How fortunate was I that the final wedding of the summer took me all the way to Italy? Since I was already traveling such a long way, I obviously had to make the most of the trip; especially, since my wedding date–my boyfriend–had never been to Europe. After much deliberation, I settled on three destinations for us to visit during the two weeks before the wedding: Barcelona, Spain; Taormina, Sicily, Italy; and Rome, Italy.
Now, I’m becoming a much more savvy traveler as I get older–thanks especially to TripIt Pro–but by no means do I consider myself an expert. I make plenty of miscalculations and careless mistakes while planning, and I have my fair share of frustrating travel moments–it’s inevitable. But I’m sure you’ll agree that the juice is so worth the squeeze. This trip was no exception, and I learned a lot that I want to share. So, I’ve broken down my top ten travel tips for Americans to utilize on a European adventure.
1. Learn to read a map
Yes, a real map. Made out of paper. Unless you want to pay exorbitant data charges, your smartphone can’t help you in every situation! Trust me, you don’t want to find yourself in a strange city with no idea how to get back to your hotel; especially, if you don’t speak the language. The first thing I learned to do when arriving somewhere new was to get my hands on a map and study it.
That being said, Google Maps can still be utilized while abroad. Here’s the trick: when you have Wi-Fi get directions to your destination and leave the app open. You’ll be able to use the turn-by-turn directions even when you lose the connection. Also, sometimes Google will still be able to find you using GPS even when your phone is on airplane mode … kind of creepy, but it comes in handy!
2. Take time to appreciate your physical location on said map
At dinner in Spain one night–admittedly after several glasses of wine–I was looking at Google Maps on my phone and scrolled out, so that I could see not only Barcelona but all of Spain, then all of Western Europe, and so on. It was oddly fascinating to realize that I was on the coast of the Balearic Sea (not the Mediterranean as I assumed), and that I was as close to Africa as I would have been to Mexico were I home in California.
These are details we normally gloss over in the chaos of our day-to-day lives. Traveling to a new and unfamiliar place provides a great opportunity to marvel at the physical reality of where you are and what you’re close to. The same goes for the layout of foreign cities. Studying the maps of Barcelona and Rome over coffee became my favorite pastime on this trip. It sounds geeky–well it is geeky–but familiarizing myself with the neighborhoods and eventually being able to navigate without directions was strangely and deeply satisfying. Just try it.
3. Learn the basics of the native language and try to use them
Yes, it’s true that wherever you go in Western Europe you’re likely to find someone who speaks at least a little English. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn the basics “I want,” “please,” “thank you,” “where is.” Think of it this way: if someone came up to you in America and started speaking Italian, assuming you’d understand them and respond, it’d be a little strange. It’s the same when you’re the foreigner. Learning a little bit of the language shows respect for the country you’re visiting and the people who live there. Lonely Planet makes great pocket guides for travelers that include all the phrases and words you should need, plus great tips about the culture so you don’t come off as one of those “rude Americans” people are always referring to.
4. Forget about breakfast as you know it
In fact, don’t expect to find a real meal anywhere before noon in Spain or Italy, unless you pay for the 12-Euro-per-day breakfast at your hotel. Most restaurants or cafes don’t even open before 10 a.m., and they definitely don’t serve eggs and bacon. Just resign to the fact that you’ll be eating sandwiches or croissants for breakfast. Also, drip coffee is not a thing in Europe. You can have espresso, latte, cappuccino, or Americano. Be aware though, per the aforementioned Lonely Planet guide to Italian, ordering a latte later than noon is a major faux pas.
Suffice to say, mornings were confusing for us.
5. The metro is your new best friend
I live in San Francisco, and I’ve reached the point where I’d honestly rather walk up our many hills than deal with the often late, always crowded, and dirty bus and metro system. Public transportation in Europe, however, is shockingly superior to the United States–in Barcelona, especially.
The metro is often the quickest, cheapest, and easiest way to get around in a European city. It’s usually clean, on time, and goes everywhere a tourist would want to go. Grab a metro map and buy a metro pass the first day you arrive. By day three, you’ll be a pro and conquering the metro in a new city gives you a sense of accomplishment; especially, when all you’ve done for days is sleep, eat, and stare at buildings. It would be an absolute shame to rely only on cabs. Trust me. Save your money for cannoli!
6. If you do drive, spring for the GPS
Despite my undying love for foreign metros, there were times throughout our trip when we couldn’t rely on them. From Barcelona, we flew to Sicily and because Taormina is a four-hour drive across the island from the airport in Palermo, we had to rent a car. Since my boyfriend likes to brag that he is a better driver than me, I assigned him the task of driving the rental car.
Driving in Italy, Sicily especially, is a harrowing experience. Narrow streets combined with wild Italian drivers make it difficult enough, but driving in a rural area at night? Forget it. Street signs are hard to find in Europe–the street name is usually on the wall of a building. If there aren’t any buildings around, like on the back roads of Sicily, notating street names at all seems to be completely optional. When you’re trying to find your hotel in the dark, and you’ve gone around in circles trying to find a street that apparently doesn’t exist, well … that’s when you’ll realize you should have just paid for the damn GPS.
That brings me to my next piece of advice…
7. Develop (very) thick skin
This is an important piece of advice for any traveler. Traveling is exhilarating and often life-changing. But unless your trip involves a direct flight on a private jet to a tropical island, it’s also usually stressful. If you don’t learn to roll with the punches you’ll work yourself into an unnecessary frenzy.
Our flight to Spain was extremely delayed so we arrived a full eight hours later than planned, only to find that the flat we’d booked advertised as a “modern studio decorated by an interior designer” was more like a broom closet with a hot plate. We tried to stick it out, but when I realized the cheap, scratchy bed linens had literally dyed my skin, nails and clothes blue, I gave in and found a hotel. Scrubbing the blue dye off in a full-size shower with fluffy hotel towels and fresh linens waiting for me made it all worth it.
My point is that the most ridiculous, stressful things that happen while traveling often make for the best stories. Keep things in perspective and don’t take anything personally, and you’ll be golden.
8. Listen to the locals
On our final day in Barcelona, we were still recovering from jet lag. It takes a week, by the way. I had planned for us to wake up at 8 a.m. and be the first in line for the Sagrada Familia. We staggered out of our hotel closer to 10:30, and headed straight to the nearest café for espresso. The owner of the café, Lorenzo, overheard us discussing our plans. We told him it was our last day in Barcelona and that we planned to brave the long lines to see Gaudi’s masterpiece.
Lorenzo was visibly disgusted with that plan and told us as much. “Too crowded!” He recommended instead a day trip to Sitges, a little beach town 20 minutes outside of the city by train. We spent our last day in Spain strolling around this adorable little gem, eating gelato, and people watching. It was perfect, and we wouldn’t even have known about if Lorenzo hadn’t interjected. Get to know the locals whenever possible and always take their advice!
9. Balance your time between the city and the country
Cities are exciting! There’s so much culture to absorb and so much to see and do. The desire to plan the bulk of a trip in metropolitan areas is understandable. The thing is, major tourist attractions don’t tell the whole story of the country you’re visiting; especially, in a place like Italy where the phrase “la dolce far niente” (the sweetness of doing nothing) originated. Rome was fantastic, but some of my favorite memories include driving through the countryside in Sicily, discovering Italian gas station food (it’s actually pretty good), and of course our beach days, spent eating pizza, drinking beer, and swimming in the sea.
Balancing the time you spend in cities with time spent relaxing in nature will keep you sane and keep your vacation feeling like a vacation.
10. Don’t plan everything
As the Lorenzo anecdote reveals, sometimes it’s best to throw the plan out the window. Other times, it’s best to not have a plan at all! One of my favorite things to do in a new place is set out on foot and explore, stopping anywhere that seems interesting along the way.
Not having a plan on this trip allowed us to discover our favorite neighborhood in Barcelona–the sophisticated and trendy Grácia district. There was awesome live jazz in Taormina and the best lasagna in Rome. Most tourists seem obsessed with seeing as many historical monuments and taking as many photos to post to Facebook as humanly possible. For me, that’s not what it’s about. Slow down and appreciate the fact that instead of being behind a desk, you’re in a beautiful place surrounded by infinite potential for new experiences–now that’s freedom.
What are some of your top travel tips for Americans traveling to Europe? Share in the comments below.