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
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.”
The architecture. The history. The river flowing through the city.
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.
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.
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
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.
That is, until I reached the city center.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
And Finally, Brussels
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….
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).
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.
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).
Europe, I’ll be back
Europe, I hope I can see you again someday soon.
And maybe stay for the long run.