Western Europe is the least sympathetic to a student bank balance, and it is inevitable that accommodation rates will be twice the price of those in the East. However, if you really do want to spend time in some of the main cities, it is a good idea to bite the bullet and stay in a well-located hostel, and then you can always steer east for a break on your spending.
Madrid: Spain is a country of great influence, and the capital city demonstrates this grandeur by maintaining historic landmarks such as the Royal Palace of Madrid and the Teatro Real within an ever-developing modern infrastructure.
Hostel: Residencia Alvaro – five minutes away from the Plaza Mayor. It has a quiet homely feel, making it perfect as a base from which to explore the city. It also has free internet, and a well-equipped kitchen. Pop Hostel – located in Malasana, the central point of the music and clubbing scene in Madrid, and not far from the Plaza Mayor where you can explore the more historical attractions.
Recommendations: Madrid has a celebrated selection of museums such as Museo de Arte Reina Sofia, and El Prado, exhibiting vast collections of traditional Spanish art ranging from 12th century to 19th century.
Try to find some of the quieter tapas bars to test a few of the local cuisine, and some sangria. La Taperia is great, as it is located in the city centre, between the three main squares, but falls under the tourist radar. To catch a glimpse of some flamenco in a traditional Spanish setting, the Corral de la Moreria restaurant offers a show during your meal making for a spectacular evening.
Barcelona: the culture capital of Spain. Home to the surreal architecture of Antoni Gaudi, street markets, tapas, and – as is necessary for a Spanish holiday destination – beaches.
Hostels: Residencia Erasmus-Gracia – nice rooms and good location: near Gaudi’s Parc Guell, and a route of tapas bars. The staff, who spoke perfect English, were excited to help point out local gems. Centric Point – closer to the centre of town, with two bars and a roof terrace overlooking the city.
Recommendations: everything Gaudi related: La Sagrada Familia and Gaudi’s Parc Guell were particular highlights. Aside from tapas, try churros – a traditional Spanish dish of sugary donuts dipped into rich hot chocolate – they are delicious.
Keep an eye out for pickpockets. The main road and market, Las Ramblas, that runs from the centre of town to the beach is a notorious hotspot for tourist muggings. The closer to the beach you get, the more risk so stay aware.
Paris: stereotypically known as the city of romance, the capital of France has many expectations attached to it. Amidst all the other tourists searching for this ‘je ne sais quoi’, it feels impossible to find anything off the beaten track, and it can seem like one big commercial farce. However, these hidden gems do exist, though masked by the fast-paced city life, and once you find them the stereotype is justified.
Hostel: Le Montclair Montmartre – very friendly staff, a great atmosphere and very good location as it’s directly behind the Sacre Coeur. Peace and Love hostel – a little scummy but with an incredible atmosphere, and also a great place to meet other travelers.
Recommendation: do the sightseeing. For culture, Le Palais de Tokyo is a brilliant modern art gallery across the river from the Eiffel Tower, and the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, on the Left Bank, has books stacked from floor to ceiling, with beds among the books for writers to come and stay. Laduree (on the Champs d’Elysees), a fairly expensive tea room, sells the best maccaroons in Paris.
The best place to spend an evening is on top of the hill in front of the Sacre Coeur where there is a little secluded collection of streets which epitomises the typical romantic Parisian atmosphere. You can get a pancake to hold while you walk around watching various artists and musicians.
Amsterdam: as a result of the notorious red light district, and the legal coffee shops, it already has a strong image of a haven in which to act outside of the law. Beyond this underworld, however, the city showcases the best of Holland’s dynamic character.
Hostel: due to popularity amongst students, hostel prices are astronomical, and this was the only place we found it necessary to book far in advance. Cheaper hostels would have freed up our wallets to enjoy the expensive but brilliant culture of Amsterdam. Stayokay Vondelpark – the staff were friendly, the rooms colourful and comfy, and the breakfast incredible. www.amsterdamapartmentrental.com: if you are in a large group making a definite plan to start or end your trip in Amsterdam, it is a good idea to book one of the many available apartments.
Recommendation: eat herrings, a local delicacy: there are stalls all over the city with a Dutch flag. Pancakes are, again, a speciality, and there are some brilliant pancake houses (such as Sara’s Pancake House, Raadhuisstraat. which is great value for money). For a day out go to the Vondelpark: aside from being scenic, there is a giant ‘Amsterdam’ statue that acts as constant amusement to climb on.
The Anne Frank house is more than just a tourist attraction, and is an essential stop for a profound, less ordinary experience. Finally, the only way to see and appreciate the city fully is to hire bikes. However, cyclists in Holland are clued-up; tourists are expected to keep to their spot and be just as road aware as trams, and cars. On the same topic, never ever walk in the cycle path, you will get run over.
Italy and Germany bridge the gap between the more costly west and the inexpensive east.
Rome: arguably the most diverse out of all European cities in terms of the divide between the ancient and the modern, Rome simultaneously remains home to the Vatican and leads the developing country. This city offers a profound sense of Europe through the ages.
Hostel: Happy Days Hostel – seconds away from the Vatican which is very useful in avoiding the queues. Really fun and laid back place with pretty good facilities.
Recommendations: the ‘Galleria Nazionale D’Arte Moderna’ is fantastic and is free if you say you study art. If the idea of culture seems too overwhelming in the extreme summer heat, then spend the day in the Villa Borghese park, taking a quick dip in one of the many fresh spring pools dotted around, to cool off. The organised pub crawls from either the Spanish Steps or the Colosseum are also a great way to befriend fellow travellers staying in different hostels.
Florence: beware, Florence is not really student-budget-friendly but if you wander off the beaten track into the quieter back cobbled streets, you can find a myriad of obscure shops; there’s quite a treasure hunt to be had.
Hostel: PlusHostel – complete with swimming pool and roof terrace, as well as having the great location of being in the centre of the town. There is a great atmosphere amongst the other travellers, which acts as a good alternative to the slightly expensive nightlife.
Recommendations: food in Florence also doesn’t come cheap so it was great to stumble across La Casalinga on Via del Michelozzi. Simple but delicious authentic Tuscan dishes made a welcome change from stale train sandwiches. While in Florence, it is worth just wondering the streets to fully appreciate the variety of Renaissance architecture hidden throughout the city – the Duomo and Santa Maria Novella are definitely worth having a look around. And, of course, eat gelato: it’s difficult to eat anything else.
Munich: the capital of Bavaria, a state in the south of Germany. The city is known for having the strongest economy in Germany, and exquisite beer. The city’s motto, “München mag Dich” (Munich Loves You), reflects the quaint, and wholesome feel of the city.
Hostel: The Tent – a big tent that’s a 15 minute tram ride away from the city centre. You can sleep in the bed tent dormitory, rent a floor mat for the floor tent dorm, or camp in the fields. It has a festival feel to it, and a great atmosphere between travellers.
Recommendation: The Englischer Gartens, a beautiful park which has the added attraction of a natural wave current at the mouth of the stream that runs through it. Then head over to the beerhouses. Hofbrauhaus is one of Munich’s oldest breweries, and with a lederhosen-clad brass band the experience is complete.
Berlin: in the aftermath of World War Two, the capital city of Germany is still still re-building its identity. Consequently the overall culture is disjointed, and unpolished, but an incredible display of remorse and passion.
Hostel: 36 Rooms – the cheapest hostel we found. At 8 Euros a night, in the heart of Kreuzberg, next door to a cheap but amazing falafel restaurant, cheap bars, outdoor cinema, and vintage shops it was perfect for seeing the best of the city. BaxPax Hostel – a really big hostel with excellent bar facilities. Great for mingling with other travelers.
Recommendation: do everything you can. It’s a small city, and easy to make your way through the best it has to offer even during a short stay. For a good perspective on the gradually evolving state of the city as a result of World War Two, go on any of the free tours of Berlin. For culture, go to East Side gallery: one mile of the Berlin wall that was left standing, on which artists have painted murals and political artwork across the entire thing. The free ‘Alternative Berlin’ tour takes you around the city to look at the way citizens have reacted to the transition of the city. If you have the time, visit Sachsenhausen, the nearest concentration camp – a moving reminder of Germany’s recent history. For bars go to ‘White Trash Fast Food’ in Mitte, very trendy with a hard rock feel, and ‘Que Pasa’ in Kreuzberg, which does cheap and brilliant cocktails.
There are various kinds of tickets you can buy that can give you greater flexibility or time:
The ‘ten in 22 days’ ticket allows you to be in Europe for 22 days, but you can only use international transport on ten of those days, which are stamped off on your ticket. This is the same for the ‘five in ten days’ ticket. Although this appears to limit your freedom, it can work very well. We found that we wanted to stay for at least two days in each place, and didn’t even need ten travel days for all the places we wanted to go to. The days aren’t set in stone: you can pick on what day and how far you travel.
With night trains, if you leave after 20:00, only one day of travel is taken up on your ticket.
The unlimited passes (ranging from ‘15 days’ to ‘one month’) give you absolute autonomy over your trip and work well for those who wish to make their way round all of Europe rather than exploring particular places.
Book your hostels in advance. Go to www.hostelworld.com, and at least set out a few bookings that can shape your trip. It is easily accessible from internet cafes for you to book as you go, but this could hinder your enjoyment of each place as you worry about the next and can put a strain on your trip.
It’s impossible to sum up Eastern Europe without generalizing it as ‘underdeveloped’. However, from a western perspective, the culture shock is severe: the porn supermarkets that pop up on every corner amongst the traditional street markets selling Russian dolls appear incomprehensible. The different currencies, and languages in the east contrast with the Euro and the Romantic languages of the west, and place a clear divide between the two.
Prague: it is now one of the most frequented tourist cities in the world since the fall of the Iron Curtain. There is clear evidence of both a rich and a troubled history, whilst also displaying blatant taboos of western culture.
Hostel: HostelOne Prague – complete with kitchen facilities and an ensuite bathroom, it was a luxury as far as hostels go. It also had a nightly barbeque for all the guests in the garden, run by the very friendly owner.
Recommendation: it’s great to just walk around and see the difference between new modern Prague, compared with the old gothic-looking town. The Old Jewish Cemetery, in the Jewish quarter of Prague contrasts with the bars in the centre of town. The five story club is also an experience, particularly since they appear to have no age limit on entrance.
Budapest: the capital of Hungary is characterised by a blend of centuries old culture and tradition fused with more modernist architecture.
Hostel: HomePlus Hostel – it has a warm and friendly atmosphere, situated right on the Danube river, in prime location for heading either into the city centre or over to the Royal Castle across the river. The staff also speak very good English and are enthusiastic to help.
Recommendations: take a look round the Statue Park, which has a collection of statues from the Soviet period including life size models of Lenin, Marx, and Engels. To eat, Fulemule, hidden in Jozsefvaros, serves a menu of traditional Hungarian and Jewish dishes in a rustic setting. Budapest’s culture is heavily influenced by the Turks after their colonization of Hungary in the 1600s. Consequently, there are a vast number of elaborate and opulent baths that you can visit. The Rudas Baths in particular is a brilliant display of the medieval Turkish architecture.