On October 26th, I’ll be leaving Gran Canaria and making my way to India. And with that trip, I shall say a big goodbye to all the countries in Europe as I won’t be back before the end of the year.
I’ve actually spent a decent amount of time traveling around Europe in 2017 though, much more than usual. I think it’s been 12 countries.
My European experiences began back in February when I flew from Miami to India, changing planes in Frankfurt. I had a long 6 hour layover there, most of which I spent half-asleep in one of the airport lounges (thanks to the Priority Pass that comes with my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card). I remember eating a sandwich at some point and then, before I knew it I was boarding my second flight, Frankfurt to Kuwait.
It was a quick stop but my subsequent visits to this continent would certainly be longer.
This post is a recap of all the countries in Europe that I’ve visited this year, with my personal highlights and a couple of recommendations in case you happen to be headed to any of the same destinations.
12 Countries in Europe
In May, I landed in Athens. My girlfriend and I were in Greece to meet up with my mom who had traveled in from the US. We spent 5 days in Athens followed by a week on the island of Santorini. I really enjoyed Athens. With a nice list of interesting neighborhoods to explore, plenty of historical sights beyond the Acropolis, excellent food, markets (the Monastiraki Flea Market is definitely worth a visit) and pretty good weather year round, it’s a city that offers plenty to do no matter what kind of traveler you may be.
Highlights (Athens) – The food. I mean, it was nice walking around the Plaka neighborhood and all that but the food, anywhere we sat to eat, was the real highlight. Give me eggplant, fava (split peas), saganaki (grilled cheese), tzatziki, salad and stuffed vine leaves every day and you will have no complaints from me!
Highlights (Santorini) – I could just say everything and that would indeed be true but to be more specific – the magical village of Imerovigli, the stunning walk to Oia, renting a car and driving to Akrotiri, sunset every single night over the caldera and the Venetsanos winery…and the food (Argo restaurant = some of the best food I’ve ever eaten).
Accommodation (Santorini) – Merovigla Studios – Great low-key, budget place with large rooms and perhaps the best location on Santorini, with perfect views across the island and water (see the photo above!). It’s situated in the small, cliff-top village of Imerovigli, away from the big crowds of the more popular Fira but only a beautiful 20 minute walk away.
We came to Tirana, Albania pretty much for no reason. We had a few days in between Greece and meeting up with one of my closest friends in Montenegro so we chose the conveniently located Tirana as our stopover. It was my second time here and we spent most of our four day stay wandering around various neighborhoods, hanging out and working at a handful of cafes and just taking it easy. There aren’t a ton of things to do or see here but that was perfectly fine with us. Besides, as you’ll see below, the main highlight of our visit was exactly the kind of main highlight that I prefer!
Highlights (Tirana) – My favorite experience by far involved a hair dresser in the Blloku district of the city, the Italian language and a local fish restaurant. Here’s the full story.
Accommodation (Tirana) – Vila e Arte – Small, quiet hotel with comfortable budget rooms right in the city center. For around $35 per night, it’s a great deal. Includes a nice breakfast, too.
Once it was time to meet my friend, we took a ride from Tirana across the border and up to the small town of Kotor, Montenegro. It was also my second time here but this is one of the countries in Europe that I wouldn’t mind returning to over and over again. Montenegro itself is small and the town of Kotor is tiny, and quiet, but the setting is gorgeous right there at the end of a mountain-lined bay. The old town is atmospheric and full of charm and the whole place just feels like you’ve been transported into a fairy tale.
Highlights (Kotor) – All it takes in Kotor is one look out the window at the mountains, one stroll along the water or one wander through the narrow lanes of the old walled town to feel good. There is pretty much nothing to do here apart from enjoying the dramatic setting but, hey, sometimes that’s all you need for a rewarding trip. If you venture into the old town, make sure you do so in the morning, afternoon and evening…it has a different feel each time. And just before sunset, head up the path to the Castle Of San Giovanni to really get an idea of your surroundings. It’s worth the hike. (For food, go to the inexpensive waterfront Konoba Akustik for an excellent meal and try to find the very local Fortuna Food for a quick, dirt-cheap and very delicious lunch.
Oh dear Croatia. This was my third time to Croatia and second visit to Dubrovnik. And once again, I struggled. It’s a pretty place, without a doubt. The old town is indeed interesting and pleasing to the eye. But just like my previous visits, I just don’t get what all the fuss is about that brings so many people to this town. I must be a weirdo, that’s the only conclusion I can reach.
Highlights (Dubrovnik) – Watching the sunset every evening from the balcony of our Airbnb. And taking the ferry along the coast to the village of Cavtat was pleasant, too. Apart from that though, I’m not sure what else to list.
On the other hand…I love Italy. How can you go wrong here, at least as a tourist? With that said, there were only 2 reasons that we came to Italy on this occasion. The first was to hang out with some friends and second was to go with those friends to the Guns N Roses concert in the town of Imola. The friends lived in Pisa, so that’s where we spent our first 4 days and then we went to the concert and spent two nights in Bologna after that.
Highlights – The Guns N Roses concert!! Apart from getting there super early and standing in the sun for 8 hours before they came on stage, it was excellent and well worth traveling to Italy for. And of course, I also had a great time meeting my girlfriend’s friends, eating real Italian food (awesome pizza at In Provincia di Pizza just outside of Pisa) and just being in Pisa itself, away from the leaning tower and crowds, soaking up the atmosphere of the regular neighborhoods with someone who had actually lived there.
The trip to Germany was to visit another friend of mine in Berlin. The idea was to spend all of our time in that one city and that’s exactly what we ended up doing. The days were spent working, wandering around different areas, hanging out with my friend, eating good, cheap food and shopping for warm clothes as the autumn winds and low temperatures hit us quite unexpectedly.
Highlights (Berlin) – The food market on Thursday nights in the Kreuzberg neighborhood, the Kreuzberg neighborhood itself with all its local eateries, cafes, parks and inspiring vibe and a vegan Vietnamese restaurant we found called Soy. Vegan or not, it’s mighty good. We went three times. One of the best restaurants I’ve found all year actually, and cheap.
Accommodation – Leonardo Royal Hotel Alexanderplatz – We went for a little splurge here and it was a solid choice. Very comfortable rooms in the city center, close to public transportation and within walking distance to Alexanderplatz and all kinds of restaurants, cafes, nightlife and activities.
The time had come for the Midsummer Festival! And to meet up with some more of my girlfriend’s family and friends. It was a great combination for a trip to this beautiful country, my first visit back here in many years. Our destination was not Stockholm though. We were in the far, far, far lesser known towns of…Skovde and Lidkoping. Much to do in these places? Nope. But any slice of Sweden seems to come with that uniquely enchanting, calming ambience that is quite appealing at all times and which only a handful of countries in Europe can offer.
Highlights – Beautiful nature everywhere. We were in places that nobody has ever heard of but it doesn’t matter. All you need to do in Sweden is go for a walk. Find a trail near a lake, head off into the middle of some fields, find a forest path…even the 10 minute walk from where we were staying in Skovde to the supermarket was filled with enough beautiful nature to instantly turn a bad mood into a good one.
At this point, it was time for me to lead my Wandering Earl Wander Across Romania Tour and so I flew to Bucharest. I arrived a couple of days before the tour began and then for two weeks I traveled around with my group. We visited Brasov, Sighisoara, Corund, Cluj-Napoca, Hunedoara, Sibiu and the Transfagarasan and no matter how many times I travel around this country, I simply can’t get enough of it. Trust me when I say that Romania is going to be on everyone’s travel radar very soon!
Highlights – The region of Corund. This was the first time I took my group to this region and it won’t be the last. I’m talking about real, traditional life out here, nothing touristy whatsoever. We ate with locals in their homes, visited their local workshops (not operating for tourists), met so many local people, tasted their homemade drinks, roamed around beautiful, remote plateaus, visited a straw hat museum (sounds corny but it’s pretty damn cool) and more. My 2018 Romania tours will also include this region as it’s perhaps the most local and authentic place I’ve ever visited in Europe.
Accommodation – Casa Lia in Sighisoara – This one is my favorite. Run by a sweet couple, it’s a chance to have a real homestay in the heart of this medieval village. Comfy, low-cost rooms with hospitality like you won’t believe. It’s not just accommodation, it’s a complete and wonderful travel experience.
Second time in Budapest. And sort of like with Dubrovnik, I’ve still yet to join the masses and become a huge fan. It certainly has nice buildings but I just didn’t connect with the place again. Maybe it was because I had arrived from Romania, one of my favorite countries in Europe. No idea.
Highlights (Budapest) – Our nightly walks along the Danube River, past the famous Parliament building, across the Széchenyi Chain Bridge and around the area of the Buda Castle. The Central Market Hall was good to visit as well, but compared to the last time I was there, it seems to have become specifically a tourist destination.
Back to Romania…this time to visit my girlfriend’s aunt in the small village of Pesac. We went from city to city for much of our European travels and then suddenly, there we were, in the quiet countryside. Surrounded by dirt roads with well-maintained country homes, forests and fields, large family gardens, horse-drawn carts, cows and goats and dogs roaming around and a complete lack of noise, pollution, traffic or any worry whatsoever, it was the most serene experience I’ve had this year. Throw in some home-cooked food, much of which was made from locally grown products, some local home-made wine, evenings outside walking and chatting in the warm air and some wonderfully kind people…and I quickly realized how unnecessarily complicated we human beings have made our lives.
Highlights – Every single meal (such good food!!), the evening walks through the village and letting go of that idea that I need to constantly be running around doing something ‘exciting’. Just being around good people and good food, while breathing in good air, brings far more joy and excitement than we tend to realize.
When you’re only 30 minutes from the border with Serbia, it’s worth going across for a weekend trip. And so off we went, spending a couple of nights in Belgrade. I enjoy visiting Belgrade. I can’t quite pinpoint what it is that I like but the big city has a welcoming, laid-back atmosphere along with nice markets, decent food, parks and quaint neighborhoods, great nightlife and a very livable feel. Again, it’s hard for me to give specifics but I’ve just had an overall positive experience during my two visits to this city.
Highlights (Belgrade) – The long walk that leads from the Belgrade Fortress at the edge of the Danube and Sava Rivers, up the bustling Knez Mihailova pedestrian street, through the Skadarlija neighborhood with it’s old-style restaurants, cafes and bars and then twisting through the residential streets heading east until you reach the Pijaca Kalenić Farmer’s Market. There’s lots of historical sights along the way and the Nikola Tesla Museum as well.
Accommodation (Belgrade) – Centar Guesthouse – We thought this was a joke when we found it online. It seemed way too cheap for the extremely central location and seemingly good rooms. Turned out to be real. Simple, clean rooms with everything you need, modern bathrooms and less than 20 seconds walk from the main Republic Square, all for 35 Euros.
Our original plan was to spend 6 weeks in Prague but after getting a late start on our apartment search, there wasn’t much left for a good price and location. So we decided to simply stop here for 5 days en route to the Canary Islands instead. Anyway, Prague is popular, it’s beautiful, it’s one of those cities that definitely needs to be seen. Of course, we spent some time checking out the major sights – the castle, the cathedrals, the old town, Wenceslas Square and so on – but it turned out to be the time we spent away from those places that really stuck in our minds.
Highlights (Prague) – An evening out with friends in the vibrant Vinohrady neighborhood and our afternoon wander to Vyšehrad, an old fortress in the south part of the city along the Vltava River. While it might not be as well-known as other landmarks in the city, it makes for a great afternoon excursion. Walking all over the hilltop site allows you to escape from the massive crowds of tourists and the noise of the old town, while still soaking up some interesting history (check out The Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul) and great views over the city.
That brings me to Spain. Technically, I’m in Spain, although, not on the mainland. I’m in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands. And since Prague didn’t work out as a long-term destination, Gran Canaria took that role instead. So far, I’d say this was definitely the right decision. Not only is Gran Canaria full of really awesome things to do and see – mountains, villages, beaches, sand dunes, hiking trails, remote national parks, surfing and more – but Las Palmas is one of the most livable cities I’ve ever been to. For a fraction of what it costs to live in most countries in Europe, you get perfect weather, a laid-back island lifestyle, excellent Spanish food, a large international community of travelers, digital nomads and expats and no shortage of activities and events to join. With two weeks left of our stay here, we already understand why so many people claim this island to be one of the most ideal places to hang out in Europe!
Highlights – The ridiculously gorgeous drive we did the other day. We went from Las Palmas to the Point of Galdar, over to the picturesque towns of Agaete and Puerto de las Nieves, and then way up into the mountains. We drove along narrow, cliffside roads that took us on a several hour, remote adventure that, apart from being a death-defying experience, offered some of the most impressive scenery I’ve seen in a long, long time. I genuinely can’t wait to explore some more.
So, thank you Europe. It’s been a most rewarding year and I look forward to visiting more of you in 2018. Countries such as Poland, Denmark and Belarus are high up on the list!
Did you visit Europe this year? Are you planning a trip to any countries in Europe, maybe next year? Any questions?