We’ve been living in London for almost a year-and-a-half, and so far we’ve visited seven places outside of England: Brussels, EuroDisney, Paris, Strasbourg, Zurich, Milan and Amsterdam. A quick take on each:
Brussels: I was going to call Brussels “charming,” but then I figured every other mention of Brussels probably has the word “charming” in it. Sure enough, when you google “Brussels” and “charming” you get like 8 million results. The city is crammed full of charming buildings and charming apartments and charming streets and charming neighborhoods. Brussels is also often referred to as “underrated,” which is probably true as well. We found the city very compact and walkable, and the food very good (though my memory is we ate a lot of French-inspired dishes). There’s a gorgeous, Instagramable main square, friendly locals, good museums, easy transit and lots of English speakers. A must-visit for families: Mini-Europe, which is a kind of amusement park where you walk around and see famous European landmarks on a miniature scale. Very charming!
EuroDisney: it’s in France, it’s not too far from Paris, it’s Disney. It’s Disney, OK? Which means lots of long lines and high prices and mediocre food and parents telling themselves “never again, never again, never again.” To its credit, EuroDisney is a lot easier to access and get around in than Disney World in Orlando, which is the Seventh Circle of Hell as far as I’m concerned. Some of the rides at EuroDisney are fun, and the Wild West section is cool to see if you’re an American expat. I would recommend EuroDisney if you happen to be in the neighborhood, you have kids, and you have a few hundred bucks to blow.
Paris: Ahhh Paree, mon amoureux, mon idole, mon coeur…Paris is among a handful of truly iconic global cities – along with New York, London, Tokyo, San Bernadino, etc. – so what can I possibly add here in this li’l ol’ blog? Well, the food and culture and architecture are all fabulous, and it’s a great city to walk around in, but it could use more parks. I wish they had more and better Latin American food choices, but that’s the case all over Europe. The locals are nicer than they’re made out to be, and no, they don’t get pissed off if you can’t speak fluent French. All in all, tres bon!
Strasbourg: A laid-back French city located near the German border. We spent a night here because it’s a good stop between Paris and Zurich along the train line. The European Parliament is based in Strasbourg, but I don’t know if the European Funkadelic is (don’t get the joke? Google 70’s funk bands). Strasbourg’s food and culture probably owe as much to Germany as France, which makes it kind of unique. There’s a nice plaza in the center of town, surrounded by shops, pubs and eateries. It’s a good place to relax at one of the cafes, have a few drinks, and people watch. Very chill.
Zurich: There are two places I’ve traveled where the sheer physical beauty knocks you right on your ass: Hawaii and Switzerland. We took the Eurorail through Switzerland and I’m telling you, there was not a single square inch of the place that didn’t look like it should be on a postcard. The mountains, the valleys, the flora – it’s all stunning. Zurich, the country’s biggest city, is urban eye candy: beautiful vistas, a vibrant and cosmopolitan vibe, filled with cool hangouts and pricey stores and restaurants. Did I say pricey? Indeed, I did. Because Zurich, for all its charms, is crazy expensive (just like Hawaii, BTW). You literally cannot buy a cheap meal here, though you can hop on the streetcars for free (well, we did, anyway). Zurich is a great place to walk around in, particularly along the river or lake, and a great place to max out your credit card.
Milan: A little disappointing, to be honest. Milan has a nice central plaza and some cool street entertainment. We enjoyed visiting the Da Vinci Science and Technology museum – the man was centuries ahead of his time – as well as an old castle and nearby park. But the food was nothing special (yes, you CAN get average pizza in Italy), and I just wasn’t feeling the vibe at any of the bars except for one cool hotel lounge. Many of the workers in Milan seem to be annoyed that you’re even alive, breathing the oxygen, much less asking for help. Milan is one of the world’s style and fashion capitals, so if you’re into shopping, it’s the place to be. But I’m not into shopping, so it ain’t the place for me.
Amsterdam: Is this my new favorite city in Europe? Could be, could be. Certainly it would be if I were 30 years younger and had more staying power to hang out at the zillion or so bars that dot every nook, cranny and alley of the center city. In terms of walkability, nothing beats Amsterdam. You can walk everywhere here – to all the stores, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, museums, plazas, reefer dens, coffee shops, etc. It goes on and on for block after block, mile after mile, in every direction. There’s a vibe here that manages to be hip, bohemian and unpretentious all at the same time. The locals are very friendly, and they speak better English than many of the people I grew up with. The canal tour is a must. So is the Rijksmuseum, where we saw works by Rembrandt and Van Gogh as well as an amazing collection of centuries-old Dutch landscapes that exploded with color. Everyone bikes in Amsterdam, and bicycles are everywhere. The food is diverse and not terribly expensive. For some reason, there are a ton of Argentinian steak houses, and I’m not exactly sure why. But if you like Argentinian steak houses, this is the place for you.