There are so many things to love about Europe. From art to history, gorgeous scenery, and unbelievable food! One amazing aspect that is often overlooked is how EASY it is to get around the entire continent. Let’s face it, in the States, you are pretty much dependent on air travel to make your way from one part of the country to another. On the other hand, Europe offers so many travel moments that avoid the hassles that air travel can throw your way. So travel friends, trains and ferries await! Let’s go!
Trains and ferries offer a unique way to travel because so many of them are in convenient locations and often get you into city centers. Passengers often experience far Less wait time and far more comfort and reservations are easily made and can lend themselves to more relaxed travel plans.
Ferries that connect with ease.
With so many coastal countries, Europe has a great system of local and regional routes to make travel a breeze. From overnights that connect Italy and Greece to small hops that lace together places along great rivers like the Thames, Europe’s ferries do not disappoint. Here are some of our faves:
Ferries to and from many northern European destinations (2-4 hours)
Europe’s amazing web of train tracks provides efficient escapes and easy transfers for every kind of travel. There are very few places that trains can’t fill the request. If your plan is to move from city to city in a reasonable region, trains are a sure bet. Often, train trips can become part of the splendor that Europe is famous for. Zipping through countrysides or along winding rivers can make the trip as much of a highlight as anything else you’ve planned out. Some of our favorite routes include:
Swiss Glacier Express
Norwegian Fjord Loop
The Jacobite Train in the Highlands AKA Hogwarts Express
Chunnel from London to Paris
Thalys High Speed Trains with routes like Paris to Amsterdam
Train Stations that let you know that you’ve arrived!
Expect to be wowed by some of the amazing city center stations that dot the most visited cities. With gorgeous architecture, great shopping, charming entrances, and convenient locations, the great stations of Europe never disappoint. There are tons of little moments that await anyone who takes in the scene. You can picture the hustle and bustle of every day life mixed with all kinds of tourists and travelers, professionals, and even the local teenagers. Train stations provide a slice of present life with a heaping helping of grandiose past. Some of our highlights are:
Kings Cross and St. Pancreas in London
Gare Du Nord- (Gare Du Lyon just for the restaurant)
So, you’ve done it! You’ve made the commitment to travel to Europe and you want to make it a trip you will never forget! You want to do your best to plan and prepare for an epic adventure. Good for you! I am the biggest fan of people who travel! I love everything about it! So, how can you ensure that your booking is the ultimate trip? Read on to learn about the top travel mistakes that Americans make when crossing the pond.
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Be a tourist.
Look. There are two kinds of people who go to other places: the tourists and the travelers. It may seem like these two words describe the same thing. They don’t. A tourist is a person who only visits the top three places in the most popular guide book and then hurries off to the local Starbucks for a break. On the other hand, a traveler is a person who settles in to a new location with a zest for learning as much as he or she can. A traveler strives to understand and respect local cultures, customs, and traditions. They are often considered globally literate. Travelers are often in the middle of the action and not a side line spectator. Often, a traveler concerns themselves with doing everything except the things that they can do later at home.
Travelers, I find, are ironically more grateful and happier when they return from a trip as they appreciate what they missed just a little more. They come home with great memories and a spirit to enjoy their own backyard just as much as they enjoyed a trek through the Swiss Alps. Tourists come home tired and not satisfied with the experience they had and complain about uncomfortable moments that had them altering their own habits and expectations. Always, always be the traveler.
Be camera ready.
We all want pics from our trip. I get it. However, sometimes you need to take a break from searching out the perfect Insta-shot. Sometimes, you need to experience the moment. After all, you are in the presence of greatness. Masterful artists, jaw dropping history, awe inspiring architecture and, the vistas of your dreams. Feel all of these things first. Slip in your camera here and there but, please don’t make travel mistakes that have you only viewing your trip through your iPhone screen.
At the same time, don’t spend so much time getting picture perfect each morning that you miss out on time that could be spent exploring your destination. Be sure to have a quick style routine that gets you out the door fast. It’s your experiences that matter the most! You want to be up early to get to the markets or the harbor inlet to see the fishermen come in. Also, you want a chance to catch that morning sunrise on the great rivers of Europe. That sun that seems to always shine just perfectly on the great church domes and castle facades that dot Europe from north to south.
Read the fine print.
There is no greater way to understand a destination better than finding a connection to it. And, the only way to make those connections is to learn about where you plan to travel. There is a fragile balance between traveling by the seat of your pants and educating yourself. I find that having some sort of understanding, whether, historical, familial, linguistic, or culturally, makes travel so much more engaging. So, read, research, explore., become globally literate. Then, you have some frame of reference to use as you read plaques in museums, research which piazza has the best pizza, and explore hidden chapels and nooks in churches and castles. But, books aren’t the only source of connection.
Let me give you an example, I’ve had avoided France for quite some time. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go, it’s just that I wanted to find a better connection to my travel like I have with Italy or Ireland. Then, one Christmas, as I was sitting with my family, I learned about two uncles who had lost their lives in WWI. Read their story here!France, here I come! I’ve got a connection!
Connection isn’t only about person to person but can be found in all other kinds of ways. Do you love Impressionism? Head over to Giverny! Do you have an affinity for beer? Check out Belgium and Germany! Let your interests be your guide so that you dig a little deeper and enjoy a lot more. So, go on that trip! But, go as a well-read traveler instead of an under prepared tourist making yet another one of those travel mistakes.
Bring the whole house.
Instead, pack for your needs in a smart way. You do not need that hair dryer, umbrella, and full makeup bag. Pare down your suitcase by thinking of what you can share with your fellow travelers. Learning about capsule wardrobes gives you more choices and extends the pieces that you have chosen to bring with you. Check out this link to give you even more information on traveling light and right.
You may subscribe to the carry-on method of packing ensuring that you are well within the prescribed limits. Conversely, you may be like me and feel that checking your bag is a far easier process than first meets the eye. Either way, pack with the activities and experiences that you have in mind. The biggest travel mistakes that happen when packing are usually the “just in case” items. “Let me bring these shoes, just in case. I should pack that Pepto, just in case.” With very very few exceptions, all of your emergency needs are perhaps more easily available while you are in Europe. Simply look for the bright green plus sign for a pharmacy and, usually, very close to that is an all purpose department store for any of your other needs.
See the major sites
The Eiffel Tower? Check! Buckingham Palace? Check! The Acropolis? Yup! See them all! After all, they are icons for a reason! However, take a moment and understand that Europe offers more than just icons like Neuschwanstein Castle and El Prado. Europe is so much more. It’s the cafe’s on the squares, it’s the football games that locals watch in the local pubs. It’s the romance of daily shopping at the butcher, the baker, and the wine shop. Moreover, it’s people watching and the hustle and bustle of the main squares. It’s the quiet back alleys and the loud chefs in the back kitchens. Turn a corner and find a church that leads you to and underground excavation of past civilizations.
Europe is meant to be experienced! Stroll the markets and discover the nooks and crannies. Smaller sites, no matter where you travel, are often the source of greater memories than the Ivy League stops. In fact, it when you make a discovery, that you feel the most excitement. I was once asked by a church secretary if I wanted to go on a rooftop tour of a church in Rome. After walking up one of Bernini’s spiral staircases and learning about the life sized saints along the roof line, I was asked to peek into a window. It turns out that this particular church had a ceiling that was paved in New World gold leaf that was given to Queen Isabella by Columbus himself. Talk about an amazing moment! There I was face to face with a ceiling full of gold that was part of so much history. Wow!
All too often, travelers to Europe fear that they have only one chance to see as much as they can because they will never be able to return. Stop! You are falling for one of those travel mistakes! I solemnly promise you that if you travel smartly to Europe, you will become a travel addict and you will find all kinds of ways to get back! So, plan like you will return! Don’t take three weeks and expect to see 27 countries. You will be exhausted. Not to mention, I can’t imagine that you will remember much! So, slow down. Spend more than one night at each destination you choose.
Better yet, choose a region, like Normandy, or a country, like Poland, and keep to it. Europe is not going anywhere and it will welcome you again and again (and again). It can feel overwhelming to have so many choices to pick from but an experience in one place is worth far more than a marathon– unless you plan on going to Marathon in Greece. This easy dip into the pool of travel mistakes is simple to explain away. Try not to fall down that slippery slope.
Eat at McDonalds
Please. If you only walk away with one tip from me. Please. Do not eat at a restaurant that can be found in your backyard. Please. Instead, be a patron at mom and pop establishments. Restaurants where you find grandma in the back making the best the region has to offer. I like grandmas. They cook good and always know how to make a breaded chicken patty for every picky eater at your table.
While the food at locally run establishments is ALWAYS, infinitely better, the more important thing is that your one meal keeps the traditions and charm of where you are visiting alive. I mean, how important is that?! If we all get Starbucks in Barcelona, that’s the only choice we’ll have. Why bother going? I can get my grande-frappe-cup with fries on the side at home. If we want to preserve everything that makes Europe the charming, old world adventure that it is, we must be responsible and not fall victim to this most tragic of travel mistakes.
We all want to be as comfortable as we can when we travel. We want to be able to enjoy ourselves without any hassles. Let me pass a little tip your way. Euro hawkers, Euro pick pockets, and Euro scammers L-O-V-E Americans! Oh, yes! They love to find Americans and target them for whatever no good deed they are cooking up that day. You may wonder why. The reason is super simple. We are gadget crazy and stuff heavy as a society. No body on Earth packs more into their purses and pockets than Americans. If ne’er do wellers are data driven, Americans put the odds ever in their favor!
The best way not to be a target is to not show up looking like one. Traveling within public squares, museums, and pretty much everywhere else you plan to visit means leaving the Americanisms at home. You don’t need a huge purse, a baseball hat, or a lot of jewelry. In addition, try not to wear message tee’s or be a walking billboard for any particular brand. Simple and classic is the key to not getting a target painted on your back. And in the end, your pics will turn out better and your capsule wardrobe will be far easier to manage. Win-win-win. Crime and profiling in Europe are moments and crimes of opportunity. It’s up to you to not let it happen.
So very many people ask me about travel. And, I have to say, probably the most common question I get is “where should I go first?” I always answer with “the place you are hoping I will say!” More often than not, when prospective travelers really, truly think about it, they know what they want to do before they even ask. However, my inner traveler wants to scream “travel to Bruges!” Why? It’s very simple, Bruges is the perfect example of everything that travelers are looking for in Europe.
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If someone were to make a checklist for the beginning traveler, Bruges would encompass the entire thing. Looking for charming streets? Got it! Interested in regional cuisine? Yup! Obsessed with art and history? Bruges delivers! While there may be no royals in residence, there are even castles to stay in. It literally has a little sprinkling of every fairy tale aspect that we work to discover as we travel throughout Europe. Quite simply, it’s the perfect first steps into global literacy.
It smells like chocolate and waffles here.
Getting the lay of the land in Bruges is quite simple. The entire city center revolves around the main square with the bell tower. It’s an easy enough landmark that allows you to wander then simply walk back toward this tallest structure in town to meander your way back. While strolling along the cobble stoned streets is lovely, I suggest arranging for bicycles to really enjoy all that Bruges has to offer.
Probably the most telling sign that you are close to the city center though is the smell. And what a smell it is! It seems as if the entire town smells just like the two local favorites: waffles and chocolate! I love a city that literally comes with a daily reminder to dig in to the local food scene.
Is that music I hear?
Right in the middle of all of these quintessentially Belgian treasures, stands the town’s bell tower. Bruges’ bell tower hold a unique musical instrument called a carillon. Basically, a carillon allows a musician to “play” the tower’s bells like a piano. By striking the keys, the player rings a connected bell and adds to its tune. There are two ways to enjoy the concert of the carillon. The first is to enter the courtyard of the bell tower and listen at the posted times from benches provided. The second, and by far my favorite, is to find out when the bells will play and listen to the concert while enjoying a meal at one of the many restaurants that ring this lovely square.
And they got it back.
One of the most interesting and fascination objects in Bruges is Michaelangelo’s Virgin and Child. More famously know as the Bruges Madonna. Located in __ church, this was the only work the great master allowed to leave his beloved Italy during his lifetime. It’s certainly a masterpiece. However, much like the Mona Lisa, the Bruges Madonna, found itself far more famous after it was essentially kidnapped.
You may have seen the story of the Bruges Madonna in the great movie, Monuments Men. Basically, the Nazi’s were after all of the art they could get their hands on. That included the beautiful Madonna. Thanks to some brave military men, the masterpiece is right back where it belongs for all of us to enjoy. Find the Virgin and Child inside The Church of Our Lady. It happens to hold more art and history along with the sculpture. A Bruges must.
No, wait! That’s even prettier!
Sometimes the prerequisite boat tour of a town is far more underwhelming than it is helpful and charming. I can think of so many towns where a canal boat ride is such a waste of time. Bruges is not one of them. The medieval town has preserved its canal system and has taken it from industrial waterway to a dreamy movie set complete with weeping willows and majestic swans. Boat rides pick up at various points around the city center and are narrated in a few different languages. Have your camera ready! You need to be prepared because around every corner is yet another postcard perfect shot.
Deep in Bruges history…
Tucked into the corner of the Burg Square, The Basilica of The Holy Blood is a different kind of church experience. This dark and small Romanesque church is a refreshing change from the airy Gothic churches that dot Europe. With two chapels to explore and a connection to The Crusades, it’s well worth the stop.
Originally named St. Basil’s, the church was renamed due to its holy relic, a piece from the Crown of Thorns. Enjoy the tapestries, carvings, and well restored paintings that are found in both chapels.
A walk through history.
Back out on the main square is a very interesting attraction called the Historium. Here, you can immerse yourself back in time as you discover the history of a famous painting by local legend, Jan van Eyck. The audio guide takes you through room after room as the story unfolds and you learn more about Bruges and art.
I’m not normally a fan of these kinds of attractions but this one is worth it. It’s an interesting way to get kids to look at art as more than old stuff. Additionally, It gives a good overview to why Bruges was so important and why it seems to be stuck in time.
Blowing in the wind.
Much like its neighbor, The Netherlands, Belgium has long relied on the windmill to accomplish tasks in daily life. The best way to get out and see the 23 remaining windmills in Bruges is to get those bikes out. Start at the St. Janshuys Windmill to get a good understanding of the mechanics then enjoy the others that dot the town’s old moat.
There’s SO much more!
Travel to Bruges is filled with interesting moments around every single bend. From the lace making to the chocolate making, there is something for everyone. Eat fries and chocolate and waffles and mussels and… well you get the picture. There are plenty of good art museums as well as ruins to explore and Belgian beer to drink. Expect Bruges to please every finicky traveler on your manifest!