By Rachael Shearer
Taking inspiration from various summers spent travelling across Europe, I’ve chosen a top ten destinations ranging from bustling cities, seaside resorts, and hives of cultural activity. Rich in art, history and diverse climates, these cities are mere train rides apart which makes it easy to visit several over the space of a few weeks. Having inter-railed for three summers, I’ve had my fair share of adventures. Here’s some of my personal favorites.
This was the first city I ventured to on an inter-railing trip with college friends a few years back. With nothing but backpacks and a few hundred euros, we decided to start in Prague and just wing it from there, booking trains and hostels along the way. Despite being highly disorganized, it worked out perfectly, and we managed to see 12 cities in the space of 6 weeks! We were introduced to Prague with a free walking tour, lots of goulash, mazes of winding streets and the beautiful St Charles Bridge. We crammed in a somewhat disturbing sex toy museum where you can watch the first porno ever made, and topped the weekend off a Pub Crawl. A series of dark, sweaty bars and about 500 shots later, we had teamed up with a group of American soldiers on leave from Iraq and ended up in the famous 5 story nightclub. Stumbling onto a night-train 48 hours later, we knew we had made the most of this little city and the hidden gems it has to offer.
On the same trip, we stopped at Budapest for a few days. Stay at the 11th Hour Cinema Hostel – we ended up sharing a huge room with 12 other people and it made for a far more interesting trip. By day we explored the incredible architecture on either side of the river – one side is Buda, the other is Pest – ate a lot of falafel (and more goulash) and dipped in and out of the giant cathedrals dotted around the city. By night, we would drink cheap wine at the hostel before venturing into the strange nightlife of the city. Bars that doubled as strip-clubs or cabarets and classic eastern European “deep house” nightclubs. A surreal and unexpectedly huge city, we were pleasantly surprised by what we discovered.
We ended up extending our stay here because we loved it so much. As with all European cities, there was a ton of museums to explore, including the modern museum district where all the young hip artists hang out. Also the Sisi Palace and gardens made for a beautiful day out in the countryside. However, the nightlife is what kept us there. We stayed in the Wombats hostel and shared a room with a bunch of crazy Aussies. There is a very strong Oz contingent in Austria, with a string of Australian bars throughout the city. From flaming shots of absinthe, to riverside DJ sets that played all night, there was no shortage of fun to be had.
Croatia is probably my favorite country in Europe and one I have gone back to several times. From the island Hvar, you have easy access to several other locations by boat, such as the mainland region, Split and the beautiful sleepy island of Korcula – stay at the One Love Hostel with “Z” and enjoy his reggae vibes. Living on fresh fish & fruit, swimming from rocky seashore by day and partying at the harbor by night, the lifestyle here is dreamy. We took a boat picnic with a crazy old man who took us diving beside a natural deer reservation park, and went clubbing at a series of shacks hidden among the hills deep inside the island’s forest. Prepare to find yourself taken aboard a yacht at 4am and wake up later that afternoon pretty sunburnt – it will be totally worth it.
We took a few days here between the more hectic cities to relax, unwind and enjoy the beautiful food, wine and weather of the South of France. A little more expensive than our previous locations, we were happy to shell out for this stunning sleepy town. The harbor is teeming with glamorous bars and restaurants and that classic French vibe of setting up camp at one bar or café for the whole day. With an abundance of boutiques and craft fairs, Nice is a truly “nice” way to rest and recover after a long trip – or to take time to recharge before the next part begins!
While technically not a city, this is the perfect coastal region for people who want to avoid the intensity of a capital. A quaint, Basque region town surrounded by white sandy beaches and an incredible surf, this is a great laidback spot to chill out, eat great food and get a serious tan. With a stunning hilltop camping site, this is great for the outdoorsy types who don’t want to spend too much. A short train ride from Biarritz, there is lots of sea-sport activity to take part in – or just to watch from the safety of the sand. With a beach-to-bar nightlife, you will find yourself living in your bikini. This was our first stop on a second trip around Europe and was the perfect way to ease into the pace of traveling again.
Here’s one for the history buffs. I took a trip here a few years ago for purely cultural purposes, and it was well worth staying off the party train. With obvious attractions like the Coliseum, the Forum, the Pantheon and the Spanish Steps, there is more than enough to fill your days. The Vatican and St Peter’s Cathedral are truly stunning and well worth the queues – beware, it can take up to two hours if you don’t book. Hidden gems include the Santa Maria Church in Trastevere – it is tiny relative to the monstrous monuments throughout the city, but was built for the sole purpose of weddings and is incredibly beautiful, romantic and serene. Rome also has some of the best shopping in Italy, especially the custom leather stores, markets and lingerie boutiques, as well as an overwhelming amount of restaurants – go for the places off the beaten track for a true Italiano feeling without the crazy main street prices!
As Dublin’s neighboring capital, we have a strong connection with London. As with all major world cities, there are the obvious attractions like Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, The London Eye… What I recommend is going to the edgier, more upcoming neighborhoods. Go north to Camden and Dawston to check out the incredible vintage shopping and trendy bars & nightclubs. Make sure to visit Brick Lane markets for an array of international street food and yes, more vintage shopping. Walk along the Thames at night and do try to catch something on the West End – my favorite has always been Les Mis and you can pick up cheap last minute tickets at the black kiosk in Leister Square!
Get there for the Fringe Festival in August, but make sure you book accommodation in advance! It is an incredible month of comedy, drama, dance, street art – you name it. Every year I have had friends bring shows to the festival and we all come along as groupies to enjoy the buzz. Tickets are easy enough to get on the day for smaller acts – they’re often better than the headliners! The city itself is beautiful with winding cobble streets – this is where J K Rowling wrote Harry Potter, so a lot of it looks like how you might imagine Diagon Alley. The nightlife during the festival is insane in true Scottish style – every bar has special offers and great music to draw you in and dance the night away.
Saving the best for last? As I lived here for 5 years, I may be slightly biased, but that also means I know it well and can give great tips on where to go! Within the city, be sure to visit the beautiful Trinity College and the less beautiful Temple Bar – this is Dublin’s most famous district but it is a hub of bad bars and tourists – see it quickly, then run away. For daytime activity, hop on a train to the coastal regions Dun Laoighre, Killiney Hill or Howth. Walk the hills, cliffs & piers and enjoy the stunning views of countryside and seaside below. At night, venture to Smithfield for edgy bars and gigs, Grand Canal for more upmarket spots & the Grand Canal Theater, or Harcourt Street if you’re feeling brave enough for Dublin’s clubbing scene. My list could go on forever, but Dublin is small enough that you can walk the entire city in a day. Get a good pair of shoes and don’t be afraid to ask the locals for advice on where to go – we’re very friendly, and always willing to direct you to the best pint!
Each of these cities has contributed in their own individual way to my experiences of traveling Europe, and hopefully these samples will give you a flavor of the diversity on offer. Whether you’re in need of a quick city break, some heavy nightclubbing, or a seaside chill, there is this and more on offer throughout this continent. So get yourself a train ticket, pack that backpack, and get going!