Top Ten European Cities (Part II) & Thanks

Top Ten European Cities (Part II) & Thanks

Welcome to Part II of my top ten favorite cities from this 2 month trip around Europe.  If you haven’t yet, maybe start with Part I to get an overview of where I’ve been and see which cities make the top five.  The list will continue in this part and will end with a brief shout-out to people who have made this journey positively unbelievable. 6) Venice, Italy Yes its packed to an unpleasant degree with tourists and priced accordingly, but Venice is unlike any other place on Earth. On this trip, I’ve also been to Bruges, Belgium which sometimes pretends to be the “Venice of the West” but it has nowhere near the tragic charm of this sinking city. I’ve already written an ode to Venice and some suggestions to escape some of the tourists in your explorations, since I know that I probably won’t have the same experience of the city if I slept in and spent my day squished between Asian tourists, stuck in Saint Mark’s square. If you get out of the main tourist areas, the food is delicious and the prices weren’t as bad as I feared (the going rate for espresso at the counter is 1 euro… in Zurich, you pay $5). 7) Innsbruck, Austria Before this trip, I thought of Austria as rolling, technicolor green meadows, soaring Swiss Alps and boys in suspenders eating schnitzel. Maybe Julia Andrews and the Sound of Music are to blame. But when I landed in Vienna, I found a posh capital where everything was extravagant, perfect and no one would be caught dead in clothes made from bedroom curtains. Yes, the ornate town hall was beautiful, the Parliament impressive and the gardens ornate but I wanted Austria make me twirl around in circles. It took several weeks until I returned to this country but when I arrived in Innsbruck, I found the place that made me want to waltz with blue birds, breathing in fresh mountain air. As Austria’s third largest city, Innsbruck is not a nature destination but its a city sewn together with rivers and surrounded by mountains that put you in your place. All of its occupants learned to ski before they could walk, they wander the city streets in wool sweaters with pom poms on their winter hats and all humbly rumble off hobbies like “crossing the Alps on foot”, mountain biking, climbing mountains, bungee jumping… Innsbruck hosted the Junior Olympics so it has skating rinks and football stadiums and a giant ski jump to service these adventurers. Not only are the people amazingly adventurous but the town has something for everyone: cafes, bars and music venues to entertain its large student population, a picturesque Old Town, lavish churches and amazing nature all around. And everything’s just a 10 minute walk away (well to ski, you’ll have to spend 15 minutes on the train). I went to Innsbruck before Christmas so I enjoyed its Christmas markets and streets converted to “fairy tale lane” where witches and giants watched pedestrians from window seats. I learned they also celebrate Carnival in the spring, which could be a fun time to visit!  But anytime you want a dose of fresh mountain air, audacious people, cuckoo clocks and a walkable city center, you can’t go wrong with Innsbruck. 8) Paris, France It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the bias in my Paris versus Berlin entry and yes, I admit it, I liked Paris. It had warmth, energy, chaos and an intellectualism that a lot of European countries lack (Netherlands, Germany, Belgium). Yes, it’s dirty and yes, you see homeless people on the streets but Paris won’t be the same place without poverty… who would have inspired Toulouse-Lautrec, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. I didn’t like the prices in Paris, but compared to Switzerland, eating fondue in France is an absolute steal. Although Paris is a big city and I won’t want to waste my life away on the tram, I think I could stay entertained here for awhile, exploring different neighborhoods, absorbing the energy of an intellectual and artistic crossroad and meeting interesting people. 9) Amsterdam, Netherlands If I just the city center, I would not like Amsterdam. The Dutch are very economically savvy people and they know most visitors will gobble up generic, overpriced fast food, cliché souvenirs and siren call of legal pot and prostitution. So that’s what it delivers: everything the typical tourist wants, easily accessible in the city center. I hate to break it to you but that’s not the real Amsterdam: locals don’t spend their weekends in the Red Light, most don’t smoke marijuana...

My Ten Favorite European Cities (Part I)

My Ten Favorite European Cities (Part I)

“What a long strange trip it’s been”… and although there was no hallucinogenic drugs involved, Jerry Garcia could not begin to understand the wild, spontaneous romp around Europe that I had.  What was supposed to be a studious two months making progress with my PhD in Loeben, Austria turned into explorations anchored in two workaway opportunities (helping a student prepare for her English exams in Passau, Germany and hippies on their love farm in middle-of-nowhere Belgium) turned into a lot of moving around, not always in the most logical manner. So 18 countries and 44-ish European cities later, I conquered much of the continent that I have publicly denounced as boring, over-priced and over-rated.  It’s definitely true for some places but overall, my appreciation for the region has grown.  Since I didn’t do as much writing during my travels as I should have, I figured I’d leave you with a list of my top ten favorite cities to travel and a brief mention of some of the biggest disappointments.  I’ll probably commit a travel blogger crime by linking some of the titles of my Facebook albums, but I know a picture is worth a thousand words so feel free to click. But first, here’s the grand unveiling of how the final trip turned out: (Vienna) Austria, (Passau & Munich) Germany, (Budapest & Szentendre) Hungary, (Ljubljana & Bled) Slovenia, (Trieste & Venice) Italy, (Plitvice Lakes, Zagreb & Dubrovnik) Croatia, (Budva, Kotor & Perast) Montenegro, (Neum, Mostar & Sarajevo) Bosnia, (Belgrade & Vrsac) Serbia, (Timisoara, Sibiu, Brasov, Sighisoara, Viscri, Valencii & Cluj Napoca) Romania, (Amsterdam) Netherlands, (Antwerp, Balen, Ghent, Bruges & Oostende) Belgium, (Deux Caps, Paris) France, (Berlin, Cologne, Dortmund) Germany, (Krakow, Wieliczka, Wroclaw) Poland, (Prague) Czech Republic, (Zurich) Switzerland, (Innsbruck) Austria, (Bratslavia) Slovakia DISCLAIMER:  For all of you amazing couch surfers whose city didn’t make the list, my top cities to travel don’t necessary reflect the cities where I made the best memories or met the most incredible people.  I’d mostly recommend these cities to slightly adventurous, twenty-something travelers on a budget and these recommendations apply to people who want cities easy to navigate independently, friendly locals and plenty of student-friendly free/cheap attractions. 1) Sarajevo, Bosnia The cities of Bosnia barely compare to its natural beauty but I still found Sarajevo a fascinating place to visit.  Every time I traveled through this country, my nose was pressed to the glass to see turquoise rivers, rolling hills on fire with fall colors, sprinkled with rustic farmhouses. It’s a wildly beautiful country with relatively nice roads that lacks Western chain stores and industrial sprawl… until you get to Sarajevo. When the bus first began to approach the city, the shoddily constructed apartments reminded me of Brazilian favelas. Even when I switched from a bus to a tram through some central city streets, I found crumbling and decrepit buildings covered in graffiti, barbed wire and pockmarked with bullet holes. The grassy hills on the city outskirts could have added color and cheer to the city but instead were blanketed with gravestones, which added to the eeriness of the place. I checked into my hostel, and the receptionist gave me vague recommendations to spend the rest of my day: climb through graveyards to a lookout from an old fortress (now covered in graffiti and inaccessible) and check out the mosques and markets in the Old Town. I grabbed the map and marched off with the goal of racing through these sites as quickly as possible since even doing work seemed more appealing than spending time amongst a depressing remains of a city that was under siege a couple decades ago. I don’t know exactly when and where it happened, but some time during my afternoon, I fell in love with the resilient beauty of this city. Maybe when I stood looking out on the city, trying to mentally erase the cemeteries from the natural beauty of a place nestled between hills with rivers running through. I stood for quite awhile, alone except for a few hungry crows, with silent tears running down my face, wondering how the world’s largest genocide since the Holocaust could happen during my lifetime. I tried to compose myself on the walk down the hill, distracting myself by peeking into metal shops, where the rat-tat-tat of artists resulted in ornate plates and Turkish tea sets. I landed amongst the Ottoman market, where the glow of mosaic lamps danced amongst the silver, spices and teas. The stalls exploded with goods from the East, greasy bureks enticed people into same cafes and the sounds of the muezzin call from the mosque kept the time. Eventually, the carpet covered stalls evolved into re-purposed Turkish...

Best of Europe: Paris versus Berlin

Best of Europe: Paris versus Berlin

After going to these two cities, it seems weird to put them in the same sentence but many people do “as the best of Europe“.  However, their personalities are so different in strange and semi- unpredictable ways.  Paris, the City of Lights, exudes a romantic sophistication and elegance that Berlin doesn’t even pretend to imitate.  Whereas Paris is an iconic embodiment of a charm that nowhere else can emulate, Berlin is a work in progress toward an indeterminate end.   Rory MacLean comments, “Berlin is a city that is forever in the process of becoming, never being”. There’s tremendous attention to detail wherever you look… sculptures embedded into bridges that depict their construction, ornate iron gates with gold detailing, uniform blue roofs accented by carved detailing.  Paris is chic, a cultural hub but despite its classiness, it comes chaos and feels more like a Latin city than a traditionally European one.  People jaywalk, climb their motorbikes onto bumpy sidewalks and walls are covered with scrawled messages about unrequited love.  Everyone complains about snobbish Parisians but I was pleasantly surprised how strangers happily squeezed close on the train, offered up seats for old ladies and generally seemed more patient than people in cities of that size.  And they’re laughably polite… I love it when the metro announces “This is the final stop.  We invite you to leave the train”. Berlin has massive structures, stoic traditional buildings next to mismatched modern ones, wide boulevards and no space is sacred.  There’s construction, things crumbling and street art everywhere… even graffiti on street art sculptures.  As far as the feel I get from its inhabitants, despite its punk history and rebellious lack of respect for unmarked space, it’s still a German city and I find Germans to be a rather compliant, cold and unexciting bunch.  I love to people-watch but in Germany, there’s nothing to see… people patiently wait to march across the zebra stripes when the light changes even if there’s no car approach from either side of the horizon. Despite their differences, Paris and Berlin have been connected throughout the centuries.  People I’ve talked to naively linked them together as mutually “great European cities” and ancient conquerors created a certain rivalry between the two.  The chariot on top of Berlin’s landmark Brandenburg Gate was actually seized by Napoleon during his occupation of Berlin in 1806 and taken to Paris for a time.  Hitler wanted to obliterate Paris to the ground because he knew Berlin could never compete (fortunately, his soldiers refused to follow these orders).  The French still have some animosity toward Germans, rightfully so, given the World Wars. The point of traveling from city to city to eat, see and do different things.  People go to Paris for romance, culture, massive museums of classic pieces and bohemian artsiness.  People go to Berlin for cheap beer, crazy parties, punk culture and the witnessing the aftermath of a divided city.  Greater writers than me have written better things than I can about these places so I’m not pretending to have created a comprehensive guide.  But if you want to take advantage of the “greatness of Europe” by looking for the right things in the right places! Go to Paris… 1) To Eat.  It is not going to be cheap but French food is rightfully delicious.  Expect to pay at least 15 euros for your meal if you sit down somewhere, but its worth it.  The French attention-to-detail fully carries over to their approach toward dining, true for the dishes themselves and the atmospheric surroundings.  Paris is filled with brasseries that feel like a time warp to a Parisian golden age.  Some are cozy, some are charming but they’re usually filled with Art Nouveau decor, heavy wooden mirrors and sparkling chandeliers.  Fondue, crepes, croissants, ever-present fresh French-bread… everything that entered my mouth was delicious and I only sampled vegetarian and backpacker friendly basics.  While in Paris, make sure to eat macaroons, which Parisians have also made an art form.  These colorful circular French pastries have with sweet or tart fillings, sandwiched between two meringue and almond four based cookies.  Bakeries pimp out their pastries with shimmery gloss or gold sparkles in addition the rainbow colored base layers.  Eating these treats is also an adventure… the simultaneously spongey and firm exterior melts away to expose fillings with flavors that really packs a punch.  Per recommendation of my Parisian friend, I bought mine at Pierre Herme, which she liked because of both the quality and wide selection of adventurous flavors.  They are famous for ispahan (a rose, raspberry and litchi combination), mogador (milk chocolate and passionfruit blend) and their vanilla house blend but they dabble in everything from goat cheese to green tea to fig.  My photos from a macaron sampling session are in my camera flying through the air...

10 Things To Love About Cologne, Germany

10 Things To Love About Cologne, Germany

Cologne is one of those cities that I didn’t mean to visit but ended up being more interesting than I expected. It doesn’t have much to offer in terms of tourist attractions: most people who visit snap a few pictures of the massive cathedral in between switching trains at the international station, conveniently located a stone’s throw away. If you’re a particularly ambitious Cologne tourist, you can climb the ~250 stairs to the tower of this lurking structure that took 400 years to construct. You may even walk across the lovelock bridge and snap a few pictures to the other side. But then you’re basically done. As the city was nearly destroyed during the Second World War, there’s very little notable or attractive architecture around town and only a handful of relatively generic museums. But what Cologne lacks in beautiful buildings (even the rathaus (town hall) and the opera are pretty ugly), it makes up for with spirited inhabitants with a strong city identity, different than you’ll find anywhere else in Germany. Do I recommend that you travel far out of your way to see it? Probably not. Even its residents admit that it’s the perfect place to live but not the most exciting city to visit. But if you happen to be in the neighborhood, I do recommend finding a local and talking to the special traditions surrounding this city. If you can’t find someone like Thomas (my host) to enlighten you, here’s a few things I learned about what makes this place unique: 1) Gnomes Everywhere! You’ll notice that the people of Cologne tend to be pretty lazy and legend has it that little house gnomes enabled their slothfulness. Supposedly, the heinzelmännchen used to do all the work of Cologne’s citizens during the day until a tailor’s wife tried to see these gnomes. She spilled peas on the ground to catch them by causing them to slip and fall. The infuriated trolls left and never came back… except to decorate the Christmas markets! Find the fabled fairytale creatures in full-force in the Old City Heimat der Heinzel – the “Home of the Gnomes” Christmas market where they take the ski lift to the top of a rustic beer hall, peek out at skaters sliding around the rink and judging matches of eisstockschiessen (a form of curling). 2) It’s Student-Friendly As home to the University of Cologne, the city has plenty of good bars, restaurants and bookshops to their 80,000 students. I scoured the downtown for a good café with wifi to hang out in and didn’t have much luck because they either didn’t have Internet or looked too fancy (Thomas later reassured me that although they might have linen tablecloths, the people of Cologne don’t judge so I could show up to the Opera in jeans and people won’t blink an eyelash. So the cafes may not be as fancy as they appeared to me). So I didn’t find too many neat spots to curl up downtown but the area near the university (Zulpicher Str. is where I mostly walked up and down) had plenty of cute bookshops, affordable and informal eateries and bars to chose from. Even better, the pubs operate on a student schedule so you’ll find places open until 6 AM even on weekdays. Thomas mentioned one, owned by a 63-year-old woman which is open from 7 PM-4 AM six days a week. 3) You Can Ride Public Transport For Free! I’ve never been in a city with this policy but inhabitants of Cologne have an automatic guest pass that allows a friend to ride for free: all the time that a citizen accompanies them, if I’m not mistaken. He said for certain hours on the weekend, the guest pass can extend to all your family members. Although this policy still seems a bit bizarre and too good to be true for me, it frees up extra cash that you can spend on beer instead of U-bahn tickets. 4) Its Past Is Left Up To The Imagination Cologne was a Roman city, developed in 50 AD, but it has very little visible history left since the Allied Troops killed 95% of the population and destroyed most of the city during WWII. You can walk paths paved by the Romans in “old town” by the river but you need to imagine what Cologne looked like centuries ago. The only remnant of real “history” I found was an arch left over from a Roman gate, near the cathedral. 5) It Has a Lock Bridge That Wouldn’t Break Having recently come from Paris where bridges have begun to break under the weight of...

Amsterdam Attractions Beyond Anne Frank & The Red Light District

Amsterdam Attractions Beyond Anne Frank & The Red Light District

Usually when you ask people about their time in Amsterdam, they don’t say much. “I don’t really remember… I was high the whole time”. I knew the capital city of the Netherlands must have more to offer than a massive Red Light district and stoned tourists, and since I had an invitation from a couch surfer I hosted last year, I decided to check it out. I found it to be a fascinating place, well organized, practical and efficient but a little bit trippy at the same time, which kept things interesting for completely sober visitors like me. Prior to coming to the Netherlands, I pictured it as postcards advertised it: wooden clogs, windmills and quaint little canals lined with maroon and navy houses. However, on my trip into the city from Eindhoven airport, I was greeted by extraordinarily modern architecture… daring, steel-cable bridges, glass towers (not too high) in shapes that appeared to be built by toddlers testing the limits of LEGO stability and curvy windows illuminating more spherical buildings. Hmmm… the Dutch have advanced a bit from the days of wooden shoes, footwear that I never understood because it couldn’t possibly be comfortable. The areas near the port contained some of these innovative spaces but as our bus pulled up to Central Station, the city center contained more of what I expected from a European capital: a gilty gold train station, intimidating towering cathedral and quaint floating restaurant near the canal cruise stop. I boarded a smooth-sailing street car to the home of my first Amsterdam host and marveled at how cute the city looked everywhere, even on a 30 minute tram ride outside its center. Christmas lights reflected off the calm water of canals, cyclists lined the streets with scarves waving like welcome flags, people relaxed at outdoor cafes serenely sipping coffee or beer. I expected instant immersion in Bourbon Street-like insanity but this was so much nicer! My first night in Amsterdam was rather low-key but thoroughly enjoyable… a scooter ride through the city to a soundtrack of bicycle bells, past the Heineken factory and the illuminated …. (Amsterdam’s most famous museum), getting to know my host with a nighttime walk and a relaxed beer in a couple pubs. Our first stop (Sound Garden) wasn’t particularly extraordinary but I enjoyed the second, De Nieuwe Anita, a Berlin-esque bar with a dance floor in the basement. I’ve never been to Berlin so I didn’t know what that meant, but supposedly the German city takes a minimalist approach to decorating its bars… someone provided the example of throwing a few plastic chairs on a rooftop and calling that Berlin’s best new hangout. This particular place looked more like someone’s home than a restaurant, with random vintage paintings on the wall, mismatched couches and overstuffed chairs, worn carpets and even a “kitchen” supplied with appliances like spaghetti strainers and flour jars, behind the bartender. And the people matched the place. The people in the bar donned flannel, oversized puppy sweaters, vintage dresses, pearl necklaces threaded with ribbons, and busted out 1970s disco dance moves. The next day, I grabbed an umbrella and splashed through the misty, wet streets of the City Center with only a skeletal idea of what I wanted to accomplish. I headed in the general direction of Dam Square, nearly in the place where people first attempted construction of the city over this muddy land. I wondered what kind of event the police was blocking off the square for, then I saw a band of black people in Renaissance costumes. “Interesting choice of dress for a music group imported from Africa”, I thought briefly before getting distracted with a shop selling warm waffles dripping with melted nutella. I wandered through the sweet-smelling streets of the Red Light District, shyly adverting my eyes at the ladies in see-through slips posing provocatively in the windows. Attracted by colorful objects, I thoughtfully peered the artistic collection of bongs and inventive assortment of space cakes. My attention was peaked by rainbow colored tiles around a street corner and I found a parking garage that doubled as a nighttime art gallery, near Spuistraat street. The brightest building had posters that begged “save the snake” and I wondered whether the city was trying to eliminate street art in their attempts to clean up the city and appeal to upper-class tourists (supposedly there’s already legislation in place to close 40% of the windows and restrict the red light district to a couple blocks by the canal). After taking enough pictures of bikes leaning up against arched canal bridges and row houses tilting in various directions (tilted forward...

Feel Like Royalty Without Spending a Penny: Free Attractions in Vienna, Austria

Feel Like Royalty Without Spending a Penny: Free Attractions in Vienna, Austria

One reason I avoid traveling Europe is because of the price tags. I arrived in Vienna, Austria and stopped at a souvenir shop pretty early on as I tried to do my daughterly duty by picking out a magnet for my father’s collection. Seeing that it cost 5 euros confirmed all of my intentions to avoid Western Europe like the plague. However, luckily for me, I had two knowledgeable locals to give me a blitz tour of the city, and beyond the 7.60 euros I paid for a 24-hour transportation pass, I was pleased to find most of the attractions didn’t cost anything at all! Entrance to most of the city’s churches, markets, gardens, parks and galleries are free. You don’t need to spend money like royalty to feel like it in Austria, just visit these free attractions in Vienna.  From nature to classic architecture to more modern buildings, there’s something for everyone especially if you time your visit to coincide with free concerts and events. 1) Schonbrunn Gardens and Palace (Free open-air concert in June!) You will have to hop on the metro to get here but make sure you visit this sunshine yellow palace, Austria’s most visited site. Colossal, cheery and picturesque, I was surprised to learn these are only the summer residences of the Austrian royal family, including empress Sisi, whose beauty started wars. While you need to pay to tour the inside of the palace, you can easily spend a day exploring its vast gardens which are so big that people go jogging here! If you zig-zag up the hill, you will also find a beautiful view of the city. If you’re lucky enough to be in Vienna in June, the palace hosts a free concert by the world famous Vienna Philharmonic. Although I couldn’t experience it myself, I can’t imagine a more beautiful setting to listen to a symphony than surrounded by roses, pruned bushes and fishponds. 2) St. Stephan’s Cathedral & Surrounding Downtown St. Stephan’s is the symbol of Austria’s capital city and is located in the heart of the downtown. Its towers soar high over the city and it contains one of the biggest free-swinging church bells in Europe. I found the interior to be a little dark and dreary but I loved the building’s colorful roof tiles, which were laid to depict the royal coat of arms of the city. I also enjoyed the costumed interpreters in knee socks, wigs and velvet jackets who try to invite you to the Opera. Nearby, explore Vienna’s famous shopping streets that emanate out from the cathedral and Hofburg, the imperial palace. You can peek at some old ruins and walk under its impressive entrance… just don’t get run over by the horse-drawn stage coaches that regularly pass through! While you’re here, stop at Demel, one of Vienna’s oldest bakeries, and splurge on a slice of sachertorte. Desserts are a highlight of Austrian cuisine and this chocolate cake with apricot jam is its crown jewel. You’ll feel like royalty especially when you enjoy it in this elegant setting. 3) Opera Vienna is a city with a rich musical heritage that works hard to maintain its reputation. Partly by housing one of the most famous and busiest opera houses in the world, with shows changing almost weekly. The building is massive and something to marvel at from the outside. However, with 3 or 4 euros and a little extra time, you can actually see an opera for yourself! If you show up 90 minutes before the show, you can buy standing room tickets, high in the balcony but the acoustics are good everywhere. 4) Parliament & Rathaus (City Hall) Walk through City Hall park and find yourself in front of the mammoth, neo-Greek style Parliament building. I’ve seen many parliaments and I’m not sure why Austria’s needs over 100 rooms but it sure is impressive. Speaking of grand buildings, just down the road is Rathaus, the most extravagant City Hall you ever will see. It has gothic towers that make it look like a cathedral and outside, you will find rotating exhibits. When I was there, there was a miniature circus (and even one of the nearby statues wore a red nose for the occasion) but I hear it has excellent places to get Gluhwein, mulled spiced wine, in the winter.  Because of these rotating attractions, it’s even fun to visit after dark (I never thought I’d say that about a City Hall)!  According to my host, the hall has also hosted free Playstation 4 video-game-a-thons but if you aren’t in town to catch something like that, you can go on a free City...