A Few Cities and Countries in Europe

Some of you might visit a country or city in Europe and explore it in depth in a few days. Others explore a few countries during one quick visit. While it is easier for some to get a visa on arrival or enter without a visa, for others it is a long process to obtain a Schengen visa that might only be valid for 30 days. Explore Europe at a pace that works for you.

Depending on how much time you have to travel in Europe, plan ahead carefully on what you wish to accomplish from the trip: visit a few cities with a Eurail Pass, rent a car and drive out into the countryside, take a river cruise, etc.

There is no correct or incorrect way to travel and explore Europe because visa, length of stay, budget, interests, etc., are different for everyone. However, if you can, avoid the months of May through August. I highly recommend the off-peak season.

Consider this Pxley story as a plate of tapas or a wine tasting event. The story does not cover the countries and/or cities expansively, but provides you with a taste of possible tidbits.

Paris

Paris is a good entry point to Europe and for many, a must-visit destination. Paris is a maze of streets and to differentiate between houses and buildings, the Parisians were the first to number them. You will see little streets in Paris and you will be seeing them all over, sometimes even with names like the la rue du Chat qui Pêche [Street of the Fishing Cat].

The city of Paris is divided by the River Seine:

• To the north is the Right Bank [Rive Droite]. Many of the major monuments, the Champs-Elysées, and department stores are on the Right Bank.

• To the south is the Left Bank [Rive Gauche], home to the Sorbonne, cafés, Saint-Germain, Montparnasse Tower, and the Eiffel Tower.

The two banks are linked by 37 bridges. The city is also divided into 20 arrondissements or districts that wrap around the city. The numbering begins with 1 at the Louvre and continues clockwise. Every reference to a place in Paris uses this numbering system. The Eiffel Tower is in the 7th.

Book your museum tickets in advance. The Métro is easy to use and well organized. City buses are a good way to have a view of Paris that is usually not seen by tourists. They can also be a good way to see the city when it rains.

Amsterdam

Another good entry point to Europe is Amsterdam. Before you visit Amsterdam, learn about the different neighborhoods—De Pijp, Oost, Jordaan, etc. In the heart of De Pijp is the Albert Cuyp Markt with a range of food, knick-knacks, souvenirs, poultry, fish, etc. I like local markets because it’s a great way to explore and understand the city and the culture.

Although a bit of a cliché, a canal tour is still a good way to explore Amsterdam. Several tour operators depart from Centraal. I recommend the longer tours and if you feel the need to pamper yourself, there are dinner and cocktail cruises in the evenings.

If you like Dutch masterworks, visit the Rijksmuseum and remember to download the museum’s app for a guided tour.

OT301 is a great venue for underground music and up-and-coming talent. During the day, you can take part in the community art classes held here.

Brussels

If you have a day or two to spare during your trip to Europe, Brussels is a good city to visit. It is faster to get from Paris to Brussels by train [1.5 hours] than from Amsterdam to Brussels [a little over 2 hours].

I don’t know much about beer but my colleagues tell me that I need to go on a beer tasting tour in Brussels. What did I choose? Chocolates and more Belgian chocolates! Danke je.

There aren’t too many landmarks in Brussels and I recommend the Grand Place surrounded by gilded guildhalls which were once the headquarters of the city’s merchants. The famous statue Manneken Pis is just a few steps from the square. I am a fan of comic hero Tintin and that means a visit to La Boutique Tintin is a must for me. Hergé [the creator of Tintin] is interred at Diewig Cemetery.

Rhine River Cruise

Cruising down the Rhine River is a great way to explore the heartland of Germany. You can start your cruise in Amsterdam and make it all the way to Basel.

The Rhine Gorge is a beautiful stretch of the Rhine River. I recommend a cruise that stops in Cologne. While in Cologne, some cruises can also schedule a guided bike ride along the Rhine or through the historic Stadtgarten. If your cruise stops at Ludwigshafen, visit Heidelberg. Most cruises have to pass through and stop at Strasbourg. If you only have a day at your disposal, visit the spellbinding Strasbourg Cathedral and Eglise Saint-Pierre le Jeune.

Frankfurt

Not everyone has the time to cruise down the Rhine River to explore Germany. I found Frankfurt to be a good entry point due to flight connections from the world over. Frankfurt is an international city that is easy to get around. It is well planned, walkable, and has excellent public transportation. Römerberg is a popular tourist destination. Frankfurt Christmas Market is held in this public space. Hauptwache is a good venue to sample daily life in Frankfurt.

Remember that most shops in Germany are closed on Sundays.

If you are planning to visit several museums, a MuseumsuferTicket is a good investment. It grants entry to 34 of Frankfurt’s museums. An alternate option is the Frankfurt Card that offers up to 50%-off entry into several museums, tours, and travel on public transport, including to and from the airport.

You can take several day trips from Frankfurt to places like Heidelberg, Rothenburg, Strasbourg [France], Baden-Baden, etc. Berlin is a 4.5-hour train ride from Frankfurt. I highly recommend a visit to Berlin.

Switzerland

Switzerland isn’t all cowbells and yodeling. BTW, cowbells make it easier to locate a cow.

Zurich is a good entry point to Switzerland. If you are spending a few days in Switzerland, I recommend the Swiss Travel Pass that allows you to travel on trains, buses, and boats. The Pass also provides for free admission to more than 500 museums and exhibits in Switzerland.

Compared to other countries in Europe, I find Switzerland to be more picturesque but short in architecture that inspires me, as in Germany and Spain. The villages are charming with breathtaking views, as in Lauterbrunnen. Wengen is another picturesque and car-free village in the Jungfrau region. Basel is a hidden gem.

For those that are not used to cold weather and windchill, Matterhorn and Jungfraujoch can be cool or cold at any time of the year. Dress in layers.

Austria

While Vienna should be on your list, Innsbruck is approximately a 5-hour drive and you can stop at Salzburg on the way.

Altstadt [the old town of Salzburg] is a good starting point for your visit to Salzburg for its main sights, historical buildings, and little side-streets. For a Mozart fan, a visit to “Mozarts Wohnhaus” in Makartplatz is a must. Getreidegasse, in Altstadt, is a popular street for shopping, eateries, and cafés. St. Peter’s Abbey is an ornate religious building that has Catacombs and a Cemetery.

At the center of old town Innsbruck, some of the buildings are over 500 years. Enjoy the wonderful architecture, get a bite to eat or sip coffee at one of the cafés.

Several cable car routes and funiculars are used as modes of transportation due to Innsbruck’s location in the mountains. The Innsbrucker Nordkette is a 20-minute cable car ride that takes you up to Nordkette which provides amazing views of Innsbruck and mountain scenery surrounding it.

Italy - Northern

Northern Italy is quite different from southern Italy. The differences might not be visible to a tourist but having lived in Italy, I am aware of the differences but this won’t impact your visit. Instead, focus on different cuisines, sights, etc.

Venice is filled with tourists and I can understand its lure. If you are traveling from Venice to Milan and happen to stop at Verona, visit Verona’s Roman arena and skip the Romeo and Juliet lure. The “famous balcony” at the house visited by throngs of tourists has no accurate historic link to Shakespeare’s love story. The other cities I recommend are Bologna, Florence, Milan, Genoa, and Turin.

I like Milan because it is a gorgeous mix of historical architecture and modern high-rises with a dash of Italian life, like a cup of espresso.

Italy - Southern

Rome is on everyone’s list. Most of the sights will be packed with tourists. Plan ahead, book your tickets in advance, and wear good walking shoes. If the crowds at the Vatican Museum are long during the day, plan a night visit. There is also a night tour at the Colosseum.

If you are on a tight budget, there are several free things to do in Rome such as visits to Il Vittoriano, Jewish Ghetto, Via Appia Antica, Pantheon, etc.

If you stay in Rome for a week, you can visit and enjoy all the sights leisurely. Read up a good travel guide for day trips from Rome.

Cagliari

There are several cruises you can take from Rome. A short and inexpensive option is a visit to Cagliari, Sardinia. Take a walking tour to see the medieval sights of Cagliari’s old walled town, Il Castello. Bastione San Remy is one of Cagliari’s most famous icons. Originally a structure to fortify Cagliari, the Bastion is now a viewing platform that offers views across to the Mediterranean and port areas of the city.

Spain

Spain is quite vast and there’s a range of places that you can enjoy—from the Mediterranean coast to the mountainous Basque Country. You can decide whether you wish to make Madrid or Barcelona your base depending on what you wish to see. Read more about Barcelona and discover the beauty of Valencia.

Be aware of the historical and cultural differences between the Basque and Catalonian identities. Enjoy the afternoon siestas. Dinners will be late. You can enjoy an evening drink with tapas/pintxos [inexpensive and available in bars, and don’t spend too much time in just one bar]. Eat where the locals eat and you won’t be disappointed.

As always, if you are planning to spend a few days in Spain, get a pass for museums and local public transportation. Book your accommodations well in advance.

Greece

For me, Greece embodies everything historical and architectural. Heraclitus said, "Everything flows, and nothing abides, everything gives way, and nothing stays fixed." Nonetheless, most things in Greece remind me of antiquity, and it has survived intact. For example, it was an overwhelming experience to walk on the Arkadiko Bridge which dates from the 13th century and linked Tiryns and Epidaurus.

Nafplio is my favorite town in Greece. It is a little less than a 2-hour drive from Athens to Nafplio. You will be close to Epidaurus and Mycenae. Samos is my favorite island.

Off the beaten path

If you can rent a car, I recommend leaving the city to explore the countryside. Europe is picturesque. Respect local cultures and norms. Learn a few words in the local language. Shop locally. Carry a picnic blanket and enjoy a meal at a local park.

If possible, please put away your mobile devices for a few minutes and enjoy the vistas. Speaking about mobile devices, remember to check on your international roaming and data plans before you leave your home country.

Hotels

No matter which country and/or city you are visiting in Europe, book your stay in advance. Be prepared to climb a few flights of stairs. Hotel rooms can be small but you can find good deals online. I had never taken a bath with a view of the bedroom but there’s always a first time.

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