I was fortunate enough to spend time in 15 fabulous European countries in 2016 with many dear friends (both old and new). I visited countless museums, spent hours walking, a good amount of time cycling, tasted regional dishes, sampled local liquors, and attended cultural events. Although it’s nearly impossible to pick the “best” trips of 2016, I have done my best to choose the ones that really made an impression. Upon listing them, I realized that 3 out of the top 5 took place in Italy, so I decided the place the entire country of Italy in 1st place. I choose not to include Budapest (the pearl of Hungary) or the mountains of Slovakia on my list, since Hungary and Slovakia were my countries of residence in 2016, so those weren’t big trips as the others were. If you’re considering venturing to any of these locales in 2017, I have spelled out exactly why I found them to be so enchanting and special. You’re sure to have a great trip full of things to do should you choose any one of these fantastic destinations!
Why: I had several unforgettable adventures in Italy during 2016. Watching the sky explode into a rainbow of colors at sunset in Venice, soaking up the sunshine on the beach in Chiavari, finishing the full marathon in Milan, hiking the entirety of the Cinque Terre in one day, drinking morning cappuccinos on the ski slopes of Paganella, and kayaking on a Lake Como with Carlos were all special moments.
Italy offers a little bit of everything and something special for everyone. In March, the Paganella ski resort in the Italian Alps above Lake Garda still boasted excellent snow conditions and plenty of sunshine. Apres ski, the homemade pasta and pesto with local red wine completed the experience.
In April, the conditions were again perfect for the marathon in Milan, with clear skies and lots of local support along the route. After the race, there was plenty of time to begin seeing the locations of the 2016 Triennale, which I continued to visit in the summer. In mid July, Venice was packed with spectators for the fantastic fireworks show to celebrate Festa del Redentore. And in August, although the heat on the top of the Milan Duomo was stifling, the cooling breeze at Lake Como provided the perfect escape. There’s a reason I returned to Italy so many times in 2016 – it’s simply one of my favorite countries in the world, and every time I visit, I am reminded why it is such a special place.
- Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Why: I skipped Amsterdam during my 2012 European backpacking adventure because 1) I was worried about the costs in Northwestern Europe and 2) I wasn’t interested in the party girl reputation the city has. Although I was right about the costs, Amsterdam is an amazing city which shouldn’t be passed up. When my mom and her friend Laura invited me to join them in June, I had no idea that I would be entering into a long term relationship with the city nor that I’d start dating one of its inhabitants. We took a train out to Haarlem to see the Corrie Ten Boom house and drink beers in a brewery housed inside an old church. We took a tour of the house where Anne Frank lived. We enjoyed the sunshine on an open boat cruise.
We tried bitterballen and we drank Heineken at the Grasshopper. We visited the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum on the same day. And in between all of that I still managed to walk in Vondelpark with Carlos. Grab drinks at a bar overlooking the water. Go to dinner in the center and up to the DoubleTree Sky Lounge. Hold hands walking through the Jordaan. And like him so much that I returned to Amsterdam again in August, October, and December.
Not only do I have lots of beautiful memories with Carlos, my mom, and Laura in Amsterdam… but also Caitlin visited in August and Brianna came in October to enjoy biking and walking and sightseeing in one of my favorite cities in the world.
- Barcelona/ La Rioja, Spain
Why: Spain has a special place in my heart and my weeklong trip there in May did not disappoint. I traveled to Logrono, in the La Rioja region, to visit an old friend from my childhood. It was my first time in Logrono, and I absolutely loved the street of the tapas. Every evening, the bars on this street offer different specialty tapas which are full of flavor and are served with a glass of wine from the region. My awesome Couchsurfing host gave me a great tour of the street on the first night, as he works in a restaurant downtown.
Logroño is also a stop on the Camino de Santiago and the energy of the hikers trekking through town is palpable. One morning, I ran for about 6 miles on the trail just to get a feel for the spirit of those doing a pilgrimage and to take in the beautiful scenery surrounding Logrono. I also spent four days in Barcelona, visiting Gaudi’s unforgettable architectural monuments, playing sand volleyball, looking at fish in the aquarium, and joining the locals for the Night of Museums in the Gothic Quarter.
I met many interesting new friends, from the editor of an online travel blog, to the professional poker player at the Black Lab brewery, to karaoke star Manny Fresh, to students from many countries studying in the city, to Indian backpackers seeing the beach for the first time, and many more. Having new experiences in a new place with new people is the essence of what solo travel is all about; it changes your perspective, refreshes your worldview, and forces you to think about things in a new and different way. Essentially, invigorating.
- Bavaria, Germany
Why: Most of the time I spent in Bavaria in 2016 was in a small town close to the Austrian border called Kiefersfelden. That’s where my European lil sis and close friend Ami lives with her adorable dog, Spikey. Southern Bavaria is beautiful any time of year with many mountains and lakes and rivers.
Just a mile down the road from Ami’s house is the Hechtsee, a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains and forest. Walking with Ami and Spikey and Deuce on the trails around her house is a real highlight, but even when it was raining or Ami was busy studying, we still had a good time preparing vegan foods and exercising. Deuce and I started 2016 in Kiefersfelden, and I visited again in July and again in September for Oktoberfest. Shopping in Munich. Drinking local beer. Trying healthy vegan foods. Petting cats at the cat cafe.
Enjoying time with Ami and Helena. And Carlos also came to Bavaria in July. We headed to historic and quaint Rothenburg on de Tauber to walk around the old city walls and ride bikes for hours. For people who love being outdoors surrounded by beautiful nature and enjoying some of the world’s best beer after a long day walking or hiking or cycling, Bavaria is where to do it.
- Transylvania, Romania
Why: I debated putting this one on the list, because although I had a great time there… Transylvania is not for everyone. IF you are okay with experiencing mass poverty, shooing off stray dogs, and seeing the neglect of the Roma/ gypsy people which takes place in the countryside of Romania, then by all means, buy your plane ticket already. If you think you might be uncomfortable experiencing poverty on your holiday, choose another country. What’s great about Transylvania is that it remains largely undiscovered by Westernized mass tourism. But that doesn’t mean that it is lacking in attractions.
The center of Brasov is full of fantastic Romanian eateries and cafes which overflow into the central square during good weather and offer respite and a place to warm up during bad weather. A short bus ride takes you to Dracula’s castle and to dramatic Rasnov Fortress, perched high on a hill over a city which is currently working on renovating the street from the bus stop to the fortress to attract more visitors. Sibiu served as a European Capital of Culture in 2007 and receiving funding at that point to restore old buildings. Now, the historic area inside of the old town walls is fun to spend a day strolling through.
If you’re willing to get off the beaten path, Sighisoara is worth the trip, but I recommend to take a friend or your dog along to feel safer. Upon exiting the train station, I encountered several gypsies asking for money, but once inside of the old town walls, you won’t experience the poverty which exists in the city below. In the city walls you can visit Dracula’s birthplace, stop into arts and crafts stores selling local products, dine like a king on the cheap, climb to the church at the top of the covered staircase, or climb to the top of an old watch tower. I loved the colors, the foods, the complex history, the friendly people, and the sense of adventure when visiting Romania.
Why: Brussels was a nice surprise. This was my first time visiting Belgium and I was lucky enough to go there with Carlos and Brianna. The central square is picturesque during the daylight and glows at night as well. We took a Sandeman’s free walking tour to get acquainted with the city. If we would have had more time, I would have liked to stop into a few museums, but that’s another reason to return. We had some great beer, Belgian fries, and Belgian waffles. We also rented bikes and cycled to a small castle at Beerstel, where we also tasted some of the most amazing lasagna. Although Brussels has a historic center, it is also a thriving modern city that I would like to take some more time to explore in the future, along with other Belgian cities such as Bruges and Ghent.
Why: Copenhagen is a city which manages to feel trendy and happening and hipster all at once. Maybe it’s the posh design shops, the stylish locals, or the superior city planning and design. Maybe it’s the glint of the “Black Diamond” city library on the water, or the shine of the Little Mermaid statue in the sunlight. Walking in the colorful Nyhavn feels like being immersed in a painting. Cycling in the crowded bike lanes during rush hour while passing by countless parks and public spaces feels like existing in a city of the future. Taking a boat tour on the water adds mystique to the smaller canals. The hippie vibes from Freetown Christiana add an intrigue to an otherwise solemn and serious crowd of locals. Danes are known for having one of the shortest but continually most productive workweeks in the world, and they’re serious about working hard and playing hard. I’d like to see some more of Denmark if I get the chance to return.
Why: Pick places to visit which offer activities you enjoy. In Ljubljana, I took a Stand Up Paddleboarding tour along the river which runs through the center of the city, then hiked with Deuce for two hours along forested paths to a cafe on top of the hill overlooking the city. I also hiked to the castle which is about 15 minutes straight up from the historic city center. I drank amazing single origin coffee at a gourmet coffee shop. I sipped a glass of wine at sunset on a rooftop terrace 20 floors up. Ljubljana is a relatively small town, but one with a lot to offer. I’m returning to Slovenia to SUP in Lake Bled and ski high up in the Julian Alps.
Although where you travel matters a great deal, the people who you spend time with there and the activities available matter even more. There are advantageous to taking solo trips. There are advantages to traveling with friends, family members, or boyfriends. And of course, there are disadvantages to each too. There are advantages to visiting large cities. There are also advantages to getting into the countryside. Each has it’s unique disadvantages.
The most important thing to consider when picking a place for your 2017 vacation is “What kind of experience am I looking for?” Is is a chance to spend time in nature? Is it the ability to visit four outstanding art museums in one day? Is it to experience history and gaze upon old buildings? Is it to relax, recharge, and spend hours sitting in cafes? The more specific you can be about the things you LIKE and the things you EXPECT, the more likely you are to pick a vacation destination which will offer you an amazing experience that you’ll always treasure.
2016 Countries Were:
2017 has started with: