Seeking Doper advice on European travel

Assembled Dopers:

Over the last year or so, frequent business travel has forced me to develop sound techniques for managing what was once a debilitating fear of flying. I now feel capable of making serious plans to go to Europe, and one of my friends has agreed to go with me (we both live in the US). However, we’re having a hard time narrowing down a list of destinations. I turn to you, urbane denizens of the SDMB, to help me uncover places that basically fit the following criteria:

**Is a moderately priced travel destination (relative to other travel destinations–we’re both aware that this won’t be cheap) and is suitable for a ~4 day excursion.
**Will not be completely miserable in in January or mid-March (the two windows of opportunity we will probably have to travel). We are not adverse to the cold, but we don’t want to visit at a time when most things are closed.
**Would be a good destination for someone new to international travel (international travel seems like one of those things that you need to “practice” to get good at, but that’s just my impression)

Since my friend has been to Paris once, he has ruled that out, and I have ruled out Rome because I would like my first visit there to be a longer one than I have time for right now. In terms of languages we both speak passable French (I mean, we’d be laughed at by native speakers, but someone could understand what we are saying) and I am comfortable with my ability to pick up essential basics in most languages (I know a lot of languages, it’s just that most of them aren’t actually spoken anymore). Basically the two of us would like to be able to relax while touring some museums, libraries and other such places of interest. (Of course I like all things old and grand and he likes all things new and experimental.)

I thank you in advance for your comments and advice.

First of all, you don’t need to speak anything but English to go almost anywhere in Western Europe even by yourself even for your first trip. I don’t speak a word of anything other than English and I arrived in Milan by myself to meet my wife’s party who was already there and had to get to a place I only vaguely knew about. No problem whatsoever. All people in the hospitality trades speak English and most younger people on the street do as well.

Ditto that for literally days upon days of walking around Paris and other parts of France by myself over the past few years. I am always humble that I can’t speak their language so they instinctively switch to English. It is very convenient if you are tactful about it but almost sad in a way. Still, any attempt at the local language is always appreciated. This advise may not be true in the more rural areas but it has been true in every city or touristy town I have been to in Western Europe.

I would recommend Northern Italy. Venice is fascinating but it is also small and you could get a good overview in a few days. You could combine that with Florence, easily reachable by train, to make a great 4 day trip that is only mildly hectic. You are likely to fly into Milan which sounds glamorous but is almost like the Cleveland of Italy and not a tourism hot-spot. You could add Verona as well (the setting of Romeo and Juliet). It is a very small city but charming and it has a colosseum.

If you only have 4 days, you are more or less limited to one city with perhaps a day trip to somewhere outside the city. January is going to be very cold and dark (short days) throughout much of Europe, so I’d head somewhere south. Of course mid March will be a better time to go in most cases.

I have traveled extensively, so my suggestions may seem a bit odd or exotic, but they are easy places to travel - you won’t be roughing it. Plus, youll have been to someplace just a bit off the normal tourist route which is always more fun.

Malta: Lots of history here, but could be a bit stormy in January. Four days would be enough to see most sites on the island (don’t miss Mdina). I’d stay in Sliema as it is very central and has a beautiful walking path along the waterfront that runs for several miles. Food can be a bit expensive in Malta, but for Europe it is one of the less expensive destinations overall.

Istanbul: Lots of great things to see here including Topkapi Palace and the Sultanahmet area (Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia etc.)

The food is excellent and its as easy a place to travel as elsewhere in Europe while being very reasonably priced… overall Turkey is one of the best values for money anywhere in terms of infrastructure, things to see/do and quality of life. Istanbul is different enough so as to not be completely Western but is not entirely Eastern either… all in all a great experience compared to the usual London/Paris/Rome.

Hmmm the message board does not like the non-English letters in the Topkapi Palace URL… Just Google “Topkapi Palace”

Don’t go to Venice in January. Or go, but be prepared for everything to be closed. And bring knee-high waterproof boots. It floods.

True but also don’t go to Western Europe in August either. They have much more vacation time than they do and they use some of it altogether all at once. October is a good time for western European travel if you can swing things together quickly. Seriously, it takes me about the same amount of time to get from my adopted home of Boston to Europe as it does to fly back to my ancestral home in the Deep South.

It was once a revelation to me that European travel isn’t something that you have to prepare much more for than travel in the U.S. My wife’s family owns a company that specializes in European imports. People employed there buy a plane ticket at the drop of a hat and just go, often the same day.

I am always amazed at how people look at perceived special travel. Four hours flight from Boston may get you deep into the South while six hours will get you to Paris. Once you are on the plane, an hour or two here or there doesn’t mean much to me especially if it is an overnight flight. Most people make a hard distinctions about the differences in those plans however.

It doesnt make much sense to me. I have left work on Friday, flown to Europe that night, and been back at work on Tuesday on three separate occasions. The ocean doesn’t matter and all the people speak English if I need them to.

It is a cool way to travel but I don’t find it all that more exotic than a trip from New York to LA. Buy a power converter and just go. You won’t ever be out of sight of an American group or a hotel desk agent that can help you with anything. It is only like a minor exstion of American travel and not something you have to build up to.

As they said on Pulp Fiction:

                   You'll dig it the most.  But you
                   know what the funniest thing about
                   Europe is?


                   It's the little differences.  A
                   lotta the same shit we got here,
                   they got there, but there they're a
                   little different.


                   Well, in Amsterdam, you can buy
                   beer in a movie theatre.  And I
                   don't mean in a paper cup either.
                   They give you a glass of beer, like
                   in a bar.  In Paris, you can buy
                   beer at MacDonald's.  Also, you
                   know what they call a Quarter
                   Pounder with Cheese in Paris?

                   They don't call it a Quarter
                   Pounder with Cheese?

                   No, they got the metric system
                   there, they wouldn't know what the
                   fuck a Quarter Pounder is.

                   What'd they call it?

                   Royale with Cheese.

                   Royale with Cheese.  What'd they
                   call a Big Mac?

                   Big Mac's a Big Mac, but they call
                   it Le Big Mac.

                   What do they call a Whopper?

                   I dunno, I didn't go into a Burger
                   King.  But you know what they put
                   on french fries in Holland instead
                   of ketchup?




                   I seen 'em do it.  And I don't mean
                   a little bit on the side of the
                   plate, they fuckin' drown 'em in

I went to Europe for the first time this summer. We hit Spain, France, Italy, Greece, and Croatia.

My favorite, beyond a doubt, was Santorini and Athens, Greece. Athens is somewhat English-friendly because of the overhaul they did for the Olympic Games. There’s the Acropolis, which is awesome even though it’s under restoration at present, and The National Archeology museum there is a wonder. All the exhibits are marked in English, though we had trouble getting cab drivers since we didn’t know Greek.

Santorini was incredible, if you’re into volcanic islands and black sand beaches. We got to climb Nea Kameni which offers a magnificent view of the crater and the sea. We only had one day in each place, but plenty to stay busy and feel healthy.

Highly recommended.

I highly recommend Berlin. It’s quite moderately priced - I wouldn’t hesitate to call it the cheapest major city in Western Europe. A meal in a relatively classy sit-down restaurant, with drinks, can be €10-15. Most everyone here speaks English. Tons of great museums, interesting history and memorial sites, and neat atmosphere - there’s a thriving art scene, and everything is still very dynamic since it’s really not that long since the wall came down. Also, Potsdam, which has more landscape and a castle (Sanssouci) can be reached with the S-bahn (suburban rail) in under an hour from most parts of the city - very doable day trip.

The major drawback is the time of year - things will certainly be open, including wonderful cozy cafes if the weather is poor, but being so far north it will be dark by 4 in the afternoon. Which can be a bummer.

Good luck with the planning, and feel free to email me if you want more tips on Berlin… I’ve been living here for the past three months :slight_smile: (but have to leave next week :frowning: )

I’d like to sing the praises of the UK but in January or March it will be dark and miserable - probably not especially cold but not much fun when you only have four days.

How about Barcelona? Nice climate - particularly in March - lots to do and see. The old town feel old and medieval but the city is about as modern as you can get - an awful lot of building since the Olympics started the regeneration. The only thing against it is it is not particularly cheap.

I really appreciate y’all taking the time to reply.

Shagnasty, I certainly see your point about over-preparing, but lots of preparation is the way I manage my extreme anxiety about travel (I also have a very bad sense of direction and tend to get lost a lot so I like to spend a lot of time with maps, etc.). As I take more international trips I’ll be able to do it with less prep time and pondering, but I will be much more comfortable if I do a lot of planning and prep in advance the first few times. I do appreciate your note on the languages and the suggestion of Northern Italy, which was one of the areas I was most interested in (I’ve heard the exact same thing about Milan from one of my students, btw). tiltypig, I’m sad to hear about Venice in January–my traveling companion and I are both academics but our institutions have different Spring Breaks this year which is why we’re looking at early January before the start of the semester–but it’s good to know and I thank you for your information.

Desert Nomad, olivesmarch4th and MarcusF I have passed your suggestions on to my friend. He feels that destinations in warmer climes will be too crowded (or some such) during this time and wants to go to Scandinavia (OK, his family is Finnish and he wants to go to Helsinki–I can understand this–but in January?). I hope that I can convince him that perhaps there are other options! :smiley: shimmery, I’m also glad you talked up Berlin (my father’s family is German)–I had suggested Berlin or Hamburg or Vienna and my friend seemed as open to that as to anything I had suggested.

Don’t rule out Rome. Four days in Rome is a goodly amount of time to see most of the significant things. And the weather will be pretty good.

If you’re dead set against Rome, another Italian city would be a good idea regardless - I just came back from a few days in Florence, and I would highly recommend it. Much smaller than Rome, a lot to see, astonishingly beautiful, and you can be in Tuscany in a couple of hours if you rented a car - go see Pisa’s leaning tower, and Lucca is a gorgeous little town nearby. You really don’t need anything but English in any of those places.

I agree, Americans needn’t fear a language barrier most of the time, but I’d add that it is important not to be an ugly American. Learn the very, very basics: Please, thank you, excuse me, the numbers one through ten hopefully. It’s much nicer to point towards those delicious looking pastries behind the counter and say “two please” in the local language than to start off with English and expect they understand. At least learn to ask politely, “do you understand English?” They all pretty much do of course, but they’re more likely to suddenly pretend they don’t if you act like they should understand English.

I don’t think you’ll find that Istanbul and Malta are too crowded. Malta gets quite a few cruise ship type visits that fills the streets for a few hours in the middle of the day, but they never really have a good chance to get elsewhere on the island in many cases. And that time of year will have few, if any, ships.

As for Istanbul, Jan-Mar is certainly the off season and even in high season it is nothing like Paris or Rome. Also, Istanbul will not be warm… just warmer than say, Berlin.

If you’re going in January, stick to the Mediterranean, especially Spain, Italy or Greece. So my picks would be Madrid, Barcelona, Rome or Athens. Each of these can be done in 4 days.

Just to clarify, winter in Berlin is pretty comparable to the American Northeast - I grew up in New Jersey and found Berlin winter to be much like the winters there. I didn’t get any snow while I was there, and I would say the temperature hovered in the 30-45 F range.

I don’t know what you’re used to, so I suppose that could sound totally doable or totally horrible to you…

Also, re: the rest of Germany - it is not as cheap as Berlin, by a long shot - in fact, it’s relatively expensive. There are definitely pros and cons to visiting other cities in Germany - for me, Berlin is the hands-down winner because it’s young, cheap, arty, diverse, cosmopolitan, and international.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for more of the red-roof, villagey, wurst & beer,* “oh my God I am in the middle of Germany” feeling, then by all means try somewhere else. As far as Hamburg, I’ve never been there but I’ve heard that it’s smaller than Berlin yet relatively modern. I’ve only visited a random handful of other German cities but so far I’ve found Nuremburg to be the most traditional.

*not that wurst and beer are unavailable in Berlin!

Missed edit window: I don’t want to make it sound like Berlin isn’t full of history, because it is, much more so than any American city I’ve been to. Beyond the countless (countless!) memorials for the war and the wall, you can sometimes get a feel for decadent 1920s Berlin, which is fun. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t always feel very “foreign” to me.

No. Just say no. During the winter months Scandinavia is dark and gloomy, and the weather is likely to be miserable. It’s lovely in the summer months though, and for another trip, I can definitely recommend Copenhagen and Stockholm.

I second the suggestions for Barcelona and, if you can live with the weather being a little cold, very definitely Berlin. It’s a great city with both old and new history and lots of interesting museums. Good mix of ‘old stuff’ and ‘new stuff’. And of course the Sans Souci (emperor’s palaces), in Potsdam, which can easily be reached with the S-Bahn.