Like most other students on exchange, I’ve been taking advantage of the cheap travel and close proximity of vastly different cultures. There is no “right” way to travel in Europe, but here are a few tips to make your traveling experience more enjoyable.
1. Set Goals
Unless you have no attendance policy and you’re just rolling in the cash, you only have so much time and money to spend in one place. It’s important to think about what really matters to you and what you want to get out of your trip. It would be fantastic if we could all eat amazing meals and see every work of art and bring back a new outfit from every trip, but it’s just not realistic. For me, I knew I wanted to see beautiful things and eat delicious food. I refused to just eat somewhere because it was close to a museum or my hostel. I trekked to where I could get a really great plate of gnocchi or a cappuccino and it was absolutely worth it.
2. Embrace hostel life
I was terrified of staying in a hostel, but I did a lot of research trying to find the safest, cleanest, most fun hostel and it turned out wonderfully. You’ll find that most hostels are filled with lots of people your own age from different countries. I actually met someone from Austin because we were both registering for classes at the hostel computers, as well as a girl from California who was traveling around Europe for 3 weeks by herself. And one of the hostels we stayed at had a bar, a restaurant, exercise room, pool, sauna and rooftop terrace. They’re not all nightmarish.
I was incredibly lucky to have VERY good friends from Dublin on my exchange that made me a complete guide to their hometown. Of course we knew to take a tour of the Guinness Factory, and we would have found out about Temple Bar eventually, but I never would have known about how important it is to try “taco fries” or brown bread ice cream or the cool places to hangout if you’re a college student. They sent me to their favorite places in Dublin, just like I would do for my friends visiting Austin. Thanks to them I felt less like a tourist and more like a guest. Besides, these people know their city better than TripAdvisor.
4. Take the road less travelled.
Sometimes you just need to walk down a street because you feel a need to take it. My favorite thing about Europe is that you know what you’re supposed to see. The Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, etc. and you know it’s going to be beautiful. I’m still blown away every time I see the Eiffel Tower, but my favorite thing is wandering through cities and stumbling into really beautiful streets or parks. Owen Wilson says in Midnight in Paris, “Every street, every boulevard, is it’s own special art form.” And it’s so unexpected, you’re even more taken back by the charm and the beauty.
(Random corners of Dublin, Rome, Paris and Giverny)
5. Find the best view of the city
I feel like you can’t truly know a city until you’ve climbed to the highest point or seen the best view. In seeing all of the city at once, it’s like finally knowing a person for who they are. I didn’t care for Rome as much, and I think it’s because I didn’t climb to the highest point. I’m terrified of heights, but climbing the 419 steps to Giotto’s Bell Tower in Florence was well worth the sweat and fear. It also makes for great pictures
(Dublin from Guinness Gravity Bar, Florence from Giotto’s Bell Tower, Longhorns atop the Duomo di Firenze, Paris from Parc de Belleville.)
6. When in doubt, say “pourquoi pas?” or “why not?”
Not to be comical, but YOLO. You only live once, and chances are you’ll only be with the people in your exchange in the cities that you’re in once in your entire life. It’s sad to think about, but it really makes you want to live life to the fullest and take advantage of all the opportunities you’ve been given. Sometimes you have to say “screw the itinerary” or get over being exhausted or hungry and instead go do something fantastic like climbing almost 900 steps to get the best views of Florence, or sitting outside the Eiffel Tower on a weeknight so late that the metro stops running. These are the things worth remembering.