Oh, the places we'll go...
March 6, 2012 12:34 PM   Subscribe

Help two 19 year old American girls plan a trip to Europe!

My friend and I are trying to plan a backpacking trip through Europe for summer of 2013. We’d like to start in the UK and from there, travel by train through France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and possibly Sweden. Neither of us are interested in tourist-y places – we’d much rather visit smaller towns/cities and really experience the culture (but that doesn’t mean big cities are out of the question).

We're ridiculously excited about this, but we have no idea what to do once we're there! Does anyone have any suggestions about where we should go, what we should do/see/eat, etc.? We're open to anything. I'm from a wicked small town way out in the sticks in northern New England and want to experience as much as I can. And any tips about culture differences would be greatly appreciated.

Also, if anyone has done something like this and would be willing to share their story, PLEASE message me - I'd love to read about it. Thanks!
posted by EverybodySing to Travel & Transportation (44 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Do you speak any non-English languages?
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:36 PM on March 6, 2012

And do you have family connections (eg, where your great-grandparents were from, where your parents went on honeymoon) to any places in Europe?
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:37 PM on March 6, 2012

Response by poster: Nope, just English. As for family connections, I do have a cousin living in England, but that's it.
posted by EverybodySing at 12:40 PM on March 6, 2012

Sign up for an International Youth Hostel membership if you haven't yet - you will get hella good deals on lodging whereever you go.

And I suppose this is an endorsement: my best friend sent me ten text messages, 3 emails, and one voicemail all in the space of one hour last week, all of which said the same thing: "GO. To ROME." Her budget was about as small as yours, she only spoke English too, but she loved it (she said she HUGGED the hotellier and CRIED when she had to leave), and has been repeatedly telling me for the past few days that I should GO to ROME, so I'm assuming that advice applies to everyone...
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:49 PM on March 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just some general advice:
1. Americans talk a lot louder than many Europeans and certainly louder than the English. Be aware of how loud you're talking eg on a train to avoid annoying the people around you.
2. Pack a lot less stuff than you think you'll need. Your pack will get heavy
3. Be aware of pickpockets in tourist areas and have a plan of how to secure your important items like passports. Read up on travel forums to familiarize yourself with common tricks, like a person who suddenly starts cleaning a stain off your coat, or a group of kids who come up and surround you "begging".
4. There are so many things to see and do that you'll be tempted to schedule a different town for each day. Resist. Give yourself time to explore a few places really well, and time to rest if you need it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:51 PM on March 6, 2012

Y'all know about Eurail and Hostels International right? They are really the feasible way to do something like this, just double checking.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:52 PM on March 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

How long? Standard guidance is to spend more time in fewer destinations if you can, so that you're not spending a comparatively huge amount of your trip on trains, and have enough time to get to know the places you visit.

One suggestion that might interest you: borders. Your general itinerary takes you through places where linguistic, cultural and national identity can get quite blurry, which is something that's going to be quite new to you. Seek out the places that are situated in one country but feel like they belong either to another or to somewhere in-between. Travel at your slowest in those regions, so you get a sense of when French gives way to German or Italian, where wine gives way to beer, and so on.
posted by holgate at 12:52 PM on March 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Neither of us are interested in tourist-y places

But you're tourists.

Small towns can be nice but they're... small towns. Not every small town has individual charm/events/interest. A lot of small, off-the-beaten-track towns end up looking like.... every other small, off-the-beaten-track town. What you can do is find interesting/fun things to do that aren't the "central" tourist sites. Going to France? Detour to Corsica.

Buy some guidebooks and read them. I prefer Lonely Planet. Pick out the places that seem interesting but aren't necessarily central. Most importantly, and this is something I wish I had planned around more-- plan your visits around local festivals. Find out what festival events are going on in small towns and cities in the countries you're visiting and plan your trip around those. You get a great feel for both local flavor and a place where there are lots of visitors you can meet and experience traveling with. relatedly, stay in hostels and socialize with the other people staying there who will give you tips about where to go and stories about where they've been.

Now that said, if I were in Germany, I'd definitely pay a visit to Sylt, which is an out-of-the-way island, which is pretty touristy, but frequented by German tourists. Berlin might seem to "central" for you, but Berlin is awesome. Just because something seems "tourist-y" doesn't mean you shouldn't do it! Nice is heavily tourist-y, but nothing beats having some coffee in an outdoor café with a German med student while listening to a pianist playing outside.
posted by deanc at 12:54 PM on March 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

If this is your first trip, and you are planning to visit a number of countries, then I would think twice about making it a small town tour. I know you say you have no interest in touristy places but there is a lot of cool stuff in those places, and you will get just as much of an authentic experience of the culture of those countries in a big city as a small. The problem with small places is that the fun of them is mostly in the people and smaller events that go on, and which you need time and local knowledge to get the most out of them. If you're in each place for a few days max, I think you'll get less out of it than if you go to bigger places.

Or to flip that around, if you are determined to only go to smaller places, maybe try to find local contacts and events ahead of time - use couchsurfing, look for local festivals, that kind of thing.

If you know people in the UK + you speak the language, maybe do some smaller places here and focus on a more mainstream agenda on mainland Europe.
posted by crocomancer at 12:57 PM on March 6, 2012

Or what deanc just said.
posted by crocomancer at 12:58 PM on March 6, 2012

Take a list of American embassy and consulate contact information in every country you might conceivably go to and every country that borders them. It won't take up any space.

Sleep on trains.

Don't dismiss the big cities as centers of culture. For one, they're where the culture is, and for another, it's usually a lot easier to find a part of that local culture that you can actually experience over the course of a few days. Small towns are (for the most part) either insular and unwelcoming (and I mean that in the best possible way -- not that they hate you, but that they don't know you) or tourist traps. There's a very skinny tightrope between the two.
posted by Etrigan at 1:03 PM on March 6, 2012

I live in Sweden (Stockholm) and although I'm your typical cave dweller, I would love to answer any questions you have. All of Sweden is quite gorgeous during the short summers (we have Nine Months of Darkness so summer comes as a great surprise every single year) but even if you stick to Stockholm you can experience a beautiful city, visit the Stockholm Archipelago, Old Town, Djurgården, eat great food, etc, etc. Visit Stockholm is a decent guide for tourists.

As for cultural differences, people tend to be very casual/relaxed but can be seen as a bit reserved (we blame the Nine Months of Darkness) but alcohol is what binds us together... American tipping culture is very foreign to most Swedes so you will only tip at hotels and (some) restaurants, not cafés and such. Most people speak English and do it well.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 1:11 PM on March 6, 2012

If you've never been outside of your own rinky-dink environment, then trust me: You DO want to see the touristy places. It doesn't mean that's all you're going to see, but seriously... you don't want to see the eiffel tower? you don't want to tour central rome or see any roman ruins? You do.

When i was 22, i travelled around europe for 7 months by train. My route was spain-southern france-italy-switzerland-netherlands-england-northern and central france-czech republic-hungary-croatia-greece. (That slightly weird route was due to meeting a friend in england on a specific date midway through.)

Basically, start wherever you want to start (often, where you can get the cheapest flight), and then plot a logical route from country to country. Book things as you go, so you can be spontaneous in your plans. Choose your route based on trains routes and geography. DON'T PLAN TOO MUCH. Get a youth card and a rail pass. Don't pack too big a bag, you need less than you think.
posted by Kololo at 1:11 PM on March 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Here are a couple of good threads on places in the Netherlands that are not Amsterdam:

What's there besides Amsterdam?
Weekend away from Amsterdam
Overnight trip from Amsterdam

Rail service is so good in the Netherlands that you can easily be based out of one city (I stayed in Utrecht, which is a rail hub) and within an hour or two be in one of a dozen unique Dutch towns - not just Amsterdam but also Delft, Den Haag, Rotterdam, Haarlem, De Hoge Veluwe (massive park with free bicycles). You can see a lot of places without changing hotels every couple of days, and each has their own unique character and history. I never found anywhere in Holland that wasn't English-friendly, even in the smaller towns.
posted by Gortuk at 1:16 PM on March 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

You need to be part of the couchsurfing network! It is made for this. I'd guess you haven't heard of it or else you would have mentioned it already, so I'll outline how it works.

The point of couchsurfing is cultural exchange -- matching excited travelers with locals who are excited to host them. It is a social networking site which allows you to post available couches for hosting, and to make requests to stay with someone who has made a couch available. It is always free, but it's not only about a free place to stay; hosts and guests are meant to interact and share experiences. As a traveler it can be wonderful because your hosts will plug you directly into the city you visit and you will experience it as a local -- but you are also likely to meet other travelers, either sharing the same house, or at events, or through the network. As a host it's great too, if you like company.

The culture is youthful and very international, and skews somewhat extroverted. Especially in bigger cities it is not uncommon to find "couchsurfing houses" which have a steady parade of people coming and going, sometimes rented by temporarily stationary travelers who met through the network. There are regular couchsurfing social events happening in every big city and this is a great way to make some instant friends if you feel like it.

Because of the risks involved in opening ones home there is a reference and vetting system. You should make profiles and make an effort to either host people, or get involved in local events, so that some people who are already part of the network can link to you and say that you are nice folk. Other than that it is very straightforward.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:18 PM on March 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I did my solo traveling experience, I settled into a pattern of a big city for a few days, then a small town for a few days. It was refreshing to switch back and forth and alleviated the monotony of seeing the same types of places day in and day out.

The modus operandi that pretty much is fail-safe in any European location: in any new town, big or little, head towards the cathedral or main church. It's always in the picturesque center of the town. Chances are the Office of Tourism is nearby and you can snag a map, and then explore out from there.

Try not to plan too much. By noon every day, I knew where I was sleeping that night, but not necessarily the next night. I had a general itinerary mapped out, but knew that if one place really grabbed me, I could stay an extra few days with no problem.

In the summer, you need 3 t-shirts, two bottoms (I liked long skirts), 3 underclothes and socks, 1 light sweater for the evening, hiking boots, flip flops, swimsuit and a head covering. THAT IS ALL. Buy some powdered detergent and wash your clothes in the sink every night. I survived 3 months on this. Yes, you can too.
posted by Liesl at 1:19 PM on March 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, definitely take advantage of couchsurfing!
posted by Windigo at 1:20 PM on March 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

The big cities are worth it because they teem with history and culture, you would be missing out if you don't go to Rome, but Berlin, Venice and maybe London, Paris and others are up there too. Rome is gobsmacking for just walking down the street and looking up and its the Colosseum! Or St Peter's, or the Spanish Steps, or the Trevi Fountain or one of tonnes of other amazing sites.

I would certainly think about booking some time in a quieter place in Switzerland and using it as a base to explore the country, the trains are excellent and journeys will be worthwhile in themselves (and short). There are lots of stunning places to walk, cycle and swim in lakes (check its safe before you go in) plus plenty of opportunity for more adrenaline fuelled sport if you are so inclined.

If you are going by train then get this: Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable. I know its not needed as much as it was in these internet connected days but they are great and contain all the info you need to navigate rail journeys across the whole continent.
posted by biffa at 1:24 PM on March 6, 2012

I am a twentysomething American who has played the tourist in Europe four times, most recently returning from London yesterday. Some thoughts:

- Pack much, much less than you would think. Seriously. Pack as you would for your trip and then backpack around your town without a car, taking the bus, taking the stairs (many places don't have elevators), watching your stuff all the time. You will quickly come to the conclusion that you have overpacked.
- If you are traveling UK<>France directly, I highly recommend the Eurostar. It travels directly from central London to central Paris, is very comfortable, and St Pancras is a joy to behold. Budget-wise, of you buy tickets early enough, they are very reasonable. I got my London-Paris ticket for $60 one-way. Granted, this is well above the super-cheap budget-airline, but fees can quickly add up (checked luggage? fee. used a credit card to book? fee. airport flies way out to the sticks? fee to get into the city. didn't check in earlier? fee.) I am perhaps biased because I highly enjoy train travel, but if you look at it as part of the experience, instead of just a way to get from point A to point B, you might like it as well.
- There are some night trains that you may want to look into (I've taken one from Paris to Barcelona and from Copenhagen to Amsterdam) that are sort of an experience in themselves and combine a hotel night and rail journey in one.
- The Dutch, in my experience, speak excellent English. Domestic train travel in the Netherlands, with the exception of the high-speed Thalys trains, is basically walk-on in the sense that you don't have to book your tickets ahead of time, which allows for wonderful flexibility in touring the country.
- Fewer places, more time in each. I highly enjoyed my trip to London because I felt like I found the perfect balance: I'd see maybe one or two "big ticket" sights each day -- say, St Paul's or Borough Market -- and spend the remainder of the day wandering around. That way, you feel like you've both seen the major sights to see and gotten your own individual sampling of that place.

Some broader, more philosophical thoughts:

I think there's a preoccupation, especially with hip young people (of which I am totally a member), to not be touristy. But as deanc says, by the very definition of what you are doing there, you are there to be a tourist. I think the key here is to distinguish between tourist sites and tourist traps: as I like to say, tourist sites are tourist sites for a reason, because people want to visit them. Take London, for example: Westminster Abbey or the British Museum might be descended on by hordes of tourists, but that's for good reason: there is so much culture, so much history, and just "so much" to see there. Versus Madam Tussaud's wax museum, which I think is a total tourist trap. There's nothing wrong with wanting to see tourist sites, and in Europe, Western Europe especially, many, many, many of those sites are going to be in those big metropolises -- London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam.

And I have visited small towns and villages in Europe. To a large degree, they can be highly insular -- especially with the language barrier. I had a wonderful time in those small towns, but I was traveling with a musical group that played a somewhat obscure instrument and we had connections with other musicians in those small towns. If I had entered just as a random visitor, it would have been more difficult to make those connections which allows you to have those experiences. Americans tend to romanticize small towns, I think, which can sometimes lead to somewhat rosy views of those places.
posted by andrewesque at 1:37 PM on March 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

Sleep on trains.

Sleepers are great, just for the experience, and the supplement for a berth will probably be cheaper than a hotel (though not a couch). I wouldn't do that exclusively: you'll miss seeing the landscape from the train by daylight, and possibly miss some of what your destinations have to offer at night. Use overnight trains for parts of your trip where you just want to get from A to B and don't care so much about the in-between.

I'd agree with what others have said about small towns vs. cities and tourist sites vs. tourist traps. Big cities should be part of the European travel experience for Americans, because "diverse, functional urban living" is, frankly, something that's foreign to large parts of the US.
posted by holgate at 1:53 PM on March 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all so, so much. For those who mentioned CouchSurfing, I'm already a member, just forgot to mention it :D.

As for avoiding touristy places, I guess I didn't really think through what I wrote before I posted it. I live really close to a town so filled with tourist traps you can hardly even use the sidewalks in the summer because of the hordes, and that's what I want to avoid. I definitely want to visit some of the big cities, I just don't want to spend the whole time in them.

And holgate, we're planning on taking about 2 months for this.
posted by EverybodySing at 2:04 PM on March 6, 2012

Forgot to add: if it's at all cool or dreary in the Netherlands when you are there, and even if it's not, have some stroopwafels (syrup waffles) and tea/coffee depending on your preference. They are amazing. If I could import huge quantities of stroopwafels without them going stale or having US Customs question why I am obsessed with these pastries, I would.
posted by andrewesque at 2:07 PM on March 6, 2012

we’d much rather visit smaller towns/cities and really experience the culture (but that doesn’t mean big cities are out of the question)

When you say "smaller", perhaps you might be thinking of "not Paris or London", in which case, have a look at the "second cities" of all these countries. The other thing is that they're often cheaper than the capital - and on the way somewhere else.

Imagine someone's coming to America for the first time. New York! LA! Chicago, San Francisco, the Grand Canyon! All amazing. But how do you connect those dots? How many go to the Great Smoky Mountains, or to Santa Fe, or to Seattle? All iconic places with stories of their own, but comparatively few foreign tourists. That's, I think, what you're looking for.

So for example, in the UK: London, of course, you'll see; but what about, say, Manchester or Newcastle? All are big cities, and I've found people there have *very strong* local identities and pride in where they're from - it's the people, I find, that make my stays there so memorable. And the Industrial Revolution was made up there in the North! And in the countryside, look at the Yorkshire Moors and the Lake District, which are hauntingly beautiful. Wales and Scotland, too! Cornwall! I was the only non-British person I met in five days in Penzance and Falmouth, walking along the South West Coast Path.

Final tip that I always pop into these threads: Seat 61. You will become the train expert in your family. Do not look at this site before bed because you will disappear down a rabbit hole of transport nerdery and may never emerge again! The site helped me go from rural Poland to London in about 17 hours for about €100, which sounds long and a bit expensive but included a long layover in Cologne where I got to poke around a cathedral and see an exhibit in a local museum - and it was cheaper than the cheapest flight booked in advance, by far, with two giant bags. Just saying.
posted by mdonley at 2:16 PM on March 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I haven't read the other responses, so sorry if I'm repeating anything.

I'm an American female not that much older than you. I used to live in the UK, and traveled through Europe a great deal during my time there. My main advice is to get the Eurail pass! It makes traveling via train between several countries much cheaper than it would be otherwise.

Definitely give yourself time to rest. Traveling can be extremely exhausting, you'll need it.

I'm on my phone so I dont wanna get too detailed, but please don't be shy about messaging me with questions. I can give you a lot of American-in-the-UK specific information. Also, of the countries you've listed I've traveled in the Netherlands, France, and Italy and would happily share my experiences with you.

As a side note, dont put your feet on the seats of trains in the Netherlands. Just don't.
posted by Emms at 2:17 PM on March 6, 2012

Your UK cousin might make this redundant, but if you want small town UK with good reasons to be there as a visitor, just a few I'd recommend would be...

Teignmouth ("Tin-muth" - just don't ask about nearby Combeinteignhead...) or Padstow for the south west coast.

Broadway or Bourton-on-the-Water for chocolate box Cotswold villages.

Lewes ("Loo-ez") or Arundel for interesting south coast towns with serious history.

Corfe Castle or Chepstow or Pembroke or Warwick or Bodiam for castles.

Plenty more where this came from, but my internet connection is dying...
posted by cromagnon at 2:26 PM on March 6, 2012

Disclaimer: I'm British and have travelled a fair bit around the continent. Based on your length of stay, I'd make a conscious decision to either do a whistlestop tour of major cities across many countries, or spend a decent amount of time in a few places.

Neither way is wrong, per se, but I think the second one is preferable. That way, a smaller proportion of your holiday will be spent in transit, and you'll be able to pick up a better sense of a place.

Of course, you could treat this holiday like the first round of a buffet, trying lots of things with the intention of going back to focus on one area more thoroughly. But bear in mind the trade-offs of each approach.

On a completely different note, Split & Dubrovnik in Croatia, and Tallin in Estonia are lesser-visited than the Western European capitals, and are wonderful cities to visit.
posted by Magnakai at 2:30 PM on March 6, 2012

Rethink the focus on small towns - they are small, ie. they may be picturesque but there is not much to do for any length of time, public transit may become infrequent or stop, shops shut early, even restaurants and bars may shut fairly early. You may find a lot less English speakers in small towns, too. By all means identify them on your route, get off the train for a couple of hrs to explore them but then head on to the next city.

And everybody is right about minimising your luggage - you should be able to carry your bag comfortably on your back walking for an hr if you have to..err on the side of less here - there are shops all over Europe should you need to replace one of your 3 tops at any point on your journey...

Finally, some of the countries on your list are quite expensive - this includes basic food items and drinks - in Switzerland even a venti Americano will set you back CHF6.80...and that is your only option for a decent sized coffee here. Denmark and Sweden are also expensive. So be prepared for large variances and allow for them in your budget.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:47 PM on March 6, 2012

Eight countries in eight weeks could burn you out, especially through the high season: while Americans have higher tolerance for long-distance travel, and train travel is much less stressful than driving the Garden State Parkway,

I'll link to Rick Steves' general suggestions for building an itinerary: the ones I'd especially emphasise are "two-night minimum per location", "mix up urban and rural", and "give yourself slack time".

Switzerland isn't cheap, but as biffa suggests, there or somewhere in southern Germany or northern Italy might make for a useful "home base" for a week or so in the middle, giving you the chance to set up a home base, cater for yourself, and either embark upon day trips without having to carry everything with you or just get some downtime to enjoy your surroundings.
posted by holgate at 2:53 PM on March 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Right, so I assume you'll be hosteling around when you get there. Here's some advice that I heard over and over again, and which always turned out to be true (except once in Munich, Germany): Avoid Hosteling International hostels. They are usually large, unfriendly, impersonal, and boring. When you book a hostel, make sure you check ratings on both Hostel World and Hostel Bookers, and read the reviews carefully. A good hostel can seriously make or break your stay in a city. Look for places where it's easy to make friends. To be honest, after traveling for awhile, the locations get sort of boring and it's the people you meet that really make the trips worth it.

On a side note, IMO, when I trekked through Europe last year, Eastern and Southern Europe were way more interesting than Western Europe. While I didn't go to the Scandinavian countries, many of the Western European cities were kind of boring, when it came to culture. It seemed to familiar and too expensive. In certain cities, I just felt like I was in America, but everybody was speaking a different language. But, the culture in the Balkans area was so much more vivid and provided me with a much richer experience. The people you meet down there are, in my opinion, more interesting too. I saw Croatia mentioned above, but places like Sarajevo in Bosnia get no love either but are amazing cities. Also, there is no more beautiful coastline than in Montenegro. PM me if you're interested in that part of Europe.

As a final note, plan, but don't plan too rigidly. When I was in Europe, I found that my plans really encumbered me when I found other places that I'd rather go. To that end, don't try to book places too far in advance, unless you really plan on going to some popular places at the peak of travel season. I booked all my accommodation before I left the States and ended up cancelling the last third of them because I ended up wanting to do something else.
posted by Geppp at 3:20 PM on March 6, 2012

My friend and I did this when we were 21 - right after college. We started in London, and then flew to Amsterdam. We had month-long Euro-rail passes (good for 8 days or something), and we visited Amsterdam, a small city in Germany (my aunt lives there), Munich, Salzberg, Austria, Croatia (Split, then Hvar if I remember correctly), Ljublana (in Slovenia), the Venice. Then back to London!

It was really wonderful - you're going to have so much fun! I have the emails I wrote my family & friends saved, please email me at the email in my profile if you'd like me to forward them to you.

General advice:
- We found it worked well to plan out our itinerary and make hostel reservations in advance - we're both planners and worriers, and we didn't want to have to worry about finding somewhere to stay (it was the middle of summer / hostels fill up).
- We did not plan our daily activities; we did that on the train between locations.
- Pack light; you can buy whatever you are missing. I got SO SICK of my clothing, so we wore eachothers clothing and bought some new stuff, but I am very glad I packed light - I would have brought the wrong things.
- Summer in Europe may be colder than you expect.

Regarding touristy stuff; we went to big cities, but totally avoided tourist traps (well, mostly avoided). There's lots of fun, local stuff to do in big cities. Mid-size cities are also awesome - and smaller cities are especially fun if you have someone local to visit.
posted by insectosaurus at 3:48 PM on March 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I disagree with those saying not to plan too much. The trick is to plan a bunch but not give a damn if you don't end up following your plans. Figure out right now (while you have an easily accessible Internet connection) what sites you want to visit, what transportation you'll use, and MOST IMPORTANTLY(!!!) your budget (down to a weekly basis if you can).

Then, when you get to your destinations, you have a good idea of what you want to see and how much you can spend on stuff. This saves you the stress of trying to figure out logistics and what's worth seeing in the various cities, in addition to helping you make sure you're not living off of the free hostel breakfast for the last week of your trip.

What's that you say? What happens if you meet a couple of guys that want to take you to their favorite local bar but you didn't work that into your schedule? Who cares! Plans are meant to relieve stress and save time when necessary but to be flexible enough to allow for spontaneity. If you end up spending more than you allotted for yourself one week don't worry about it, just make a mental note that you'll have to spend a bit less for a few of the days.

That said, if you visit London you should climb the steps of St. Paul's and visit the Tower of London. Take a trip to Bath (and visit the Roman Baths) if you can (Oxford University is really nice too). Pass on Stratford-upon-Avon, which was a bit too tourist-trapey for me (although I didn't have time to venture into many areas of the town).

If you visit Paris don't miss the catacombs or Montparnasse Tower.

Also, if you have the money, when you first arrive in a city taking one of those hop-on, hop-off open air bus tours can be nice for getting a feel of the place and shrinking it down a bit.
posted by Defenestrator at 5:17 PM on March 6, 2012

In Germany, Berlin and Munich are a must in my opinion. Berlin is an amazing city, with an incredible amount of history, but also it's really fascinating to see what a metropolis it's become, especially when you think it only just reunited some 20 or so years ago.

Munich is basically what everyone thinks Germany is—beer halls, etc., and it's a really great city as well. Make sure to check out the beer gardens in the English garden, they're a great place to hang out in on a beautiful day. Lots of people love the bike tours, and I went on Mike's, but to be honest, I wasn't all that impressed.

In Germany, while you should definitely have bratwurst and the typical German foods, make sure to try other things too—for instance, Leberkäs (pronounced "labor case") sandwiches are delcious, especially with sweet mustard, though they might not look too appetizing. Also be sure to get a döner from a stand. It's a Turkish food, but they're everywhere in Germany, and absolutely delicious.

I lived in Heidelberg for 5 months, and I really loved the city—it's a beautiful little-ish town with plenty to do, and a giant castle ruin atop the mountain. I wouldn't necessarily label it a must see, but if you're nearby (and you might be, since it's close to France), you might want to stop there for a day or two. When there, if it's a nice day, buy a few beers and something to eat at the grocery store, and have a picnic by the river. If you do decide to go to Heidelberg, definitely send me a message, and I might be able to give you some advice on what you might want to see.

Actually, that last bit kinda made me realize that pretty much my favorite memories of travelling usually boil down to going to a grocery store and hanging out in a park of some sort. I find foreign grocery stores to be endlessly fascinating—what types of food are popular, how are things packaged, etc, and hanging out in a park is usually a great way to see how the local people spend their free time.

I was in Paris for a couple months too, and my #1 piece of advice is to use Velib, the local bike rental program. It's amazing. You buy a pass for a day, week, or year, and you're instantly given the ability to rent a bike from any of their hundreds of stations throughout the city. You pick it up at one station and drop it off at the next, and the first 30 minutes (which will get you just about anywhere you want to go in Paris) are always free. Once I started using it, it changed the way I saw the city, because rather than sitting on a subway to get somewhere, I was riding my bike through the city, able to look at all the buildings and sights. It's really an awesome system.

Oh, and if you're looking to go on walking tours in any of the cities you're visiting, check it Sandeman's has a free tour. I did them in Dublin and Paris, and both times I thought they were great. You don't have to pay anything, though most people tip at the end (but they aren't too pushy about it).
posted by deansfurniture5 at 5:42 PM on March 6, 2012

An odd suggestion that's not to everyone's taste: go to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands for a hearing.

This is absolutely not a "touristy" activity and will be a unique (English-language) experience in a lovely city (the Escher museum is also worth a visit, by the way).

An ICC tour is interesting enough, but a hearing… it's fascinating! Provided you're interested in such things. Getting to see generals and ex-leaders on trial for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity is a… bizarre experience.

Shortly after moving to the Netherlands (from the U.K.), I found myself in The Hague one day—alone and with nothing to do. An ICC hearing was what I ended up doing with my morning and it was well worth it.

Check the hearing schedule closer to your date of arrival.
posted by fakelvis at 3:26 AM on March 7, 2012

I agree that eight countries in eight weeks is probably too many. And do consider going into Eastern Europe. Cheaper, and much more likely to surprise you.

A few guidelines I work on (though I am getting old now, so these may not apply to you):

- Three nights in a place. Some places deserve more (Berlin, London, Paris, Rome) and others less (Salzburg, Dresden, Frankfurt), but it's a pretty good starting point. Packing and unpacking takes time, even if you're not going far, the move will eat up at least half a day.
- I detest tourist traps, but I go to big cities because they are fascinating. You just have to find where the locals play and hang out there instead. Check out the touristy things if they sound interesting to you, run away if it turns out they're not.
- Travel with the weather. I don't know the exact dates you're travelling, but you want to do the northern part when it's hottest and everyone there goes on holiday to southern climes.
- Learn a bit of the language. Especially if you're heading into the countryside, it will help. Obviously you won't be able to learn all eight, but understanding a bit of the language makes a country more accessible as you won't be limited to what's packaged for tourists.
- Learn a bit of the history. It gives what you're seeing context, which makes it more interesting.
- Train for anything less than 5hrs, consider flying for more than that - but still often not worth it. Consider sleepers, but realise you might not sleep very well.
- Pack light; you should be able to carry everything and still have a hand free, both if possible. But do take a small amount of any drugs you might need. (My mother says this is because she never wants to mime diarrhoea in a chemist. But mostly because it can be surprisingly difficult to find what you want in a foreign chemist, and it's easier to have it on hand when you're feeling crap in the middle of the night)
- Pack light. Take multipurpose clothing. Black walking shoes that can pass for evening wear. A shawl that can also be a scarf or a picnic blanket or a head shawl. One cardigan/jacket. Nothing that needs ironing. Take two different pairs of worn in walking shoes - your feet will thank you. If at all possible, everything you take should match so you can layer but not look like a crazy person. Take at least one full outfit that is made of fabric that can dry overnight. Washing can eat into precious travel time, so do consider it when you're planning.
- Consider cycling. I am a new convert to this as a way of getting around, but it's a great way to experience a place. And in the Germanic countries, it'll make you feel more like a local.
- Many of the big cities have tours that run for tips. They can be great, or not so great, but are a good way to hit the highlights quickly.
- Street food. Supermarkets. Stationary stores. Sit in cafes and people watch.
- Don't try to do everything. I repeat, don't try to do everything. Sleep. Go and do things by yourself, travel can be very stressful on a friendship and it's good to have time to yourself.
- Pay attention to the journeys, not just the destinations. If possible, keep some sort of travel diary.
posted by kjs4 at 4:58 AM on March 7, 2012

OK, so your trip is over a year from now.

Your main goals right now need to be budgeting and planning.

Exactly how much money will you have? Is there something you can do right now to get more money than that?

How will you get around? Eurail is romantic, but does it actually make sense for the trip you want to take? For instance, is it more cost effective than budget flights or just buying tickets as you go?

What will your route be like? How will you see both Denmark and Italy without a lot of doubling back? Or does that even matter to you?

Are there things that either of you are DEAD SET on seeing that can be planned for right the fuck now? For example, if you want to see the Last Supper in Milan, you should probably reserve tickets soonish. Or at least start making a list of things like that which need to be planned very far in advance. Is there some local festival that will be going on? Plan to be in that town on that day NOW, and maybe even look into booking a hostel or at least getting a sense of how far ahead you need to do that.

This is also the time to go to a library or bookstore and browse travel guides. This is a great way to get a sense of what there is to do in a country, what regions are most interesting to tourists, what the distances are like, etc. You don't need to buy anything now (it will be out of date by the time you actually leave), but just have a look-see of what traveling through France or Germany will actually mean for you.

Other long game ideas:

Join couchsurfing.com! You have plenty of time to build profiles, get verified and vouched for, and maybe even try it out on a shorter trip closer to home.

Take a foreign language class! I'm assuming from your ages that you guys are in college. Don't colleges have foreign language Gen Ed requirements, anyway? Now is the time to decide that you'll take German and she'll take French, and spend a couple semesters getting the basics under your belts. Not only will it be useful for traveling, but it'll give you a foundation to build on. A month traveling through France will really hone your language skills if you already know the basics of grammar, have a small vocabulary, and are able to read signs and menus and the like.

(Oh, and protip? Don't join Hostelling International. The vast bulk of hostels I've come in contact with in many years of travel on four continents have not been affiliated with them. There's a massive boom in hostels and other alternative accommodations right now, and the days of institutional Youth Hostels where you have to be under 25 and a member are long gone.)
posted by Sara C. at 8:04 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't join Hostelling International. The vast bulk of hostels I've come in contact with in many years of travel on four continents have not been affiliated with them. There's a massive boom in hostels and other alternative accommodations right now, and the days of institutional Youth Hostels where you have to be under 25 and a member are long gone.

A counter-argument:

* You never DID have to be under 25 and a member to say in Hostelling International hostels. Or, okay, yeah, maybe you had to in the 1960's. But I've stayed almost exclusively in IYH hostels in the US and UK, and all of them were open to non-members as well as members. And people of all ages stay there (I didn't even START staying in hostels until I was 30). The non-members just pay a bit more for the rate, and us old fogeys just ignore all of the "pub crawl tonight WOO-HOO!" activities that get pitched to younger folks.

* Also - yeah, there are a lot of non-IYH hostels that have sprung up. But the IYH-affiliated hostels have to hold to a standard of quality, so you're not staying in an airline hangar that someone threw a bunch of mattresses in or something. Granted, there are indeed good non-IYH hostels; but you'll just want to do a little homework about a given non-IYH hostel to find out whether it's got massive bedbug infestations or something, and you wouldn't have to with an IYH hostel. There will be times you have no IYH option, but it's a convenience where you do have that option.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:27 AM on March 7, 2012

For what it's worth, that's the exact opposite of what I've found. The one HI hostel I've ever stayed in was institutional and sterile and full of obscure rules; it's not somewhere I ever would have stayed if it hadn't been a tiny town with only one hostel. And... I guess I could have saved a couple bucks that one time with an HI membership? Conversely I've stayed in tons and tons of amazing places that were not HI affiliated: a colonial mansion in Cusco, a fifteenth-century hamam in Istanbul, a tiny palm hut on the beach in Goa, a canal house in Venice... OK that last one may have been a bit flea-bitten. But the average traveler in most of the world is not going to find that HI hostels are better than the rest, or even that desirable compared to other options.

Anyway, OP, the upshot of the HI Or Not HI debate is this. You can stay in HI hostels if you want, or not if you don't. You'll pay an extra couple Euro per night if you're not a member of HI. This will make virtually no difference in your budget. It's a fun thing to do, and it's romantic, and you'll feel like a World Traveler when you fork over that membership fee. But it's by no means necessary, and is most likely a waste of money in the long run.
posted by Sara C. at 8:54 AM on March 7, 2012

When you say "smaller", perhaps you might be thinking of "not Paris or London", in which case, have a look at the "second cities" of all these countries.

Yes. I loved Utrecht when I visited Holland earlier this year, and Liverpool and Manchester are great cities to visit with history of their own. (I wouldn't bother going to Oxford - it's half any town and half toytown Hogwarts colleges which are usually full of US tourists and irritated students. But of course it's also a very historical place, so it depends on your particular interests.) Rail travel in the UK is expensive if you want to travel on the day, so see what you can book in advance if you want to see more than one place.

For smaller, less 'touristy' places, look up the In Your Pocket series of guides. You can download them as a PDF and see if anywhere takes your fancy. I decided to visit Utrecht based on this,w hen I was trying to work out if the Dick Bruna museum was worth a daytrip.

Remember that for all people talk about London and Paris being expensive, there are thousands of students and people on lower than average incomes in both cities who still manage to live and have fun. Of course, as tourists your costs are going to be more expensive but as long as you don't plan major shopping or culinary experiences you'll be fine. I went to Amsterdam on the Eurostar and stayed in a very quiet hostel for two nights for a total of £120, and I ate pretty cheaply as well even given the crappy exchange rate we have at the moment. Lots of great museums in London are free and even in cities like Paris where they are not, there's plenty of places to grab some tasty local street or bakery food and take in the sights.

I'm going to Tallinn at the end of the month so glad to hear it's relatively undiscovered!
posted by mippy at 8:57 AM on March 7, 2012

Don't let any talk you out of avoiding the touristy locations. Small towns are small towns and there may not be anything to do...except to couchsurf, make friends, get a job for a week, or whatever you want to make of it. I doubt you'll feel dissatisfied.

I don't think you'll get a lot of great advice about this from guidebooks, wikitravel, or even here (mostly). It sounds like you actually have a pretty good idea of the kind of things you want to do, the important thing will be to stay on that track, and don't fall into the temptation of going to Paris or Amsterdam because you're a little bored or don't what to do next.
posted by benbenson at 8:57 AM on March 7, 2012

Oh - I went to Amsterdam on my own (I'm female) and despite the stag do reputation, I didn't find it unsafe in the slightest. It's great to visit even if drugs and/or the sex trade holds no interest for you.
posted by mippy at 9:00 AM on March 7, 2012

The one HI hostel I've ever stayed in was institutional and sterile and full of obscure rules; it's not somewhere I ever would have stayed if it hadn't been a tiny town with only one hostel. And... I guess I could have saved a couple bucks that one time with an HI membership? Conversely I've stayed in tons and tons of amazing places that were not HI affiliated: a colonial mansion in Cusco, a fifteenth-century hamam in Istanbul, a tiny palm hut on the beach in Goa, a canal house in Venice... OK that last one may have been a bit flea-bitten. But the average traveler in most of the world is not going to find that HI hostels are better than the rest, or even that desirable compared to other options.

*shrug* Okay, fair, it's a your-mileage-may-vary thing, perhaps. I've stayed in some great IYH hostels over the years - a converted old-timey prison in Ottawa, an awesome mansion in Phliadelphia, a de-commissioned boy scout camp in Yosemite - and only two had weird rules (possibly because they were run out of someone's house and the owner was kinda grumpy). I also admit that my experience is confined to the US and UK.

I think the annual membership fee is only about $25 bucks; if that helps the OP figure out whether it'd be worth the savings or not, there it is.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:10 AM on March 7, 2012

Oh wow, you stayed in that mansion in the park in Philly? I've always wanted to try that place out, but I live just a couple hours from Philadelphia so it makes no sense to stay in a hostel there.

In all seriousness, I think HI might be more prevalent in the US, where hostels are thin on the ground anyway. For example New York has about five legit non-flophouse hostels, and I think all of them are HI affiliated. I've also heard that the classic Youth Hostel arrangement is popular in Germany. Certainly if OP is going to end up spending the bulk of the trip there, a membership might be worthwhile because she'd recoup the $25 over the course of the trip.

Conversely I didn't find HI hostels to be that prevalent in Italy - there were a lot more independent hippie places, squats, campsites, apartment sublets, no-star pensiones, and the like.

Re apartment sublets: my friend and I showed up in Verona last minute and the only decent place we could find was an apartment that rented out its three bedrooms hostel-style. It was a little weird, but it was also really cool because it enabled us to pretend we lived in an Italian town. We walked from the central touristy part of town to our quaint little residential neighborhood, went grocery shopping, drank two-euro bottles of wine, had breakfast on the balcony, fun stuff like that. It was much more affordable than renting a whole apartment would have been, because we were sharing it with 4-5 other travelers doing the same thing. The only downside was the line for the bathroom. Then again, it was nice to shower in a non-institutional normal apartment bathroom, even if you had to wait your turn to do it.

posted by Sara C. at 10:30 AM on March 7, 2012

Oh, stupid tag.
posted by Sara C. at 10:30 AM on March 7, 2012

Yet more advice along the lines of where to stay. One thing that might give you the feeling of traveling under the radar and being less of a tourist is to avoid staying in the main touristy part of town.

I just got back from Istanbul, and rather than staying in the tourist ghetto in the Old City, around the corner from Topkapi Palace and Aya Sofya -- which, granted, can be nice to do sometimes -- I chose a hostel in a hip residential neighborhood full of cafes, galleries, and normal people living their lives. I felt a lot more like I was visiting a real place than stuck in a touristy Disneyland. I was a short tram ride from the main tourist sights, but it was very worth it. Also, the tram ride enabled me to share in the local commute, which, again, makes it feel more like you're in an actual place and less like you're visiting Epcot Center.
posted by Sara C. at 11:15 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

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