Europe is an icon of the travel world. With so many places to choose from and so many details to consider, any traveler can become overwhelmed! Fear not Euro-traveler! We are here to answer the most important questions! Let’s make your trip to Europe plan perfect. If you are just getting started, we highly recommend checking out our first Europe 101 post and podcast to get your basic plans started.
What can I do to make my trip to Europe better?
Hundreds of destinations and thousands of experiences await anyone traveling to Europe and the best advice we have is to go with your gut and create a balance of activities that you know you will truly enjoy. We love to share our ideas to help you decide if an icon or smaller experience is just right for you. With so many details to consider, here’s our list of starting line tips to make your plans work for you!
When considering booking an Airbnb, be sure to check out if the owner is local instead of a corporation that has a resident manager. It puts money back into the local economy. Ask your Airbnb if they have bikes or other equipment to use. Airbnb is also taking donations to help out Ukrainian refugees so, if you can, consider donating a night or two.
Driving a standard can be one of the biggest cost savers in Europe (or anywhere for that matter). The reality of rental car pricing means that more efficient cars like standards are cheaper to rent. Learn to drive the standard!!
Be mindful of Spring events surrounding Holy week. Many festivities and closures could put a damper on your best laid plans and create quite a hiccup. Conversely, seek them out! They are fun!
Be a responsible shopper and always buy local especially when you are looking for travel souvenirs. Check out where things have been manufactured and only reinvest money into the local economy. There’s no reason to make someone on the other side of the world money.
Look up and go down! Europe is full of so much! As you make your way through your trip, be sure to check out Europe’s fascination with ceilings. Then again, plan a few excursions to see what’s under your feet. Here are a few examples: in Rome, look up at all the church ceilings, in Edinburgh, check out the cool closes, in Paris explore the sewer museum, in Nuremberg learn the history of the WWII art bunkers, and in London, take a ride on the mail rail.
Are hop on hop off busses worth it?
Yes and no. Hop on, hop off busses are incredibly popular and there are a few cities where we think they are totally worth it. On the other hand, there are quite a few cities where they clog up the roads and make life miserable. We think that so many choices come down to whether or not there is a good reason to take the bus other than just ride around. Here are our picks and why:
Amsterdam: the canals are far better to get around
Munich: bikes or a bike taxi are a better choice
What are the best city passes in Europe?
It’s a decision we go back and forth on often. Is it worth buying the big city museum pass or should we skip it? Our rule of thumb is if you are staying for more than three days and you are attending at least three venues that are included in the pass, then there is a good chance that a museum pass is for you. We do, however, have some favorites:
Amsterdam City Pass: Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum are both included making it well worth the price.
What tickets do I need to get before going to Europe?
As much as we would all like to just hop on a plane and wing it, the truth is that some of the most popular venues sell out weeks and months in advance. Here are some of the most popular as well as some popular places that really don’t need pre-planning.
Ireland, the Wild Atlantic Way awaits and the public transport in this area is not that great. It’s time to drive on the other side of the road.
Bavaria, don’t get us wrong, German trains are super great. But, driving these back roads lets you stay on your own time schedule and, quite frankly, they are super fun to drive!
Tuscany, a car is certainly needed to explore this countryside. Use the great trains to get you close then pick up a rental near the train station.
Normandy, you can also pick up a rental at the Bayeaux train station and then explore the coastline on your own time. This means that you are not depending on public transport to get you to the most important sites.
Scottish Highlands, yes there are trains but like Ireland, Normandy, and Bavaria, a car will allow you to coast through the countryside at your own speed.
6 last tips about very specific places:
Lots of little tips can help you feel more comfortable as you travel. For example, using “international” words like photo and toilet can be far more productive than saying picture or restroom (isn’t that a room where you rest?!). Here are some more little gems that might apply to your next European adventure:
Bullfights in the Azores do not kill the bulls! It’s an ethical way to experience this culture.
Northern Switzerland is modern Europe at it’s most efficient. It’s a bit like the highways in New England. Sometimes picturesque and sometimes full of commercial buildings. All of the cities that we discuss today are all about an hour to hour and a half from each other by train.
Basel is an art centric river port where so many of the river cruises start or end their voyages. With a few sites to see, Basal is a one and done kind of town. Walking through the busy downtown makes this working city a cement jungle. Much of the old world charm and creative art lies just under the surface past the utilitarian feel. Use it for its transportation hub.
Look for Basel to host the best festivals and have some of the best outdoor art.
Take a walk around the historic area for the few old world gems including the town hall.
Maybe stop at one of the many cosmopolitan stores and grab lunch from the deli. My favorite part was sitting by the fountain below.
Above all know where the train station is to catch your train to the next destination.
Zurich Modern Switzerland: Lots of buildings and perhaps missing a little bit of the charm that’s plastered all over Instagram. While the lakeside definitely is pleasing to the eye, the downtown and cement laden suburbs are built for swiss efficiency and modern living. That said, as always, the local people are so very nice and it makes the experience beyond worth it. Use it as a layover city.
Enjoy a walk through the downtown lakefront while you wait for your plane.
The food is great and the ever efficient swiss train system will speed you right to the airport.
Lucerne is simply lakefront perfection, This gateway to the south of Switzerland does not disappoint. the entire lakefront and riverside areas as well as the surrounding countryside. Use it for a perfect day trip.
Use the Rick Steves’ walking tour to enjoy a lap around the historic old city center including the iconic bridges.
Enjoy a cruise on the lake whether by taking a charter or using your own power on a pedal boat.
Have your camera ready!
By far, Bern which is full of bears and boasts the unbelievably beautiful Aare river is a capitol well worth the time. The picturesque streets that begin at the main train station and continue all the way to the river views are full of interesting sites and wonderful shops. Bern is the perfect gateway to the south where some of the more famous vistas can be seen. Make it a home base for many of your day trips by train.
Check in with the Bern bear!
Enjoy the riverside square perched above the river just behind the cathedral. Then, get a book at the tiny library or take on a local with a game of Patong.
The Swiss train system is one of the best in the world and well worth the time it takes to arrange a pass. Using the train system is very easy. Simply check the multilingual boards, find your track and hop on. Late trains are a rare bird so connections are sometimes close but totally doable.
Driving in Northern Switzerland is a breeze. Modern roads and highways make this an enjoyable road trip country. Southern Switzerland is full of mountains covered in windy switchbacks. If that stresses you out, use the train and enjoy the view.
Oh, Krakow! You are one of the most under rated European destinations! How I love thee! My love story with Poland began when I was given Polish food as a child from my Polish family. It was very good and I happily ate all the pierogi while Happy Louie and his Polish Band played the Pennsylvania Polka to a frenzied mass of polka crazed people. Don’t believe me? Check out Jack Black’s amazing role the The Polka King!
Listen in to our conversation about Krakow on our podcast! Babcia and Yia Yia Travel The World is a great way to get all kinds of travel tips. Click here to listen to this episode and more!
Over the years, my Americanized, immigrant version of Poland expanded to understand the pride and heartbreak of a people who had been torn limb from limb time and time again. From the Vasas to the Nazis, it seemed everyone wanted a piece of the breadbasket of Europe and really didn’t care about the people who were already there.
But just as the popular analogy tells us, like a phoenix, Poland rises from the ashes, dusts herself off, and bounces back better than ever. So, what makes Poland a traveler’s paradise? It has a little of everything, beaches and mountains, cities and rural countryside, museums and jazz clubs, castles and cooking classes. It is Europe’s best kept secret and I am about to tell you all about it!
Getting to your feet on the ground is pretty straight forward. Most touch down in Warsaw or Krakow and branch out from there. Poland is super welcoming.
Public Trains: While Polish trains work with the Eurail pass, they stand on their own. As with most train systems in Europe, they work very well and can get you to any city center efficiently. Trains are a definite plus when getting from city to city. Start here to explore all of your rail options.
Polish Uber: Uber is recently available in Poland mush to the dismay of traditional polish taxi drivers (who are very honest and sweet). One tap will get you from the airport to the main square for about $15.00.
Walking: All in all, the majority of destinations you plan on enjoying are well worth the walk. Consider your two feet or a couple of bicycles to be your best bet.
The Three Sisters
Just a bit smaller than Texas, Poland is one of the largest countries on the continent and, as with most things, balances it’s size well. It’s dotted with three large cities from north to south along the great Vistula River. Gdansk is on the northern coast and is ground zero for the solidarity movement and Poland’s immigration story. Warsaw, the capital, is right in the middle, is home to the uprising story of WWII, Marie Curie, and Poland’s great palace. Further south is Krakow. In some ways, Krakow is the cradle of Poland’s history with its stunning Wawel Castle. Krakow is filled with Polish culture and history.
Understanding The Basics…
Eye contact: You know how you grab a waiter’s eye in a restaurant? A quick flick of the hand or a knowing look between the two of you. While this is a completely acceptable method of getting the service you are looking for, in some parts of Poland, this will get you the cold shoulder. Why? It looks pushy and makes the waitstaff feel like you don’t think they are doing a good job. In short, it comes across as rude. If you are in a bit of a rush, simply let your server know that you’ll need to leave with an hour or so. They will happily accommodate you. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy the five star service!
Lively Churches: Poland is full of amazing churches, The history and architecture are a meld of national pride and overwhelming invaders making for an array of different styles and focuses. While all of these institutions are well worth the visit, be prepared that Mass will be held often as every one of these treasures is still an active parish. If it is, you have two choices: quietly skirt the sides and stay in the shadows as others worship or grab a pew and say a little prayer with everyone else. Either is just fine.
Street Performers: Krakow is full of amazing street performers. The main square has strolling folk music, kids that are breakdancing their heart out, student musicians and more. Summer concerts and performances are plentiful and well worth your time. Enjoy!
What To Do
Food Toursand Cooking Classes: Krakow is a food mecca! Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the next section for a sampler. It is totally worth checking in with a great local guide to get a true feel for all of the yummy choices that are yours for the taking. There’s great street food, communist Milk Bars, fabulous fusion and classic polish cuisine all within the old town. Add to that the fabulous Jewish district of Kazimierez and Krakow become hard to pass up for any true foodie.
Royal Mile: Krakow’s stunning main square sits in the middle of the old town’s Royal Way. Along this route are plenty of churches, museums, shops, art galleries, and restaurants all winding their way up to the crawn jewel, Wawel Hill.
Can’t Miss: Check our the DaVinci masterpiece Lady With Ermine at the newly refurbished Czartoryski Museum. The painting, which is a contemporary of Mona Lisa, is an incredible example of Davinci’s talent. The further story of theft and reclamation prove to be quite fascinating as well.
Royal Beginnings: At the end of the Royal Mile sits gorgeous Wawel Castle. The complex can take a full day to explore with numerous museums and the main cathedral. The cathedral holds the tomb of Poland’s most famous king: Kazimierez, a tribute to Chopin, and the bell tower is fun to climb and get a serious view of the city and it’s lifeline, the Vistula River. Be sure to seek out one of the seven chakras on Earth. The staff may not love it but it’s fun! Also, get down to the river bank and find Smok the fire breathing dragon.
Klezmer and Kazimierez: About a ten minute ride away from the old town (which is surrounded by the Planty park) is the old Jewish neighborhood of Kazimierez. Here on the square, you’ll find synagogues, mini museums, and restaurants that often have live traditional music called Klezmer music. You often hear this style with a heavy clarinet sound. From here, walk over the Bernatek footbridge and toward the old Jewish ghetto where you will find Schindler’s factory and the Eagle Over The Door Pharmacy.
The Main Square: Dominated by St. Mary’s Basilica (check out that blue ceiling and unbelievable alter piece), Krakow’s main square has quite few treasures to explore. Start at the cloth hall in the center. Go up for a lovely art museum, go down for an underground museum on the archeology of the city. Shop at ground level for all of those polish faves, and go out on the balcony for a lovely drink looking over the hustle and bustle of the square. Use the square as a jumping off point to explore the old town streets full of churches, shops, small museums and plenty of landmarks that relate to St. Pope John Paul II.
Taking on Polish cuisine…
Pierogi: Every culture has a filled dumpling and the Poles are no different! Pierogi (yes, that’s the plural) can be filled with sweet or savory choices. Order them all. Eat them all. You won’t regret it.
Zurek: A “sour” soup served in a bread bowl may sound like a great Winter treat (and it is) but don’t discount this wholesome soup in the Summer. It’s all good!
Zapiekanki: This is basically Polish french-bread pizza. and it’s great! Perfect for a grab and go lunch to eat in the Planty or at the riverside park under the castle.
Lody: Poles love their Summer ice cream! And it is good! Plan on enjoying ice cream as the city wakes up for its evening stroll.
Steak tartare: Slavic sushi. Tartare is high quality minced beef served with several seasonings and usually topped with a raw egg. Don’t be so fast to pass on this regional delicacy, consider it the escargot of Poland!
Exploring Second Cities…
Part of the charm of Poland are all of the individual towns that polka dot the landscape. Each little community has a little city center usually with a train station and plenty to keep you interested. Some of the top contenders are…
Poznan: Close to the German border, this tidy town has an interesting history and continues to enchant with its old town and educate with its Jewish quarter tour. It is also a great jumping off point for those who want to visit the Boleslawiec Polish Pottery factory or the Church of Peace: both are great stops if you have the time.
Wroclaw: This work-a-day college town might not seem like much to begin with but dig a little deeper and you’ll find an enchanting town ready to welcome visitors. Check out the over 300 little statues all over town that give personality to the wheres and whens you will encounter. Try out the food tours and enjoy all of the yummy treats followed by a shot of cherry vodka.
Torun: Smell the gingerbread in Copernicus’ hometown and wander the streets of this charming little college town. Torun is a great half way mark between Warsaw and Gdansk. Whther you are taking the train and spend the afternoon or you choose to spend the night, count Torun in and you won’t regret it!
Day Tripping From Krakow…
As you expand your horizons from greater Krakow, there are a couple of amazing spots to consider. Every popular guidebook will give you the 411 on the details for these particular places. These were among the family favorites.
Wadowice The birthplace of St. Pope John Paul II is the perfect day trip. Explore his home, parish church and charming square then visit Kalwaria Zebrzydowska monastery where he dedicated his life to the church.
WieliczkaSalt Mine Descend deep into this UNESCO heritage site for an experience like no other. Part art installation, part medieval history, this unexpected marvel of engineering tells the story of how miners of salt became prolific artists that celebrated the triumphs of their lives where they spent the majority of their time. A perfect morning trip from the city center.
Auschwitz Birkenau What can I say? The infamous moment in Polish existence is the Nazi invasion of September 1939. It is, by far, the saddest chapter of the Poles. The role that Auschwitz played in this atrocity can not be over stated and visiting will be quite emotional. But visit you must. I truly think that it is our duty as travelers to understand these moments in history so that we can better understand the times we live in now. You are already here. How could you not go?
The Great Outdoors
Poland offers plenty of other amazing opportunities away from the city center. Some of our favorites are:
Zakopane Just south of the Krakow region lie the Tatras mountains. Bordering both Poland and the Czech republic, it provides an amazing mountain escape from the “big city”. Central to that escape is the hamlet of Zakopane. This little resort town is a joy to visit with its apres-ski vibe.
Masuria Well overlooked, the lakes region to the north and east has long been a vacation stronghold for the polish people. With plenty of water fun, there’s tons to keep you interested in this lovely part of the country.
Sopot From the mountains and lakes to the beach! Sopot sits just beside beautiful Gdansk and is a Summer playground for locals and visitors alike. Check out the long pier and the fabulous restaurants as well as the local amber vendors that sell their beachcombing treasures.
The Ultimate Two Week Starter Kit:
Alrighty, you are ready to plan! Check out our handy dandy checklist to start customizing your own itinerary for the trip of a lifetime! Don’t forget to listen to our podcast with all of this information and more to make your trip to Krakow unforgettable.
Fly in to Warsaw
Take the train to Krakow
Day trip to Auschwitz
Take a day trip to Wieliczka Salt Mine
Day trip to Wadowice or Czechehowa
Overnight in Zakopane
Finish in Krakow
Fly out of Krakow
One Pot Kielbasa
This one pot kielbasa recipe is a family favorite and is a simpler take on the classic dish that is served in Poland. While people often add other ingredients like mushrooms or root vegetables, this dish pares it all down to a simple flavor profile. With only 4 ingredients and 1 pot, this is an easy way to put dinner on the table!
1 jar sauerkraut
1 14 oz can applesauce
3-4 rings of kielbasa
1 bag of potatoes
Chop the potatoes into inch to inch and a half sized cubes and add them to a large pot. Add sauerkraut including the juice and the applesauce. Put the pot on high while you cut the kielbasa into pieces. From ¼ inch coins to bigger chunks, the size is up to you. Add to pot and cover. Stir every 5 minutes or so making sure to pull from the bottom for even cooking. Cook for about 40 minutes or until your potatoes are just the way you like them.
Kielbasa Recipe Comfort!
I’ve been making this dish for more than 25 years. If you ask my kids for some comfort food, this is super high on their list. This one pot meal is perfect for a cold, rainy day. Scoop a steaming spoonful into a big bowl, grab a blanket and curl up for a good movie.
Polish food is all about nourishing the stomach while nourishing the soul. Cold winters needed to be fortified and the Polish figured it out- fast! This dish is cousins with the much more famous hunter’s stew called Bigos. While this is super simple, Bigos takes quite a few more ingredients and triple the time. But make no mistake! Whether you choose to go simple or go big with Bigos, it’s all delicious!