Mark Lennihan  /  AP
Tourists walk on the city wall that surrounds the historic town of Dubrovnik, Croatia. While the number of Americans visiting places like Croatia is still relatively small, growth is strong. AAA's bookings to Croatia increased an astounding 440 percent this year over last.
updated 3/26/2007 5:10:52 PM ET 2007-03-26T21:10:52

Sure, air travel is a hassle. And no, the U.S. dollar doesn't go very far in Paris or London. But none of that is keeping Americans away from Europe.

Nearly 13 million Americans visited Europe in 2006, a 4 percent increase from the previous year, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Commerce Department's Office of Travel & Tourism Industries. The European Travel Commission expects those numbers will increase another 2 or 3 percent this year.

Here are some of the trends, events and destinations shaping those trips.

Short trips and byways: Now that you need a passport just to visit the Caribbean, some Americans - especially those already on the East Coast - are opting to spend a few more hours in the air to take a long weekend in Western Europe, according to Conrad Van Tiggelen, chairman of the European Travel Commission, http://www.visiteurope.com. "Traditional destinations like Paris and London are really going through the roof for short breaks," he said.

Another trend is "combining the known and the unknown" by visiting landmarks in a major city, then heading off to the countryside, said Van Tiggelen.

"Seeing the Eiffel Tower is still a great thrill, as is going to the Vatican. But there is a subset of more sophisticated travelers yearning to see a more authentic side of Europe," said Pauline Frommer, the travel writer and editor.

In Italy, a program called agriturismo allows travelers to "stay in a farmhouse set up for tourism and take part in the daily life and the making of particular products like cheese and wine," according to Cosmo Frasca, spokesman for the Italian Government Tourist Board in New York. In Amsterdam, take a ferry across the Amstel River, rent a bike and "after 10 minutes, you're in 17th-and 18th-century villages," said Van Tiggelen, who is also the Netherland tourism director.

Americans are also increasingly taking "experiential vacations," said Peter Frank, editor of Concierge.com. "They want to engage in an activity - windsurfing in Croatia, hiking the pilgrim's trail to Santiago de Compostela (in Spain) or taking a cookery class in Italy."

For city visits, here's a money-saving tip: Stay in an apartment instead of a hotel. The new "Pauline Frommer's London" guidebook lists agencies that can set "you up in a room in someone's apartment for 20 pounds a night," with a private bathroom, said Frommer. "It makes Europe affordable again."

Italy: The United Kingdom and France each gets more tourists from the U.S. than Italy does, according to Commerce Department statistics. Nonetheless, many travel experts say Italy is the country American travelers are most interested in learning about.

"Italy with a capital I, that's where the action is," said Mike Weingart, a Carlson Wagonlit travel agent in Houston.

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AAA Travel booked more trips to Italy this year than any other destination in Western Europe, with a 9 percent growth over last year and a whopping 34 percent of all AAA bookings to the region.

Slideshow: City of Water "One of the top questions we have been getting is, 'Where in Italy do I go?'" said Frommer, who hosts a radio show with her father Arthur. "It seems to be very popular among first-time visitors."

Fodor's has just come out with a new guide called "Essential Italy: Rome, Florence, Venice & The Top Spots In Between." "The inspiration for the book came from just looking at our Web site and the reader comment boards," said "Essential Italy" editor Matthew Lombardi. "There were all these little headers saying, 'Rome, Florence, Venice, help me plan my itinerary.'"

Americans are "more savvy now about the pleasures of contemporary Italian culture," Lombardi added. "They can go and see the Pantheon, but they also realize that great Italian food is not spaghetti and meatballs." They want to sample regional identities, cuisine and villages in places like Tuscany and Umbria.

Eastern Europe: "People keep heading east," said Concierge.com's Frank. "People who've done Paris and Rome and Florence and Madrid, they want to see what else is out there."

Slideshow: The Eternal City Publishers are responding with a slew of new books, like Frommer's "Eastern Europe," out April 2, and new DK Eyewitness Travel guides on the "Czech & Slovak Republics," "Cracow" and a "Top 10 Dubrovnik & the Dalmatian Coast."

"There's still a curiosity about the former Communist countries and what they are really like," said Douglas Amrine, DK Eyewitness Travel publisher. Yet with so many of these countries now in the European Union, travelers rightly perceive that "the infrastructure will be there" in terms of hotels, restaurants and customer service to accommodate them, Amrine added.

For bargain-hunters, the U.S. dollar goes further in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe. But high-end travelers will also feel at home in a spate of new luxury hotels, from the Mandarin Oriental Prague to a Four Seasons in Budapest to the high-tech Domina Grand in Ljubljana, Slovenia, Frank said.

And while the number of Americans visiting places like Croatia is still relatively small - 154,000 in 2006 compared to more than 2 million to Italy - growth is strong, up from 115,289 Americans who visited in 2005 and more than 200,000 expected in 2007, according to the Croatian National Tourist Office. AAA's bookings to Croatia increased an astounding 440 percent this year over last.

"It's the alternative Riviera," Frank explained. "Unspoiled. Beautiful. Great beaches, great food."

What will be the next Croatia? Van Tiggelen picked Montenegro, also known for beaches and good food. Frommer said the recent James Bond movie "Casino Royale," which was set in Montenegro, helped pique American curiosity about the place.

But her prediction for "the next Croatia" is Bulgaria. "It's right on the cusp of being discovered," she said.

Elsewhere, Talin, Estonia, and Riga, Latvia, offer "beautiful medieval cores that are still preserved," according to Frank, while Frommer called Ljubljana "a fairytale city."

Art: "Europe is not only one big museum, it also has a contemporary side, and this is a big year for contemporary art in Europe," Van Tiggelen said. Dokumenta, a major contemporary art event held every five years, runs June 16-Sept. 23 in Kassel, Germany. The Venice Biennale, held every other year, runs June 10-Nov. 21. Art Basel in Switzerland is June 13-17, and London's Frieze Art Fair is Oct. 11-14.

Other noteworthy destinations include Valencia, Spain, where the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia (Queen Sophia Palace of the Arts), designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, opened last October, and Antwerp, Belgium, which Van Tiggelen said is becoming a center of contemporary fashion.

Trains: A new high-speed train line that runs northeast from Paris begins commercial service June 10 to Champagne-Ardenne, Lorraine and Alsace; Luxembourg; Munich and Frankfort, Germany, and the Swiss cities of Basel and Zurich. The train will make it much faster and easier to plan day trips from Paris to places like the cathedral in Reims and the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay, where you'll find Champagne-makers like Moet de Chandon and Perrier Jouet. Tickets, reservations and timetables for TGV East service are available April 10 on http://www.raileurope.com/.

Rail passes that allow unlimited travel in Europe for Americans have long been popular, but new technology has made it easier to book point-to-point trips well in advance, according to Chris Lazarus, a U.S.-based spokeswoman for Rail Europe. Since 2003, sales of European train tickets to North Americans booking their trips from here have increased 18 percent, and year-to-date 2007 sales are already up 22 percent over the same period last year. Discounts for advance booking and fear that certain itineraries will get sold out may also be contributing to the increased sales, she said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: A European tour

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  1. Venice, Italy

    Gondolas line the bank near Venice's grand canal with the San Giorgio Maggiore church in the background. (Peter Deilmann Cruises via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rome, Italy

    The Colosseum is one of the best-known attractions in all of Italy, and is the largest elliptical amphitheater built in the Roman empire. (Tiziana Fabi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. London, England

    The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben clock tower, located along the River Thames, are seen at dusk from Westminster Bridge. (George Rose / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Berlin, Germany

    Tourists take pictures of themselves at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. The memorial, designed by U.S. architect Peter Eisenman and inaugurated in May 2005, is made up of more than 2,700 concrete steles that form a curved landscape in the heart of Germany's capital. (Barbara Sax / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Granada, Spain

    The Alhambra palace in Granada, although one of 21 finalists, missed out on being named one of the new seven wonders of the world. (Jose Luis Roca / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Paris, France

    This bird's-eye view of Paris at dusk, with the Eiffel Tower and L'Hotel des Invalides prominent, show why the capital's nickname is the "City of Light." (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Lindos, Greece

    The ancient town of Lindos is famous for its Acropolis, which stands on a 380-foot-high hill overlooking Lindos and the Aegean Sea and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Eyeswideopen / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Dublin, Ireland

    People walk past The Temple Bar, which should not be confused with its neighborhood, also called Temple Bar, in central Dublin. Ireland's capital has been voted one of the top 25 cities of the world to live in. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Lisbon, Portugal

    Belém Tower was built in the early 16th century as a ceremonial gateway to the city, and to serve as a defense at the mouth of the Tagus River. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Sebastiano Scattolin / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Barcelona, Spain

    Columns and arches of the Sagrada Familia rise high in this Roman Catholic church, which has been under construction since 1882 and remains incomplete. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Florence, Italy

    A woman looks over Florence from the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. Construction on the city's cathedral church began in 1296 and finished in 1462. (Guido Cozzi / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. County Mayo, Ireland

    Ashford Castle, which dates back to the 13th century and sits on 350 acres of manicured gardens and land, now ranks among the finest hotels in Ireland. About a two-hour drive from Dublin, the castle has played host to myriad high-profile events, including actor Pierce Brosnan's wedding. (Tourism Ireland via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kaag, Netherlands

    A cyclist pedals along rows of tulips near the village of Kaag, outside of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The Dutch often use cycling to get around, and Amsterdam is considered one of the most bike-friendly large cities in the world. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Amsterdam, Netherlands

    A tourist smokes at a coffeeshop "de Dampkring," or "Atmosphere," where a part of the "Ocean's Twelve" movie was filmed, in the center of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The city is famous for its nightlife, cultural activities and red-light district. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Stockholm, Sweden

    Boats line up on the shoreline in Stockholm, the capital and largest city in Sweden. The city is built on 14 islands connected by 57 bridges. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Krakow, Poland

    The Church of St. Mary of the Assumption in Krakow, Poland, is one of the most well-known tourist spots in the city and noted for its gothic, medieval architecture. However, most people come to Krakow because of its proximity to Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi's concentration camps, which is now a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. (Jon Hicks / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Nice, France

    Hundreds of people enjoy sunbathing on the beach in Nice on the French Riviera. (Valery Hache / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Brussels, Belgium

    The Grand Place in the heart of Old Town in Brussels, Belguim, is marked by many 17th-century buildings and flower markets. (Jean-Pierre Lescourret / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Greek islands

    Oia, on the island of Santorini, Greece, is on a clifftop village filled with white structures and gorgeous sunsets. Santorini offers seaside tavernas, cliffside paths, black volcanic rocks and of course, sunshine and the Aegean Sea. (Saundra Virtanen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pamplona, Spain

    Revelers hold up their red scarves during the start of the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain. The annual festival is best known for its daily running of the bulls. (Susana Vera / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Prague, Czech Republic

    The buildings in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, are constructed in many architectural styles from Romanesque to gothic to art nouveau and modern. (Michal Cizek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Reykjavik, Iceland

    Tourists stand in the Blue Lagoon outside Reykjavik, Iceland. The Blue Lagoon's waters come from natural hot water springs flowing through rocks of lava. Many also believe the mineral-rich waters may have health benefits. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. St. Petersburg, Russia

    The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul is seen on the bank of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Dmitry Lovetsky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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