Seeing the top sights in Europe’s big cities can be intense. It’s hot, it’s crowded, and your dream of having a quiet moment with the Mona Lisa is shared by around 6 million people every year.
The mission of my most recent trip to Europe was finding peace and tranquility in big cities that, in many ways, feel overrun with tourists. And it’s surprisingly easy to do.
Many travelers stick to the most famous sights — and I don’t blame them; the sights are famous for a reason. But cities like Rome, Florence and Vienna have a number of attractions where you can get a similar appreciation for a city’s cultural importance without the overwhelming crowds.
In Rome — the “Eternal City” — you can spend what feels like an eternity waiting in line with your fellow tourists at the most crowded spots. Fortunately, Rome has plenty of extremely rewarding sights that are cool, quiet and give an intimate peek at an amazing ancient world.
Most clamor to see the famed outdoor sights (the Colosseum, Forum, etc.) and often neglect the indoor attractions. The National Museum of Rome and the Capitoline Museums have world-class collections. But even in peak season, you’ll often be alone with the wonders of the ancient world, wondering, “Where is everyone?”
Within a 10-minute walk of Rome’s main train station, the National Museum of Rome houses the world’s greatest collection of ancient Roman art, including busts of emperors and a Roman copy of the Discus Thrower, one of the most iconic statues of Classical Greece.
Sitting atop Capitoline Hill, just a few minutes’ walk from the Roman Forum, the Capitoline Museums hold more of ancient Rome’s famous art. Highlights include an equestrian statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, a famous representation of an ancient wounded warrior — the Dying Gaul and a bronze statue depicting a legendary she-wolf nursing the infants who became the founders of Rome — Romulus and Remus.
A 10-minute stroll from Rome’s overcrowded Colosseum is a free-standing ruin of nearly equal vastness — the impressive Baths of Caracalla. This sight is dramatic in part because nothing was built around or on top of it — and few people visit it. Today, with a fertile imagination, you can picture Rome at its zenith.
The same goes for Florence, where visitors cram into the three most famous sights (Accademia Gallery, Uffizi Gallery and Duomo), leaving other museums and galleries — which would be big hits in a lesser city — essentially empty.
On my last trip to Florence, I visited the Hospital of the Innocents, just a few minutes away from the mobbed Accademia where Michelangelo’s David stands surrounded by adoring fans. Designed in the 15th century by Filippo Brunelleschi, and considered by many the first Renaissance building, the hospital’s architecture typifies the new (at the time) aesthetic of calm balance and symmetry. With its mission to care for orphans, the hospital was also an important symbol of the increasingly humanistic outlook of Renaissance Florence. Now a museum, it houses terra-cotta medallions by Luca della Robbia and other magnificent artwork. But on my last visit it was almost empty — I shared it only with a group of school children on a field trip.
Even within a crowded sight, you can find areas tourists have overlooked. In Vienna, the Albertina Museum takes up a distant wing of the busy Hofburg Palace complex. On a recent trip, I enjoyed quality time alone here with some of my favorite artists. This laid-back museum has a remarkable collection of minor works by major artists, including sketches, woodcuts and watercolors. As the exhibits rotate, at one time you might see Claude Monet’s water lilies and Edgar Degas’ dancers, at another time there might be Edvard Munch’s moody landscapes and Gustav Klimt’s eerie femme fatales.
Even in St. Petersburg, where one blockbuster sight stands above them all — the world-famous Hermitage Museum — you can find peace in the massive museum’s Impressionist section, located in a building across the square from the main galleries.
With a staggering 3 million works of art housed in a series of mostly interconnected buildings, the Hermitage can be a zoo. But its incredible Impressionist (and Post-Impressionist) collection stands alone in the nearby General Staff Building. Most visitors head straight into the Winter Palace and wind their way through the adjoining palaces in a route that can become overwhelming. Savvy travelers buy their ticket at the Impressionist galleries (where it’s almost always less crowded), see this collection first, then head for the highlights in the main complex.
Great art often hides in less-famous sights. Throughout my travels, I’ve noticed that huge crowds don’t always gravitate to the most enjoyable locations. There are countless amazing places you can have all to yourself. If you do your homework, you’ll know about attractions where peace and elegance trump crowds and chaos.