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Is 2021 the Best Time to See Europe’s Cities?

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In Italy’s Puglia region, the whitewashed city of Ostuni overlooks the Adriatic Sea.

In Italy’s Puglia region, the whitewashed city of Ostuni overlooks the Adriatic Sea.

Travelers may find themselves in the sweet spot between reopening and overcrowding.

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During the past year, we’ve focused our travel inspiration on wild and remote experiences, including road trips, national parks, and beach destinations made for social distancing. But now, with Europe reopening, could this summer and fall be the perfect time for urban exploration before the certain return of overcrowding? Visiting a city now, says Black Tomato owner and cofounder Tom Marchant, is like “polishing away some of those rough bits that can make a city visit challenging.” 

Bespoke travel company Black Tomato, based in the U.S. and U.K., launched in 2005 and plans personalized trips for clients all over the world, as well as special brand launches like the new Remarkable Drives of Discovery partnership with Auberge Resorts, featuring five new immersive itineraries in New England, Colorado and Utah, Texas and New Mexico, and more.

While we suspect the interest in road trips isn’t disappearing anytime soon, we talked to Marchant about the appeal in visiting Europe’s cities this year—whether a behemoth like Paris or Rome, or less-trammeled cities like Ostuni and Lecce in Puglia—and why walking will be the best way to see them. And will weekend getaways still be popular?

Individual countries, such as Italy, Greece, and Iceland, are reopening to vaccinated travelers, while we await a wider announcement on travel to the European Union. 

As Americans contemplate a return to Europe, you’re saying now will be an ideal time to visit cities. Why do you think that is? 

Last year, everyone was about remote, remote, remote, which was natural and inevitable, but we looked ahead and we knew that cities would return. Some of the things that can make city breaks quite challenging at times—overcrowding, huge tourist throngs—are less likely to be back for a while. It will be a really interesting period of opportunity to see places in a way that we haven’t before and that we won’t again after the world does, for many good reasons, get back to normal. 

I’ve been lucky to live in a lot of cities—Paris, Moscow, Johannesburg, New York, Los Angeles, and now London—and I love the ebb and flow of cities. Now, being able to see London for yourself, but not in a way that it is a ghost town—it’s just like polishing away some of those rough bits that can make a city visit challenging. London is returning to life—even if it’s minus 10ºC [14ºF] outside, Brits are outside having a pint of lager because they can. [Indoor dining in London reopens May 17.]

The rebirthing of areas will also be fascinating. For me, it’s always about finding inspiration in every walk of life. New York has always been the epitome of that for me. There are areas now where a lot of wealth has left and where it was perhaps overly gentrified, but you may see some of that creativity return to certain neighborhoods.

I love to keep visiting cities because they evolve so much. Something might be the hottest bar one week, and then two weeks later, it is a shoe shop, and vice versa. 

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In Europe, where are you most excited to return and what are you most excited to experience?

I have to start with Paris. I’d go with my family often as a kid and we’d just wander around, and it fueled my curiosity. That’s how I like to do it even now when I go back. One day, we’ll go to the Latin Quarter and just wander. We’ll do a morning in the Marais, spend an afternoon in the seventh [arrondissement], and hang out at my favorite bistro in the world, Le Fontaine de Mars

You gear a lot of your days heading to venues for lunch and dinner. Paris is a city you soak up. Everything is dictated by following the river to a degree. Now, I think you’ll fall in love with cities again by taking walking tours, or just walking yourself—a “slow” form of public transport that allows you to soak up the atmosphere.

For hotels, I like Hotel Costes—you associate it with nights out and fun—and Le Bristol. I love getting lost in the Musée d’Orsay, which would be even better now without the crowds. But the best thing is finding a brasserie on a tiny square and just sitting there with a glass of amarone and a prix-fixe menu and watching Parisians, who are just effortlessly chic—I know it’s a cliché, but you just look and admire.

I can’t wait to get back to southern Italy, to Puglia and to Lecce and Ostuni. Ostuni is a white city on a hill, set in a majestic position looking over the region and the ocean. It’s a city to get lost in, to wander the back streets and sit in the piazzas. Then you go out to the olive groves and spend time in the masserias [Puglian farmhouses].

Lecce’s history probably rivals Rome’s. It’s not huge but bigger than Ostuni, and with incredible history—they uncovered a massive Roman amphitheater in 1929. Last September, we visited when we could get to Italy from the U.K., but when it was still quite quiet. There were these amazing days wandering into the Piazza del Duomo and no one was there. That feeling will be there in the upcoming months. 

I’m going back to Rome this fall. I’m looking forward to a Saturday morning in Campo de’ Fiori watching the world go by to getting lost in the Trastevere and finding trattorias. Rome is a city made for discovery, where you’re talking to the owner of that trattoria and then you find the gelato place around the corner he recommended, and then his buddy owns a pizza place that you go to later. 

We’re all talking about sustainability in travel more. Do you think the weekend city break, even if it’s a four-day weekend, is over for American travelers? It’s probably different if you’re exploring Europe from London, and so much can be done by train. 

Certainly, there is less conscious consumerism. But I do not think it’s a sense of doing less, but doing the same amount of travel but differently, at least with our clients. When we would see a number of weekends planned in Europe peppered throughout the summer for U.K. and American travelers, now they’re doing longer breaks and less weekends. There is the environmental perspective, but also factoring in that air travel will be more of a hassle for the foreseeable future. 

What we are seeing most of all is that the pace has changed. People are taking a breath, immersing themselves back in, and not quite as frenetic, with a multi-stop massive trip. They’re saying, I just want to go and make a place home for a couple of weeks. A life-affirming experience could be two weeks in Provence near a good vineyard and you have a great book. That’s it. 

As trip planners, we do put a framework around it for people and call it framed spontaneity. Like: Spend time in these areas, go and explore these streets, spend a half day with our trusted art or culinary guide. But what is brilliant is to just sit in a café on the Left Bank in Paris for an entire afternoon with no other plans. 

How else do you help frame spontaneity? I love that concept and think it leads to the most magical experiences.

We’re bringing back something called 20 Questions in Paris, Copenhagen, Tokyo, and others. It’s inspired by the way I most like to see cities. I do my research but some of the best things are discovered by conversations with people. Each question is tied to a place. So it might say—go to Oberkampf Street, one of the lesser-known areas of Paris, head to the Great Charbon Bar for a glass of red wine and ask the bartender where their favorite place to watch the sunset over the city is. Go, and see where it takes you. Each season, we change it so you have a new set of questions.

As things come back, we’ll have questions centered around live music venues, for example—something people have really missed and where you often meet people with shared passions. 

You can “Journey to the Center of the Earth” in Iceland with Black Tomato.

At Black Tomato, you’ve introduced “Take Me On a Story,” five immersive itineraries designed for multi-gen trips and based on children’s stories—like a five-night trip to Oxfordshire centered on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. How did this come about? And how did your life change when you had your first daughter? [Marchant now has two daughters, ages 2 ½ and six weeks.]

We’ve always believed in the power of literature and stories to inspire, so we spoke to loads of families about things that resonated and started with five stories. We’ve already had bookings come in—we just had a family in Iceland on the Journey to the Center of the Earth trip. We brought in top volcanologists and it’s been a joy to curate. 

With children, my life has become one of permanent snacks. Never did I think I’d be so bothered about where the snacks are. But of course, considerations about speed and pace have changed. We’ll take her to Rome this fall, and she’ll be three, and I think she’ll be wowed by things. But it’s much more about what we can do during the day and not as much at night.

>> Next: Europe’s Most Popular Hotels, According to Experts

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