Europe travel tips: 20 things that will surprise first-time visitors

You might think you know what to expect on that big trip to Western Europe: amazing sights, overpriced coffee, unhelpful French people and drunken backpackers. And on some occasions you’ll be right.

However, there’s plenty that will surprise you on your first holiday in one of the world’s great tourist destinations.

Everyone smokes

As an Australian, you’ll have got used to the fact that not many people smoke any more. Until you get to Europe, and are engulfed by tobacco fumes in just about every public space. Prepare to take your lunch on the terrace with a side dish of passive smoking.

Europe doesn’t have to be expensive

While it’s known as a pricey destination, you’ll be surprised at how cheap some Western European cities can be, particularly in the south of Spain, Portugal, and Berlin. In places like Amsterdam, however, be prepared to spend.

It’s hot. Really, really hot.

You might be picturing snow-capped mountains and people named Heidi singing to cows, but if you’re heading to the south of Spain or Italy in mid-summer, prepare for the weather to be extremely hot. Almost unbearably hot.

The food is good. But it’s not always good.

Despite its reputation, Europe is not a wonderland of reliably delicious food. For every Michelin-starred fine-diner or amazing local bistro, there are 10 or 20 establishments serving pretty average cuisine. Do your research, however, and you’ll be one very happy customer.

The coffee is bad. But it’s not always bad.

If you’re used to Australian-style flat whites, you’re going to be disappointed in France, or in Germany, or in Switzerland, or even in most of Spain. The coffee just isn’t good. Italy is your saviour. Italian coffee rocks.

Wine is ridiculously cheap. So is cheese.

You don’t have to pay 20 euros a bottle, or even 10. Head down to the supermarche and you’ll be able to pick up a decent bottle of table wine for six or seven euros, plus some fresh bread and a block of the best cheese ever for the same price. Dinner is served.

You don’t have to queue

While travellers to Europe often tell horror stories of two- or three-hour queues to get into the most famous attractions, there are ways around it. For Barcelona’s La Sagrada Familia, for example, booking tickets online will allow you to skip the line entirely. At the Louvre in Paris, arriving at the “Port des Lions” entrance will also help you avoid the bulk of the crowds. Do your research.

Crime is not rampant

Despite what you may have heard, street crime is not a huge problem in Western Europe. In fact with a few simple precautions like zipping up your bag and not keeping a wallet in your back pocket, your travels should be hassle free, even in formerly dodgy cities like Barcelona and Rome.

Trains can be expensive

I know how I can save money, you think – I’ll take the train. Except intercity trains in Europe, if you don’t book in advance or use a rail discount card, can be extremely expensive. Often more expensive than flying.

Buskers are great

Surely the best buskers in the world reside in Europe. From the old guy playing accordion outside the restaurant to the full jazz band playing in the city square, there’s some serious talent on the streets of Europe, and it only costs you a few coins to enjoy it.

You’ll be overwhelmed. And underwhelmed.

Some of the world’s most famous attractions – the Coliseum, La Sagrada Familia, the Eiffel Tower, the Swiss Alps – are truly gob-smacking to see in the flesh. Others, meanwhile, like the Spanish Steps in Rome, or the Manneken Pis in Brussels, will leave you scratching your head and wondering if you actually came to the right place.

Everything works. Unless there’s a strike.

Public transport in Europe is amazingly good, from the U-Bahn in Berlin to the hire bikes of Seville and the trams of Amsterdam. The only time you’ll struggle is when there’s a strike – which should only occur about once every fortnight or so.

You can’t buy a Europe-wide local SIM card

Annoyingly, for travellers, if you’re planning to visit more than one European country, there’s no local SIM card you can buy that will work across the EU (at least not one with reasonable rates). For the best rates, buy a new local SIM in each country

Tourists eat early; locals eat late

This holds true for most of the southern countries, where there appear to be two restaurant sittings per night: one at about 7pm for all of the tourists, and one at about 9.30pm for the locals. If you want to get the proper experience, get used to eating late.

Asian food sucks

It doesn’t matter how much you’re craving that plate of dumplings, or that bowl of pho. Do not – I repeat, do not – go out for Asian food in Europe. You’ll be eternally disappointed. Stick to the local stuff.

Southerners really do take siestas

It’s mid-afternoon, and all of the shops are closed. In fact it’s like a zombie apocalypse in town, with all of the doors and windows shut and not a single person on the streets. That’s because everyone’s gone for a siesta. They’ll reappear at about four.

Everyone hangs out together

One of the great things you begin to notice in Europe is that everyone – old, young, families, singles, hipsters, nerds – tends to hang out together, gathering in piazzas and plazas, drinking in bars and eating in restaurants. There’s a strong “going out” culture in much of Western Europe, which breeds a safe, friendly atmosphere.

You can drink pretty much anywhere

You can drink in the park. You can drink on the street. In some places you can drink on public transport. That’s because, mostly, everyone behaves themselves. Don’t give Europeans reason to doubt that.

Some stereotypes are true. Some are wildly off base.

As you travel around you’ll realise that some of those tired old national stereotypes really do have a basis in truth, whereas others – Italians dress well; Germans are boring; the French are rude – are just plain wrong.

It’s not that far away; it’s not that expensive to get there

Here’s the most surprising thing about Europe: it’s really not that far away. A day of travelling and there you are on the other side of the world, seeing things you never thought you’d see, eating amazing food, meeting amazing people. And if you shop around for airfares, it’s not even that expensive to get there.

What did you find surprising about travelling in Western Europe?


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