Traveling in the summer of 2020 has its challenges. COVID-19 changed everything. From corona tests on arrival in Greece to mandatory face masks in most southern European countries, nothing is the same as your last vacation. In June, we travelled through the heart of Europe as we visited four countries and stayed at seven hotels and one AirBnB. We already wrote about the challenges booking hotel roomsv and hotels struggling with quality breakfast. In this blog we will focus on what tourists do: visiting tourist attractions.
In this blog we share our experiences as we visited two world famous tourist attractions: the famous Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We will describe how to get tickets, the COVID-19 measures we encountered and some of the challenges on our journey. Along the way, we will give you tips and tricks that help you make the most out of your 2020 summer vacation.
Research & booking tickets
The best news is that most tourist attractions in Europe have reopened. But that news comes with some caveats. No tourist attraction is open like they used to open as they have to help prevent the spread of the virus. Tourist attractions are doing their utmost best to limit contact between visitors as well as staff. Limiting contact starts with buying tickets. Ticket offices and even ticket machines are often closed and you have to go online to get in. We bought tickets to the Leaning Tower of Pisa online and also the tickets we needed to enter the Schönbrunn palace in Vienna were bought online. That was an essential decision as all ticket kiosks were closed and the many ticket machinesat the palace were out of operation.
Most attractions have reduced the number of available tickets and are not operating at full capacity. Full capacity would mean that tourists cannot keep physical distance. In most cases tickets even need to be pre-purchased online. You can no longer show up at an attraction and expect to get in right there. At Schönbrunn Palace and at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the purchased tickets were so-called timed entry. That means that these attractions sell tickets that are only valid for entry at a certain given time.
At the leaning tower of Pisa we had timed entrance for 12:15. Each 15 minutes, the tower staff allows a group of about 20 tourists to ascent the stairs. As asked on our ticket, we arrived about 15 minutes earlier and had to stand in a short line directly at the bottom of the tower. With our printed ticket, we waited in line as the staff was running slightly behind schedule. A French family did not get the memo about timed entry. They got in line but were noticed that the ticket needed to get in was sold at the ticket kiosk was at another part of the grounds. As the mother of the French family stayed behind in the line to keep their favourable spot in the queue, the rest of the family went to the kiosk to buy tickets. Soon they returned with a sad look on their faces, there were no tickets available anymore. Their plan to get into the tower was thwart by bad planning. All time slots were fully booked.
The French family learned us the importance of doing your homework. During the summer of 2020 you cannot expect to show up without buying a ticket and be allowed into just any tourist attraction. Pre-booking tickets requires doing your research and even some planning before you leave for vacation but it is worth it. We discovered these limitations ourselves when we were unable to visit another tourist attraction: Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany. The castle is operating at 10% of its normal capacity. Throughout the usually busy months July and August all weekend tickets are sold out. Our plan to do a day trip to the castle fell through. We now decided to postpone going to the castle to September.
COVID-19 Measures in place at tourist attractions
Hand hygiene and temperature checks
At both Schönbrunn Palace and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, there was an abundance of measures put in place to prevent the spread of the virus. Keeping your hands clean is easy as hand sanitation stations are everywhere. At the palace in Vienna there were hand sanitizers that you could operate with your feet. That meant that even when applying hand sanitizer, you did not need to touch the dispenser. You are also frequently reminded to wash your hands often. Although we did not encounter temperature checks, we have seen multiple reports of tourist attractions performing a quick temperature check before tourists are allowed in. We did see this practice at several international large chain shops such as the Apple shop in Vienna or the Hard Rock Café in Florence.
You need to keep distance from other tourists but social distancing is enforced in different ways. What measures are in place depends on the attraction. At both the tower and the palace, mandatory walking directions have been in place before the coronavirus stopped mass tourism. Mandatory walking directions, mean you can only walk one direction and cannot return to a part of the building you want to stay at. We see these mandatory being introduced in more attractions as they are reopening. Some will stay well beyond COVID-19. The idea behind mandatory walking directions is that it is easier for visitors to keep distance from each other. When people move back and forth in relatively small spaces, they will block certain pathways. Mandatory directions make the flow of crowds easier.
At the Leaning Tower of Pisa, there was another measure put in place to help people keep distance. Every visiting group received a COVID-19 gadget: you had to wear a lanyard with a big light hanging on it. When there was enough distance between you and the next group that light would turn green. As soon as one of the other gadgets would get too close to your gadget, it would turn red and start vibrating heavily. The gadget was an ideal way to make you both aware of the concept of distance while also helping you steer clear of other on the tower’s narrow staircases. One downside, when parents gave the gadget to their kids, it became a toy. The game the Italian kids during our tour played was simply dangerous: making the gadget turn red by getting close to other groups.
Depending on the attraction, face masks might be mandatory. When we visited Schönbrunn Palace, face masks were mandatory throughout our visit. For us that meant that we were wearing our face masks the entire Grand Tour of the emperor’s palace. While writing this blog, face masks at the palace are no longer needed. The situation has changed over the last weeks as Austria’s number of cases fell. Now those cases are up again and face masks might be reintroduced. The rules changes constantly and you should prepare for mandatory face masks by simply bringing one.
In Italy, the situation is different. The country was one of the hardest hit nations in Europe, and strict measures are in place which will probably remain throughout the summer. One of those measures is that face masks are absolutely mandatory. Wearing a face masks might not be comfortable during the ascent of 294 steps in the scorching Italian sun but it does protect both staff and other visitors.
The exchange of cash money is an easy way for the virus to spread. To prevent this type of spread, many tourist attractions will put measures in place to prevent that. One of those measures is to stop the use of cash money. That means you are either asked or forced to pay cashless or even contactless. Either with a NFC enabled payment card or through your phone.
It is not just the ticket kiosks that are closed. Souvenir shops, information desks and sometimes even restrooms are closed. Each attraction, country and region has their own set of rules. Because there are fewer people and to avoid the virus from spreading, attractions will close down certain facilities. At Schönbrunn Palace not all facilities were open, for example shops at the entrance and exit were unmanned and closed. Although we did not encounter closed restrooms it is something to keep in mind and prepare for where possible.
Crowds are extremely low
The biggest change at tourist attractions is the absence of mass tourism. No matter where you decide to go this summer, it will be quieter. Traveling within Europe in the summer of 2020 will feel like the experience tourists had 30 years ago before mass tourism conquered the continent. Although you can expect fewer fellow tourists, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to prepare. Tickets will sell out quickly as tourist attractions have no choice than to limit the total capacity. It also helps to check terms and conditions last minute. Rules are quickly changing as the virus controls what can open and under what conditions. Bring a face mask.