A few hot spots in Paris, London, and Amsterdam

Monday, 16 March 2015
I always need blog topics so thank you to my friend Melissa for having a fabulous upcoming trip. She is taking her daughter who is graduating from high school to Paris, London, and Amsterdam! Her trip has led me to think about my experiences in those fantastic European cities and consider my favorite spots.

Paris: anyone who goes to the City of Lights must visit the Eiffel Tower. It is fantastic from far away, but to stand under it in the courtyard or to gaze at it from the surrounding gardens is a special experience. I did not buy a ticket to go up into the tower especially because I didn't want to wait in the long lines (and it's pricey). Remember that summer in the United States = tourist season in Europe so try to book ahead if you want to see certain attractions. The Eiffel Tower experience (in my opinion of course) is just as amazing without spending your hard-earned cash to go to the top.

Also in Paris, definitely get a crepe from a small vendor on one of the side streets in the main part of the city. This is one of my favorite memories of Paris: standing in the street eating Nutella with bananas encased in a steaming hot, fresh crepe. There is no one in the world that can do crepes like the French. If I have the opportunity to go back, I will try both a sweet and a savory crepe and compare different creperies. Speaking of food, at some point, certainly try some "real" Champagne. Is there anything better than sipping tiny, semi-sweet bubbles while you are actually in the country that grows the grapes? (Okay one more food recommendation - mussels and frites. OMG.)

I went to Paris with a student group from graduate school in London and another free activity that I enjoyed included walking along the Seine River. Melissa and her daughter are going in June and the weather should be amazing. It is fun to grab a fresh baguette and French cheese and have a picnic along the Seine. Boats travel by occasionally and the people watching is excellent. Advice: find a spot along the river in the sun, breathe in, close your eyes, and remind yourself that you're in Paris!

A must, of course, while in Paris is a visit to the Louvre Museum. Choose a few highlights to see and enjoy. It is too humongous to see everything in one day. Guide books for Paris do a great job of making suggestions on what to see if you only have a few hours here.

In my opinion, it is also highly worth it to go to Palace of Versailles for a day. (It is about an hour outside of Paris and you can book with a tour company to take a bus.) You will probably have to stand in line unless you're with a tour that pre-buys tickets. It might rain, so take an umbrella or wear a rain jacket. If you don't have a guide, spring for the headphones and be prepared to be stunned and amazed by details about the French royals. I'm lucky enough to have visited many palaces and nothing compares to Versailles. It was pouring rain when I went and didn't get to see the gardens but I'd recommend a quick tour of them as well.

If there's time left, take a tour of Notre Dame. It is free to get in and I remember being awe-struck by the history. This is another great place to utilize your guide book. Take it in and read about the cathedral while you walk through. 

A warning - scams on U.S. tourists are numerous here. Do not talk to strangers and if someone approaches you with a ring or watch... or something... that they found on the ground... keep walking. The deal is to give it to you so you can pawn it but they want a bit of cash up front. The item is always a fake and worth nothing. If something seems too good to be true, it is. Keep your belongings close to your body.

London: Many of the highlights of London are free to the general public so while the city is extremely expensive to stay in, travel around, and dine in, attractions will not necessarily drain your bank account. I would certainly visit Buckingham Palace and just observe the massive building from outside the gates. If you get there during changing of the guard - bonus (in fact, try to plan your day around this)! Walking the gardens surrounding the palace is a peaceful and enjoyable experience and you can plan your next adventure while you walk.

Go to Trafalgar Square and take a photo with the impressive, long-standing lions. Stop into the National Gallery while you're there and see two or three paintings of the artists that you love. (There's a special Monet exhibit that I would view.) On that note, most of the museums are free in London so if you are into museums, visit any and all of them as often as you want. From Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden is a short walk. The market here is fun and there are usually bizarre street performers.

Walk along the Thames and take pictures of Big Ben and Parliament. Westminster Abbey is also near here but the ticket to get in is 20 quid. Yikes!

If you are in London on a Saturday or Sunday, go to Camden Town. This is such a fun place for shopping, people watching, and trying street vendor food. The food here - SO MANY choices! It is so fun and while it seems a bit seedy, Camden has amazing character and again, it is free to walk around and people watch.

In London, you'll need to have cash on hand. U.S. debit and credit cards do not have a "chip" and a lot of merchants don't know how to deal with it. If you HAVE to use a card, let the person know that they "have to swipe it."

Amsterdam: Spend lots of time walking and taking photos. The canals are romantic and the architecture of the tall, narrow houses (Canal rings houses) is impressive. I love this city for its vibe and its unique look as compared to other European cities. My only complaint is that it can seem dirty as compared to London and Paris. Keep your belongings close to your body and don't carry all of your cash at once.

Anne Frank house is an absolute must. Go early so you don't have to wait in long lines to get in. Or - even better - book your ticket using a credit card ahead of time. This is certainly an attraction that is worth the ticket price. You may also want to bring some tissues. For me, the tour was emotional.

The Red Light district is a possibility if you want to experience the "real" Amsterdam but I would recommend going during the day. You will see women standing in their underwear in full length windows. They are on display because they are essentially selling themselves. This is certainly a tourist attraction so don't be afraid to go there - just remember you are NOT allowed to take pictures. You won't see another Red Light district in the world (at least not one that is as "safe" as this one) like this so if you or the people you are with aren't easily offended, it is worth a look.

Check out Delftware pottery in Amsterdam. You might even consider buying a tiny piece as a souvenir. I bought two Delftware pottery clogs. I gave one to my mother and kept one for myself. Such a sweet memento of my time in this AWESOME city.

Please do a lot of eating in Amsterdam and get a "proper" pint poured for yourself - if you like beer. It is so interesting to see how the bartenders serve beer here. With that pint, order the Bitterballen. Oh my goodness. Bitterballen is little fried balls of anything you can imagine: chicken, pork, beef, veggies... Very delicious and served with mustard.

Photo from Awesomeamsterdam.com 

DO NOT attempt to rent a bike and ride it in Amsterdam. It is dangerous just walking in this town with cars, trolleys, bikes, buses, and scooters coming from literally all directions. Be highly cautious when crossing the street. Seriously.

My final thought is to record what you do when you travel. Write down the restaurants you go to, the sites that you enjoyed, the flowers you see in the local stalls. That way, if you ever return, you can look up your favorite restaurant and go back. I always carry a tiny notebook and pen or pencil in my pocket or purse for easy access.

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