Take a self-guided European tour

For independent travelers who like to chart their own course, self-guided trips can be exciting and give you opportunities to do things you probably couldn’t otherwise do on a standard escorted tour.

However, self-guided tours aren’t for everyone. They can be challenging and difficult when you don’t speak the language or understand the local customs and culture. It’s easy to spend more time trying to figure out where you’re at, where you’re going, what you are looking at or what you’ve seen. For detail-oriented people who like to do extensive research and planning before leaving home, however, this can be a great way to travel that gives you a lot of flexibility. While I find I don’t quite enjoy this form of travel as much as I used to, I have great memories of a self-guided trip we did on the rails of Europe that I think is worth considering if you are the self-guided type.

We began our journey in Rome with a five-day stay. Rome and its surrounding area could take months to fully examine, but in five days we were able to cover most of the major sights since the best ancient monuments are all grouped near the Colosseum and Forum.

The first few days were spent exploring ancient Rome focusing on the Pantheon, the Colossuem and the Forum — The Pantheon is a Roman temple and is an architectural masterpiece. The Colosseum is an architect’s dream. It is absolutely amazing what the Romans were able to build in 70-80 AD. The building itself held 73,000 people at one point and was home to numerous Roman games and gladiator fights.

The Roman Forum, or as the Roman’s knew it, the “Forum Magnum,” is the area around which Rome developed. It was the city’s center for commerce, law, justice, business and where cultural activities took place. There are also several temples and structures within the area of the forum.

The following days focused on other famous sights in Rome including the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain Piazza Navona and other neighborhoods. Our visit concluded with an inspiring visit to the Vatican with tours of St. Peters, the Vatican museums and Sistine Chapel. We also took in Trastevere before crossing the Tiber at the Isola and into the old Jewish Ghetto.

From Rome, we boarded the train and journeyed northward to Florence, where we enjoyed this extraordinary city for three days. The leather markets in the San Lorenzo area of Florence are renowned, and Florence is home to some of the most significant works of art in the world.

Our tours included the Uffizi Gallery, Duomo and Baptistery, Medici Chapel and Michelangelo's David at the Academia; the church of Santa Maria Novella and the Monastery of San Marco.

From Florence we re-boarded the train traveling on to Venice.

Venice is a city so captivating and fascinating it truly qualifies as a “must see” in my opinion. A trip to Murano Island and the glass factories is an incredible experience and affords you the opportunity to buy some of the finest glass pieces in the world direct from the factories that have been making glass the same way for centuries. St. Mark’s Square and the unique homes and shops along the canals are intriguing. And of course, no trip to Venice would be complete without a romantic Gondola ride.

From Venice, we traveled through the spectacular Swiss Alps to Lucerne, Switzerland. The beauty of the Alps is incredible and the rail line takes you through areas you wouldn’t normally see from the roadway. Lucerne is the "true" Switzerland with picturesque mountains, lakes, cowbells, alpine villages and meadows full of edelweiss.

Lucerne straddles the Reuss River on the western edge of Lake Lucerne. One of the highlights was crossing the river on the famous Chapel Bridge, which unfortunately burned not long after our visit, but has since been rebuilt.

From Lucerne it was back on the train to Munich.

Munich is a fascinating city with traditional Bavarian architecture and a life-sized cuckoo clock in the town square. The city is famous for its breweries, beer halls and Oktoberfest, and has numerous museums and fascinating Gothic and Baroque architecture. From Munich we took a great excursion two hours south to the land of fairy-tale castles, ornately painted buildings shared by cows and farmers, and locals who still yodel.

Our tour included "Mad" King Ludwig's world famous Linderhof Castle, his private refuge near Oberammergau, home of the renowned Passion Play and intricate wood carvings; Neuschwanstein, the famous 'Cinderella's Castle' that inspired Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom, and Hohenschwangau, an older castle below Neuschwanstein where Ludwig's royal ancestors lived.

From Munich, we boarded our flight home. While we were worn out from the pace of our trip, the sights, the history and culture we experienced made this an unforgettable vacation.

Jerry Vaughn is president of World Voyager Vacations in Federal Way and can be reached at E-mail Vaughn to be included on a mailing list of travel destination reports.

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