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Travel Q&A: European Holiday Destinations; What to Do in Phoenix

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By K.C. Summers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 11, 2009

Q. My daughter is in a study-abroad program in Madrid that ends in early December, and we want to travel together (outside Spain) for 10 to 14 days after she is done. We would love to visit cities that are beautiful even in the early days of winter, and particularly those that embrace the holiday spirit.

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Kim Gibson, Bethesda

A. Germany's famous Christmas market towns -- Heidelberg, Cologne, Munich, Nuremberg -- are an obvious option, but let's assume that you're looking for something beyond hand-carved cuckoo clocks and Hummel figurines. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) Depending on your interests, you can't go wrong with any favorite European capital. Think roasted chestnuts and snug cafes in Paris, peat-fire pubs and crackling music in Dublin, ice-skating and shopping amid holiday lights in London. Just pack the long underwear.

Heather Dolstra, vice president of Democracy Travel in Washington (3408 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-965-7200), and an expert on European travel, cautioned that Europe in winter isn't all snowflakes and mittens, though: Did you know that December is Amsterdam's rainiest month? Her top picks for cities that combine optimum weather, traditions and holiday fun:

-- Prague. The Czech Republic's capital is romantic any time of year, with strolls across the Charles Bridge and music performed almost every evening in small venues such as converted churches. In winter, add a month-long Christmas market to the mix. Dolstra recommends combining a city visit with a stay at one of the castles in Bohemia that will be decked out for the holidays. Details: Czech Tourism, http://www.czechtourism.com.

-- Berlin. Just in case you're worried that the German capital is too hip for you, know that the city holds a month-long festival called "Winter Magic" and hosts more than 60 Christmas markets. It also boasts Europe's biggest toboggan run in the Potsdamer Platz. Visit Berlin, http://www.visitberlin.de.

-- Salzburg, Austria. It's easy to combine this lovely town with Vienna if you have time, Dolstra said, although there's plenty to do here, including "Sound of Music" tours, Mozartiana, nearby skiing and snowboarding and the justifiably famous Christmas markets. Austrian National Tourist Office, http://www.austria.info.

-- Lyon, France. Come for the museums, shopping, night life, superb cuisine (Paul Bocuse is a native son) and beautiful location on the Rhone and Saone rivers. Its Festival of Lights, Dec. 5-8, is billed as one of the largest in the world. Lyon Tourist Office, http://www.en.lyon-france.com, or French Government Tourist Office, http://www.us.franceguide.com.

My husband and I and our two children will be traveling to Phoenix in late December. We like to hike and explore and have already been to the Grand Canyon and Sedona. Can you recommend any must-do activities within driving distance?

Andrea Cetlin, Potomac

Absolutely, and they're all in and around Tucson, about two hours southeast of Phoenix. Because you like the outdoors, start with the spectacular Saguaro National Park (520-733-5100, http://www.nps.gov/sagu), where you can drive, hike, bike or backpack amid the iconic (and in some cases, comical) cacti that grace the desert landscape. Fun fact: A 20-foot-tall saguaro weighs about 2,000 pounds.

Another must is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (520-883-2702, http://www.desertmuseum.org), a combination open-air zoo, museum and teaching center. The interpretive programs, such as the daily Raptor Free Flight demos where you can see free-flying birds of prey in the open desert, are fantastic.

So many musts . . . The beautifully preserved, 225-year-old San Xavier del Bac Mission (520-294-2624, http://www.sanxaviermission.org), nine miles south of Tucson, is incredibly moving in its desert setting. Known as the White Dove of the Desert, it has been called the finest example of mission architecture in the United States, blending Moorish, Byzantine and late Mexican Renaissance architecture. The Franciscan friars who are based here primarily serve the Tohono O'odham Nation, but the mission is open to all.

As you can see, we're talking about more than a one-day trip here. For more ideas: Arizona Office of Tourism, http://www.arizonaguide.com.

Send queries by e-mail (travelqa@washpost.com) or U.S. mail (Travel Q&A, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071). Please include your name and town.



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