Vacation in Europe – Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Bruges, Paris, London
I have always dreamed about visiting Europe, but never had the opportunity. For my 50th birthday I decided to finally fulfill my dream. Thanks to the Johnny Jet newsletter, I discovered I could fly to Copenhagen one way for $326 on American Airlines ($1.00 to fly, $325 in taxes). After booking my flight to Copenhagen, I searched for affordable return flights. I was able to use 30,000 miles (plus $360 in taxes) on American Airlines to fly home on a non-stop flight from London to Los Angeles via British Airways. The next step was to consider which other countries to visit. After doing some research and of course getting advice from many Peachheaders, we decided to fly into Copenhagen, then fly to Amsterdam, take a train to Bruges, train to Paris, and finally, take the Eurostar train to London. We spent the next 5 months planning all of the details for this adventure.
The flight to Copenhagen was surprisingly very nice. I paid extra for extended legroom on American Airlines. It was only 6 inches more, but it really made a lot of difference. I was comfortable and pleased. Our plane had individual TVs at each seat, with a wide variety of free entertainment choices. During our short stopover at Heathrow airport, we found a wonderful Japanese restaurant, Wagamama (just behind and next to Harrods), which was reasonably priced. They offered quick waiter service and good food. Once we arrived in Copenhagen, we took the metro to the Nørreport Station (a short 15 minute ride). Our first stop was at the ticket counter, where we bought tickets for transportation while in the city of Copenhagen. They offer a single ticket into the city (3 zones) for 36 Kronor (DKK), but we purchased the 3 day ticket for 200 DKK, which covers all public transportation within certain zones of the city.
Once we arrived at Nørreport, our fabulous hotel, The Kong Arthur, was only a short walk away. The Kong Arthur is a boutique hotel in a great location alongside the inner lakes of Copenhagen. Its vibe is warm, inviting, friendly, and relaxed. They treated everyone like family. We had a lovely suite with a comfortable bed, a separate workstation, a living room, a small bath, and many closets. This hotel is larger than it looks: there are 4 buildings and 155 rooms. There is also a small fitness room with a treadmill, elliptical, bike, and various other workout equipment. The hotel also rents out bicycles for the day, but be sure to reserve a bike early in the morning as they do sell out. Their bicycles were all comfortable--just perfect for riding in this very bike-friendly town. The hotel also houses the Ni’mat Spa, which is actually the largest spa in Copenhagen. If you stay here, you are invited to use their spa facilities (with sauna, steam room, and Jacuzzi) for free one time during your stay. So if you do stay at this hotel, remember to pack your bathing suit. Massages are offered for an extra fee. Also, one entire floor of rooms is dedicated to a “spa ambiance,” with soft music in the hallway and quieter rooms with a simple, “Zen-like” decor in the spa theme. The hotel lobby is worth a mention, as it is roomy and comfortable with many couches. They offer a “cozy hour” from 5-6 pm with complimentary wine. We also really enjoyed their terrific breakfast buffet in the morning--what a spread! Cheeses, charcuterie, eggs, croissants, pancakes, and different jams. We especially loved the crepes and amazing chocolate croissants, which were light and fluffy and fresh. Even their hot chocolate was unique: a piece of chocolate stuck on a spoon was dipped into a cup of warm milk; the chocolate melted into the milk and created a most divine drink. Here's a nice short video about this hotel: Video about The Kong Arthur
On our first night in Copenhagen, we walked across the Nørrebrogade bridge and saw a wonderful sunset (at around 9:30 or 10:00 pm). Then we wandered around the streets neighboring Copenhagen's inner lakes until we discovered a great Italian restaurant, Gran Torino. What a find this was! Not only was the food absolutely delicious with friendly service, the ambiance and atmosphere were wonderful. We shared a caprese salad, delicious roasted gnocchi, a margherita pizza, and garden vegetables, complemented with a wonderful wine.
Copenhagen is a very bike-friendly city. In fact, more residents there ride bikes than drive cars. Most roads have very wide bike lanes that take up approximately 1/3 of the road to accommodate the bicyclists. It is a thrilling feeling to be in this city and watch how it operates with so many bicycle riders in one area. They even have a "counter" that registers how many bikes ride across the main bridge, both daily and annually. Next to the counter is a free bike pump, so air is easily accessible to riders. On the night we were there, by 10:00 PM, 17,194 bicyclists had passed through on that day alone. Over two million (2,085,025) bicyclists drove through that particular intersection from the beginning of 2015 until the first week in June!
"When in Denmark, do as the Danish do." So, we borrowed bicycles from our hotel and went on a bike tour through the city. We learned that if you rent a bicycle for the day, the Kong Arthur includes a guided city tour. We had so much fun riding around and learning about this city. We visited many of the popular tourist sites, such as the statute dedicated to the Little Mermaid, the King's Garden, and the Queen's Castle, where we saw the changing of the guards. During our tour, we also learned other facts that we otherwise would have missed. It was a most beautiful day. After the tour, we rode on the main streets near our hotel, where there was a lot of shopping available. Bicycles in Europe have built-in locks (similar to cars), so it is very easy to hop on and off, make stops, and know that your bicycle is protected from theft.
That night, at the suggestion of another hotel guest (who was Danish), we had dinner at an incredible restaurant, Host. We really had no idea what we were in for. This was certainly one of my favorite meals ever. You can order a la carte, but most people order their fixed 3-course menu. However, don’t let the "3 course" title fool you; they brought us a variety of small "tastes" between the 3 courses. The meal was actually more like 10 courses, and everything was so different and unique. My lobster was served on a flaming plate, and the dessert had so many different textures and flavors--it even had pop rocks in it. The service was impeccable and really one of my favorite dining experiences, which is saying a lot. Be sure to make a reservation in advance.
We started our next fabulous day by taking Stromma's “Hop on/Hop off” bus tour. Tour tickets include headphones (however, I brought my own) so you can listen to the informative guided tour as the bus maneuvers through the city. The bus stops along the way, so you can get off and explore. You simply return to a Stromma bus stop to complete the tour. All you have to do is be aware of the schedule so you know when the next bus arrives. We hopped off at The Rosenberg Castle. This castle was built in the 17th century by Christian IV. It was incredible to see so many pieces of furniture and art treasures from that time period. Even the ceilings were amazing works of art. We completed the bus tour at Gammel Strand and then took Stromma’s "Hop on/Hop off Boat Tour," which is also a headphone-assisted guided tour. It was wonderful to cruise along the water. Once we finished the boat tour, we shopped at the famous Stroget Shopping Mall with four long streets and three plazas. Stroget is a car-free zone, and the longest shopping area in Europe. We loved the store called Change, where we found fabulous (great fitting) bathing suits and lingerie. We stopped at one of the cafes along the mall for an afternoon coffee and snack, and it was lovely getting to sit and watch the people at the fountain. We then returned to our hotel for their "cozy hour" and rested until dinner, which we ate at a small Thai restaurant that locals love that was right on the lake near our hotel. We enjoyed eating dinner with a beautiful view of the water. We absolutely loved the city of Copenhagen and wished we could have stayed longer.
We flew SAS Airlines from Copenhagen to Amsterdam. We'd purchased the tickets in advance, so we got them at a great price. SAS partners with United, so if you are a United Mileage Plus member and you fly with SAS, you will accumulate miles. From the airport, it was so easy to find the ticket counter and purchase a ticket for the train to Amsterdam Central station. In Amsterdam, you always have to get each ticket "validated," or as the Dutch say, “inchecken en uitchecken,” before you get on the train, and again after the ride and before you leave the station.
We stayed at the Park Plaza Victoria Hotel, which proved to be a wise choice and a perfect location, right across the street from the Central Station. Our room was beautiful and spacious, and the staff was warm and welcoming. We got the "Iamsterdam City Card" cards for this city, and were glad we did. I highly recommend this card. You can buy different cards depending on the length of your stay and the number of attractions you want to see. Except for Anne Frank's house, everywhere we went that is mentioned below was included with the price of this card, which allowed us to visit the many attractions and museums in this city and the canal cruise. Not only did the card include free admission to many places, it also includes free unlimited use of the GVB public transport. The trams were very easy to navigate.
We took the cruise down the canals on our first day. It was so beautiful and peaceful and the best way to see Amsterdam. After the cruise, we had a wonderful dinner at W36, where you can order several small dishes to share, or full entrees. The food was so different and so good. I enjoyed the lamb chops served with an aubergine puree, which was so good with truffle butter. The potato cream with truffle was amazing, and the sautéed mushrooms were the best I've ever had. I even ordered a second plate of them because they were that good. For dessert I had Choco Planet served with chocolate crumble, white chocolate mousse, and fresh berries. They then poured a hot sauce over this creation, which caused everything to melt together to form the most amazing yummy chocolate mixture.
The culture in Amsterdam is different than what I am used to. Marijuana is illegal, but tolerated under certain conditions, and prostitution is legal there. They have a "red light district" where woman stand around in the windows of buildings hoping to lure men in, and they have places that offer high quality and tasteful live sex shows such as Casa Rosso. There are also “coffee shops” that sell a variety of marijuana and hashish. It is permitted to smoke marijuana in most public places in Amsterdam as long as doing so does not create nuisance to others.
Our next morning we visited the Anne Frank House. I strongly suggest that you purchase your tickets for this museum well in advance, as they do sell out (we purchased our tickets online over 3 months prior to our visit). Also, if you don't have an advance ticket, expect to wait in line for approximately two hours. We heard that there is a line every day of the year. This was a very organized exhibit and we walked through the entire house, where we saw photos, artifacts, and videos depicting Anne Frank’s life. It was very emotional and gut wrenching to think about the many people who lived there for over two years, with hopes of freedom, only to get caught and sent to concentration camps and lose their lives just months before the end of WWII. Afterwards, we needed a break, so we stopped at a local neighborhood cafe for a light lunch. It was on the same street as Anne's house, facing the canal that borders it. Then we walked around Amsterdam and made our way to the park and museum complex, where we visited the Rijksmuseum. This museum houses beautiful Dutch art and history from the Middle Ages and Renaissance up to the 20th Century, and includes pieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Van Gogh. You can rent a handheld device set for $5.00 that will explain the pieces, or you can download the app on your phone for free. In the same complex and only a short distance away is the fun Stedelijk Museum, dedicated to modern/contemporary art and design and which includes pieces by such artists as Van Gogh, Picasso, Chagall, and Roy Lichtenstein. We also visited the Van Gogh Museum, which is full of amazing, famous works by Van Gogh, as well as other Dutch artists who were influenced by Van Gogh.
After exploring the museums, we walked to Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s largest city park. It was absolutely beautiful. It reminded me of New York’s Central Park. Then we visited Leidseplein, a hip area where a lot of people hang out at restaurants and bars. We had a wonderful dinner there at Palladium Restaurant, where all of our dishes were delicious, notably the ravioli and their passion fruit Martini.
Our next stop, via Thalys Train, was the charming city of Bruges in Belgium. We purchased these train tickets ahead of time, as well. Thalys mailed the tickets to me via UPS. It cost only a few dollars more to upgrade to first class--and it was definitely worth it. If you travel first class, you get free Wi-Fi, a snack/lunch, and a drink (including wine). It was so easy to find our train track once we arrived at the train station. At the track, there is a large board showing the coach numbers so you'll know where to stand and wait for your coach on the train. I recommend that once you get on your coach, quickly store your luggage in the bins at the end of the coach before they get full.
Upon arriving at Bruges station, ask for the exit where the taxis are so you don't get lost, and be sure to carry change in case you need to use the restroom at the train station (it cost 50 cents to use it). For our stay in Bruges, we chose a boutique hotel well located right in the center of town: Hotel Academie. It was only a 10-minute walk from the train station, but with our luggage, we decided to take a taxi for 8 euro. The staff at the desk was friendly and helped us with directions. Our room was spacious and the hotel has a lovely courtyard to hang out in. Their breakfast buffet was 12.50 euro and quite elaborate. Bruges is a beautiful, quaint, and lovely city to walk around. There are chocolate shops everywhere, with chocolate molded into unique shapes. All of the shops seem to compete for the most unique and interesting window displays. The buildings are hundreds of years old, and there are canals throughout the city. We loved our boat ride through the canals here, too. I almost felt like we were on a movie set, it was so quaint.
For dinner we ate at another winner: Park Restaurant. This restaurant is rated the Number One restaurant in Bruges on Trip Advisor, and I can see why. They have a pre-set 4-course dinner menu paired with wine, and they continually brought out additional dishes in between the 4 courses. This restaurant is family-owned, and housed in a building that was converted from 3 houses. The owner was charming; he came out and welcomed everyone personally. The service was first class all the way. They started with a complimentary “amuse bouche” of salmon with a mini pancake, along with a glass of champagne or kir royal. This was followed by a gratin scallop appetizer, then carrot soup served in a really unique cup. Next was beef filet in a red wine sauce that was unbelievable, followed by wonderful desserts. Although the menu said that wine was limited to one glass per course, the wait staff filled my glass whenever it was empty. This was truly a spectacular meal.
We had so much fun the next day exploring this charming city. Since we'd arrived on a Saturday which was very busy, the small city (which has skinny sidewalks and cobble-stone streets made for horse-drawn carriages) seemed very crowded with tour groups and people, so it was nice to explore the little cobblestone side streets on Sunday morning when it was much quieter. It was so pleasant and the shops were really cute. We also visited the Choco Museum which is dedicated to the history of and modern day creation of chocolate candy. The museum tour ends in a demonstration room where they made hazelnut-filled chocolate candies. Best of all, at the very end we got to sample this delectable chocolate. Belgium is also known for its fabulous waffles and French fries (which, they say, were first made there). We ate both waffles and fries in this city and loved them. We found a small shop that made only "twice-fried" French fries and serve them with a choice of different dipping sauces for them. Yum! We bought waffles both at the local restaurant and also on the square. Both were equally delicious, and worth the calories.
You cannot get to Paris direct from Bruges. To get to Paris from Bruges, you have to stop and change trains in Brussels, which has a very pretty train station. From there we took the Thalys train to Paris. On this train, there was plenty of room for our luggage and comfortable seats with Wi-Fi, and complimentary food and wine. Again, it was well worth the few extra dollars for first class.
We'd initially planned to take the metro to our hotel, but once we arrived in Paris we heard that we'd have to climb a number of steps at the metro. Since we both had 50 pound suitcases, we decided not to use the metro. There were men inside the station quoting us 40-60 euros for what we thought would be a taxi, but we later learned that taxi drivers will not negotiate--they just use the meter. Our instincts told us we should just use uber instead. Even though there was a 2.5E surcharge at that particular time, it cost us less than the amount we were quoted by the men inside the station (36 euros), and we were picked up within 1 minute by a driver in a BMW who was extremely nice. This was the perfect way to begin our trip in Paris.
We stayed at Hotel des Academies et des Arts in the 6th Arrondisement. This is a lovely boutique-style hotel with an elevator, which was perfect for us. Most importantly, it is very close to a metro station-- only 1 block away. The rooms are small, but it had everything we wanted for our stay in Paris: a well-configured room with 2 twin beds. We had enough space for everything. It had a cozy bathroom with tub and shower, air conditioner and heat, a safe, and free Wi-Fi. The hotel also offers a nice continental breakfast with croissant, yogurt, cappuccino, and fresh juice for a little bit extra. When we arrived, we were greeted by a very nice gentleman at the desk. He took pleasure in explaining the layout of the city to us. Very warm staff. The only negative about the hotel was that the Wi-Fi did not work very well in our room, so we had to go to the lobby to use the internet if we needed to be online for a while. The lobby was roomy and quite pretty, with several different seating areas.
For our first morning there, we hired a guide from Tours by Locals to show us around Paris. Alois met us at our hotel. She gave us a quick lesson on how to use the metro system (I used my credit card to purchase a book of 10 tickets, known as a carnet, for 14 euros) and then we were ready to begin our day.
Our first stop with our tour guide was Notre Dame Cathedral. During our walk from the metro stop to the cathedral, Alois gave us interesting information about the city and other sites we passed. After walking through Notre Dame (short line), we explored other areas of the city including the Conciergerie, Place Dauphine, Pont-Neuf, the grounds of the Louvre (can’t believe how big it is), Tuilieries Gardens--so peaceful and beautiful--and Pierre Hermes Macarons. It was in this store that my wallet was almost stolen from my purse (see Travel tips below). We also went to the Opera house, and then to the Galeries Lafayette department store. Something I noticed while walking the streets with all of the high-end stores were the beautiful window dressings at each store. Every store’s display was so well presented. Galeries Lafayette is the MOST beautiful store--it is "vintage," but still thriving! When you walk in, be sure to go to the center of the store and look up at the gorgeous stained glass ceiling. Then you can take the elevator to the top floor, where there is a beautiful rooftop deck with incredible (free) views of the city. It was so great to spend our first day touring Paris with a local guide who gave us her personal insight into Paris. She was very knowledgeable and fun to be with.
If you would like to visit the Eiffel Tower, I suggest that you purchase your tickets in advance. They go on sale exactly three months in advance at 8:30 a.m. Paris time. This is what you will need to do if you want to buy advance-sale tickets (and not have to wait in line): choose several possible dates and times, and then go online at exactly 12:30 a.m. PST. You must be precise with your timing, as they sell out quickly! While I was not able to get our first choice, we did get tickets for a time slot we were happy with (9:30 PM to go to the very top). I was so amazed that tickets for the day we wanted were completely sold out within 5 minutes! Note: To get to the Eiffel Tower: my metro app suggested the metro exit at Bir-Hakeim, but when we returned to that area the next day, we realized that the better/closer exit was Trocadero. This was a much nicer walk through a lovely park area, and a great way to approach the Eiffel Tower. Once we arrived at the Eiffel Tower, we went through security fairly quickly but then waited in line to go up each of the two elevators and then the steps to the top. The views were amazing, and it was windy but fun. Every night at around 11:00 PM, there is a nice light show (the lights go on and off) for 5 minutes, so plan accordingly. It is stunning--a must-see, in my opinion.
While in Paris, we used the two-day Paris Pass (they also offer 4- and 6-day passes). The Paris Pass includes 3 cards: the Museum Pass, the Attraction Pass, and a Transportation pass. Each card can be used for 2 days, but you don’t have to start them all on the same day.
We started our next day in the city using our Paris Pass Attraction card with a visit to the Montparnasse Tower, where you go to the top and can see the entire city (including the Eiffel Tower). The view was incredible. There was no line to go up to the top, but there was a short line to exit, as we were behind a large group of kids. After stopping at a street vendor selling Nutella crepes (my favorite), we then went (used the Paris Pass) for the hour-long Bateaux Parisiens River Cruise down the Seine River . You catch this boat at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. There are a few different cruise companies, so be sure to look for the name of the company before you walk down the many steps to the river. The line was long but the boat was so large that everyone was able to get on, so don’t be discouraged if you see a long line. We sat on the second (top) level, which was beautiful, but if you want to listen to the audio guide, you need to sit inside on the first level where they have hand-held devices with narration.
After the river cruise, we picked up our "Hop-on/Hop-off " bus passes (also included with the Paris Pass) to use the next day. It's strange, but they insist that you pick up the bus pass at the office in the center of town (near the Opera National de Paris--formerly the Palais Garnier, a beautiful building and area). Note: If you want to use the bus with the Paris Pass, you cannot hop on the bus unless you first pick up the bus pass at their office, so plan accordingly. We arrived at the office at 5:00 PM, so they allowed us to use the bus pass that evening too. They explained that while typically the bus pass is good only for one day, if it is activated after 4:00 PM, to be fair, they allow pass-holders the right to use the pass on that day as well as the next. So off we went: we hopped right on the bus and started exploring. As with the other city passes, they give you headsets, but I always carry my own. After a long day with lots of walking, we welcomed the bus ride through the city as we sat and learned tidbits about many great landmarks and buildings. We hopped off of the bus at the Champs-Elysees and shopped and explored, and then had dinner there. After dinner we returned to the bus and really enjoyed a fabulous 2-hour night tour of this great city (this was the night tour and does not make stops, so you stay on for the entire 2 hours). The city lights of Paris are quite spectacular. The bus driver also timed it perfectly so that we ended up in front of the Eiffel Tower right at 11:00 to watch it light up.
I have to include a comment about the impressive transportation system in Paris. It’s almost like a puzzle when you try to figure out which lines connect. I was blown away by how quickly the trains arrived: we never had to wait any longer than 2-4 minutes. I used the RAPT app for guidance and it worked great.
The next morning we visited the church at Saint-Chappelle. With our Paris Pass, we were able to walk right in without waiting in the long line. After that, we went to the Deportation Memorial, which is a bit hard to find but located right behind Notre Dame. This is a small memorial dedicated to the 200,000 French victims of the Nazi concentration Camps. Down a set of stairs is a small hallway with thousands of tiny lights commemorating those who died. It was very touching. Afterward we walked across the bridge at the corner to Ile de la Cite for lunch. We loved our visit there. It was so nice to sit outside at a café, meeting and talking to other cafe guests and locals next to us. We met the most interesting people.
Our next stop was the museum Centre Pompidou, a modern art museum (also free admission with the Paris Pass). This museum has paintings by many famous artists such as Matisse, Picasso, and Kadinsky, as well as many unique works by others including videos, symbolic objects, and more. It is very different. Our next stop was Europe’s largest and grandest museum, the Louvre (included in the Paris Pass). Note that the Louvre is closed Tuesdays and open late on Wednesdays and Fridays. We entered underground by the carousel. Luckily, there was no line for security and, with our Paris Pass, we were able to walk right in. This museum is so big that you really do need a plan. My plan was to follow the Rick Steves Louvre podcast. It really made for an enjoyable day. His podcast focused on the most popular pieces and guided me through the museum while offering concise explanations and details about the most significant pieces, such as the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and The Winged Victory of Samothrace. Once I finished the Rick Steves tour, I strolled around the museum admiring other works of art. I loved the sculptures. I even discovered Napoleon’s apartment. It was really cool to see and I recommend that you make a point to see it. For dinner that night, we went to Breizh Cafe in Marais; they serve great crepes and have reasonable prices. Note that this is a popular but small restaurant; it gets crowded, so you should make a reservation.
For our last day in Paris, we still wanted to cover a few more museums. We started at Musee de l'Orangerie (included with the Paris Pass). This used to be an arboretum with orange trees kept for the palace--hence the name--and now it is one of the best museums in Paris. Note the Rodin sculptures in the outside garden. It is conveniently located near the Tuileries Gardens and features Monet’s fabulous huge "Water Lilies" paintings, which encompass 2 rooms of the museum in a beautiful display of calmness and serene peace. There are also incredible works of art downstairs by Picasso, Matisse, and Renoir, among others. We rented the easy-to-use audio guide; well worth it for $5.00. I finished before my friend, so I walked outside through the Tuileries Gardens to the shops and restaurants on Rue de Rivoli and enjoyed a nice lunch. It started to rain a bit so I called an uber (for 9 euros) to take me to our next stop, Musee Rodin (also included In the Paris Pass). We loved the beautiful and peaceful outdoor sculpture garden with Rodin’s many special works of art, including the famous “The Thinker.”
We were so exhausted that day, we decided to linger over a nice long lunch/dinner. We took the metro to Saint Michel area and sat in one of the lovely cafés along the Seine and enjoyed a wonderful meal. We then took the train to the Musee d'Orsay (also included on Paris Pass) . This museum is closed on Mondays and open late on Thursday nights until 9:45, so we planned in advance to go there that night during their evening opening time. I listened to Rick Steves’ podcast and, again, it really made my visit enjoyable, informative, and fun. I felt as if I was on a scavenger hunt looking for each piece as he guided me through the museum. There are magnificent works of art here, and the building is also a work of art in and of itself.
On our last morning in Paris, we walked only a few blocks from our hotel to the grand Luxembourg Garden, which is open to the public. Along the way, we passed a number of great shops and cafes. Once in the gardens, we admired the beautiful gardens and statutes. This area used to be the private backyard and garden for the Luxembourg Castle, which is still there today. Although we didn't have time to eat there, we noticed a very pretty restaurant serving crepes right next to the entrance of the castle. It was very crowded and looked inviting. We wanted to eat there but, alas, our time in Paris had come to an end. We had to go and catch our train to London.
Re: Paris Museums: Since there are so many, here is a list of our absolute favorites that we suggest you do not miss:
L'Orangerie--houses Monet’s Water Lilies. See both the upstairs and downstairs--allow at least 1 hour. Near the Louvre.
Musee D'Orsay--also near the Louvre. Allow at least 2 hrs. Worth it if you've never been. The building alone--a former train station--is amazing.
Rodin Museum is really an outdoor sculpture garden and is peaceful and cool. The "Thinker" statute is there.
Other random tips for Paris:
METRO: Buy a "carnet" on your first day there. It's the best value for metro tickets. When taking the metro, be aware that sometimes the doors do not open on their own. You may need to push a button or a lever to open the door from both the inside and the outside of the train. Many stations do not have escalators or elevators, so if you are carrying heavy luggage, think twice about taking the metro. In addition to their large color-coded maps at all of the stations, I used the app RATP to help guide me with the metro. It is so easy and fun: you just plug in where you want to go and it will tell you what trains to take and where to exit.
Make a plan with your family that if one person does not get off of the train in time to just get off at the next stop and wait for you there. It didn’t happen to us, but we did see that happen, so it's best to have a back-up plan, just in case.
The best store to buy macarons is Laduree. There are several locations in Paris, and they all have quite a large selection of flavors; all are great. Other popular macaron stores are Hermes and Pierre's. This is a nice treat to buy on your last day there and bring home to your friends and family. Don't believe them when they tell you they "have" to stay refrigerated...ours weren't and they were fine.
Try to go to Ile de la Cite--it's a cool small island just behind Notre Dame cathedral. You just walk over the short bridge and you are there. Great small cafes and great ice cream. We had a good meal and met great people at La Chaumiere, the very first cafe right over the small bridge. Most cafes have decent prix fixe meals. The Crepes Suzettes were delicious!
The best time to go to the Eiffel Tower in the summer is around 9:30 or 10:00 p.m. to catch the sunset. Even if you decide not to go up to the top, this is a must-see from the street. Plan your day so that you are in front of the Eiffel Tower at around 11:00 p.m. to see the light show at least one time during your stay. I think the time changes, so check with your hotel as to the time.
Three cathedrals worthy of a visit: Notre Dame, St. Chappelle, and Saint Sulpice.
Hop on/hop off bus is worth it in Paris and is a great way to see Paris at night.
Über is great way to get around in Paris
In France, it is polite to always greet a person by saying “Bonjour” before asking for help.
We booked the Eurostar Train and traveled "in style" from Paris to London. It cost us a little bit extra for "Premium" assigned seats (this class on the Eurostar is in-between Business and Coach). It wasn’t that much more money, and so worth it. Once we got to the train station, we went up the escalator and found the sign to London. We were then immediately approached by Eurostar representatives, who handed out the immigration declaration cards. What's interesting is that, while you are still technically still in Paris, you actually go through UK customs before you get on the train. The customs agents interviewed everyone privately, which was somewhat comforting. With our "Premier" seats, we were able to skip the lines of Coach ticket holders and avoid more lines. We then took an escalator down to the train and walked to our assigned train to check in. There were a few steps and we did have to lift our luggage to get onto the train. The best seats are those with 2 forward and 2 rear-facing seats (it turned out that the table at our reserved seat was broken, so they moved us a few rows over to a better seat configuration). Next time I travel this route, I would book 2 forward-facing seats in this section and hope that no one books the 2 rear-facing seats. It was very roomy and comfortable. There are power outlets on the train, but no Wi-Fi. They served us a 2-course snack, including a cheese plate with wine.
As with Paris, our luggage was too heavy to carry up and down the stairs of the tube. When we arrived in London, we immediately called an Uber to take us to our hotel, the Park Plaza County Hall London. What a great hotel choice. The Park Plaza is conveniently located near the Waterloo station tube stop, near the London Eye, and close to trendy restaurants and bars. Not only is the hotel well located, but it is also beautiful. We were fortunate to get a very spacious room on the Penthouse (14th) floor. Our room was perfect. It was nicely decorated, with a separate living-room seating area that had its own TV, plus an enormous balcony with a magnificent view. The staff, especially Brad, was incredibly nice and very helpful. This hotel really caters to its guests. They have a nice exercise room, and also a laundry room for guests to wash their own laundry. They also offer a wonderful and popular breakfast buffet, which was stocked with many selections of cheeses, meats, croissants, eggs, waffles, yogurt, fruit, and so much more. Since the UK uses a different electrical system than the other cities we visited in Europe, and we didn't have the correct adapter, the hotel graciously allowed us to borrow one. They also have vending machines in the laundry room where you can purchase UK adapters.
The first night we went out exploring and discovered Southbank Centre Market, a food market with a variety of food and drinks being sold. This food market occurs every weekend (Friday-Sunday). We had dinner that night at the famous Simpsons on the Strand, and enjoyed a delectable lobster bisque, wonderful prime rib and, of course, famous Yorkshire pudding. After dinner we explored the exquisite Savoy Hotel lobby next door. The Savoy has an interesting history, as it used to be a palace.
We started our first full day in London by taking the Big Bus London Tour. They have many buses, and they stop at various locations all over the city. As with the other cities, it is designed so that you can hop on and off anytime you want. While riding in the bus, you can listen to pre-recorded informative commentary about the attractions by using earphones they provide you. We enjoyed sitting on top of the open-air bus. The ticket for the Big Bus London also included a river cruise down the Thames River and a city walking tour.
When not on the bus, we took the tube, which is the London subway. We used the HopStop and Tube Map apps and the Transport for London (TFL) website to help us get around. Also, to use the tube, I recommend that you buy a blue "Oyster Travelcard" and put money on it. With the Oyster card, you simply tap your card at the entrance and exit, and it immediately deducts the fare. The nice thing about the Oyster card it is that there is a cap on how much you can be charged in one day if you stay within zones 1 and 2. You pay a deposit of $5.00 for the card, but you get the deposit back (and any extra unused money you put on it) at the ticket booth when you are finished with it.
The next morning we used the 2 Day "London Pass" to take the river cruise from the London Eye to the Tower of London Tower of London. Using our London Pass, we were able to walk right in without waiting on line. We headed straight to the Crown Jewels, but because we had gotten there later than expected, there was a long line to view them. The line did move pretty quickly, though.
After walking through the various exhibits at the Tower of London, we decided to take a break from the city and we took the train (about a 45 min ride) to Hampton Court Palace (also included in the London Pass). We really enjoyed this castle tour, and recommend it. I enjoyed seeing the King’s Apartments the most. After touring the castle, we walked through the gorgeous gardens, especially the huge rose gardens. It smelled so beautiful. We took great pictures there and stayed until they closed, so by the time we left there was nobody around. It was magical to see the entrance to the castle with nobody standing in front of it. The train leaves every 30 minutes to get to the castle, but on the way back to London in the evening, it leaves only once every hour, so be sure to check the schedule ahead of time. We were able to use our Oyster card for the train; however it is not in zones 1 or 2, so it cost a few dollars extra each way.
I love going to the theater, and London has a great theater scene, so we planned ahead. We looked online to find which shows would be in London during our stay and chose three: Gypsy, Miss Saigon, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
That night we saw our first show, Gypsy playing at the Savoy Theater. This was wonderful. We purchased our tickets for Gypsy ahead of time using ATG Tickets. This is a great site that allows you to buy tickets at face value with no service charges. They mailed the tickets to the U.S. free of charge, and with our advance planning, we were able to secure great seats. We had a wonderful dinner across the street from the Savoy Theater at Saleri.
The next morning, we had a 10:00 a.m. reservation at the London Eye. This is the first ride of the day, and a great time to go (not crowded). The London Eye is a large Ferris wheel, 442 feet high, ideally located at the edge of the Thames River. It was opened in 2000 in celebration of the Millennium, and has grown in popularity over the years. It is visible from most spots on the Thames River. Since January of 2005, the Eye has been the focal point of London's New Year celebrations, with 10-minute displays of fireworks fired from the wheel itself. The wheel moves very slowly, so you don’t even feel like you are moving. You have lots of time to take pictures, which you will want to do...what an incredible panoramic view of the city; it is spectacular. You can see Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and a good stretch of the Thames River. I suggest that you buy tickets ahead of time; tickets are sold online. Also, try to go early since it can get crowded later in the day. There is also a very cool 4D movie experience included with this ticket. Be sure to see this 3 minute film before or after your ride.
After our ride, we then walked from the London Eye to Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guards. From there, we walked next door to a small museum, the Queens Gallery (using the London Pass) and then we went on to the Royal Mews (also using the London Pass). Be sure to get a headset at the Royal Mews, as it is very interesting to learn the history and background of the different carriages and cars used by the Royal Family. After the Royal Mews, we took a train to Kensington Palace.
My friend went inside the House of Parliament and Westminster Cathedral (also included in the London Pass). Both were close by our hotel. She also went to the Somerset House (London Pass again), which has a great collection of impressionist paintings by well-known artists, and is easy to see in around one hour. The courtyard there is beautiful, too.
We had dinner that night at Leicester Square at a restaurant called La Polenteria. They had a great happy hour special; my small plate of tapas and a glass of Prosecco cost only 8 Euros. After dinner, we saw Miss Saigon at the Prince Edward Theatre. This has always been one of my favorite musicals. It is a powerful show with an important and unforgettable message about the Vietnam War. Every time I see it, I am still just as touched and teary-eyed. The actors had incredible voices, the set design was amazing (including a helicopter), and the sound was so realistic (I kept looking up to see if the helicopter was flying over me). I was so glad we saw this show.
We had one more day in London and I was determined to see as much as possible, so I got an early morning start and walked from our hotel to the Tate Modern Museum (also included in the London Pass). Their audio guide really enhanced my visit. It was so interesting to see so many different forms of art. There is even a video exhibit featuring blind people painting self-portraits and landscapes. They talked about what they thought a sunset looked like and painted using their hands and even feet.
From Tate Modern I walked across the bridge to St. Paul's Cathedral. I then hopped on the tube and went to the British Museum. While walking to the museum, I discovered Valerie Patisserie, which offered an afternoon tea for two for only 25 pounds. We went there for our "London tea experience" and really enjoyed it.
After our tea, we hopped back on the tube to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum, and then took the tube to Oxford Street to do some shopping at Marks and Spencer (reasonable prices) and visit Harrods What a treat! I had no idea how beautiful Harrods was. I recommend that you go there to eat a meal. Harrods has great cafes/restaurants, and there are many to choose from. Note that Harrods also sells the famous (and delicious) French macarons made by Laduree. They fly them in from Paris. These are a nice treat to bring home to friends and family. In addition to gourmet food, it was so much fun to walk through the store and see exquisite jewelry from DeBeers, unique and pricy clothing and merchandise, and other treats.
From Harrods, we went to the London West area for dinner to see the incredible play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. It was recommend to me (via Twitter) by the producer of Gypsy, and I must tell you we were blown away by this adaptation of the popular book. Not only was the acting tremendous, the book adaptation was done in a most interesting and innovative way. Using lights, sound, and technology, we were engrossed in everything that was happening on stage. We were exhausted after watching this performance as it was so intense; the lead actor was terrific. After the show, we happened to be standing outside the theatre talking to other tourists. It was a real treat for us when the young lead actor Sion Daniel Young walked out right in front of us. He was so nice and humble. This was a new cast and only his second performance, but it seemed as if he has been playing this role for years. We were so surprised when he told us he'd had only trained for this part for the past 6 weeks. Truly remarkable.
Since we had an early morning flight, we'd arranged to stay at a hotel near the airport for our last night. We took an Uber from the theatre to our London hotel to pick up our luggage, and then had the same Uber driver take us to our airport hotel. We flew home non-stop on British Airways using frequent flyer miles. The plane had 2 levels, so we paid extra to book our seats in advance and get 2 seats on the upper level. There were many movies to choose from and the flight attendants were all friendly and attentive.
I. Pre-Travel PLANNING AND RESEARCH TIPS for a trip to Europe:
I had 6 months to plan for this trip, so I did a lot of research.
When booking plane tickets, check first to see how many miles you'll need and then see if you have enough. You might be pleasantly surprised, as we were. To get the best seat choices, I like to use the website Seat Guru to figure out which seats are the most comfortable and well liked from former travelers (yes, there is even a site for this!). I also app Gate Guru to research the airport to see the restaurant offerings in the terminal we would be in while waiting for our connecting flights.
After securing your plane tickets, I suggest you book your hotels next. The most helpful site for us was Trip Advisor. Note that many hotels in Europe do not have air conditioning so, if that is important to you, you should make sure the hotels that you select do. We did a lot of research before selecting our hotels, and were happy with all of our choices. I highly recommend each of the hotels on this list. My review above has more details about each of the hotels where we stayed.
Here is a list of the hotels we stayed in the 5 cities we visited:
The website Visit A City is very useful. Just put in the city you will be visiting and the number of days you'll be there. It will then set up a suggested itinerary for you, which you can edit by adding or deleting different attractions, switching the times around, and adding your hotel. It will give you step-by-step instructions on how to get from one attraction to the next, and also a description of each attraction.
Visit Rick Steves' website, download his podcasts, and buy his books for the countries you will be visiting. We really enjoyed visiting museums while listening to his podcasts, as he offers a wealth of information on the most popular pieces of art, and guides you through the museum in an organized manner. He also has podcasts of walking tours of the cities, which are great.
Read the forums on TripAdvisor. Ask questions if you have any. There are so many members waiting to give you advice. They even gave me directions on the best way to get from the train station or airport to our hotels.
Take note of the airports that you will be flying into or out of and see if you need to sign up ahead of time to become a member to get free Wi-Fi.
Purchase tickets in advance for the Eiffel Tower, Anne Frank House, and train rides (Eurostar and Thalys). Eiffel Tower and Anne Frank House sell out months in advance, and Eurostar and Thalys prices increase as you get closer to the date.
Purchase a "London Pass," "Paris Pass," and the "I Am Amsterdam" card if you plan to do a lot of sightseeing. I found that we were motivated to visit more places (if only for a short time) because we didn’t have to pay a separate entrance fee each time. As an added bonus: many of the places had a special entrance (with no waiting) for pass-holders, so we didn’t have to wait so long to get inside.
Many cities offer free walking tours and you just tip the guide. You can google search for these types of walks. You can plan and reserve these walking tours ahead of time.
Contact your cellular company and find out what type of international plans they have. I am with AT&T so I purchased the passport plan. This gave me unlimited texting, as well as discount calling rates and a small amount of data. To make sure I didn’t get charged for Internet usage by mistake, I turned off my cellular date roaming and disabled all apps that use cellular data.
There are several good apps that you can download that will show you the money conversion rate. I used and liked XE. You can also print out a pocket currency converter to have easy access to money conversions. Here is a sample: Pocket currency converter
Choose credit cards that do not add foreign transaction fees. I have credit cards with both Chase and Citibank that waived foreign transaction fees. I am also a Chase Private Client, so they waive ATM fees up to 5 times in one month, so I was able to easily get currency in the different countries without it costing me additional fees. I did get some foreign currency from my bank before I left so I would have money when I arrived at the airport or train station. American Express is not widely accepted in stores Europe (although some of their cards offer no transaction fees and all hotels did accept AMEX), so be sure to bring a Visa or MasterCard too. Call your credit card companies about 1-2 weeks before you leave to let them know your travel dates so they can anticipate your different spending patterns. You can also ask them what their transaction fees are.
II. PACKING TIPS
Pack a few extra plastic bags for dirty laundry, as well as envelopes or plastic baggies for receipts.
Make a copy of important documents (passports and tickets) and credit cards and keep one copy with you in a separate baggage or with a person you trust in case you lose your original documents. Be sure to photocopy both sides of your credit cards so you have the number to call if you lose your cards. I like to take a photo of my important documents and luggage and store them on my phone in case I lose them.
Pack plug adapters for the cities you'll be in. Not all hotels offer these.
Bring a washcloth; not all hotels offer them.
Bring clips if you want to close the drapes completely to avoid the sunlight coming in.
Pack and wear a money belt (especially for when you will be in crowded places)
Bring your own headphones.
Expect to do a lot of walking. Buy the best walking shoes you can afford, and wear them a few times on long walks before you leave for your trip to make sure you can walk long distances in them.
Bring a small purse/messenger "cross-body" bag that will hold your wallet and necessary items for the day. Keep this bag in front of you (not on your side or back). It's also great to bring a foldable (microfiber) tote bag that you can fold up and then take out if you make some larger purchases.
Bring a good (foldable) hat and sunglasses if you like to protect your eyes.
III. TRAVEL TIPS WHILE IN EUROPE
In London and Paris, UBER or Taxi is the best way to get from the airport/central train station to your B&B or hotel, because some of the train stations have many stairs and no elevators and it's hard to navigate luggage through the metro (Paris) or tube (London).
There are many people out there ready to pick your pockets. In fact, it happened to me: while in the macaron store, we were waiting in line to order our macaron selections (and of course, distracted), when all of a sudden I felt something and looked up. A man was standing very close to me. When he knew I felt something, he immediately "apologized" and moved away; I then noticed that my purse was unzipped! I accused him of trying to steal my wallet; he (of course) denied this, and stood still in the store for another minute before leaving without buying anything. Luckily, I had taken precautions and put my credit card and money in a smaller coin purse and zipped that inside a smaller zipped pocket in my purse, so he did not get to it. I highly recommend putting your valuables in another zipped area in your purse (then they have to get through two zippered pockets instead of one). I had read about pickpockets and was prepared, yet I easily could have had my wallet stolen if not for the secondary security measure I took that day.
When using credit cards with a chip (necessary all over Europe), you need to leave your credit card in the card reader while they run it, and then you sign the receipt. You must remember to take your credit card back (since you don't hand your card to a cashier, and they never touch it, they don't usually remind you to take it out of the card reader). I made the mistake of leaving my card in the card reader machine at the busy macaron store, so we had to go all the way back to the store to retrieve it.
WI-FI: Most cities in Europe do not have free Wi-Fi. This can be extremely frustrating, especially if you get lost, as we did. It is hard to find Wi-Fi in the cities, unless you are at a cafe that has a Wi-Fi password and allows customers to use it. There are several things that you can do, most of which we learned too late:
You can go to the Orange store, where we heard you could purchase a Wi-Fi access card for your smart phone or iPad. We were so busy seeing sites that we never found the Orange store until our last day in Paris, when it was too late. If I travel there again, I'd go there on my first day. This would have saved us a lot of time and aggravation.
Download directions to places you are going BEFORE you leave your hotel. This takes advance planning and thought.
Ask your hotel concierge to give you explicit directions for each site you plan to go to.
We heard that in London, you can get free Wi-Fi if you set up a free account with The Cloud. We did that, but it didn't work everywhere. Eat at cafes and restaurants that offer free Wi-Fi, so that you can plan your route for the next part of your day.
Use your hotel's Wi-Fi to download apps for the museums you are going to, as well as Rick Steves’ city and museum tours, the night before. Many museum apps are free and have great audio tours. (Best to download these apps prior to leaving on vacation).
Write down the name, address and telephone number of your hotel and have it on a piece of paper that you can show your taxi or Uber driver, so he knows where you want to go.
Use Google street view to see the surrounding areas of your hotel and get a better feel for where you will be staying. It also helps you to know what to look for once you arrive.
Check with your hotel concierge to make sure that the sites you want to go to are open that day and that the exhibits you want to see are still running.
Be sure to bring and keep your VAT (value added tax) refunds in a separate envelope, and allow enough time at the airport to claim your VAT refunds before you leave.
No compensation was received for this post. Discounts and complimentary passes were provided by several of the businesses mentioned above, which facilitated the writing of this post.