It can be hard to make that first step out the front gate and into the great big world beyond your country’s borders. Heck, just spending a few hours with Auntie Em in her retirement complex in Florida can be a trip into total weird. What is it like to be in a place where they don’t speak English and don’t really want to?
It’s fun, that’s what it is. It’s really not scary if you take a few simple steps. First off, be smart, do a bit of planning and, depending on the destination, pack a basic phrasebook.
Here are the seven best destinations for your first trip to Europe — AKA seven cities that will be gentle for this important first time, promise. You won’t even need a phrasebook for the first four. So get a pin and a map and we’ll begin.
Ireland is the first piece of dry land after a long stretch of the big old Atlantic Ocean. This is a big consideration if this is your first time spending 6-8 hours strapped to an aluminum tube. Less flight time equals less jet lag. Like airplane food, less is definitely better.
The Irish are charming, friendly, and love to chat. Ask any random stranger for directions and you’ll be discussing your family history to the third generation.
Go to a pub, take in a play at the remarkable Abbey Theatre or just walk along the River Liffey. It’s a city of music and magic no bar out of a box back home can come close to matching.
A beautiful city, elegant and charming. It has a long history associated with the royal families of England but, like Ireland, there is an underlying sense of independence. The Scots are warm but a little more reserved than the Irish: you will still be made to feel at home but not like you should be doing the dishes.
This is the ideal city to stay at a Bed & Breakfast. These are more cozy than hotels and promise a much more personal touch. The owners are happy to spend time with you making suggestions of places to visit and where to get a good pint.
You will have haggis. And you will love it. With lots of whisky, of course.
Now you may be wondering why the most obvious of the English speaking cities is listed third. This is hands down one of the most expensive cities in Europe for anything. Accommodations, dining, shopping, entertainment, you name it, it costs more here than just about anywhere else.
On the other hand, the British Museum, National Gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum and many more amazing places are free which helps stretch the travel budget. Save where you can during the day and splurge on a West End play in the evening.
Leicester Square is the place to buy tickets at one of the discount vendors for a show that night.
Friendly, safe and clean, this is the dream city to start your first European expedition. At the B&B’s or smaller family run hotels don’t worry if there isn’t an elevator because there will be breakfast! That more than makes up for having to deal with a few narrow stairs.
Breakfast here is a celebration. It’s also a chance to talk to the hosts about where to go, what to see and what to avoid. The Dutch have a well-earned reputation for hospitality.
Worried about the language thing? Don’t be. Even school children are fluent in English and love the chance to practice.
Okay, now we’re moving into phrase book territory. The French have an undeserved reputation for being snooty and cold. While not as warm as the Dutch or friendly as the Irish, a Parisian will reward you with a petite smile if you try out a little parlez-vous before switching to anglais. It isn’t that difficult, really, to say, “bonjour” if it’s daytime or “bon soir” if it’s evening.
This is the city to practice the art of getting lost. Once you can navigate the Metro system, you’re never more than a couple of blocks away from the way home. Explore the neighbourhood, check out the local bakery (Boulangerie) or sit at an outdoor table sipping a cafe creme while the world walks by. C’est bon.
This medieval town’s pedigree stretches back over 1,000 years. Sometime around the 1700’s it fell off the map: history, warfare and aluminum siding marched past without leaving a mark. A modern town grew up outside the walls but once through the gate it’s Pied Piper time.
Well, except for the tour buses and tourists taking pictures of the 16th century Rathaus with 21st century iPads and cell phones.
Be sure to book your rooms inside the walls then wait until 4:00 when the buses leave. Ah, now it’s quiet. Have a glass of crisp Rhine wine or a tall frosty mug of the local hefeweizen. Relax in the town square or go for a walk along the city wall. It’s all good.
Florence is a magic city. The greatest minds and hearts of the Renaissance walked these narrow cobblestoned streets. Great art and inspiring sights are everywhere throughout the city. When the Duomo bells start ringing and echoing off the walls of the ancient winding narrow streets, it is the same sound Michelangelo heard when he was a boy.
Yeah, that kind of magic.
The people are friendly, the food is amazing and you think you know ice cream? You are in for an education, my friend. In Florence gelato is taken as seriously as marble.
No matter where you go, have fun. Get ready to find out different is sometimes a good thing and that getting lost isn’t always a bad thing.
Now pick up that map, take a look at your calendar and make the dream happen.