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First-Time Travel in Europe

With Two Months and Plenty of Energy This Is the Trip I’d Take

Rick Steves in Arles, France.
Rick at the Arena in Arles. Some of the best Roman ruins anywhere are in the south of France.

Let’s assume you have two months, plenty of energy, and a desire to see as much of Europe as is reasonable. Fly into London — a manageable, English-speaking starting point — and travel around Europe with a 2-month Eurailpass. Budgeting for a $900 round-trip ticket to London, around $1,300 for a two-month first-class Eurailpass, and $100 a day for room, board, and sightseeing, the entire trip will cost about $8,200. You can do it for less by staying at hostels, making the most of picnics, and traveling by bus or second-class trains.

If I were planning my first European trip and wanted to see as much as I comfortably could in two months (and I had the experience I now have to help me plan), this is the trip I’d take.

London and Sidetrips (5 days)

London is Europe’s great entertainer; it’s wonderfully historic. Get your bearings on a "hop-on, hop-off" orientation bus tour from the park in front of Victoria Station. Give the London Eye Ferris Wheel a spin and tour the spiffed-up British Museum. Every day will be busy and each night filled with a pub and a play.

Spend your remaining time in the English countryside: Bath, the Cotswolds, York, and the university city of Cambridge. But the Continent beckons. Paris is only three hours away by Eurostar train (15 trains per day).

Paris (3 days)

Ascend the Eiffel Tower to survey a Paris studded with architectural gems and historical one-of-a-kinds. Take a walk around Paris’ biggies. From the Latin Quarter, head to Notre Dame, the deportation monument to Nazi victims, and Sainte-Chapelle. Take the Pont-Neuf bridge over to the Samaritaine department store for a self-serve lunch and a great rooftop view. Stroll through the Tuileries Gardens and up the Champs-Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe. Be sure to experience the Louvre, Orsay Museum (Impressionism), the Rodin Museum, Napoleon’s Tomb, a jazz club, and Latin Quarter nightlife. Spend an evening on Montmartre soaking in the spiritual waters of the Sacré-Coeur and browsing among the tacky shops and artists of the Place du Tertre.

Women reading a guidebook in Paris, France in front of the Arc de Triomphe.
Paris Arc: The historic Arc de Triomphe, a good guidebook, and the excitement of Paris — the perfect mix.

Take a sidetrip to Europe’s greatest palace, Louis XIV’s Versailles, or hartres with its great Gothic cathedral. Start your Eurail-pass when you leave Paris (it doesn’t work in Great Britain). Take the overnight train to Madrid (14 hours), or take a detour: Loire Valley (2 days). On the way to Spain, explore the dreamy châteaux of France’s Loire Valley. Make Amboise your headquarters. Consider an all-day bus tour of the châteaux.

Spain and Portugal (12 days)

Madrid (2 days)

On arrival, reserve your train out. Reservations on long trains are required in Spain (and Norway), even with a Eurailpass. Take a taxi or the subway to Puerto del Sol to find a central hotel. Bullfights (in summer), shopping, and museums will fill your sunny days. Madrid’s three essential sights are the Prado Museum (Goya, El Greco, Velázquez, Bosch), Reina Sofia (Guernica), and the Royal Palace (one of Europe’s most lavish interiors).

From Madrid, side-trip to Toledo (60 minutes by train, bus, or shared taxi). Save a day for this perfectly preserved historic capital, home of El Greco and his masterpieces. Back in Madrid, take the night train to Lisbon (about 10 hours).

Lisbon (2 days)

Portugal’s friendly capital, can keep a visitor busy for many days. Its highlight is the Alfama. This salty old sailors’ quarter is a photographer’s delight. You’ll feel rich here in Europe’s bargain basement. Side-trip to Sintra for its eclectic Pena Palace and mysterious ruined Moorish castle. Circle south for a 2-day stop on Portugal’s south coast, the Algarve (train to Lagos, about 6 hours). Settle down in Salema, the best beach village on the south coast of Portugal. Cross into Andalucía for flamenco, hill towns, and Sevilla.

Sevilla and Andalucía (3 days)

After strolling the paseo of Sevilla, the city of flamenco, head for the hills and explore Andalucía’s Route of the Whitewashed Hill Towns. Arcos de la Frontera is a good home base. Ride the speedy AVE train back to Madrid. Fly or catch the night train to Barcelona (2 days). Spend a couple of days touring the Picasso Museum, relaxing, shopping, and exploring the Gothic Quarter. Then catch a night train to Arles, France (about 11 hours).

Provence (2 days)

Your best home base for Provence is Arles. Ramble among Roman ruins in Arles (amphitheater) and Nîmes (Pont du Gard bridge). Tour the Papal Palace in Avignon.

Most of the Riviera is crowded, expensive, and stressful. But if you’re set on a Riviera beach, Nice is where the jet set lies on rocks. Tour Nice’s great Chagall Museum and kick back on the coast.

Next, dive into Italy.

Italy (12 days)

Cinque Terre (2 days)

You will find pure Italy in the Cinque Terre — five sleepy, traffic-free little coastal villages between Genoa and Pisa.

Florence (1 day)

Europe’s Renaissance art capital, is packed in the summer but worth the headaches.

Hill Towns of Tuscany and Umbria (2 days) are where dreams of Italy are fulfilled. Visit Siena and Civita di Bagnoregio (near Orvieto).

Rome (3 days)

Devote your first day to Classical Rome: Tour the Colosseum, Forum, Capitol Hill (and its museum), and Pantheon. Linger away the evening at Piazza Navona. Tartufo ice cream is mandatory. For your second day, visit Vatican City and St. Peter’s (climb the dome), and tour the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel. Spend your third morning at Ostia Antica, ancient Rome’s seaport (like Pompeii, but just a subway ride away from Rome). In downtown Rome, visit Piazza Barberini for its Bernini fountain and Cappuccin crypt (thousands of bones in the first church up Via Veneto). Have dinner on atmospheric Campo dei Fiori. Explore the Trastevere neighborhood, where yesterday’s Rome lives out a nostalgic retirement.

Then take a train to Venice (about 7 hours, night trains sometimes available).

Venice (2 days)

Grab a front seat on boat #82 for an introductory tour down the Grand Canal. The Accademia Gallery showcases the best Venetian art. Tour the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s, and catch the view from the Campanile bell tower. Then wander, leave the tourists, and get as lost as possible. Remember, you're on an island and you can't fall off. Catch the night train to Vienna (about 8 hours).

Vienna (2 days)

Savor the Old World elegance of Hapsburg Vienna, Paris’ eastern rival. This grand capital of the mighty Hapsburg Empire is rich in art history, Old World charm, and elegance. Side-trip east for a look at Prague.

Prague (2 days)

Wander the lively streets of Prague, a magnificently preserved city just five hours from Vienna by train.

Salzburg (1 day)

Mozart’s gone, but you’ll find his chocolate balls everywhere. Baroque Salzburg, with its music festival and Sound of Music delights, is touristy in a way most love.

Tirol and Bavaria (2 days)

Tour "Mad" King Ludwig’s fairy-tale castle at Neuschwanstein and Bavaria’s heavenly Wies Church. Visit the Tirolean town of Reutte and its forgotten — unforgettable — hill-crowning, ruined castles.

Switzerland (3 days)

For the best of the Swiss Alps, establish a home base in rugged Berner Oberland, south of Interlaken. The traffic-free and quiet village of Gimmelwald in Lauterbrunnen Valley is everything an Alp-lover could possibly want. Switzerland’s best big city is Bern and best small town is Murten. Europe’s most scenic train ride is across southern Switzerland from Chur to Martigny.

Germany (7 days)

Munich (2 days)

The capital of Bavaria, has a great palace, museums, the world’s best street singers, and beer halls with huge mugs of brew, bigger pretzels, and even bigger beer maids! The Hofbräuhaus is the most famous (near Marienplatz in the old town center).

The Romantic Road bus tour (1 day) is a handy way to get from Munich to Frankfurt. Roll through the heart of medieval Germany, stopping for visits at Dinkelsbühl and the always-popular queen of quaint German towns, Rothenburg. Consider an overnight stop or head straight to the Rhine.

Rhine/Mosel River Valleys and Köln (2 days)

Take a Rhine cruise from Bingen to Koblenz to enjoy a parade of old castles. The best hour of the cruise is from Bacharach to St. Goar. In St. Goar, hike up to the Rheinfels castle. Cruise along the sleepy Mosel Valley and tour Cochem’s castle, Trier’s Roman ruins, and the impressive medieval castle, Burg Eltz. From Köln, catch the night train (about 8 hours) to Germany’s capital — ever-vibrant Berlin, capital of a united Germany, with its great art, world-class museums, and stunning Reichstag dome, is worth two busy days. Then catch the night train to Copenhagen (about 8 hours).

Scandinavia (8 days)

Finish your continental experience with a blitz tour of the Scandinavian capitals: Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Oslo (see sidebar). Then catch the night train from Copenhagen south to Amsterdam (about 14 hours).

Amsterdam (2 days)

The Dutch Golden Age sparkles in Amsterdam’s museums. If you prefer a small-town home base, day-trip into Amsterdam from nearby Haarlem. You’ll discover great side-trips in all directions.

After touring crazy Amsterdam and biking through the tulips, you can get to England via a cheap flight (1 hour), the train (7–11 hours via the Chunnel), or boat (about 11 hours). Or, easier still, consider avoiding the return to London by flying out of Amsterdam (arrange this open-jaw flight before you leave home).

This 61-day Whirlwind Tour is just a sampler. There’s plenty more to see, but I can’t imagine a better first two months in Europe. I itch just thinking about this itinerary.

Related Topics
Back Door Travel with Rick Steves
Budget Travel

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