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Originally published March 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 2, 2007 at 9:32 AM

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Country by country, what's new in European travel for 2007

Europe is constantly improving the creative ways it shares its rich heritage. The downside is that perhaps one in 10 sights you've waited...

Special to The Seattle Times

Europe is constantly improving the creative ways it shares its rich heritage.

The downside is that perhaps one in 10 sights you've waited all your life to see will be closed for restoration. The good news is that, for everything that's covered in scaffolding, many more attractions are newly restored and looking better than ever. Here's a rundown:

The Netherlands

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Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, full of artwork by Dutch Masters, is still under renovation — likely through 2009. While most of the building is closed, Rembrandt's "Night Watch" and the rest of its most popular paintings are on display in its Philips Wing. Amsterdam's Netherlands Maritime Museum will be closed through 2009 while they scrub the decks.

Great Britain

Three London museums have been overhauled. The British Library now dedicates a special room just to the Magna Carta, the landmark 1215 document reminding the English king that he wasn't above the law.

The Victoria & Albert Museum re-opened its Islamic Room and also added a new cafe. And the Tate Modern re-hung its entire modern art collection. While donations are appreciated, admission to each of these world-class sights is free.

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Europe travel advice: See the European Travel Commission site, www.visiteurope.com

Greenwich (on the outskirts of London) will add a new planetarium and Space Galleries to its Royal Observatory.

Bath, named and famous for its hot-spring baths, hasn't had a functioning mineral hot-springs bath for several decades. Now the town finally has a first-class place to soak. The new Thermae Bath Spa opened after years of delays (www.thermaebathspa.com).

Stonehenge — despite big plans for a new visitor center and shuttle buses to bring visitors to see the archeological site in a more undisturbed way — remains remarkably unchanged.

Stratford's Royal Shakespeare Theatre will close this spring and re-open in 2010 with a more actor-friendly stage (see www.rsc.org.uk). Until then, the Royal Shakespeare Company will perform down the road at Stratford's Courtyard Theatre.

Ireland

Dublin's National Museum split into two branches. Its impressive history exhibit (on the 1916 Easter Uprising, War of Independence from Britain, and Civil War) moved from the branch at Kildare Street to the branch at Benburb Street, north of the River Liffey.

In Galway, the Galway Irish Crystal Heritage Center — long a regular stop for bus tours — is no longer open to the public.

But the town has a new cultural attraction: "Trad on the Prom," a high-energy traditional music and dance troupe started by Galway-born performers who toured with Riverdance (daily May-September, www.tradontheprom.com).

Italy

In Venice, La Fenice ("The Phoenix") Opera House has risen from the ashes of a 1996 arson fire, meticulously restored to its 18th-century glory after an eight-year makeover. To get inside, you need to attend a performance or take a 45-minute tour ($9, twice daily).

Modern-art fans can once again visit Ca' Pesaro, a 17th-century Grand Canal palazzo full of 20th-century art.

Venice's Biennale art show is back on this year with an appropriately cool Web site: www.labiennale.org. Every odd-numbered year, contemporary art from around the world, including music, dance, theater, film and architecture, is on display and on stage in pavilions scattered over Venice's Giardini Park and the Arsenale. (If you imagine a map of Venice being shaped like a fish, the Biennale is in the tail.)

Florence deals with its floods of tourists and congested museums by requiring reservations to enter several of its top attractions. The easiest way to make reservations for the Uffizi Gallery (Renaissance art) and Accademia (Michelangelo's David) is to have your hotelier do it for you; request this service when you book your room. Or you can call the frequently busy reservation line (from the United States, dial 011-39-055-294-883). Reservations (that you book on your own) are still required for the Brancacci Chapel (Masaccio's frescoes) and recommended for the Chapel of the Magi within the Medici-Riccardi Palace. Good guidebooks come with the details.

Florence's Orsanmichele Church, with its 14th-century tabernacle, is once again open to the public.

In Milan, the scaffolding covering the cathedral's facade is finally expected to come down in 2007. You can celebrate by dancing on the square or even on the cathedral's roof (really). But you'll likely find the adjacent Duomo Museum closed for restoration.

Of Rome's two sightseeing passes, the new $23 Roma Pass is better. In fact, it seems too good to be true (so it probably won't last). The pass gives you three days of transportation on the Metro and buses, and your choice of two sights, such as the Coliseum, Palatine Hill, Borghese Gallery, Capitol Hill Museum and National Museum of Rome, where you'll get in free, without waiting in line to buy tickets. Other sights are discounted. (Note that for the Borghese Gallery, you still have to get a reservation in advance.) The Roma Pass includes a map, guide and event news (www.romapass.it), and can be purchased at participating sites and tourist offices at the main airport and train station.

Rome's Altar of Peace (Ara Pacis) has finally re-opened. Part of Nero's Golden House — the remains of Nero's home — has also re-opened after undergoing repairs for water damage.

Mussolini's Villa Torlonia just opened to the public. The former dictator's house features a chandeliered ballroom, bombastic bedrooms, and exotic gardens where he lived and received guests in fascist splendor (en.museivillatorlonia.it).

France

The big news in Paris is the re-opening of the Impressionist art museum, L'Orangerie. A six-year refurbishment lopped off the top floor of the museum, opening up skylights and drenching Monet's paintings of water lilies in natural light. The museum's other works — a world-class collection, featuring most of the big-name Impressionists — now fill a pleasant underground gallery.

At Paris' Army Museums (in the complex with Napoleon's Tomb), historians will appreciate the new World War I exhibit and the refurbished World War II exhibit, both in the West Wing. The East Wing, which focuses on French military history and Napoleon, will close for remodeling for much of 2007.

The Palace of Versailles has overhauled its entrance and ticketing system, and has renovated much of the Domaine de Marie-Antoinette, the queen's hamlet buried deep in the sprawling garden. Most visitors will save money by getting either a Paris Museum Pass (covers most sights in Versailles and Paris) or, for hardcore fans, the Versailles One-Day Pass (covers more Versailles sights and includes transportation from Paris). For the latest, see www.chateauversailles.fr.

In June, speedy TGV trains will connect Paris with destinations in Alsace and Northern France — Reims, Verdun, Strasbourg and Colmar — cutting train times from Paris about in half.

Along the French Riviera, public buses linking the coastal towns cost a flat $1.70, no matter how far you go. As the train misses some of the coast, riding this scenic bus (from Nice to Menton, for example) becomes a fine and inexpensive tour.

In Grasse, the International Museum of Perfume will re-open in late 2007, offering a complete explanation of the history and production of perfume in a fragrant new home.

In Antibes, the Picasso Museum, which has been closed for remodeling for two years, will hopefully re-open sometime this summer (but don't hold your breath).

Germany

In Munich, expansion of the S-Bahn subway system could turn the main train station into a construction site, but trains and services shouldn't be affected.

New for 2007, the kitschy Beer and Oktoberfest Museum offers a frothy take on the history of Munich's favorite party (in the old town, just inside the Isartor, www.bier-und-oktoberfestmuseum.de). Munich's new Jewish Museum and community center is slated to open this month in the revitalized Jewish quarter (across from the City History Museum). After a four-year remodel, the futuristic BMW Museum at the carmaker's headquarters finally re-opens this in summer (www.bmw-museum.de). The Deutsches Museum (Germany's answer to the Smithsonian) has gotten bigger yet, with two new branches in different parts of town: the expanded Museum of Transportation and the Flight Museum.

The glorious Imperial Hall in Wurzburg's Residenz palace is closed for renovation until 2008.

Berlin's huge central train station, the Hauptbahnhof (sometimes called by its former name, the Lehrter Bahnhof), is finally open. Located just north of the Reichstag parliament building, the Hauptbahnhof is a gigantic four-story transfer station. Now virtually every long-distance Berlin-bound train comes through the Hauptbahnhof. This turns the Zoo station (and other formerly "major" stations) into little more than glorified subway stations.

Following reconstruction, the Germany History Museum on the Unter den Linden Boulevard finally re-opened in the formidable, though pink, former Prussian arsenal (with a glassy I.M. Pei-designed annex in the back).

Austria

Vienna, to celebrate Mozart's 250th birthday, opened the new (but disappointing) Mozart Haus Museum, near St. Stephen's Cathedral and the newly renovated Theater an der Wien (designed in 1801 for Mozart's operas).

The city lost several fine paintings by Gustav Klimt because the government is returning priceless art, stolen by Nazis, to its rightful owners.

The Burg Kino movie theater still shows the Orson Welles' classic, "The Third Man" (set in a bombed-out Vienna shortly after the end of World War II) three times a week.

Czech Republic

One of Prague's landmark attractions, the Charles Bridge, will remain open to pedestrians throughout a multi-year reconstruction project.

Scandinavia

In Copenhagen, while the Rosenborg Castle will be closed for most of 2007, its treasury and armory will remain open.

The fascinating prehistory section of Denmark's National Museum is closed for renovation throughout 2007.

Because Scandinavian Airlines has re-scheduled many of its Europe-to-U.S. flights to minimize forced overnights, the airport has closed its Transfer Hotel with its small cocoon-like rooms.

Norway now charges hotels an extra 8 percent Value-Added Tax (VAT), which will likely be passed on to guests. In Oslo, the Munch Museum now has on display — with tighter security measures — the famous Munch paintings recovered from thieves in 2006.

In Stockholm, as long as the current left-wing government has its way, Sweden's national museums will remain free (making the Stockholm Card — a $40 one-day tourist pass that covers many of the sights — less of a value). The 7-Eleven and Pressbyran newsstands all over town host "Sidewalk Express" Internet terminals; just buy a card, pop into branches anywhere in town, and you can log on conveniently and inexpensively.

In Helsinki, Citysherpa is an innovative free service that matches volunteer Finnish guides and foreign visitors with the same interests; Helsinki residents place "personals" on their Web site (hs.fi/citysherpa), such as "Music lover wants to show you his favorite disc shops and flea markets," and "Long-distance runner wants to run together through beautiful parks."

Tallinn, Estonia's capital in the Baltics, is an easy ferry ride from Helsinki. The town's biggest cultural news is its new Kumu Art Museum, where the best of Estonia's art is at long last properly displayed. Another new sight is the Kalev Spa, the country's largest and newest spa.

Spain

The new high-speed AVE train connects Madrid and Toledo in 30 minutes. Toledo is undergoing a major construction project: the building of a new convention center, complete with a huge escalator that will take visitors from the bus station nearly to the main square, Plaza Zocodover. When this addition is complete (likely in 2009), the city will become largely traffic-free (except for city residents' cars, public transit and service vehicles).

Tarifa, in Southern Spain, still offers the easiest day-trip ferry connections to Tangier, Morocco. Restorations in Tangier are taking place on a grand scale, thanks to King Mohammed VI, who hopes to return the city to its former glory. The beach has been painstakingly cleaned, pedestrian promenades are popping up everywhere, and gardens bloom with lush, new greenery.

Portugal

In Lisbon, the quaint Eiffel-esque tower called the Santa Justa Elevador has re-opened, handily connecting the Baixa district with the Chiado neighborhood up on the hill. The very central train station, Rossio Station, is scheduled to re-open in the fall, making trips to Sintra, Nazare and other destinations much quicker and easier.

Pilgrims still flock to Fatima, where the Virgin Mary appeared to three children in 1917. In 2006, a giant new church opened (Igreja da Santissima Trindade) to hold all the visitors that overwhelm this small town on and around the 13th of the month from May through October.

Switzerland

Gimmelwald, a favorite alpine village up the valley from Interlaken, has lost its only restaurant: Pension Gimmelwald (which also functioned as a bed and breakfast) was recently sold. The funicular between Lauterbrunnen and Grutschalp has been replaced by a cable car.

The famously scenic Glacier Express trains out of St. Moritz have been spruced up, with headphones for the recorded commentary and panoramic cars in second-class as well as first. While the much-hyped panoramic trains are great, so are the cheaper, standard trains that run the same routes.

Poland

In Poland, the reconstruction around Krakow's train station is complete. Now the station shares a shiny new square with an enormous, 270-store shopping mall. A handy, sleek new bus station huddles behind the train station.

Also in Krakow, part of the Main Market Square will be off-limits as medieval foundations are excavated to create a new "underground museum."

Near Krakow, the Auschwitz concentration camp will be renovated over the next several years. The museum, considered the oldest Holocaust exhibit in the world, has been largely unchanged since it opened more than 50 years ago.

While the museum will be modernized, key elements, such as the displays of human hair, eyeglasses and suitcases, will remain. Restorers will build retaining walls to prevent the remains of the huge Birkenau crematoria — key evidence of the magnitude of Nazi crimes — from slowly sinking into the ground.

Edmonds-based Rick Steves' column runs weekly online at seattletimes.com/travel. Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com

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