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...

Escaping The Crowds in a A City Of Tourists: Venice, Italy

Escaping The Crowds in a A City Of Tourists: Venice, Italy

I have no desire to visit most of Europe’s most famous cities: Paris, Rome, London, Athens have no appeal to me. Why go somewhere so well documented and expensive, and battle crowds of tourists when you can pay less to explore something new and different? Despite my dislike of touristy places, Venice was the one epic European destination that still captivated me, despite being a city of tourists, where foreign visitors can comprise up to 90% of the population during the summer. Why? I love water so a city where the waterways are the only road fascinates me. I decided to give myself 24 hours in this sinking city and braced myself for the worst: crowds so thick that I couldn’t move and readied myself to drain my wallet. With some smart navigation on my part, I’m happy to say Venice pleasantly surprised me and I’m glad I went. But it’s easy to fall into the tourist trap without proper planning… here’s a few tips I picked up about exploring the best of this lagoon city differently than the rest of the crowd. But first, why go? I expected extravagance and luxury, imagining the city as a height of trade and culture, probably the way it was centuries ago. I naively envisioned a hustling and bustling as they swapped Ottoman spices for silk and loaded Venetian Murano glass onto ships with dozens of sails, fluttering in the wind like frightened seagulls. I think I knew better, since I knew the city’s current population was a fourth of what it was during its peak in the late 13th century and I knew trade ships weren’t a thing anymore, arrived at night, things looked kind of dreary and that keeps things infinitely more interesting than places like Vienna where everything is too perfect.  But Venice isn’t like that.  It’s a sinking city, it’s a dying city, it’s a city of slime and mud, puddles and decay.  And that makes it infinitely more interesting to dream about what it used to be like, back in the 13th century when it was a kingdom in its own right. 1) Wake Up Early Getting out of bed before the rest of the tourists can completely change your experience of this city. I arrived to St. Mark’s Square around 7 AM and had Venice’s #1 tourist destination practically to myself. In late October, I timed my visit as the sun was rising and painting the buildings around the Bridge of Sighs pink. The only people I saw on the marble plaza of St. Mark’s were a few photographers and locals pushing wheeled carts around to prepare themselves for the day. The gondolas were still under tarps, the souvenir booths weren’t rolled out to clog the walk around the water and I was completely free to roam as I pleased. With the square empty of occupants, I could dream about what it was like a few centuries ago when Venice was a capital When I returned to the square around 2 PM, it felt more like a circus or Times Square than the elegant and royal retreat I found earlier. Street sellers almost impaled me as they waved around selfie sticks they were trying to sell. Remote controlled helicopters buzzed over my head, contaminating my view of the basilica with obnoxious red lights. There were so many people camped out, I was wondering where they were handing out tickets for the university football game or presidential induction speech (neither of which were actually happening…). 2) Get Lost In Side Streets I love places you can get lost and Venice is one of the best cities to do that.  Even a stone’s throw form St. Mark’s Square, you can get lost in a labyrinth of streets that leads you to small piazzas, dead ends and endless numbers of churches.  When you wander it, especially in the mornings, you’ll see the way the locals live, smashing their shutters to peer out at the ambitiously-packed delivery boat whose goods were piled too high and it got stuck under one of the pedestrian bridges.  You’ll see people moving wheelbarrows of goods, with brilliant maneuvering up arched bridges and down uneven, weathered steps. You’ll find glass shops, technicolor pasta shops, and amazing homemade stationary shops, where paper becomes a sensual, scented pillow to encapsulate your most private thoughts.  You’ll mentally bookmark a place, thinking you’ll return to it when you have more time but when you think you have retraced your steps, you will have found that it evaporated.  Things are constantly disappearing and reappearing in Venice and even your smartphone doesn’t know where things are.  It’s one way to...