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With Your Own Eyes: Europe’s Most Inspiring Views (and Why You Should Stop Photographing Them)

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Great views make for the best memories: here are 5 of Europe’s very best vantage points, and how to truly remember them.

At sunset on the rooftop terrace of Madrid’s Circulo de Bellas Artes, the lights come on across the city, gently illuminating the curves and domes of the 20th century buildings lining the Grand Via. The changing sky’s slow procession of radiant pinks and brooding purples casts a lingering glow on the city’s rooftops and facades. The silhouette of the distant Guadarrama mountain range adds another layer to this stunning city view.

No matter where travellers range across the globe, it’s these kind of exceptional views they seek. They capture the essence of place and affirm our reason for travelling there in particular. When we’re able to experience them at just the right time, day or night, sunrise or sunset, in a specific season or brief moment in the year, these views become moments in space and time that feel like ours alone. It’s just you and the view.

Asterisked views and off-the-beaten path panoramas

In the age of social media, the pursuit of the perfect view has become more essential than ever. Via the selfie, we take on the awe and glamour of a spectacular view like a cloak, briefly borrowed for public consumption on Facebook and Instagram. There are always two images of any view: the view itself, and the traveller seen at the view. In our era, the second image has become the most important. But it wasn’t always like that.

Map of Marseille and illustration of the view from Rigi-Kulm from Karl Baedeker’s travel guides – image courtesy of “The handbook of travellers”, 1914

The importance of the view to the traveller long predates the first portable camera. The famous Karl Baedeker, the first publisher of practical travel guides, disdained purple prose in favour of a star system for notable points of interest. He marked important sights with an asterisk, later increasing it to two for the most impressive. Here is Baedeker’s description of the two-star sunrise view at Rigi-Kulm, the highest peak of Mount Rigi in Switzerland, written in 1853:

“An hour before sunrise the Alphorn sounds the reveille. [In the hotel] all is again bustle and confusion, everyone fearful of missing the sun’s ascent. Little by little the corridors empty, as, with drowsy eyes, wrapped in shawls, cloaks, even blankets, all hasten to the summit to hail the sun’s first rays. Happy is he on whom they shine unobscured!” [From Die Schweiz, 5th edition]

Mont Blanc, on the other hand, was given no stars by Baedeker, who wrote simply: “The view from the summit is unsatisfactory”. In the spirit of the Grand Tour, travel of the era was not just meant for pleasure but self-improvement. The reason for viewing a great landscape was the same as for great art or architecture: to enrich the spirit and broaden the mind. But the passion for the perfect view had no relationship with the desire to capture it – or the traveller – on film for posterity. The earliest travel photography began in the 1850s, but it was a difficult, heavy and specialised affair until at least 1878, when new technology allowed the introduction of instant handheld cameras, able to take crisp images without the need for a tripod.

Taking photos of views impairs our memories of them

From this point on, the traveller’s perspective on the view began to change into the one we recognise today. The view became less of a lived experience and more of a trophy to be hunted and captured; something wild to be shot and displayed. But research by Linda Henkel, professor of psychology at Fairfield University in Connecticut, suggests that our passion for taking photographs impairs our ability to remember what we’ve actually seen and experienced. In one study, students given a guided tour of an art museum were less able to remember details about the objects they had photographed. Henkel calls this a “photo-taking impairment effect.”

Taking in a view with your own eyes is crucial to creating a lasting memory of a place, such as here in the old town of Ljubljana, from the collection of InterContinental Ljubljana

“What I think is going on is that we treat the camera as a sort of external memory device,” Henkel said in a BBC interview. “We have this expectation that the camera is going to remember things for us, so we don’t have to continue processing that object and we don’t engage in the types of things that would help us remember it.”

Meanwhile, it’s become even more complex in the age of the selfie. For young people, the role of photography has now become more about communicating with others and defining our identities, with the view itself becoming secondary. Of course, none of this means that we should stop taking photographs of that perfect view. It’s about balance: after one or two shots, perhaps it’s time to put down the phone and allow time for those lived experiences and organic memories to form. If that’s what you’re seeking, here’s our list of places to remember, offering some of the most beautiful views in Europe:

Geneva: from Mont Salève

While the city itself affords some exceptional views, Geneva also offers some profound viewing moments from afar. Located just 20 km from the centre, the 1,300 metre-high Mount Salève (endearingly referred to as Geneva’s home mountain, but located just across the border in France) looks out to an expansive vista of the city and its famous lake. The name of the lake itself is something of a debate locally, for if it is known in English as Lake Geneva, it becomes Lac Léman in French.

Appearing as a mere wisp, the landmark Jet d’Eau points toward the sky, the Jura mountain range serving as a backdrop. A winter hike up one of the numerous trails to the peak’s observatory allows time to pause and ponder the view from various perspectives. From the south, the Alps including Mont Blanc can be seen. In summer, the Mount Salève cable car will make you feel above the clouds and add a rush of adrenaline to the experience.

For a closer vantage point, InterContinental Geneva is the city’s highest building, offering great views over the lake and the surroundings Alps.

Dublin: from Tablot Memorial Bridge

In Dublin, the Talbot Memorial Bridge—one among the city’s 20 bridges crossing the River Liffey—offers a distinctive view of the Docklands, an area of urban regeneration where old meets new. At night, the coloured lights of the Convention Centre Dublin reflect across the water.

The cable lines and curves of the Samuel Beckett Bridge, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, stand out in contrast to the stately neoclassical The Custom House. During the St Patrick’s Festival the scene is aglow in green.

Tel Aviv: from HaPisga Garden

Sweeping sea views are some of the most satisfying. Gazing on a seemingly endless blend of sea and sky can be both healing and inspiring. At sunset in Tel Aviv, the ancient port city of Old Jaffa offers a variety of vantage points to watch the coastline change its hue.

Located in a lush summit above the city, the HaPisga or Peak garden offers an exclusive perspective of the confluence of Tel Aviv’s southern skyline and historic Old Jaffa.

Portugal: from Sintra’s Palacio da Pena

Part of the Portuguese Riviera, the luxurious coastal town of Estoril offers a cosmopolitan heritage alongside exceptional ocean views. A drive along the coastal highway from Caiscais—once a seaside retreat for the Royal family—to Guincho beach is just the start.

The road leads to Portugal’s Serra de Sintra, a westerly mountain range and home to Sintra, the Unesco World Heritage Site. Here nature blends with romantic 19th-century palaces, medieval castles and as-far-as-the-eye-can-see views. Less known is the area’s Peninha Sanctuary or the 16th century Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Penha, perched on a craggy outcrop 488 meters above sea level. It offers sweeping views of the coastline from Guincho to Caiscais to Lisbon. On particularly bright mornings, an ideal time to visit (and perhaps avoid the more intense afternoon winds), even the Berlengas archipelago might be visible.

London: from Greenwich Park

As the sun rises in London, the city’s Greenwich Park affords a multilayered panorama tinted pink. From the park’s upper-level peak, next to the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian line, the view looks out to greenery, the National Maritime Museum and the Queen’s House, followed by the River Thames and ultimately the modern cityscape of glass and steel rising toward the clouds. A good alternative is the rooftop bar of InterContinental London – The O2 next door.

Beyond the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, Renzo Piano’s 310-metre Shard is visible to the west. The striking structure’s 52nd-floor Gong bar is the perfect place to observe evening turn to night. Twinkling lights appear as the stars and the city seem to merge.

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