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Small nation offers big European experience

When they travel to continental Europe, many Americans head to France, Germany, Italy or Spain. Yet far fewer American tourists visit one of the continent's smallest countries, Luxembourg.

Known mainly for banking and the location of several major European Union institutions, Luxembourg — which shares a border with Belgium, France and Germany — is an overlooked gem that offers considerable history, sophistication, a thriving cultural scene, a cosmopolitan atmosphere, gorgeous scenery and plenty of recreational opportunities.

According to tourist officials, roughly 50,000 U.S. residents visit Luxembourg per year. One reason for that may be because there are no direct flights from the United States, although trains run from neighboring countries on a daily basis.

The official language is Luxembourgish, but English, French and German are widely spoken.

There's no denying the French/Germanic influence on this nation, but Luxembourg's official motto is "mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sinn," or "we wish to remain as we are," an indication of how strongly residents cherish their own identity.

With its dramatic layout, Luxembourg City is a fine starting point to this country, which technically is a grand duchy.

The best way to really get a feel for the city is to take the 2.5-hour Wenzel Walk, named for Wenceslaus II, under whose reign a third part of the wall was built.

Connecting the Upper and Lower City, the Wenzel Walk offers "1,000 years of history" and a fascinating look into the country's past, which dates back to 963 A.D.

The fortifications along the Wenzel Walk are just one reason why the city itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site. One can get a good workout walking around there, too, as there are many, many stairs to climb to reach the Lower City.

Along the verdant trail, one will see a city within a city: fortified walls and ruins, historic and modern homes, small gardens, a moat, bridges, businesses, charming cafes and even a brewpub or two — an especially good one is Big Beer Company, in the Rives de Clausen neighborhood.

Back on the Ville Haut, or bustling Upper City, fashionistas have shopping choices galore — Luxembourg City denizens could very well match Parisans for elegance and style — while history buffs could spend a full day checking out numerous grand monuments, including the golden Gelle Fra Memorial, built to mark the end of World War I.

Cultural fans won't be left wanting, either: Luxembourg City has worthy contenders like the National Museum of History and Art, Casino Luxembourg for modern art and numerous performance venues.

And there is no shortage of restaurants featuring everything from traditional cuisine to American-style comfort food.

Of course, like any major city, Luxembourg offers considerable lodging choices for people wishing to stay a few days.

And for those who'd like to see more of Luxembourg, there's also the nearby town of Diekirch, which features the National Museum of Military History dedicated the Battle of the Bulge; Clevaux, where the one of the world's most famous photo collections – "Family of Man," curated by Luxembourg native and iconic photographer Edward Steichen – is housed; Little Switzerland, a region treasured for its craggy terrain, dense forests and caves; or the industrial Red Lands.

One thing is certain: This postage-stamp size country merits more than just a stop-over.

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