What should my wife and I do on our trip to Europe?
February 15, 2017 8:27 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I are going to Milan, Zurich, and Munich at the end of March. Help us decide what to do and see, and also help answer a few specific questions we have about travel in Europe.

As of right now, other than the specific cities we are visiting, we haven't really decided on anything to see or do. We chose these cities because I have a conference in Milan, and Munich had good flights back to our home. We have also never traveled in Europe and so any general advice or tips would be greatly appreciated. Here are our specific questions we could use help with.

1. We have kids who will be at home with my parents. How can we use our phones to contact them? We have Ting. Do we need to buy a prepaid phone in Europe?
2. We plan to take the train between cities. Do we need to buy our train tickets in advance? What should we know about traveling by train in Europe?
3. We will have 3-4 days each in Zurich and Munich. Any advice on what to see and do? Are there any nearby sites that would be worth trying to go to?
4. Any specific recommendations on places to eat in any of the three cities? What about regional foods we should try?
posted by bove to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
1. Are your Ting phones GSM-compatible, e.g. modern iPhones. If so, just remove the SIM card and replace it with a local one. See the SIM card wiki for up-to-date specifics.

2. You don't need to buy the long haul train tickets in advance but it will be cheaper and less stressful if you do.

3. I lived in Munich. I think it's great but I don't think it can quite support 4 days of jam-packed sight seeing — or at least you wouldn't miss much if you took a day trip.

Whether and where to go around Munich is highly dependent on whether you're going in the winter or not. If it's winter then take the BOB to the Alps (maybe Garmisch) and take a hike, eat some kaiserschmarrn at the top of a hill, and toboggan back down. If it's the summer: Augsburg, Ulm or even Salzburg are 1-3 hours by train, and are very pretty medieval towns (Munich is many things, but pretty and old it is not).

Hands down though, my #1 out-of-town recommendation is a little closer: Andechs monastery. It's about 1h on a mix of S-bahn and bus, and then a beautiful ~30 minute walk up a hill, through a glade, etc. to a monastery that makes what is generally thought to be some of the best beer in Germany.

In Munich, Schloss Nyphenburg, the Kunstmuseums and the beer halls are worth checking out. Augustiner-Keller and Paulaner are a little more off the beaten track than the Hofbrau beerhall downtown, which is an experience, but a bit of a tourist trap.

4. Munich food is pretty dreadful. I was there for 4 years and the only place that springs to mind is an excellent Greek place called Paros.
posted by caek at 8:53 AM on February 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

I just spent six days in Munich. I do think you could probably catch the highlights in 3 days and do a day trip somewhere. I was there over the holidays, so we had the Christmas markets to entertain us, but by the end we were wishing we'd taken a day trip into the mountains.

That said, I loved the city and thought there was plenty to see and do. The Deutsches Museum is fantastic - it's billed as the world's largest museum of science and technology and is one of the few places I've been that lives up to the guidebooks' "you could spend an entire day here" claim. If you're a science or tech person in the least, you will be in heaven there. If you're into visiting palaces, I'd choose the Residenz over Schloss Nymphenberg, although there are extensive gardens at the latter that would be good for wandering on a nice day.

Not fun, per se, especially with the current political climate looming over our heads, but we also visited the Nazi Documentation Museum and Dachau, and I am very glad to have seen both. Dachau is easily reached by the suburban train line. The documentation museum (in central Munich) uses primary news sources to tell the story of what happened to lead to the rise of the Nazi Party and then through the course of the war to the end.

Restaurants we enjoyed were Wirtzhaus zum Straubinger and Ayingers. Lots of pretzels and dumplings and sausages! Ayingers is right across the street from the Hofbrauhaus so if you wanted to see that for the tourist factor, you could grab a beer and then pop over for a good meal afterward.
posted by something something at 9:12 AM on February 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

This is the best site on the web for information on train travel.


In Munich, you must, MUST, have schweinshaxe at Haxnbauer.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:14 AM on February 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

If you want to see The Last Supper in Milan at all, reserve tickets as soon as you can. Several sites should presell tickets, often combined with tours, but book them now. Seriously.

I used to live in Switzerland, but almost never visited Zürich. It's just not that interesting, but Berne is only a 50 minute train ride away and very cute with its world cultural heritage old town. In Zürich, prepare for things to be veeeeeeeeeery expensive. The Hiltl claims to be the world's oldest vegetarian restaurant, and even my non-vegetarian friend loved it.

If you only want to call your kids sporadically at night, you can always charge some money to Skype and use wi-fi to call them. In case of a real emergency, your roaming fees may be really high, but barring that, for calls alone you don't really need a foreign SIM, especially as you'd need three different countries'. If you need data for maps etc., then that's a different story of course.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 9:20 AM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yes on reserving tix for the Last Supper in Milan if you want to see it. Do it yesterday.

Last time I was in Europe I just used my iPhone, no prob. Maybe check with your carrier on what the fees would be. Before I had a smartphone, though, I bought a cheap prepaid phone whenever I went over for more than a week and it was always worth it.
posted by Pearl928 at 9:49 AM on February 15, 2017

Nthing reservations for last supper. I have been coming to Milano at least once a year for the last 10, and have still not managed to be able to see it, as I rarely know when I am coming more than 3 months in advance.

Milano is a great city for food. I would almost say you can't go wrong except in the touristy area of the Duomo. A typical dish is cotoletta alla milanese. There is some controversy as to whether this was merely appropriated by the Austrians to be Wiener Schnitzel or the other way around, but the smart money is on Lombardy as the origin.

When you visit the Duomo, make sure to include time for the Duomo museum, more or less next door. The Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio, built in the 4th Century, is also worth seeing.

In Zurich, the Fraumunster is worth a visit for stained-glass windows by Chagall.
posted by ubiquity at 10:27 AM on February 15, 2017

Was just in Munich in December. Unlike others, I was amazed at how many museums the city had and wished I'd had more time to see them all. Mostly I was blow away by the Munich Stadtmuseum, which is weird and gorgeous and interesting. They currently have an exhibit on the 500th anniversary of the beer purity law. The SoundLab exhibit is also cool, and make sure to walk through the floor featuring carnival games. Nearby is the Viktualienmarkt, where you can have weiners and schnitzel and a weisse bier. That was my favorite meal in Munich.

Another museum I loved was the Haus der Kunst. It has a dark history — it was built as a showcase for Nazi superiority. However, the current museum is a testament to diversity in modern art. Their head curator is Nigerian, they are home to an amazing bar, and nearby is the "wave" in the Eisbach River where I could spend an entire afternoon watching surfers.
posted by Brittanie at 10:54 AM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Seconding Dachau. Sobering and upsetting, but I almost feel that there's a moral imperative to go.

On a lighter note, if you're into cars at all (or factories), BMW Welt is a fun time. You can tour both the museum and the manufacturing plant. It's also right next to the Olympic park from the '72 Summer Games.
posted by asterix at 11:02 AM on February 15, 2017

Make sure to eat one lunch at the Viktualienmarkt in Munich- an open air market! Count on 2-3 hours. So much fun! And make sure to set aside some time to wander the streets after dark. Lots to see and do.

And as stated above, get a schweinshaxe. I had mine at the Donisl, almost in the shadow of the Glockenspiel and it was incredible.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 11:22 AM on February 15, 2017

Are you committed to the train between Zurich and Munich, would car rental be possible? Because there is some cool stuff between the two, not least a Zeppelin museum and some of the beautiful towns around Lake Constance plus the mad king's castle in Bavaria. Getting there by train would add lots of hours, but by car, not so much.
posted by biffa at 11:39 AM on February 15, 2017

I would not recommend stopping over in Zurich. Compared to other cities, it's boring, and it's remarkably expensive. Go to Luzern or Bern instead. Ideally both, since they're both small and doable in a day. If you get a chance to go to the Bernese Oberland, take it.

There was a post on the blue about raclette not too long ago. It's something you have to eat while you're in Switzerland. Never a bad idea to have some fondue either, and rosti (potato pancakes) are another tasty national dish.

Train passes will depend on how often you travel. If you're going a bunches of different places by rail, it may be advisable to get a Eurail pass or a Swiss Pass (I think that's what it's called). If you're just going from Milan to Zurich (/Bern/Luzern), and then Zurich to Munich, buying tickets the day if shouldn't be hard.

Skype is probably your best bet. That's what our Soanish friends use to call us.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:39 AM on February 15, 2017

Go up to Berlin if you're an artsy creative type of course and to visit the Holocaust memorial, museum, the Berlin wall, etc. Incredible place for history buffs. Seconding Viktualienmarkt in Munich. Go to traditional beer gardens in Munich, eat a "Bavarian Breakfast". Tube down the river! If you go through Bavaria, travel by train is beautiful especially in the summertime and might as well head southeast to Austria, at least for a visit to Salzburg. Vienna also very nice. Down to Italy, haven't been to Milan but would highly recommend Venice.
posted by backtonature007 at 2:09 PM on February 15, 2017

I know you're looking for personal advice, but Rick Steves website, TV show and guidebooks are the next best thing. They aren't a laundry list like many guidebooks. They include actual recommendations. The intention, as I understand it, is to appeal to active, open minded travelers on a normal (non-first class) traveler's budget. You might pick up a guidebook just to be sure you're spending your time where you'd like.

* Web page
* TV Show

* Web page
* TV show

* Train info
I've only been to Switzerland once, and the Alps, including Lauterburnnen Valley (and the Berner Oberland area) are stunning. There are also castles in the general area between Milan and Munich. I've never heard great things about Milan as a traveler, but you are three hours by train from Venice, two hours from the Cinque Terre, and an hour from Lake Como.
posted by cnc at 2:18 PM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Nthing that Zürich is soulless and boring. I checked the maps and train times, and I think what would be interesting between Munich and Milan, that are given, could be Bregenz, St. Gallen and Vals. The first two can be seen in less than a day, they both have one main attraction: the Kunsthaus in Bregenz is beautiful and weird and almost always shows great art. In St. Gallen, the attraction is the monastery and it's library.
Vals is in itself an amazing place, a very remote valley where some people still speak Romansh. The walks in the landscape are spectacular - maybe you can rent cross country skis, I haven't tried. But you go there for the spa, which is both luxurious, healthy and incredibly beautiful.

Como is on your way as well - and also nice for a stopover.

I think the above advice for Munich is great, I agree going to the Andechs Monastery is lovely. For a more Bohemian vibe (sorry, I had to), there is an area south of the Viktualianmarkt, round Gärtnerplatz where I have found nice cafés, bars, good restaurants, and also galleries and interesting small shops.

I have gone to Milan quite often for work, I have never had time for sights, except the first time, where I remember the Last Supper, the Duomo, the main station and the (shopping) galleries next to the Duomo - and the big cemetery! It sounds strange, but it is really a fascinating place. These days, I really love just strolling around after work and before dinner, though. Milan is not as romantic as the more well-know Italian cities, but it certainly has its charms. I'm usually taken out by colleagues, and very often in quarters far from the centre. A restaurant in the centre I remember for its good food and lovely atmosphere is Maruzzella, near Porta Venezia. The very first place I went in Milan was Osteria del Binari, not so far from the Naviglio Grande. I haven't been there since and it may have changed, but I have never forgotten that evening. Dinner is late in Italy, you really can't go before 8PM, and that is early. To keep going, you have aperitifs, with bar snacks, often standing up. Look for bars with people in them, and a range of snacks - drinks are a bit expensive, snacks are free. Aperol Spritz is not a strong drink, but it is also fine to have a soft drink, if jet lag is making the prospect of staying up till midnight seem daunting.

In Italy, Italian food is always the best choice. In many restaurants, it is a good idea to ask the waiter for recommendations or specials, rather than choose from the menu. In Milan, there is good food from all over Italy, because there are immigrants from all the other Italian regions, but a hometown classic is Osso Buco Milanese, served with risotto with saffron. They also have great minestrone soup. They are also good at charcuterie. Lots of people just order a lot of antipasti (appetizers), and skip the secondi (pasta, soup, rice) and the mains, then maybe finish with a cheese and dessert; I'm mentioning this because sampling several appetizers, both charcuterie, seafood and vegetarian is delicious, but it's tough to have a whole meal after that.
In Northern Italy, the grains are more often bread, polenta and rice than pasta. Often if you want something green with your main, you have to order it on the side - there is not a culture of meat+starch+veg, because you've already had the starch and veg in the two first courses, if you eat a full meal.

In the Alp-countries, food is very heavy and main ingredients are meat, dairy and starches from potato and grains, often made into something soft and bland. Again: great charcuterie, and a plate of charcuterie with pickles of some sort and some lovely dark bread is a delicious meal. You should sample some German/Alpine food, specially when you are out of town somewhere, but don't feel obligated to eat it all the time - lots of Germans/Swiss/Austrians/Alpine Italians eat Mediterranean food at great restaurants established by immigrants, or even by locals who cater to lifestyles where a pound of meat twice a day doesn't fit. Look for places with a clean, spare interior design and not too garish signage. Lunch offers can be good if they are directed at local workers rather than tourists. Soups can be excellent. Museum cafés are often good and they may have separate entrances if you are not interested in the museum.

While breakfast is very spare in Italy, it is rich and delicious farther north.

You tip everywhere, even if it says no tip, but only up to 10 %. A little change can be fine in a bar or café.

People are generally friendly, helpful and speak English. Crime rates are low. But specially in cities there are pickpockets, and you have to take care. You will stand out as foreigners, regardless of what you do, and that will attract unwanted attention. Stations are the worst. Don't carry all cards in one pocket/purse. Don't carry valuables on your back, ever. Lock stuff you won't need in the safe in your room. Carry little cash, mostly you can pay with credit cards, but cards with a sim-card in them are best if you can get them before you leave.
Avoid beggars in groups and if you can, avoid crowded places. In less touristy parts of the cities, this problem is almost non-existent, so don't be scared at all. And don't let this advice put you off the tourist sights, they are sights for a reason. Just prepare.

There will still be snow in the Alps while you are there (I hope), while both Munich and Milan can be quite warm (spring, not summer) but they are unpredictable, so you need light clothes and warm layers. Buy cheap umbrellas on the street if it rains, to throw away when you go back.

Enjoy your trip!
posted by mumimor at 4:14 PM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

In Munich one of my favorite things to do is go to the oberpollinger department store and go to the top floor for lunch, which has a veranda and is buffet style and look at all the fancy high quality kitchen tools and household goods.
posted by catspajammies at 9:27 PM on February 15, 2017

Maybe you've already gone, otherwise Leonardo's vineyard in Milan looks like a lovely place.
posted by mumimor at 8:12 AM on March 2, 2017

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