With more than 12 million visits from Americans to Western Europe every year, it’s clear that the US has an appetite for the culture, history, and food of countries like France, Spain, Italy, and England. But as a growing number of us travel to the region for our vacation, a question has to be asked as to whether we’re getting an authentic look at the countries and their great people, or whether we’re falling for the common tourist traps and limiting our real exposure.
Travel is all about trying new things, visiting new places, and meeting new people, so when you next decide to travel to Europe, steer clear of the package deals and McDonald’s outlets when you arrive, and follow our top tips for experiencing the real Europe on your next visit…
Travel without a plan
When you’re traveling to a faraway country, it’s easy to want to plan out every detail of your trip so you can make the most of your visit. City breaks typically only last for a couple of days, so cramming as much into a short flying visit makes sense, but doing so can limit your potential when you eventually get there. By all means, plan some activities and excursions you would like to see and book tickets for theatres and museums in advance, but make sure you have some room in your diary for those last-minute, spur-of-the-moment experiences.
Better yet, if you have a generous budget and no inhibitions, why not book a flight to one of Europe’s great cities and start your journey with no idea of its end? Turn up at your hotel and explore the city on foot, taking in the sights and sounds of different people and cultures. As you go, you will be able to pick out things you’d like to try and tick them off your bucket list, with no pressure to be back at your apartment by a certain time for your next reservation.
Hire a tour guide
Relying on the experts is another way to get to see the sights and sounds of a city, such as by taking one of the many bespoke tours of Barcelona. Not only will they offer an unrivaled level of local knowledge, but they’ll be able to show you into the nooks and crannies that you won’t be able to gain access to as a “regular tourist”. From a tour exploring Barcelona’s food markets and wineries to a behind-the-scenes look at London’s West End, and its rich history, there are so many unique experiences that a tour guide can help you to enjoy. So be brave!
Hop from country to country
Depending on your budget and the length of your visit, why not hop from one European country to another, immersing yourself into the different languages and cultures. It’s true that a visit to France followed by Start out in England, followed by a whistle-stop tour of Scotland, before moving into Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and then France. You can then stop in Spain to soak up some sun, and spend a day or two in Gibraltar to round it out.
Use public transport
Unlike many parts of the United States, Western Europe has an impressive transport system with trains, planes, buses, trams, rentable bikes and e-scooters that allow you to get around towns and cities with ease – and that’s without mentioning trains that can take you from one country to another in less than an hour. Use the public transport network to the best of your ability – not only is it highly affordable, but it allows you to hop on at one stop and then off at the next, seeing the real Europe and jumping off the beaten track. Get on a bus, see where it takes you, and when you want to explore on foot, you can press the bell and get off. What’s more, most European public transport networks have dedicated apps that are available to read in English, so you don’t have to worry about getting lost in the city or losing your ticket.
Learn the lingo
Though it would be a mean feat to pick up Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, and Spanish before you next fly out to Europe, choosing one or two and learning the basics will get you far. Not only does it make it easier to barter with the locals at the food markets, but you can enjoy foreign films, theatre shows, and get to know the real people of the country you’re visiting – beyond the general tourist chit-chat. Apps like Duolingo are great for when you’ve got a spare 30 minutes between client meetings, allowing you to pick up a few phrases for your next trip.
Stay out of the city
Finally, why not consider booking accommodation outside of the hustle and bustle of the city you’re visiting? Not only will you have to travel through more remote and residential areas, but you’ll probably find some hidden gems like a local wine bar or restaurant for a bite to eat on an evening. Use review sites like Tripadvisor to find out more about local attractions and think outside the box – if you’re traveling to Barcelona, for example, book into a Catalonian farmhouse on Airbnb and hire a car into the city so you can explore on your own time. That way, you’ll experience the balance between a relaxing countryside retreat, and a city break.
There are, of course, other benefits to staying away from the main strip, too. You’ll find that accommodation is cheaper, food and drink outlets offer a more authentic experience, and the people will be friendlier and more willing to accommodate your needs, though you may need to rely more on your phrasebook depending on where you travel, as they’ll be less likely to speak fluent English (around 51% of Europeans are fluent or can speak English).
There’s no denying that traveling to Europe can be daunting, but with the right strategy, you can experience something very different on your next visit. Shop around, don’t over-plan, and see where the wind takes you. We’re uber jealous of your trip; wishing you safe travels!