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.
While I’ve known about Lithuania’s existence for a long time, having been seated next to a new student from there in my eighth-grade English class, I had never heard a thing about it from a tourism perspective. I knew that Riga, Latvia was a cool city based on what my friend Marie had told me about her long layover earlier this year and I knew that Tallinn, Estonia was a frequent stop on Baltic cruises. It just made sense to add Vilnius into the mix if I was already visiting the other Baltic capitals, but I had no idea what to expect. Here’s what I found fascinating during my quick two days of exploring:
Many people get excited about the end of the year because of the holidays, the time off, the food, and seeing family and friends. Don’t get me wrong, all of that is awesome (duh), but another tradition I get excited about around this time is seeing the next year’s “where to travel” lists, the pinnacle, of course, being the NY Times’ “52 Places to Go in 2018.” Yes, I was one of the 9,000 people to apply for the job of visiting and writing about each of the 52 places over the upcoming year. I didn’t get it.
How do you measure, measure a year? 2017 was the year I spent time in 13 different countries and 11 different states. I traveled to Europe three times. I set foot on my fifth continent. I revisited London, Indianapolis, Ireland, and Portugal. I reunited with friends from college in Prague and Dublin and old coworkers in London, Chicago, and Dubrovnik. I traveled for 10 days in Cape Town with someone I met in Mandalay and for 12 days in Croatia with someone I met in Dublin. A twelfth of my year was spent dog-sitting, both in Chicago and Jersey City. I added Shenandoah National Park to my list of U.S. National Parks.
Just as all parents hear advice on raising children from people who don’t have them, all travelers can relate to people who “poo-poo” on where they are going without having been there themselves. I get so annoyed with the people who say: “I hear Rome is overrated.” “I hear India isn’t safe.” “I hear the French ask Americans to stop butchering their language when they speak French.”
I had trouble with Vienna. It was the halfway point of a six-week trip after two weeks in Cape Town with two friends, a wedding in London with many friends, and a few solo days in both Budapest and Bratislava. I love traveling by myself, but for some reason, in the middle of February in Central Europe where I seemed to fit in with the crowd, I hadn’t had any conversations of value in a week.
When I returned from Ireland and Portugal in August, I have to admit I was in a mood. I’m so thankful for the opportunities I’ve had and the decisions I’ve made that have allowed me to travel so much this year and last, but I was sad that it was coming to an end. I couldn’t stop thinking about traveling and couldn’t stop messaging with people I’d met during my travels and so, I took off again. A friend I’d met in Dublin was heading to Croatia, which has been on my list for ages, at a time when I had nothing else planned. So I found a cheap flight and flew back to Europe, feeling normal again on the way there.
Airbnb is all the rage and I love it, don’t get me wrong. If everyone in my life thought about me as highly as my Airbnb hosts did (my reviews are off the charts), I would have zero problems. But, friends, there are a few core issues with Airbnb that you may not realize: the main one is that there’s only a requirement for one of those Bs, a bed. There is no requirement for the other B, breakfast. A real-life bed & breakfast has both those Bs and more and Ireland’s B&Bs are as off-the-charts as my own Airbnb ratings. Below are a few reasons why real-life B&Bs can be better than hotels, Airbnbs, and hostels.
No, this isn’t a post about where the best graffiti in Paris is or where you should get a tattoo of a macaron (but if you do have a tattoo of a macaron on your body, please send me a picture). This a post about how to enjoy Paris without necessarily following in the footsteps of everyone else, and there will be many others.
While many people I’d told about my February travels hadn’t yet heard of Bratislava, Slovakia, I’ve known about it for quite some time. During high school and college, I worked at a local restaurant for six consecutive summers. Some members of the staff visited during the summer season from Slovakia. I became close friends with a few of them. They told my other friends and me all about Europe, taught us how to say “please” (“prosím”) and “thank you” (“dakujem”) in Slovak, and, well, bought us beer before we were of age. When I saw that Bratislava was on the way to Vienna from Budapest, two cities I already had on my list, I knew I had to check it out for myself.
I’m better at being places than I am at getting places. With that said, I don’t mind being in airports and on planes for a few reasons. Checking a bag and being left with just my backpack makes it all easier. Flights usually indicate either the start of an adventure I’ve been so excited for or that I’ll get to see my puppy within a few hours (or a day if I’m starting off in Asia). Having the opportunity to be completely unreachable in the skies for a few hours (or 17) means I get to catch up on my NY Mag crossword puzzles and all the recent movies I didn’t want to pay $15 + cheesy pretzels to watch.
I didn’t expect to visit Cologne on my last European trip, but sometimes your flight from Berlin to Paris is cancelled and while rearranging plans to get to Paris as quickly and inexpensively as possible, your best bet is to take a train to Cologne for the evening and head out from there the next morning. I had a deadline so I wasn’t able to leave my hotel until around 4 and left Cologne right after breakfast. My time was limited, but I saw enough to make me want to return one day.
You all knew I was going to make this pun at some point – a tiger doesn’t change her stripes. Maybe I even had it in my plans before I went to Hungary, because it’s too obvious to not take advantage of. But I had NO IDEA that Budapest was going to be the source of some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life. Seriously.
Renting an apartment instead of a hotel is a great way to experience a destination as more of a local than as a tourist. Many travelers these days turn to Airbnb, but I recently discovered a company I’m referring to as a localized Airbnb, Ambiente Apartments in Bratislava, Slovakia.
As I wrote in my January recap, I waited a while for my 2017 to begin. After returning from India right before Thanksgiving and spending all of December and January either in New Jersey or New York, I was ready to take off – and take off I did. In February, I landed on a new (to me) continent, added five more countries to my list, and, for the first time, visited a European city and country I’d been before.