Picking a place to visit in Europe may be one of the most overwhelming decisions a traveler can make. As someone newer to the continent, I had to rely on my instincts to find a place to start. Natural phenomena have always been a guiding light for me, from the National Park system of the United States to UNESCO World Heritage sights like the Great Barrier Reef — chase the most unique enclaves of nature, and you’ll find an equally unique culture in tow, the thinking goes.
And so the choice about where to spend 10 days became clear — The Alps, Europe’s iconic mountain range, tracing its impact from West to East.
You go to a mountain range as a famous as the Alps and expect to be taken in by the terrain, but what washed over me when we got to the Lake Geneva region of Switzerland was the overwhelming sense of design. The streets, the buildings, the food, the fashion, everything. The intersectional history of this region and the church as an organizing force has created a warm sense of craft, from the church walls to the city streets to the colorful farming enclaves. That warmness is helped in part by the loving embrace of French language in western Switzerland and the proximity to French and Italian lands.
Deep in the German-ridden valleys of towering mountains is where the raw bliss starts to kick in: Bliss from the jagged peak lines over mid-day Interlaken’s crystal blue water; from the angelic golden-hour commute of Lucerne’s waterfront center; from the ornate halls of St. Gallen Abbey seemingly cut straight out of heaven themselves; from the Swiss families herding their cattle through the countryside.
Walking through Munich was like walking through the streets of the Roman Empire, which at night seemed extremely intimidating but by day became a thing of majesty. The city was built as if the era of Bavarian greatness had never ended, and a major Western metropolis had just emerged in between the spaces of great Germanic monuments. Munich captured the essential spirit of the Alps region in its most urban form — incredible social organization, fashion and cuisine built around righteous history.
The Austrian Alps shares a lot of the same sensibilities of its Swiss counterparts, but with some extra grandeur with respect to vibrancy and scale. The array of colors are inescapable, is if the whole region was crafted for a design catalog, woven in the architecture of every community from cities like Innsbruck to small villages like Füssen, and lucky for us accented perfectly by the changing leaves of autumn. The colors, the thousand-year-old engineering feats like the largest churches we’d ever seen in Salzburg, and the castles and communities built into the sides of mountains makes for a culture that rivals the fantastic geography it’s built upon.
Our final resting point was the birth place some of the West’s biggest ideas: Vienna. Walking around its streets make it clear that rich thinking never left, in what feels like a city designed for the future. The most epic classical architecture is integrated right into to a hive of moving parts, creating a sensation of dynamism that makes you want to do nothing but move. In Vienna, culture is smooth.
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