Travel dreaming is what keeps a certain amount of us going. This is a big and beautiful world, after all, and we have such a short amount of time on it to try and see its diversity. So how do you choose where to go in Europe? I’ve been to Europe a few times, maybe I can help.
In my previous post, I broke the choices down by month. If you aren’t sure about when to go, you should probably start there. I am asked so often about when to go and where to go, so that is the next piece. Everyone is different and it’s fairly impossible to make a choice for you. Even picking something for my friends is a tough call. I’ve come up with some generic scenarios, which come from the common questions I am asked about where to go in Europe.
This is thoroughly biased information. I have a particular point of view, but I’m also heavily guided by my employer and by my clients opinions and from my years on the road. Even if you’re not planning something for this year, let’s do some travel dreaming. It’s good for the soul.
I’ve never been to Europe. Where should I go first?
There are two strategies for this one. If you can only go one place and have limited time, go to London. Go while it’s still part of Europe! I suggest London because it’s easy and affordable these days. There is no language barrier. You’ve heard about the city, even if just in “Mary Poppins”. There is plenty to see and do for every person, much of it is free or cheap. It is all laid out for a newbie to figure out easily. From the professional point of view, the London Tourism Board is one of the most organized that I’ve ever seen. And, come on, admit it, you are kind of fascinated by the Queen, no? If you’re American, even if you’re not interested in the royals, it is interesting to see where our origins as a nation come from. London is simply a slam dunk.
Your other approach is to do the sampler platter. If you have two weeks or more, it is possible to go to several places. A nice taste might be 2-3 days in each London, Paris, Rome and a few days in smaller places, depending on your interests. If I were to pick only two big cities for a beginner, I’d pick London and Rome, connect them with flights and do easy day trips.
A tour would be smart for a newbie, especially if you want to cover as much ground as is humanly possible. I do the 14 day Best of Europe tour for Rick Steves, and let me tell you, you cannot possibly see more in two weeks than we do.
I’m taking my kids for the first time, what’s the best destination for kids?
The best destination for kids, hands down, is Britain. There is, again, no language barrier which makes an easy transition for kids. There is no place in Europe that has embraced family travel quite like Britain. Every museum has a kids itinerary or activity packet available. There are discounts for kids and families at every turn. For example, kids ride the London Tube for free. Hotels are set up for families as well. Big chains like Premier Inn have family deals and plenty of beds.
The sights really make Britain the place to take a family. Castles, gardens, wartime sights, Harry Potter, farms, Romans, seashore, countryside, Jane Austen, King Arthur, tea time….and on and on. There is literally something for everyone, even the most skeptical traveler. Many sights have events and historical reenactments which kids and their grown-ups both enjoy. I particularly enjoy the castles, like Hampton Court, that have actors wandering the castle playing the former inhabitants. I took both of my sons to Britain and will take them again. (And again and again….)
I’m on my honeymoon, what is a good combo of romance, relaxation and history?
I’d send any newlywed couple to the beach. Spain, Italy or Greece. I personally chose Spain. In any of those countries, you can spend a day in a city with art and history, then a couple of days at the beach or in a romantic countryside resort. Touring the Acropolis in the morning and sitting on a sandy beach eating souvlaki in the evening? Perfect.
I’m into military history of the two World Wars. Where should I begin?
You should go to England, France and Berlin. In England, you can visit the Cabinet War Rooms where Churchill ran the war. The Imperial War Museum is a treat for military historians, which covers all wars and has incredible resources. One of my favorite wartime sights is Dover Castle. It has a castle, mazes of tunnels, a military hospital and an outstanding view.
In France, visit the Beaches of Normandy and Oradour-sur-Glane. You’ve heard of the beaches, but maybe not Oradour. In this village, all of the inhabitants were massacred by the Nazis and the village partially destroyed. The French government rebuilt the village elsewhere and left Oradour exactly as it was, a spooky ghost town that speaks more to the horror of the war than anything else I’ve seen.
In Germany, Berlin is interesting for what you don’t see. There is no bunker to visit. Most of the major buildings from that era have been destroyed. I find it interesting in the way that it has carried on and evolved. I’d suggest taking a walking tour to understand the complexity of Berlin. Nearby, you can visit a concentration camp at Sachsenhausen. Concentration camps are a difficult visit, but everyone should go at least once.
I’m interested in art, what’s the best place to see great art?
Why, that’s an easy one! Italy! The greatest masterpieces of world art are here, by some estimations about 75% of world art. If you have only a few days, Florence and Rome are your top choices with the Uffizi and Vatican museums. Italy is full to the gills with art, even villages have priceless masterpieces hiding in humble churches.
Paris would be my second stop, especially for fans of 19th century art like the Impressionists. The Louvre alone could keep an art lover busy for days. In general, all of the big cities of Europe have spectacular art collections that are worth seeing.
Dreaming of Tuscany?
Tuscany and its capital Florence are a must-see for anyone. In this region in the center of Italy, history, art, culture and cuisine collide to create a feast for all of your senses. See some of mankind’s greatest works of art and architecture before immersing yourself in unrivalled natural beauty, all while enjoying iconic wines and traditional dishes. What’s not to love?
I like castles. Know where I can find a good castle to visit?
Too many to count. You can hit some of the biggies between Paris and London: Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace (only open in summer), Hampton Court, Blenheim Palace, Versailles, the Louvre. Yes, that’s right, the Louvre is a castle too, but they’ve replaced the royal family with art. The French are building a real Medieval castle at Guedelon, south of Paris. You can see them rediscover building techniques and the medieval way of life.
Germany and Austria are full of castles as well. Neuschwanstein in southern Bavaria is the Cinderella castle we all dreamed of as kids, even if it isn’t very historic. You can visit two castles nearby at Hohenschwangau and Linderhof from the same family, although not as outrageous. The famous Rhine river cruise shows off smaller castles in impressive scenery.
Would you like to sleep in a castle? Spain and Portugal have taken their wealth of castles and turned them into high-end hotels, called pousada in Portugal and parador in Spain. You can book a stay over the internet and live like a royal, or just browse the website and enjoy a bit of day dreaming.
Food is my focus. Where is the best food?
France and Italy are the homes of the best food in Europe. Which is better? The Italians will remind you that they taught the French everything they know about food, since Caterina de’ Medici was a Florentine French queen. I say that it is useless to squabble, and more constructive to deeply investigate this question. I think you’ll have to visit both.
France has Parisian bistro food, the famous steak frites, béarnaise sauce, crepes and omelettes. Fine French cuisine will knock you off your chair…or maybe thats because you’ve gained so much weight that the chair breaks beneath you. Sauces, meats, meats in sauces, cheese. Oh, the cheese course! (Sigh.)
Italy has pasta, and I don’t think I don’t anyone who doesn’t like pasta. Italy is a fairly new country, just over 150 years old, and each region still clings to its old identity as a nation through its food. If you’ve only ever eaten at Olive Garden, you don’t know Italian food. 20 years on and I’m still trying to sample everything.
Food from the British Isles has a terrible reputation for food, but is actually surprisingly good. Gourmet pub cuisine is a real thing, and definitely sits near the top of my list of favorite travel experiences.
I’m a gardener, I want to see parks and gardens.
Amsterdam in spring can be fun for gardeners. You can visit the bulb fields and the flower exchange. The landscape of the Netherlands alone is reason for a gardener to visit, to see how the Dutch work with land that is often below sea level.
England has tons of beautiful gardens to visit. I particularly like Kew Gardens outside of London and Sissinghurst in the south. The gardens of the Cotswolds are also lovely, I enjoy Hidcote Manor any time of the year. The crazy Eden Project in Cornwall is like the Disneyland of landscaping.
France has many beautiful gardens, almost every French castle has a garden worth visiting. The Chateau de Villandry is one of my favorites, I’ve tried to copy some of their vegetable gardening techniques. Monet’s garden at Giverny is a hit with impressionist fans and can be done as a day trip from Paris.
I’m a little afraid of really big cities and am a little afraid of travel abroad in general. What is the most soothing destination for a beginner who isn’t comfortable in big cities?
I’d suggest Stockholm for time first-timers. Especially if you are from the north and like lutefisk. It is small and welcoming, with excellent public transportation. Most people speak English and tend to be very friendly to foreigners. The city is set on the water, and you can take cruises out to the islands nearby if you need to escape urban life.
Even if you’ve never left your hometown before, Stockholm will feel familiar, particularly if your hometown is Seattle. The museums are interesting, I like the open-air museum Skansen. It has traditional houses from all over the country assembled into a folk village, complete with a real bakery. Just down the road is the famous Vasa museum with a preserved ship, and the Pippi Longstocking museum. Doesn’t that sound inviting? Swedish pancakes for everyone!
I’ve seen all of the most famous places in Europe. What should I do next?
If you’ve done the sampler platter and spent a few days in each of the most famous places, your next trip is to get to know the one country you liked the best. To sink in and really understand the culture. I’d suggest renting a house or apartment in a strategic location and become a local. Spend two weeks exploring the smaller places, try and speak the language and talk to the people. Shop the local market and cook with whatever you find that is seasonal and local. Connecting is what travel is all about.
I’m well traveled but would like to see something new and take a tour. What places in Europe are best seen with a tour?
While I’m a tour guide and see tours as a great value for your time and money, I strongly recommend tours for places that are difficult to navigate on your own. Some places are difficult to get to, have strong language or cultural barriers or are just a little too intimidating to approach without some guidance.
I suggest looking at the Adriatic region, since it’s tricky to impossible on public transportation. Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and so on, are hidden jewels for a reason, they are hard to get to. Since they were at war so recently, a guide’s perspective on recent history is fascinating.
Another hidden jewel that deserves a tour is Sicily. That magical island has poor public transportation and tourist services. You can rent a car, but driving there is….interesting. Moreover, Sicily’s rich and complicated history is tough to wrap your mind around and having a guide can be well worth the extra cost.
Join us on an adventure in Sicily!
Complicated, misunderstood, generous, outrageous, sensual and seductive, Sicily is pure opera. If you think you know Italy but haven’t been to Sicily, you are in for a mind-bending treat. 3000 years of history piled up like a sweet cassata cake is waiting for your exploration. Andiamo!
Turkey is probably not on your travel dreaming list, but don’t give up on it. Their political situation is tense at the moment, but I have hopes that it will calm. A tour in Turkey is eye-opening, and the connections between eastern and western history can only be understood at this crossroads.
Do you have a question about where to go in Europe next? Comment here and I’ll add your questions and responses to the list.