Anytime you leave your cozy home and decide to travel, there are surprises to be had. When traveling abroad, those new discoveries can be surprisingly dramatic and even astonishing. Different is good, as my husband and I discovered when we took our first vacation abroad last year. Having never been to Europe, we didn’t quite know what to expect of our impending 10-day trip. Turns out, we had tons to learn as we traveled to Munich, Prague, Cesky Krumlov, Vienna and Budapest. These are the top 22 surprises we discovered on our Bavarian adventure.
1. Bring maps.
Some of the hotels had them and some didn’t. Our tour guide supplied them for us and directed us on to use public transportation, but it’s best to brush up on the area in advance. Print out walking guides of the area before your trip.
2. Avoid August.
It seems that all of Europe goes on vacation this month, making August more expensive and the attractions overly crowded.
3. Leave your heels at home.
Though I envisioned myself changing into dinner clothes and putting on high heels, we were so busy out and about that we didn’t return to the hotel until late each night. After a day walking through the cities, your feet will be thanking you for not squeezing them into high heels. Which brings me to #4…
4. Expect cobblestones.
Though extremely charming, the cobblestoned streets throughout Europe really do a number on your feet and ankles. Make sure your walking shoes are well-cushioned to accommodate for the unevenness. Cobblestone streets looks great, but they can be really hard to walk on, which brings us to #5:
5. Pack your bag, then unpack half of it.
Picture my husband and I, each dragging our full-sized and extremely heavy suitcases from the bus stop through the winding streets of Prague to our hotel. Across cobblestones, no less! Bring only what you need (see point #3 above) and pack a little bag of detergent so you can wash items in the hotel bathroom sink.
6. Leave the snacks at home.
My husband insisted on hitting Costco before our trip to load up on granola bars and trail mix. I did have to remind him that we weren’t going somewhere remote and that the countries we were visiting would have snacks! We hit the grocery several times on our trip to pick up bottled water, chocolates and interesting foods to bring back to the kids (canned squid, anyone?)
7. Feel free to wander.
One day in Vienna, we ate at a cute café right in the heart of the city. Ouch, that was an expensive meal (and not even our favorite). Get off the main drag and eat in the outskirts. Same goes for souvenir shops which will always have higher prices in the city center.
8. Eat like the locals for the best experience.
You can’t go to Central Europe without eating dumplings and schnitzel! Find out what is the well-known fare of the city you are visiting. Ask the staff at the hotel for a restaurant recommendation. Talk to people on the bus. Aim for authentic and not just what is the most popular dining spot in the most touristy areas.
9. How much is this?
With the European countries so close together, it’s easy to hop from one to the next in the matter of hours. Unfortunately not all of them are part of the European Union, so during our trip, we dealt with 3 different currencies. Don’t guess; take a calculator with you and write down the exchange rate so you’ll know exactly how much you’re paying for that souvenir or meal before you buy.
10. Paying to Pee.
Even while dining at a restaurant, you are expected to toss change into the dish to use the restroom. We figured out the cost to be around 50 cents each time. Fortunately all bathrooms were well-maintained so I felt like my money was well spent.
11. A rain jacket is a must, even in summer.
As a Southern California native, I’m used to hot, dry August weather without a rain drop in sight. We experienced rain every day of our Central European vacation in the month of August, so I’m glad I brought a lightweight rain jacket with a hood. This one folded up very small so I could put it in my bag when the weather cleared.
12. Beer is serious business.
Everyone drinks it all the time! We sat down for breakfast in Germany and it was Weisswurst (white sausage) with mustard, pretzels and beer! We were schooled on the “Radler,” a mix of beer and sparkling lemonade served throughout Bavaria (I didn’t like it). Beer is very inexpensive even when served in restaurants. We loved visiting the Hofbrauhaus in Munich to see where generations of families have dined and still store their beer steins in tiny lockers inside the establishment.
13. Expect to pay for water.
Feel free to safely drink out of the faucet in Central Europe but don’t even think about asking for tap water in a restaurant. The waiters will only serve “still or sparkling water” and it’s going to cost you more than a beer.
14. There are no ice cubes.
I never saw any on our entire trip. I ordered diet soda (aka: Coca Cola Light) and it always came in a very tiny glass, only slightly chilled and never an ice cube in sight.
15. Churches are a must see.
Even if you don’t frequent a church back home, you have to go inside the churches abroad. Each church we stepped into was more amazing than the next. From the sheer size and architecture to the incredible paintings and stained glass, they are a beautiful and historical sight. Some churches allow photography without a flash and some ask that you not shoot photos at all. We remained respectful of this, taking pictures only when allowed. And yet my photos still don’t capture the grand opulence and sacredness of these spaces.
16. Bring a sleep mask.
I get the best sleep in a completely dark room but some of the hotel rooms only offered sheer curtains and didn’t have drapes to close. Bring a sleep mask to make sure you’re getting proper shut eye.
17. Breakfast is big.
Each hotel that we stayed at offered a free breakfast. It was a great way to fuel up for the day and push back our lunch. There was always a huge variety, including cold meats, oatmeal, sliced fruit and yogurt. And the croissants and pastries, yum! Even with walking 10+ miles a day, I still managed to gain weight on this trip, very curious…
18. Meals are heavy.
We indulged in pork knuckle sandwiches in Germany, steak soaked in gravy in Prague, a half chicken with pickled onions in Cesky Krumlov and Vienna chocolate torte in Austria. Every meal was incredible and very rich and filling. It’s no wonder I came home with a few extra pounds!
19. Salads are tiny.
Usually just a few lettuce leaves, perhaps a tomato wedge or a cucumber slice. And you won’t find any salad dressing choices; my “salads” were always soaked in vinaigrette.
20. Buy tickets up front.
Especially when traveling during the busy season, it’s great to have your tickets purchased online upfront and not have to use your precious touring time standing in line. So many of the top sites offer pre-purchase online (like we did before visiting Schoenbrunn Palace) so you can avoid the mile-long line that greets those who didn’t plan ahead.
21. Quaint little villages still exist.
Our favorite of all places we traveled through Bavaria was Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. It reminded me of a storybook town with its castle on a rock and winding river. We roamed the streets by day and stopped in to listen to jazz music in a café at night. I highly recommend traveling to a small town as well as to the big cities; they have just as much to offer culturally and completely feed your soul.
22. Take the road less traveled.
Yes, absolutely visit the famous sights, but save time in your itinerary for wandering. Some of my most favorite vacation memories came about by wandering and exploring. The little shop in Budapest that shaped gelato like a rose atop the ice cream cone. The waffles before dinner in Cesky Krumlov. The man in Prague who proudly posed my husband and me for a photograph in front of the enormous hand painted egg in his shop. These are the memories that will keep long after the vacation comes to an end!