1.) Lisbon, Portugal
I would be remiss if I did not start with the city I studied and lived in for 4 months. Lisbon is a major European city that maintains the quaint and quiet characteristics of a city lying on Europe’s countryside. It is a place that teaches you how to explore and stay off the proverbial agenda of a tourist. Cracked cobblestone serves as the city’s carpet, while rickety cable cars bring you up the mountainous terrain the city lies on. There is no one statue or building that is labeled a “must see.” In fact, I’d say there isn’t one at all. It is up to you, the traveler, to make up your own trip and find all the nooks and crannies that withhold the thousands of years of history that exists in the city. Go wander through the small streets of the historic Alfama neighborhood and experience authentic Portuguese tradition and cuisine. If you’re lucky a shot of Ginjinha might be waiting for you at a corner being served through a window sill. (You’ll have to find out more about that yourself) Once you’ve reached the final stair, go cool off at the waterfront and maybe even get the next metro ride to the beach.
While there is much more to do during the day, the thought process at night seems to be the same for everyone…make your way to Barrio Alto to experience the famed night life. Make sure to stay away from the tourist’s books and the big bus tours and to go explore aimlessly on your own time schedule.
2.) Kiruna, Sweden
Now we’ll make our way from Portugal up to the Arctic Circle and it won’t be that easy. This was a wild trip and one that was kind of thrown together bit by bit. After 3 flights, an 18 hour train ride north from Stockholm and endless shuttle buses I arrived in a town that seemingly has been lost in time. It is a barren city that is seemingly always blanketed with snow. This area of the world belongs on nature’s Mt. Rushmore, due to its impeccable scenery and quiet backdrop. Quick piece of advice- drink as much water there as you can, it is the most crisp water I’ve ever tasted. It is unlike anything I have ever seen and you will be exposed to a lifestyle that you’ve never known to exist. Why was I crazy enough to ride an 18 hour train to the Arctic circle sans WiFi? Well, it provided me the opportunity of a lifetime to go dog sledding in the Arctic Circle. There was nothing I did abroad that could top the dog sled ride I went on through the Arctic woods. It is a must do if you’re in Europe, no matter what hassle it may take to get there. You will never see so many trees and open terrain and while gliding through the freshly fallen snow you just may see wolves, reindeer, or even a wild moose.
3.) Chamonix, France
Chamonix will maintain the snowy theme but will have you looking upwards…a lot. Get your hiking boots on, we are heading to Les Alpes in France. While Kiruna astounded me with its endless sight line and natural beauty, Chamonix left me in awe of its mist shrouded mountain peaks and snow capped hills.
It is a small town in the French Alps that actually hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924. It is also home to the highest mountain in the Alps, with that being Mt. Blanc. Its summit straddles the borders of France, Switzerland, and Italy so when you’re in Chamonix you are technically in France but are just a stones throw away from Switzerland. Why is that important? Well if you’re a fan of chocolate it is imperative you sweep up as much Swiss chocolate as you can while taking in the natural beauty the town has to offer. Make sure to pop into all of the boutique shops in town before heading up the mountain to change scenery. They are full of souvenirs for both your family and yourself. Cable cars, trains, and a variety lifts can bring you from Chamonix’s town center to some of the most spectacular views you will see in the world.
Depending on the season and if the cable cars are in service, you can climb your way to the Aguille Du Midi, which is the highest section of Mt. Blanc you can get to without hiking yourself. If you aren’t visiting when those services are running, like myself, you can still reach incredible heights by way of the Mt. Blanc express. This miniature train will wind its way up to a peak that looks down on an incredible glacier, Mer de Glace. Make the most of your time here, as it’s not often that you can find as serene a place as Chamonix. Try and avoid the temptation to take constant pictures and take in the best our world has to offer.
4.) Southern Portugal
Lisbon is by far the most recognizable city and metropolitan area in Portugal, but it is by no means the only place to see while visiting. Take a trip down to the South, whether it be to go wine tasting in the Alentejo region or to go relax on the endless beaches that exist in the Algarve. The first visit on your way down to the southern border should be in Evora. Evora is a medieval style town halfway between the Algarve and Lisbon. Just outside Evora lies a city within a castle’s walls called Monsaraz. These are places that few people know about in Portugal but ones everyone needs to visit. This is one of the most ancient towns in all of Europe and was at one point in history under the rule of the mighty Roman Empire! If you’re up for a creepy excursion, head into the Chapel of the Bones in the town center to witness a structure unlike any other. The walls are covered in skulls that have maintained their form over time and create a bone chilling environment to walk through.
It is one of the more memorable things I saw during my time in Europe and I definitely recommend checking it out. In order to make the most of your time in Evora you have to treat it a lot like Lisbon, in terms of not setting an agenda. You need to take a step back and realize the historical significance of everything around you while there. Monsaraz is a different animal, being that it sits inside a castle’s walls. This town’s physical structure is rare and one you may not see again, I definitely won’t. The “roads”, if you want to call them that, are as narrow as they can possibly be, while the stores and homes are of the smallest variety. The best thing to see here by far is the ancient arena that sits on the edge of the castle. This area provides an unbelievable view into the countryside of Spain, so while I never made it to Spain at least I can say I saw it. The sights you will see here will stick in your memory forever, so don’t waste too much of your time taking pictures.
5.) London, England
The last place we’ll be going to will bring you back to modernity, well almost. London is a place that many people avoid due to it being a so called “tourist trap.” There are parts to those claims that are absolutely true, but there are ways to make this trip incredible, depending on your interests. If you are a sports fan that appreciates the history that exists within sports, taking a tour of the iconic Wimbledon Lawn and Tennis Club is a must do. Just seeing the iconic venue was like being in a dream, as I could not believe I was at the foot of one of sports’ meccas.
It’ll leave you with a life long memory that you’ll cherish forever. Being that this is unfortunately a “checklist” city, another must do will pertain to avid fans of the Harry Potter series. This will involve a train ride to Watford, England, a suburb of London. Here you will find the Warner Brothers studio that served as the home of each Harry Potter film. Today it houses every set, prop, movie poster, and film ever used in the making of Harry Potter. Just as Wimbledon is one of the meccas of sports venues, this studio is the mecca for Harry Potter fanatics. Take in all of the sights and sounds and try not to let the reality of it ruin any future viewings of the movie. Those two experiences transformed London from a tourist infested city to a unique one that houses some incredible sites.
Thank you for taking the time to read about my experiences abroad, now it is up to you to pave your own path through Europe, Asia, Africa, or wherever it may be to uncover the endless experiences that have yet to be lived.