Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights view during winter, Iceland
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Unique Things to Do in Europe

11 min read
Published on Jul 22, 2019
Guest Contributor
By Guest Contributor

There are experiences on a European vacation you can enjoy which are different and unusual without participating in wild or strenuous endeavours. If you are like me, you love to tell your friends about the places you visited where you had a unique experience. Europe can be full of surprises without having to climb the Alps, run with the bulls in Pamplona, or parachute-jump from a plane. All of the following ideas are for the average traveller.

Witness the Elusive Northern Lights in Iceland

One activity that should be strongly considered on an Iceland vacation is tracking down the sometimes elusive Northern Lights. This very special phenomenon is really only seen outside of an urban area. What exactly are the Northern Lights? I quote a source, "This is when large numbers of electrically charged particles (electrons) at a high-speed stream in towards the Earth along its magnetic field and collide with the highest air particles. The air then lights up." Iceland offers tours to view this remarkable happening - including from Reykjavik - each evening. Most tour companies offer the ability to try again the next day if you do not experience this wonderful sight the first time on a trip to Iceland. If you don’t get to see the Northern Lights naturally, as they can be elusive, head to the Northern Lights Centre, where you can learn about the beauty and facts about the Northern Lights through multimedia exhibits. However, I do recommend taking a chance on a night tour outside the city to view them, as if you do, you will never forget the experience.

Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis at Kirkjufell, Iceland
Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis at Kirkjufell, Iceland

See a Most Unusual Horse Race at the Il Palio, Siena, Italy

I was very fortunate to coincide one of my trips to Italy with a visit to Siena in Tuscany and its Il Palio. This is a very special and colourful event which takes place twice a year, once in late June/early July and again in August. The pageant starts with a horse race around the Piazza del Campo, a gorgeous square (which is actually oval-shaped). This is a horse race like no other. It is a contest between 10 of the contrades (central districts/neighbourhoods) of Siena, with a rider and horse participating and representing each one. All citizens of Siena are affiliated with one of the contrades and have a burning and passionate loyalty. Since the 11th century, there have been festivals every year where the contrades compete for renown through contests such as flag throwing, horse racing, and even fist fights (the last one, no longer). The race itself takes place in the late afternoon, but the whole day of the race is taken up with processions through the streets of the various contrades competing in the race. After the race, the winning horse, rider, and citizens of the contrade celebrate by parading around the city for several days.

Piazza del Campo in Siena, Tuscany, Italy
Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy

Visit the Smallest, Independent Unofficial Country in Europe

If you find yourself in Lithuania, a unique district in Vilnius, the capital, is a place called Uzupis. It is home to bohemian artists who run the numerous art galleries and workshops here. There are also a number of restaurants, bars, cafes, and boutique shops in which to spend your time. But on April Fool’s Day in 1997, Uzupis was declared to be the Republic of Uzupis by the residents of the area. It had its own flag, currency, and president, and today, in a whimsical way, it is still regarded as such. On a large wall, you can find the 39 articles of the "Republic’s" constitution in 23 different languages. Some of the articles include the following, "People have the right to be happy," "People have the right to have no rights," and "A dog has the right to be a dog." I’m sure you get the gist. Another piece of whimsy in another part of the city on a Lithuania vacation is the Frank Zappa sculpture. Although this famous American rock performer and impresario had never been or had any connection to Vilnius, the city decided to honour him anyway with this sculpture.

Funny road sign in Uzupis, Vilnius, Lithuania
Funny road sign in Uzupis, Vilnius, Lithuania

Go Tobogganing in the Island of Madeira

The Portuguese Island of Madeira lies off the coast of North Africa and snow is a substance that is not associated with this island activity. However, you can and should take a toboggan ride. This is how it works. You climb into a toboggan - which is a really a basket cum toboggan with seats - and your ride downhill through the streets is accompanied by two runners dressed in white and wearing hats which are known as straw boaters. The ride is approximately 2 kilometres/1.2 miles long and takes about 10 minutes to complete. It starts at a place called Monte, a well-known beauty spot, and finishes at Livramento, a picturesque area. Your thrilling ride reaches speeds of 30 kilometres/18 miles per hour. Expect a line-up for the ride as it is a popular attraction on a Portugal vacation. The tradition of this means of transportation, used by local residents, has existed since the mid 19th century.

Toboggan runners pushing toboggans in Funchal, Madeira island, Portugal
Toboggan runners pushing toboggans in Funchal, Madeira island, Portugal

Listen to a Very Unusual Music Organ in Zadar, Croatia

Zadar is the perfect alternative to Dubrovnik on trips to Croatia. It is the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the country. Although smaller in size and situated on a peninsula, it has many attractions which include a historic old town with Roman ruins, medieval churches, cosmopolitan cafes, and quality museums and art galleries. While on your European vacation to Croatia, you will find that it is not overrun with tourists. Zadar boasts a unique attraction. Below a series of large marble steps along the coast are a set of organ pipes which play music. The sound is created by the air pushed up by the sea, described by someone as "an endless concert of mystic harmonies by the ‘Orchestra of Nature’." The Sea organ is an architectural sound art object and an experimental musical instrument which plays music by way of sea waves and tubes.

Sea Organ in Zadar, Croatia_447183772
Sea Organ in Zadar, Croatia

Partake of Afternoon Tea in London, England

There is one custom that is thoroughly British and that is Afternoon Tea, traditionally taken at 4 pm (you don’t have to adhere to this time). Tea rooms have existed since the late 19th century when women could feel comfortable in them not being chaperoned. What can you expect to be served? It could be a selection of sandwiches, scones, cakes, and, of course, tea. So where in London to go to enjoy this pastime on an England vacation? You can start by visiting one of the top echelons of hotels who specialize in afternoon tea such as Claridges where, I am told, it has been served for the last 150 years. You will probably find your tea accompanied by a pianist, harpist, or cellist. Another hotel is the Savoy, where you sit under an enormous domed glass ceiling. Then there is the Ritz on Piccadilly where tea is taken in the spectacular Palm Court with its gleaming mirrors and chandeliers. All of the above are not inexpensive and a dress code is usually enforced, meaning no tshirts or jeans. A historic spot for tea is the food emporium called Fortnum and Mason’s, which has been a popular venue for Britain’s nobility.

English afternoon tea, London, England, UK (United Kingdom)
English afternoon tea in London, England

Want something different on London vacations? Here are some suggestions. The B-Bakery Afternoon Tea Bus combines afternoon tea with a tour of London on a double–decker London bus which has been designed for just this activity. You can join it at either Victoria Station or Trafalgar Square. It lasts 90 minutes and visits a number of iconic landmarks. For tea with a view, head to either the Oxo Tower or the Shard, in the city of London. You can try the National Portrait Gallery which has views of Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and Whitehall. Finally, for something different, there is the Mad Hatters Tea Party at the Sanderson Hotel just off Oxford Street. You don’t have to go down a rabbit hole to participate. What do you get? I quote, "Discover menus hidden inside vintage books, teapots adorned with kings and queens, and sandwich plates decorated with zebras, birdcages, and ticking clocks."

The Shard and Tower Bridge at sunset, London, England, UK (United Kingdom)
The Shard and Tower Bridge at sunset, London, England

Visit the Amazing Cave System in Postonja, Slovenia

Not far from Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is the Postonja Cave. This cave is possibly the most popular attraction on a European vacation in Slovenia and certainly the most visited cave in Europe. It is easy to see why it is an amazing natural phenomenon. The cave itself is 20 kilometres/12.5 miles long. You begin with a 2 kilometres/1.2-mile ride on an open carriage miniature train deep into the caves. During your ride, you see stunning stalactites, stalagmites, and other incredible geological formations as well as wildlife such as the salamander-like animal that lives only in these specific caves. There are also many different kinds of insects and other amphibians that are unique to a cave environment. A tour includes a walk of about 1 kilometre/half a mile through a fantastic web of tunnels, passages, galleries, and halls. Not to be missed.

Postonja Cave near Ljubljana, Slovenia
Postonja Cave near Ljubljana, Slovenia

Visit the Most Unique Museum Anywhere in Reykjavik, Iceland

I would doubt you would find anything quite as off-beat as the Icelandic Phallological Museum. It is probably the only museum in the world to contain a collection of phallic specimens belonging to all the various types of mammals found in one country such as whales, polar bears, seals, and walrus. It is a serious study in the field of phallology in an organized, scientific fashion. A collection of more than two hundred penises and penile parts belonging to almost all the land and sea mammals that can be found in Iceland are on display. There are also specimens from human beings. I can fully appreciate that this popular museum is not for everyone on trips to Iceland, but it is different. Here is a quote from the guest book, "Absolutely loved this place! Meets all of my fetishes."

Scenic view of Reykjavik, Iceland
Scenic view of Reykjavik, Iceland

Visit the Saddest Museum in the World in Zagreb, Croatia

Actually, when I visited the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, I came out smiling as the whole premise of this museum is based on whimsy. This museum is dedicated to romantic liaisons that have failed, exhibited through letters, memorabilia, and photographs, all submitted from jilted lovers around the world. Some of the exhibits are influenced by emotional upsets and others are more philosophically-inclined from jilted persons. Here is a quote from an exhibit, "He never bought me flowers because flowers, he said, were for boring people. Instead, I got sausages or new parts for my bicycle. I didn’t mind because I loved him. After four years he turned out to be as cheap and shabby as his presents. He cheated on me with a colleague from the office and dumped me via e-mail." Definitely a fun museum!

Zagreb Cathedral and Saint Mary at Dolac, Zagreb, Croatia
Zagreb Cathedral and Saint Mary at Dolac, Zagreb, Croatia

By Robert Glazier 

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Our guest authors bring their unique perspectives and expertise, offering practical insights and no-nonsense takes on travel to destinations around the world, from Top 10 lists to the tips for travelling like a local. Whether you're looking for information, advice, or just a straightforward read, our guest contributors share their knowledge on a variety of topics.

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