Can you help me plan my trip to Germany, France and Italy?
April 22, 2013 9:29 AM   Subscribe

I will be in Berlin, Prague, Venice, Florence, Rome, Marseilles and Paris this summer. I've never been to any of these places before.

I will be spending about 2 days per city apart from Prague which is only 1 day. I realize it is a hectic trip and hard to see so much in such a short time, but that's the way the budget and time worked out. I will be traveling with two other students.

Advice I could use: where to stay (good hostels that you've stayed at?), tips/tricks to make things cheaper or easier to see (for example in Rome, I'm told that getting the bus tour package allows me to skip lines at the main tourist spots). We’re students and on a small budget and limited time in each city, so any ideas for making things efficient/cheaper would be awesome. Also things to see that I definitely don’t wanna miss in any of these places?

I have been using lonelyisland, ricksteves and seat61 but I was looking for more personalized advice.


Transportation - I'm traveling by train between most cities (already booked). So EuroRail pass is a nonissue at this point.

I have read some previous relevant threads, particularly this one about staying in Rome.

PS - I've never asked a Q before so I might be doing this all wrong....have mercy.
posted by BitterYouth to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I think you're going to be spending most of your holiday looking out of train windows if you really do it this way. Take a look at flying easyJet or Ryanair to save you some time. Air Berlin is also good. If you want to save some money in Germany and Austria you could take a look at which is a kind of organised hitchhiking scheme where you contribute to the cost of petrol.

Consider couch surfing or Airbnb for accommodation. If you're on a budget, make sure you go to some smaller towns. There is so much more to Europe than major cities.
posted by MighstAllCruckingFighty at 9:50 AM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

- Seconding yourself and the above post: you will lose a lot of time in transit and miss a lot of wonderful stuff in rushing so fast. But Eurail booked, so I guess it's fixed. Airplane won't necessarily save you time in many cases, especially going to the budget airline airports.
- Couchsurfing may be budget, but speaking as a host, many hosts want to spend some time with guests and yours is limited. Traveling in a group of 3 will also make it much harder to get a host in these cities. If you can compromise on the transit time, I second the above post that staying outside of the capital itself is a window into another way of life. Around Paris, at 30-60 minutes by commuter rail from the capital, you are already in cute little villages.

I'll focus on Paris cause I live here:
- 2 days is not a lot of time, but it could save you money because it takes about that long to whirl around the city and just see the cool places from the outside
- If you want to enter some museums and stuff, look for the Museum Pass. Available for 2, 4, and 6 days (guess you would only want the 1st one) it covers admissions for most museums and lets you skip most lines. You can enter, see just a little, and go somewhere else. You can enter museums you didn't think you cared about, just to check it out. Great!
- Hostels, I've heard great things about Paris Namdemun, clean, safe, and good Korean food included with the rate.
- Things not to miss? I don't know you guys so it is hard to say. If you are sci/eng students, you may like the Musee des Arts & Metiers. It's a science museum for adults who are into science, with orreries and generations of thermometer development etc. My other favorite under-rated museum is the Museum of the Middle Ages. Be sure to check out the chapel towards the end of the museum, which seems overlooked. The don't-miss spots really depend on what you are into.
posted by whatzit at 10:14 AM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I should have clarified...all the trains we are taking between cities are 2-3 hours max. The big trips (Berlin to Venice, Rome to Marseilles) are in fact planes (easyjet). We're trying the couchsurfing thing for the first time, but are still figuring it all out.

Paris is the only city we'll be spending 3 days in since it has been my dream city ever since I was a child. Thank you both for all your help - I'll be looking into that Museum Pass and carpool site for sure.

Also, I should have mentioned, we're medical students but our interests are the same of the average tourists. Of course Louvre, Sacre Coeur and other main spots that you see when you first visit a city are must-sees. I'm also big on dessert and coffee (anything chocolate really). As for shopping, we'll do some souvenir stuff I'm sure, but I'm going to try hard to stay away it due to the finances :). Thank you.
posted by BitterYouth at 10:26 AM on April 22, 2013

Just as sort of a general guideline, make a list of the 10 or so things you each most want to do in each city-- museums, sights, vistas, food, whatever. Then look at the day of the week those things are open or accessible and make sure that they will open on the day that you're in X city. Then get a map (or, better, photocopy the map pages from the travel guides and make extras-- you can just recycle these along the way, reducing the amount of paper) and mark off those things and a general timeline or route of how to get to them. If you know you'll need the 93 bus, then you should sort out how to buy tickets ahead of time. (30 things in 2 days is obviously not reasonable, but there will be things you cannot do, and overlaps.) This isn't designed to be something set in stone or an itinerary that's 100% infallible, but this way you'll be on the same page as to what you would like to do and what you actually can do.

The Museum passes are often very useful, but do the math to make sure they're actually cheaper than the museums you want to go/can go to. If you're in Paris and interested in the Louvre, they do have cheaper night hours once a week, and it's a stunning time to visit.

If you are religious, go to mass at different chapels and churches-- they're all lit, there are fewer crowds, and it's kind of neat to hear mass in a different language. I will never forget hearing a full Sri Lankan mass in Napoli.

tips/tricks to make things cheaper or easier to see

Buy food from grocery stores, not stands or cafes near major tourist attractions, like water, cheese, crackers, little bags of nuts. (Portable, not super perishable.) Most hostels will have a fridge that you can use, so that you're all set for breakfast without having to buy it in the train station. I always bring extra plastic silverware (like spoons) so that I can grab a yogurt on the go and not fall into eating crepes for every snack. Not super classy, but super useful.

I know I've commented on Rome in a lot of threads that you've probably already seen, but I'll add that I had some really stellar answers to my questions about Paris here. Several of the most fun little museums were free, and the Musée de la Chasse et Nature has become one of my favorite specialist museums. Unfortunately it was 19 degrees and snowing most of the time I was there so I couldn't explore the parks as much! Would definitely recommend savory crepes as a cheap, substantial, sometimes healthy (they often come with a little salad) meal.
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:34 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Listen to people when they tell you to drop a city or two from your list. You will thank them later.

Drop Prague and Berlin - not because they aren't worth visiting, but because they aren't geographically congruent with your other locals.

I still think you won't have enough time in each city, but at least that's a start.
posted by JPD at 10:54 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is way too little time to have this turn out to be a trip where you'll feel like you've actually visited these places and had any hint of immersive experience. If your intent is merely a checklist of museums and attractions to "see", then you will probably be able to get through everything, but you'll be tired, constantly on the move (or thinking about the next step) and will certainly not have time to visit the cool parts of any of these cities, which are typically not where the tourist attractions are.

At a minimum you should drop 2 cities, but probably 4. Really. Moving around also costs money, so if you're budget constrained, you'll have a cheaper time picking a few places and embedding yourselves there for a couple of nights.

Are there specific reasons for picking these cities? On the surface it sounds like everyone in the group picked some place(s) they've been dying to see and everything was shoehorned into a tight itinerary. The logistics of trying to get 3 people on-schedule and on-task is no small feat, either. If you can all stick 100% to the script then it can work, but, really, what's the fun in a 100% scripted vacation?
posted by homesickness at 11:12 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

My recommendation is to not try and do too much in each location.

I'm all about walking around and soaking up the atmosphere of a place.

I took the bus tour in Rome and while it wasn't as good as the one in London, it's very decent and we got right into the Colosseum.

When I was in Paris, I stayed at a hostel in the Latin Quarter. It's been 25 years, so I can't recommend one per se, but I thought the location was perfect for walking and meeting people and hanging around drinking red wine in cafes.

A thing worth knowing is that on Sundays, especially in Paris, shit be closed. Even museums. The Louvre is open on Sunday, so if you're in Paris, on a Sunday, go there. Don't stay out in the suburbs. With so little time, you don't want to spend an hour a day on the Metro.

If I had two days in Paris here's what I'd do.

Centre Pompisou-Modern Art

Eifel Tower

That's about all I'd attempt. The rest of the time, I'd stroll through the Latin Quarter, hang out in cafes, and chat with folks.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:16 AM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: "On the surface it sounds like everyone in the group picked some place(s) they've been dying to see and everything was shoehorned into a tight itinerary." - That's part of it. The original group is a group of 5 but we split up after Berlin. Also the big problem is that the city choices were made because there are friends to meet in these locations (for example Marseilles and Berlin). We also have friends in Serbia and Spain that will be flying to meet us at some of these locations. So it is a mix of what everyone wants and also social obligations.
posted by BitterYouth at 11:16 AM on April 22, 2013

Oh, one major thing to watch out for will be civil strikes. Civil strikes can close such important things as Rome's public transportation (except for select routes during rush hour, if I remember correctly) and the public museums in Paris. They aren't an insurmountable issue unless they affect the trains or planes, but just pay attention to any announcements along those lines.
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:41 AM on April 22, 2013

Chiming in on just wandering around. You're going to go through the Louvre so fast, the art will be a blur, but if you do some window shopping and eat great ice cream and sit in a cafe--you'll get Paris. I'd suggest picking 1 place to really see in each city and spend the rest of your time just being.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:44 AM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'd second Ruthless Bunny's principle -- try to trim your "tourist sights" list ruthlessly. Work out what you actually want to see rather than what you feel you should see because it's a Famous Attraction. Instead, spend time strolling around, enjoying the atmosphere, and doing whatever you feel like at that moment. You can't know what the weather will be like, and that will have a major influence on what will be enjoyable.

I agree with you and everyone else that it's an insanely short itinerary, but I think you'll have a great time if you do it right. In particular, I don't agree with the doom-and-gloom about the amount of time you'll spend on trains. I find train travel really pleasant and relaxing: it will be the perfect way to unwind between hectic city tours.
posted by pont at 11:44 AM on April 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm much more one for random exploration than "tourist sites", but I'd visit the Catacombs in Paris. It sounds kind of cheesy but it's actually really weird, eerie, and cool. (Check to make sure they're open, though-- they seem to be subject to constant renovation and random closings. I think I unsuccessfully tried on like three different occasions, years apart, before actually finding them open.)
posted by threeants at 12:19 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, consider AirBnB as a lodging option. I stayed with a traveling companion in a studio apartment in Paris that was small but perfectly clean and nice, for a mind-blowingly affordable rate in an equally mind-blowingly central and bustling location. (Prices may have generally risen since I did this a few years ago, though, as I think hosts have realized they can get a lot more for what they have.)

I'm decently extroverted and always liked the idea of the "hostel vibe", but have been pretty disappointed that in real life hostels are frequently populated by strung-out 18-year-olds on their gap yuh. In general I've found the smaller, quieter hostels to be more conducive than the huge, well-known party hostels to meeting nice, interesting people.
posted by threeants at 12:25 PM on April 22, 2013

threeant's comments about the Catacombs reminded me of something I forgot to write about Paris: BE A MORNING PERSON. If you are a morning person, you can get into the tourist sites before the lines get crazy (especially Eiffel Tower, Versailles, Louvre, Catacombs - 2 of those are not on the Museum Pass, Versailles is but you still have to queue to enter). I feel bad for people trying to go in the middle of the day, because they can lose 2-3 hours waiting in line! Also, you can enjoy the neighborhood markets for pictures and cheap eats.
posted by whatzit at 1:17 PM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

While I know being a morning person and being on a med school summer holiday probably don't jibe - I think that's great advice. Hit your touristy stuff first thing in the AM, then spend your afternoons flaneur-ing about. But you've got to commit to it. Personally I always ended up skipping the sights and just hanging around.
posted by JPD at 2:19 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Because you have way, way too many destinations and will spend at least as much time in en route to airports/train stations/checking in, checking out, packing, unpacking, getting oriented to so many cities, your question is a bit like asking how to cram for a big exam. It's inadvisable, but here's how I did a single day in London when a day is all I had. Avoid hopscotching all over, or you won't experience the place. Your next questions should be asking Mefites (or someone at to create a one-day itinerary for you for each of your destinations as they did for me in London.

First, concentrate on a single area/site you can reach easily. Ahead of time, research logistics, hours, neighborhood wine bars, restaurants, parks, walking tour in the environs of that single site. If the site is in a bad neighborhood, then find one additional area you can reach easily, then go in deeply. When I went to London, I did not see London Bridge, palaces, Parliament, Hyde Park--any of that--yet I had a lovely experience as you can see from my description at the end of my link.

Alternatively, buy a one-day on and off pass for a tour bus in each of the cities. Pick one area/site to spend a good half day in, and just take a peek at the others from the stops or from the bus.

That said, if there's any chance you can cut 2-4 cities off your list by having some of the people you plan to meet, meet you in one of your unmissable cities, then do that.

P.S. Back in the day, on my first trip to Europe, I sat on a bed in our Paris hotel on day 3 and just cried. I said to my husband: "Everybody lied about loving Europe. They hated it! They had to lie to everyone because of all the money they spent." My wise husband said: "Let's throw out the plans and just sit in cafés for the rest of the week." So that's what we did. We made many, many trips overseas trips after that and even lived in Paris for a couple years once we realized the great cities of Europe aren't just photo ops or names on a list but places to experience slowly and with care.
posted by Elsie at 2:22 PM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Some excellent "don't try to cram in experiences, just enjoy being where you are" advice above. I lived in Paris for a year and spent a long time feeling guilty about not visiting the Louvre... and then realised that I simply didn't give a fuck.

So: don't "should" yourself into seeing "important" things. Although I must say, you'd be mental to miss the Eiffel Tower, which is a genuinely majestic thing. Then just wander around a lot and feel awkward in grotty bistros, eat freshly-baked baguettes at 4 in the morning, and enjoy the unique aroma of the Metro.

Berlin is just ridiculously big. If you can't afford taxis, you're doomed. Checkpoint Charlie and all that stuff is interesting, but I thought the Holocaust Memorial (near the Brandenburg Gate) was breathtaking. If I ever go back, Dr Pong is first on my list for a revisit.

In Prague you should just get drunk and wander around a bit and then get more drunk. They have delightful churches there. Also, cheap beer.

The only thing I can remember about Rome is my wife ordering a "latte" and getting a glass of milk. Oh, and Michelangelo's Pietà, in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. Impossibly good.

Get lost. Ask old people for directions. Do things you wouldn't ordinarily do. Enjoy spending time with your friends. Have fun!
posted by ZipRibbons at 2:55 PM on April 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

Oof, people are being fairly hard on you. Not that I disagree about the tightness of your schedule - you're going to get over packing and unpacking that often pretty quickly. But many people have done a similar trip, and some of them even enjoyed it.

- Accomodation. Look into Airbnb, vrbo and crosspollination. It might be a bit more expensive than a hostel, but you save by having a kitchen.
- The first thing I like to do in a new city is get my orientation. So I take a tour (guided or self guided) or climb something tall. In Berlin I did an excellent free (tips only) walking tour. Rick Steves has free audiotours for many things in Italy.
- Research transport options. The best option for you will probably be different for each city. If you're only there for a couple of nights, you won't have time to work out the best way to get around when you get there. Don't forget cycling as an option. Berlin is fantastic for cycling - these people loan bikes for free.
- Don't try to do everything. Unless you are serious art buffs, I would skip the Uffizi, the Vatican and the Louvre. All need hours to appreciate. There are so many roman ruins in Rome that you just walk past, so I found the forum is overrated, though the colusseum is pretty cool, but if you're on a tight budget, the outside is really speccy enough. Churches are free, and nice places to have a sit. (Take good walking shoes!)
- Be a morning person, and look into late opening hours. I only enjoyed Florence as much as I did because I was getting up very early (most tour groups don't hit the streets until about 10am), so was walking straight into what later turned into crazy lines, and I saw David late on a Tuesday night when there were almost no people there.
- Enjoy the journeys. You're going to spend a large percentage of your time just getting from A to B, and unless you're very lucky, standing in lines and waiting on platforms. Try to enjoy it. Take some cards, music and books, chat to people, watch the scenery out the window, look around you as you walk. It's easy to fall into the trap of stressing about where you have to be next and you forget to enjoy what you're doing.
- Research and make decisions before you leave. Then make back up plans. Then feel free to ignore them when you get there. This is because making decisions takes time, especially when there's a few of you. I sat with two good friends in a cafe on a really lovely beach in Cornwall and we wasted a good couple of hours on the internet trying to find somewhere to stay in London.
- Oh, and don't be afraid to split up. Travel has destroyed more than one friendship. If you want to do different things, do different things.
posted by kjs4 at 6:05 PM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you're in Prague, there are specific places you could visit, but really just spending a day wandering around Stare Mesto and across the river to Mala Strana is a pretty awesome experience. Press the shutter of your camera every 30 seconds or so.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 8:08 PM on April 22, 2013

The most useful thing I was told before visiting Venice was that, compared to major tourist cities, Venice's hostels are priced like low-end hotels, the low-end hotels are priced like middling hotels, the middling hotels are priced like high-end hotels, etc. It's a crazy expensive city and it's hard to get around that, but I'd also suggest that you have little enough time (and enough travelling otherwise) that I would try to stay on the islands rather than in Mestre. I stayed near the train station, by chance, and probably would go for somewhere near Campo Santa Margherita next time, just because the station area was so very €3-for-a-Coke.

The principle of getting up early is absolutely crucial if you want to hit the main sites (and seriously, I would just walk through St. Mark's and go do something more interesting than queueing) or take one of the popular vaporetti, because there's a deluge of tour and cruise visitors in Venice every day and it's going to be unpleasant.

On a more positive note, it's the most extraordinary place, and just walking and getting lost is free and unlike any other city because of the labyrinth and lack of cars. I really enjoyed taking the vaporetto to San Giorgio to see the Palladio church and the view from the tower, I was lucky enough to be there while there was an exhibition allowing access to the Olivetti shop on St. Mark's, and the surprising money-saver was that the best source of wifi was getting a glass of wine (drinking at the bar, not sitting down!) in sidestreet bars – €1 or so to check my emails or make a quick Skype call, surrounded by a buzz of Venetians and dogs and knowing I was the odd one out.
posted by carbide at 2:50 AM on April 23, 2013

This is where I stayed in Paris:

This is where I stayed in Florence:

This is where I stayed in Berlin:

This is where I stayed in Prague:

This is where I stayed in Venice:
posted by Windigo at 1:46 PM on April 23, 2013

I liked the St. Christopher's line of hostels in Berlin and Prague (I can't speak to any of their other locations) - they were clean, felt safe, and were reasonably-priced. They also offered connections to the free (except optional tipping) walking tours of the cities, which were highly informative and helped us get our bearing in the city.

Try to get sleep on planes and trains (invest in earplugs, eye masks)- you'll want to spend every possible hour that you're actually in a city exploring it, given your limited time frame. I also second the above posters to take some time just to wander. My favorite place to do that was in Paris - everyone and everything is so beautiful, there's nothing like taking a walk around the city, eating a baguette, etc.
posted by jouir at 6:00 PM on April 23, 2013

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