Create an itinerary that makes the most of your time abroad, allowing you to immerse yourself in the place you’re visiting.
Arrive at the airport ready for death.
(No, not actual death.)
When we first started traveling we would arrive at the airport bright eyed and bushy tailed and carrying our Smart Waters and our echinacea supplements. Then we would be wide awake on the flight, watch a bunch of cheesy movies and arrive in Rome sleepless, cramped and thoroughly exhausted, which led to a wasted (literally) first day. Now we arrive at the airport as exhausted as possible. We take the earliest possible flight out of Nashville (think 5 am) and head to Miami, Chicago or Philadelphia and take the train into town or rent a car and hit the beach. Flights to Europe from the US always leave in the early evening, so this usually gives us 7 or 8 hours to see the sights, get breakfast and lunch, and walk as much as possible. If you rent a car you can store your bags there; if not, they have bag storage at the train station. We then get back to the airport and have a martini, and by the time we board the flight we are ready to sleep in the sardine can they call a passenger seat. When we arrive in Europe we have a great, full first day. This method has the additional benefit of turning a boring, stressful travel day into a fun, interesting travel (vacation) day.
Trust us. We can’t overstate the importance of this tip. I know you want to see everything, and IMG_6151you think you will never go back, and you just HAVE to see as many sights as possible. Trips planned this way are stress buckets fraught with fighting, exhaustion and likely illness. Plus, you’ll be missing a huge part of the reason to go to Europe–to enjoy the lifestyle, the scenery, the food and the sights. You can’t enjoy la dolce vita when you are panicking about getting to the next thing. It’s better to see one or two things, and *really* see them, than to flail around rushing from one thing to the next. You can be rushed, panicked and stressed at home!
Imagine you applied this to ordering a meal at a restaurant. You might be curious about 5 things on the menu but if you order them all you will be overly full and you won’t be able to truly enjoy any of them.
When you get to a town, like Pienza for example, you will want to spend some real time there checking out the sights, bars, stores, and restaurants. To peel back the outer layer and really get to feel the pulse of the town. To take long walks, to do a bar crawl trying cappuccini, wine, tea or local beers, to sit and watch a sunset with nowhere else to go. To take a drive and have plenty of time to stop for a walk, or to take pictures, or to enjoy a passing rainstorm, or to hang your legs out the window and take a snooze. To ask the locals where’s the best place to go, and to have conversations and connections with people, and time to really hear their answers. It’s hard to whittle down your trip to have large swaths of free time in each day, but once you are there you’ll thank yourself that you are not a slave to the harsh mistress of a rigid, packed itinerary. After all, if you wanted to be worried about schedules and stressing about timetables you could just go to work.
Balance the trip.
Try to pick one or two things that will be in bigger towns (e.g. a day in London or Rome), or things that will be crowded (e.g. a medieval festival, or a major sight like the Tower of Pisa or the Cliffs of Moher), then keep the rest of the days for exploring small towns, or just skip the big towns altogether. Big towns are pretty much the same everywhere, and you can often find what you are looking for in a smaller town. If you want to see Roman ruins, the Colosseum and the Forum in Rome are incredible, but you can also go to Velleia, Volterra, or Ostia Antica and see ruins without the crowds. If you want to see huge cliffs like the Cliffs of Moher, a good option, just as grand but minus the crowds, is Loop Head Peninsula. The Ponte Vecchio in Florence is indeed beautiful, but you can have a beautiful bridge all to yourself in Borgo a Mozzano. Major sights like the Cliffs of Moher, the Ponte Vecchio or the Leaning Tower in Pisa are best seen early in the morning before the day trippers get there.
If you want to see important artworks you can visit the Uffizzi, but you can also see works of major Italian artists in towns like Pienza, or at sights like Monte Oliveto Maggiore. In the U.K., the coastal paths circle the entire island and hold some of the most stunning, amazing views anywhere on the planet, plus they are never crowded, and they are, of course, free. Some of our best days have been spent walking a few miles on coastal paths from a lighthouse we rented to a small local pub for lunch and back again. It Italy we like to take long walks too, through tiny walled hill towns, taking in the sights and smells of the seasons.
To spend an hour just sitting on a cliff watching dolphins, or at an outdoor table of a cafe watching local children play in a fountain, or watching the sun set over the vineyards, or a stone circle. In times of stress or difficulty we call on memories of those moments to calm us, to remember the salt spray, or the baking bread scent wafting through the air, or the feel of the hot stones of a castle wall that baked in the sun all day. That calmness and quiet can only be found in the small towns, away from busloads of camera-clicking, Diet Coke-chugging tourists.