Centuries-old cities, world-famous culinary experiences, and plenty of cultures: it’s no secret that one of my favourite destinations for a city break or weekend escape is Europe. And between secret islands, capital cities, and breathtaking countryside, there’s a plethora of experience to be had while in Europe. Here are 27 incredible Europe travel tips to know before your first trip!
#1 Travel in the off-season
Fewer queues and lower prices, if you want to explore Europe without the crowds of the summer months, then be sure to explore during the off-season. Europe in winter is a magical time to visit, with the promise of snow and many a Christmas market.
One of the best-kept secrets of Europe travel is that the very best time to visit Europe is just before or just after the peak season. After all, in many places, this means enjoying the cherry blossom season in the late spring or the fall tones in the early autumn.
#2 Don’t try and visit too many things!
Many people make the mistake of trying to fit too many things in their itinerary. However, if you want to make the most of your visit (and maximise your time and experience in each destination), consider focusing on a particular region/ country/ or even smaller area.
#3 Never eat in the ‘tourist’ area
Don’t eat in the first restaurant you see (unless it’s the only one in town!) and never eat in the most touristic area of the city. The food is never that great and is often quite expensive! Every time I’ve done this, I’ve ended up walking a few blocks down the street, only to find the most gorgeous family run establishment. And while we’re talking about food, avoid restaurants that have photos of the food on the menu.
#4 Head off the beaten path (at least once)
Whether it’s discovering the best secret spots in the city, or heading to a lesser known European town, be sure to stray from the beaten tourist track at least once during your European adventure. This way, you’ll easily avoid the crowds, likely save money, and get a unique experience.
#5 Travel by train
Contrary to what you may think, train travel in Europe is easy, fast, and often pretty affordable (though the UK and Switzerland still have very pricey train fares!). When travelling by train in many countries, tickets are open-ended, meaning that they’ll need to be validated before you start your journey. Should you not do this, you can receive a fine, even if you paid for the ticket!
#6 Purchase tickets for major attractions in advance
Purchasing tickets prior to visiting will often mean perks like discounts on the standard rate, a timed entry, and, more often than not, a skip-the-line function that will enable you to spend more time within the museum, rather than queueing outside.
For the more popular attractions (like the Louvre Museum in Paris or the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam), this also means that you’ll definitely get to enter, rather than waiting for hours, only to find out that you won’t be able to visit prior to closing time.
#7 Learn some words in the local language
There are hundreds of languages spoken in Europe so it’s not feasible that you’ll be able to learn every single one. Instead, research the region/ country you’ll be visiting and learn a few words and phrases in the local language. Here’s how to say ‘hello’ in 50 languages!
‘Please,’ ‘Hello,’ ‘Thank You,’ and ‘Sorry’ are a great place to start. For those with dietary requirements, you may well also want to learn a phrase to convey this. For example ‘I’m a vegetarian’. If all else fails, then you’ll also perhaps want to have a local phrasebook on hand such as this one for France.
#8 Know that each country has much more to offer than its capital city
Many people head to London but make the mistake of not enjoying the rest of the UK. Likewise with France, Italy, and plenty of other European countries! When booking your European adventure, be sure to scatter your itinerary across both major cities and lesser known ones. You’ll love it, and so will your wallet (smaller cities often have accommodation that costs much less)!
#9 Most museums in London are free
Though London is generally quite an expensive city to visit (accommodation prices are sky-high), you’ll save a lot of money by frequenting some of the city’s major attractions for free. Perfect for a rainy day activity, free museums include the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, V&A, and British Museum are all free.
Elsewhere in the city, many of the museums and attractions in the district of Greenwich are free, including the ever-so-pretty Queen’s House, a former royal residence close to the GMT official Meridien. For those who are more bookworm than museum-goer, European bookstores are often quirky and always worth a visit.
#10 Take some walking tours
Almost every large(ish) city you visit will have free walking tours. These guided walks of the city are often led by a local guide and are free to partake in, though be sure to bring some cash along for a tip at the end! If you want to explore at your own pace, type ‘self-guided walking tour + x’ into a search engine. I’ve got numerous guides here on solosophie.com, under my self-guided walking tour category.
#11 Bring comfortable walking shoes
Europe is generally not the place for your high heels. Many of the old towns are filled with cobblestones, meaning that comfortable shoes are a priority. Of all the Europe travel tips I could give you, this may well be the most important. In Europe, you’ll often be on your feet all day, every day, and it’s common to clock upwards of twenty-thousand steps in a single day.
#12 Explore by bicycle
Plenty of cities in Europe now offer schemes that enable you to easily rent a bicycle. While cities like Amsterdam are well-known for their cycling routes, many other European capital cities (such as Rotterdam) have dedicated cycle paths and are fairly easy to explore on bike, meaning you’ll get to see a greater number of things within a shorter space of time than if you simply walked.
#13 Know that some businesses close during the afternoon (and almost always on a Sunday)
The afternoon closure is a staple in many countries, particularly those in the Mediterranean. What this means is that many businesses will be closed during the hours of 2 PM- 5 PM, meaning that you should get your food/ purchases before or after this point.
In France, many smaller museums tend to close for an hour or two during lunch. Meanwhile, shops across the entirety of Europe will generally close on a Sunday, particularly in rural areas and in places that are predominantly Catholic.
#14 Book your accommodation in a central location
In order to maximise the most of your time, be sure to book your accommodation in a central location. Unless you’re flying out of the airport early the next morning, don’t book your stay right by the airport! Instead, you’ll have a much better experience by booking your hotel/ B&B right in the centre of the action, within easy walking distance of many of the main attractions and transport links.
Once you have a date in mind for your Europe trip, the sooner you book your hotel/ B&B/ guesthouse/ hostel the better. This will ensure that you get the best rates possible. And be sure to remember that in the UK, you can even stay in pubs and inns! Check here for the best accommodation prices.
#15 Know that not every country uses the Euro
Many countries in Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Romania, Poland), Central Europe (Switzerland), and Western Europe (the UK) don’t use the Euro. Instead, they all use their own currency in the form of the British Pound, the Swiss Franc, the Polish Zloty, and more!
#16 Make the most of budget airlines
Once in Europe, there are plenty of budget airlines, offering cheap flights between countries, and often within them too. If you want to make your travel budget stretch further, then take advantage of these airlines; Ryanair, easyJet, Flybe, and Wizz Air are all low-cost airline carriers that operate across Europe.
#17 Don’t rent a car in major European cities
If you’re planning to visit several major cities and want to rent a car, then this would be your first mistake. After all, public transport can often be found in abundance (metro, bus, tram, train) and is much cheaper than renting a car. Furthermore, due to some pretty heavy traffic in some cities, taking transport like the underground (or even walking) is often faster.
#18 Don’t purchase breakfast at the hotel
Unless it’s included in the cost of your accommodation, skip the buffet breakfast and instead opt for a more local option. Head to the café down the road or the bakery next door for a local and affordable way to enjoy your first meal of the day.
#19 Your favourite food/ drink may not be the same as how it appears back home!
Early last year, I made the mistake of ordering a latté while on a seven day trip to Northern Italy. Little did I know that a latté in Italy is simply a warm glass of milk! Similarly, don’t order a cappuccino after 10 AM in Italy as people will look at you quizzically- this is simply reserved as a breakfast drink.
#20 Make sure to soak up some history
Between churches dating back thousands of years, old towns with houses dating back to the Middle Ages, and Roman ruins scattered across the continent, truth be told that Europe is an open museum, just waiting to be discovered. While visiting, be sure to soak up some history at least once, whether it be in the form of a walking tour, museum visit, or monument trip!
#21 Consider purchasing a city pass
Though not always worth the cost (read the information and add up the cost of the monuments/ attractions you specifically want to see individually), many European cities sell a ‘City Pass’ or ‘City Card’ that essentially offers a one-off fee in order to see many of that places’ main attractions, and often public transportation.
#22 The best view in Paris is not from the Eiffel Tower
Many people make the mistake of visiting Paris and making it their mission to ascend the Eiffel Tower. The queues are often hours long and the view from the top is not that great thanks to the fact that the Tour Eiffel is surrounded by green space and no ‘Haussmannian style’ buildings. As such, head to the Arc de Triomphe or Tour Montparnasse for some of the best views in the city.
#23 Withdraw money from the ATMs
Rather than carrying around a large amount of cash, instead opt to have a smaller amount on you and withdraw money from local ATMs whenever you’re running low. This way, it’s easy to keep track of how much you’re spending and will often be cheaper than buying a larger amount back home. The one thing you should never do is to buy or exchange currency at the airport- the fees are extortionate!
#24 When it comes to packing, less is more
Don’t pack anything you haven’t worn in six months (unless it’s seasonally appropriate). And don’t pack too many things, ensuring that you’re able to carry your suitcase should the need arise. Nowadays, I personally only travel with a carry on case (yes, even when I’m travelling for a month!) and find that there is always somewhere to wash my clothes en route.
When you’re travelling through Europe, you’ll soon discover that there are plenty of occasions where you’ll need to carry your bag; up flights of stairs when your accommodation has no stairs, across old towns filled with cobbled lanes, and plenty more occasions. If it’s not absolutely necessary, then you don’t need to bring it!
#25 Don’t eat out for every meal
If you want to save money to embark on a longer adventure, then your first mistake would be eating out every night. Instead, consider heading to local shops and supermarkets and making yourself packed lunches. Picnics in Paris are always a joy and eating snacks in your hotel room for dinner is totally okay as well!
#26 Ask for local suggestions
Ask people at your hotel, converse with coffee shop owners, read local blogs. Ask for local suggestions and see where the locals hang out to truly get a feel for the place and experience the ‘real Europe’. If in doubt, ask and, more often than not, people are more than willing to help you find the coolest spot in town, or recommend the best dinner destination.
#27 Dress like the locals do
Forget wearing flip-flops to explore cities (unless you’re headed to the beach). Leave your ‘tourist’ clothes at home and dress in the same way the locals do. When it comes to footwear, though many would discourage trainers, I personally find them to be the most comfortable thing if you’re going to be spending all day on your feet!
That, and sneakers are becoming a fashion statement in of themselves in Europe anyway! In more conservative countries, dressing as the locals do can mean wearing clothes that cover your knees and shoulders. For example, if you want to enter the Duomo in Milan, you’ll need to dress in a somewhat conservative manner.