Europe 101: A First Time Guide

Ahhh! Europe! For so many travelers, the very first stamps we get in our passports are from one of the 50 countries that call Europe home. Each country holds so many opportunities to explore and learn and simply enjoy. But where does a traveler start? With 50 places to choose from, the very thought of committing to a trip can be overwhelming to say the least. Let’s dig in to a Europe 101!

white red and green map

In fact, before choosing that starting point, there are so many things to think about. Car rentals, lodgings, museums to visit, oh my! Have no fear! We are here to help! We’ve come up with a great list of tips and advice to get you started on the right foot, no matter what Euro destination you choose. So, here is our rundown of the best we’ve got on crossing the pond!

Timing is everything.

The European calendar is more than just the seasons. So, choosing the right time to go is a bit more complex than it seems. For example, Summer is the high season, are you up for the heat and the crowds? April and October are considered the modern shoulder season. The nights may be a bit chilly but the lines will be almost non-existent. Do your interests lie in seeing the markets of the Christmas season? Are you prepared for the paring down of the 40 days of Lent? Will there be a festival season in your destination? and, if so, could you shift your stay to coincide or avoid it? Do you wan to participate in the high cultural season in winter? Knowing the calendar can truly make or break your trip.

people walking on brown wooden stairs

In Edinburgh, for example, every August brings the world famous Royal Military Tattoo. Last time I was there, I didn’t pay attention to the dates and had to leave the day before it started! I should have paid attention better so that I could have seen it. My daughter, on the other hand, was relieved to have missed the influx of people. You see, timing is everything!

Slumber Party!

Options for lodging in Europe very widely. So many options can feel overwhelming but There are a few good bits of information that allow for good choices.

  • City center hotels can be a bit more pricey however, they allow for convenience and in the right city centers, can negate the need for transportation. I’m a fan.
  • Air B and B’s are a great value in Europe. The only downfall to these is not knowing exactly where they are. I use this option when I know the area just a bit better or on personal recommendation.
  • Self contained resorts are not my cup of tea while in Europe. I leave those for lovely Caribbean island. Enough said.
  • There are quite a few other choices to consider including hostels, hiking chalets, lodgings offered by abbeys and convents (check out this book for a guide to those.)

gray table lamp beside white bed pillow

Back To School!

One of the most important things that you to get the most out of your trip is to know about your destination. You’ve chosen a logistics strategy to plan and you know when you are going. So now it’s time to read up on all the cool things you can do and see as well as getting a hold on the history of the area- because it matters!

I mean could you imagine going to Northern France and not knowing D-day? How about touring Rome and not knowing who Michaelangelo is? Yes, you’ll enjoy but not nearly as much as you will with a head full of understanding.

So, break out those guidebooks, crack open those historical accounts, google those blogs and track down the best of the best for you. Check out lists of restaurants, attractions, museums, experiences. Get your head wrapped around the art and architecture. Know who the invaders were and be sure to know how the world wars affected the region. Some were devastated, others were barely touched.

Having a hold on this kind of information can do two things for you. First, it allows you to process information before you get there so you can relate to it better when you arrive. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it gives you talking points to discuss with locals who will be impressed that you have the basics down. Win-win.

Artistic Flair

Art and architecture are such a basic identity of Europe that not knowing about it will leave you at a loss. Don’t get me wrong, Europe has more varied art than I can name. From Dickensian villages in England to classic columns in Athens, Europe doesn’t disappoint. Going to France? Look into impressionism. Headed to Sicily? Understanding Byzantine art is a good start. Prague on your list? Art Nouveau is a must.

Art can be boring or exciting. It can tax you or inspire you. If you make a connection to art, it won’t let you down.

I get around.

If you’ve been stateside for a while, you may use your car without a second thought. Europe doesn’t always use a car as their primary mode of transportation. The continent is jam packed with different transportation options that will get you from one place to another rather efficiently.

approaching red train across mountains

  • Coming in first place has to be the train system. Long distance, commuters, overnight hauls, even the fabled Orient Express await you. Trains or clean and comfortable and well worth the cost. In fact, I find that often a train will get me somewhere faster than a flight. Two places where train aren’t at the top of their game are Greece and Ireland. They are there, just limited.
  • Ferries are a great option and can be quite an enjoyable experience to get you from point A to point B. They can become part of the experience instead of the transportation pause air travel requires.
  • Car rentals can be a great way to see the countryside while Uber services can help in urban centers. Although, I often ask my Air B and B host to add a bike in my lodging price so I can ride around in the morning and take in the start of a new day. Just brilliant.

The Friendly Skies

As you arrange your transportation options, consider flying in to one city to start your adventure and returning home through another city to get back home. This “open jaws” plan economizes your time by not doubling back.

Additionally, consider extended layovers that will give you a few extra hours in a dynamic city like Istanbul or Copenhagen. Extending your trip in this manner doesn’t cost too much and gives you a bit of a stretch during your travels if nothing else.

Safety, Sweetie

Probably the number one question I get about traveling is “how safe is it to be out and about?” The simple answer is quite safe! Don’t get me wrong, there are issues that happen all over the world that are tragic and sad. But, for the majority of travelers, things go swimmingly well. There are a few things that set you up for success:

  • Use a purse that is pick pocket proof. That means leave the brand names at home and make sure it closes well and is easy to carry closely. You don’t have to clutch your bag in panic but be aware. Pick pockets represent the number one crime against travelers world wide.
  • Don’t get scammed online. I keep my phone on airplane mode for my entire trip. It is very easy to use public wifi as I go along. By doing this, I don’t have to spend money on an international sim card or contract plan. I do, however, use a VPN mask like Tunnel Bear to ensure that wireless thieves can’t gain access to my passwords and credit cards.
  • Don’t stand out. Look, I’m all for individuality and fashion choices. I just don’t think that travel is where it has to be a priority. Many European friends tell me that they can spot an American in a crowd very easily. As a collective, we either dress to flashy or sloppily. Men who wear baseball hats are obvious and women with crazy nails are a no brainer. Take a moment and think about those pick pockets. If my friends can spot you, so can they.

a group of four suitcases sitting on top of a rug

  • Additionally, things like statement tees (especially offensive ones) are frowned upon. This isn’t a judgement thing, it’s simply a safety thing. Take this statement “we love when Americans visit! They spend so much money!” Remember those pick pockets.
  • Lastly, the number one cause of death for tourists is car accident. Predictable. The number two? Accidental falls and drownings. In other words… death by selfie.

Balance Is Best!

Okay, you’ve arranged your flights and accommodations. You’ve read up on your trip. You have committed to not taking selfies on cliffs. It’s time for all of the fun stuff! As you choose from the hundreds of galleries, castles, museums, wineries, cooking lessons, kayaking adventures and hikes (just to name a few) consider an ebb and flow approach to your days abroad.

Jet lag and constant running will take a toll on you regardless of all of the tricks you use. Consider scheduling a down day mid way through your trip to rejuvenate and relax. A day at the beach or by the pool. Perhaps a little river cruise where you can sit and watch the landscape go by.

This ebb and flow also applies to the activities you choose. Be sure to strike a balance between the hidden gems you find and the icons that are on your bucket list. For example, check out the Eiffel Tower but perhaps skip Big Ben in favor of a ghost tour that has plenty of delightful twists and turns.

brown wooden lounge chairs near body of water during daytime

Variety is the spice of travel!

Speaking of what to do, there are plenty of options that take you out of the Grand Tour box. Check out walking tours focused on food or architecture. There’s one about Harry Potter and another about the catacombs of Paris. Walking tours provide endless opportunities to learn about your host country. They also tend to employ locals, a bonus.

Another travel opportunity is the hop-on hop-off bus system. At first glance, I’m not a big fan. There are too many cities where these behemoths clog up the roadways and only lead to tacky locations. However, every once in a while, the option is a gem. For example, touring the monuments of Paris at night or using the pass to get out to the Britannia in Edinburgh. The best advice? Research to ensure you are getting more out of the pass than just the ride.

Traveler Beware

Overtourism is a difficult problem in any economy. Countries are always trying to strike the right balance between local culture and Starbucks. Three cities suffer more than the others:

  • Venice– the lure of the Grand Canal and romantic gondolas whips travelers in a fury to see the charming city. However, between cruise ships and tour groups, Venice is trampled day after day in the high season. I suggest leaving this romantic dream for the shoulder season when the Aqua Alta is not an issue.
  • Amsterdam– like Venice, the canals of the Dutch gem are jam packed full of visitors who are trying to see absolutely everything. Be kind to Amsterdam and take her in during the off season.
  • Barcelona– hometown hero Gaudi attracts so very many visitors with his unique architecture backed up with an amazing atmosphere. With its great weather, try to visit during the off season to enjoy a little more.

a crowd of people standing on top of a bridge

Square One

So where does that leave you? Where is the best place for you to start? With so many places to choose from where is the best spot for a first time visitor going to begin? I have three ideas that I think will be just the ticket!

  • Bruges– Step back in time to a medieval fairytale of a town that literally smells like chocolate and waffles. Bruges is the perfect size to enjoy every nook and cranny. As a bonus, Bruges seems to have just a little connection to everywhere else. From art to history, Bruges has a charm that can’t be denied.
  • Ireland– So many people claim Irish ancestry and if you don’t, no worries! The Irish will treat you like the old friends you already are. A tour of the high sites is totally manageable yet simply enjoying the towns and villages is just as enjoyable.
  • Bayeux– The epic history that played out here on Normandy’s shores changed Europe forever. Exploring this story can be life changing and leave you with an appreciation for how the war affected the rest of Europe as well. In addition to the military minded past be sure to take in the amazing home of impressionism.

white wooden fence near green trees during daytime