France and the Low Countries have a wealth of art, history, and tasty treats to share with visitors. While you'll never experience it all (thank goodness), if you're up-to-date, you'll get the most out of your time. Here's the sightseeing news for this year.
In Paris, the Picasso Museum has finally reopened after years of renovation. Because of all the hype surrounding its remodel, book tickets online in advance to avoid the lines (note it's no longer covered by the Paris Museum Pass).
The Louvre's iconic pyramid entrance is under renovation until 2016. During this time, expect signage to point the way to the best entrance for visitors to use.
To avoid the long ticket line at the Orsay Museum, purchase tickets (or a Paris Museum Pass) at the newspaper kiosk outside the museum, on the steps below the passholder entry (Entrance C). From the Orsay, you can now stroll or bike the new Left Bank riverside promenade that stretches to Pont de l'Alma.
At the Eiffel Tower, the first level has a new glass floor, theater, eateries, and exhibits describing the tower's construction. A champagne bar has opened on the very top floor. Online ticketing has gotten more convenient, with an option to download a ticket to your mobile phone -- no paper ticket needed.
In Chantilly, the recently renovated horse museum has a beautiful display of equine-related history and art. Museum entry includes a walk through the stables and a dressage demonstration daily in peak season. Horse lovers can pay extra for an equestrian show with riders in frilly outfits and horses prancing to music.
In Rouen, a new Joan of Arc Museum -- featuring various multimedia displays about the country's 15th-century heroine -- opens in February next to the cathedral, at the site of her trial and conviction. At the Airborne Museum in Normandy's Ste-Mere Eglise, a new third wing gives visitors a chance to virtually experience a paratrooper's D-Day night jump.
In the Dordogne region, the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume -- the famous cave with multicolored prehistoric paintings -- is getting harder to visit. Entry is by guided tour, and only 78 visitors are admitted per day. Of these, only 26 spots per day can be reserved in advance (fontdegaume(at)monuments-nationaux.fr). The remaining 52 tickets are sold on a same-day basis -- if you want to visit in summer, arrive at the crack of dawn to be first in line.
In Provence, the Fondation Van Gogh in Arles has moved into its newly restored permanent home, with exhibits on Van Gogh and contemporary artwork that pays homage to the Dutch artist. A fun feature of the building is the kaleidoscopic glass rooftop sculpture by artist Raphael Hefti.
High above Chamonix in the French Alps, the "Step into the Void" glass-box viewpoint at the 12,600-foot-high summit of Aiguille du Midi will be closed for refurbishment until spring 2015, but you'll still be able to see views of Mont Blanc. The lift down to the Italian side is closed, with three replacement stations scheduled to open in 2015.
In the Netherlands, paper tickets for domestic train travel are a thing of the past. Instead, the Dutch now use a transit smartcard on trains, buses, and trams all over the country. Most tourists will still be buying single train tickets, called "disposable" chip cards.
Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum will open a new glass-walled pavilion entrance onto Museum Square (Museumplein) in the summer of 2015. The museum is extending evening hours until 10 p.m. on Saturdays in July, August, and October, as well as staying open as usual on Friday nights from March through October.
The Amstelkring Museum (a once-hidden church, dating from the days when public Catholicism was prohibited) in Amsterdam's Red Light District is undergoing an extensive renovation (due to wrap up in late 2015). Nearby, the new Red Light Secrets Museum of Prostitution is mildly educational.
In The Hague, the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery has reopened after a lengthy renovation with greatly increased exhibition space. The collection of Dutch Golden Age art includes top-notch pieces by Rembrandt, Rubens, and Vermeer (his famous "Girl with a Pearl Earring" lives here).
In Belgium, Antwerp's new Red Star Line Museum fills the hall that processed many of the two million emigrants who passed through the city on their way to the New World. Ghent recently introduced its new City Market Hall, a social hub partially sheltered by a modern twin-gabled timber roof in the heart of town. And the new Bruges Beer Museum is an ode to beer's frothy history, including tastes from a rotating list of local drafts.
All these changes and improvements are a reminder that Europe is a place to feel welcomed and to learn. When visiting France and the Low Countries, travel smartly and find ways to connect with the culture -- you'll have a truly rich trip.
(Rick Steves (http://www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook.)
(c) 2015 RICK STEVES DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.