The ultimate backpacker guide to Europe
Europe is a backpacker’s paradise; vibrant cities, pristine beaches and impressive national parks all keep travellers coming back. The continent’s mixed climate makes it a year-round destination, whether it’s a sun-drenched summer or a snowy winter you’re after. Not to mention its dependable transit system which makes hopping between countries a total breeze.
Yet there’s a lot to consider before a trip to Europe. Its wonder lies in its diversity – but that means there are a lot of decisions to be made. To help you make them, here’s our complete guide to backpacking Europe.
- Best time to visit Europe
- Travelling around Europe
- Hostels in Europe
- How much does it cost to travel Europe?
- Places to visit in Europe
- European culture and customs
- European food
- Europe travel advice
Best time to visit Europe
From sun-baked Spain to the often crisper climes of Scandinavia, Europe’s weather is varied and changeable. The best time to visit depends on what part of the continent you’re headed to and the experiences you’re after.
Do you want to bask on a beach, sight-see in a humming city, or go in search of some snow?
Generally speaking, most European cities are best explored in April–May and September–October. Usually, these months will offer the best value for money and the most moderate temperatures, and the top sights will be a little quieter too. In spring, the continent is at its blooming best, with kaleidoscopic tulip fields in the Netherlands and lilac lavender meadows in Provence. In the later months, carpets of autumn foliage turn Europe orange and gold.
Summers in popular cities such as Barcelona and Rome, and even Prague and Budapest, can be very sticky indeed (temperatures often exceed 30°C). If you do choose to travel from June through to August, slick on plenty of sunscreen, guzzle lots of water and don’t forget your hat.
Alternatively, strike north. Many parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland benefit from near constant daylight throughout high summer. In Iceland especially, darkness barely falls from May through to August, with the sun setting for a mere four hours or so. This means comfortable temperatures of around 15-20°C, and a greater chance of spotting wildlife such as whales and puffins.
Parts of the continent can be utterly charming in winter too. If you’ve got your heart set on a snowy expedition, the Nordic countries once again deliver. With knee-knocking temperatures reaching well below freezing in some parts of Sweden, Norway and Finland, you’ll need to come prepared with lots of winter woollies. But it’s worth it for activities such as husky sledding, snowmobiling and the chance to glimpse the elusive northern lights.
Glittering festive markets in cities such as Prague, Tallinn and Bucharest are also worth travelling for – and they’ll be a whole lot quieter than their Western counterparts (those in Strasbourg, Munich and Vienna, for example). These markets generally begin in mid-November or early December and run right through to the New Year.
Christmas market in Tallinn, Estonia
There are plenty of other European holidays and festivals you can plan your travels around too. Pretty much every month offers a unique reason to explore some pocket of the continent:
There’s the Carnival of Venice, just before Lent, in which thousands take to the city streets in elaborate masks and enjoy parties and masquerade balls.
In Ireland, Dublin’s St Patrick’s Day festivities on March 17th are legendary – and rightly so. The raucous celebrations include a parade and heaving pubs, while green faces and hats abound.
A little later on, in August, is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival: a three-week jamboree of comedy, theatre, music, dance and more. This one often coincides with the Spanish La Tomatina: a quirky little festival at the end of summer, in which the folks in Buñol, Valencia, pelt each other with tomatoes.
Germans love their beer, and there’s no better time to soak it up than in autumn, at Munich’s Oktoberfest. Beer-lovers line wooden benches in giant tents in the Bavarian city, supping brews and feasting on Bratwurst.
If you’re a music fan, there’s something for you too. There are festivals dedicated to jazz (think France’s Jazz a Vienne in June/July); techno (Croatia’s Sonus Festival in August); folk music (Wales’ Green Man Festival, also in August) and more. A couple of the most lauded are Somerset’s Glastonbury Festival, arguably the most famous in the world; Benicàssim, a lively festival on the Spanish coast catering to a huge range of musical tastes and Serbia’s EXIT festival. The latter’s previous headliners include huge acts such as David Guetta and The Killers.
Remember though, that travel over any of these dates will take some extra planning. The festivities mean rooms and restaurants book up quickly, prices will be elevated across the board and everything will be a lot busier, so bear this in mind before you start shopping for a new tent.
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Travelling around Europe
Europe’s transport system is wide-reaching, reliable and generally very clean and comfortable. It’s not always easy on the pocket, though, and it can end up swallowing hefty chunks of your budget if you don’t plan ahead.
An Interrail pass is a great way to visit multiple countries by train, and sometimes bus or ferry too. Thirty countries are included in total, and there are oodles of different routes you can follow.
First, you must choose from a range of passes: the right one for you will depend on how much country-hopping you plan to do. Are you keen to cover as much ground as possible, or would you prefer to really get to grips with a single destination? If it’s the former, opt for the Interrail Global Pass; if it’s the latter, the One Country Pass is best.
If you’re 27 or under, a month-long Interrail pass with no restrictions will set you back about £470 (if you’re over 27, you’re looking at closer to £580). To bring the cost down, choose a pass with a few more limitations – for example, you could opt for a pass that allows for 15 days’ travel within a month-long period, and pay around £100 less.
@robsdyer – Slovenia
The route you take, depending on your travel allowance, is really up to you – but some journeys are more popular and Interrail has some pre-planned itineraries you can follow. Their ‘Classic Route’ zips from Amsterdam in the Netherlands, to Lake Bled in Slovenia, taking in Berlin, Vienna, Budapest and more along the way. Those on a budget could opt for their ‘Shoestring Adventure’: an Eastern European odyssey stretching from Kraków, Poland to Dubrovnik, Croatia and covering Bucharest, Sofia and Belgrade en route too.
For travellers from the Americas, US-based Rail Europe is another great provider. You can book individual journeys with operators such as Eurostar or purchase a full rail pass from them. Pick from a range of single or multi-country options: the price of the former starts at $60 (for train travel around central Scotland), while the latter begins at $91 (and covers several countries in the Balkans).
But trains are not the only option. Though they’re often slower and a little less comfortable, buses can be a really affordable way of getting around. Routes criss-cross the continent, and Eurolines brings together both international and national services – it covers more than 50 destinations, including hotspots like London, Paris and Berlin. Prices are dependent on the season, so keep an eye on their website.
Though Europe’s public transport system takes some beating, a rental car can give you some extra freedom if you really want to get out into the sticks. Cartrawler has a variety of deals depending on your needs. Remember, though, that due to parking restrictions in some cities, having a car on your European adventure could sometimes be more hassle than it’s worth. If you ever hop into a cab, ensure it is marked and that the meter is running or you’ve agreed a price before you set off to avoid overpaying.
Aside from getting to the continent in the first place, it’s rare that you’ll need to travel by air. Given flying is often the costliest form of transport, we suggest you plan your travels overland if possible. If you’re making a journey that requires a flight (from Paris to Stockholm for example) opt for a budget carrier to keep costs under control: airlines such as Norwegian Air, Ryanair and EasyJet offer very affordable flights indeed. Adding hold luggage to the flights often bumps up the cost, so make sure you check this before booking.
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Hostels in Europe
Europe has no shortage of fantastic hostels, catering to everyone from solo travellers to bigger backpacking groups.
Amsterdam has some of the quirkiest, and rates start from as little as £15 (about €17) per night for a dorm room. Flying Pig is one of the most talked-about chains in the city, with hostels Downtown, Uptown and beside the seaside. If you want to be in the heart of the action, the Downtown location is best: expect bright interiors, a bustling bar and plenty of fellow travellers to make friends with.
In pricier cities such as London and Paris, hostels are a great bet too, and you’ll find plenty of options to suit smaller budgets. Wombat’s City Hostel London is one of the city’s most stylish, with a brick-walled bar and a comfy lounge area. You’ll find it in London’s Whitechapel neighbourhood, famed for its brilliant galleries and fantastic curry houses. Prices for a dorm bed here depend on the season, but you can find them for around £20 per night.
For an even cheaper stay, scope out Clink78. Private rooms, plus mixed and female-only dorms, are available at this converted courthouse in the central area of Kings Cross. Here you’ll be in easy reach of the Eurostar, which leaves from London St Pancras, and you can secure a night’s stay in a dorm room from £17 per night. You probably won’t spend much time in the room though, since the basement ClashBAR pulses until 2am.
In Paris, the HipHopHostels chain is well regarded and their welcoming abodes can be found across the city. Prices start from as little as £13 (€14.50) per night, with standout locations in Montmartre and the historic Latin Quarter. Paris can be a blowout city, so the more you can save on accommodation, the better.
Though a little more reasonable than Paris and London, Rome can easily set you back a tidy sum too – but its plethora of clean, comfortable hostels will save you some pennies. Generator Rome is widely considered one of the best. With its uber-modern interiors and boutiquey lounge, this hostel is one of the chicest in the city – but that’s barely reflected in the price tag, with costs per night starting at around £19 (€22).
Generator Rome hostel
If you’ve set your sights on Germany, the cities of Berlin and Munich are a haven for hostels too. The Circus Hostel in Mitte, Berlin (beginning at around £18 or €20 per night) is a winner with a micro-brewery on site and a generous buffet breakfast to kick off a day’s exploring.
To the south, Munich deserves your attention too. If you want to be smack bang in the middle of the action, Jaeger’s Munich is for you. Fashionable and friendly, the hostel is in a city-centre location which definitely comes in handy during autumn time when the festivities of Oktoberfest are taking place just a 15 minute walk away. Prices are from £13 (€14.50) per night.
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How much does it cost to travel Europe?
Backpacking in Europe doesn’t have to break the bank – there are plenty of ways to keep costs down on your travels. Being savvy about which destinations you visit, as well as where you stay, eat and drink, will really help you save some cash.
Even some of the most expensive cities in Europe like London and Stockholm can be explored on the cheap. As a general money-saving rule, avoid the tourist spots when choosing where to eat. Dining at a restaurant in the middle of a main tourist centre, London’s Leicester Square for example, will sink a fair few pounds – but slink down a side street and you’re sure to get your meal at a better price (it’s likely to be tastier too).
When on the continent, seek out Rome’s basement trattorias and Madrid’s alleyway tapas bars for big flavour and small price tags. Street-food vendors will also often serve up delicious local delicacies for lower prices.
It’s worth remembering as well that many of Europe’s top attractions are free to enter: London’s National Gallery, the Louvre in Paris (on the first Sunday of each month) and many opulent churches and state buildings across the continent.
Take advantage of the various free walking tours across Europe’s capitals and big cities. Sandeman’s New Europe Tours lead groups through cities including Barcelona, Berlin, London, Lisbon, Copenhagen and many more.
Wherever you explore in Europe, think carefully about your accommodation and transport. Travelling by bus is nearly always cheaper than by train or plane, while hostels are the most budget-friendly place to hang your hat. When you’re in a city, make use of public transport; using metros and buses is not only more economical than shelling out for pricey taxis, but it can show you a whole other side to a place that you might not otherwise discover.
A specific daily budget can depend on a lot: in particular, when and where in Europe you’re travelling. If you’re headed west, to the likes of Paris, you’ll probably need to set aside at least €75 per day – especially if you plan to eat dinner out.
If you want to make your money travel as far as possible, plan your escape to include some more affordable destinations. Avoid Scandinavia and western Europe in favour of the east: you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck in countries such as Albania, Hungary and the Czech Republic. In Prague, for example, you can get a pint of beer for as little as €1.50 (that’s around 38.50 Czech Koruna and £1.30 in sterling). Meanwhile, in Budapest, Hungary, €50 should be enough for a three-course meal for two if you skip the main squares.
Beer in Prague, Czech Republic
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Places to visit in Europe
Whatever you want from your travels, you’ll almost certainly find it in Europe: powdery white beaches, world-class art galleries, lush green mountains and historic cobbled streets – this magnificent continent has it all in abundance.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the travel possibilities are endless, and you’ll need to come back time and time again to really make the most of what the continent has to offer. But, depending on your preferences, this handful of European backpacking routes (based on a minimum three-week trip) and destination ideas, should get you inspired:
For the big hitters
If Europe’s biggest sights are top of your priority list, then West is best. Each Western European capital city has so much to offer, and it’s better to spend ample time in each than to rush between them too quickly.
Begin in London, where you can ogle Buckingham Palace, duck in and out of the many free museums, and recharge in the green Royal Parks. Spend at least two days here, preferably more, going beyond the city centre to explore quirkier neighbourhoods like Shoreditch and Brixton to get a local’s perspective on the city.
Once you’ve inhaled the Big Smoke, jump on the Eurostar and head for Paris. The French capital should eat up another three days of your schedule. Visit the big sights (the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Sacré-Cœur), of course, but make time to simply stroll here too. Paris seems purpose built for wayward wandering, with cobbled alleyways trailing off from bustling squares and pocket-sized coffee shops around every corner. You’ll find the hippest locals in the Canal Saint-Martin neighbourhood, eating street food down by the waterside.
Next, strike northeast towards Germany – taking the train will be the most comfortable and quickest way to travel. Make a pitstop in Brussels (for Belgian waffles in nothing else) or in Amsterdam (for canals and quirky cafés) if you wish, before carrying on towards Berlin.
Berlin is both a hotbed of contemporary creativity and a preserver of the past. Get your art fix in cutting-edge spaces such as the Contemporary Fine Arts centre, or take in the murals at the East Side Gallery, a sprawling, decorated section of the Berlin Wall that’s officially the longest open-air gallery on Earth.
@jeremias_182 – East Side Gallery, Berlin
If it’s a rainy day (or even if it’s not), make a beeline for Museum Island. This five-strong museum complex, includes the Altes Museum, focusing on Classical and ancient history, and the Pergamonmuseum, one of the world’s leading archaeological institutions.
From here, journey south towards Vienna, Austria’s crowning jewel and capital city. There are few better ways to spend your time here than in a café eating cake. Family-owned and run, Hawelka is one of the best. Make sure you order the Sachertorte, a chocolately cake topped with apricot jam – we promise you won’t regret it. Foodies shouldn’t miss Naschmarkt: a buzzing open-air market, it brims with produce and is packed with pint-sized restaurants serving up local delicacies.
Finish your country-hopping in Italy. You could spend weeks here alone, so choose your destinations based on your passions and preferences. Intent on finding the country’s best pizza? Head to Naples. Dreaming of the sea? Weave your way along the Amalfi Coast. Want to step back in time? Get lost in Rome’s ancient ruins.
For first-time visitors, Rome will likely be high on the hit list. Relive the past in the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and Roman Forum (all three are included in one ticket), before heading below ground. Many don’t know that Rome’s underbelly is filled with historic treasures from catacombs to ancient churches (the extra layers beneath the Basilica San Clemente are particularly impressive).
Return to ground level in time for an aperitivo: the welcome tradition of a pre-dinner drink (such as vermouth or Negroni) paired with local cheeses, olives or nuts.
Europe on a shoestring
If you want to be a little kinder to your wallet, focus your travels on central and eastern Europe. Not only will you find some of the best European cities here, you’ll also get a lot more for your money.
Make your first stop Prague, in the Czech Republic. Get your bearings with one of the free walking tours that leaves the Old Town Square daily, before peeling off to discover the city for yourself. Pick up a trdelník – a kind of funnel-shaped pastry filled with ice-cream – and don’t miss the beer museum: it chronicles the history of brewing in the city and beyond and finishes up with a tasting flight. Make time, too, to explore the student area of Žižkov, southeast of the Old Town, with its bohemian shops, art spaces and bountiful pubs.
The Czech Republic’s countryside is often overlooked – but those who venture into the country’s backyard will be rewarded with fairy-tale castles, intricate cave systems, roaring falls and rambling mountain ranges. The best way to explore the wilds is by hiring a car. Carve out time, in particular, for Bohemian Switzerland National Park (around 2 hours’ drive from Prague) – it’s remote, but the natural arches, verdant forestland and dramatic crags are worth the trip.
From the Czech Republic, journey east to Kraków, Poland. Peek at the Gothic architecture in the Old Town, before chilling out in the Kazimierz neighbourhood, with its murals and street food (we love bright green burger truck Streat Slow Food). Also make the two-hour trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a former Nazi concentration camp, for a sobering dose of history.
Old Town Centre – Krakow, Poland
Next travel towards Budapest, Hungary (bus is best for this leg of the journey). Feel any travel stress seep away as you bathe in one of the city’s many spas: Gellert is certainly the grandest, but the Széchenyi Thermal Baths are larger, with three outdoor pools. Once the sun sets, head to a ruin bar: these abandoned, derelict buildings turned quirky watering holes are the city’s USP. The best is vast Szimpla Kert, in the Jewish Quarter, the first of Budapest’s ruin bars. Expect motley furniture and artworks and plenty of plants. Local favourite Racskert, a former car park, is another lively pick.
Make your last stop Slovenia. Though capital Ljubljana is worth a visit, the countryside is the real draw here. You may well have seen photographs of pristine Bled, with its castle, lake and church-topped islet – and it’s just as pretty in person. The stunning views are best taken in from a kayak on the water.
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Europe’s top destinations for sun, sea and sand
Beach bums rejoice: there are plenty of seaside spots in Europe that you can shoe-horn into a trip.
Of course, there’s Spain. If you want to combine a city break with a fly-and-flop stop, Barcelona should be top of your list. Ogle at Gaudís masterpieces (from Park Güell to the Sagrada Familia), feast on tapas for lunch, then take a siesta on the sand (but be sure to find a shady spot and don’t forget your sunscreen). Your beach day is unlikely to be rained off as the city enjoys more than 300 days of sunshine per year. We like those odds!
Portugal is often overlooked in favour of the Spanish coast – but that’s a shame. Ditch the busy southern beaches of the Algarve (beautiful as they are) for those in northern and central Portugal. The waters may be a little chillier, but strands such as Moreiró Beach are wilder and often a little quieter than their southern counterparts. There’s the added bonus, too, of being closer to the charming city of Porto as well as Lisbon, Portugal’s happening capital.
@natalie_campbell_ – Lisbon, Portugal
Island-hopping in Croatia is another great – and relaxing – way to enjoy some beach time. From the historic city of Dubrovnik, with its walled Old Town and buzzing city beach, you can sail out to the island of Kor?ula, with its Medieval buildings and rolling olive groves. Seek out quiet, rocky coves and secluded sandy bays as you sail, and whichever island you end up on, order the catch of the day for dinner.
Searching for the sun?
Europe’s top destinations for a Nordic escape
Nordic countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland) can be expensive but, if you’ve got budget to spare, the magic of northern Europe is worth discovering.
Depending on whether you come in winter or summer, you’ll have a drastically different experience. In winter, embrace the cosy concept of hygge in Denmark’s colourful capital, Copenhagen, or chase the aurora borealis in the wilds of the Faroe Islands (make sure you’ve got the proper gear, as conditions here can become pretty extreme).
In summertime, Sweden is a delight. Get out onto the water and explore Stockholm’s 30,000-island-strong archipelago (you can rent kayaks from various outfitters in the city), spotting bright fishing huts along the way.
Iceland has rocketed in popularity over recent years, and it’s not difficult to see why. Its otherworldly landscapes, bountiful wildlife and trendy capital are a perfect recipe for the adventurous backpacker.
@dfesar – chasing waterfalls in Iceland
Base yourself in Reykjavík: top city attractions include the rocket-shaped Hallgrímskirkja church and (come summertime) the man-made Nauthólsvík beach. There’s also a smattering of health-conscious foodie spots (think canteen-style, veggie-friendly GLÓ) and plenty of eccentric night venues (Kaffibarinn is the place to be seen).
From here you can make trips out to the country’s natural wonders. Crowd-pleasers include the geothermal Blue Lagoon and the so-called ‘Golden Circle’, which you can explore on various guided tours if you wish. The latter encompasses the striking Gullfoss waterfall, the Great Geysir and the stark stone landscapes of Þingvellir National Park.
To shake off the crowds, focus your travels further west: the Víðgelmir lava cave and the little village of Reykholt are highlights.
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Europe’s most underrated spots
There’s a lot to see in Europe and that inevitably means that some brilliant destinations fly under the radar. Here are four underappreciated places you should build into your itinerary.
Albania: The unspoilt beaches, scenic walking trails and an up-and-coming capital (Tirana) are just a few reasons to give this Balkan country a chance. The trail through the rugged Accursed Mountains, (don’t let the name put you off), is an exciting route for seasoned hikers.
Serbia: The Serbs know how to party. Belgrade is the perfect place for night owls and the city’s ‘splavs’ or floating clubs on the Sava River are the place to be after dark. Student-heavy Novi Sad also has heaps of bars and pubs (our top pick is local favourite Martha’s Pub). Serbia is laced with historical sites from preserved monasteries to ornate churches too.
Montenegro: For a slow travel experience, make for Adriatic bolthole Montenegro. The jewel in its underrated crown is Kotor, a mountain-edged town with terracotta-topped buildings tumbling towards the bay. Schedule a visit to Durmitor National Park as well: this glacial park is full of lakes, lush woodland and hiking routes for beginners and daredevils alike.
Estonia: Capital city Tallinn may be known for its cheap beer and raucous nightlife, but prepare to be charmed by its cobbled streets and quirky cafes. Venture a little further afield and you’ll find that exploring Estonia’s enchanted countryside is like stepping foot into a fairytale.
European culture and customs
For the most part, Europe is a safe and stable continent, and politics are unlikely to affect your travels in any meaningful way. One significant factor for European and international travellers here is ‘freedom of movement’.
Many of the countries you may visit during your trip will be part of the European Union (EU): this means they have many unified laws and agreements including, for the most part, ‘freedom of movement’.
There are currently 28 member states in the EU, and there are also 26 states that form part of the ‘Shengen area’: the latter means that EU residents, business travellers and international tourists alike can move freely between these countries without border checks. The countries forming part of the Shengen area include the travel hot spots of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Greece.
There are also several countries that are part of the Shengen area, but are not part of the EU: these include Iceland and Norway. If you secure a visa to visit any Shengen area country, you can automatically travel to other countries within the agreement too.
Equally, there are countries within the European Union that have opted out of the Shengen area agreement: the United Kingdom and Ireland, for example. This means international travellers (even those coming from Europe) will be subject to some border checks.
However, in June 2016, Britain voted to leave the European Union, and ever since this so-called ‘Brexit’ has taken up much media space and international attention. Negotiations between Britain and the EU are underway (leading up to the current scheduled leaving date of March 2019), and it’s unclear what the final deal will be. Nevertheless, once Britain’s exit from the EU is completed, it’s likely that those tourists visiting the country will be subject to more stringent border checks and may face other restrictions.
European countries that are not in the EU include Switzerland, Ukraine and Turkey.
Turkey has experienced political tensions in recent years. A failed coup in 2016 saw dangerous conflict on the streets, and there have been gun and bomb attacks in Istanbul and Ankara. Currently the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to some parts of the country, including the areas bordering Syria, and warn of heightened risks of terror attacks in other areas, including the aforementioned cities. They do, however, concede that most tourist visits here are “trouble free”. If you do choose to travel to Turkey, exercise caution and expect to see a heightened police presence.
The FCO also warns of a risk of terror attacks against Western countries including France, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium – though again, they state that huge numbers of visitors pass through these countries each year without issue.
Other recent political conflicts in Europe include the ‘Catalan crisis’ (in simple terms, Catalonia’s demand for independence from Spain). Fortunately this is unlikely to impact your visit to Spain unless your trip coincides with a major demonstration.
Each country in Europe has its own distinct cultural heritage, and it is this diversity that makes exploring the continent such a joy.
Whether you’re seeking out Van Gogh originals in Amsterdam, swaying to folk music at a Serbian festival, admiring the world-famous architecture in Barcelona or dancing to techno music at a basement club in Berlin, you’ll find a cultural activity to suit your preferences.
@oneweekin – La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
European music is the continent’s beating heart, and wherever you go you’ll find a soundtrack to your trip. The root of Europe’s music history lies in the Classical genre, from Bach to Beethoven, and many European cities boast regal opera theatres. The Berliner Philharmonie concert hall, the Vienna State Opera and the Prague State Opera all offer affordable tickets to various performances.
If opera’s not your thing, there are plenty of other ways to dance to Europe’s beat. Folk music offers a glimpse into the stories of the past, particularly in Eastern Europe. Festivals are one of the best ways to experience this tradition, and the modest prices of most will be music to your ears. Look out for tickets to festivals such as Prague Folklore Days and Slovenia’s Jurjevanje Folklore Festival.
Beyond this, Europe has borrowed musical genres from the world over, and you’ll find concerts and festivals dedicated to rock, pop, heavy metal, techno, jazz, Hip-Hop, R ‘n’ B and everything in between. Major festivals include England’s Glastonbury – a modern, mixed-genre jamboree with big-name headliners from all over the world – and, in Eastern Europe, Budapest’s Sziget, a wild city festival packed full of musical superstars, art and theatre performances.
Literary greats lace Europe’s history too. There’s England’s Bard, William Shakespeare; Romantic poets John Keats and Percy Shelley; and France’s Marcel Proust, who wrote In Search of Lost Time, a bildungsroman considered one of the best novels of the 20th century. Then there’s influential German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and ancient Greece’s Homer, who wrote epic poems Odyssey and Iliad. The list goes on. If books are your bag, delving into Europe’s literary history will be a delight – you can do so at museums across the continent, from London’s Charles Dickens Museum to Athens’ National Library.
Some of the greatest artworks ever created have come out of Europe as well. From the sculptures of Ancient Greece and Rome to cutting-edge contemporary design and photography, Europe is a major destination for art-lovers. Whether you travel east or west, north or south, you’ll find a thriving creative scene.
Many art-loving travellers will flock to the Louvre in Paris to peer at the Mona Lisa, or to Florence to scope out Michelangelo’s David – but Europe’s underground galleries, street murals and artists’ studios are where you’ll really unearth the continent’s unique creative capacity. Seek them out for yourself, by peering down side streets and taking leaflets from independent cafés. Meanwhile, Kunstkraftwerk, a power station-turned-art-space in Leipzig, Germany, and Lisbon’s Underdog Gallery, which focuses on ‘urban-inspired’ contemporary art, are good places to start.
For a healthy dose of European culture that won’t blow your budget, check out our 50 free things to do in Europe.
Whichever part of Europe you end up in, you certainly won’t go hungry. Continental food is often grouped together, but in reality each individual country has its own delicious index of dishes. From belly-busting pizza and pasta in Italy to the meat-heavy dishes of Eastern Europe, this is a continent worth taking a bite of. Here are some dishes you shouldn’t miss:
In Britain: Traditional British food is hearty and gratifying – and it comes in plentiful portions. There are few more quintessentially British dishes than fish and chips. It’s best when the fish is flaky and the batter is crisp: enjoy your catch by the coast with salt-and-vinegar chips and a dollop of mushy peas.
Come Sunday, Brits herd towards the pub for a traditional roast – and whether you’re in a big city or a small town, you’ll easily find a solid Sunday dinner on your travels. Hole up in a snug boozer, then order succulent roast beef with all the trimmings, doused in thick gravy and washed down with a local brew.
In France: It may be well-known for fine-dining restaurants and delicate plates of food – but the national dish of France is something a little homelier. Pot-au-feu is a warming stew filled with spices, colourful veg and slow-cooked meat. Steak-frites (steak and chips) is another favourite – you’ll come across sumptuous versions of this dish in Belgium too.
Beyond these rustic staples, delicacies such as escargot (snails, usually smothered in garlic sauce) and cuisses de grenouille (frogs’ legs, deep fried or grilled, with a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of parsley) are still rife. Though pricey Michelin-starred establishments are plentiful, versions of these dishes can be found in more laid-back bistros and brasseries too. (We recommend relaxed, budget-friendly Le Petit Cler in Paris, for example).
If you’re looking for something simpler, you can’t go wrong with a soft baguette, purchased from a bakery and laden with market-fresh cheese.
In Germany: German traditional food is all about no fuss and plenty of flavour. Carnivores should eat well here, with schnitzel and currywurst the country’s signature dishes. For schnitzel, the meat (usually pork, but sometimes chicken) is tenderised, coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried until golden. It’s usually served up with crunchy slaw or sauerkraut.
Currywurst is another favourite. A kicking tomato sauce coats juicy bratwurst sausage, and the concoction is served alongside crispy fries. Konnopke’s Imbiss in Berlin serves up the best.
In Italy: The Italians know that simple ingredients go a long way, and a no-frills trattoria is the best place to get a true taste of the country. Rome’s Trattoria Monti never disappoints, though you’ll need to make a reservation.
Carbonara was invented in Rome, so you can’t leave the Eternal City without trying it. Spaghetti is tossed with just four ingredients: egg, pepper, pecorino (a type of hard cheese) and guanciale (cured pork jowl).
Naples, meanwhile, is the queen of pizza. Best when pulled bubbling from a wood-fired oven, Neapolitan pizza is traditionally Margherita-style, topped with zingy tomato sauce and mozzarella.
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, then Italy’s many gelato shops will surely satisfy. Soft scoops of pastel ice cream can be bought from parlours and street stalls across the country: one of the most lauded shops is La Carraia in Florence (where the sweet stuff was invented).
In Eastern Europe: The cuisine of Eastern and Central Europe is often underestimated – but it’s worth embracing. Highlights include goulash, a rich stew served across the region; go??bki, stuffed cabbage leaves traditional in Poland; and lángos, a deep-fried dough usually smothered in cheese and sour cream, dished up in Hungary.
Mediterranean food: While the countries of the Med have their own distinct cuisines, there are similarities between them. Mediterranean food is known for being light and fresh, with an abundance of fish, fruits and vegetables.
In Greece, be sure to try moussaka, a baked dish of layered mince meat, aubergines and tomato, topped with soft potato and creamy cheese. Dolmades – grape leaves filled with rice and rich tomato sauce – are another must-taste.
In Croatia, fish and seafood should be the order of the day. Look out for mussels buzara, a garlicky tomato stew.
Hungry yet? You might want to take a look at these:
Europe travel advice
As an international traveller, you must have a valid passport to visit Europe – it should also be valid for at least three months after you’ve left the country you’re travelling to. But even if you’re an EU national, it’s advisable that you carry some form of identification with you while journeying across European borders, should you need to show it upon request.
Ensure your passport is renewed before you set off so you don’t run into any difficulties en route. If your passport becomes out of date while you’re travelling – or it is lost or stolen – contact your embassy as soon as you can. It’s also wise to bring photocopies of your up-to-date documents on your travels in case any are misplaced.
How you renew your passport depends on the country you’re travelling from – each state has their own way of doing things. Sometimes it’s possible to renew your passport online, by filling out the relevant forms and paying a fee. This is true for UK travellers.
US travellers must renew their passports by mail – but if the passport was lost or stolen, you’re a first-time applicant, or your last passport was issued 15-plus years ago, you’ll need to go to your local “passport acceptance facility”. This may be a post office, library, government office or other official building. In Australia, too, you must apply for passport renewal in person. You can check the passport renewal policies for your particular country of residence on the relevant government website.
Depending on where you’re travelling from and to, you may also need a visa. A full list of countries whose residents require a visa to travel in Europe’s Shengen area can be found here. Once you have the required visa, you can travel freely between other Shengen-area countries. You’ll usually be able to stay for up to 90 days during a period of 180 days.
As previously explained, Britain is not part of the Shengen area, and you can use this handy tool on the British government website to determine if you’ll need a visa to travel here or not. Tourists from Japan, the USA, Australia and EU states, among others, are able to stay in the country for up to six months without a visa.
Currency in Europe
Many countries in Europe have adopted the Euro (€) – there are 100 cents to each Euro. Coins come in the value of €2, €1, 50c, 20c, 10c, 5c, 2c and 1c, while banknotes delineate €5, €10, €20, €50, €100, €200 and €500.
Some countries have not homogenised their currency: these include Britain (pounds), Sweden (kronas), Czech Republic (korunas), Switzerland (francs) and several more. All of these currencies are decimalised, so they’re pretty easy to get your head around once you begin to recognise the tender.
Solo travel in Europe
Travelling Europe alone is a unique experience, and the abundance of hostels, ease of transport and friendliness of locals means it’s a joy. The usual precautions apply, though: beware of pickpockets in busy areas and on public transport, and keep an eye on your most expensive items, such as cameras and smartphones.
Europe is favoured backpacker terrain, so you’re sure to meet like-minded people along the way. Prop yourself at your hostel bar, and don’t be afraid to start conversations with locals and fellow travellers alike – you may even find a companion for a leg of your journey.
Of course, since there’s so much to explore in Europe, not being tied to someone else’s itinerary has major advantages.
Planning a solo adventure?
Summer jobs in Europe
It’s not hard to find a summer job in Europe. Tourism is a major industry for most of the continent, and many companies will be on the lookout for temp workers throughout their busiest periods. You could wait tables in a hotel, help out at an activity camp or work shifts at a water park, for example. Many ski resorts also take on short-term workers during peak season. Sites such as seasonworkers.com bring together listings of temp jobs all over the world.
Teaching English as a foreign language is another popular form of summer employment, and you can find opportunities across Europe. Check out tefl.org.uk to find a placement that suits you.
Our takeaway tips for backpacking Europe
So, you’re all set. But here are a few last pointers for when you’re on the road.
Don’t stick within city limits
Inviting as Europe’s big cities are, the continent has little shortage of natural wonders, and making time for some of them will enhance your trip no end. From the tumbling hills of England’s South Downs to Croatia’s popping blue Plitvice Lakes, Europe’s countryside will leave you just as breathless as its cities.
Do as the locals do
The continent’s top sights are popular for a reason but, especially when it comes to eating and drinking, many under-the-radar spots are worth your time too. Try asking the bartender to recommend their favourite art gallery, or your waiter to share their favourite spot for a sundowner. They’ll likely send you on a path you hadn’t planned.
This goes for your itinerary timings too. In Spain, for example, locals like to take a siesta in the afternoon heat and eat their evening meal later on. Try doing the same – if you fall into local rhythms you’ll get an even better feel for the place.
Embrace overland travel
It’s a hackneyed idea, but it’s true: sometimes the journey is as important as the destination. As you see Europe’s incredible scenery zipping past you through a train window, this is a pretty hard sentiment to disagree with.
If you choose to fly between destinations, you’ll be missing out, and you’ll carve great chunks out of your budget too. Especially when out east, bus and train journeys between destinations can be long, so load up your phone with your favourite music or, better still, strike up a conversation with a fellow passenger. You might come by some extra travel tips.
Come prepared for the weather
Weather in some parts of the continent – particularly in Britain, France and swathes of central Europe – can be mercilessly changeable. Sunny skies can give out to rolling rain clouds in no time, so come prepared for the best and worst that the European weather can throw at you.
Go with the flow
It’s good to have plans, yes but the beauty of Europe lies in its diversity, and to appreciate this in full you may have to be flexible. Your most valued travelled memory could well end up being something you’d never considered before you learned about it on a train journey from Paris to Brussels. If you hear of an incredible festival that’s a bit out of your way, or fall so deeply in love with a city that you want to stay longer than planned, go for it! Travel is all about saying yes, and it’s a well known fact that spontaneous experiences often turn out to be the best.