a red wine made primarily from Sangiovese grapes. The town, lined with Renaissance palaces and churches, centers on Piazza Grande, where the Bravio delle Botti barrel race takes place every August. Food lovers will especially enjoy shopping in the Centro Commercial Naturale, visiting the olive mill, and learning how to make pici pasta with flour from local wheat at the Il Sasso school for language and culture.

Uncork: The celebrated reds at the Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, the local wine consortium made up of more than 70 producers, and its Enoteca Wine Shop in the historical Palazzo del Capitano on Piazza Grande.

Pair: Sample Pecorino cheese, meat, honey, and olive oil in the town's cantines (wine cellars), which are often linked by underground tunnels. Local favorite Cantine Contucci, in the 13th-century cellars of the Palazzo Contucci, is open for tastings every weekday.



Borba, Portugal

When in Portugal, many wine lovers make a beeline to Porto and the Douro Valley. However, the lesser-known Alentejo region to the south has plenty to offer as well, especially when it comes to smaller towns devoted to wine. Though the historical UNESCO World Heritage city of Evora has a regional tasting room and is a natural starting point for the Alentejo wine route, it's nearby Borba that truly lives for wine. From adegas (wineries) in the heart of town to the annual Festa do Vinho e da Vinha (Festival of Wine and Vine) in November, visitors to Borba have plenty of opportunities to sample its robust reds. However, it's also worthwhile to check out the architectural details throughout town: Because of several nearby quarries, Borba is dressed in fine marble, particularly at sites like the Convento das Servas de Cristo and the ornate Fonte das Bicas fountain.

Uncork: Touriga Nacional (considered Portugal's finest grape) along with other regional varietals such as Trincadeira and Aragonez at Adega de Borba, a cooperative that offers different labels from 300 wine-growing associates.

Pair: Dine among giant terra-cotta talhas storing wine while eating local specialties—including ensopado de borrego, a lamb stew, and migas, a traditional dish usually made with breadcrumbs, garlic, and pork—at tasquinhas, or small taverns and restaurants, in town.



Eger, Hungary

On the hills of the Bukk Mountains, nestled in one of Hungary's main viticulture regions, Eger is a popular wine town regarded for its whites and especially reds. Architecturally, the town presents a melange of Turkish, Baroque, and neoclassical styles, evident in well-touristed sites like the Eger Cathedral and the original Ottoman-period minaret. You can learn about the history of Eger's castle and its underground fortification system at the Istvan Dobo Castle Museum, then unwind (releasing any lingering anxiety from the museum's medieval-punishment exhibit) at the recently renovated thermal baths and Turkish spa. After climbing the 97 claustrophobic steps of the needle-shaped minaret, get a sweet fix at the Marzipan Museum and candy shop across the way. To taste wine, hop on the shuttle from the central Dobo Square to cellars in Szepasszony-volgy, or "Valley of the Beautiful Women," just south of town.

Uncork: The legendary Egri Bikaver, or "Bull's Blood of Eger," Hungary's best-known wine internationally. Blended with three or more red grapes—primarily Kekfrankos—the cuvee is matured in oak barrels for at least a year.

Pair: Taste dishes such as goulash soup, roasted pork tenderloin with creamy wild mushrooms, and smoked Hungarian sausage at Kodmon Tavern, an elegant spot that has been serving local cuisine since 1778.



Haro, Spain

With clay soil ideal for growing grapes, multitudes of wine bodegas, and an organized vineyard route, Haro has earned the right to be called the wine capital of Spain's Rioja region. Not only does wine drive Haro's local economy, but it is also taken quite seriously as a way of life—so much so that on the feast of San Pedro (June 29), the town hosts a wine battle, during which opposing sides launch liters of wine at each other, then throws an after party in central Plaza de la Paz Square. Oenophiles and casual visitors alike can delve into the study of viticulture at the Rioja Wine Interpretation Centre, which serves as a research center and museum, or taste the area's fine red wines at the many vineyards and cellars open to the public.

Uncork: Wines from area bodegas, such as the generations-old Lopez de Heredia or the more modern Roda, which specializes in Tempranillo-based wines.

Pair: In Haro's Herradura neighborhood, known for tapas bars and restaurants, seek out dishes like pepitos (steak sandwiches) or pincho moruno (skewered diced pork). For traditional cuisine, mixed vegetable stew, chorizo, and lamb cutlets with vine shoots go nicely with the local wines.



Saint-Emilion, France

If the scent of freshly baked macarons wafting through medieval streets isn't enough to lure you into Saint-Emilion, the wine certainly will. One of the most famed villages on the right bank of France's Bordeaux region, Saint-Emilion is built as much on Merlot and Cabernet Franc as it is on ancient limestone. After visiting the many wine shops in town, take a tour of the 800-year-old Monolithic Church and go underground to the cave where Breton monk—and hermit—Emilion once lived. Come back up to admire the eye-catching 173-foot-high bell tower before following the winding road that leads out to wine-tasting chateaux and rows of vineyards in a World Heritage landscape that span as far as the eye can see.

Uncork: Wines by innovative—but controversial—garagiste winemakers, such as Chateau Valandraud and the appropriately-named Bad Boy label by Jean-Luc Thunevin.

Pair: Decant a bottle of Grand Cru Classe then toast to seasonal market cuisine either indoors or on the shaded terrace at L'Envers du Decor.



Orebic, Croatia

On the southwestern tip of Peljesac, a peninsula on Croatia's Dalmatian coast, Orebic is a maritime town that attracts tourists looking to relax on its sandy beaches, dine on the local catch, and drink wine from the surrounding vineyards. Explore the Maritime Museum—and its collection of models and paintings of boats—at the foot of Mount Elijah, and find sea captain's homes (which you can often stay in) throughout town. The Franciscan monastery's observation towers afford views of the Adriatic, the old town below, and the fruit trees, cypresses, and olive groves that dot the landscape. Winemaking on Peljesac dates back to Roman times, and the Plavac Mali grape, called "the blood of the soil" in Dalmatia, thrives in the Mediterranean climate and takes center stage on the peninsula's pebbled hills.

Uncork: Dry, ruby-red wines such as Dingac, which is deeply rooted in the region's winemaking tradition and became Croatia's first protected wine, and Postup, the country's second protected wine.

Pair: In Orebic's taverns and cafes, seafood reigns supreme. The highlight is the local shellfish, in particular crab, squid, and octopus, but make room for the region's handmade cured ham and cheeses, local olive oil, and fresh citrus fruits and vegetables.



Barolo, Italy

Barolo, famous for its garnet-colored wines made from the Nebbiolo grape, is a low-lying town tucked into a valley in Italy's hilly Piedmont region. While the town has produced wine since at least Roman times, we can thank the last Marchessa of Barolo, French-born Giulia Colbert Falletti di Maulevrier, for realizing the potential of the noble grape in the mid-19th century and getting the town on the map. Visit her former home, the recently renovated Castello Falletti, which houses the WineMuseum (or WiMu) and tasting room, or head next door to the Corkscrew Museum in a former wine cellar. Stay in the neighboring countryside and use your rented villa or farmhouse as a home base for taking walks through the vast vineyards of Barolo and the rest of Piedmont's Langhe wine region.

Uncork: Wine from the 11 communes that produce Barolo at Enoteca Regionale del Barolo, located in the basement of the Falletti castle.

Pair: Choose dishes that can stand up to—and are often cooked in—the region's wine, such as mushroom risotto, braised beef, and gamey stews like bollito misto. Find similar items on the menu at Locanda nel Borgo Antico, a modern farmhouse restaurant tucked away in the vineyards.



Pico (Madalena), Portugal

It's one thing to be a wine town, but it's quite another to be a wine island. On the Azorean isle of Pico, coastal vineyards grow along the sloped edges of an enormous volcano, with their gnarled grapevines creeping up basalt stone walls that protect the plots, or currais, from whipping sea winds and saltwater. Get an introduction to this unusual World Heritage vineyard landscape at the wine museum in Lajido, then trail the coastline in search of clay-roofed wine cellars built with black lava rock, old stone ramps (rola-pipas) that barrels would roll down and onto waiting boats, and tracks (rilheiras) carved by ox carts hauling grapes over the rugged landscape. At the cooperative in the main town of Madalena, learn how the basaltic wines are crafted and, of course, taste them too.

Uncork: Regional whites and reds from Frei Gigante and Terras de Lava, plus aperitif wines and firewater, which will knock you clear off your axis if you're not careful.

Pair: At Restaurante Ancoradouro in Madalena, start by drizzling corn bread and Pico cheese with honey, then pair a glass of vinho branco with any one of the seafood specialties. Grab a table on the breezy terrace for views of the sea and the nearby island of Faial.


Read the Entire Story: 10 Amazing Wine Towns in Europe

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Go Beyond the Grave in York, England

Posted November 17, 2010 by Kate Hamman

York York exudes English charm, especially along its winding medieval street called the Shambles. However, don't be fooled by its picturesque setting, as the city has plenty of secrets lurking in the shadows, including its reputation as one of the most haunted cities in Europe. Get to know the town by walking through its spooky history, dining with its ghosts, and drinking its tea inspired by an infamous ocean liner.

The Ghost Trail of York: The Ghost Trail of York takes you along darkened streets at night, while you listen to tales of murder, plague, heartbreak, and revenge beyond the grave. A costumed guide waits in front of the York Minster every night at 7:30 p.m., regardless of weather, to reveal the gruesome and tragic events of York's past. Tickets cost £4.00 (about $6.00 U.S.; check for current conversion rates) and the tour lasts about one hour and 15 minutes.

Golden Fleece: When you go to a pub for spirits, it's unlikely you're thinking of the dearly departed variety. The Golden Fleece, however, typically serves both. Built in 1503, you'll find York's most haunted drinking establishment across from the historical Shambles. Skip the drinks and go right to the main attraction of comfort foods, such as homemade Yorkshire pudding. Try not to be too alarmed if you catch sight of Lady Peckett, one of the five resident spirits. For a haunting good time, you can also rent one of the four rooms and spend the night with your newfound friends. Entrees start at £6.25.

Bettys Café Tea Rooms: Bettys Café Tea Rooms on St. Helen's Square captures the elegance of afternoon tea with absolute precision. Inspired by the founder's maiden voyage aboard the Queen Mary in 1936, the ornate and extravagant interior is reminiscent of the grand ocean liner which, incidentally, is haunted. A cup of the Tea Room Blend costs £2.95, but order Yorkshire Cream Tea, served in a piping hot pot with two scones, preserves, and clotted cream for £7.95, for a truly authentic experience.

To search for flights and compare prices to Leeds, which is home to York’s nearest major airport, please use our price-comparison tool.


Dance Among the Tulips in Lisse, Netherlands

Posted August 20, 2010 by Kate Hamman

Lisse With rainbow-colored fields of blossoming tulips surrounding the city, Lisse, Netherlands, is an ideal place to be in the spring. However, you don't have to spend a fortune to appreciate the beauty of the season. Here, you can walk among the flowers at Keukenhof, dine and dance the night away at a nearby restaurant, and stay at a hotel close to it all.

Keukenhof: Spring puts its best colors forward at Keukenhof, one of the world's largest flower gardens, where millions of bulbs blossom into a kaleidoscope of flora everywhere you turn. Try your green thumb at the Inspirational Gardens, where you're encouraged to grow your own tulips at home. The flower shows are a particularly special treat, as blooms from across the country are put on display and change weekly. You can also purchase bulbs and freshly cut flowers from several sellers at the park. Entrance costs €14.50 (about $18 U.S.; check for current exchange rates).

Restaurant De Nachtegaal: Located in the Golden Tulip Hotel, Restaurant De Nachtegaal offers a varied menu that changes on a whim.  From Monday through Friday, you can enjoy an array of different dishes at the lunch buffet. On Saturday nights, the chef prepares a special three-course prix fixe menu, and you may find yourself dancing in between courses as live music fills the air.

Hotel de Duif: The Hotel de Duif's rooms may not be fancy, but the location and price can't be beat. Situated in the center of town, not far from the fields of bulbs, you'll be able to sit on the patio and smell the flowers. The hotel's standard rooms come equipped with a shower and color TV, while the suites offer kitchenettes.

To search for flights and compare prices to Amsterdam, which is home to Lisse’s closest international airport, please use our price-comparison tool.


Fall in Love With Brussels and Its Savings

Posted July 26, 2010 by Kate Hamman

BrusselsWith a knack for indulging in the sweet side of life, Brussels makes for a romantic getaway any time of year—and it doesn't have to cost a fortune to woo your honey. Come satisfy your sweetheart's chocolate craving at a designer candy shop before heading out to a traditional dinner of mussels and frites at a local eatery. Then at the end of the night, you can return to an affordable and cozy hotel that will take you both on a journey around the world.

Wittamer: When chocolate and style collide, you get Wittamer's delicious, designer sweets. The sleek-cubed confections make the perfect treat for that special someone. With two shops downtown, you can either sample the homemade chocolates and pralines, or enjoy a decadent pastry with your sweetheart while sipping tea in their cafe.

Chez Léon: Serving an array of homemade mussel dishes for more than 100 years, Chez Léon is the place to go in Brussels for your mollusk fix. The restaurant, however, serves more than just seafood, and you can find a variety of traditional Belgian dishes, including Belgian waffles.

Brussels Welcome Hotel: With a name like Welcome Hotel, it's not surprising that this small inn makes you feel at ease. Owners Sophie and Michel go to great lengths to familiarize you with the city, offering insider tips and suggestions. However, you can also travel around the world if you prefer to stay indoors. Each of the 16 rooms is decorated to emulate a different country, with representative items adorning the walls. The hotel is ideally located in the middle of St. Catherine square, with a subway stop literally across the street. Rooms start at €100 (about $129 U.S.; check for current exchange rates), and include breakfast.

To search for flights and compare prices to Brussels, please use our price-comparison tool.

(Photo: PhotoDisc)

Sweet Dreams in Amsterdam

Posted June 23, 2010 by Kate Hamman

Amsterdam Take in the sights and smells of Amsterdam's sweeter side with a dynamic chocolate shop and an array of pancake flavors. And the sugary goodness continues as the scent of cakes and confections lulls you to sleep.

Puccini Bomboni: Charlie would abandon the Chocolate Factory without a second thought for Puccini Bomboni's inventive chocolates. Think tamarind, thyme, ginger, and fig. Everything is handmade on the spot, and people claim to be drawn in off the street by the scent of melted cocoa and spices. Browse the unique pyramid-style display of chocolates, and sample the liqueur-filled and herb-flavored treats.

The Pancake Bakery: When the griddle gets hot, the Pancake Bakery gets hopping, with more than 75 different kinds of pannekoeken (a combination crepe and an American pancake), including international flavors such as Greenlandic, Egyptian, and French. For the more traditional Dutch-style taste, you can pick from a range of sweet and savory toppings such as apple and Grand Marnier, bacon and cheese, and raisins in brandy.

Cake Under My Pillow: Whoever coined the term "sweet dreams" must've stayed at the Cake Under My Pillow. Here, the scent of cakes, pies, and confections literally drifts through your window each morning, as there's a bakery and cafe beneath the B&B. You will find free coffee and tea service in the upstairs kitchen throughout your stay.

To search for flights and compare prices to Amsterdam, please use our price-comparison tool.

(Photo: Sebastian Duda/

Sleep in the Heart of Rome, Italy

Posted May 17, 2010 by Jaclyn Liechti

Rome-PonteStAngelo Rome is one of the most popular destinations in Europe, and with so much to do there it might be difficult to squeeze it all into one trip. The jaw-dropping elegance of the Colosseum, the immense holdings of the Vatican Museum, and the delicate splendor of Trevi Fountain are well-known attractions, but in a city like this, it's easy to get off the beaten path, too. Tiny ristorantes and gelaterias can be found around every corner, and the gardens of Villa Borghese offer a welcome respite from the tourist strip.

Hotel Boccaccio: The Hotel Boccaccio is a charming apartment-turned-hotel in the heart of Rome, near the Trevi Fountain. From here, you can walk to most of the popular attractions in the city, or jump on the metro right around the corner. The 1937 building is also the living quarters of its proprietor, Pati, and guests will feel right at home in one of the eight spacious guest rooms. The hotel is a member of the first group of environmentally friendly establishments in Italy. Double bedrooms with a private bathroom start at €100 (about $124, see for current conversion rates).

You can use our tool to compare airfares to Rome from multiple travel providers.

(Photo: courtesy of APT - Rome)

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