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When exploring Europe, the easy option is to choose a central city and use that as a base for exploring the area around. It often makes sense.
Paris is a sensible jumping-off point for a day trip to Claude Monet’s gardens at Giverny — and in truth in mid-summer the glorious shade and pools at Giverny make a wonderful counterpoint to the heat and bustle of the city.
Dark tourism by day
Visitors to Prague make day trips to Terezín while those in Kraków make tracks to Auschwitz. Both are thought-provoking adventures in dark tourism, but neither destination is calculated to inspire an overnight stay. The horror of Auschwitz becomes bearable by day, precisely because you know you’ll be back in the comfort of Kraków by evening.
Some places are just far too good to breeze into mid-morning and leave by early evening. They demand time.
The university city of Oxford is one such place. The local Cotswold stone is at its best when seen at low sun angles, and the streets of Oxford take on a new quality in the early morning and late evening in summer.
The city is less than an hour from London by fast train, so no surprise that by day the streets, the College gardens and the banks of the Thames are crowded with visitors. Stay on after the day trippers have left and you’ll discover quite another Oxford.
Iona by night
Iona also cries out for an overnight stay. No other Scottish island packs so much history into so compact an area. Travelers make hugely ambitious day trips by coach and ferry to catch the flavor of one of Europe’s most sacred spaces. Iona is remote, and it deserves time.
With the departure of the last ferry back to Mull (usually at 6.30 pm at this time of year, but a little earlier on Sundays), Iona assumes a gentler, more serene demeanor. It is a place to linger and meditate, and with the island having a couple of good hotels and several B&Bs there is a fine choice of accommodation options. It is the huge coach parties that take the edge off Iona by day. By night you’ll experience a much quieter island.
Another kind of Toledo
Madrid’s first choice destination for out-of-town forays is Toledo, just 30 minutes from the Spanish capital by frequent fast trains. No surprise that with such easy access, Toledo really pulls the crowds. By day, you’ll wonder if this was really the city that so inspired El Greco. But, come the evening you’ll discover quite another Toledo. Head for the terrace bar at the Parador and watch the sun dip down over Toledo’s choppy roofscape.
It is just too tempting to try and squeeze in too much when visiting Italy. Too many travelers spend a couple of nights in Florence but judge Siena as being worthy of no more than a day trip from Florence. Siena is exquisite, and actually much easier to get to grips with than Florence. But you’ll not catch the real flavor of Siena without an overnight stay in this most magical of medieval townscapes.
One day trip much beloved by many visitors to central and northern Italy has a peculiarly international character. La Serenissima Repubblica di San Marino (what a wonderful name for a country) certainly pulls the crowds, and the narrow streets of the tiny republic’s old hilltop capital are packed by day — yet deserted by night. It is a place where an overnight stay makes sense. San Marino is special. So special in fact, that our article next week for EuroCheapo will unpack a little more of life in Europe’s most serene republic.