What’s new in Britain, Ireland, France and Switzerland

By Rick Steves
This item appears on page 52 of the April 2018 issue.
Visitors to Switzerland’s gorgeous Berner Oberland can take in spectacular peak views from the Thrill Walk on the Schilthorn cliffside. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli

I’ve gathered these new items for your 2018 travel planning.

• In ENGLAND, major changes are taking place at some of London’s most visited sights. 

At Westminster Abbey, a medieval balcony that’s been closed off for 700 years will open permanently this summer as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, featuring a collection of artifacts from the abbey’s rich history as well as breathtaking views of the abbey’s interior. (Expect timed-entry tickets.)

In the Mayfair neighborhood of London’s West End, the museum formerly called the Handel House — where composer George Frideric Handel lived for decades — has been renamed “Handel & Hendrix in London,” as the museum now includes the recently restored former apartments of rocker Jimi Hendrix, who once lived next door to Handel’s old digs. The exhibit juxtaposes the lives and lifestyles of these two long-haired musicians with a flair for decadence.

London’s Courtauld Gallery, renowned for its Impressionist paintings, will close this summer for renovation until 2020. 

The Tate Modern’s new Switch House (a 10-story, brick, twisted-pyramid annex) is in full swing, with rotating exhibitions, performance art, cafés and a terrace with stunning views. 

Across town, the Victoria and Albert Museum has added 11,840 square feet of gallery space, along with a new entrance and welcoming courtyard.

Outside of the city center at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, visitors can descend the futuristic Orbit tower via a thrill added in 2016: the world’s longest and tallest tunnel slide (also transparent), measuring 580 feet, with corkscrew turns.

London’s transportation scene continues to change. Uber is in the midst of a legal challenge after Transport for London decided to not renew their license; they could cease operation at any time. 

Meanwhile, in December, a new train line, the Elizabeth line, began running right through the city center, with stops at several Tube stations, zipping travelers from Heathrow Airport to Paddington Station in just 25 minutes.

Get your ticket to cross Northern Ireland’s ramshackle Carrick-aRede Rope Bridge first thing in the morning, before the cruise groups — and the wind — take over. Photo by Arizona Bonuccelli

Across Britain, new museums highlight the diversity of its history. In Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall showcases a circa-1420 guild headquarters and the very classroom where Shakespeare was a student, where visitors can try a quill pen. 

Liverpool’s “British Music Experience” tells an immersive story of British music from 1945 until today. 

And at Durham’s impressive cathedral, the new “Open Treasure” exhibit displays rare artifacts from the cathedral treasury and monks’ library.

In Portsmouth, on England’s south coast, the 16th-century warship Mary Rose is completely dried out, preserved and on display after 35 years of conservation work. 

In addition, the town’s D-Day Museum was slated to reopen this spring with exhibits incorporating first-person stories from D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. The museum also plans to restore the last surviving D-Day landing craft in time for the 75th anniversary in 2019.

• In SCOTLAND, Edinburgh’s Scottish National Gallery is undergoing a major renovation, with plans for expanded gallery space and a grand entrance from Princes Street Gardens. In the meantime, certain exhibits and paintings may be out of view.

In Glasgow, the original Willow Tea Rooms on Sauchiehall Street — the only surviving tearooms designed inside and out by Art Nouveau architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh — will reopen this year with a new visitors’ center, a restored interior based on Mackintosh’s original design and exhibits marking the 150th anniversary of his birthdate. 

Across town, however, the star attraction at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Salvador Dalí’s “Christ of St. John of the Cross,” is on the road until 2020.

The Isle of Skye, just off Scotland’s west coast, is bursting with tourism, which means hotel rooms are booking up six or more months in advance and restaurants are turning away diners without reservations. Travelers should book early.

• Travelers heading up to NORTHERN IRELAND should note that along the Antrim Coast, timed tickets are now required to cross the rickety Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. But they’re only available in person on the same day, so arrive early before they sell out. 

Nearby, at the striking basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway, the new “Clifftop Experience” is a 3-hour guided trek exploring 5 miles of the Causeway coast. 

And in Belfast, the Titanic museum now offers a half-price ticket sold one hour before closing. But at such an impressive attraction, it’s worth the full-price ticket (about $25) to spend more time there.

• In IRELAND, Dublin is sprucing up its museum lineup with new high-tech sights. “EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum” tells the story of the Irish diaspora using interactive displays. The museum also houses the Irish Family History Centre, which helps visitors research their Irish roots. 

The new exhibit at GPO Witness History offers an immersive look at the 1916 Easter Uprising from underneath the General Post Office, which served as the rebel headquarters.

• In Paris, FRANCE, prices at the Eiffel Tower are up nearly 50 percent to help fund a 15-year renovation, including a bulletproof, 8-foot-tall glass wall around the tower’s base. It now costs about $30 to ride the elevator to the top or $19 for just the two lower levels or $12 to climb the stairs to the first or second level.

At two other major Paris sights — Notre-Dame and Sacré-Cœur — a modest dress code is being enforced. Visitors with shorts or uncovered shoulders may be turned away. 

Renovations continue at the Carnavalet, a museum dedicated to the history of Paris, keeping it closed through 2019.

Due to legal challenges, Uber in Paris is no longer much cheaper than taxis and at peak times may cost more than taxis. And when considering Uber, note that private cars don’t enjoy the privileged access that taxis do in the town center.

At London’s Handel & Hendrix museum, step into Jimi Hendrix’s former bedroom — restored to its late-’60s glory — next door to Handel’s dwellings from the 1700s. Photo by Gennie Joy

Last summer, Paris’ regional transit authority announced plans to drop the term “RER” and instead use “train” for commuter rail lines A through K. Similarly, the French railway is changing the name of its network of high-speed trains from “TGV” (high-speed trains) to “InOui.”

Thanks to deregulation, inter-city and international bus service from Paris is improving. Ouibus and FlixBus are cutting costs drastically and amping up onboard comfort with Wi-Fi and more spacious seats. For example, FlixBus runs direct and cheap bus service from Paris to the island abbey of Mont St-Michel.

It’s also easier to travel from Paris to the Dordogne River Valley, an area known for its prehistoric cave art. A new high-speed train between Paris and Bordeaux has reduced travel time from three hours and 15 minutes to two hours. Your best bet to see prehistoric caves there is to reserve ahead for a tour of the new, high-tech Lascaux IV, a replica reproducing all of the original Lascaux cave art.

Sound-and-light shows employing new laser technology are trendy these days and a highlight at several French châteaux. In Auvers-sur-Oise, Château d’Auvers’ new show incorporates sound, light and video to teach visitors about the Impressionist painters (such as van Gogh and Cezanne) who left their marks on the area. 

In the Loire Valley, renovation is complete at the island château in Azay-le-Rideau, and its sound-and-light show is back on. At Château Royal d’Amboise, the dramatic sound-and-light show — complete with lavish costumes, battle scenes and fireworks — now comes with an English audio guide to follow the narration.

To the south, in Provence, several new sights have popped up. Arles’ LUMA Foundation building — a 180-foot-tall Frank Gehry-designed aluminum tower — houses a resource and exhibition center for artists.

In Nimes, the Roman World Museum is slated to open this summer in a futuristic building across from the Roman arena. It will feature an archaeological collection from the 7th century BC to the Middle Ages and a rooftop garden with city views.

Next door, in the French Riviera, Nice’s Russian Cathedral has reopened after a 2-year, $23 million renovation, which included finishing frescoes untouched since World War I. A new tramway line will eventually link Nice with its airport (running parallel to the Promenade des Anglais a few blocks inland); service should start by the end of 2018.

• To the east, SWITZERLAND offers its own set of new scenic treats. Near Lake Geneva, the Diablerets summit now features the Peak Walk suspension bridge, which stretches 350 feet from the top of the lift to the mountain’s highest point.

In my favorite corner of Switzerland, those ascending the Schilthorn (a famous mountain in the Berner Oberland) can stop at the midpoint cable-car station of Birg and try out the Thrill Walk, a 600-foot-long see-through catwalk bolted to the cliff side. More adventurous (in their imagination) travelers can also tightrope across a cable bridge (there’s a net), cross a section of glass flooring or crawl through a chain-link tube, all with views to the valley below. 

Also, those traveling with a Swiss Travel Pass can now use their railpass to reach the Schilthorn summit for free.

France continues to improve its sound-and-light shows. Château Royal d’Amboise’s performances include live actors, fireworks and an English-language audio guide. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli

Part of the joy of Swiss travel is its wonderful train system, which is continually being improved. One of the heavily marketed scenic rail journeys, the William Tell Express, is now called the Gotthard Panorama Express. (It’s still the same trip, half by boat and half by train, from Luzern to the Italian-speaking region of Ticino.) 

And passenger trains have started using the new Gotthard Base Tunnel, the longest railway tunnel in the world. At 35 miles long, it cuts about 30 minutes off the travel time between Zürich and Milan.

In travels to Britain, Ireland, France, Switzerland and beyond, plan ahead and travel with up-to-date information to make the most of your trip.

Rick Steves writes European travel guides and hosts travel shows on public TV and radio. Contact Rick Steves’ Europe (Edmonds, WA; 425/771-8303, www.ricksteves.com).