Backpacking Europe: 10 Observations of a First-Time Traveler

Backpacking Europe: Seeing the Mono Lisa in the Louvre
This is what it’s actually like to see the Mona Lisa in person.

I arrived at my gate breathing heavy and sweating through my clothes. Sprinting through an airport because you’re running late will do that to you. Trust me, it’s not an ideal state in which to begin a transatlantic flight.

Only the gate agents remained when I arrived. Every other passenger had already boarded Norwegian Flight No. 7068. I was the last.

But the frantic rush to catch my flight on time did serve one good purpose. It kept me distracted from the gravity of the moment. After stowing my backpack in the overhead bin and then taking my seat, reality set in.

“Wow, I’m leaving America for a very long time,” I thought to myself.

I had always wanted to travel but never had the gumption to do it. Seeing the world seemed like something that was always out of reach. In my mind, cost would always be a barrier to entry.

But then I read a book called “Vagabonding” by Rolf Potts. In it, I learned about the concept of long-term travel. By committing months or even years to a trip, travel could actually be affordable.

Thus, this 10-hour flight from Oakland to Stockholm began a seven-and-a-half month trip. The journey was the first of its kind for me. I had never spent nearly this much time on the road. Until that point, some weekend adventures and a few work trips here and there were the extent of my travels.

I learned a lot during my half-year backpacking Europe. Some of what I gathered was unique to the places I visited. The rest were universal lessons, applicable to other adventures abroad.

As a first-time traveler to Europe, here are some of the observations I gleaned.

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    The Europe That You Seek Is in the East

    Cities like London and Paris top the itinerary lists of most travelers to Europe. They visit these places expecting to witness some semblance of medieval times. Yet, what they discover is the opposite.

    The most popular parts of Western Europe are modern. In fact, they’re not much different from what you might find on the East Coast of North America. Sure, there are cosmopolitan cities that bustle with diversity. But they have a look and feel of what you can find in the States.

    Go east, though, and you’ll encounter the part of Europe that you seek. In Poland, explore Krakow or Wroclaw while walking on cobblestone streets. Or visit Romania, where you’ll find Gothic castles plucked straight out of a fairy tale. These are the parts of Europe where you’ll see the continent’s rich history up close.

    Backpacking Eastern Europe Is Better for Your Budget, Too

    Aside from its historic value, backpacking Eastern Europe is also quite affordable. Food, transportation, and accommodation are all less expensive than they are out west. Take the price of beer in the Czech Republic, for example. It’s often cheaper to pay for a liter of that than it is to buy a bottle of water.

    Now there are some exceptions. Visiting some of the coastal countries can cost a little more for your budget. For example, consumer prices are 20% higher in Dubrovnik compared to Budapest. But don’t let that discourage you. Spending more time in the former Eastern Bloc is one of the easiest ways to extend your trip.

    The Language Barrier is Almost Nonexistent

    Before backpacking Europe, I wondered if communication would pose a problem. After all, I could only speak English, plus a little high-school level Spanish. But after I arrived, I realized that none of my worries were necessary.

    Aside from the United Kingdom and Ireland, much of the continent speaks English. And as you travel east, it’s not uncommon  to meet Europeans who are bilingual. In fact, I often found that most people under the age of 35 to 40 could speak English.

    This made me a little envious. In the U.S., we learn other languages in school, but it’s rare that we put them into practice. In Europe, it’s the opposite. Many Europeans learn English and also put it to good use. They see being fluent in English as a valuable skill to have.

    Europeans Are Also Well-Traveled

    In general, Europeans aren’t home bodies. Armed with an ability to speak English, they’re actually frequent travelers. It’s not unusual to run into your fair share of Europeans while exploring their home turf.

    Gap years are common, and student exchange programs like Erasmus are standard. Traveling at a young age is an integral part of European culture. Many Europeans know that they’ll have plenty of time to climb the professional ladder. Therefore, it’s customary for them to dedicate a part of early adulthood to traveling.

    Hostels Are Central to European Backpack Culture

    It’s not hard to find accommodations these days. You can enjoy the luxury of a hotel or the residential comfort of an AirBnB. Free lodging is possible too, thanks to Couchsurfing and volunteer work.

    But if you’re backpacking Europe, staying in a hostel is an essential part of the experience. Hostels can keep your travel costs low. They’re also prime grounds for meeting other like-minded backpackers and making brand new friends.

    Hostels get a bad rap from people who’ve never tried them. They knock the idea of sharing a dorm room with strangers. Or they question cleanliness and safety, too. But today, these issues are rarely a problem. Thanks to the internet, reviews hold hostels accountable for providing a comfortable stay.

    Running Into Familiar Faces Is Inevitable

    Staying in hostels immerses you into a community of travelers. You’re all backpacking Europe at the same rapid pace. You’re all trying to experience as much as you can in the limited time that you have. So as a result, it’s not unusual to see some of the same faces from country to country.

    It’s helpful to be part of this community, especially if you’re backpacking alone. There’s an open exchange of ideas of where to visit, places to eat, and things to do. Seeing a few familiar faces provides some certainty on what’s bound to be an overall uncertain journey.

    Great Restaurants Don’t Beg for Your Business

    This was a tip I learned from my AirBnB host in Rome. But it’s proven to be valuable in any major city I’ve gone to since then. If a restaurant has hired help whose sole job is to convince you to come inside, don’t do it. Keep walking, instead.

    The best places let the quality of their meals speak for themselves. Meanwhile, it’s the bad restaurants that resort to these cheap tactics. They’re the places that often serve undercooked and overpriced food to unsuspecting tourists.

    It’s also best to avoid any establishment with embellished displays of food. Take some gelaterias in Italy, for example. The good ones showcase their gelato in a modest way. But, the bad gelaterias do the opposite.

    Their gelato containers often feature mountainous displays to capture tourists’ attention. Falling for this trick can often mean the difference between tasting a great scoop of gelato and a disappointing one.

    Breakfast Isn’t the Most Important Meal of the Day

    While backpacking Europe, prepare to feast on some of the world’s best cuisine. But don’t expect to eat large when it comes to breakfast. Instead, save some room for lunch, which is often the most important meal of the day.

    In Spain, order the menu del dia. Every restaurant serves this inexpensive and filling, three-course lunch. The meal even comes with a drink, too. After you’re done, you can enjoy one of Spain’s best traditions: the afternoon siesta.

    Italy’s not that different, either. Starting at 1 p.m., many businesses and schools shut down for a few hours so people can go home for a midday meal. And like Spain, Italians eat a hearty three-course lunch, also.

    Ground Transportation Doesn’t Cost a Fortune

    Backpacking Europe is a rite of passage for most first-time travelers because it’s so easy to get around. Whether by train or car, ground transport in Europe is affordable and convenient.

    Coming from the States, I welcomed the change of pace to travel by train. I often relied on The Man in Seat 61, a website that’s all about rail travel, to plan my routes. Traveling by train is cozy and allows you to admire Europe’s scenic landscapes.

    But I also enjoyed traveling by bus and car. Companies like FlixBus cost a fraction of the price and have coaches that are as comfortable, too. Meanwhile, carpool services like BlaBlaCar connect travelers with drivers headed the same way. I used it in Spain, riding from Granada to Madrid in three hours for less than €15.

    Since all European cities are walkable, it’s also fun to explore Europe by foot. You’ll never regret the hours you spend wandering aimlessly around European cities. In fact, some places (like Florence) are awkward to drive through because of such narrow roads.

    Europe Is the Cheapest Continent to Visit (or Travel to) by Air

    In Europe, budget carriers usually cost a half or third of what a passenger pays on a standard airline. It’s not uncommon to find flights that cost around €10 one-way while backpacking Europe. In fact, that’s the price I paid to fly from Warsaw to Stockholm at the end of my trip.

    Of course, there are drawbacks, too. Budget airlines in Europe operate from airports that aren’t the main hubs. As a result, you’ll often pay for further transportation to the city you’re visiting. Budget airlines also nickel and dime you for check-in baggage, too. But the sacrifices are worth it, considering how much culture you get to experience.

    Other Observations From Backpacking Europe

    A Snapchat recap of my travels around Europe (featuring a cameo from Morocco).
    1. Sundays are for rest and relaxation. In many European countries (especially in the east), most shopping centers aren’t open. For most Europeans, Sundays are a day to recharge and enjoy time with loved ones.
    2. Italians eat dinner late. Most restaurants in Italy don’t open until after 8 p.m. Also, the social time with family and friends is as important, if not more so than the food that’s served.
    3. Doner kebabs are to Europe what burritos are to California. Like taquerias in the Golden State, kebab shops are ubiquitous around Europe. If you need a cheap yet satisfying meal, these are the perfect solution.
    4. In Granada, drinks come with free tapas. Come thirsty and hungry to the south of Spain. Every beer or sangria you order at a bar comes with a complimentary small plate of food.

    Backpacking Europe is a great introduction to travel for any first-time vagabonder. It will alter your perception of what’s absolute. And, it will transform how you see your place in the world.

    You won’t notice some of these changes after your trip is over. But when you’re in the midst of the journey, savor the experience. By doing so, you’ll discover delight in some of the most unexpected circumstances.

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    Jon is a freelance writer who authors this site. Learn more about him here. You can also follow Jon on Twitter or Instagram.