While it’s nearly impossible for me to name a favorite country I like to visit, I think it is fairly safe for me to say that Europe is my favorite region and continent. There’s just something about traveling there that stirs my soul and leaves me refreshed, no matter how much exploration I did during the trip. The history and beautiful landscapes tucked neatly into this compact continent means that it would take many lifetimes to fully explore it, but it’s at least worth a shot trying. Although it’s an easy place to get around, even for the first time visitor, there are some useful things you can do to make your European travel experience even more memorable.
1. What to wear – I appreciate the irony of clothing tips coming from a guy who usually wears old jeans and sweatshirts around the house, but what to wear when in Europe can be important. I don’t mean high fashion, I mean traveler chic. Every time we provide cultural clues to strangers that we are foreign creates more risk of pickpocketing or other scams. That’s why it’s important to fly under the radar when traveling and to try to look like everyone else around you. Granted, this is easier to do in Europe than in some other parts of the world, and yet I see so many people who ignore this rule.
- Shorts – While some Europeans are wearing shorts more often, it’s still not incredibly common. So leave them at home and instead opt for a lightweight pair of travel pants or jeans. Jeans are universal and will help you fit in almost anywhere in the world. Except at nudist beaches, they don’t work well there.
- T-Shirts – T-shirts are great and easy to pack, just try to avoid overly branded ones. Leave the UK Wildcats tee at home and instead pick up some plain, comfortable t-shirts you can wear around town. You can usually pick these up pretty cheaply and they have the benefit of not broadcasting to the world who you are and where you’re from.
- Layer – Unless you’re traveling in the middle of summer, temperatures in European cities and towns can vary widely throughout the day. A freezing morning may become a steamy afternoon, so dress in layers that you can quickly store in a daypack of some sort.
2. Hotels: do your research – Ah, the European hotel. My great nemesis. Here in the US and Canada we have a preponderance of major brands and their subsidiaries and relative dearth of smaller, independent hotels. That means frankly that we know what to expect when booking hotel rooms. This isn’t as easy to do in Europe. Sure, the major cities and capitals have some major, international brands that you can trust, but the smaller cities and towns are almost entirely made up of small, one-off hotels. Many people prefer them, and that’s great, but what I don’t like is the uncertainty. There’s no way of knowing if it’s good or not until you show up, at which point it’s too late. So do your research and more importantly, ask people who have been there for recommendations. TripAdvisor is ok for giving a broad idea, but it’s great (one of them) failing is that how we perceive hotels is very subjective. Someone from the UK may not care if the room is comfortable or not, as long as there’s a bed and no visible blood stains. Whereas an American will be more picky, expecting spacious rooms, air conditioning and so forth. So be sure to consider the geographical source of those online reviews you read. Ultimately though, it’s a crap shoot and you have to eventually go with your gut after doing as much research as possible. Note: This is where some travel specialists come in handy as they have firsthand knowledge of the areas you plan to visit.
3. Tourist hotspot versus trap – Western civilization, the Renaissance, the printed word, the Beatles and so much more, all started in Europe and all defined who we are as a people. Well maybe not the Beatles, I just like them. Along with this incredible history comes a litany of sights to see and places to visit. But not all are made the same and even the way you visit them can be a trap. You should absolutely visit places like the Eiffel Tower, Westminster Abbey and even the Colosseum. But when you purchase a daily tourist pass you may notice other ‘hotspots’ being advertised, less auspicious ones like wax museums and Hard Rock cafes. These businesses enter into agreements with local tourism boards and try to pass themselves off as amazing experiences only to be found in those cities. They are not. So skip the duck boat tours and wax museums and instead pay attention to the real sights. Also, be aware that you don’t always need to pay to actually go into these places. This is personal preference of course, but personally I don’t need to see the inside of another royal apartment or cathedral for as long as I live. Instead, save your money for more notable experiences like private tours of Vatican City or a visit to a historical site that resonates with you. Just because it’s famous doesn’t mean you have to feel pressure to like it.
4. Eat all the food, but wisely – Some of my favorite foods in the world can be found in Europe, and it’s this culinary focus that draws many visitors in the first place. There’s nothing better than warm chocolate croissants in Paris, homemade pasta in Italy or even a schnitzel in Austria. These are important parts of the travel experience and shouldn’t be skipped. But they can also be expensive, and the daily food costs for three meals a day plus snacks can be considerable, so it’s important to plan. Breakfast is commonly included with room rates in Europe, so make sure that’s the case for your visit. This is the best way to get a ‘free’ breakfast and eat enough to either have a light lunch or skip it altogether. Second, do not eat within 3 blocks of a major tourist attraction. I know those crepes next to the Eiffel Tower look amazing, but you’ll pay half as much for one a few blocks away. The same holds true for restaurants. The food near tourist sites is usually sub-par and overpriced, so skip it unless getting The View is important to you, but even then do it sparingly. Finally, always find the closest supermarket to your hotel. All urban centers have them and they can look unassuming, so ask the front desk staff for directions. Not only is walking through a foreign grocery store a fascinating cultural experience, you can pick up snacks and drinks at a fraction of the cost anywhere else.
5. Go slow but efficiently – Deciding how much to see and do in Europe is tricky, because there’s just so much of it. You could spend two weeks in a quiet corner of southwestern France and have the time of your life, never wanting for anything to do. However, most of us don’t have months to spend on vacation, 7-10 days is usually about it. The natural inclination is to do the grand tour and cram in as many cities and landmarks as possible in a short period of time. Of course you know what I’m about to say, don’t do that. While it’s true that isn’t the best way to go I do understand the necessity to fit in a lot in a short period of time. So my solution is to go slowish, but to be efficient at the same time. If you spend 10 days in Europe, I don’t see a problem with visiting several cities during that time as long as your schedule is well thought out. Pick a direction and continue with it, never backtracking. Or better yet, choose one city to base yourself and then do day trips to visit nearby cities and countries. That’s what my partner and I have done the last two times we’ve visited Europe together and it’s worked really well for us. One year we based in Brussels and did day trips to Paris, Bruges, Ghent, Amsterdam and more. Train travel is so easy and efficient in Europe that we were able to have full days in each city and still be back to our rented apartment in the evenings. Whatever you do though, please don’t try to see it all. You won’t be able to and you’ll just make yourself miserable in the process.
What are some of your tips for better travel through Europe?