First trip to Europe: Portugal, Netherlands, Hungary, Romania, UK

I just came back from my first trip to Europe, covering five countries in about three weeks. A week in a city is not enough to really know it beyond a superficial level, but in this post I will describe my first impressions of the places I visited.

Lisbon

My journey began by flying in directly from Toronto to Lisbon. With just under seven hours, it’s one of the closest destinations in Europe.

Lisbon reminds me of San Francisco (minus the homeless and tech employees). The city is built on hilly terrain, with streetcars running up and down the narrow and steep streets. A big red suspension bridge crosses the Tagus bay.

The city has a love-hate relationship with tourism. Although tourists drive a large part of the economy, short term Airbnb rentals have jacked up housing prices and have driven out the locals from many neighborhoods. Most stores and restaurants are forced to close before 11pm, due to complaints of noisy tourists.

Sintra is an hour west of Lisbon by train, and is well worth it for a day trip. It features some gorgeous castles and palaces built on a mountain.

Amsterdam

Next destination was Amsterdam. Compared to Lisbon’s rolling hills, Amsterdam is as flat as a pancake. Every major street has a dedicated bike lane, so bikes are a great way to get around. Great way to encourage a healthy lifestyle. Around the old city center, there is a canal every few blocks — just don’t fall into them.

If you’re a budget traveler, beware that Amsterdam is expensive — we spent as much on accommodation in 5 days in Amsterdam as the rest of the trip combined. The first time at a restaurant, I couldn’t believe that a bottle of water cost 3 euros. My two companions watched amusingly as I demanded tap water (and my request was refused).

Budapest

Budapest, the Hungarian capital on the Danube, is a city with magnificent architecture. I’d describe the architecture as giving a feeling of abundance: whereas most capital cities are tightly packed to maximize space efficiency, Budapest’s buildings are grand and spacious. Doorways and staircases are so tall that a man riding a horse could’ve walked through without dismounting.

I would recommend taking a Danube cruise at night: the parliament building and other major landmarks are brightly lit by powerful lights at night. Also, make sure to try some goulash (Hungarian soup) for lunch and kürtőskalács (chimney cake) for dessert.

Out of the places I went to this trip, Budapest is my favorite. I’d definitely recommend adding Budapest to your next trip to Europe.

Romania

From Budapest, we took an overnight train eastward across the Great Hungarian Plain and the Transylvanian mountains to Bucharest, the capital of Romania. You can still feel the effects of Soviet communism in Bucharest. Most of the older historical buildings were damaged during war or systematically demolished under Ceausescu’s communist regime, and replaced with rows of austere-looking apartment blocks.

Brasov, our next stop in Romania, escaped relatively unscathed from World War 2. It’s a small town surrounded by lush green mountains and featuring a variety of shops, churches and other historical buildings. Nearby, you can visit the Bran and Peles castles: the former is tenuously connected to Vlad the Impaler, a historical figure who inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula.


Lastly, I made a brief stop at London on the way back, where I got a chance to catch up with some friends living there. It turns out that plane tickets don’t satisfy the triangle inequality, so flying from Bucharest to London, staying a few days, then flying to Toronto was a lot cheaper than flying from Bucharest to Toronto directly.

Now I’m back — ready to start a new semester of research at UofT!

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