How to travel to Europe after college

Jason, a loyal MR reader, asks as a request:

I'm a graduating senior who is planning on taking the much cliched trip
to Europe after graduation. I'm also an economics major and, naturally,
want to maximize my time spent there. I have never been to Europe. Do
you recommend travelling around Europe and seeing a little bit of
everything, or is it perhaps better to focus on one particular area? If
you'd recommend focusing on one area, which would it be?

I am of the mind that when it comes to travel you won't know in advance where you will like — especially on a first trip — so diversify.  Not long ago I offered up five spots to visit in the United States.  My five spots for a first European trip would be:

1. Paris. Duh.

2. Rome, the major city of antiquity plus still a major national capital.

3. Süsten Pass in Switzerland, or Zermatt on a clear day.  Rural Europe, and scenery, with a Germanic slant.  I love Germany but am hard pressed to pick out a single locale to make this list.

4. Prague, with architecture from all major periods of European history since medieval times.  Plus you get a dash of Eastern Europe and corruption, as well as some Germanic and Jewish history.

5. Rural Albania, maybe Shkodra or Girokaster.  See how much of Mediterranean Europe lived in the 19th century.  Recall a Malthusian world.

Don't tell Natasha I said this, but Russia to me is really a part of Asia.  England belongs to the northern orbit, which maybe someday gets a post of its own.

Comments

If flying from the US via London or Amsterdam, I fully recommend my favorite 'sight' in Europe - the view from a window seat on the flight to Rome (or Milan) over the Alps. Beautiful. The flight usually costs about $40 and gets you to Rome.

Berlin is worth visiting. Nice people, cheap accommodation (relatively), and a lot of historical stuffs.

Don't listen to your college professor. Do what your peers do and get a Eurail pass. Travel from Barcelona to Rome via Marseille, Nice, Pisa, and Florence. Pick out a few noteworthy secondary places like Perpignan or Orvieto. Expand this mainline depending on your time and funds: start out in Lisbon or Madrid, take a detour to Torino, Milan, Venice, go to Naples and Sicily or take the ferry to Greece, or go North to Trento, Innsbruck and Munich. Paris is a place to visit on your second honeymoon.

Actually, you can save alot of money and hassle by going to Disneyworld in Orlando.
It does a respectable job of re-creating the atmosphere of all the best places in Europe.

But seriously...I did this after my freshman year in college. See it all. Spend more time
and money than what you plan to. I agree whole-heatedly with the Eurail suggestion: you'll
see alot more and meet alot of like-mided people from all over the world. Stay in youth
hostels, too. Don't be choosey. If I were really pragmatic, I'd say visit only the second
and third order cities (The Edinburghs, the Florences, The Viennas, etc.), because odds are,
if you have even half an interest, you'll find plenty of opportunities to head to London
and Paris in the enxt few years. That being said, I could go there again and again...

Here is what travel guru Rick Steves recommends: http://www.ricksteves.com/plan/destinations/europe/eur22.htm

Rick's target audience are middle-aged folks, but I find his phenomenal advice works for any budget conscious, independent, American traveler. His web site has a wealth of information. My first few trips were made using Rick's advice and he does a great job of helping Americans get out of their comfort zone and seeing "real" Europe. Here are my top 5 destinations if I were creating a trip (assuming reasonable budget and time constraints, plus I'm making the leap that you are around 22, drink alcohol, and are not opposed to going to clubs hoping to meet boys/girls):

1) Amsterdam - great city, whether you smoke or not
2) Paris - don't spend too much time here, but worth it to see what you think
3) Venice - cliche, but there's a reason
4) Vienna, or Munich/Salzburg
5) Prague
Bonus*: Edinburgh (best city in Britain by far, but I live here so I'm biased :) )
All of this can be done with combo rail passes, cheapish budget flights; be sure to side-trip into the countryside as the big cities can be tiresome and cause you to lose perspective.
*Save Ireland, England, Wales, and Scotland for a separate trip.

Remember - you will never see it all, so make a good plan, pick a few highlights, and focus more on having great experiences with the people you meet rather checking off a list of cities/sites you've seen. Versailles can't hold a candle to making a pretty Czech girl smile...

One more thing. If you do go to the northern parts of Europe, don't miss out on the Norwegian fjords! Slartibartfast really outdid himself that time.

Having lived in many places in Europe and only missed Venice, Vienna and Madrid in terms of the usual suspects of tourist destinations - these are my recs (in no real order):

1. Iceland (if you still count it as part of Europe)
2. Amsterdam - gorgeous and too bad its only known for the hookers and pot. Seat of modern democracy.
3. Berlin - Historical seat of the 20th century. So much to see and do - beautiful too.
4. Stockholm or Copenhagen - underappreciated capitals.
5. London and/or Paris - cliches but must sees. Pick one over the other depending on your francophile/anglophile tendencies.
6. St. Petersbur or Prague if you want to see how the Soviet Union throttled that part of the world (although Prague is over-rated - small part of downtown is architecturally nice but thats about it.)

I agree with "Don't listen to your college professor." I say avoid Paris. There's nothing there that other cities don't get you and it's expensive and there are other places to visit. Versailles not only cannot hold a candle to making a pretty Czech girl smile, it's not worth it. If you really want a cool Baroque piece of architecture, Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte is better, and I can't imagine there are that many people as happy to look at old architecture as me. Prague has great architecture for that matter. Barcelona, Madrid, Florence, and Rome. Norway is gorgeous and fun (though expensive), yay Bergen! Unless worse comes to worse, you will see Paris again, while Florence, Lisbon, etc., may not have conferences.

Avoid Prague on a first trip, a beginner will just see the surface and not get it. And on the surface it's a pretty tourist trap crammed with Italian school groups, rich Russians on holiday and American backpackers. Nice place to live, awful place to visit. It's also not in any way an "Eastern European" city despite what Tyler seems to think. Not only is it geographically and culturally to the West of Vienna and Berlin, it doesn't even show a lot of signs of Sovietization. If you want to get a feel for life under Communism without going to Eastern Europe go to Dresden or East Berlin. Most British provincial cities are more marred by socialist architecture than Prague is, seriously. Cracow is prettier than Prague and more of a real cross roads between Eastern and Western Europe.

Montenegro basically offers the same glimpse of 19th century peasant life that Albania does, but with better beaches. You could also head to Portugal if that kind of thing interests you.

I would definetely pick Barcelona to start the trip. Great city, worth visiting and staying.

Do you mean Copenhagen or are you proposing Jason should stay in Christiansborg Palace?

If you want to do Eastern and Western Europe in one shot, come to Vienna and take the Twincityliner or the Soviet hydrofoil from Vienna to Bratislava and back. Bratislava has a refurbished inner city, but also a lot of soviet style neighborhoods. You can also rent a car und cruise around the rural area of eastern Slovakia and you will see soviet style buildings and some old Skodas and Busses.

Depart from the regular tourist destinations and stroll around the area in any City you go to, to get a feeling of how it is like for regular people. The difference is like night and day in places like Parlermo, where you can see half collapsed buildings that are still occupied, lively markets, lots of cats, burned out cars and children digging in trash just a couple of streets away from the nicely refurbished tourist spots.

I'm all about small towns in Europe, with their castles, preserved walls, and medieval layouts. I almost always try to escape the capital city of whatever country I'm visiting and head for the countryside.

Having said that, to people recommending that you skip Paris, are you nuts? Paris is one city that more than deserves its reputation.

Unless you think this is your one and only shot at Europe, my recommendation would be to focus on one area. Either the entire country of a smaller nation like Belgium or Ireland, or a single region of somewhere like Italy or France. Otherwise, you'll spend a good chunk of your trip simply traveling from one place to another.

The greatest single sight I've ever seen in 20+ trips abroad was the Alhambra in Grenada, Spain. Other than that, France is my favorite country. I love the Loire Valley, Langue d'Oc, Provence, and plan to return next year to visit Burgundy for a couple of weeks.

I'm surprised you would recommend rural Albania while saying that Russia is too much a part of Asia to be included. Albanian is a west Asian country that by geographical accident happens to be in Europe.

Do you recommend travelling around Europe and seeing a little bit of everything, or is it perhaps better to focus on one particular area?

I did a little bit of everything and loved it, basically went to every country Eurail went + England. Spent more time in the bigger places and less in other places (e.g., 5 days in Paris, 1 day in Calais or 4 days in Madrid, 1 day in Bilbao).

Hostels, camp grounds and night trains are your friends for keeping costs down so that you can see a little bit of everything while still spending at least a week in onie place.

It is also useful to know that once your marginal travel is free (rail pass) and your trip duration lengthens (my trip was 3 months), variety begins to look more attractive (I went to Falconara and Assisi just because) and you can be a lot more flexible in where you stay to maximize other utilities (e.g., I visited Rome for 4 days, but stayed in Florence and caught the morning train in because a) the campground was $1/night and b) I had some friends who happened to be there).

I would (mostly) second Farmer's list.

I also suggest these nifty tour ideas. They are not full-fledged guide books but decks of cards that you can sift through and choose from:

City Walks: Rome: 50 Adventures on Foot by Martha Fay and Bart Wright

City Walks: London: 50 Adventures on Foot by Craig Taylor and Bart Wright

City Walks: Barcelona: 50 Adventures on Foot by Sarah Andrews and David Lindroth

Village Walks: Tuscany, or Village Walks: Provence (I'd pick Provence myself.)

Don't tell Natasha I said this, but Russia to me is really a part of Asia.

I don't understand this statement. Is there a stigma to being from Asia? Is it less socially acceptable than Europe?

Stay away from the urban centres as a rule - if you must visit, then find a pension or small gasthof and take the train (RE in Germany - or similar) into town. For instance if visiting Munich, stay in Freising (at the end of the S1 line and near the airport). If visiting Nuremberg, consider staying in Roth or Hipolstein and so on....

I love the Neckar valley - between Heilbronn and Heidelberg - beautiful area - close to desireable tourist spots without the tourist prices.

cheers, junior

Is there a stigma to being from Asia? Is it less socially acceptable than Europe?

In Russia, yes. Arguably also in Turkey.

Meet cute European girl, go where she's going, have a meaningful farewell kiss.

Rinse and repeat.

The corollary to the above is avoid your fellow American students traveling in packs--they're idiots.

As all of the above mentioned, don't get hung up on the "where", focus on the "what". Whatever you're into: the outdoors, architecture, live music, decaying medieval monasteries, whatever, make that a focus and go from there.

Oh, and be sure and report back.

Brugge/Bruges is lovely - visiting such little spots in "on" if you take the train. I'm astonished that anyone advises against Venice. Florence is a must. I think Edinburgh is wonderful, but I lived there for years. Oxford is superb.

The only serious argument against a London or Paris is that the chance will recur - but in the long run we're all dead.

If you're going to go to Czech Rep, Austria etc, enquire about innoculation against Lyme disease.

Ljubljana
Tours
Cracow
Budapest
Cambridge

Travel long. 1 year or more. Keep going for as long as you can.

Albania? Iceland? WTF? Behold my list of obscure places a professor would suggest just to sound provocative:

1) Rotterdam
2) Minsk
3) Hammerfest, Norway
4) Brno
5) Rural Albania, maybe Shkodra or Girokaster

Istanbul? Not Constantinople?

i think that visiting istanbul is a good idea. i loved it!

There is a lot of great info and a lot of good opinions!

I traveled Europe in the summer of 2004 after my sophomore year. My HS language teacher gave me the best advice ever: Eurail + "Let's Go Europe". It was a pretty big book to lug around, but it provided invaluable info (hostels, food, transport, local sites) that allowed me to plan quickly and spontaneously. My four weeks included: Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Vienna, Salzburg, Munich, Geneva, Venice, Naples, Rome, Florence(Pisa), Marseilles, Barcelona, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam. Crazy? Yeah! But amazing.

If you think you might ever travel back, I would spend more time on Berlin/Dresden/Prague now. Those cities give you a better sensation of recent history (ie, WWII through the fall of the wall), and I suspect they will be more likely to modernize over the next decade. Places like Paris/Amsterdam/Munich/Rome bank on a history and an image that is unlikely to change as significantly over the next decade.

I think it would be fascinating to visit Bosnia, Kosovo, and Albania -- I have not been there but I am guessing that it would fascinating to see a Muslim Europe.

Russians are a (historically) white-skinned, Slavic, Christian people, speaking an Indo-European language, with the center of their population and culture firmly on the eastern fringe of the European continent. In what way is Russia mostly an Asian country? Because the bulk of its landmass is in Asia? I don't get it.

Listen to the consensus and do Eurail. Railways in Europe deposit you right in the city center, and you get to see a lot.
Other than that, it's hard to give advice, because your (unknown) preferences are needed to determine maximum utility. If you love art, Rome, Florence, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, London are the places with the best museums. If you love nature, those Norwegian fjords, the Bjelowizca forest in Poland, the Alps or a boat trip down the Rhine or Danube might be worthwhile. If you are a party animal and like edgy art scenes, Berlin and Barcelona and London and possibly Prague are probably best. If you are a history buff, go to Carcasonne in France, Rothenburg o.d. Tauber in Germany, Bruges in Belgium, Prague, Rome, Athens and Istanbul. If you like traditional culture, go to century-old festivals like the Palio in Siena, the Canstatter Wasen in Stuttgart (NOT the Octoberfest in Munich, it's just too crowded), the Princely Wedding in Landshut (if it's held this year), visit smaller historical towns where you can stay in cheap pensions; if you are a food and drink lover, that might also be a good idea - drink your way along the route du vin in Alsace, the whisky trail in Scotland, the various Weinstrassen (Wine routes) in Germany. Germany also has a romantic road and a castle road, I'm sure you will find similar trails in other countries. If you speak only English and you want to go somewhat off the beaten track and see smaller places, you'll get more out of central and northern Europe, whereas France, Spain and Italy are more challenging. Ask people for help and advice - then they open up. Central Europeans are less likely to initiate a conversation with strangers than Americans, so you better make the first step. And with Barack Obama at the helm, you don't need to put a Canadian flag on your backpack any more, although you will notice that ALL Canadians in Europe are bedecked with them :) Follow Tylers advice in his book and ask waiters to recommend food and drink - it will endear you to the locals and you'll experience a lot :)

I traveled Europe last summer and echo much of what has been mentioned above (EuroRail especially if you'll be in Germany), but allow me a couple suggestions:
1) Travel alone. If you don't know why, you shouldn't be traveling now.
2) Don't travel alone. Meet people, ask where they're headed, what they'd recommend, try to meet at least one local at each stop. If you come home with an excuse to go back and a couch to crash on next time, you've succeeded.
3) Every week or so, especially if you start getting bored, start the day with NO idea where you're headed and where you're sleeping that night. Just hop on a train, its remarkably refreshing and liberating.
4) Major cities on the weekends for the nightlife (book ahead especially in July/August, because all of Europe is on vacation); off the beaten path and minor stops during the week (excellent way to relax and meet the locals and you wont be hung over trying all the time).
5) Travel as long as possible. Don't book a return flight home if you can. Know your budget and try to travel as long as you can on it and then crash at new friends' places until you absolutely have to go home. A lot of the hostels will be looking for temporary help cleaning, so if you find a city/hostel/group of people you like, hang out for a week or 10 days. This will force you to really engage the experience and not just take a long vacation.
6) I highly recommend a sleeping bag and a tent, this will save you a ton of money and make your plans a lot more flexible (definitely sleep under the stars at least once a month).
7) hostelworld.com
8) A couple off the beaten path highlights:
-Cinque Terra, Italy (northern coast between Genoa and La Speiza for great hiking, and 5 small towns, if a little more touristy than you'd like)
-Skagen, Northern Denmark (camping near amazing, but cool beaches with WWII bunkers, plus the intersection of 2 seas) then take the ferry from Frediskhaven over to southern Sweden, especially cool around the summer equinox when it only gets dusky at night.
-Zell am See, Austria. Perfect hostel for relaxing and reading a book or three, right on the water.
-Interlaken, Switzerland for the canyoning (do the longer 4-6 hour trip) and a hike (or a combination of a hike, a train, and a couple of gondolas) to the top of Schilthorn, especially cool if you're a Bond film fan and much cheaper than Jungfrau.
-Montreaux Jazz Festival
-most fun hostels I stayed at (may be entirely the result of the people I met there): La Controra Flashpackers in Naples and Citybackpacker in Zurich

Best of luck. Enjoy your trip.

Kudos on the Albania recommendation. Btw, Albania is not really that scary of a place anymore...as it was 10 years ago. Schkodra and Gjirokaster are very historic and striking cities; also very remote and require quite a bit of travel time.

I found Eastern Europe an incredible place to visit and incredibly educational. Bulgaria was a great and upbeat place to visit. Krackow was gorgeous and modern.

My little gem: Lviv, Ukraine which has history, culture, personality and charm.

Eastern Europe is a transitional place; more change, social upheavals and a thriving youth culture.

I visited Europe last fall and found it costly, Eastern Europe less so.

Lviv is a beautiful but sad city. Very interesting. It's a Polish-Austrian city now inhabited by Ukrainians. It feels like a beautiful old house taken over by squatters.

"England belongs to the northern orbit" - interesting. What do you mean, Tyler?

As a person that has traveled extensively after college, I have to disagree completely with your original list. Paris and Rome are cliched and not that interesting. Try Southern France (Marseille, Nimes, Orange, Etc.) for amazing Roman ruins, culture, and food. The coasts of Montenegro and Croatia are the nicest in the European part of the Med. Bulgaria and Turkey are inexpensive and have AMAZING CULTURE. See Bosnia or Kosovo for a recently war-torn country that hasn't fully recovered its' infrastructure, but never lost its' spirit.

Heck, even Macedonia was a LOT of fun.

But seriously.. Albania? Have you been to Albania? Between the roving packs of wild dogs that will attack you after dark, the hostile locals, the GIANT piles of trash EVERYWHERE in the countryside, and the RAW SEWAGE that is dumped into the same ocean that is considered a beach resort.. Albania is a place to skip unless you like real adventure.. like me.

I recommend Cordoba and other sights in Spain (Malaga, Seville), and I recommend Romania (Bucharest and Moldavia). Also, why not try to attend an IES-Europe seminars while in Europe (www.ies-europe.org).

And when in Amsterdam, visit Utrecht for a day, it's 30 mins by train and it's so much older the old city center has an almost medieval feel. Plus the Utrecht canals are 10 ft. below street level, which is really special. There's a tourist trap-boat trip that's actually much fun.

Every Dutchman under 60 speaks English (well), if you have the time just hang out with the locals. You'll be amazed how extremely liberal people can be :)

To claim that Russia is not European, in contrast to Albania and the Czech Republic, seems to be either ignorant or racist to say the least.

I spent 6 weeks in Spain and Portugal after college, and it was some of the best 6 weeks of my life. You can't go wrong whatever you do - Europe is fun and easy to get around and just be flexible with your plans so if you dislike being somewhere you can just leave and go somwhere else!

I'm a little surprised at how little recognition Spain has received in this thread. I studied there last summer and it was by far, one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. There has been some mention of Barcelona but I would also like to suggest Valencia. It's situated slightly south of Barcelona, also on the Mediterranean. I've heard people describe Valencia as Barcelona without all the tourists. If you do make it there, don't miss the gorgeous water museum and make sure you try their famous paella :)

Europe is a great place to travel. You could get an internship and go study there or go on a carnival cruises and just enjoy your vacation.

I think that traveling through Europe is a great opportunity for any person that wants to do so and actually has the financial possibility. Each country in Europe has something special. By the way, if you want to protect your heartland travel trailers, you can find a lot of tutorial over the internet.

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