1. Underrated Destination – Umbria
Lovely Umbria, nestled in Tuscany’s tourism shadow, is the lesser known jewel in Italy’s crown with its historic palaces, piazzas and cathedrals.
The countryside is picture perfect with vineyards, olive groves and sunflower fields stretching as far as the eye can see. Charming villages are dotted on top of hillsides with dramatic views over the sun-drenched landscape.
With fewer tourists than Tuscany or the Italian Lakes, this underrated area of Italy boasts towns and cities brimming with art, culture and history.
Perugia, Assissi, Todi and Spoleto are just a few of my favourite towns for a short holiday break.
Top tip: There are numerous villas and holiday apartments in the beautiful countryside close to the main historic centres.
2. Best Cultural Gem – Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge
Kettle’s Yard is a fantastic gem tucked away behind one of Cambridge’s historic streets next to St Giles’ churchyard.
Step inside the Kettle’s Yard House and there’s a treasure trove of wonders in a domestic environment. This is truly a house designed for an art lover – in this case Jim Ede, an author and former curator at London’s Tate Gallery in the 1920s and 30s.
Ede gathered together a stunning collection of modern art works by the likes of Miro, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Brancusi and Gaudier-Brzeska as well as many objets d’art.
This special place is enthralling once you’re inside. From the outside it is a strangely reticent building with a small entrance door off a dark alley, but once inside this magic box of a house reveals its treasures and untold delights.
Take the virtual tour of the house if you aren’t able to visit in person.
Top tip: Combine your visit with a tour of Cambridge’s historic colleges and the excellent Fitzwilliam Museum.
3. Favourite Hideaway – Threave Castle
Lovely Threave Castle is the place where I like to spend a quiet hour whilst enjoying a picnic on a perfect summer’s day.
This small jewel of a 14th Century ruined castle is located on an island in the River Dee.
It was built by the gloriously named Archibald the Grim, Lord of Galloway.
The castle’s tower house is the height of 10-storey block of flats and can only be reached by a boat which adds to its sense of splendid isolation.
Today this defensive stronghold is a place of quiet contemplation and reflection, a far cry from its original, bloody role.
In summer this is a glorious hideaway. Ring the bell and wait for the boat man to pick you up and take you across the short watery, natural ‘moat’.
Top tip: Combine Threave with a trip to nearby Castle Douglas or Caerlaverock Castle.
4. Best Archaeological Site – Hadrian’s Villa
Hadrian’s Villa is my 8th wonder of the ancient world with its sumptuous archaeological remains including a Roman villa, bath house, gardens and temples.
This UNESCO World Heritage site boasts truly awesome archaeology from the height of the Imperial Roman empire.
The palatial complex takes your breath away with its monumental buildings, statuary and even a canal designed to resemble the River Nile.
Top tip: Hire a car from Rome and drive north to Tivoli (approx 45 minutes). Hadrian’s Villa is located on the edge of town (Villa d’Adriano) and can be combined with a trip to the Renaissance Villa d’Este in Tivoli town centre.
5. Best Festival City – Edinburgh
Edinburgh screams out culture, arts and entertainment throughout the summer months… and the jamboree kicks off with the International Film Festival, which attracts critics and film buffs, in late June.
The main Edinburgh Festival is the big artistic event with international names from the worlds of theatre and classical music during August.
Running alongside is the Fringe which offers something for everyone with its eclectic mix of culture and entertainment including a strong comedy and alternative theatre programme.
Also in August, the Edinburgh Book Festival attracts an impressive selection of international writers such as Ian Rankin and Salman Rushdie.
I love working out how to pack in as many shows as possible each day whilst popping in to Edinburgh’s heritage pubs en route!
Top tips: Plan your itinerary to make the most of the thousands of events in hundreds of different venues during the Edinburgh Festival. First week seats can be cheaper before reviews are published… but, conversely, it’s also worth checking out the reviews to avoid any dross!
6. European City Break – Rome
Rome remains a great city for a short or long break and has the distinct advantage that it’s slightly cheaper than Paris or London.
It’s easy to get to, there’s plenty of cheap flights, and it enjoys better weather than many European capitals.
The Eternal City boasts a great variety of attractions from Roman ruins to museums and galleries plus top class shopping and fine dining.
A winner for everyone!
Top tip: Trastevere is one of the most historically authentic quarters of the city if you’re looking for a quieter location away from the mass tourist traps.
7. Best Outdoor Experience – Bryce Canyon, Utah
Bryce Canyon in Utah is a place that the word ‘spectacular’ barely describes with its dramatic sandstone rock formations of hoodoos, spires and chimney shapes.
A walk to the bottom of the canyon takes you through truly jaw-dropping scenery whilst the changing light at sunrise and sunset make a trip to Bryce a memorable experience.
It’s hard not to be captivated by this beautiful and photogenic landscape… and no, I haven’t Photoshopped this striking picture.
Top tip: Take a helicopter trip over Bryce National Park for amazing views from the air.
8. Best wildlife – Yellowstone, USA
Yellowstone National Park, which straddles the boundary of Montana and Wyoming, remains my favourite wildlife location on the planet.
It is the ultimate destination in terms of sublime landscapes and stunning wildlife – all within one volatile, volcanic area that could blow up at any point in the next 20,000 years!
Despite the summer tourists, it’s still easy to get off the beaten track and enjoy the grandeur of this king of national parks with its striking scenery and bubbling geysers.
Yellowstone is also the one place where you’re guaranteed to see bison, bears, moose, elk, wolves and eagles in the wild so don’t forget your binoculars.
Top tip: Follow one of Yellowstone’s many trails to get away from the crowds… but watch out for bears and take precautions!
9. Favourite British Coastal Hideaway – St Abb’s Head
The scenery around St Abbs’ Head reminds me of Cornwall rather than Scotland with its craggy coastline and hidden coves.
This year we spent a great afternoon there with our Canadian friends, Anne and Peter, enjoying the cliff-top walk and rugged scenery on a sunny spring day.
Spring and summer are the best times for wildlife watchers when sea birds nest in their thousands on the coastal cliff tops creating a wildlife spectacle. Look out for guillemots, razorbills, fulmars and puffins on rocky enclaves – and gannets flying by in their dozens along the coast.
Top tip: The cliff top walk to the lighthouse makes for a memorable trip but don’t forget to take binoculars for bird watching.
10. Favourite Modern Art Gallery – Musee d’Orsay Paris
Not only does the Musee d’Orsay in Paris have an astonishing collection of modern art, it’s also a fascinating building in its own right.
This former railway station boosts some of the finest works from the schools of Realism, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism… all the modern ‘isms’ in fact.
Gasp at its Van Goghs and Gauguins, swoon at its Degas pastels and stare in amazement as you stroll through room after room of iconic paintings and sculpture.
Top tip: Get there early or be prepared to stand in a very long queue… it’s one of Paris’ most popular tourist attractions.
11. Weirdest village – San Andres de Teixido, Spain
San Andrés de Teixido in northern Spain is a strong contender for the title of weirdest village with its strange rituals and annual festival of the dead.
This tiny sanctuary is perched on the dramatic cliff tops of northern Galicia amidst stunning scenery and wild landscapes.
Top tip: Driving to this remote village is a treat with a route that takes in hair-pin bends, stunning vistas and fabulous viewpoints. Wild horses roam the landscape looking unapproachable and undomesticated, a rare sight in modern Europe.
12. Best Art Park – Kroller Muller, Holland
Sometimes you visit a place that blows your mind because it’s truly unique. For me, the Muller Kroller Museum in Arnhem in Holland fits the bill perfectly.
Leave your car at the gates and take a bike (or walk) to the main art gallery through the woodland where you’ll discover a superb art collection including many famous Van Goghs and Post-Impressionists such as Gauguin.
There’s also a good selection of changing exhibitions which makes a repeat visit worthwhile.
Don’t miss the outdoor sculpture park with dozens of eye-catching works by international artists scattered throughout the woods and gardens.
13. Best sporting event – Tour de France
The Tour de France is arguably the most compelling international sporting event in the world. Watch the drama unfold as 198 riders from 22 teams compete for the yellow, polka dot and green jerseys.
Take your ringside seat or stand along the route as the riders compete in the most gruelling sporting race of them all. I can recommend the finale in Paris on the Champs Elysees if you’re a tour virgin, but get there early to bag the best viewpoint.
Top tip: Plan your trip carefully to maximise opportunities to see the best of the action and smooze with the pro cyclists.
14. Best British Beach – Bamburgh
Imagine a perfect golden beach stretching as far as the eye can see set against the striking backdrop of a castle… welcome to Bamburgh on the Northumberland coast.
What more could you ask for?
On a clear, sunny day this pristine beach is as good as it gets in the UK… plus it has the added bonus that it’s just an hour’s drive from my home.
Top tip: Bamburgh is a great place for beach combing and rock pooling, but check the tide times to make the most of your coastal stroll. Don’t miss a trip to Bamburgh Castle, the star of many Hollywood movies.
15. Favourite British Island – The Farnes
I love the Farnes. I’ll even take a boat there despite my wobbly sea-legs and history of sea sickness… fortunately, they’re located only a few miles off the Northumberland coast.
The Farne Islands are a bird lover’s paradise with a great variety of sea birds especially during the spring and summer months.
This is ‘puffin central’ where you’re guaranteed to see these comical, orange-beaked birds in their thousands on a trip during the season.
Top tip: Take a boat from nearby Seahouses harbour in Northumberland (Billy Shiels’ Boat Trips are recommended). Choose a day with good weather or you could find yourself in for a bumpy ride!