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Beat the Summer Heat: Cool Things to Do on Your European Vacation

Gee, Baby, It's Hot Outside! Then Again...


I'm a summer wimp. I melt in the heat. I'm also not much of a beach person. But I've survived many a torrid summer by searching out the cool and the fascinating--so I've decided to pass on what I know.

Some tips you might expect to see here are way too obvious. Air conditioning in your hotel is one. You can't get air flowing through most hotel rooms--so even if it cools at night your room can still swelter, especially in concrete and marble jungles like Rome, which themselves trap and store enormous quantities of the day's heat.

So reserve an air conditioned hotel early in the game and let's call these Cool Destination Tips.

1. Go Underground!

bitono cathedral, underground italy
James Martin, licensed to About.com

Certainly you know Europe is a hotbed of archaeological sites. Cities are found on top of the remains of ancient, war-weary towns. Hills are usually layer-cakes of cultures. Layer cakes have small holes, cool nooks which folks over the years have often exploited.

Hill towns built over easily excavated limestone outcrops like Orvieto in Italy now sit atop a network of tunnels, wine cellars, and dovecotes which can be visited. You'll be advised to bring a jacket.

Underground Rome may represent the mother lode of cool tunnels, sites, pagan temples, and catacombs. There are underground cities and underground cities of the dead.

Many of Europe's cathedrals have signs of older religious structures under them. The picture shows a guide explaining the Roman mosaics under the Cathedral of Bitonto, Italy in Puglia.

2. Cool Prehistoric Painted Caves

As a subset of going under a city, how about searching out the best of the prehistoric painted caves in rural areas? Europe presents a couple of regions with lots of caves to explore, France's Dordogne, where you'll find the famous Lascaux, and Spain's Cantabria , where the first painted cave was discovered, called Altamira. Both regions have many caves to explore, besides the iconic ones listed here. If you're in the south of France, between the Dordogne and northern Spain is the painted cave and prehistoric park of Tarascon in the Ariege region.

If you happen to be planning a trip to Slovenia, Kerry Kubilius points out the fascinating underground caverns and waterways in Slovenia.

Not all caves occupied by humans have paintings. The Grottos at Equi Terme, a spa town in Northern Tuscany, have remains of Cave Bears and evidence of Neanderthal occupation.

3. Go North!

Not everyone thinks about heading toward the Arctic circle. Be one of the explorers. Head over to Finland's Taiga Forest with your telephoto. You'll find it at around 62 degrees latitude in Central Finland. The bears wake in April, giving the summer explorer adequate time to throw together some bear watching gear by August.

Perhaps an exploration of Fiords on a scenic train trip is more your style. Head to Bergen via Myrdal via the Flåm Railway. You can do it as part of our Scandinavia Suggested Itinerary.

4. Head to the Lakes

Ok, so everyone thinks of those "top ten beaches in Spain" sorta deals. The problem is, in August you can expect them to be jammed. Not just the beaches, but the roads to the beaches. So I'd rather head out to where there's no salt crust after I've dipped my toes into the drink. I like lakes.

One of my favorites is Lake Costance, which sloshes through Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Lots to do, various and sundry lakeside promenades to do it on, and an international crowd make it quite the summer ticket.

The lake at Hallstatt in Austria is serine and when your tan is finally to your liking you can take tours of a salt mine that's been in operation since prehistoric times.

Opera lovers will want to head to Torre del Lago Puccini for the summer Puccini festival on the lake. When the singing ends, bird lovers can take a trip to the other side of the lake to walk on planked trails over the wetlands and visit the bird-watching blinds at Oasi di Massaciuccoli.

5. Get Nekid!

If you are stuck in Europe when the temperature soars, perhaps the best you can do to stay cool is to shed your clothes. Perhaps on a Greek island like Mykonos, where Paradise Beach awaits the hot and weary.

The well-heeled chomping at the bit to get a sense of topless history will want to head over to Saint Tropez, where the Plage de Tahiti was made famous by the itty-bitty bikinis of Bridgitte Bardot and Ursela Andress.

Finally, if you want to go to a nude beach with a very provocative name, why not try the little island of Borkum in the North Sea (that ought to cool your jets, or not...). It's one of Germany's best nude beaches, too.

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