Europe is not North America. We’re stating the obvious here, but I’ve realized over the years that North Americans traveling to Europe for the first time (or even on repeat visits) travel the same way they would back home. If you’re looking to get off the beaten path and experience something different, then this is a huge mistake. We’re going to fix that with these tips on the best way to travel Europe.
Two things immediately come to mind that greatly separate the respective continents. First, the visible, concrete history. This is why most of us travel to Europe in the first place. Second, the public transport. No matter how much many tears of frustration my European friends have shed about the train being a couple minutes late (boo-freaking-hoo), the fact is most of us around the world do not have access to such phenomenal connectivity. Travel is, regrettably so, often reserved for people with money and a car. Not so in Europe.
Besides transport, we’re going to go through other cultural faux pas to make sure you get the most out of your European vacation.
First and foremost, you do not need a car in Europe. Do not rent a car. Rail is king in Europe.
I know what you’re thinking. “Yeah, but what about…” NO. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met people — people who even live in Europe — who would insist you need a car to cover a certain region, but public transit was, indeed, readily available. Wouldn’t you rather be able to look out the window and enjoy the scenery rather than curse in frustration as the GPS tries to navigate you against a one-way street, passing street signs in a language you don’t speak?
Most major cities in Europe these days have their own public transport app that you can use for local public transportation. Just look it up on the ole Google box and your respective app store. They work just like Google Maps.
Of course, some places don’t have their local transport system on the App Store quite yet. In that case, I’d recommend using a combo of Google Maps and Rome2Rio. Rome2Rio lacks the intuitiveness of Google Maps, but I’ve found that it often has better public transport information in smaller towns of Europe. So when you look up transit directions on Google Maps and see nothing come up or some ridiculous 12-hour option, don’t panic. See what Rome2Rio has to say first.
Also, have a look at both Eurail and Rail Europe. If you’re traveling by high-speed train with a large group, tickets can be pricey if you leave purchasing your ticket to the last minute. Shop around before your trip to see what offers might make sense for you. There are options in Germany and Switzerland, for instance, where you can travel public across the country’s entire public transportation network by purchasing a pass in advance.
Quick recap: Don’t rent a car, hop on the train. It’s the best way to travel Europe long-distance.
Bike Sharing App
Bike sharing is the cool thing to have in cities these days and for good reason. They’re incredibly useful for both locals and travelers in the middle of a European vacation. Even in Warsaw, where winters can be absolutely brutal, you’ll find one of the most intuitive bike sharing systems I’ve ever come across.
I often make the mistake myself of not downloading the local bike sharing app in advance and it’s something I’m constantly trying to make a habit of mine. Because I’ll admit, like transit systems, there isn’t a universal type of bike share or rental system. So rather than stand around, trying to figure out what’s written behind the finger-smudged computer screen, I’d recommend being prepared by downloading the bike sharing app in advance. After all, cycling is the best way to travel Europe over short distances. (And long distances, too, if you’ve got the legs for it.)
Skip The Hotel Breakfast
I’ve come to enjoy the European hotel breakfast of bread, jam, cheese, and cuts of meat, but they’re all virtually the same everywhere you go. Perhaps if you’re staying in a luxury hotel, you’ll get something unique and local to the region. Otherwise, there’s not much variety. Instead, save those euros and go someplace local. Better yet, if you can manage to be an early riser, just grab something at a bakery, because coffee shops that would serve something more substantial (and anything other than coffee out of a machine) don’t open until around 10 or 11 a.m. in Europe.
But trust me on this. Skip the hotel breakfast, because you’ll want to get moving early when you’re traveling in Europe. Why? Read on.
When To See Europe Tourist Attractions
When should you head out to see some Europe tourist attractions? First thing in the morning. Historically, mass tourism traces its roots back to Europe. The Brits, for example, brought the Swiss rail lines to Switzerland that we know and love today essentially to fuel their travel agency industry.
The world has since taken notice with travel agencies from India to China offering tourist packages that shuttle travelers around by bus from one tourist attraction to the next. While I’m all for off the beaten path travel, even I can admit that there are certain sights you just have to see when you’re already in town. (Not the Eiffel Tower, but definitely Charles Bridge.)
But the bad news is that these sights are typically flooded with tourists by noon. I remember passing by Charles Bridge around midday and the poor old bridge was wall-to-wall full of tourists snapping photos and posing for their Instagram glam shot. Solution? Go first thing in the morning.
The next day, I got to Charles Bridge by 8 a.m. and it was a completely different sight. Sure, there were some stars of Instagram getting their shots with the morning light, but on the whole, it was an infinitely more pleasurable experience. So when you’re planning your schedule of when to see those famous Europe tourist attractions, plan to go first thing in the morning.
Wake Up Europe
Now that you’ve seen the main tourist sights in the morning, you probably need a bit of a caffeinated jolt. That means it’s probably around 10 or 11 a.m. when the coffee shops and breakfast cafes start opening. Use Yelp, Google Maps, or research local travel blogs beforehand, and head to a highly-rated cafe for a bit of a European wake-up and snack.
Spend this time casually planning your next meals. I know, I know. Where’s the spontaneity in that? Contrary to the popular romanticism behind spontaneity, waiting until the last minute is not the best way to travel Europe. People make reservations here, especially for weekend brunch and dinner throughout the week. If you just stroll into a restaurant at around 7 p.m. looking for a table, you risk getting the evil eye and sent home hungry. Again, this is doubly true on the weekends.
Where to Eat in Europe
Not every restaurant in Europe is top-notch. Even in Paris, standards declined (and are currently rebounding) after restaurants relied too heavily on the city’s reputation as culinary king.
First of all, do not eat at the restaurants with waiters hollering at you to come in or with large, cartoonish-looking menus out front that look longer than Les Misérables. It’s worth repeating that spontaneity is not the greatest option when trying to figure out where to in Europe.
Use that time in the coffee shop to look up local recommendations or perhaps even do a little research before your trip. They’re out there and relatively easy to find. Yeah, there’s no beating that time you stumbled into a restaurant without a clue and it ended up being one of the best meals of your life, but that’s like counting on finding the love of your life at a club during closing time. It can happen, but not likely.
Midday is the best time to go neighborhood hopping, because that’s when all the locals are out and other tourists are busy sweating it out at the sights. This is where research beforehand again comes into play, but don’t be shy about asking hotel staff (or your AirBnB host) where to go to travel like a local. Even in super touristy Los Cristianos in Tenerife Sur, I was able to find a local restaurant favorite by speaking with the hotel staff. You might also find that locals are capitalizing on this trend to get off the beaten path and find local favorites by creating their own guidebooks, like in Prague.
Another option to find the neighborhoods is look on Google Maps for those orange-tinted areas that usually mean “pedestrian plaza” or ask the local tourist bureau. I know there’s this odd tinge against speaking with the tourism bureau, but who the hell do you think works there? Locals! And they’re well aware that not everyone sees getting on a hop on hop off bus as the best way to travel Europe.
Bars In Europe
Thirsty? Now is the time to get spontaneous. Bars in Europe don’t follow the same rules as restaurants. Plus you usually don’t have to worry about the quality (unless, of course, you’re searching for a cocktail bar). The wine or beer from a bottle will taste the same wherever you go.
That said, I have a preference for finding craft beer in European cities and drinking locally whenever possible. Luckily these days, craft beer is becoming just as prevalent in Europe as in North America, so you should have no problem searching for a “craft beer bar” on Google or Google Maps and finding something excellent.
So have a few drinks, enjoy yourself, and before you know it it’ll be time for that dinner reservation you made earlier.
How’d I do? Did I miss something? Have your own tip? Let me know in the comments.