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...

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...