Trip to the past: Europe’s must-see historical sites
History buffs have so much to see in Europe, from castles to cathedrals and everything in between. Step back in time on a Lakes & Mountains holiday with trips to some of our favourite historical sites.
Scaligeri Castles, Lake Garda, Italy
These four castles – one each in Malcesine, Sirmione, Lazise and Torri del Benaco – were built by the Scaligeri family who ruled Verona in the 13th and 14th centuries. Originally meant for defence, they’re now popular spots to visit. The castles in Malcesine and Torri have museums inside and also host weddings throughout the summer. In Sirmione, it’s all about the views – the castle is surrounded by water and you can see over the whole town from the ramparts. Lazise’s castle was mostly destroyed a long time ago, but parts of the gate and walls still stand among a peaceful garden.
Hallstatt salt mine, Hallstatt, Austria
Head off from Fuschl, St Gilgen or St Wolfgang to the town of Hallstatt, a huddle of cobbled streets and chalet-style buildings on the edge of a lake. One of its highlights is the salt mine, where the so-called ‘white gold’ has been produced since 5000 BC. Join a guided tour to venture underground and explore 65km of tunnels, see the salt lake and whizz down the wooden slide that the miners once used. You can also learn about ancient artefacts that have been found in the area, and pop into the shop to pick up some salt products to take home.
Villa Balbianello, Lake Como, Italy
No holiday to Lake Como would be complete without going to Villa Balbianello. It sits on the edge of a promontory in Lenno and the garden is famous for starring in films like James Bond and Star Wars. But as beautiful as the outside is, it’s the inside that’s truly fascinating. Take a tour to learn all about the house, which was once a monastery and then, until 1988, the home of explorer Guido Monzino. He filled it with priceless artworks and artefacts from his many expeditions – including rare glass paintings, ancient furniture and sculptures, and even one of the sleds he used to reach the North Pole.
Mirabell Palace, Salzburg, Austria
Mirabell Palace is a must-visit in Salzburg for fans of both history and music, who’ll surely recognise it from The Sound of Music – Maria and the Von Trapp children danced down the outside steps and around the Pegasus fountain during Do-Re-Mi. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the palace was built in 1606 and renovated in lavish Baroque style in the 1720s. Go inside to marvel at the Marble Hall and Angel Staircase, before heading out to wander among the geometric flowerbeds and mythological statues in the garden.
Verona Arena, Verona, Italy
One of the best-preserved amphitheatres in the world, the Verona Arena has quite a history. It was built in the 1st century AD for Roman celebrations, public games and gladiator battles, and has now hosted everything from jousts to pop concerts. Since 1913, it’s been the setting for the annual Opera Festival – the elliptical shape makes for perfect acoustics. And the sight of the 15,000-strong audience holding candles in the air as the music starts is one you’ll never forget. You can visit Verona from lots of our resorts around Lake Garda, and even book the opera as part of an excursion.
Neuschwanstein Castle, Füssen, Germany
Step into a fairy tale at Neuschwanstein, a hilltop castle that appeared in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and also inspired Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland. King Ludwig II of Bavaria designed it in the 1800s to reflect the romanticism of the Middle Ages, complete with soaring turrets. Much of it was left unfinished after the king died, but you can still take a tour to see the lavishly decorated Throne Room, Ballroom and Hall of Singers. To get to Neuschwanstein, take an excursion from Achensee, Alpbach or Seefeld in Austria.
Isola Madre & Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore, Italy
Catch a boat to these islands for a glimpse at the history of the Borromeo’s, the noble family who’ve been around since the 1300s. They bought Isola Madre in 1501 and built the Renaissance-style villa that still stands today. Go inside to admire centuries of paintings, tapestries and furniture. And don’t miss the Puppet Theatre, complete with puppets and special effects machines, where the children of the family would entertain guests. On Isola Bella is the even-more-impressive, 16th-century Baroque palace, where you can stroll between towering ballrooms and lavish bedrooms – including the one where Napoleon once slept. Both islands are also known for their beautiful gardens.
Ballenberg Open-Air Museum, Brienz, Switzerland
On an excursion from Grindelwald or Interlaken, travel back in time at this open-air museum to see what rural life was once like in Switzerland. There are over 100 historical buildings to explore, which were all moved here from their original sites across the country. You can learn about traditional costumes, watch demos of crafts like rope-making, cheese-making and crochet, and meet farm animals in the petting area. There are also themed woodland trails where you can find out more about the trees and how they were used in crafts, long before plastic was invented.
Il Duomo, Florence, Italy
Take a day trip from Lake Garda to Florence, the Cradle of the Renaissance. Dominating the skyline is Il Duomo, the cathedral that’s one of the biggest churches in Italy and one of the most impressive in the world. It was built between 1296 and 1436 by architects who were centuries ahead of their time when it came to skill – the dome is still the largest brick dome ever made. Don’t miss seeing the carved bronze doors of the Baptistry, known as The Gates of Paradise. And you can even climb to the top of the dome to get a close-up look at The Last Judgement fresco, before stepping outside for a bird’s-eye view of the city.
Step back in time next summer on a Lakes & Mountains holiday.
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