Cobblestone alleys, Mediterranean sunsets, vibrant cities, and everything in between—a trip to Europe is a must, even if you’ve done it a dozen times. For the newly acquainted, traveling to Europe for the first time means experiencing hundreds of different cultures all stretched across a fairly small but diverse landscape, all the way from the mountains to the sea.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time traveling around Europe (and even living in Germany), and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface on this incredible continent.
If you’re traveling to Europe for the first time, here are five of my tried and tested tips for making the most of it.
1. Don’t Pack Your Itinerary Too Tightly
It’s easy to look at a map and think, “Wow, there are so many countries I could do in such a short amount of time!” Anyone from North America is used to insane distances between cities and states, so being able to visit multiple countries in even one day? An absolute novelty.
But if you try to cram five countries into a two-week vacation, you’re going to seriously regret your choices. Leave some flexibility in your itinerary because you never know what could pop up (and you never know when your travel plans will get disrupted). Pick a few “must-see” destinations, and spend at least a few days there.
2. Learn Some Basic Language Skills
Yes, just about everyone speaks English in Europe—but don’t depend on it. You might be visiting a few different places with a few different languages, but at least learn some very basic conversational skills, like greetings and directions.
And there are plenty of areas where locals just don’t speak a lot of English. As I traveled around rural towns in Spain on my Camino de Santiago, and even one time while ordering dinner at a busy restaurant in Porto, I found myself completely unable to converse with people around me. Even a phrasebook would suffice, but don’t hesitate to dive into learning a new language.
3. Join a Tour Group
There’s no shame in hopping on a tour group if that’s the way you want to visit a place. I love group tours. I get to make friends, and if I’m traveling for a limited time, it’s a great way to get a highlight reel of a destination. (Plus I work hard all year…sometimes I just want someone else to take the wheel. Literally.)
You’ll find lots of tours in Europe guaranteed to suit your preferences, whether it’s a small group or a specific age group, or even something geared towards certain themes like history or adventure. A tour is a nice way to get introduced to a new destination. I’ll often join a tour group (and I have throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans!) before setting out on my own.
4. Pack Lightly
I assure you, lugging heavy suitcases across cobblestone streets and around hilly towns (hello, Cinque Terre!) is absolutely no fun. This is especially true if you’re country-hopping and moving place-to-place quickly.
In a carry-on, you can pack:
- Walking shoes/sandals
- Evening shoes
- A few shirts and pants
- One dressy outfit
- One active outfit
- Underwear & socks
A few changes of clothes is all you need. If you’re looking for some carry-on backpack options, here are plenty to choose from.
5. Stay in Hostels
I might be at the point in my life where I’m over the hostel scene, but I’m so glad I experienced it when I did. I’ve had so many good hostel experiences in Europe, especially in big cities like Amsterdam, Athens, and London. And they weren’t all big party hostels either—some of my favorites were quieter, smaller hostels that allowed me to get to know people better.
Hey, try it once. Hang out with backpackers. Drink some cheap beers at the hostel bar. Take a free walking tour with the staff. Don’t knock it ‘til you try it!