So you’ve done it—bought your tickets for a vacation in Europe and eager to see the sights- or you’ve at least decided that “Europe” is your next destination!
From east to west, Europe is a mixture of cultures, languages, heritage, architecture and customs all across the continent. The dissolution of border checks within the EU means that travel in Europe has never been easier, more affordable or more convenient!
Here are my top 15 tips for traveling Europe to the fullest!
– Visit on Off Season –
Europe can be a mess in peak-travel season, with crowds and queues lining up in Paris and London, and even smaller hamlets like Avignon and Verona. Avoid the months of June, July and August if you’d rather not fight large lines and crowds to see the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel.
Plus, summertime is when Europeans themselves head elsewhere for vacation, so my suggestion to get a real feel on what locals are like in your destination, visit cusp-season- early spring or in the fall!
– Shop at Family Businesses –
Head off the beaten track of Eiffel Towers and Galeries Lafayettes to check out the smaller businesses, the family-run patisserie or the mom-and-pop gelato place on the corner.
You’re here to meet and mingle with locals, so you might as well support local businesses and while you’re add it, you can even try a ‘Bonjour’ or ‘Ciao’ with them. Restaurants and shops off the main roads tend to be cheaper anyways!
Helpful Tip: Restaurants with pictures on the menu tend to cater towards a tourist crowd, which means their prices are marked up as well. Learn some food phrases in your destination’s language, or carry a translator so you don’t need the pictures anyways!
– Learn the Local Language –
Practice a few phrases before you arrive and use them with locals if you feel comfortable. In most cases, they’ll appreciate a tourist trying to speak the local tongue.
Try listening to a few podcasts to get the right pronunciation, or spend some time with a language program like Rosetta Stone leading up to your trip.
Greetings and thanks can go a long way—and don’t forget to learn the word for toilet!
– Stay Longer in One Place –
It always feels more rewarding to stay in one place for a week or two rather than city-hopping every few days. Not only does that mean less packing and unpacking, you have the chance to get to know a neighborhood, find a favorite cafe, and even make a few friendships by sticking it out in one place.
– Do As the Locals Do –
You don’t want to be that tourist standing out from the crowd with bad manners or loud exclamations, so observe what the locals do and follow suit.
For example, don’t wear tank tops in conservative Orthodox churches, or lower your tone—most Europeans speak at a softer tone than Americans. Just be aware of your surroundings, and research local etiquette for your destination if you’re not sure what to expect.
– Be Aware of Afternoon Closures –
A quick tip—Europeans value their lunch breaks, and midday meals often extend over hours. So you may find a ticket office or post is closed from noon until 2pm.
Take the late lunch into account when you plan your day itinerary. And guess what—it’s a perfect chance to indulge in a long lunch yourself. When in Rome!
– Stray From the Beaten Path –
By all means, see the Eiffel Tower and ride a gondola in Venice—sometimes the beaten path can be its own fun experience.
But for the most part, you can see and do so much more if you stay off of it. Ask locals at the bar for their recommendations of where to eat and drink, or read online. It’s locals who really know their city—the best place to have a picnic, the best view of gargoyles, the best place to catch the underground music scene.
– Stay Central and Walk Everywhere –
It may seem logical to spend the night in a cheap hotel in the suburbs, but trust me—it’s not always worth it. When you take into account the transportation to and from the city, or the hassle of trying to find a restaurant in a residential area— sleeping far from downtown can be a real pain.
Instead, splurge a bit and book a moderate place in or near the city center. You’ll be able to reach the main sights and find cafes and restaurants with no trouble at all. Plus, you’ll see more of the city if you’re walking around rather than taking the metro or a bus.
– Stay in a Smaller City –
On the other hand- large cities like Rome, Paris, London, Amsterdam can all be overrun with tourists—making it difficult to blend in, and meet and speak with locals.
Choose a smaller town with its own city center, and one that doesn’t get as many tourists, but are still just a short train ride away from the main hubs: Girona near Barcelona, Bologna near Florence.
These cities are usually quieter and run at a slower pace, allowing you to enjoy yourself with less pressure. You will also find there are more accommodations in the form of apartment rentals and homestays available farther from the city center!
– Talk to People –
Don’t be shy—there’s no better way to meet locals and like-minded travelers than striking up a conversation.
Street vendors, shopkeepers, bar patrons, even people staying at your hostel—smile and be open to people. You may end up meeting some lifelong friends!
– Travel to Countries Not on the Euro –
To save a few pennies, hit the countries that still retain their own currency.
Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Romania, Poland and Hungary are all fascinating European countries with their own unique story to tell, and tend to be less costly than their Western European neighbors.
– Use Budget Airlines –
Budget airlines are destiny’s gift for the mindful traveler. Europe has dozens of cheap airlines that fly from city to city at minimal cost. You can fly from Dublin to Warsaw, or Barcelona to Amsterdam for under $100, and usually cheaper then train tickets depending on the distance.
– Travel by Train –
Europe loves their trains, and for a good reason. Traveling by train is often more spacious, comfortable, and easier than air travel depending on your end destination.
There are almost no lines and you can buy your ticket minutes before departure. Keep in mind that many trains are more expensive than air travel in Europe, but the comfort makes all the different. To make train travel even easier, download a rail planner app where you can track schedules and buy tickets.
– City Walking Tours –
In popular towns, there are tours and excursions galore! I’ve taken tours with Walks of Italy, as well as Walks of Turkey, and the guides are so knowledgeable and personable- it is a great introduction to local culture.
Most hostels offer free walking tours, and they are often run and facilitated by university students, and can be a fun introduction to your new host city.
They’ll inspire you with local anecdotes, history lessons and you can return the favor by tipping them in exchange for their lively service.