Top 10 things to pack for Europe

As my cousin Elena gets ready for a semester abroad, I wanted to share my best tips for what accessories and tools to pack for a good trip to Europe. These are the top items that made my last trip a success – what else would you add, dear readers?

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  1. Locks. They’re not just for (illegally) adding to bridges in Paris, these are also great for keeping your stuff secure – I got this TSA-approved duo. This is especially helpful if you’re sleeping on a train, putting your suitcase in the other end of a train car where you wouldn’t be able to see someone reaching in, or leaving your valuables at your hotel. Honestly, if someone is desperate enough to steal your stuff, they’re going to take your entire bag – but if a thief is just fishing around for something easy (as was the case when a cousin had her iPad and nothing else stolen in Europe…) this can be the first step in thwarting them.
  2. A travel power strip. I bought the Belkin travel charger and it was great for expanding my charging power while keeping all my devices in one place (the easier to collect when packing or locking up for the day!). Get one and then get a local power converter and you won’t have to worry about blowing your fuses or having one of your devices go without a charge.
  3. A portable charger. One more technology item I recommend – portable chargers are great if you’re using your phone as your camera / map / texting device / place to keep tickets and confirmations / etc. Get a small power cell and a retractable (or just short) power cord to make a little power-on-the-go kit that will mean you never need to cut an adventure short because your battery is running low.
  4. Ear plugs. Whether you’re sharing a hostel with a snoring roommate or your Airbnb is next door to a building with an alarm going off 24/7 (true – bad – story), it sucks to pay exchange prices for something so small that you can get so cheaply before you leave home.
  5. Printed copies of documents. You know what else is no fun? Finding out that you needed to have that ticket to Versailles or wherever on paper and then needing to find an internet cafe in Paris to print it at. Just don’t do it. Keep at least one copy of all important travel plans and bookings – including a copy of the first page of your passport – on paper so that when you wake up in the middle of the night and want to confirm that you didn’t miss your plane, you don’t need to frantically search through your email to be reassured. (Also leave a copy of that front page of your passport, insurance card, etc. with your family at home so they can help you out if all your stuff somehow disappears.)
  6. Passport organizer. Then, keep that all organized! I almost bought many beautiful passport cases before eventually getting a neat pencil bag from Target that became my go-to for traveling. My passport lived in here (which in turn lived in a locked pocket of my suitcase) and it also held my American money, extra credit card, visa for Turkey, etc. It’s nice to have one place that you don’t constantly mess with where you know everything is safely stored.
  7. US medicine and a prescription plan. Do you know how to say “decongestant” in Spanish? How badly do you want to try? For me, the answer is not at all, so I pack as many US meds as I think I might need before I leave home. Painkillers in particular can be quite different between countries, and I prefer to know I’m having a drug I’m familiar with in a dosage that’s proven to work for me. I always bring decongestants and allergy meds, since I get stuffed up from planes and need to recover quickly to enjoy my trip. I also recommend refilling / reactivating any prescriptions you think you could need – whether that means getting a spare inhaler just in case or asking your doc for a z-pack if you always get sick in a particular time of year – even if they won’t pre-authorize it, at least you can have it on hold and quickly call it in as needed.
  8. Packing cubes. I am a devoted follower of packing cubes and their ability to help you keep your clothes neat, compact, and organizer. Having all your running clothes, or all the clothes you need to keep clean for the plane right home, or all your underwear in one place can reduce the stress of hauling so much stuff around with you. It also makes it much easier to find the small things (chargers, souvenirs) in your bag than if everything were floating around. Ikea has a good set but you can also find really good deals at most Marshall’s – I propose getting a mix of closed, waterproof packs and some that are more meshy for when you don’t need things to be so tightly packed (or just get the top seller on Amazon!).
  9. Word Lens, Duolingo, and WhatsApp. Download these before you go and they will change your interactions (and maybe even your life?). WordLens is an app that automatically translates photos into different languages – so if you end up in Germany, you can point your camera at a menu and order with confidence (warning: organ meat is still just organ meat…). No internet connection required! If you want to prepare further in advance, get Duolingo and its free suite of language training programs. Hearing phrases before you actually get into a country can help break through barriers and put you at ease when you actually arrive. And finally, WhatsApp is the preferred way for expats and others to chat with folks back home. It’s a free messaging service that works just like texting but uses only an internet connection. That way, no matter what someone’s area code is, you can start chatting and send photos, etc.
  10. A good scarf. Last but definitely not least – scarves are a staple of my wardrobe, and a great thing to have when traveling. They dress up an outfit, help you hide coffee mishaps, double as blankets when picnicking… the list goes on and on. Scarves make great accessories to hunt for during your travels (Katie got a great one in Paris that got compliments throughout Spain and Turkey) but you should also have one you love before you hit the road.  I splurged on a travel infinity scarf from Boston-based Speakeasy Supply Co, mostly for the hidden pocket. Whenever I was wearing a skirt or leggings, this provided me with an easy pocket and also let me hold my passport and phone close to my body when out in public or dozing on a train.

On top of all this, you’ll want a classic wardrobe (that doesn’t brand you immediately as an American), a good purse, great walking shoes, layers, nice clothes for going out… the list is as endless as your suitcase! But if you start with some good, functional tools, you’ll be on the right track for a successful trip.

Bon voyage, ma cousine!

Euro Top Ten: #10 – Dinner in Istanbul

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#10 – Dinner in Istanbul

Sometimes, a layover is more than just a layover. And a dinner is more than just a dinner.

Sometimes, a single inexpensive meal can be the perfect bookend on an amazing journey – and open your eyes to a new world of possibility.

Our layover in Turkey, during our flight home from Europe, was a bit of a crapshoot.  It took a while to get out of the airport, and then I thought there was something wrong with my visa (turned out the issue was that the immigration agent was so busy flirting with me, he forgot to save my info and had to chase me through the airport. No biggie…).  We had no idea if we were going the right way on the train, or if our luggage was really safe being left on the plane (we only took carry-ons off), and we were holding fistfuls of money, since the exchange rate in Turkey was in our favor.  But as we got off the train to the sound of the evening prayer, all our anxiety faded away.  It was replaced with awe, and reverence.

Over the previous month, I had danced in British clubs, seen top-notch theater, admired famous works of art, eaten croissants on the bank of the Seine and wine on plazas in France, been massaged on a beach and hustled by someone at a train station, and more.  But the magic of Istanbul made dinner here my favorite moment of the trip.

The restaurant we stopped at, Mesale Cafe, had it all. Cushioned benches.  A cat at the table next to us that was bold enough when it was being fed to jump right up onto the table.  The sweet smell of hookah from people smoking around us.  And a perfect view of the live music and dancing – really spinning – on the stage at the front of the place, which drew us in initially.

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We ate like queens, tasting marinated chicken and meat crepe-like pancakes, made by women sitting mere feet from our table.  We drank literally every tea on the menu, and when we were done, our waiter said “just one more!” and then brought us a syrupy-sweet concoction that was a mix of all the teas together.

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We sat back against the pillows.  We paused and didn’t check Facebook.  We watched the dancers and smoke and shifting lights – and we realized that this was only the beginning.  If this city, that seemed so foreign and daunting, could be so sweet and beautiful and welcoming, nothing should hold us back.  We immediately started dreaming bigger – Katie of Thailand, me of rural Turkey, to visit a college roommate.

By the end of the meal, we were only out about $18 total – and in addition to our full stomachs, we gained an awareness that no adventure is inherently off-limits in this vast and wonderful world.  Even if you start with a layover, getting your feet on the ground is a perfect beginning.

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Spice market, Istanbul

 

Read my initial post about the best layover ever here.

The #10 is brought to you from the streets of Carcassonne.

All photos are my own unless otherwise stated.

Click here to read the other posts in this series.

Euro Top Ten: #9 – Carcassonne

#9 – Carcassonne

My name is Sally, and I am a giant nerd.

I’ve been this way my whole life, but this trip to Europe really cemented the title.  When Katie and I first started planning our trek through France (before we even knew who else was coming) one of us had the brilliant idea to go to Carcassonne.  We love the board game of the same name – it’s one of the best two-player games ever.  In it, you build walled cities, claim roads, farm fields, and complete cloisters.  You know, typical activities of the French countryside.

Because this isn’t some made-up place (ahemahemCatanahemahem) – it’s an honest to god city in France, and we planned basically our entire lives trip around going there.

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It was everything we dreamed it would be and more. The walled city itself was incredibly beautiful – cobblestones, winding paths where you have no choice but to get hopelessly lost. Abandoned fountains in courtyards, chip shops run out of literal holes in the wall, a beautiful cathedral.  Everywhere we turned we saw sunshine slanting between towers and over the stone walls.

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The main castle at Carcassonne – Château Comtal – was built in the 12th century.  Over the years, this French city actually served as the border with Spain (which is crazy, if you see if on a map today). The city had a turbulent history which mostly involved many phases of people taking over the walled city, driving out all the old inhabitants. and gradually developing suburbs (from which they tried to lure people back into the city to actually fill it).

The castle was restored in 1853, back when preservation/restoration was still a relatively new idea.  It was a challenge to find a single period to restore the castle to, so they went with a bit of a mish-mash and the result is fascinating.  Horseshoe shaped towers stand next to ramparts that are separated by hundreds of years. My favorite parts were the views from the top of the hill (way to pick a prime castle location, builders of yore!) and the simple, practical design of the entire place – like the carefully crafted yard by the drawbridge that was designed to give archers easy aim at anyone who snuck in.  Imagine shooting fish in a barrel and you’ll know how likely it was that the people on the ground weren’t going to make it to see the inner courtyards.

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Our day in Carcassonne was nothing short of spectacular.  It was a reminder of the value of the past – and the joy of the present, which lets NH nerds visit the land from their board game dreams.
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Tips for visiting Carcassonne:

  • You don’t need to stay overnight – we took a train in the morning from Toulouse
  • Spend some time winding you way up to the castle – the bridges leading there are gorgeous (but you can skip the museum in the city center)
  • Take the audio tour – it gives you some seriously amazing history
  • Splurge on some fun souvenirs – where else are you going to get a Carcassonne shot glass or tea towel? NOWHERE.
  • Generally, follow your weirdest, nerdiest dreams and you’re bound to find some pretty great adventures in the real world along the way.

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The #9 is brought to you from a playground in a schoolyard in Carcassonne.

All photos are my own unless otherwise stated.

Click here to read the other posts in this series.

I CLAIM THIS ROAD!

I CLAIM THIS ROAD!

Euro Top Ten : #8 – Airbnb

#8 – Airbnb

I like to think of Airbnb as the totally unofficial sponsor of my latest journey abroad.  Of the 31 nights I spent in Europe, all but one evening was spent in an Airbnb.  It’s what made it possible for me to afford a month of rent in London.  It’s how we were able to stay in four cities in one week, and how my parents were able to stay with me for no extra cost.

Airbnb is part of the new “sharing economy” that allows people to rent out their homes to travelers.  It’s free to register, and the rates for housing vary by location.  My apartments in London were a steal at $100-120 a night to have a one-bedroom to myself, including fees, exchange rates, and the fact that I had lots of nights when my friends and family were staying with me. In our upcoming trip to Hawaii, my sister and I are paying $100/night for two twin beds in a guest house in Maui.

But more than just the price, Airbnb gives you a home.  It gives you a kitchen, and a bath, and your own space (as opposed to a hostel where you share everything).  It comes with a washer, a dryer, a wonky floor where the tiles creak under your feet as you walk to the balcony for your morning coffee.  Someone else’s books to leaf through and closets to resist looking at (though one host did tell me I could wear his sweaters if I got cold!). It includes a friend to text when the hot water doesn’t run in the morning (“just wait until everyone else goes to work!”) and a recommendation for a coffee shop where the locals really do go, along with access to neighborhoods and cities and experiences that you’d never get if you stuck to the beaten path.

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Our home away from home in Montpellier

 

Airbnb really did lead me to some amazing places.  In London, I stayed a bus ride away from Big Ben and then right off Gray’s Inn Road and found that I loved the more remote location better.  In Paris, we rented a space the size of a trailer (too small for what ended up being four of us!) and had to check under all the fourth floor doormats for keys because we had no idea which apartment was ours – luckily no one caught us in the act.  In Montpellier, we stayed in a gorgeous apartment with the most comfortable couch I’ve ever slept on in my life. In Toulouse, our adorable host carried ALL OUR BAGS up the stairs himself, and invited us to go through his DVD collection (he and his wife have also written to me since we returned to say Merry Christmas, etc. Merci Amelie et Manu!). And in Barcelona, the weird dorm-like place we rented was perfectly located for late nights out and coffee at the bakery downstairs.

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Rooftops of London from Airbnb #2

 

I know that in some parts of the US especially, Airbnb has had some negative press lately for people who are using the service to operate what are essentially hotels, or to undermine the rental market. I can’t speak to the economic impact of Airbnb (I was an English major…) but I do know that it opened doors to me that surely would have stayed closed without this housing option, and I’m grateful.  I hope the regulations can be worked out so that people with good intentions can keep lending their spaces and encouraging adventures, here and abroad!

As a 29-year-old woman, I think I’ve outgrown the youth hostel scene – I want more personal space than they allow.  And as a solo traveler, it’s key that that space is safe and centrally located, and I can stay much longer since it’s also affordable. When I did have a problem with one of my London apartments, Airbnb tried to help me solve it (then I fixed it myself, because I’m badass like that).  I’d go back to the rest of these places in a heartbeat, and would love to be a host myself some day.  Until then, I’ll just keep dreaming of the treehouses, igloos, mansions, and islands I could rent with the click of a button!

Check out Airbnb – use my code and get $25 off your first reservation!

The #8 is brought to you from somewhere in Paris.

All photos are my own unless otherwise stated.

Click here to read the other posts in this series.

Euro Top Ten : #7 – A geek’s paradise

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#7 – A Geek’s Paradise

Confession: #7 was going to be the Harry Potter Experience, outside London, because it was easily one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my life.  But it’s also one of the few things I covered well in the midst of my travels (you should read about it here!) so I’m expanding this superlative to include a wider swath of geeky adventures.

This post is dedicated to the literature nerd – the girl with her nose in a book, the one who bought a wand even though the conversion rate was ridiculous, who was late to meet her friend for dinner because she was too busy trying on deerstalkers and seeing which one would go best with her pipe.

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On duty at 221B Baker Street

 

It’s for the roommates whose very first piece of art in their apartment was a reprint of an oil painting of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy.  For those travelers who dance on the steps of the Mirabell Gardens just like the Von Trapp children, and those whose itinerary is driven by their favorite board games (more on that later…).

Just posing with some french bread, waiting for the town to wake up and saaaaaay - BONJOUR!

Just posing with some french bread, waiting for the town to wake up and saaaaaay – BONJOUR!

While people around the world dream of seeing the Big Apple (which is lovely, don’t get me wrong), my heart belongs to the rooftops of London, where Bert and Mary Poppins could appear on the horizon any time.  To the corner of Covent Garden where you expect to see Eliza Dolittle selling her flowers, to the Notting Hill bookstore where Hugh Grant would fit right in.  Europe may be the land of culture and history, but to me, it’s also the land where my wildest, nerdiest dreams come true.

Exchange rates be damned - YOLO!

Exchange rates be damned – YOLO!

And yes, that’s the elder wand.  Go big or go home, right? In the end I had to do both – but I left some of my nerdy heart in Europe.  As if I needed a reason to return!

 

Read more about my Harry Potter nerdiness here.

The #7 is brought to you from a train platform in France.

All photos are my own unless otherwise stated.

Click here to read the other posts in this series.

Euro Top Ten : #6 – A weekend in Paris

#6 – A weekend in Paris

There’s nothing quite like meeting Paris for the first time.  Or being there when your friends do, which was the case for half our party on this recent adventure.  Yes, it’s touristy and such.  But it’s also beautiful and truly romantic and steeped in so much history that you can hardly breathe.

Shakespeare and Company - a tribute to the famous ex-pat bookstore beloved by Hemingway, Stein, and Fitzgerald

Shakespeare and Company – a tribute to the famous ex-pat bookstore beloved by Hemingway, Stein, and Fitzgerald

My favorite moments in Paris this time around were the moments, not the big scenes.  We didn’t go into the Louvre or Notre Dame (though I kind of regret it).  Instead, we walked down small streets and into old courtyards.  We hunted down the best chocolate shops.  Katie and I arrived and immediately ate one of the best three-course meals of my life, from the salad to the boeuf bourguignon to the crème brûlée (parfait!).  We walked by the Seine, even getting to a place where we saw more than a few rats and realized we should probably turn back…. but couldn’t find a staircase to exit the embankment. (Don’t worry mom, there were a few other people around!)  We picked “our cafe” and ate breakfast there multiple days.  We navigated ourselves around our neighborhood based on our proximity to an iPhone 6 sign posted on the side of the police headquarters.

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Our breakfast spot (we managed to avoid Paul, since they have that here in the US!)

My friends did indulge my touristy side a bit by agreeing to go on the Sandeman New Paris walking tour with me – I love this company and have been on their tours in Berlin and Amsterdam too.  I think it’s a great way to see a small slice of the city within a set structure – no one needs to worry about watching the time or holding the map (though we did get totally separated at the end and almost have to just go home without each other…).

Kate at the Louvre - please note the people behind her posing for the exact same photo!

Kate at the Louvre – please note the people behind her posing for the exact same photo!

It took us all over the city, to the monuments and bridges and parks.  We learned about the kings and queens and the French government’s attempt to keep their culture intact through actions like trying to come up with a French alternative to “selfie” (good luck!).  We also visited the Pont des Arts, which was made famous by Carrie and Big’s kiss in the final scene of Sex and the City and which has essentially been destroyed by tourists since then.  The idea is to add a lock to the bridge to symbolize your eternal love for your sweetheart and throw the key in the river (dozens of vendors sell locks nearby in case you didn’t plan ahead) – but our guide pointed out all the combination locks, which he said were from coy French lovers who make promises to women, then come back and collect their lock again the next day to re-use it on their next date.

Locks on the Pont des Arts

Locks on the Pont des Arts

It was a whirlwind trip – I think I could stay in Paris for at least six months and not get tired of it, even though our Airbnb was the size of a small camper.  The bubbling fountains and historic buildings – the late dinners and uneven streets – the artists and bookshops and museums galore – and these friends by my side, at sunset at the Eiffel Tower.

Best friends in Paris!

Sunset at the Eiffel Tower

What’s your favorite part of Paris?  I’ve still never been to Sacre Coeur and could spend an entire week in the Musee d’Orsay, which I’ll aim to do on my next trip back!

Katie and I also took a detour to Versailles – read about it here!

The #6 is brought to you from the street of our Airbnb in Paris.

All photos are my own unless otherwise stated.

Click here to read the other posts in this series.

Euro Top 10: #5 – Barcelona’s beaches

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#5 – Barcelona’s beaches

This was originally going to be #9 because it was definitely one of the top moments of the trip, but after the month we’ve had, I needed some sunshine a little earlier in my life.  Boston has been walloped with more than seven feet of snow in the last three weeks, making this the snowiest month since weather was first recorded in the city in 1872.  Let that sink in.  But don’t get frostbite while you do it – the temps are so low that you can be at risk of losing fingers in just 10 minutes.

It’s hard to believe that just a few months ago, I was lying on a beach in Spain.  Yes, it was fall.  Yes, we had about 10 total hours of daylight each day to work with. But coming from New England, I was more than satisfied with the mere moments we were able to spend on the warm sand.

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Le Barceloneta

 

This is the beach in Le Barceloneta.  We walked all the way down to that harbor area with the ships, where there was a concert going on, including food truck and a DJ, whose smooth jams we heard up and down the beach all day.

We lay on the beach on the two small towels we brought with us, and Sara told us about how in Valencia, people give massages on the beach.  Alas, here we “just” saw people selling mixed drinks out of coconuts, big beach blankets, bottles of water, etc.  We liked to watch the drama unfold and see who else on the beach was giving into these passing temptations.  And I declared that if Sara could materialize a masseuse for me, I would be the happiest person who ever killed her back lugging a suitcase for a month.

Then, behold! Someone did come by.  An older woman who Sara was able to negotiate with in Spanish.  She gave me one of the best massages of my life, and it only cost 5 euros for about 15 minutes.  Ridiculous.  It was a surreal, lush experience, to be lying on a blanket with my bare back to the sky, my friends sitting next to me, getting my shoulders rubbed.  I would like to go back there right now, pretty please!

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Barcelona beach stones

 

The other amazing thing about the beach was the sand itself.  It contained so many large, beautiful stones, unlike any beach I’ve been on before.  They were all about the size of your fingernails, and the most beautiful colors (the photo above has had zero editing!).  They hurt to walk on after a bit, but Katie and I had a blast digging through them and filling our pockets with treasures.

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Le Barceloneta with the W Hotel in the background

 

Because October is the off-season, we didn’t have to share the beach with many people, which was perfect for us.  But getting here at all was a good reminder that even though we might not think of ourselves as beach people, even though we love the culture and history and gourmet food the actual city has to offer, we all need some time on the sand every now and then, whether or not we know it in advance.  This has already played a big part in planning my next trip to Hawaii with my sister, where we’re trying to limit what we book ourselves for and instead leave ourselves lots of time for just soaking up the sunshine.

And next time I go back to Barcelona, I’m aiming to get a massage AND a drink out of a pineapple.

The #5 is brought to you from a sign in the Barcelona metro.

All photos are my own unless otherwise stated.

Click here to read the other posts in this series.