From Spain to Italy
From tasting the paella in Valencia to walking the Cinque Terre, this route takes you to the best places along the European Mediterranean coast. The trip can easily be done by car or train—each of the cities and villages included have central train stations. Allow 2-3 weeks to make the most of each destination—consider a rail pass if you're going to travel the entire route!
Start in Valencia, Spain's third-largest city. Explore the city's compact historic center and two central squares. Mingle with locals at the Mercado Central and eat plenty of paella—this is where the famous rice dish originates. Don't miss a walk through the historic La Lonja silk exchange building, and if you time things right, throw tomatoes at your friends during the annual La Tomatina festival.
Next, make a pit stop in the town of Tarragona, which was founded as an important Roman Military camp in 218 bc. Explore Roman ruins like the Amfiteatre Romà, eat seafood and tapas near the marina and hit the beach at one of the city's surrounding coves.
Allow for at least three days in Barcelona, everybody's favorite port city on the Mediterranean. Get lost exploring the narrow, art-filled streets of the Barrio Gotico, dare yourself to track down every one of Antoni Gaudí's unique designs (including the eternally-under-construction Sagrada Familia), snap photos of fruit and fish at the colorful Boquería market and start a staring contest with a human statue on La Rambla.
Narbonne and Carcassonne, France
Spend a day or two exploring Narbonne and Carcassonne. Narbonne was the first Roman colony outside of Italy and was located at the crossroads of the Via Domitia, the Roman road linking Italy to Spain. In Carcassonne, visit (or simply stare at) the best preserved Cathar castle in France.
Like the nearby towns of Arles and Avignon, Nimes is a historic center that shares space with remarkable Roman ruins. Nimes is more Spanish than Arles; you'll find bullfighting and plenty of tapas here. Outside of town, take the opportunity to taste Mulsum, an ancient Roman wine that's still being made today.
The papacy's former home town is a must-see part of Provence. The towering 1300s palace (the largest gothic palace in Europe) is still open to visitors today, and the city's narrow streets and pedestrian plazas offer plenty to explore. Avignon is also a launch pad for day trips to other Provence towns, so plan for at least three days there.
Founded by the Greeks, colonized by the Romans, made famous again by Van Gogh—Arles is the essence of Provence, complete with a great Roman arena right in the center. That arena is now host to bullfights and other festivals, and the town has settled into its reputation as a destination for artists, filmmakers, and photographers.
Marseille is best known as a bustling port town and France's second largest city. The town's charm is in its laid-back, urban lifestyle rather than traditional tourist attractions, and it's become a desirable destination on the alternative travel scene. The city has historically served as a hub for African immigrants entering France, thus boasts strong North African influences and a fascinating fusion of cultures. Bouillabaisse—the famous French seafood stew dish—originated here, so come with plenty of room for snacking.
Nice is the urban capital of the flashy Cote d'Azur. It's a beach destination, a market mingler's paradise, and an eater's daydream. Drive through the seaside cities of Saint Tropes and Cannes to get there, and once you've arrived, meander along the Promenade des Anglais, browse vegetables and fruits at the Cours Saleya Market and admire the works of Matisse in the town that provided the painter with years of inspiration
The old port city of Genoa got a facelift when it became the 2004 European Culture Capital—its large Medieval quarter offers plenty churches, palaces, and museums to occupy a couple of days. The city's Rennaissance and Baroque-style Rolli Palaces were granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2006, and the Genoa's rejuvenated port hosts Europe's second largest aquarium.
Cinque Terre, Italy
Tourists flock to this group of five seaside towns for good reason. Linked by hiking trails (and a frequent train) that ascend up the surrounding cliffs through lemon groves and vineyards, each colorful center brings its own identity to the region. Spend a couple of days traversing each of the paths on the water's edge while stopping for pesto pizza, limoncello, and refreshing rock-pool swims along the way.
Old and new mix in interesting ways in Italy's capital city. Spend three to four days exploring the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and the Forum. Toss a penny in the Trevi Fountain for good luck, and enjoy a gelato in one of the city's market squares. Head to the Trastevere neighborhood for an iconic Italian meal, and gawk upwards at Michelangelo's frescos in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel.