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First Time In Europe: An Alternative Itinerary

So, you decided to take the plunge and go to Europe for the first time! I made this post specifically because several people, as recently as two weeks ago, have messaged me on my Instagram and Twitter of where they should go for their first time in Europe. And I figured, why not share my personal First Time in Europe Itinerary with the world?

My first time in Europe was when I was 13 years old, and it changed my life. 20 students and I went to Italy and France. Every city we went to fascinated me; as I was just starting to recover from one city, we ventured off to another city which punched me in the gut with its beauty. I was awestruck by the warm, yet muted colours of of Roman architecture, the sheer beauty of Florence’s cathedrals, and the overall allure of Paris. I remember being on top of the Duomo in Florence telling my friend that first, I was going to come back ASAP (did 18 months later!), and I had to see the rest the world had to offer.

Viewing the top of the Duomo, Florence

Since moving to Scotland, I’ve been able to travel to 16 distinct and unique countries within the continent. So far, I’ve loved nearly every place, and there is so much to see. My travel bucket list of the year comprises largely of European countries because while I’ve been to a good number of places, there are 50 countries to see in Europe!

When people hear “Europe” they often think of the big ones: London, Paris, Rome, etc. If you’re looking for an itinerary that looks like that, it may be best to read someone else’s post.

My personal favourite countries in Europe are mostly “up and coming” countries and cities. They offer a different type of authenticity and cultural richness that may be harder to find in cities with hordes of tourists. This isn’t to dismiss any of the above cities: the places above are absolute classics everyone must visit in their lifetime and I’ve fallen in love with each of them. But, the astronomical popularity of these places leave a lot of other really beautiful and amazing cities/countries out of the spotlight, and my First Time in Europe Itinerary intends to bring them forward. These are all condensed guides in which I have full-guides in the links below.


Croatia

Crystal-clear waters, the freshest Mediterranean food, friendly locals…and it’s the backdrop for a good chunk of Game of Thrones. Check out my full guide to Croatia here!

Although becoming increasingly popular by the day, Croatia is still relatively unknown to non-Europeans, for now. Croatia’s inland and its large coast are vastly different; the coast offers the islands and sheer beauty of Greece, the food of the Mediterranean, but the inland offers the Slavic grit of its neighbouring countries of Bosnia and Serbia.

This gorgeous country offers incredible national parks decked out with waterfalls, colourful seaside towns, 1,000+ islands, and the most beautiful sunsets in the world. I first came here in April 2017 on a road-trip and we went all the way down the country. Every turn surprised me with its stunningly paradisical feel. If you’re looking for a Mediterranean adventure but you’re put off by the tourists/expenses of Greece, Croatia, without question, is the way to go.

Things to Know

  • The language is Croatian, but a lot of the people speak a bit of English. But if you learn a few Croatian words (such as Želim jedna piva velika – look it up), the Croatians will instantly warm up, and in my experience, BE impressed!
  • Try and go in April/May or September, it’ll be warm and the tourists will be far and few. Things will be much cheaper and it’ll overall be a more enjoyable experience. However, Dubrovnik will always be crowded.
  • Croatia is pretty cheap; since they’re not on the Euro, your money will go far.

    The clear waters of Plitviče

Where to Go

  • Plitviče Jezera National Park – One of the most surreal places on the planet, this 114 sq. mile park is filled with striking emerald lakes, huge waterfalls, and countless streams to explore. Many people camp here for several days but you can see the highlights on a day-trip. If you go in April, many of the trees will still be barren, but it’s still magnificent.
  • Zadar – this cool-sounding seaside town is the perfect place to start off. Here you can see the Monument to the Sun which is basically a solar-powered dancefloor for the public. Be sure to also check out the Sea Organ, a series of underwater pipes which plays music when filled with the seawater.
  • Split – Croatia’s biggest coastal city, you’ll find that Split is surrounded by Emperor Diocletian’s Palace, built circa 400 AD. Relax along the promenade, rent a boat to drive on the sea, immerse yourself in history, or have some of the best clam risotto of your life in this city.
  • Dubrovnik – Home of many scenes from Game of Thrones, this is the most touristy spot in Croatia, but with good reason. You can’t come here without seeing the Lovrijenac Fortress and walking along the walls of Old Town. Take the cable car up to Srd Hill to Panorama Restaurant to eat great (though slightly overpriced) food, but the view is what makes it worth going to. There are also free boats to the nearby Lokrum Island.

    Dubrovnik

Kotor, Montenegro

My friends and I originally came here because we missed a car ferry to a Croatian Island, but that was the best mistake that happened to us! Montenegro is a jaw-droppingly beautiful country which has the southernmost fjords in Europe. Check out my full guide to Kotor here!

Things to Do

Piazza of the Arms – Kotor’s main town square, it has a beautiful old clock tower built in 1602.

St. Tryphon’s Cathedral – One of two Roman Catholic cathedrals in all of Montenegro

Saint Nicolas Church – Another typically pretty European cathedral!

Emperor Justinian’s Fortress – you can’t say you’ve gone to Kotor until you’ve come here. Fortified in 535 AD, it offers absolutely unreal views of the town.

Full view over Justinian’s Fortress

Prague, Czech Republic

Not exactly “hidden,” but this city deserves so much more love. Prague is a truly ethereal land that’s probably the closest thing the planet will get to a fairytale. It’s decked out with castles, bridges, and oozes charm. Pretty much, it makes Disneyland look like a dump. Prague is a perfect mix of opulent, edgy, magnificent, and gritty. You can waltz along the streets adorned with pastel buildings, go straight into an industrial club and dance the night away. Here’s my full 3-day guide to Prague here!

What To Know

  • The Czech Republic speaks Czech, obviously, but many in Prague speak good English.
  • Prague is really cheap! Despite being part of the EU, the CR uses korunas, which means your dollars, euros, or pounds will go far.

Things to Do

  • See the best of Prague’s architecture, including the Astronomical Clock at Old Town Square
  • Walk the iconic King Charles Bridge, then climb the Old Town Bridge Tower for that postcard photo of Prague
  • See one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world, the rose-gold dream, St Nichol’s Cathedral.
  • Walk up to the Prague Castle for panoramic views of the cityscape. Be sure to also see St. Vitus Cathedral.
  • See the John Lennon Wall, and spray-paint something on one of the few legal spray-painting walls in Europe.
  • Head up to Letna Park to see the Crawling Babies, slightly terrifying statues of big-headed faceless babies.

View from the Prague Castle

View from the Old Town Bridge Tower

Portugal

With stunning wine regions, hyper-colour cities, surreal aristocratic playgrounds, and more, Portugal is the country to watch out for. Read my guides to Porto, Cascais, and Sintra here!

The side view of Castelo São Jorge, Lisbon

What to Know

  • The language is Portuguese, though many speak English in Lisbon/Sintra/Cascais. Many speak English in northern Porto as well, but it’s less common.
  • All drugs are legal, so ignore any suspicious men on the street trying to sell you cocaine or hash. No, I’m not kidding. As crazy as this sounds, 99% of the time it’s talcum powder and spices. They’re not violent at all; they just try and call your attention and flash a little baggie. Ignore them and keep going where you’re going.
  • Portugal is the place to do day-trips; there is so much to see in this small country that staying in one city for a few days would rob you of so many missed opportunities.

    On the way to Quinta de Santa Cristina Vineyard

Where to Go

    • Lisbon – The strikingly colourful capital of Portugal is the perfect place to start. Super artsy and up-and-coming, be sure to visit the delicious Time Out Market, probably the best food market I’ve been to. Also, climb the Castelo de São Jorge for panoramic views, and the intricately styled Torre de Belem.
    • Sintra – One of two day-trips from Lisbon, this magical place is called “The Portuguese Disneyland,” and with good reason. . If you’re going for a day, you must visit the Quinta del Regaleira, the ridiculously lush and beautiful estate of the Viscountess of Regaleira, Ermalinda Monteiro, and its surrounding area. After, take a taxi or a 45-minute mountainous hike to the Castelo da Pena.
    • Cascais – The beach day-trip from Lisbon, this resort town offers seaside cliffs, beach volleyball, and relaxation at its finest. Hike up to the cliffs of Boca do Inferno, and use this time to get a €2 bottle of wine and chill out on the beach.
    • Porto – Way up north, this city is divided by the Rio Douro. Home of Port wine, go on a wine tasting (or 3), walk alongside La Rebeira promenade and admire the opulence of the  Cathedral.
    • Quinta Da Santa Cristina – a highlight of my Porto trip, this vineyard offers exquisite 2-hour tours from the vines to the processing to the bottling of wine. They offer four tastings, with snacks, for €12. Link is here! (No I’m not getting paid for this [though I should], I just loved it that much.

Sintra

Castelo da Pena, Sintra

Porto

Scotland

Last but not least, you didn’t think I’d finish this post without mentioning my current home, did you??

Many people come to the UK, but they always go to London, or England as a whole. England’s great, but Scotland deserves more love! One of the most naturally stunning countries in the world, it also comes with an equally beautiful capital, Edinburgh, and a thriving, bustling, and (admittedly) cooler city, Glasgow.

Ashton Lane, Glasgow

What to Know

  • Scotland, like the rest of the UK, uses the pound. Things will be expensive.
  • No, no one here speaks Scottish. Everyone speaks English!!! (I’ve gotten this…too many times)
  • The weather is absolutely unpredictable, especially in the Highlands. Pack accordingly.

Edinburgh

Holyrood Park, Edinburgh

Where to Go

  • Edinburgh – Perhaps the most underrated city in Europe (Bias? Me? Never.), Edinburgh has everything, from 900+ year-old castles, an extinct volcano, and a thriving bar/local music scene. If you can’t see the Highlands, get your own little slice at the gorgeous Holyrood Park. Later, stroll down the Royal Mile and check out that giant thing protruding Edinburgh’s skyline, the iconic Edinburgh Castle. There’s obviously much more, so check out my quick weekend guide here!
  • Glasgow – Edinburgh’s cooler counterpart (though many won’t admit it), a 45-minute train ride will take you to Scotland’s largest city. Whether you’re seeing the opulent University of Glasgow, the striking Kelvingrove Museum and Gallery, shopping down Buchanan Street or making future regrets in the nightlife hub of Scotland, it’s a city dynamic enough for anyone and everyone.
  • Glencoe – the Highlands takes up over half of Scotland’s area, but an absolute highlight is Glencoe. A tiny village that’s home to Scotland’s most famous glen (read: valley), it was the first place that left me speechless from its natural beauty. You can do a day-trip from either Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Glencoe

Scottish Highlands


I know this post was long, and if you’re here at the end, congratulations! You’re either my mom or you just had too much time on your hands.

All jokes aside, if someone wanted an alternative itinerary to Europe that didn’t include any of the typical places one visits, this is 100% I would recommend to them. My opinions on this post will inevitably change, aka when I hopefully hit Turkey soon.

Going the typical path is always nice, and it’s a “typical path” for good reason; its tried and true. But sometimes, doing something a little different than anyone else can lead to a richer or more memorable experience. I do recognise all these places are popular in comparison to say, Azerbaijan or Macedonia, but I haven’t had a chance to hit every country yet. But I will, and soon! I hope this post has inspired you guys for your first (or next) trip to Europe, I know it’s inspired me to hit the first four places again!

When someone asks where to go in Europe or other continents, what are the spots you usually recommend? Let me know in the comments below!

Cheers,

Elijah

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Comments (18)

  • Martina 9 months ago Reply

    Wowww! I love this blog post – your pics are amazing too!
    hmmm – I would probably recommend Croatia too 🙂

  • Danik 9 months ago Reply

    Loving the photos here and good alternative guide for those coming to Europe. Croatia is defo top of the list for me, such an amazing country. Havent been to Kotor yet.

  • Erica edwards 9 months ago Reply

    Great post! You’ve chosen two of my absolute favorite European countries here – Croatia and Portugal! Those gems are definitely overlooked outside of Europe ( and often, even within). I definitely agree with you that sticking solely to big classics is not the best way to spend a first go in Europe. I always recommend small town “chasers” between the biggies to give yourself time to relax as bit and take it all in. People are often surprised to end up preferring the smaller places, as I did on my first trip to Italy… Rome is an absolute classic, but I left my heart at the Amalfi Coast!

    Elijah Rodriguez 9 months ago Reply

    Out of these, Croatia’s definitely my favourite as well! As for Portugal, it has such a cool, different vibe than the rest of Europe, and especially different from Spain. Glad someone else can feel the love!

  • Ariel 9 months ago Reply

    These places all look so stunning and perfect to go to. Your pictures are stunning and definitely make me want to go to all of these places. Thank you for sharing this great list.

    Elijah Rodriguez 9 months ago Reply

    Thank you Ariel! You should come by and see the other side of Europe sometime! 🙂

  • Jenn and Ed Coleman 9 months ago Reply

    You found a way to get your mom to read to the bottom of your blog… Congrats. We usually alternate between conversations about why don’t you call me more and why don’t you read our blog if you want to know more about us. This can go on for hours and not get anywhere. I think there is a big call for alternative guides to Europe. European capitals are great and all but not everybody wants to eat at expensive street cafes and go to art museums. In fact, with the price point in most European cities, unless you are going big you will not be able to enjoy all of the culinary offerings and would do better at more affordable destinations.

    Elijah Rodriguez 9 months ago Reply

    Hello Colemans, thanks for reading! I agree completely with the second part about the lack of affordability with European capitals. Even though I’m close to London, I have no intention of going there anytime soon because of how expensive it is. Why pay £20 for a dinner when in Kotor, Montenegro, £20 can take me so much further? I know this isn’t the most “alternative” you can get but it’s certainly a great point, especially for first-timers in Europe. Plus, these smaller places are more well-preserved and less “artificial,” if that makes sense.

  • Damien McGuigan 9 months ago Reply

    Cool list! I am actually thinking about spending some time in Montenegro later this yearl Sadly for me, I think Prague has been ruined by over tourism 🙁

    Elijah Rodriguez 9 months ago Reply

    Hey Damien, I’m glad someone else knows about the beauty of Montenegro, definitely recommend you go there, probably in April or May. As or Prague, I went in November and there almost no tourists, the King Charles Bridge was never full. But even then, don’t let them ruin the city for you! Even if tourists are annoying, the sheer aesthetic value of the city is too much to pass over

  • Heading to Scotland in a couple of weeks and Croatia this summer. Your post came at the perfect time for my planning. Thanks for sharing!

  • Meagn 9 months ago Reply

    Wonderful list! I can’t imagine having my first European trip so young. Plenty of my friends did, but I ironically don’t come from a family of travelers. Thank you so much for sharing this great itinerary with all of its gorgeous pictures and practical tips. Saving for later!

  • amit 9 months ago Reply

    Some great choices on here, (You left off England 😛 – no I’m joking) The great thing about Europe is just how diverse every country is, and all with their own history. I used to live In Czech Republic, in a town just outside of Prague and it was like a different world. I would love to visit Croatia and Portugal, so your tips on those two co

  • Edith 9 months ago Reply

    Glad you mentioned different European countries aside from the ones typically recommended! We haven’t set foot in Europe yet but do long to spend sometime in Spain since we speak Spanish, although a typical place to visit for many. We once used to have only popular European countries in mind, but lately I’m more intrigued by other ones such as the ones you mentioned. I think we’d want to visit Portugal, Croatia, and Czech Republic most.

  • Anja 8 months ago Reply

    I completely agree with your list, even though I haven’t been to Scotland yet, but I know I’ll love it. And you put my country on top of your list, cool 🙂 Have you been to Istria when you visited Croatia? It’s a wonderful region. Also, you complimented my photography, but yours is amazing! I love all the blacks and a bit vintage feel to them.

    Anja

    Elijah Rodriguez 8 months ago Reply

    Haven’t been to Istria yet, but I’m dying to go! Perhaps in May, as it’s the only region I haven’t visited in Croatia. And thank you for the compliment! 🙂

  • Hank 6 months ago Reply

    I love all these suggestions. Those picture are truly beautiful! I’m leaving next month for a 3 week trip through Europe, starting in Prague. I might some of these to our stops. Thanks!

    Elijah Rodriguez 6 months ago Reply

    Thank you Hank! You’ll fall in love with Prague, and especially during the summer?? I’m jealous! Where else are you going? 🙂

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