This May, Darshan and I embarked on a 4-country adventure around Western Europe. We experienced new languages and cultures, delicious food, remnants of old civilizations, modern technological advances, and Mother Nature at her finest. It was the perfect way to celebrate my completion of grad school and our transition to our new life in Washington, DC. Below, we’ve shared some of our favorite activities, restaurants (particularly from a veggie/vegan point of view), and general tips for traveling in Europe.
Our Itinerary (May 9-25, 2019)
Travel light. Because we were going to be traveling quite a bit, we decided to limit our luggage to 1 backpack and 1 small daypack per person, and boy were we grateful that we did this! It not only made travel much quicker and easier but also prevented us from buying fairly useless souvenirs. Sure, we had to do laundry a couple times, but it was totally worth it IMHO (especially when we saw people struggling to lug large suitcases down broken escalators or up Lisbon’s steep hills).
Get the United explorer credit card. (There is no annual fee the first year.) They offer a great exchange rate and, unlike most other credit cards, they do not charge fees for international purchases. Plus, if you spend enough money, you’ll get 50,000 United miles. When you use your card to pay, they will sometimes ask you if you want to pay in USD or Euros. If you have the United card, always select Euros. (United will give you a much better exchange rate than the card reader would.)
Although most places accept credit card, you’ll need to carry some cash with you for street vendors, paying tips, etc. (The tipping culture in Europe is a little different. Most restaurants allowed us to pay the bill via credit card but had no way for us to add a tip to our card. We just left cash tips when needed.) Do your homework to find the best way to convert your USD to Euros. We ended up doing ATM withdrawals, but I’m sure there’s a smarter option out there. Whatever you do, do not use the cash exchanges at the airport…they will zap you with very high commissions.
An international cell phone plan is worth looking into. Darshan got an international plan for his cell phone, primarily for business purposes, but it also saved us a lot of money because we were able to quickly look up public transport routes on Google Maps or request Ubers, instead of having to take expensive taxis. Definitely worth the $10/day that AT&T charged us.
If you’re planning a fairly active trip (we walked 8-10 miles daily), definitely bring a good pair of sneakers. The streets are often uneven and stone-paved, not really suitable for flip flops.
You will need to bring an electric converter (probably one per person) to charge your phones/devices.
Planning a trip to an unfamiliar place can seem overwhelming, but a good way to start is by Googling and asking people for recommendations, and then saving them all onto a Google map (with different colors for activities vs restaurants). You’ll soon get an idea of the geography and can make an itinerary accordingly. Try to do things located nearby all on the same day, so you don’t waste time traveling.
Talk to locals. We got some of our best tips from our walking/bike tour guides, restaurant servers, Uber drivers, Airbnb owners.
Reach the airport/train station early, very early. To prevent unnecessary stress, reach your departure point earlier than you think is necessary (30-45 minutes before departure time for trains, and 2 hours for flights). Things in Europe are organized differently from what we’re used to. (For example, for most of our flights, the departure gates were not assigned until just before boarding started.) If you’re used to the TSA-precheck life in the US, where you reach the airport parking lot an hour before departure and still have time to fill your water bottle and grab a coffee before stepping on the plane, you’ll definitely have to change your ways in Europe!
Speaking of water bottles, there are astonishingly few water fountains in airports and tourist attractions. Many restaurants charge even for water. It’s best to travel with your own water bottle (or 2!) and refill every opportunity you get.
We found small grocery stores on every street in all the cities we visited. Buying snacks and breakfast supplies at the grocery store saved us a lot of time (and money).
American chain restaurants (Pizza Hut, Subway, McDonalds, Starbucks, etc) are everywhere. We managed to avoid these in favor of local restaurants, but if you’re missing familiar food, these chains are always an option.
Any time you use vending machines to buy metro tickets, etc., look for a symbol with a British flag. Touching this symbol will provide English instructions.
If you take a day trip anywhere using public transportation, be sure to double-check the timing of the last train/bus home. You don’t want to miss the train and be stuck with a very expensive Uber ride back to your hotel!
Learn some basic words in the local language (please, thank you, hello, entrance, exit, where is the restroom, I would like, food/drink names, etc). Although most locals know English, at least in the cities, familiarity with the language will provide a degree of comfort and connection. Plus, nothing feels quite as empowering as being able to converse in the local language!
If you’re trying to find a restroom in a public place, look for signs that say “WC” or some variant of the word “toilet.”
If you don’t have a washer-dryer where you’re staying, laundromats are easy to use and usually have fast, high-powered machines. We were in and out in less than an hour at a laundromat in Lisbon. (It cost 7 euros.)
Get the Google Translate and Google Maps apps, and download the local languages and local maps to your phone. That way, you’ll be able to use these apps even without Internet. Google Translate was very helpful for translating restaurant menus, signs, etc.
Cigarette smoking is unfortunately quite common in Europe. If secondhand smoke bothers you, avoid outdoor patio/terrace seating at restaurants.
If you have the flexibility, avoid the busy tourist season. We heard that European cities can get very crowded in June-August. We went in mid-May; the weather was decent, and we didn’t have to reserve activities weeks in advance, which gave us some flexibility to make last-minute changes as needed.
Paris (Days 1-3)
Paris is a beautiful blend of the ancient and the modern. Gazing down at the sprawling metropolis from atop the monuments gives you an idea of just how large the city is. But at the same time, Parisians enjoy quaint stone-paved streets, laden with idyllic stone sculptures, small bakeries, cafes, and pastry shops.
Arc de Trionphe. The elevator was out of order the day we went, but it was worth the climb to see the beautiful and unique view of the city.
The Louvre. This museum wasn’t originally on our list, but we popped in to get away from the rain and ended up spending half the day there! Even if you’re not into art, the Louvre is worth a visit. I was mesmerized by the Sitting Scribe and other masterpieces.
Sacre Coeur (a majestic cathedral with a great view of the city). Definitely climb up to the dome for incredible views of the cathedral’s architecture as well as the city. Nearby, the Montmartre market is fun to walk around.
Eiffel Tower. Because, of course.
Most veggie restaurants are near the Luxemburg Gardens/Notre Dame area. We had quite a few vegan places on our list (Vegan Folies, Sense Eat, Holy Planet), but were only able to try one – Le Grenier de Notre Dame. They had good food, but the restaurant was way too quiet for our taste. Next time, we’d go somewhere more informal.
Cafe Beaugrenelle near our hotel had a great vegan poke bowl and fun, lively atmosphere.
Darshan loved breakfast at the little creperies and boulangeries (bakeries) (there is literally one on every street) and highly recommends crepes with fruit. (Alas, we couldn’t find vegan crepes, so none for me.)
Saravanaa Bhavan. French food is delicious, but we were missing something with a little more spice a couple days into our trip, so went to Saravanaa Bhavan to enjoy their awesome dosas.
We took the metro pretty much everywhere. Buy a “carnet” (set of 10 tickets) for a discount.
Uber is also a good option in Paris and is not too expensive. If you have 3+ people in your group, it’s worth checking the Uber price before hopping on the metro.
We stayed at a hotel near the Eiffel Tower (Hotel Exposition de Tour Eiffel), located in a residential area. While many prefer to stay in the heart of Paris, where more of the action is, we loved our very clean (albeit small) hotel room with its quiet location by the Seine River.
Lisbon (Days 4-6)
Lisbon immediately won our hearts – beautiful red-roofed homes, colorful streets bursting with food and life, wonderfully warm weather, and a very relaxed island-like atmosphere.
Boat tour on the Tagus. There are lots of companies that do these tours, but we went with Lisbon by Boat. Our tour guides were awesome and very knowledgeable about the city; it was lovely to hang out with another American couple and enjoy snacks & drinks on the boat.
Day trip to Sintra/Cabo da Roca. Sintra is a must-do if you travel to Lisbon. Centuries-old colorful castles and fortresses against the beautiful backdrop of the Atlantic, with breathtaking views of the red-roofed Portuguese villages below. You’ll do a ton of walking, and it’s mostly uphill and uneven pathways, so wear sneakers. We used public transport to get here – took the train from Lisbon to Sintra, then bought a day pass for the Scot Turb bus (about 15 euros), which stops at all the main Sintra sights, as well as Cabo da Roca. Their website isn’t great, but it’s very easy to find the Scot Turb office and buy the pass once you reach the Sintra station. I do not recommend driving a rental car there yourself…the roads are extremely narrow and twisted, and there isn’t much parking. We saw the Moors Castle and Pena Palace in Sintra and absolutely loved them. You can buy tickets for the Sintra palaces at any palace ticket booth; they give discounts if you buy more tickets for multiple palaces, but each will take a couple hours to explore fully, so plan accordingly.
We then took the bus to Cabo da Roca (westernmost point in Europe), and enjoyed a beautiful hike as well as a memorable sunset over the Atlantic. Probably one of my favorite moments of our trip! (The bus ride to Cabo da Roca is full of twists and turns, so if you’re prone to carsickness, you may want to carry some ginger chews with you.)
Castelo da San Jorge. We enjoyed a sunny day hiking around this castle, watching the peacocks, and enjoying tea in the gardens.
Padrao dos Descobrimentos. A beautiful monument to Portuguese explorers. We went to the top and enjoyed a great view of the city and the water, but their terrace was small and crowded, so I’d recommend going early in the day.
Jeronimos Monastery. A majestic monastery with beautiful stained glass and a lot of information on Portuguese explorers.
Walking around Lisbon’s neighborhoods (Rossio, Alfama, etc) was a ton of fun.
Vegan restaurants are plentiful in Lisbon. My favorite was Veganapati (an Indian-fusion restaurant with a cool vibe and outdoor seating). Koppu Ramen also had good vegan options and delicious Ramen.
You will find ice creameries on every street. The flavors are unique and almost every shop had vegan options (labeled with a green V). I was impressed with how rich and delicious the sorbets were!
If you go to Sintra/Cabo da Roca, make sure you bring snacks with you! The only restaurant by the ocean closes quite early, and the cafeterias in Sintra’s palaces had very few veggie options.
We mostly took the metro and bus but also used Uber a few times. Uber is super cheap in Lisbon….most of our rides were less than 6 euros.
Our Airbnb was in Alfama, Lisbon’s historic district with a labyrinth of colorful, narrow, and very (very, very) hilly streets and old-style architecture. Pros of Alfama: most Airbnbs have an older look from the outside but are completely renovated inside, we felt safe (there were always hoards of tourists around), and there are TONS of small cafes and shops everywhere. The main con was that our Airbnb was quite small (as are most Alfama homes) and felt cramped. Next time, we might try staying in Central Lisbon.
Barcelona (Days 7-11)
Barcelona quickly became our favorite European city from this trip. It felt like an amalgamation of Paris and Lisbon – well-developed and organized, yet relaxed and colorful. The locals were very nice, the food was AMAZING, and we never got tired of simply walking around the diverse neighborhoods.
Day trip to Montserrat. Hiking around this mountain was one of the highlights of our trip. I recommend buying the Trans Montserrat with Aeri ticket, which you can purchase at the vending machines at Placa d’Espanya train station for 32 euros). This includes the round-trip train journey on the R5 from Barcelona to Montserrat, 2 metro rides, round-trip cable car ride from the train station to the monastery at Montserrat, and round-trip funicular ride from the monastery a little ways up the mountain. From there, we hiked to the summit – a moderate hike with exquisite views of beautiful rock formations and quaint Spanish villages below. There are a lot of things to do at Montserrat; do your homework beforehand to find the best activities for you!
Bike tour. This was a great way to see the city and our tour guide was wonderful. However, if you’re not familiar with urban biking, I would recommend doing a walking tour instead of a bike tour. Barcelona is busy and crowded, and navigating my way around people and cars on bike was a little nerve-wracking for me (though Darshan was fine).
Yoga. I dropped into a morning class at a yoga studio near our Airbnb. It was awesome and felt very empowering being able to follow a Spanish yoga class!
Placa de Catalunya. We just stumbled across this plaza during one of our walks but had so much fun watching the pigeons (literally thousands of them!) and their interactions with people.
We got a glimpse of some amazing buildings by Gaudi and other Spanish architects (Sagrada Familia and Casa Mila) but unfortunately didn’t have time to go inside. Sagrada Familia is an incredibly unique and beautiful cathedral and worth checking out.
Barcelona 360 on the terrace of Hotel Barcelo Raval. We found out about this cool (and free!) observatory from our bike tour guide. Fantastic views of the city.
Walking around Barcelona’s different neighborhoods (El Raval, Barceloneta, Gracia, the beach, etc) was probably one of the most fun activities.
Carrer de Blai. Barcelona’s famous tapas street, where you can get tapas for 1 euro each! This street is humming between the hours of 9pm and midnight, and most people enjoy restaurant hopping, trying out a couple tapas at different restaurants.
For nicer sit-down restaurants, we loved Teresa Carles (a veggie restaurant with a delicious menu including vegan desserts!) and Ziryab (a Mediterranean tapas restaurant with delicious hummus and unique dips). For more casual dining, I recommend Quinoa Bar (great selection of vegan burgers and wraps), Maoz Falafel and Perejil (for vegan Mediterranean), and Restaurant Vegetalia El Raval (for mixed cuisine).
Most ice creameries also have vegan options, but they’re often not labeled. Just ask the server.
We stayed in an Airbnb in El Poble-Sec. We absolutely loved the location. Within a 5-minute walk, we had a metro stop, Carrer de Blai, several restaurants, and several grocery stores. It was super close to all our activities, yet far enough for some peace and quiet at nighttime.
Lucerne (Days 12-14)
Lucerne looked and felt just like a picture out of a fairytale – castle-like buildings painted in pastel colors, pristine lake with swans and ducks, and mountains in the distance. Just beware that everything in Switzerland (food, activities, trains, etc) is very expensive. It seemed even worse for us, as we were coming straight from relatively cheaper Portugal and Spain!
Run/walk along Lake Lucerne. After my chocolate indulgences in Barcelona, I thought it best to go for a run our first morning in Switzerland. And what a run it was! With the serene Lake Lucerne and white swans on one side, and the snow-peaked mountains on the other, I did not feel like stopping!
Mount Pilatus. This mountain is very accessible from Lucerne and a must-do if you’re in the area. We spoiled ourselves with the Golden Round Trip package, which included a long and beautiful cable car ride up to the peak, a cogwheel train ride down the mountain (which has a 48-degree gradient at some points, making it the steepest cogwheel train in the world!), and a picturesque boat ride around Lake Lucerne. We were mostly standing around with our mouths wide open the whole time, in complete awe of the beauty of Mt. Pilatus and surrounding areas.
Motorboat rental. We rented a motorboat (from SNG rentals) and rode around Lake Lucerne for about an hour. The lake and surrounding mountains never get old.
Swiss Transport Museum. We stepped in here primarily to escape the rain one afternoon, but really enjoyed ourselves. The museum exhibits are well-designed for all age groups and do a great job explaining the legendary Swiss transport exhibits. Obviously, you’re going to enjoy the museum more if you’re into vehicles/engineering, but even I had fun. The museum also has a Swiss chocolate ride (which we didn’t do but saw many people excitedly exiting the ride) and fantastic IMAX theater. We watched the Wild Africa 3-D movie and loved it.
We got Thai takeout from Khoua Vientiane one night (they were super nice about veganizing everything) and tried out Kanchi for Indian food for lunch. Both restaurants had great food (but a bit pricey like everything in Switzerland!).
For a beautiful view and delicious ice cream/sorbet, try out the See Café. They have outdoor seating with gorgeous views of the lake.
At this point, we were craving homemade food, so we took advantage of our Airbnb’s well-stocked kitchen and next-door grocery store to make some of our own meals.
We traveled entirely by train and bus. Swiss trains are legendary for being on time, quiet, and eco-friendly. Download the “SBB Mobile” app and buy tickets a few days in advance (“super saver ticket” option) to get discounts (as high as 50%). If you’re flexible on timing, check ticket prices for a few different trains, as prices vary according to demand. And if you’re going to be in Switzerland for a while, it might be worth it to buy the Swiss travel pass or half-fare card. (Do the math out before buying this though…with our short itinerary, it wouldn’t have been worth it for us.)
We stayed at a well-located Airbnb within a 5-minute walk of the Lucerne train station. Lucerne is easily accessible by train from both Zurich and Basel. There are also many cabins and resorts up the mountain and further down the lake, if you’re looking for something more secluded. For us, the downtown Lucerne location worked out great since we had easy access to the train and several restaurants/activities.
Normandy (Days 15-16)
We concluded our trip on a somewhat contemplative note with a trip to Normandy to see the World War II landing beaches and memorial sites. Darshan is a WWII history buff, so we thought we’d make the 3-hour trek up from Paris. It was an incredible experience being able to see in person places that were previously only known to us through books and documentaries. After being away from home for so long, it felt pretty neat seeing American flags (along with those of other Allies) flying on every street!
Although there are a number of guided tours, we decided to explore on our own using online guides. I’d recommend starting at Utah Beach, one of the American landing beaches. They have a museum with a great short video and lots of interesting artifacts from WWII. It’s a great way to set the context for the day.
Omaha Beach and the nearby American Cemetery are of course must-sees and very emotional experiences. Remnants of WWII, such as barricades and tunnels, are still visible on the main beach, even outside the museums. If you go to the Cemetery, try to go around early evening time. They do a flag lowering ceremony sometime around 4 or 5 (depending on the time of year).
We also visited Arromanches, where we saw remnants of the famous artificial harbor used to offload people and cargo onto the beaches during the Normandy invasion.
Our trip felt a little rushed since we only had 1 full day. We would have liked to see the British and Canadian landing beaches as well, but didn’t have enough time. You can easily spend 3-5 days in Normandy, especially if you’re interested in WWII.
If you have dietary restrictions, you’ll need to be a little more careful in Normandy than you would in Paris. We ended up carrying a lot of snacks with us and cooking one dinner at the Airbnb.
We enjoyed a nice lunch at Hotel de Normandie near Arromanches (Darshan had crepes and I had ratatouille) and some great breakfasts at Cafe Inn, a lovely little cafe in Bayeux.
This was the first and only time during our Europe trip that we rented a car. Since we drove straight to Bayeux from Charles de Gaulle airport and didn’t have to drive through Paris, it was quite comfortable. If you do car rentals in Europe, it may be worth looking into an international driver’s permit (depending on your rental car company…some require it, others don’t). You can pick one up from AAA for about $20.
You can also get to Bayeux from Paris by train, but in that case you will probably have to do a guided tour or bus tour, since the sights are too far to walk.
If you do rent a car in Paris, be sure to double-check the terminal before making the reservation. The rental car companies have separate offices at each terminal, and it turned out that our reservation was for a different terminal, so we had to wait an extra half hour for our car.
Make sure you double check which type of gasoline the car needs. (And keep in mind, gas is not cheap in much of Europe! Expect to spend about 1.5 to 2 times as much as you would in the US.)
Check the toll amounts online before starting your drive. Our toll from Paris to Normandy would have been 24 euros each way, so we instead chose the “avoid tolls” option on Google Maps (about 30 minutes longer through scenic French countryside).
We stayed at an Airbnb in Bayeux, a lovely historic town (first in France to be liberated by the Allies following D-Day). Bayeux has plenty of hotels, restaurants, historical places. and easy access to the World War II sites. However, everything here closes very early, as we discovered after arriving at 10pm and roaming the streets in search of an open restaurant! (Luckily, a kind bartender at Le Conquerant took pity on us and whipped us up a couple sandwiches even though his kitchen had been closed for hours.) Next time, we’d probably stay in the nearby Caen, a much larger city with more food options.
[Disclaimer: I know that talking about money isn’t exactly considered “refined” but thought I’d share our expenses anyway in case it may be useful for others planning a similar trip.]
Our total (for 2 people, 16 days) was about $5,550 (USD), plus 50,000 Delta miles that we used to buy one round trip ticket to Paris. We shopped around a bit for good deals on flights/transport and lodging, but did not consider cost at all when deciding meals and activities because we didn’t want to compromise on “experiences.” What I mean to say is that it’s probably possible to do a similar trip for much less or much more. :-)
Below is the breakdown by city. (Please note that we spent a different number of nights in each city.)