Most travelers expect to encounter cultural differences on their first trip to Europe. Yet, when confronted with these differences, they are always caught off guard. If this is your first trip to Europe, you should probably know what to expect on the old continent.
Unlike Africa, or Asia, Europe doesn’t pose a big cultural shock for the American traveler. There is nothing too extreme that will make you feel uncomfortable. Still, after 30 years of living in the U.S., I myself am sometimes shocked by some of these things that were once so familiar to me, as a European.
- What Will Surprise You on Your First Trip to Europe
- Activity ideas for your first trip to Europe
- Tips for your first trip to Europe
What Will Surprise You on Your First Trip to Europe
Nothing Is Complimentary
America is literally the land of free: free refills, free shopping carts, free bred and butter in the restaurants, free ketchup at McDonalds, free toilet paper in the public bathrooms, etc. etc. You don’t realize how many freebies we get in the USA until you travel to Europe. In fact, we’ve got so accustomed to getting complimentary things, that we began expecting them everywhere we travel.
Siesta Time is Sacred
“S’il vous plait, monsieur, my husband got locked up in the Jardin Exotique” I try to explain to the man who runs a small pub in Eze Village, right below Jardin Exotique d’Eze. The pub owner looks at his pocket watch, then turns to me and smiles: “It’s lunch time, the garden is now closed.” “How about my husband? Can you call anybody and ask them to unlock the gate?” I ask, hoping he will resonate with my plea. “No need to call, they will reopen in two hours, don’t worry.” At least he spoke English so that I could understand what was going on. Nonetheless, I was shocked. For the first time in my life I realized how seriously Europeans take their siesta.
Nothing is more shocking for the first time visitor to Europe than this siesta time. Depending on what countries in Europe you visit, you may come across a more or less sacred siesta time. In countries like Spain, Italy, Greece, or even Germany siesta is so rigorously observed, that you should count on wandering the streets with no place to enter for a cup of coffee. Especially in the rural, or less touristy areas!
No matter how popular siesta may be among the locals, for tourists and visitors it’s always a nuisance. Not many people expect to find the gift shop or clothing boutique closed for two-three hours right in the middle of the day.
The Bathroom Privilege
Coming from America, one might assume that public restrooms should be free and easily accessible for everyone, rather than a privilege. But Europeans seem to have a different opinion on the matter. Free toilets in Europe are about as rare as the hen’s teeth. No wonder public urination in subways stations and public parks is through the roof!
If this is your first time in Europe, make sure to always carry some small change in your pocket. In case nature calls. Also, never pass up a bathroom, even if you used one just half an hour earlier.
You may find free bathrooms in department stores, museums, theaters or cinemas, but even there you’ll have to tip the cleaner. There are also free bathrooms in restaurants, cafés and bars, but unless you are a customer you can’t use them.
You should also know that paid restrooms don’t necessarily mean soap, water, towels, or even toilet paper. In fact, you might simply just find a hole in the ground flanked by two platforms for your feet. If you come across a “Turkish Toilet” don’t panic, just squat.
Nude vs. Prude
If you travel to Europe in summer, get ready for some nudity. And don’t think just billboard advertisements, newsstand magazines, or TV programs. Of course, you are not very likely to see naked people walking down the street, (although that’s not totally impossible either), but there are some places where clothing is optional, like in some German saunas.
If you visit a public bath, hang out at a beach or in a park , you will discover that Europeans are very relaxed about nudity. On a beautiful sunny day in Germany, for instance, nakedness abounds. From the public parks in big cities, to the countryside lakes and mountain trails, people of all ages find it very normal to shed their clothes off.
Europeans Smoke Like Chimneys
It’s hard to imagine there’s anybody in the world today who hasn’t heard of the damaging effects of smoking. So much has been discussed and debated, researched and published, analyzed and advertised! But Europe missed the news. In 2015, lung cancer death rates among European women overtook those of breast cancer. But no health warnings or statistics have been enough to keep Europeans from their cigarettes.
In Europe people smoke almost everywhere: restaurants, cafés, on the streets, at home, at the theater… Smoking is a sort of a culture: you can’t take your coffee without a cigarette, or enjoy a night out without smoking. Many bar and café owners fear that banning smoking will scare their customers away.
Although in many European restaurants indoor smoking is prohibited, the patios and terraces are still jam-packed with smokers. When I travel to Europe I am constantly exposed to suffocating smoke. My eyes start burning, my throat gets itchy and I always end up with headaches. But when I mention my dismay over the heavy smoking, people get very defensive.
Cross at Your Own Risk
If traveling for the first time to Europe keep in mind that drivers don’t always yield to pedestrians. In my experience, people in Western European countries are more likely to stop at pedestrian crossing. But the further East you move, the more cross-the-street-at-your-own-risk policy applies. In fact in countries like Romania, the red light doesn’t matter too much. Even if you are crossing at green light, drivers who violate the law will honk at you to move out of the way.
Dinner Is a Late Night Affair
If you are planning to visit Europe, get used to eating dinner late at night. Unlike in the USA where around 10 p.m. restaurants are ushering the last customers out, in Europe dinner starts around 8 p.m. or even later. In some countries like Spain, most restaurants don’t even open till 9:00 p.m. If you get hungry earlier, you’ll have to settle for some tapas in a bar.
Generally, all mediterranean cultures tend to eat dinner very late, sometimes as late as 11 p.m.
Many of these cultural differences may not come as a surprise if you traveled to Europe before. Still, every time I go back and rediscover some of them, I am dazed. No free toilets? Oh, I don’t have to tip 15-20% like in America?
Activity ideas for your first trip to Europe
If this is your first big trip on the old continent, you might want to consider some itinerary ideas for two weeks in Europe. Or, if your have already decided what countries to visit, here are some trips you could take locally.
Of course there are many others to choose from, so feel free to just type in your preferences once you get on the GetYourGuide website. They are one of the best tour companies in Europe and offer very competitive prices.
Tips for your first trip to Europe
• Don’t exchange money in the airport
Airports, train stations, or tourist areas have the worst exchange rates. But if you look for an exchange office outside these areas, your hard earned money can go a way longer way. If no exchange booths are around, use the ATM machines throughout the city.
• Consider using public transportation
Driving a car Europe is an expensive and inconvenient complication. None of these European cities were built with cars in mind, so the roads are crowded and full of restrictions. Rather than worrying about parking fees, one way streets, and pedestrian zones, consider using public transportation during your 2 weeks in Europe.
• Travel by train, or use budget airlines
Train travel through Europe is one of the best ways to see the continent. The rail network is extremely developed and train service is very reliable. For longer distances, flying one of the many European airlines is also a great option. There are over a dozen budget airlines in Europe that fly anywhere on the continent for unbelievably low prices. They charge extra for seats and luggage, but even so you can fly for as low as €30-40/one way.
• Dress comfortably
Dressing comfortably when you travel to Europe is very important, but avoid looking like a tourist. Not sure how to blend in with the locals? Read my guide about how to dress like a European. Also, buy the best shoes you can afford. I can stress enough the importance of wearing comfortable shoes while traveling in Europe. Many of the old European cities are still paved with cobble stones which are very rough on your soles.
• Travel off season
Everyone wants to travel when the weather is stable, but summers can be brutal in Europe: big crowds, expensive accommodations and airfare, busy trains and public transportation and very hot. The best time to visit Europe is in fall and spring, unless you are headed there for the winter holidays. Summers are hot and busy.
What did you find surprising about travelling in Europe?
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