Planning a holiday in Europe is fun!
There are a myriad of places to choose from, a bigger number of activities to do, and umpteen ways to travel around, that planning the trip in itself is pure bliss for an armchair traveler like me. I just got back from my 30-day trip in Europe with my wife, and the experience was far better than what I had expected before I started the trip. We sampled a wide range of places in Europe – from bustling live cities to snow capped mountains, from beautiful beaches to stunning art and culture, along with options of a variety of foods, and travel options – I couldn’t have asked for any better.
In this post, I will try and explore the answers to some of the basic questions on planning the trip to Europe. Just to remind you, this guide is for Indian travelers, married or single, who have limited time and money in their hands, and want to have a relaxed and memorable experience in Europe in a short span of time. There could be others wanting to do a backpacker trip, live in a shoestring budget, or take things as they come, without a plan in hand – and while I completely relate to that idea, and have done things like that in the past, this guide is not for such a trip. And for the third category of people, who hate planning, or hate DIY trips, there are always good tour operators to go to.
When should I visit Europe?
Summer is the best time to visit in terms of weather, but it also means that every other person on the planet is eyeing Europe in summer. So, expect long queues and jacked up prices for everything in summer. Summer in Europe is in the months of July and August. June or September would be an ideal time to visit – early or late summer. This is the shoulder season, has good weather, and lesser queues and prices than summer. In May, a lot of mountain cable-ways and trains in Switzerland could be closed, and October could sign the start of autumn – with its brilliant autumn colors. Winter would be cold and dull – but the prices would be at their lowest best and crowds would be gone.
Where all should I go?
This is the most difficult question to answer, especially when your destination is a land of a variety of experiences – like Europe, or even like India. The process is making a set of difficult decisions – like choosing one of your favorite places over another of your favorites, or drop some nice place because it is not convenient to reach, or whether to visit a place with a lot of hype, or some place with a laid back atmosphere. You should also remember that visiting the same kind of places one after the other, without having a variety is going to make your holiday boring and tired as well. So, the choice of places, as well as the order in which you visit them is the first important step in planning.
Europe is quite a large land mass. And for the sake of travel, I’d like to put the European countries into smaller baskets, so that it is easy to decide which places to visit, and which places to leave out until the next visit. The grouping of these countries is based on similar experiences, expenses and comfort of travel. From these baskets, you can decide how much of each category you want to experience.
- The power centers – France, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland
- The fun centers – Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Croatia and Turkey
- Scandinavia – Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and of course Iceland
- Central and Eastern Europe – Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, and what not!
- The UK and Ireland
The power centers
You will need a Schengen visa to travel to Europe, which is valid in most of the above countries (except a couple). The countries which have the most financial and business interests in keeping the Schengen area and the European Union together are these countries. They are the most developed of the whole lot, and the most safe for travel as well. You have the best infrastructure here, trains and buses arrive on the dot, and things are generally expensive in these countries, especially for the tourists.
France – You would remember Paris, with its Eiffel tower and Mona Lisa. But other than these, France has a whole lot of things to offer – Loire valley with its palaces and vineyards, the French riviera with its stunning coastal towns and beaches, Normandy with its world war sites, the Disneyland, the Versailles palace, a number of beautiful countryside towns, the French Alps, and the French food. No other country offers as much variety as France does.
Germany – The Rhine valley – with its castles and vineyards, and Bavaria in the south – with its medieval towns, mountains and Black forest are the highlights of Germany. Other than that, cities like Berlin and Munich, offer their own history and charisma to experience. Frankfurt, with its air connections to all parts of the world (including a lot of Indian cities) is the travel hub of Europe.
Netherlands – With its windmills, tulip gardens, wooden clogs, cheese markets, and above all, an open and tolerant atmosphere, Netherlands is a must visit country in western Europe. Amsterdam – the sex capital of the world, offers more than that. It is the center of art, culture and trade, and also a travel hub for all places in the tiny country.
Belgium – Belgium is best visited for Bruges and Antwerp – the well preserved medieval towns. The capital city Brussels offers a plethora of art and history by way of palaces and museums. Do not forget to have some beer and eat some chocolate when in this little country.
Switzerland – The most expensive of the power centers, and the most beautiful as well. The Swiss Alps offer the most breath-taking experience of visiting the Alps anywhere in Europe, and the trains, cable-ways, gondolas and ski lifts that take you to the top of the mountains are definitely and engineering marvel.
The fun centers
Calling these countries fun centers does not mean that any of the other countries are less fun. But, these countries give the biggest bang for the rupee. You get to have a rich cultural experience, enjoy wild beach parties, eat the best of the European foods, and generally have a good time in these countries – for a much less price than you would pay elsewhere. You would have to be a little extra careful when traveling these countries, as they do not have the best of the economies as the power centers. But as tourists to these countries, you will have the right dose of fun!
Italy – Now, if art and history is your thing, look nowhere beyond Italy. The triplet cities of Rome, Florence and Venice offer more of the renaissance art and architecture experience than you would find elsewhere. All the popular visits – like the leaning tower of Pisa, Michelangelo’s David, St.Peter’s and Vatican, the Roman Colosseum, St.Mark’s square, gondola rides, spicy food, and warm people – are part of this three-city experience. For those who want more – a visit to Naples, Sicily, Amalfi and the Cinque Terre will not disappoint. Like India, Italy is a country of countries, and the cultural experience is going to be as varied as it can get.
Spain and Portugal – Two words – food and nightlife – sum up the vibrant spirit of Spain. Along with its neighbor Portugal, Spain offers the best beaches of western Europe, popular for their nightlife. If Madrid is the art and cultural capital of Spain, Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, is the food, festival, and nightlife capital of Spain. Enjoy a tapas meal in one of the many bars, and watch the world-famous bull fight in Pamplona. Portugal, which is gearing up slowly to the prosperity of western Europe, can be a good add-on to a Spain visit.
Greece and Croatia – If you think of beaches in the Mediterranean, you should think of Greece and Croatia. The Aegean islands like Santorini and Mykonos in Greece have already started to attract Indian tourists, and are the right place if you are looking for mind-blowing parties, and a vibrant nightlife. You can enjoy a romantic sunset in any of the islands, while enjoying a sip of martini. Croatia, officially not part of the Schengen area is set to become part of it in 2015. It welcomes tourists with open hands, and has got some of the mesmerizing beaches in the Mediterranean, and gives a tough competition to Greece. Dubrovnik, an enchanting medieval town in southern Croatia, is a must visit.
Turkey – Though not in Europe, or part of the Schengen or Eurozone, Turkey has become a must visit for the visitors of Greece, and for the number of cruise ships that sail around the Mediterranean throughout the year. Nourishing a blend of the western and middle-eastern cultures, Turkey is an architectural and culinary delight. With its Byzantine churches, turned into mosques in the Ottoman rule, the lively souks of Istanbul, and its rich food, the cultural shock is well worth a travel.
The four northernmost countries in Europe – Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland form Scandinavia. Finland is also included in the list for practical reasons, though it is more related to Russia, than the Nordic countries. The Scandinavian countries are the most progressive and advanced countries in Europe, in terms of individual freedom and human rights. Though we mainly know Norway as the land of the midnight sun, there is more than that to Scandinavia. Spectacular deep fjords (sea valleys), northern lights, Viking sights and wooden churches, islands, beaches, volcanoes, glaciers and museums make up the majority of the sights in Scandinavia. Cities like Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Oslo have their own charm, fun, and nightlife. The island of Iceland, which can be reached by a flight is famous for the international trouble it caused because of an erupted volcano a year back. But, the natural beauty of Iceland, with its waterfalls, glaciers and sights is unparalleled.
The Scandinavian countries, though beautiful and comfortable, are definitely more expensive than their counterparts in the rest of Europe. Personally, I would put them off for the last of my tours in Europe, after having seen everything else. But, each one to his own.
Central and Eastern Europe
The eastern European countries like Austria, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the Balkan states, have their own charm. Popularly known to be great party and nightlife destinations for backpackers, these countries have a lot to offer at a moderate price. Mostly having been in the Soviet era communist influence, the eastern European countries are quickly getting to the vibrant European development and economy, and are wonderful and safe places to visit these days.
Austria is known for the Austrian Alps, with its winter sports, and summer hikes, apart from the palaces, castles, and its most popular icon – Mozart. Austrian cities like Salzburg, Innsbruck and Vienna are very popular tourist destinations. Having been powerful kingdoms in olden times, the other countries in this basket offer a rich insight into their history, by way of palaces and museums. The capital cities – Budapest, Prague, Warsaw, Bratislava and the others have impressive old town centers, churches and renaissance buildings, and are definitely worth a visit in one of your tours. Food is not a highlight, and is generally bland for the Indian palate (imagine boiled potatoes most of the time).
The UK and Ireland
I come to the UK last, because we have so much in common with the English, and there is so much to see. UK is a union of four countries – England, Scotland, Wales and northern Ireland. Southern Ireland, or officially, the republic of Ireland is a separate country. Since we share the English language, and the Indian curry, travelling in these countries is a breeze, and most comfortable. Historic buildings and architecture, right from the Roman times, to the renaissance times, and hundreds of castles, offer a plethora of options for the travelers to choose from.
Though I’m not going into the sights in the UK, as they are quite popular by themselves, I will highlight a few. In London, do not miss the Tower of London, and the Westminster Abbey. In England, visit the English castles, and old towns like Oxford, Cotswolds, Stratford, Lake district, and English castles. Definitely take a guided tour of the Scottish highlands for as much time as you can afford to spend there, because, the Scots are proud of their culture, and will keep you entertained with their stories, anecdotes, folklore, and their skirmishes with the English – along with visiting their stunning, and sometimes reportedly ‘haunted’ castles, mountains and mesmerizing little villages and towns. Visit Dublin in Ireland for its famous Irish pubs and nightlife.
Enjoy a sumptuous English breakfast, a meal of fish and chips, or the numerous sea food options in Scotland, or an Indian curry or chicken tikka masala in a traditional English pub.
How did I plan?
Overall, Europe offers a lot, and it is your call to choose wisely. I would recommend 4 days in every hotel or hostel you stay in, so that you have time to get your bearings right, and have the right amount of time to visit the popular or laid back sights the place you chose has to offer. For example, I chose 7 places to stay in my 30-day tour – Amsterdam, Lauterbrunnen and Zermatt in Switzerland, Paris, Venice, Sorrento and Rome. Choose more, and you would be traveling more than you would like, and choose less, you might get bored of a place.
The variety in the places you choose, and the order in which you visit them makes or breaks a tour as well. To explain with my example, the first place we went was Amsterdam – a simple city, also a hub for traveling to the Dutch villages like Volendam, Edam and Zaanse Schans. Next, Lauterbrunnen and Zermatt in Switzerland – a total contrast from my previous place – with snow covered mountains everywhere, Alpine hikes, glaciers, and museums. Next was Paris – metropolitan city – with it different set of attractions like the Louvre, Disneyland and Versailles palace. Then we went to Venice – a mix of architecture, waterways, and picture perfect islands. Sorrento – our next stop – was the sea, cliffs, and beaches. Finally we came to Rome to take in the renaissance architecture and the Vatican. Keeping it mixed this way makes sure you have a variety in the places you visit. Too many capital cities, or too many countryside towns, or too many beaches is going to make the trip dull after a few days.
An ideal combination would be a couple of cosmopolitan cities, some mountains, some beaches, some picturesque old towns, some countryside, and some history – that is my personal choice of places for a long trip. You can make your own choices from the baskets above, and as a first step, come up with a good itinerary.
Some tips from my trip
- Switzerland was the best in terms of scenic beauty. Limit to 4 nights in the Bernese Oberland region. Lauterbrunnen is an excellent place to stay.
- Things tend to be expensive in Switzerland, and we had to spend more than we planned for food here.
- Amsterdam was an ideal hub to visit Netherlands. The countryside is 30 minutes by bus, and you can take a cycle or scooter tour as well.
- We stayed for 4 nights in Paris, and 2-3 more days would have been better (we missed the Louvre, Versailles and the Loire valley).
- We took a long day trip from Venice to Pisa, and it was worth it. We had to skip Florence for want of time.
- Sorrento is the best place to stay in the Amalfi coast, beingf a travel hub, and with its food options.
- Italy is going to be pretty hot anytime in spring/summer, so plan on a lot of rest between sightseeing when in Italy.
- In terms of food, the oberland rosti in Switzerland, and the vegetariana and arabiata pizzas/pastas of Italy are a must try.
- We ate chinese food a lot in our tour. It was cheap, filling, and tasted exactly like in India.
- In Paris, we wanted to have some Indian food, and had cheap Indian/Sri Lankan Tamil food at La Chapelle area.
In my next post, I will talk about the budget, and the costs involved in planning a European holiday.