Breakfast at the Vatican

As any early bird will gleefully gloat, morning is the most peaceful time of the day. Nowhere is this truer than inside the Vatican, where during the early hours, the entrance gates remain closed to the general public and the tourists of Rome remain tucked up in their hotel beds. But short of getting yourself a cleaning job for the papacy, how do you gain early access to the Vatican? Well, there is a way: as one of only three official Vatican partners, City Wonders can get you past papal security and through the door on a number of our Vatican tours.

Start Off Right with a Vatican Breakfast

If you are going to the Vatican, one thing is a given: you are going to want to go early to avoid the late-morning crush. And only the foolhardy would attempt to tour one of Rome’s biggest and best museums without eating breakfast first. After all, if there is one thing you will need here, it is energy. You could trawl the streets around the Vatican City at dawn in search of breakfast spots, but why bother when you can enjoy a buffet inside the Vatican’s own Pinecone Courtyard? Those who opt to do so will get to tuck into a breakfast spread that will include everything from made-to-order pancakes and sizzling bacon to croissants, fresh juice and espresso. Plus, you’ll have the chance to see the Vatican as few outsiders ever do: quiet and almost entirely devoid of people.

Opt for the Vatican Gardens before the Museums

After having breakfast at the Vatican, there is only one thing to do and that is explore. Take our Vatican Breakfast Tour and you can get a head start on the crowds and enter the museums before the doors are flung open to the masses. Our other half-day Vatican tour with breakfast includes a 45-minute drive around the rarely-seen Vatican Gardens – home to things most travelers don’t even know exist including the original medieval walls, the railway station and Renaissance villa Casina Pio IV – before moving on to the museums themselves. These meticulously landscaped gardens, which cover approximately half of the Vatican, were designed for meditation and contemplation and are especially tranquil during the early hours.

Inside the Vatican Museums, the marvels are manifold. Among them is the Raphael Rooms, a series of papal chambers covered in elaborate frescoes painted by Raphael and his students, the highlight being his School of Athens, which depicts a gathering of history’s greatest minds. Then there is the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which with the exception of the Mona Lisa, is probably the most famous artwork on this planet. Completing the magnificent mural adorning the chapel ceiling was no walk in the park. Michelangelo, who considered himself a more skilled sculptor than painter, was reluctant to take on the large-scale commission from Pope Julius, though in the end he had little choice. It took four long years of arduous labor for him to complete it. When Michelangelo returned to paint The Last Judgment on the later wall between 1535 and 1541, the Renaissance master found himself at the center of a controversy concerning the nude figures, which the religious powers that be deemed inappropriate.

After surveying the wondrous papal collections, you can skip on over to St. Peter’s Basilica to gaze at yet more incredible artworks, including Michelangelo’s stunning Pietà.

Best Towns on the Amalfi Coast

A slithering stretch of cliff-edged coastline wedged between forested hillsides and sapphire blue seas, the Amalfi Coast is much fawned-over. Not only does it send travelers weak at the knees, but it has also been given the coveted UNESCO stamp of approval, with the UN agency declaring it “an outstanding example of a Mediterranean landscape.”

Nature has been undoubtedly generous to this sliver of southern Italy, gifting it with the kind of striking vistas and gorgeous jewel-toned palette that has landscape artists reaching for their paintbrushes. Humankind hasn’t done bad here either, creating picturesque pastel-painted towns that add rather than detract from the glorious natural surroundings.

The Town of Amalfi

With breath-stealing natural beauty, towns that range from the charmingly sleepy to the disarmingly glamorous, and some of the finest straight-from-the-Med seafood to ever to make it on to the plate, the Amalfi Coast doesn’t need to rest on its historic laurels. Yet it would be a shame to visit without so much as dipping a toe into its fascinating and mostly underappreciated past. The best town in which to wind back the clock is Amalfi itself, which was once – along with Venice, Pisa and Genoa – one of Italy’s four powerful maritime republics. Now a small seaside resort town crammed with attractive sun-dappled piazzas, cafés and shop-lined streets, it can be hard to imagine Amalfi as the major power it once was.

The town’s peak period lasted from the 7th to 10th centuries, and though its fall from grace began in the 12th century when it was taken over by the Pisans, the final blow came in the form of an earthquake and tsunami in 1343, which saw the majority of the town destroyed. Among the few rare remaining relics from its wealthy trading heyday are the 11th-century Byzantine bronze doors that front the town’s cathedral, the Duomo di Sant’Andrea, and the adjoining 13th-century cloister, Chiostro del Paradiso.

The Town of Positano

There is one town on the Amalfi Coast so relentlessly photogenic that visitors here often find themselves with their finger constantly poised on the shutter button, and that is former fishing village turned glamorous getaway Positano. If you can bear to put the camera away you’ll do more justice to this life-affirmingly beautiful hillside town, whose tumbling assortment of pastel-hued houses look toy-sized against the rearing olive and lemon-grove carpeted mountains and the vast twinkling sea. You would be better off marching yourself off down the steep, snaking arm’s-width alleys that wind down to Positano’s seafront, which are loaded with fashion-forward boutiques, smart seafood restaurants and café terraces that encouraging lingering over dreamy Mediterranean views.

Join our Amalfi Coast tours from Rome or among our Naples tours, and not only will you get to see Amalfi and Positano, but you will also be taken to a slumbering under-the-radar Amalfi town, far off the beaten tourist track high up in the mountains overlooking the Med. Here, you will get to sample freshly made buffalo mozzarella so silky and delicately flavored, it puts the rubbery, store-bought stuff to shame.

Tips for Families Visiting the Louvre

The internet is awash with articles and blog posts telling parents traveling with kids to skip the Louvre. As well-intentioned as this advice may be, it simply is not true. With just a pinch of forethought and consideration, it is possible to plan a museum outing inside these famous halls that children will not merely endure but actually enjoy! Here are our tips for families visiting the Louvre.

Don’t Spend Time Waiting in Line

Everyone knows patience is a virtue that most children – and indeed many adults – have yet to master. Forcing kids to wait around for long periods without anything to occupy them is a guaranteed tantrum trigger. To ensure your family trip to the Louvre gets off to a good start, you will want to figure out the fastest way in. Most visitors make a beeline for the iconic glass pyramid in the Louvre’s courtyard where lines are quick to form, so you are probably better off entering via the Carrousel du Louvre underground shopping mall. Better yet, sign up for our Louvre Family Tour and avoid lengthy queues with direct skip-the-line access.

See the Mona Lisa at Kid Speed

When it comes to getting your children to appreciate a lot of art, you are going to want to devise a plan of attack. Bear in mind that even for art-obsessed adults, getting through all the Louvre’s galleries in one go would require superhuman stamina. Kids tend to have significantly less staying power than grown-ups, so don’t expect them to hang around happily for any more than a couple of hours. Short and sweet should be your mantra.

If you want to spark their interest in art, you will have to do more than simply lecture and reel off information. Find ways to engage them: have them scour the galleries for particular works treasure-hunt style or bring pencils and paper so they can sketch their favorites.

Alternatively, place your trust in the hands of a professional and sign up for the City Wonders Louvre Museum Highlights for Families Tour, which will bring the Louvre’s art to life. During this tour, a knowledgeable guide will have your youngsters agog with well-told tales of Greek gods and French royalty that tread the line between entertaining and educational. While the guide endeavors to keep their young minds engaged, handouts will also be provided to keep those little hands busy so there is little opportunity for wining to creep in.

Prepare for Bathroom and Snack Breaks

As any parent of young children can attest, when kids need to go, they need to go right away. Luckily, for families wandering the Louvre, a WC is never far. For starters, there is a public toilet in the Musée du Louvre metro station close to the Carrousel de Louvre entrance. If the lines are too long there, you can pay to use the slightly fancier Point WC toilets at the east end of Carrousel de Louvre instead. There are even more toilets available in the Louvre entrance hall just outside each individual wing entrance and several more spread over different levels and wings. Though toilets are well-signposted, you may want to pick up a floor plan just in case.

Bear in mind that a hungry child is usually an unhappy one, so plan for regular food breaks. There are a number of cafés and restaurants inside the Louvre of varying quality and cost. But your best bet for a child-palatable on-the-go snack that won’t make your wallet wince, head for the takeaway counters located outside the gallery entrances to the Denon and Richelieu wings, or the food court in the adjacent Carrousel du Louvre shopping mall.

If you’re going to be in Paris and want to see the greats without kid problems remember this option for the Louvre and check out our Versailles family tours for the same focus on you and yours.

 

Changing of the Guard History

Guarding Buckingham Palace is no trifling responsibility and only a select number of soldiers are deemed suitable for the job. The elite few considered worthy of the post are given the name of Queen’s Guard. Many rubbernecking tourists labor under the misconception that these dapper soldiers, with their distinctive scarlet coat and bearskin hat, are there purely for show. The truth is rather different: every guard who stands sentry in front of the official royal residences has been thoroughly trained in defense with the vast majority of them having even served overseas duty. Though these impeccably groomed guards are present at Buckingham Palace 24/7, the best time to get a good look at them is during the Changing of the Guard ceremony.

Changing of the Guard History 101

The Queen’s Guard have been keeping watch over Britain’s royal palaces since 1660. At this time, the reigning monarchs would have lived mainly at the Palace of Whitehall, the vast majority of which was burned to the ground during a devastating fire in 1698. With Whitehall in ruins, the royals decamped to St. James’s Palace, which, despite later being supplanted by Buckingham Palace, remains an administrative center for the British monarchy. Today, the Queen’s Guard is stationed at St. James’s Palace and a detachment unit is sent from there to serve at Buckingham Palace during the Changing of the Guard ceremony.

So, what is the Changing of the Guard exactly?

The Changing of the Guard is a 45-minute spectacle that marks the handover between the Old Guard, who are nearing the end of their shift, and the New Guard, who are readying to relieve the Old Guard of their duties. Though the switchover sounds simple, the traditional ceremony that accompanies it is anything but and involves all kinds of fanfare and pageantry, including carefully choreographed marching, counting and flag waving as well as music courtesy of a military band. The band tends to keep things traditional with military marches and the likes, though they do occasionally throw in a musical curveball, playing recognizable movie tunes and even the odd sing-along pop song.

How to See the Changing of the Guard

Spectators hoping to witness the Changing of the Guard ceremony often arrive early in the morning to stake out a prime viewing spot in front of Buckingham Palace. If you are either unwilling or unable to arrive early, you may find yourself stuck staring at the backs of heads. Alternatively, you could take our Westminster Abbey Tour during which an in-the-know guide will show you around the spectacular wedding venue of Kate and Wills (and countless royals before them), before securing a first-rate viewing position.

Between late July and early October, you can follow up the Changing of the Guard ceremony with a tour around Queen Elizabeth II’s opulent London pad with our Buckingham Palace and Changing of the Guard Tour. This rare opportunity for mere mortals to gain entry to the British monarch’s main residence is available for just two months of the year, while the Queen is away on vacation in Balmoral, Scotland.

The Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place daily between April and July and on alternate days between August and March, and may be cancelled due to bad weather conditions.

The Best European Day Trips

Traveling to major cities can be an extraordinary experience, but often times an adventure outside the city walls can take the pleasure of travel to the next level. Pre-planning is always advised for these excursions, as tickets and availability are often limited, and it might not be possible to book once you arrive at your main destination. Here are the best European day trips you can’t let yourself miss.

From Rome to Pompeii

Just 3 hours from Rome, Pompeii is a fabulous idea for a day trip. At its pinnacle, Pompeii was an extremely busy port town, where much of the area’s commerce and trade took place; it also served as a mecca for technological and mathematical advancements in its time. Much of the city has been amazingly preserved, due to the giant “dump” Mount Vesuvius took on the city, also known as the infamous volcanic eruption of 79 AD. This mass burial of the city of Pompeii managed to cover the entire town under a thick layer of volcanic lava and ash. Although, be it a major tragedy in history, today it have given visitors a snap shot in time, where things remained preserved as they were back in the 1st century. The best thing to do is a walking tour of Ancient Pompeii and the amphitheater, then hike up Mount Vesuvius to enjoy renowned views. Much needed advice for this day trip is to wear comfortable walking/hiking shoes and bring plenty of water and sunscreen (even in the winter months).

From Milan to Lake Como

One of the greatest advantages of traveling in Europe is that because of their close proximity, traveling from one country to the next is pleasurably simple. From Milan, it takes roughly an hour and a half to arrive at Lake Como. The drive to Lake Como is stunning, with picturesque views of the Alps…no snoozing on this car ride! Upon arrival, cruise aboard a boat and tour the lake, taking in all the natural splendors. While there, you can make your way to Bellagio and enjoy the Giardini di Villa Melzi, which is a set of well-preserved gardens on the lake; photographers shoot many product and fashion campaigns here. Quickly cross the Swiss border, and bam, you’re in Lugano. It is said to be filled with the rich and famous, but the sites are for all to marvel. Along with the natural beauty, you have, of course, all the Swiss shopping, eating, and church visiting you can handle.

From London to Stonehenge

Relax that stiff upper London lip and see the green country side near Stonehenge. A bunch of big old rocks, some might say, but not to the archeologic enthusiasts. Without modern day tools and mechanics, the wonder of Stonehenge’s structure has puzzled millions. Go and create your own theories as to how this circle of stone came to be. There are many a quaint town nearby to explore, many of which have been the topic of books and movies, love and witchery, hint, hint.

From Paris to Normandy

Immediately when thinking of Normandy, World War II and D-day come to mind, all the courageous soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of others. Although there was much loss of life in Normandy, today it stands as a memoriam to freedoms we share between nations. Visiting this historical landmark is a necessary act of patriotism for all travelers, no matter where you are from. Tours will take you around and retell the war stories so one can truly understand what marks of bravery still stand today. Aside from this tributary, the country side offers a look at Monet’s gardens, the old port of Honfleur brimming with humble fishing boats and super-sized modern yachts, and a cider-sippers dream among the rich abundance of apple orchards.

See City Wonders for a complete list of tours.

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There’s so much to do in Britain’s amazing capital! Not sure where to start? From Buckingham Palace to Stonehenge, there’s something for everyone. This list of 20 things to do in London will set you on the right track to a trip filled with enjoyment.

Take a look at our comprehensive list of the best attractions in the city below:

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The Most Exciting Things to Do in Rome

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