Ultimate European Adventure Round-Up!

July 10, 2009 in Travel

Sensational Palatine Hill in Rome

Sensational Palatine Hill in Rome

One of the main reasons I decided to come to the UK to study (rather than say the US) was so I could get to visit and travel around Europe (something I had not done before but had been a life-long dream).

I have done a couple of round-up posts before after long trips (see ‘My European Adventure Round-Up’ and ‘My Big Fat Greek Adventure Round-Up’), but since I have left Europe now, I thought it would be good to consolidate all the places I’ve visited over the last 9 months and deliver my final judgment.

Here are the places I visited:

(a) England – London, Cambridge, Oxford, Bath, Salisbury, Avebury
(b) Italy – Rome, Venice, Florence, Pisa
(c) Vatican City (technically a country and a city)
(d) Greece – Athens, Santorini, Delphi, Arachova, Hydra, Poros, Aegina, Milos, Corinth, Mycenae, Nafplio
(e) Ireland – Dublin
(f) France – Paris
(g) Belgium – Brussels, Bruges
(h) Netherlands – Amsterdam
(i) Spain – Barcelona
(j) Germany – Munich, Berlin, Fussen (Neuschwanstein), Freiburg (Black Forest)
(k) Switzerland – Basel, Lucerne
(l) Sweden – Stockholm
(m) Denmark – Copenhagen
(n) Austria – Vienna
(o) Czech Republic – Prague

[Note: I didn’t count Frankfurt in Germany as I only stopped there for transit (twice) but did exit the airport]

108

In Bruges

Favourite places:

In terms of countries I would vote: (1) Greece; (2) Italy; (3) Germany.

Greece is simply incredible with its plethora of well-preserved archaeological sites and mythology, but is also one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited with its marvelous islands and beaches. Italy is similar in some respects, and gets extra marks for the number of attractions it has on offer (and its proximity to the Vatican). Germany, on the other hand, is very underrated, with wonderful, historically rich cities such as Munich and Berlin as well as terrific attractions such as the Black Forest, Neuschwanstein Castle and Dachau Concentration Camp.

Individual places are too hard to vote on as each location has its own flavour and strengths. Further, some places are big while others are small, and the differing lengths of time I stayed in each place may play a decisive role. It’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges sometimes.

However, if someone held a gun to my head I would probably pick: (1) Santorini; (2) Rome; (3) Athens; (4) Paris; (5) Amsterdam; (6) Venice; (7) Munich; (8) Stockholm – though the order might not always be the same.

Santorini

Santorini was my favourite

Least favourite places

No prizes for guessing that Prague was my least favourite city (see my rant here) but at least I can say that I may have just had some bad luck with my experiences and that I didn’t spend enough time there. Now London, on the other hand, has no excuses.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with London because I visited the place at least a dozen times during my 9 month stay. There are lots of things to do and see there, and the British Museum is a must-visit, but the exorbitant prices, poor service (they just don’t care) and the absolute filth and over-crowdedness just about everywhere (and especially in the Tube) would drive me insane if I lived there!

Prague Castle From Afar

Prague Castle from afar


Most/Least Expensive

Just about all of Europe is expensive compared to where I come from. It got to a point where if I tried to convert the currency I would probably just start sobbing uncontrollably.

But in any case, the ones that stood out for me were obviously London, Switzerland (as a whole), and in particular the Scandinavian cities of Stockholm and Copenhagen.

Cheapest was definitely Prague, but I think Italy was not too unreasonable. In Greece it depended on where you went (the islands, for example, were relatively more expensive compared to Athens).
Best/Worst Food

Another tough one because I probably didn’t get to sample the best/worst food each place had to offer. Hence I’ll just try to recall the best foods I can remember.

Number 1 has to be the calzones we had in Barcelona. Damn they were bloody good (Can Conesa at Jaume I). Number 2, the hotdogs (from portable street vendors) and ice cream we had in Copenhagen (see more at this post). Number 3, the some of the pizzas we had in Italy.

Copenhagen Marble Church

Copenhagen's Marble Church

As for the worst, this is probably a little unfair because I ate there quite a bit, but London has some extraordinarily bad food (though to be fair, as well as good food), but you just don’t expect something so bad for the prices that you pay.

Most Romantic

Easy top 3: (1) Venice; (2) Santorini; (3) Paris. Three very different places with different charms, but all great for a romantic weekend or getaway.

Venice

Most Romantic: Venice

Top 15 Attractions

This is probably the toughest of them all. My list started with 5, then 10, then 15, then got to 20 (and could have gone to 25) before I cut it back to 15.

In the end, I decided just to go with gut instinct on this one. Note that while Santorini is, as a whole, one of the best places I visited, it’s not really an ‘attraction’ per se. Also important to note is that I love archaeological sites, museums and memorials, so keep that in mind when you read on.

Counting down:

15. Dachau Concentration Camp (in Dachau, near Munich) – a highly depressing place to visit but also one of the most important and informative. It wasn’t exactly enjoyable but it’s one of those places you’d be glad to have experienced.

Dachau

Depressing but worthwhile: Dachau

14. Rosenborg Castle (in Copenhagen) – one of those unexpected gems with a neat little castle, beautiful gardens and a well-managed sea of flowers. A great place to have a picnic or just to chill out for a couple of hours.

13. La Sagrada Familia (Barcelona) – this freakish, still-under-construction piece of art created by Gaudi is either loved or hated. But either way, it’s hard to keep your eyes off it.

12. Roman Baths Museum (Bath, UK) – the site of the ancient Roman Baths, where much of it is still wonderfully preserved. I went there twice and I can tell you that it has been newly renovated and has improved on its already exceptional audio guide.

11. Nea Kameni (Santorini, Greece) – Fira and Oia are beautiful, and the Red and Black beaches are spectacular, but if I had to pick an ‘attraction’ from Santorini, the volcanic island of Nea Kameni is it! Take a 90 minute walk up to the top and back – even in the heat it is well worth the experience of seeing the destructive power of the volcano up close.

Santorini Volcano 2

Nea Kameni in Santorini

10. Tivoli (Copenhagen) – the famous theme park has a splendid carnival atmosphere. The entrance fee does not cover the rides, but you don’t need to go on a single one to enjoy the place, especially when it gets dark and the coloured lights illuminate the fairground. Magical!

9. The British Museum (London) – if nothing, London has tremendous free attractions, and they don’t get much better than the enormous British Museum. If you race through it you can probably see it all in half a day, but to truly appreciate how much priceless stuff the Brits stole from just about every other culture in the world, you’ll need at least a full day, if not 2 or 3.

8. Anne Frank House (Amsterdam) – Amsterdam may be best known for its weed and girls, but the highlight for me was the Anne Frank House, in which you can get to see where the legendary Anne Frank and her family once hid from the Nazis. Yes it can be depressing at times, but it is also quite uplifting too to read Anne’s touching words and see just what a magnificent and insightful writer she was. One can only imagine how many great writers must have perished in the Holocaust.

7. Vasa Museum (Stockholm) – the Vasa sank on its maiden voyage and was not salvaged until 333 years later. Today it forms the centerpiece of the exquisite Vasa Museum, one of the most unusual museums I’ve ever been too. I loved how you could get a different view of the Vasa at each level of the museum, from the bottom all the way to the top.

6. Neuschwanstein Castle(Fussen, Germany) – no wonder this is the number 1 attraction in Germany and has been for so long. It’s the type of place you can go a couple of times during different seasons, because I hear it’s a different feel with and without the snow (I went with a bit of snow during early Spring). The walk up to the castle itself is just magical, and the inside is worth a look too.

Neuschwanstein 009

Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany

5. The Acropolis (Athens) – I would have never thought that I’d rank a single monument so high, but the Acropolis has captivated my imagination ever since I was a child, and seeing it up close in person at last fulfilled a life-long dream. Even with the scaffolding along the sides and back it still takes the breath away. Now with the Acropolis Museum opened it will be even better.

4. The Louvre (Paris) – the best art museum, one of those humongous places that can take days to full appreciate. With limited time, I only got to see the main masterpieces (the most high-profile ones, at least – and there were many), so I look forward to going back there someday and seeing the rest.

3. Vatican City (Vatican City) – (I’m calling it an ‘attraction’ because it is small enough) regardless of your religion, Vatican City is one of those places that you just need to see, even if it’s just for the amazing artworks painted on almost every empty space on the inside. St Peter’s Square and St Peter’s Basilica are also some of the amazing places within the world’s smallest country that left my jaw ajar many times.

2. Palatine Hill (Rome) – the archaeological site next to the Colosseum is one of the most fantastic I’ve ever seen. Just use a bit of imagination and thousands of years of history will unfold before your eyes! Make sure you head up to the top around the outside wall to get a full view of the site.

1. Archaeological Site of Delphi (Delphi, Greece) – the centre of the world, up in the mountains, where the oracle once sat – the enormous, well-preserved archaeological site of Delphi is a remarkable place that is well worth the journey from Athens (if that is where you’re staying). There’s a lot to see and absorb and enjoy, so take your time and really use your mind to envisage what it was like 3,500 years ago in Ancient Greece.

Delphi 1

Delphi Archaeological Site is No. 1

Well, that’s it. I’ll probably disagree with a lot of what I just wrote the next time I look at it, but right now, these are my thoughts.

Thoughts on TripAdvisor’s Best and Worst of Europe

May 6, 2009 in Travel

The results of TripAdvisor’s annual European travel survey are out!  The full list of results can be found by clicking here.

Having been to most of these places on this list by now, I’m going to share some of my thoughts on these results.  Bear in mind, these are based on personal experiences, so I can only speak for myself.

Cheapest/Most Expensive

London was many lists, both good and bad

London was on many lists, both good and bad

The ‘best bargain‘ cities were Prague, Amsterdam and Istanbul.  Having only been to the first two, I must say Prague was very cheap indeed, certainly cheaper than any of the other European cities I have been to.  However, it depends on what you eat.  If you eat at vendors on the side of the street, you can get away with barely spending anything all day, but if you go to touristy restaurants on the main streets, you won’t necessarily be saving all that much, especially if you’re not careful and get ripped off by sneaky waiters who add extra charges!  The local transport is also relatively inexpensive, though you have to buy half-tickets for your luggage, pram etc.  I didn’t notice Amsterdam being particularly cheap, but perhaps those surveyed were talking about weed or prostitute prices!  I did think Rome prices weren’t unreasonable.

The most expensive was London, followed by Paris, then Venice.  When I first arrived in the UK, I was stunned by just how expensive everything was.  You feel like you’re overpaying for everything, largely because the quality does not correspond with what you pay (transport, food etc).  But once I stopped converting, it wasn’t too bad.  With the value of the Pound the way it is now, I don’t think the survey results are totally accurate.  Didn’t find Paris or Venice to be extraordinarily pricey – the one that stood out for me as especially expensive were the cities in Switzerland!  Everything there is ridiculously expensive.  Like 12 Swiss Francs for a medium McDonald’s meal!

Overrated/Underrated

bruges

Bruges was said to be underrated but I thought it was overrated!

The top 3 overrated were Paris, London and Dublin.  I’ve been to all three and I didn’t find them overrated at all!  There are so many things to do in Paris and London (how can you overrate a place with the Louvre or the British Museum?).  I guess it depends on your interests and your expectations.  I had high expectations for Paris and London, and I wasn’t disappointed.  Dublin is much smaller and there’s a lot less things to go, so I can sort of understand where people are coming from, but if you are a lover of writing, you won’t be disappointed.  Dublin’s Writers Museum was a highlight (see my post on it!) when I went, and there’s plenty of other ones I didn’t get to visit.  In my personal opinion, I thought Prague was hugely overrated.  I even devoted an entire post to it.  The other place that disappointed me a bit was Bruges.  People rave about how it is a Medieval city, and while it is pretty, it’s been largely reconstructed and you can see similar architecture in a lot of other places throughout Europe.

The top 3 underrated cites were Krakow, Bruges and Edinburgh.  Having only been to Bruges (which I thought was overrated), I can’t speak for the others.  In my view, the most underrated place I’ve been to is Munich, which was really sensational.  Surprisingly, Berlin was also very good.

Friendly/Least Friendly

This wasn’t a surprise.  The least friendly cities were Paris, London and Moscow.  I haven’t been to Moscow, and I speak English, so I rarely need help in London, but I didn’t find Parisians rude at all.  When we were there, every person we spoke to was extremely friendly and willing to help.  Many even offered help to us voluntarily.  If you’re polite I think you’ll be surprised how friendly French people are.  The only city where I encountered unpleasant behaviour was Prague.  Unfortunate but true.  My Prague post discusses this in some detail.

The friendliest cities were Dublin, Amsterdam and Edinburgh.  The people in Dublin and Amsterdam were quite friendly, but didn’t really stand out for me to be honest.  I thought people in Vienna were quite willing to help.

Dirtiest/Cleanest

Brussels is a dirty place! (and apparently boring too)

Brussels is a dirty place! (and apparently boring too)

London, Paris and Athens were the top 3 dirtiest cities in Europe.  London I can definitely understand.  Whenever I come back from London and blow my nose, it’s guaranteed to be all black.  Same as when I wipe my face with a tissue.  It’s disgusting.  I think it’s the soot in the Tube stations or something.  Paris felt a lot better for me, not sure why it was so high up on the list.  Athens I will be visiting in a month or so (after exams!).  From memory, Brussels could be quite dirty in some parts of the city, and yes, Prague also had that dirty feel to it (seems like I’m picking on Prague, but it’s just the truth!).

The 3 cleanest cities were Copenhagen, Zurich and Stockholm. Haven’t been to any of these yet, but I am heading to Copenhagen and Stockholm after my graduation!

Best Food/Worst Food

Being the pig I am, I was very interested in the results of this one.  The 3 best were Paris, London and Rome, whereas the 3 worst were London, Moscow and Warsaw.  I think this simply shows that it depends where you go to eat.  I’m sure you can find awful food and great food in all of these places, but not everyone knows which places to go.  The only suggestion is to do your research beforehand and find out which restaurants are popular or have good reputations.

Most Romantic

Venice, Paris and Rome rounded out the top 3 of the most romantic city.  I totally agree with the first 2 at least.  I know Paris is supposed to be the most romantic place on Earth, but I was surprised when I visited Venice by how romantic it truly was.  Must be the water in the canals or the narrow pathways or the warm-coloured buildings or something.  Rome just felt like a lot of fun to me, didn’t really see it as a particularly romantic place.

Best Free Attractions

sagrada

La Sagrada Familia is one of the many Gaudi-inspired attractions in Barcelona - free from the outside but have to pay to get in

Another one I agree with.  The top 3 were London, Rome and Barcelona.  Of course, all of these places also have a lot of great attractions you have to pay for, but in general I agree with the top 3.  Most of London’s wonderful museums are free, and in Rome, there are heaps of attractions (churches, monuments, artworks etc) you can just wander up to and take a look at without paying any money.  Barcelona has a lot of weirdo Gaudi buildings there you can take a look at, but honestly I can’t remember there being lots of free attractions (as we had to pay for a lot of them!).

Most Boring

Brussels, Zurich, Dublin.  The top 3 in probably the worst thing to come tops in – boring.  To some extent I agree that Brussels doesn’t have a whole lot going for it in terms of attractions other than Mannequin Pis.  We stayed in the town centre around Christmas though and the streets were quite lively and there were light shows in the town square and so forth, so the couple of days we were there were actually quite pleasant.  But certainly spending more than 2 days there would have been excessive.  As for Dublin, see above.  I thought it was pretty good (because of my love for the great writers from Dublin).

Best and Worst Dressed

Why does anyone care about these categories?  Really, who notices these things.  Usually the worst dressed are the tourists anyway!

There’s a few more other ones, such as Tourist Traps, Night Life, Architecture and Public Parks.

Pictures of Prague: Part II

April 17, 2009 in Travel

Here is the second installment of some of my photos from Prague, taken from various spots in the city.  The first part (mainly of Prague Castle) can be found here.

Now looking back at these photos, Prague does seem like a beautiful city, doesn’t it?  However, I stand by my earlier statement that Prague is overrated!

Anyway, here they are.  Hope you enjoy them.

St Wenceslas Square, the first place we visited in Prague

St Wenceslas Square, the first place we visited in Prague

The Statue of St Wenceslas

The Statue of St Wenceslas

The famous Astronomical (Astrological) Clock

The famous Astronomical (Astrological) Clock

I honestly can't remember who this is, but it was taken right next to Charles Bridge

I honestly can't remember who this is, but it was taken right next to Charles Bridge

View of Prague from outside the walls of Prague Castle

View of Prague from outside the walls of Prague Castle

Here's the last one

Here's the last one

I was tempted to post some food pics but they didn’t look so enticing so I decided against it.

Pictures of Prague: Part I

April 17, 2009 in Travel

My blog has been going haywire the last couple of days over my post about Prague being overrated.  Upon closer inspection I realised that a lot of people were actually looking for pictures of the Golden City.  I suppose this is the time everyone starts booking their vacations?

Anyway, I’ve been a real lazy bum over the photos I took on my huge European adventure.  Every time I think about how many photos there are to go through I shudder. Nevertheless, I decided it was a good time to put up some of my Prague photos, in part to feed the growing demand and in part to push myself to start sorting through the pics.  Plus I’m feeling ill and can’t be focused enough to study.

So here they are.  By the way, the photos were taken with a (digital) Fujfilm FinePix F20 (that’s the extent of my knowledge on cameras).  Significantly reduced in size but otherwise untouched.

Prague Castle – St Vitus Cathedral

Right outside St Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle

Right outside St Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle

A wider shot of St Vitus Cathedral from inside the Castle grounds

A wider shot of St Vitus Cathedral from inside the Castle grounds

st-vitus-inside

Inside St Vitus Cathedral

One of the artworks inside St Vitus

One of the artworks inside St Vitus

Another one

Another one

The stained glass inside St Vitus

The stained glass inside St Vitus

View of Prague Castle from Charles Bridge

View of Prague Castle from Charles Bridge

More to come!

My European Adventure Round-up

April 6, 2009 in Best Of, Travel

Venice truly is a beautiful city

Venice truly is a beautiful city

[Note I have posted a new European Adventure Round-Up after my trips to Greece, Sweden and Denmark – see here]

Well, I’m finally back.  20 days, 5 countries, 12 cities.  It was pretty hectic, but also one of the best vacations of all time!  I’ve also finally brought the Travel Diary up to date, and I’m glad I did because it’s an experience I don’t ever want to forget.  On the other hand, we’ve taken well over a thousand photos, so it’s going to take a while to sort through them all…

Just to recap, the places visited (in order) were: Pisa, Florence, Venice and Rome (Italy); Basel and Lucerne (Switzerland); Freiburg, Munich, Fussen, Berlin (Germany); Prague (Czech Republic) and Vienna (Austria).  Yes, if you think about it the order was kind of weird, but there were a few unexpected things that happened with the original plans and we had to fudge it a little.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on the trip:

Best City

Looking at everything from an overall perspective, the best city I visited would have to be Rome.  There’s just no other place like it.  The amazing history, the plethora of attractions and sights, the pizzas and gelato – and you’d be surprised how close everything is and how you can walk from one place to another in just minutes.  Oh, and who can forget Vatican City?  You don’t have to be religious to enjoy one of the most amazing places on Earth, even if it’s just for the paintings and the architecture.  We spent roughly four days in Rome but we were gunning it all the way.  If we had the time and money we would have spent at least a week there.

The Colosseum was pretty awesome

The Colosseum was pretty awesome

Most Beautiful

We got to witness some amazing views throughout the trip, but the most beautiful city must be Venice, with its clean, turqoise waters and canals, bridges, pretty buildings and narrow alleys.  There is something relaxing and soothing about the place, and of course it is very romantic.  St Mark’s Square is also a delight.

Most Disappointing/Overrated

No surprises here because I just posted a rant about Prague (which has turned out to be one of my all-time most popular posts!).  It’s probably the only place out of all the places we went to that I found disappointing.  Maybe it was because my expectations were not met in the short time we were there, or perhaps the unfriendly people we encountered.  Or perhaps it just wasn’t my type of place.  I wouldn’t go as far as advising people against going, but expectations need to be kept in check and awareness needs to be high.

Most Surprising/Underrated

Without a doubt it has to be Munich. It’s a place with a lot of history, some interesting attractions, and if you are a beer lover (I’m not), it can be heavenly.  But there’s also plenty of shops for those who are less into history.  We only took the local city tour but there are other ones such as the Third Reich Tour which seemed quite interesting.  Another great thing about Munich is its proximity to other places.  Neuschwanstein Castle is only a 2 hour train ride away (an easy day trip) and the former concentration camp site of Dachau can be reached by subway (then short bus ride).  A lot of people also take day trips to Nuremberg and Salzburg (in Austria).  One place I would have liked to visit but didn’t have enough time was the Olympic site.  Maybe next time.

neuschwanstein_castle

Neuschwanstein Castle is a must-visit

Most Informative

That title would have to go to Berlin, simply because of all the free information available along the sidewalks (especially near Checkpoint Charlie).  In other places you may have to do your own research beforehand, or buy a guide book, or join a tour, or pay to enter a museum – you can still do all these things in Berlin but you don’t have to spend a dime to learn a great deal about the city.

Most Depressing

Hands down the prize goes to Dachau (near Munich).  The former concentration camp site has turned into a giant memorial and museum.  It’s hard to keep the eyes dry and you won’t be doing any star jumps there but it’s such an important place to visit.  Be sure to catch the 22 minute documentary film that shows throughout the day (remember to check what time the screening is for your preferred language).

Most Expensive

Be warned: Switzerland costs money.  One of the dumbest things we did the entire trip was only allocating 100 Swiss Francs for our 2-day stay in Basel/Lucerne.  We ended up putting at least double that on the credit card, and that was just for food and transport.  When a medium McDonald’s value meal costs in the vicinity of 12 Swiss Francs (to put that in perspective, that’s roughly 10.50 US Dollars, 7.15 Pounds, 7.85 Euros and 14.80 Australian Dollars) you know your wallet is in for a rough time.  Note we found Italy and Germany and Austria to be quite even in terms of prices and the Czech Republic to be slightly cheaper.

Top 5 Attractions

This is a tough one, but off the top of my head right now, the 5 attractions I liked the most were:

5. The Munich Royal Residence (Residenz) (Munich, Germany) – the former royal palace of the Bavarian monarchs, and naturally, full of amazing treasures, artworks and countless rooms to explore.  Free audio guide too.

4. Dachau Concentration Camp (Dachau, near Munich, Germany)– depressing as hell but plenty to see and absorb, and ultimately a tremendously insightful and rewarding experience.

3. Vatican City (Rome, Italy)– regardless of what you think about religion and/or Catholics, just go and have a look.  It’s worth it.  Just make sure you buy tickets in advance for the Vatican Museum if you don’t want to wait forever like we did.

2. Neuschwanstein Castle (near Fussen, Germany) – I didn’t expect it to be so awesome but it was.  The Castle was beautiful, and the tour inside was funny (because of the robot tour guides), and the hike up the hill to get there was simply magical.  We went when there was still snow lying around, and I think that made it even more spectacular.  Weather is pretty important – I heard that it can be quite miserable when it rains and when the visibility is low.

1. Palatine Hill (Rome, Italy) – just go and see it.

Final Thoughts

  • We were pretty blessed the entire trip.  It was tiring and we got ill a couple of times, but it came and went quickly, usually overnight.  The weather was also super.  Even when it was forecasted to rain we still got sunny skies.  The only time we were bothered by the rain was in Dachau, but as I said it suited the gloomy atmosphere there anyway.
  • Join local tour groups only if you like to listen to a lot of stuff, like history and explanations on how things became the way they are.  Or if you just don’t like the hassle of organising and figuring things out for yourself.  Otherwise you can save heaps of money doing things on your own, and there’s a lot more freedom too.
  • Expensive food does not always mean the most tasty.  Some of the best pizzas we had in Italy were from small vendors wedged in a corner somewhere and the same could be said for the ham and sausages we had in Germany.  That said, we did enjoy some spectacular meals that were pretty pricey too.

Now, I probably should start studying…