After a week of road-tripping through the Alps that landed us in Verona, Italy, for a few days, a friend in our group announced he’d never been to Venice, an hour train ride away. The rest of us gasped, “Never been to Venice?” It was so close but—alas—too far to make us anything but day-trippers in one of the world’s most complex cities. “So what?” said the friend. “So what?” said we all.
The next morning, we boarded a gondola after arriving at Stazione Santa Lucia, headed for St. Mark’s Square to have coffee with the pigeons. We strolled past the Campanile, peeked into the plush Daniela hotel, and stared for a while at iconic Santa Maria della Salute. We even took time for a tour of St. Mark’s Basilica and also found our way to the Rialto Bridge, where we loaded up on sausage and cheese from the surrounding market for the return trip to Verona. Nothing felt rushed. It was an inspirational day for all of us. And now when asked, “Have you been to Venice?” our friend can say with confidence, “Yes, I was there for a while. Quite a while.”
You too can play this game: Visit a European bucket-list city in 18 hours or less. Overnights are not required. Perhaps your cruise ship is docked nearby. Or you’re staying in another city, but the high-speed trains make a day trip awfully tempting. The rules: 1. Make your destination a big, swoon-worthy city that notches up your travel cred. 2. Come back with bragging rights, but nothing so crass as a souvenir. Instead, pick up a Learned On Location (LOL) observation that shows you were paying attention. 3. Feel no guilt. The use of these bucket-list supplements in no way constitutes cheating.
The Eurostar from Paris or Brussels arrives at St. Pancras, a beautifully restored Victorian station with little of interest immediately outside its doors. The solution is to grab a cab (or take the Tube) to Liverpool Street Station and climb onto a No. 11 bus. Sit in the front seat upstairs and watch London roll by like a movie, as you pass the Royal Exchange, Bank of England and St. Paul’s Cathedral; chug along Fleet Street; scoot around Trafalgar Square and down Whitehall to the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey—all the way to Chelsea and along the King’s Road. The trip might take an hour; never do it at rush hour. It’s the closest thing to a guided tour without the shame.
Quick Bite St. Pancras is such a showplace since its 2007 renovation, you’ll want an excuse to spend time there. Dining is easy at more than a dozen places: Prime Burger (with a kids menu); Betjeman Arms (upscale pub grub); or the Gilbert Scott, an elegant dining room from top-chef Marcus Wareing (prime-burger.co.uk, thebetjemanarms.co.uk, thegilbertscott.com).
LOL Observation To return to St. Pancras, consider a spacious black cab. You’ll not only ride in high style but you’ll gain the right to crow about how much money you saved on these notoriously pricey taxis—the British pound is close to a 20-month low against the dollar.
The Spanish conveniently located the Museo del Prado—loaded with paintings by Velásquez, Goya and El Greco—just up the leafy Paseo del Prado from Atocha Station, where the high-speed trains from France pull in. More modern works are just across from road from the station, at the Reina Sofía and, farther along the Paseo, at the Thyssen-Bornemisza. If you feel like gorging on art, this is the city in which to do it.
Quick Bite Lunch at the Westin Palace (across from Thyssen-Bornemisza), under the stained-glass dome of La Rotonda. Alternately, grab sashimi and tapas in the hotel’s Green T Sushi Bar (7 Plaza de las Cortes, marriott.com).
LOL Observation Buy stamps at the main post office, a Baroque landmark, on the Paseo, and load up on postcards of your favorite works from some of the museums to reinforce your art-history lesson. Send them to friends. Postcards are the new Instagram; you heard it here first.
Start at Karlsplatz, not far from the main rail station, and stroll the half-dozen pedestrian-only blocks through a wonderland of pastel houses, stepped gables and windows dripping with geraniums, on down to the Rathaus. Up in the tower of Munich’s City Hall, the Glockenspiel pops out carved historical figures. It’s a revolving rock-around-the-clock with jousting knights and a happy Medieval couple at their royal wedding. All along the route, the green onion domes of the Frauenkirche watch over Bavaria World like twin guardian angels who’ve never heard of Disney .
Quick Bite Halfway to the Rathaus, Zum Augustiner Restaurant und Bierhalle serves its own beer—originally brewed by the Augustine monks—and feeds you half-roasted chickens with mounds of nap-inducing potato salad (27 Neuhauserstrasse, augustiner-restaurant.com).
LOL Observation Only servers in beer halls and restaurants sport dirndls and lederhosen—which like any flight attendant’s garb, are uniforms for work.
Never let the Seine out of your sight. Get yourself to the Île de La Cité, the historic heart of Paris, where you’re officially on the Right Bank but really between Left and Right. You can walk to Notre-Dame; the Conciergerie, where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned; and lose yourself in the Place Dauphine, a secret courtyard halfway across the Pont Neuf that’s easy to miss. At the western tip of the island, a triangular park known as the Vert Galant juts into the Seine like the prow of a ship. There, you can stay put and let Paris flow by.
Quick Bites Pick a place on the Place Dauphine such as La Bar du Caveau and lunch with lawyers from the Palais de Justice; its dignified facade walls off one side of the square.
LOL Observation Ogle the books and literary knickknacks at the oft-photographed, weathered green stalls of the booksellers that line the stone walls along Île de La Cité. In Paris, you must break the no-tchotchke rule and buy a little something; after all, souvenir is a French word.
Michelangelo’s perfectly proportioned Piazza del Campidoglio, home to Rome’s City Hall, puts you at the top of history’s most remarkable junk heap—the glorious if crumbling marble arches and columns of the Roman Forum. From behind City Hall, the Colosseum is clearly in view, and you can survey the Seven Hills (you’re on Capitoline). Michelangelo built on the spot where the Emperors received the chariot-driving legions, back from battle with the good news that they went, they saw, they conquered. And what exactly is that enormous marble “wedding cake” devouring the cityscape in the other direction? A 20th-century monument to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a unified Italy, which speaks—loudly—for itself.
Quick Bite Grab a panini at the snack bar in the Capitoline Museum, next to City Hall, with 360-degree views from the terrace (Palazzo dei Conservatori, museicapitolini.org).
LOL Observation The letters SPQR embedded in the manhole covers all over the city stand for Senatus Populusque Romanus, the emblem of the Roman Empire and still used today by the municipal authorities.
Check into the Hotel Sacher, melodically located on Philharmonikerstrasse, where Graham Greene is said to have written “The Third Man,” the classic noir mystery set in postwar Vienna. The concierge will have tickets for whatever is playing at the famous opera house, across the street. Do not worry if performances are sold out; the Sacher will have tickets, very expensive ones. Window-shop down to St. Stephen’s Cathedral along car-free Kärtnerstrasse. (from about $500 a night, sacher.com).
Quick Bite A Sacher torte and kaffee mit schlag, coffee with whipped cream, at the Sacher.
LOL Observation The Wiener Staatsoper, one of the grandest of the world’s grand old opera houses, is enormous, but the actual theater is almost cozy—1,700 seats—for an opera house. In contrast, New York’s Metropolitan has 3,800 seats, which can make some performances feel more like well-sung soccer matches.