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Stirling, Scotland

Stirling, Scotland

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Where to stay: ​Because Stirling is a fairly small city, there are limited budget accommodation options. There are a handful of low-cost Airbnb options, but because there are so few it will be best to book far in advance. There are also some hostels in the city, many of which are in great locations. I haven’t stayed there personally, but the Stirling Youth Hostel is in the middle of the city very close to the castle, so it’d be worth checking out!

Where to eat: ​Stirling is the perfect place to sit in a pub next to a warm fire and meet locals who are lounging around. The Portcullis is an inn right next to the castle, and has a decently priced food menu. Several locals told me that this was the best pub to go to in Stirling! If you’ll be there for dinner you might want to book ahead, as it became quite busy during the dinner rush. There are also several really great cafés located in downtown Stirling that are great options for escaping the cold or the rain (if you’re not lucky enough to have sunny days)!

What to do: ​Unfortunately, there aren’t any free tour options in Stirling, although there is a free bus tour company that’s been testing out the waters, so be sure to ask around if it’s running while you’re there! You can buy a walking tour ticket, although I’m not entirely sure it’s necessary in this tiny city. I would recommend starting at Stirling Castle, as it’ll give you a good idea of the history of the city, and it’s very close to the center. You get a tour included in your ticket, so be sure to take it! The views from the castle are also really spectacular, so be sure to spend some time checking those out. There is another historic building across the street from the Portcullis near the castle that’s included in your castle ticket, so if you have extra time you can head over there, too! You’ll definitely want to go to the Wallace Monument while you’re in Stirling. If you’ve ever seen the film Braveheart​, this is the monument that was built to commemorate the battle portrayed in the film. The monument is just outside of the city, so you can either take a bus, taxi, or you can walk if you’re feeling extra adventurous. Once you’ve arrived and purchased your ticket, you’ll have the option of walking to the monument or taking a bus. If the weather is nice, the walk to the monument is really great. The map you’re provided with will show you which trails to take if you want good views on your way up, and it’s really a great way to spend part of the day (just be sure to wear good walking shoes!). The monument requires a bit of a walk up to the top, but there are different exhibitions inside regarding the history of Stirling and Wallace that’ll give you a break. The views from the top are absolutely incomparable, though, so it’s definitely not something to be missed!

Looking for more suggestions on things to do in and around Stirling? Check out this comprehensive list!

Overall Opinion: I absolutely fell in love with Stirling, it’s a perfectly charming Scottish city. It’s known as the “Gateway to the Highlands”, and after visiting, I can certainly see why! The landscape surrounding the city is spectacular, and I love that it isn’t completely overrun with tourists like the nearby cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Stirling would make a great day trip from either city, as trains run between them regularly and it’s located almost directly in between both cities, but it’s also a great city to spend a relaxing weekend in. I visited in August, and it was actually quite chilly, so be sure to plan for the weather depending on when you go- it’ll be very cold in the winter!

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St. Petersburg, Russia

St. Petersburg, Russia

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Where to stay: ​I visited St. Petersburg while on a cruise, so I didn’t have the opportunity to stay on shore, but there are a lot of great options for you to choose from in St. Petersburg! Airbnb has a wealth of low-priced options in great areas of the city, so I would highly recommend looking into one of those. In a city like St. Petersburg, it would probably be to your advantage to be staying with a local anyway, as you’ll benefit from their knowledge of the city and of local customs. When you’re entering the country, though, be sure to have ample documentation of your accommodation, as Russian immigration is pretty strict. Another thing to note about St. Petersburg is that it’s a city made of a whole bunch of islands that are connected by drawbridges; at night these drawbridges are opened, and will prevent you from getting from one part of the city to another, so be aware of where in the city your accommodation is, and don’t stray too far at night or you’ll risk being stuck all night! It might be best to stick to the eastern part of the city that’s home to the Hermitage and the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, as this is a fairly touristy area where the people are used to hosting foreigners, and you’ll have less risk of getting stuck across the river.

Where to eat: ​Because St. Petersburg is located right on the Baltic, its culinary traditions are an interesting mix of those of the Baltic region and traditional Russian dishes. It’s quite common to see caviar at restaurants, so if that’s your thing, this might be the place to try it. Beyond that, just go in search of places that aren’t advertised to tourists- you’ll probably see a lot of homey meat and root veggie dishes, and they’ll probably be great! Just be brave enough to give new things a shot, and consider bringing a pocket Russian dictionary to help decipher the menu.

What to do: ​There are an incredible amount of things to see in and around St. Petersburg, and it’ll take several days for you to see all of it without driving yourself crazy. St. Petersburg is home to an extensive collection of beautiful Russian Orthodox churches, as this city was one of the few where these buildings were spared during the Soviet era. (Granted, they were used for storage and might have some damage, but they’re still there for you to see!) The most famous of these is the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood- it’s an absolutely incredible example of this classic Russian Orthodox architecture and is definitely not to be missed. The other recognizable one is St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which is less colorful and spectacular than the first, but it’s still incredible in its own right. The benefit with this one is that you can actually climb to the top of the dome for a view over the entire city. The Hermitage Museum, formerly The Royal Winter Palace, is also located in the city, and is definitely worth a visit. The Hermitage is often compared to the Louvre in Paris, and is certainly comparable in terms of the art collection and the actual building itself. Try to avoid visiting when cruise ships are in town, as you’ll end up waiting on very long lines only to be herded like cattle once you’re inside. You can download an app on your smartphone which explains the museum and the collections that are on display. Outside the city of St. Petersburg there are other truly amazing places that shouldn’t be missed. The first is the palace located at Peterhof, which is often referred to as the Versaille of Russia- and it truly lives up to that name! The gardens and fountains at Peterhof are what really make this palace special, so try to get there to see them turn on the big fountain around 11 am (from May until mid-October), as it’s truly a site to see. There are several options for getting to Peterhof from St. Petersburg, which can be found here. The other major palace outside of St. Petersburg is Catherine’s Palace at Pushkin. Catherine the Great, who was married to Peter the Great was the driving force behind the construction and furnishing of this palace and its grounds, as well as much of the art collection of the Hermitage Museum. The grandeur of this palace is unparalleled, and it truly made me understand the anger towards the monarchy that this type of wealth incited. The overwhelming wealth exhibited here, however, makes this an incredibly important place to visit when you’re in St. Petersburg. The history is truly incredible, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my life. There are several ways to get to Catherine’s Palace, which can be found here. Of course there are many other things to see in St. Petersburg, but this is my list of things that shouldn’t be missed!

For more information on things to do in St. Petersburg, read more on a one-day itinerary!

Additional Information: Visiting Russia is a bit tricky right now, especially for many Western European citizens and most especially for American citizens. Unlike most other countries in Europe, you can’t just show up and be allowed in as a tourist for a short period of time- you’ll need to apply for a visa in advance, even if you’re planning on visiting for a single day. For further information on visa requirements (for US citizens), please see this website. Fortunately, traveling to St. Petersburg is still very safe, as its industry is largely driven by tourism, and it’s far north of any conflict occurring near the Ukrainian border. Still, be sure to look at federal travel warnings before you decide to go anywhere with the potential to be an unsafe place, as these travel warnings change regularly. With that said, please don’t let stereotypes and media scare tactics prevent you from what might be the trip of a lifetime! I visited St. Petersburg in June 2014 (while there were serious problems in the south of the country), and I felt completely safe. Just prepare in advance for questions about the purpose of your trip (including transportation and accommodation plans) at immigration, and you’ll be fine!

Overall Opinion: I am so glad that I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in St. Petersburg, but two days wasn’t nearly enough! This city is the definitely of history coming to life, as its history is very complex and has had a wide range of interesting events. St. Petersburg is one of the most well preserved pre-Soviet cities in Russia, and as such, is probably the best to visit if you’re looking to get a glimpse into “old Russia”. Of course, there are footprints of the Soviet era throughout the city, both those are equally as interesting! I would absolutely recommend traveling to St. Petersburg, and I hope that I have the opportunity to go back in the future.

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Venice, Italy

Venice, Italy

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Where to stay: Where you stay in Venice will largely depend on what’s important to you while you’re in Venice. If you’re willing to save on cost by not staying in the center of Venice (which will require a boat shuttle ride to the city each day), then you might be better off in a hostel. There are a lot of hostels listed on Hostelworld that are inexpensive, but are just outside of the city. There is even a camping option listed, which will definitely help you save in costs, but will certainly require some willingness to forego certain luxuries. If you’d rather stay in the city proper (without having to pay for shuttles to and from the city), then Airbnb will likely be your best option. There are a ton of Airbnb rentals listed for under $100 a night (which will be much less per person if you share a rental with some friends!), and many are within the actual city of Venice, some even along the Grand Canal. Be aware that if you choose to stay outside of the city, you’ll be relying on the boat shuttle service to get in and out which may limit how late you can stay.

Where to eat: There is no shortage of fabulous places to eat in Venice, but there are an equal amount of extremely overpriced and touristy places to eat. One of the best things about Venice is the winding streets that give you endless opportunities for exploration. Wander down some side streets and find a restaurant that’s a bit out of the way to grab a bite instead of sticking right by the Grand Canal or St. Mark’s Square. As in many other countries in Europe, Italy has great fixed price menus which will give you the opportunity to try a lot of menu items for a lower price than if you were to order them individually. If you’re looking to have a nice dinner out, this might be the way to go!

What to do: As mentioned previously, my absolute favorite (and free) thing to do in Venice is getting lost in the streets. You can wander for hours and never see the same street or bridge twice, it’s truly incredible. There is also the Doge’s Palace in St. Mark’s Square, which was once the palace of the Doge of Venice (the ruler of the Republic of Venice), and it’s definitely worth a visit. Right next to the palace you’ll find St. Mark’s Basilica which is ornately decorated and worth seeing, even if cathedrals aren’t usually your thing. The mosaic work inside the Basilica is truly unrivaled. Nearby Venice is the island of Murano, which is famously known for its glass-blowing art. Beware of offers which promise free rides to Murano, however, because often your return trip home is dependent on your purchase of something on the island. Going to see a glass blowing demonstration is definitely worth it though, but it might be best to pay for public transportation instead. The Gondola rides in Venice are probably the most iconic thing to do in the city, and they’re certainly an amazing way to see some of the lesser traveled canals. There are gondolas to be rented all along the Grand Canal, and you can easily walk up to one of them to get a tour. Be sure to ask questions before you get in though, and have a complete understanding of what you’re getting for your money- these are a bit of tourist trap after all! The city of Venice sets the official price of a gondola ride at 80 Euros, but depending on demand the gondoliers may move the price up or down. Be sure you know how long the ride will be for, what you’re expected to pay, and what services you’ll be receiving (singing, a tour, etc.). If you find this price to be too hefty, don’t take a ride! If you don’t mind sharing your gondola, you can book a tour in advance for much less money. This tour site offers non-private gondola tours from $36 depending on the time of year. It may be worth doing some further online searching to see if you can get a better deal! And finally, be sure to visit some of the mask craftsmen and women who create truly incredible Carnival masks. These shops can be found throughout Venice, and it’s fun to walk around inside one just to see the artistry that Venice is so well known for! Many of these artists will be happy to speak with you about their craft, so ask questions!

Overall Opinion: I thought Venice was a truly incredible city, despite the fact that it can be extremely touristy. If you make the attempt to stay away from the touristy areas (or spend time in the city at night after they all leave), you’ll get to experience a really magical place. Walking down the streets of Venice reminds you how incredible and how alive the history of the city is- you can almost feel the intrigue and drama that’s filled the city’s history for centuries. Visiting Venice when Carnival is not happening is the best way to save on costs because around the time of Carnival the city becomes very expensive. This is the kind of city where you can spend a weekend and never see the same things twice, and not feel bored even when you’re just walking along a canal. I would highly recommend spending a relaxing weekend in Venice!

Naples, Italy

Naples, Italy

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Where to stay: There is an absolutely fabulous hostel in Naples that I really think everyone should stay in. I don’t often recommend one specific place for accommodation, but this one deserves it. It’s called Giovanni’s Home, and it’s run by a wonderful Italian man named (you guessed it), Giovanni! Giovanni drives a red vespa, plays the guitar and harmonica for his guests, and often cooks up a traditional pasta dinner for all of the guests one night during your stay. The hostel itself is in a good location, it has a terrace, and the atmosphere is fantastic. Giovanni took the time to sit down with us on our first night at the hostel and outlined the entire city- where we should and shouldn’t go, where the best pizza was, etc. It was absolutely fantastic to have such insider knowledge while we explored the city.

Where to eat: PIZZA! I expect that you eat nothing but delicious pizza while you’re in Naples, and I won’t judge if you need to buy pizza pants… But really, Naples is world famous for being the birth place of Italian pizza, and there are some seriously incredible spots to indulge. I would actually recommend steering away from the Eat, Pray, Love pizza shop (L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele) simply because of how touristy it is now from those making their Eat, Pray, Love pilgrimages. Head down a side street near Giovanni’s (or better yet, ask Giovanni, he’s got the hook-up), and you’ll find the best pizza in the world. I’m not even kidding. I really have no non-pizza related recommendations, you just really need to experience the pizza.

What to do: ​Naples is such an incredibly underrated city, I still don’t understand why more people don’t visit! It’s right near the Amalfi Coast, so in the summer you have infinite opportunities to visit some truly incredible beaches. Even if you’re not there in the summer, I would recommend a trip to Capri. There are boats from Naples, and it’s an absolutely gorgeous little island that’s fun to explore for a day. Naples is also famously home (or next to) Pompeii, and this is certainly worth a visit. Nearby there is another archeological site called Herculaneum, which is much less touristy than Pompeii, but is a very similar place to visit. If you’re super interested in this history then you might visit both, but otherwise you probably don’t need to. You may also want to try hiking Mt. Vesuvius if you have the opportunity and are looking for good views of the volcano and surrounding areas. In Naples proper, you should try to visit the Catacombs under the city. The tours are a super interesting way to hear some of the history of Naples and to see the city from a much different perspective! I also recommend spending some time getting lost in Naples. It’s a really beautiful city in the way that it isn’t perfect, and it feels truly authentic Italian with laundry hanging on lines between buildings and pasta drying in the streets. Enjoy the beautiful culture surrounding you!

Overall Opinion: Naples is one of my absolute favorite cities in Italy (so far)! I think it’s highly underrated, and is given an unfairly negative reputation. Just like any other city, as long as you’re aware of where you are and who is around you, Naples is a perfectly safe city to explore. One of the best things about Naples is how easy it is to explore the surrounding area with Naples as a home base, and how relatively inexpensive Naples is when compared to other big cities in Italy (like Rome or Florence). If you’re looking to explore a much less touristy city in Italy, want to eat good pizza, and experience authentically Italian culture, Naples is the place for you! (And make sure you say hi to Giovanni for me!)

Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy


Where to stay:
There are some really amazing Airbnb listings in Florence, so that will probably be your best option. I stayed in a hostel called Hostel Greci, which was great because I was traveling with 6 other people, so we were able to all fit into one room. This hostel doesn’t have much of a hostel atmosphere, though, and is just as expensive as an Airbnb rental. There are other hostel listings on Hostelworld, although many are just as expensive as staying in an Airbnb, so unless you’re dying to have a hostel experience I would go with Airbnb for this one!

Where to eat: Italy is the mecca of good food in Europe, and Florence definitely holds it own with that reputation. Be sure to stay away from the museums and tourist sites when choosing a place to eat, or else you’ll be stuck with subpar spaghetti with a hefty price tag. Wandering away from those areas will lead you to restaurants that locals are more likely to frequent! The hidden secret of Florence is definitely that of the “secret bakery”. These are bakeries that are open in the middle of the night while they bake their goods for the next day, and they’ll sell you products fresh out of the oven. Stephanie Castro explains where to find a few on the site Flo’n the Go.

What to do: ​There are some really well known things to see in Florence, and I definitely recommend that you check them out. First, head over to the Duomo and check out the building from the outside. You can (and should) climb to the top of the Duomo for spectacular views of the city. For other great views of the city, head over to the Piazzale Michelangelo, which is on a hill overlooking the city. It’s especially incredible if you visit at sunset as the Tuscan city seems to glow gold. And of course a visit to Florence would be incomplete without a visit to the Uffizi Gallery. This is where the world-famous sculpture “David” is housed, but that certainly isn’t the only thing worth seeing- there are several other Michelangelo sculptures in various states of completion that I found to be truly incredible, as they show the process of this particular Renaissance master. If you’re looking for some classic Florentine architecture, I would also recommend taking a stroll along the Ponte Vecchio (try to do this in the evening and you’ll probably find it to be less crowded).

Overall Opinion: Florence is one of my favorite cities in Italy. I absolutely love the architecture, the history, and just the vibe of the city. Plus, Tuscan wine (Chianti!) is basically the nectar of the Gods. Be sure to give this city the time it’s due, it’s a great rival to Rome on my “top places in Italy” list. If you go in the winter it’ll likely be much less crowded than it will be in the summer. The weather might be cold, but seeing this city when it isn’t swamped by tourists will be worth the jacket you’ll have to wear.

West Coast of Ireland

West Coast of Ireland

Because of how easy it is to travel through the whole region, I’ve included all of my West Ireland tips into one guide!

Where to stay: Where you stay in the West Coast of Ireland will definitely depend on whether or not you’re traveling by car. Seeing the whole region will be much easier if you do have a car, but it’s also certainly doable if you don’t! If you do have a car, I’d highly recommend staying in a smaller town so that you can get a true local experience. I stayed in a town called Kinvarra at an Airbnb rental that was actually a thatched cottage. It was just as perfect and charming as it sounds, and Kinvarra is a really lovely little town! There’s a waterfront area with a fancier restaurant or two, plus two pubs so you’ll have places to eat if you choose to stay in town for an evening. The cottage is also directly across the street from Dunguaire Castle, which made for really amazing views from the window! If you don’t have access to a car, it would be much better if you stayed in nearby Galway, as it’s much easier to get places with public transportation from there. The Airbnb options in Galway are really overpriced, so I would stick with a hostel. Hostelworld has some highly rated and inexpensive options in the city, so I’m sure you’ll be able to find something great!

Where to eat: Little towns in Ireland are all about their local pubs, and there really isn’t a better way to experience the culture than to indulge in one. I personally loved the one I went to in Doolin (very close to the Cliffs of Moher). There’s really only one in the town, so you’ll be able to spot it, but if you go in the evening you’re likely to run into a local band playing traditional music- one of the most incredible experiences I had in Ireland. While you’re in Ireland, be sure to grab a traditional full Irish breakfast at a pub one morning, it’s a meal that’s not to be missed. Because so many of these little towns don’t have a lot of tourism aside from the random tour bus heading through the Burren or to the Cliffs of Moher, you’re likely to have a great meal where ever you go. When you’re in Galway, head down to the waterfront and check out some of the cafés and juice bars, they’re really interesting places!

What to do: There’s an absolute ton to see and do on the west coast of Ireland, so spending 4-5 days there should give you plenty of time to cover it all. Here’s a list of my favorite spots:

  • The Cliffs of Moher. You definitely do not want to miss a stop at the Cliffs of Moher. If you have your own car, take your time driving there by stopping in Doolin to see the waterfront from the bottom of the cliffs (and head to the pub!), and then make your way up. There are plenty of amazing viewpoints along the way, so you’ll want to give yourself plenty of time to stop off and see all that this area has to offer! I went to see them at sunset, and it was a great decision! The site was not very crowded at all (especially if you go on a weekday), and the sunset was easily the best I’ve seen in my life. If you don’t have a car, there are plenty of companies that run bus tours from Galway.
  • The Burren​. I spent a lot of time driving through The Burren while exploring the area that it became the joke of the trip, but all jokes aside, it really is a beautiful area of the country. It’s a giant rocky area, though, and something that you can easily see while driving through on your own- not really something you need to book a tour to see.
  • Galway. I absolutely loved visiting Galway, and wish that I’d spent more time there. I started by taking a free walking tour, which was a great choice as it explained why Galway was such an amazing place. Make sure to take your time walking around the city, especially around the waterfront, as it’s really a gorgeous place!
  • Horseback Riding. If you’re looking to get a good look at the Irish countryside, horseback riding is a great way to do it! I went to Dartfield (just outside of Galway), where they breed their own horses, and took a hack through their property. If you’re a more experienced rider, they have a cross-country trail you can tackle, otherwise just try a ride with their guides- it was definitely a worthwhile experience!

Overall Opinion: The west coast of Ireland is definitely one of my favorite spots in the British Isles- the countryside is really spectacular, the sites are unrivaled, and the people were some of the friendliest I’ve met anywhere in the world. My favorite of all of the places was probably Doolin and the Cliffs of Moher, and our stay in Kinvarra. These small towns really seemed to represent true small-town Ireland, and were really just perfect little places to get to know the heart of Ireland. If you’re headed to Ireland, be sure to take your time visiting this region as it’ll give you a much different perspective on the country and culture than you’ll get in Dublin!

 

Dublin, Ireland

Dublin, Ireland

Where to stay: I’ve stayed in both a hostel and Airbnb room in Dublin, and far preferred Airbnb for this one. The hostel I stayed in was okay (Jacobs Inn), but certainly wasn’t anything to rave about. The location was decent, around a 5 minute walk from O’Connell St., which was convenient. There are a whole bunch of Airbnb listings in Dublin which are almost certain to provide a better experience. My favorite Airbnb stays have been in Ireland because I’ve always found my hosts to be extremely friendly and helpful, and staying in a quintessential Irish cottage is really just the best thing ever. There’s an extensive bus system in Dublin that’s easy to navigate, so where you stay doesn’t matter a whole lot. The Temple Bar area is likely where you’ll be going out at night, but staying near there will certainly be the most expensive option. My Airbnb was a short walk past St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and so we could walk if we wanted, but we also had the option of a bus that came right down the street from the house.

Where to eat: Dublin is such a laid-back city when it comes to dining. There are a ton of great cafés throughout the city, as well as some awesome pubs. Eating in the Temple Bar area can get a bit touristy, as that’s really where all of the tourists are concentrated, but I had great luck at a brewery called The Porterhouse. Whether you’re looking for a beer or dinner, you’re sure to find what you’re looking for there. You’ll be seriously impressed by their list of beers, and they have ones from all over the world! If you’re looking for a place to get a cheap breakfast or lunch, try the Stage Door Café in Temple Bar. It has quite a unique atmosphere, and you won’t find friendlier staff anywhere in the city.

What to do: Like many capital cities, Dublin has a wealth of attractions and sites to see, so it’s all about deciding what’s most important to you. If you’re particularly interested in the beverage industry of Ireland, you won’t want to miss a trip to the Guinness Storehouse. This is an extremely well done interactive experience that shows you the history of the beer and brewing process. You’ll get the opportunity to pour the perfect Guinness pint, and you’ll have a pint in the Gravity Bar with spectacular views over the city. I don’t even like beer, and I really enjoyed visiting the Guinness Storehouse. I found the Jameson Factory to be fairly overrated, but if you’re interested in Irish whiskey it might be worth checking out. I’ve taken both a free walking tour and a historic walking tour (not free) of Dublin, and found both to be really great. Either way, you should definitely plan on taking one, as there is so much to see in Dublin and this will help you to figure out where to start! If you’re short on time, I would skip seeing Dublin Castle, as there isn’t very much to actually see there anyway (there’s no actual castle that you can tour). Trinity College is worth a stop, as the campus is really gorgeous, and you have the opportunity to visit the library that holds the Book of Kells. Even if seeing the Book of Kells doesn’t peak your interest, a trip to the library is still very much worth it just to see the library itself. If you’re spending a lot of time in Dublin and have the chance to leave the city, I would highly recommend a trip to Malahide Castle. Malahide is a beautiful little seaside town, and the castle and gardens are truly spectacular. If you have a nice day, it’s the perfect place to go to get out of the city!

Overall Opinion: I really love Dublin because of how friendly the people are and how comfortable the city is to visit. I do, however, prefer visiting the smaller towns in Ireland (like Malahide and those on the west coast) because I found it was much easier to meet local Irish people in those places. If you’re visiting Ireland, Dublin is certainly a not-to-be-missed city!

Munich, Germany

Munich, Germany

Where to stay: ​This is the type of city where staying in a hostel is a really great option. Munich is a very young city with students coming and going all the time, and hostels will give you the opportunity to meet a ton of people to go exploring with or to grab drinks with at night. I stayed in Euro Youth Hostel when I was there, and thought that it was a really great hostel. It was very clean and safe, and it’s a two minute walk from the main train station making the location virtually unbeatable. There are a bunch of Airbnb listings in Munich, but it seems you’ll pay a little more than you would in a hostel with this city. Definitely try to stay in the city center area, I had little reason to take public transportation in Munich, and I loved it!

Where to eat: ​Beer halls rule the streets in Munich, and they’re the place to go if you’re looking for traditional Bavarian food (and drinks!). If you’re in Munich during Oktoberfest, it’ll be a much different experience going to a beer hall, but I speak from the off-season Munich experience. One great non-touristy beer hall is the Augustiner Bräustuben– they have great food and it’s not in the middle of the city so it’s way less crowded, and you’ll actually see some locals there. Make sure you get the pancake-type dessert, it was seriously the most incredible thing. If you’re looking for a more well-known hall, the Hofbräuhaus is probably the most well-known. This is the beer hall where Hitler infamously began his political movement, and where many other famous patrons have gone over the centuries. Because of it’s very central location and history, it’s a bit more expensive than others, but the room is absolutely gorgeous and the food is still pretty good!

What to do: There are a ton of things to do in and around Munich, even if you’re not visiting during Oktoberfest. In fact, if you don’t visit Munich during Oktoberfest, you’ll probably have more of an opportunity to explore the city without having to deal with all of the people and events surrounding the festival. I would recommend starting your trip to Munich with a free walking tour of the city. I used this tour company, and had a really great time- the guide was super informative and thorough, and it gave me a really great idea of what I would want to see on my own (like the Hofbräuhaus). I also opted to visit the nearby concentration camp, Dachau. If you choose to visit this site, I urge you to do so with great deference to the history, survivors, and victims of the site- I’ve seen some really disrespectful things happen at these types of places, and there are few things that bother me more (i.e. please do not take selfies). I would definitely recommend visiting Dachau on an organized tour because it’ll give you the best look into the history of the place, and will make the trip much more significant. I took this tour, and would highly recommend it- the guide was very knowledgeable and respectful, and the tour included the train and bus ticket needed to get to Dachau from Munich (plus they physically take you there from the Munich train station, so there’s no way to get lost). If you’re looking for a more light-hearted out of town excursion, consider checking out the Neuschwanstein Castle. This is supposedly the castle that Disney’s Cinderella Castle is based on, and it’s apparently a true sight to see. I didn’t get the opportunity to visit, but I’m told that it can get fairly crowded, so try to plan your trip on a weekday and leave as early as you can to avoid the rush. If you have a lot of time to spend in Munich, I would also highly recommend a side-trip to a town called Regensburg. It’s very easy to get to from Munich, and is really worth the trip if you have the time. The best part about Regensburg is how few tourists it seemed to attract, so I felt like I was really able to get a good feel of Bavarian culture that was much more difficult to find in Munich. There’s a beautiful river and bridge in Regensburg, and a huge cathedral that’s worth a stop into. Otherwise, it’s just a great town to wander through the tiny streets and enjoy some local cuisine and beverages!

Overall Opinion: I absolutely loved my trip to Munich, and I think that the city really exemplifies everything that I expected a German city to be. The architecture is stunning, the history is incredible, and there’s so much to see and do in the area as well as in the city. If you’re able to, I would plan to spend more than a weekend in Munich because of how much there is to do in the region, and Munich makes a great “home base” for such travels.

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Where to stay: ​I was in Berlin for New Year’s Eve, so finding accommodations was a bit more challenging than it would usually be. I ended up staying at the Jugendgästehaus Lichterfelde, which is a hostel (found on www.hostelworld.com) that’s just a bit outside of the city. Even though it was New Year’s weekend, we each only paid just over 20 euros a night in a 4 person dorm room. The hostel provided a great buffet breakfast, German style, which basically means cold cut meat and breads and such, but it was definitely sufficient. If you don’t mind having to take the train 15-20 minutes into the city every day, then this is a great hostel- it’s right next to the train station, and the train can take you right in to the very center of everything, so there actually isn’t too much walking involved!

Where to eat: ​I was actually surprised how difficult it was to find what I considered to be “traditional” German food while I was in Berlin, but most of the places I was in were of the touristy variety. Desperate to find a decent dinner that I wasn’t going to spend my entire budget on, we took the S-Bahn to a random stop (Oranien-Burger Straße S-Bahnof) and we found a really great Italian restaurant called Ristorante al Dente. I know that eating Italian in Berlin seems a bit strange, but this was a really great spot, and you can’t beat the prices! The best places I found in Berlin were found wandering around random streets that were a decent distance from Brandenburg, so exploring is your best way to go.

What to do: My favorite thing that I did was go up into the TV Tower, I chose to go up at night to see the city lights, but I would imagine that the view would be even better during the day. I would recommend booking online in advance if you can, otherwise you might have a long wait from when you purchase your ticket to the time you’re allowed up. I also visited the Berlin Wall, and this experience isn’t something I would say I “enjoyed”, but I was really glad that I did it. It’s a pretty incredible reminder of the history of the city, and I think that it’s important to go to. We didn’t get a chance to go into the Reichstag because the city was so crowded that weekend, but the building looked incredible from the outside, so I think it’d be worth a visit!

Overall Opinion: I really liked Berlin, but I can’t say that it was my favorite city in Germany. The city itself didn’t seem very “German” to me, and it also seemed very grey for some reason. It might have had something to do with the fact that we were there in December, so it was actually cold and all the trees were bare and such, but I just didn’t get that feeling anywhere else in Germany. With that being said, I do think there are many things in Berlin worth visiting and doing, the New Year’s celebration in front of the Brandenburg Gate was easily the best New Year’s I’ve ever experienced, but the city might be better visited in the summer.

 

Normandy, France

Normandy, France

Where to stay: ​Because Normandy is such an expansive region in France, where you stay will largely depend on what you’re interested in doing, and what type of access you have to transportation. I traveled through Normandy in a car, so I chose to stay in an Airbnb just outside of a small town called Pont l’Évêque. I thought that this location was great because the town had restaurants and bakeries for us to have breakfast and dinner if we wanted, and was fairly centrally located within the region. If you’re looking to stay in a bigger city (Pont l’Évêque was seriously tiny), I would recommend either Caen or Honfleur. Honfleur is an absolutely gorgeous coastal town with some good Airbnb options, while Caen is a bit bigger, but with Airbnb options that are pricier. Neither city has any hostels as far as I’m aware. Regardless of where you choose to stay in Normandy, this region is best tackled with a personal vehicle. The towns are more spread out in Northern France, and public transportation is a bit sparser, so renting a car would probably be the best way to go.

Where to eat: I would recommend staying away from the bigger and more touristy cities like Caen and Mont Saint-Michel, as the restaurants were quite pricey. Choosing to eat in a town like Honfleur or Pont l’Évêque will likely give you a better meal for less money. In Pont l’Évêque, we went to a nicer restaurant called Restaurant le Saint-Melaine, where we had a great local meal that was much less expensive than it would have been in a city like Caen. Pro tip: nicer restaurants like this become much more affordable if you look for a Prix Fixe (or fixed price) menu. If you choose to eat at one of the coastal cities, be sure to try the regional specialty of Moules Frites during the summer- this is a essentially a bucket of mussels cooked in various sauces with fries. You’ll find them all over France and Belgium, but they’re particularly well known in Normandy!

What to do: ​There are a ton of places to visit throughout Normandy, but choosing where to go will much depend on your interests. If you’re into Second World War history, you’ll definitely want to check out the D-Day beaches. There are advertised museums that are spread throughout the area of the beaches, but there’s a free museum at Omaha Beach that’s really well-done and comprehensive, so I would skip paying for entry to the other museums. Omaha Beach is the most “built up”, as it has the museum as well as the American cemetery, and it also has a walkway right now to the beach. If you only have time to go to one, I would definitely recommend Omaha. Aside from the D-Day sites, you can also take a trip to Bayeux to visit the adorable little town, and also to visit the Bayeux Tapestry. The Tapestry is definitely worth seeing, it’s an incredible piece of history. Mont Saint-Michel isn’t too far from Normandy, and is easily do-able if you’re visiting the region. Be forewarned, Mont Saint-Michel is quite touristy, but it’s also pretty incredible. Try to go during a week day when there won’t be quite so many tourists crowding the island and you’ll be better off. European citizens get free access to the monastery, while others have to pay, but it is the one thing to really tour in the town so it may be worth doing! Otherwise, just spend some time walking through the little streets and exploring, as it’s a pretty incredible little island. If you’ve read Monuments Men, you’ll appreciate the visit even more! Just be sure to pay attention to the tides, because there are certain times when you can’t access the island. Also be aware that you park on the mainland and then have the option of walking or taking a shuttle to the actual island. The two cities that are really worth visiting are Caen and Honfleur. Caen is a bigger city, and it feels more posh, while Honfleur is much more laid back and more typically “nautical”. I personally preferred Honfleur because of how beautiful and charming it was, but if you have time you should definitely visit both!

Overall Opinion: I truly loved visiting Normandy because there are so many diverse things to do. I thought that visiting the D-Day sites was incredibly important and moving, and having the opportunity to visit such historically significant sites like Mont Saint-Michel and Bayeux was amazing. If I were to go back to Normandy, I think that I would stay in Honfleur and explore that city and area a little bit more, but I think that no matter where you stay, you’re likely to have a really great time in Normandy!