While Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn, and Paris are all different from each other, I realized on my last trip that I have a certain way that I approach each European city I visit. Since I also get a lot of requests for travel advice from people I haven’t spoken to in years (keep them coming!), I thought I’d share what I do in each city that makes me feel like I’ve gotten to know each one.
To start off, I’m often asked how long to spend in each city. You can definitely get to know most cities in 2 or 3 days, but I’d allot 4 to 5 for the big guys with lots of bucket-list attractions (London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam). By all means, if you have more time, take more time! Relax, add some day trips in, spend an entire day in a museum, cafe, or plaza. Most of these tips apply to cities around the world, but there are a few specific to Europe, and that’s where I just was, and I make the rules here, so. Also, consider taking a bus instead of the train as it’s way cheaper and you don’t have to figure out as much. I took Eurolines throughout the Baltics, but I loved RegioJet on my longest Eurotrip.
Learn Something about the History
Even if all you do is read the Wikipedia page for the city you’re visiting, please learn something about the history of the city and the country you’re in before you go. It will enhance your experience so much if while you’re visiting Prague you understand why the John Lennon Wall was such an important motivating symbol of people working toward independence or if when in Berlin, you understand why the city was broken up into four different zones following WWII. While you’re there, learn more if you have time—take a walking tour, visit a museum of the city or country, and read the signs on the monuments.
Learn a Little of the Local Language
No, I didn’t have the time or ability to learn Lithuanian, Latvian, AND Estonian before my latest trip, but I did make an effort to learn the words for “hello”, “good-bye”, and “thank you”. These three phrases in any language can get you pretty far for most of the interactions you’ll have while traveling, and if someone you’re speaking to knows your language, he or she will usually switch to it once they realize you don’t speak theirs. (You can always say “(Hello in their language), Hello” or “Sorry?” when they say something you don’t recognize to let them know you speak English if it’s not already totally obvious.) And while I am also studying French, know that you can get around Paris with these key phrases.
See the Oldest Thing
Of course, some things in US cities are older than any living human. There may be an Irish bar from the 1800s or a haunted prison in your own hometown. And, yes, the US National Parks have rocks and formations that are millions of years old. BUT nothing cultural is older than a few hundred years. When you go to Europe, you can find stuff from BC in plain sight, sitting out in the open, most of the time without even any security, because there’s just so much of it. Spend time looking at something really old, trying to imagine what the rest of the area must have looked like at the time it was built and what the people’s lives were like back then.
Take Yourself to Church
No matter your religion or your feelings on religion in general, the fact remains that churches in Europe are some of the most beautiful pieces of architecture you can see, and many of them are hundreds of years old, which plays into the above piece of advice. In cities like Rome, you’ll see them on every corner and some have hidden Michelangelos or ceilings painted with fake domes. In Barcelona, if you don’t visit La Sagrada Familia, which has been under construction since 1882, then you’re missing out. Definitely pop into a few to see if there are any surprise masterpieces or relics, or at least appreciate the decorations (like the gargoyles at Notre Dame in Paris!) from the outside. My mom says you get to make a wish for each new church you step into, so if you’re into free wishes, there you go.
Use the Local Transportation
While walking is my favorite way to see a city, sometimes you get tired or want to see something a little further off the beaten path. Hop on a trolley, a bus, or the metro along with people who live in the city you are visiting. Most of their subways are newer than NYC’s and much cleaner, organized, and easier to navigate. Note that for some systems you need your ticket to get in and out. On buses, you may need to buy a ticket ahead of time and stamp once you get on, or you may have to purchase one from the driver—just observe what others are doing and try it yourself. You get a good sense of daily life of where you’re visiting PLUS you feel awesome once you’ve figured it out and arrive at the correct destination (even if you accidentally got off a bus early and a stranger had to draw a map in the dirt with his finger so you knew where to go next).
Try the Local Specialties
Even if you haven’t done your research, you can find something traditional and local by popping into a bakery and ordering something you haven’t seen before. Try to skip the restaurants with photos in their menus or with hosts standing outside trying to get tourists to come in. Look for spots where the locals are going and if you don’t have dietary restrictions, just order what the person ahead of you has ordered. These places are likely way cheaper than the tourist spots.
You may come across a poppyseed cake that your ancestors from Hungary might have eaten themselves in the 1800s or a meat-filled pastry from Lithuania that somehow still tastes delicious while eating it on a bus after it’s been sitting in your coat pocket for an hour. If you’re drinking, ask for a beer or wine from the country you’re visiting, even if they have Brooklyn Brewery on the menu. If you’re in Latvia, make sure to try the Black Balsum, but definitely order a chaser and lots of water because it is intense.
Shop (or Window Shop) at the Market
Stock up at a local grocery store where you’ll see some of your favorite snacks from home in new flavors or in other languages and more local snacks that are likely cheaper and better. Buy Cadbury chocolate which is way tastier when made in Europe than in the States. Visit a local market to get a real idea of what foods are most beloved in the country, like the sauerkraut above, for example. Look out for places where you can get free samples (like all of the cheese shops in Amsterdam).
See the City from Above
I enjoy seeing the city from above whether it’s before I’ve explored (to orient myself and see if there’s anything interesting I might not yet have on my list) or after I’ve explored (to see how far I walked in between all of the spots I checked off). Some of these views require payment to ride the funicular plus the purchase of an expensive drink (like the UFO in Bratislava), or take a lot of time in line (like the Eiffel Tower in Paris), or a lot of effort and patience (like climbing the bell tower in Florence), but some are totally free and easy (like taking the elevator to the top of the Central Library in Amsterdam).
Try not to trip on the uneven cobblestone streets as you follow this next tip, but definitely look up at the buildings you’re seeing while you’re in Europe. Some of the most decorative elements can be found way above your head and it’s okay to crane your neck while trying to see the horses pulling Victoria’s chariot on top of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin or the details of the dome on top of the Dresden Frauenkirche.
Chat with the Locals
For me, travel is as much about the people as it is about the scenery, food, history, and art. You have nothing to lose by asking someone: “Are you from here?” “What’s that drink you have?” “Any idea where I should get dinner around here?” because you’ll never see them again if you don’t want to (and sometimes you will want to and will see them again in other countries). If you’re super shy about approaching strangers (I am not), try talking with people who you are already interacting with, like your Airbnb host, cab drivers, bartenders, or the shopkeeper at the souvenir shop.
Walk along the Waterway
The majority of cities you’re visiting in Europe will be along a waterway of some sort. In fact, I can’t think of one I’ve visited that isn’t but I’m also quite sleepy so who knows. Along the waterways, you’ll typically find a lot of action—parks, statues, centuries-old bridges, locals getting fresh air, souvenir stands, and if you’re lucky, a beautiful sunset. Though it’s sometimes super touristy, it’s also really fun to hop on a boat if you can. If you’re along the Seine, peruse the 250 bookstalls (with an 8-year waiting list and rent of only €100 a year!) for a uniquely Parisian experience.
People-Watch on the Plaza
The abundance of plazas is one of the biggest appeals of Europe. While, yes, NYC has plazas and squares of sorts, they’re different for me because I feel like I never have enough time while I’m at home to just chill there (also, they’re often full of creepy Elmos and superheroes). My favorite way to experience a plaza is to grab a cappuccino at a cafe with outdoor seating and watch people walk by. It should be noted that cafes and restaurants along a plaza are at least 1.5 times as much as those a block or two away, but you’re paying for the ability to eaves-drop and spy on strangers without having to feel weird about it, so go for it.
And some bonus tips that don’t require their own paragraphs:
- Download an offline map of the cities you’re visiting so you can follow your path even without international service.
- Take lots of pictures, but take them without your phone camera click sound on because hearing that sound every two seconds is the most annoying thing about being around other tourists.
- Try Airbnb or a real bed and breakfast instead of a hotel to cut down costs. (I don’t do hostels, but that’s another choice for you as well.)
- My favorite European guidebooks are by Rick Steves. Before your trip, consider watching his television show for free on his website for the particular areas you’re visiting.
What are your favorite things to do when you travel in Europe? Leave them in the comments!
Oh, and my last tip is to HAVE THE BEST TIME EVER.