One of the most remarkable things about Europe's cultural treasures is how many of them are not tucked away inside art galleries. Take a walk around any of the continent's historic towns and you will find an exquisite masterpiece around virtually every corner. It might be an immaculate Baroque garden, extraordinary Gothic carvings on the façade of a church, or tiny medieval houses lining a picturesque cobbled street. These six cities offer plenty of inspirational encounters.
Bamberg: Old Town
WHY WE LOVE IT
Looking for a good reason to visit Bamberg? How about 1200 of them? That is how many listed monuments are found in this lovely Bavarian town. Lining both sides of the Regnitz
River, the town is surrounded by a series of hills, each topped with a magnificent church. Bamberg's most famous sights include the grand New Residence and the imperial Bamberg Cathedral with its exquisite sculptures, considered among the masterpieces of the Middle Ages.
Bamberg has one of the most spectacular town halls in Europe. The citizens were forced to build the town hall in the middle of the river when the archbishop refused to grant them land.
The tiny riverfront houses of Little Venice, with their halftimbered architecture and pocket-sized gardens, were once the homes of the city's fishermen.
Salzburg: Mirabell Gardens
WHY WE LOVE IT
Garden lovers aren't the only ones who will want to include Salzburg's ornate Mirabell Gardens on their itinerary. These spectacular gardens, adjoining the Mirabell Palace, were famously featured in the film, The Sound of Music. Fans of the movie will recognise the Pegasus fountain, trellises and the flight of steps on which the children sing Do Re Mi. Other highlights of these sprawling gardens, considered to be one of the most beautiful baroque gardens in Europe, include fine ornate plantings, balustrades decorated with statues of Roman gods, an orangerie and a magnificent rose garden.
The hedge maze contains a secret at its core: a 300-year-old theatre. Remarkably, it is still in use, with concerts frequently taking place here in summer.
APT guests can make a grand entrance into Salzburg on a private rail journey aboard the Majestic Imperator, a lavish train that recreates the Golden Age of Railways.
Mirabell Gardens, Salzburg. Photo: iStock
Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum
WHY WE LOVE IT
Vincent Van Gogh may have struggled during his lifetime, but these days he has achieved blockbuster status. Around 1.6 million people visit this Amsterdam museum each year, drawn by Van Gogh's distinctive vision, his bold use of colour, and his moving life story. The museum's collection includes more than 700 of his works, among them arguably his most famous painting: Sunflowers, a symphony in three different shades of yellow. Additional highlights include some of Van Gogh's moving self-portraits, painted when he couldn't afford to pay a model, and striking landscapes such as Wheatfield under Thunderclouds.
Van Gogh is best-known for his oil paintings, but the museum's collection also includes beautiful watercolours and drawings. Look for his nature-inspired sketches, which include detailed depictions of birds' nests.
For a heightened cultural experience, avoid the crowds and be guided through the museum on a private tour; something which is offered on selected APT tours.
Van Gough Museum, Amsterdam. Photo: iStock
Bratislava: Old Town
WHY WE LOVE IT
The capital of Slovakia is one of eastern Europe's hidden gems. Dating back to the Middle Ages, its Old Town is a place of soaring spires, leafy squares and colourfully-painted houses, all dominated by the castle looming above the city. For centuries, a strong wall originally surrounded the heart of the city; the ancient St Michael's Tower is one of the original gates. The magnificent 600-year-old Town Hall dominates the main square, which also features a Renaissance fountain and plenty of lively cafes. Other highlights include the baroque Pállfy's Palace, where a six-year-old child prodigy named Wolfgang Mozart once performed, and Bratislava's oldest church, St Martin's Cathedral, where rulers were crowned.
One of Slovakia's grandest palaces, the sprawling Primatial Palace, is located on the lovely Primatial Square.
APT guests can learn about life under Communist rule during an Old Town walking tour.
Old Town, Bratislava. Photo: iStock
Budapest: Castle Hill
WHY WE LOVE IT
Budapest is famous for originally being two separate cities: Buda on one side of the river, Pest on the other. Both have their charms but it is in Buda, the ancient royal capital, that you will find Budapest's grandest monuments, including the mighty Buda Castle and the glorious St Matthias Church, where Hungary's kings were crowned for centuries. Nearby, the ornate Fisherman's Bastion, with its panoramic views across Pest, makes a great backdrop for selfie-snappers.
It's not just the monuments that are dazzling on Castle Hill: the cobbled side streets are lined with tiny medieval houses and grand Baroque mansions.
The labyrinth of natural caves lying beneath Castle Hill was once used as a prison; its most famous inhabitant was the bloodthirsty Romanian ruler Vlad Tepes, the man who inspired the legend of Count Dracula. An underground tour offers a very different perspective on Castle Hill.
Castle Hill, Budapest. Photo: iStock
Vienna: Imperial Splendour
WHY WE LOVE IT
During their 400 year-rule, the rulers of the Habsburg Empire turned their capital, Vienna, into one of the grandest cities in Europe. That makes the city a great place to go exploring; the only difficulty is knowing where to start. Don't miss the splendid summer palace, Schloss Schönbrunn, with its 1400 rooms and the baroque Schloss Belvedere, set amid splendid gardens. Another highlight is the sumptuous Kunsthistoriches Museum, which houses the imperial art collection. You could easily spend an entire day exploring the collection, which includes paintings by Raphael, Rembrandt and Rubens, as well as Egyptian, Asian and medieval treasures.
The City Palace is one of Vienna's most splendid palaces, with ornate Rococo interiors that dazzle visitors. Its most famous feature is one of Vienna's grandest Baroque staircases.
A cocktail reception and private concert featuring members of the Mozart Boys' Choir at the City Palace is one of APT's Royal Signature Experiences.
Imperial splendour, Vienna. Photo: iStock
PETRA ROMHANYI CRUISE DIRECTOR
APT cruise director Petra Romhanyi regularly travels between many of Europe's loveliest cities. Her favourite cruise, the 15-day Magnificent Europe, travels between Amsterdam - famous for its gabled houses and quiet canals - and her home town, the grand Habsburg city of Budapest. But her favourite city is the lesser known German centre of Bamberg. "Its medieval centre is charming and wonderful," she says.
This article is produced in association with APT. See Europe like you never imagined on board an all-inclusive APT luxury river cruise. You'll embark on an unforgettable journey where once-closed doors are opened and exclusive experiences await. For more information visit www.aptouring.com.au/traveller, call 1300 374 502 or contact your local travel agent.