Europe Highlights: Three Countries in Ten Days

Europe Highlights

So I traveled to three European countries in ten days.

And I highly recommend you don’t do it.

I’m a firm believer in traveling slow and enjoying the sights, but since I’m American and I only get a whopping 12 days of paid holiday per year, I had my limitations–so I made do.

My plan was to head to  Paris (for a bachelorette party), then Berlin (to see my good German friend) and, finally, Brussels for the wedding.

I only scratched the surface of each city/country, but here are the highlights:

Paris – Totally Worth it

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It’s more than just a tower

Paris is romanticized to death.  I heard mixed reviews about the city that ranged from ‘epic’ to ‘dirty’ and even ‘disappointing.’

Let me clear up everything now: Paris is everything you imagined it to be.

It’s a white city that lights up at night.  It’s full of couples kissing in parks, creperies around every corner waiting to sell you a delicious, nutella filled pancake; and dotted with al-fresco cafes perfect for people watching and sipping coffee.

As I walked around Paris, the only words I could muster to describe my surroundings were:

“This place is too, too beautiful.”

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In my dreams, I own one of these apartments (preferably the one at the top)

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Charming.

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This is what Paris looks like. How can you not be enchanted?

Paris Flower Shop

Europeans love to buy flowers. Paris was full of flower shops.

The architecture.  The history.  The river flowing through the city.

It’s magical.

It’s also easy to see that the French have a totally different way of life from us Americans.  People take their time to eat meals (lunch or dinner is usually 2 hours long, with coffee or wine included), they take life slow (thus they sit in cafes people watching and reading newspapers) and they don’t sweat the small stuff.  They revel in the good things in life, such as fine cheese, wines, and bread (I’m convinced I was French in a past life).

Oh god, bread.  Croissants.  Baguettes.  Pastries.  If you need reason to go to France, just do it for the bread.

My top recommendation for Paris?  Go to the city center near sunset (preferably near Notre Dame or the Louvre).  Find a bridge, stand there, and watch the sun melt into the river and paint  the city in orange pastels.

Sunset on the Seine

Sunset on the Seine

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After night descends on Paris, all of the buildings light up (it’s not called the City of Lights for nothing) for some great night strolling.  Much to my surprise, the city is empty and quiet at night.  Walking around a silent Paris, gazing at the old houses, Notre Dame, and the small bars open for late visitors-it was peaceful, serene and magical all at once.

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paris - night

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I didn’t want to leave Paris.  I thought of ways I could return; perhaps maybe take a French course (or two).  I was entranced by Paris, and France as a whole.  I want to go back.

Berlin – An Up And Coming City

Biew from the Top of Berlin Tower

View from the top of Berlin Tower

As soon as I landed in Berlin, I knew I wasn’t in France anymore.  The area surrounding the airport felt like I traveled back in time to communist, East Germany.  Compared to France with its stylized balconies and gothic architecture, Germany looked like an industrial wasteland.

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That is, until I reached the city center.

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The buildings in Berlin are tall and colorful (not white like France) and still retain a sense of history from decades long before the war.  It’s a blend of old and new, in the best way possible.

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Berlin is hipster haven.  New, hip coffee shops are popping up on every street corner.  There’s musicians and artists everywhere.  Quirky bookstores and mom-and-pop craft stores selling the latest fashion and home decorations were in every neighborhood.  Swanky restaurants that serve the best of Asian fusion, authentic Italian, and even modern takes on American burgers (fig burger, anyone?) were a dime a dozen.

Walking around Berlin is a treat in itself.  So many shops to explore, so many places to eat, and so many events to participate in–like Shanghai, it’s a city that will never bore you.

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My friend also took me to all the historical, tourists sights.  We saw the city symbol, Brandenburg Gate, built in the 1700s to signify peace after the 30 years war, but later became a sort of barrier that separated east and west Germany.  Nearby, there is a memorial in honor of the Jews.  It’s beautiful and eerie.

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Jew Memorial in Berlin

Memorial for the Jews. Each square is supposed to resemble a grave. A modern work of art in the city center.

Our last stop in Berlin was the Berlin Wall; or at least, what’s left of it.  It’s now a crumbling wall of Graffiti, a kind of mini art museum out in the open for all to see.

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Berlin Wall

Represent.

It’s easy to see that Berlin is a city that has risen up from the ashes of its communist days and still continues to thrive, grow and become one of the most innovative cities in Germany.  While Berlin is looking forward, it’s still easy to see much of its past speckled throughout the city.

Berlin Sunset

Sunset near the famous bridge located by the wall. Known as one of the best spots to watch the sunset in Berlin.

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“My parents lived in East Germany before the wall came down,” my friend said. “People didn’t have refrigerators, stoves, cars… it was a terrible place.  My parents were going to risk their lives and cross the wall, but luckily it came down before they could execute their plan.”

He smiled, “they never imagined that only a few years later they would have a son travel to America.”

Berlin City Center

My German friend–miss you!

My personal tip for Berlin: Visit the neighborhood Prenzlberg.  It’s the neighborhood I stayed in and it’s quiet, quaint and full of great restaurants and shops.  Walking around the neighborhood alone is entertainment in itself, and the sheer variety of local shops selling books, vintage clothing, stamps, stationary, pottery and more will keep you entertained for hours.

A normal street on Prenzlberg

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And Finally, Brussels

Brussels houses

I love how different all the houses in Brussels are–so cute!

Beer.  Chocolate.  Fries.  And a wedding.

This was my time in Brussels.

The french fries are divine (crispy with just enough salt, but still warm and soft on the inside), while the chocolate is simply the world’s best (Godiva isn’t a Belgian brand for nothin’), and the beer…oh, the beer….

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Belgian Beer in Belgium! Livin’ the dream!

I love my Belgian beer.  Going there and drinking it in person was like a childhood dream come true.

Belgium is a trilingual country with three national languages: French, Flemish and German (and just about everyone speaks English).  The country is very inconsistent with its languages, with some trains running in French, some advertisements in Flemish, and a few restaurant menus written in German.  It’s a city that feels like a mix of France and Germany combined.

My favorite part of Brussels was the size and the atmosphere.  Although Brussels is the fortress city for the European Union, it has a very small-town feel.  It’s cozy, comfortable, and easy to get around (you could probably walk from one end of the city to the other in less than 2 hours).

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Central Brussels at dusk

No car day in Brussels

September 20th was “no car” day in Brussels. The city was completely void of cars–it was amazing!

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Bikes, bikes and more bikes! Having no car day in the USA would be impossible…

Brussels Grand Place at Dusk

“Grand Place,” the most famous landmark of Brussels

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Brussels Cathedral

I literally stumbled upon this gigantic cathedral out of nowhere. The light at sunset lit it up beautifully.

I never imagined in a million years I would go to Belgium (hell, I just discovered Belgian beer 4 years ago).  Yet one of my very close friends, a former classmate from my Tsinghua days in Beijing, moved there recently with her fiancee and decided to have their wedding ceremony there–and I just had to go.

At the wedding there was out-of-this-world food, free-flowing champagne, the best damn vintage of red wine I’ve ever sampled, and most importantly–my friend, her (now) husband, and their happiness.  It was one of the most enjoyable weddings I’ve ever attended, and I met friends both old and (mostly) new.

Forest in Ixelles

To get to my friend’s wedding, you first had to traverse a forest in the city center of Brussels….

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… then use a boat to cross a lake to reach the jaw-dropping reception area.

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The cutest wedding cake ever. My lovely friend and her fiancé.

My tip for Brussels: Eat, eat, eat.  The food here is fantastic.  The best fries to be had are not in restaurants, but little shacks outside that sell them in cones.  Try the shack at Flagey station (it always has a line) for some real, authentic Belgian fries (and don’t forget to find a bar and wash it down with some Belgian beer).

Chocolatier in Brussels

Chocolate stores are EVERYWHERE in Brussels.

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A real Belgian waffle–topped with gelato! Waffles are sold on the street and cost a whopping 1 euro.

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We need more of this in America–and for 7 euros! What a deal.

Europe, I’ll be back

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Europe, I hope I can see you again someday soon.

And maybe stay for the long run.

19 thoughts on “Europe Highlights: Three Countries in Ten Days

  1. autumnashbough says:

    So now I’m really, really hungry.

    Loved Paris, walked all over it with a guidebook and a friend. But it’s only lovely because it’s for tourists and rich Parisians — everyone else lives in the less picturesque suburbs.

    Andy lives for Belgian beer. Especially Chimay and other stuff made by the Trappist monks. He would be so impressed. Me, I’d be in the chocolate shops.

    We went all over Europe with bread and stinky cheese. Good times.

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      You went all over Europe Autumn!? Where did you go!?

      I’m sure Paris would make me grumpy if I lived there long term, but yeah, as a tourist it was very nice. If I didn’t have a job yet somehow had money to spend, I would totally do a 6 month course of French somewhere in France. Paris is nice, but I’d like to go somewhere more rustic. I heard Lyon is great!

      Haha Andy and I would get along. I love trappist ales as well. I got Richard a Chimay glass from Belgium. I need to send you some chocolate!

      And yes, cheese does stink over there.

      I missed your comments, so happy to ‘see’ you again on here! 😀

      • autumnashbough says:

        Wait? Did I miss some posts? If I did, I will go find them. Been crazy busy, I can hardly blog on my own. Know I am missing stuff right and left. Argh.

        I went to Europe twice with my friend M. Germany and Austria the first time (the Alps! Salzburg!) and Belgium, Paris, Switzerland, and Italy the second time. Like you, I could have stayed so much longer. I mean, just for the food! We’d drive from one city to another and walk all over it, with our nerdy guidebooks. And on my second trip, I got Andy a beer or wine glass from every town.

        • rubymary says:
          Profile photo of rubymary

          No, you didn’t! I just haven’t been updating as much (because I’ve been gone), so it’s nice to read your comments 🙂

          I heard the alps are WAY NICE! Did you have a favorite city in Germany?

          Yeah I would just walk all over Europe if I could. Sadly I was traveling with Europeans, so they were wondering why I was so interested in their ‘old buildings.’

          • autumnashbough says:

            No favorite city in Germany. Dusseldorf and Munich were fine, but I liked the countryside better. I think my favorite was Sion in Switzerland. We stayed in a Best Western with marble everything and it had a view of the castle! Also very old, medieval streets, now with lovely chocolate shops and Bernese Mountain dogs. And the restaurants were fantastic. The best of French cooking brought with German efficiency. 🙂

            I know what you mean about blog lag. It’s taking me forever these days to get out a post. 🙁 Too much other work.

          • rubymary says:
            Profile photo of rubymary

            I respect you Autumn, with your frequent blog posts and your up-to-date commenting. You’re like my role model, I strive to be on top of blogging like you! People make out blogging to be so easy, but it takes A LOT of time. Writing and preparing the Europe post took me 4-5 hours. Ugh. Or maybe I write too much, haha.

            Marble best western!? And here I thought I would never see those three words ever combined. I never even thought about going to Switzerland, but my coworker showed me photos of the alps and I was sold.

            Medieval streets, chocolate shops, mountain dogs and marble hotels? I think I have to see these Sion place next time I’m in EU….

  2. Lani says:

    I loved your share. My dream is Europe and to really really travel and explore and your post was a tasty sampler. You’re soooo lucky. I’ve only been to Austria. I wish I could live in Europe! One day, eh? Sigh. One day…

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      I need much more time in Europe. I really hope you can go soon! I found that EU wasn’t that expensive (probably because the dollar is so high now); but overall items are priced about the same as the USA. Domestic travel there is dirt cheap, with flights for 40 Euro. I can’t even fly from CA to Utah for under 250 USD!!!

      I hope you can make it there soon, Lani! Asia is great, it’s still my favorite, but there’s just something about EU…

  3. yueni says:

    So that’s why you’ve been so silent! I would totally have told you not to do 3 countries in Europe in 10 days. I mean, come on, I did Northern Italy (totally skipping Rome) because I only had 10 days to do it in… and I was living in Switzerland.

    Incidentally, you’ve visited the city I disliked the most (Paris) and the city I love the most (Berlin) this trip. If I could afford it and/or find a job that would let me afford it, I would totally move to Germany.

    In my defense re: Paris… the first and only time I was in Paris was 10 days out of a 6 week European trip with my parents. I was 14. My sister was the Parisian nut. I had no say. She designed the entire itinerary with input from my dad. I just tagged along to famous museums and art galleries (two places I rarely ever step foot in when I travel on my own). We also visited Paris during the hottest week of the year. The same week the garbage collectors went on strike. I did not have good impressions of Paris…

    Hope you enjoyed your trip!

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      You lived in Switzerland!? Ommmggg… jealous.

      I know, I need to go freelance or start my own business or something. This 12 holiday thing is just nonesense to me. I don’t know how anyone can take a proper vacation (and from what I hear, Americans usually don’t.)

      Haha your visit to Paris sounds AWFUL! The garbage collectors went on strike!? I bet the city stunk even more so than usual! Usually with Paris, you either love it or you hate it (and since you had your sister bossing you around I’m sure that wasn’t all that fun). I actually want to visit more cities in France, such as Normandy, Bordeaux, and Lyon (I saw Anthony Bourdain’s episode there and was sold).

      I try to avoid art galleries when I travel too, unless I have a lot of time on my hands (which I usually don’t).

      Berlin was an AWESOME city. It’s not even that expensive; in fact, I think living there would be far cheaper than LA (a 30 euro train pass sure beats the 100+ dollars I put in my car for gas every month). I also saw that a downtown flat (near the Brendenburg Gate) to purchase (and it was quite a large flat, 2 bedrooms) was 350k. 350k!!! I can’t buy anything for 350k in LA, not even a beat up shack! I feel like now is the time to go in and invest in Berlin before it becomes overpriced 🙁

      • yueni says:

        Haha. Don’t be jealous. I was only there for 4.5 months, and I was living in Geneva, which is an insanely expensive city to live in.

        I think one day I’ll return to Paris and do it my way. I still want to see Sacre Coeur in Montmartre. Plus, I actually have Parisian friends now, so that’ll be more fun seeing the city they live in rather than as a touristy place. If nothing else, I don’t have to go to the Louvre again, and all the touristy stuff: the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Elysee, Versailles… I don’t have to go to since I’ve already been!

        Lyon is absolutely gorgeous. They have these amazingly realistic looking murals. Totally recommend going there. I was bummed to miss the festival of lights they have a few weeks before every year. It’s apparently quite beautiful, but I had already made arrangements to meet a friend in Barcelona, so I want to go back to experience that.

        Annecy is also beautiful, if you get a chance to go, go to Annecy. Not really a city, just a small town tucked up against a pretty lake in southern France.

        God, now you’re totally tempting me. I just want to go to Germany and pick my German back up again. >| California is such a massively disgustingly expensive state to live in. A 1 bedroom condo near where I live just got sold for $500k!!! Prices are so frigging ridiculous around here.

  4. R Zhao says:

    Awesome pictures Mary! I LOVE Paris. It’s my favorite city. The food, the art, the history, the architecture–it is enchanting. I went there briefly on my first trip to Europe (my friend who was living in Ireland surprised me when I went to visit her–she bought me a round trip flight to Paris and we went for two nights). I also went with Ming in 2009. We couchsurfed there which was really cool because the guys we stayed with obviously knew a lot about the city and their surrounding neighborhood. Berlin is also very cool too. It seemed very youthful and hip to me. Anyways, I’m very jealous of your trip even if it was a short one. Glad you had a nice time!

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      Paris is so. so. so amazing. I really think it deserves all the hype and lives up to its name. It’s just an amazing plce.

      Have you been to Ireland? How is it there? That’s my next dream trip (UK, Ireland, Scotland)…

      Wow you went with Ming to Paris!?!?! How romantic!!! That’s my dream, to go there with Richard someday… There’s just something about the place that screams ‘romance.’

      How are you doing back in the States!?

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