I’ve put together a “best of” list for the first 2 months of our trip to serve as reminders for us and recommendations for others. This list does not do many of our stops justice (Ireland, which isn’t discussed much here, was probably our second favorite overall country), but I think it properly captures some of the main highlights thus far.
Bar: Szimpla Kert
I had to list this first simply because everyone needs to visit this place at least once. Szimpla Kert is one of the most famous ruin bars in Budapest and is the bar which all other bars should be judged against. There’s a map by the front door to help you navigate its many rooms; you might be looking for dance music in one of the upstairs bars, U2 covers at an open mic night in the back, wine tastings at the wine bar or, if all else fails, you can chill in the massive open-air garden right in the center. I cannot believe a place like this hasn’t caught on in Chicago, Los Angeles or New York, but then again it probably breaks ALL the fire and safety codes.
I’ve covered this place extensively on Roasts Around the World, so definitely check that post out for a more extensive review. Lajkonik is the only cafe we went to more than once and for good reason. Excellent coffee and diverse food selection, all for less than $4 per person.
Hostel: EastSeven Berlin
Most of the time our hostel is simply a place for us to sleep and shower at night, but EastSeven was so nice we actually spent big portions of the day hanging out there. Everything is immaculately clean, they serve cheap beer (and more importantly Club Mate), it has a sweet patio/garden area, and the staff are helpful and friendly. I am certain that we wouldn’t have enjoyed Berlin half as much if we had stayed anywhere else.
London has some of the best restaurants in the world and we are incredibly grateful to my cousin who took us out to this lovely Indian restaurant in Belgravia. It was a fantastic mix of familiar Indian flavors and new types of dishes we had never encountered before. I have always been into Indian food, but Amaya opened my eyes to a more contemporary style of Indian cooking that proves it belongs in the world of fine dining.
I could probably write 5000 words about how much I loved the food in Poland and it still wouldn’t do it justice. As a kid with a Polish grandma, I was very familiar with all the classic dishes and couldn’t wait to try the authentic stuff. Nothing could have prepared me for how consistently wonderful all of our meals were, though. Zurek, potato pancakes, goulash, pierogis, it was all out of this world and I sometimes have food fever dreams about this stuff at night… take me back.
Beer: Murphy’s Irish Stout
I have never been huge on dark beers, but our 10 days in Ireland completely changed that. Now, no matter what country we are in, I am always on the lookout for an Irish bar that might have Murphy’s on tap. It is the perfect combination of refreshing and flavorful, a beer that can go with food or be consumed all night at the bar. I’m thankful that it is almost impossible to find in America otherwise I’d probably have a drinking problem.
Kadarka is a very popular red wine in Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary and has been my surprise favorite of the trip. To be fair, we have had WAY more beer than wine (hard to drink anything else in Ireland, Belgium and Germany), but it holds its own even against California and Washington reds. I am personally into the more full-bodied, acidic, in-your-face type of Cabernet and this perfectly scratched that itch.
You probably don’t need me to tell you that Berlin has good nightlife, but I can confirm that it lived up to the hype. Prepare to be out until 8 or 9 am, or if you’re hardcore, to spend an entire weekend at one of their many world-famous clubs. We aren’t really club or techno music people, yet we embraced it here where the enthusiasm and positivity is infectious.
I had heard Prague was beautiful, but I’m not sure we will go to a more photogenic city on this trip. It was so worthwhile to wake up at dawn to photograph this place, mostly because everywhere is mobbed with tourists during the day, but also because it is that much more beautiful under the golden light from the sunrise. Ireland deserves an honorable mention for its scenic cliffs, forests and valleys, but it can’t top that early sunrise in the capital of the Czech Republic.
Dessert: Kremowka Wadowicka (Polish Cream Cake)
It might not make sense to have this category considering Poland also won Best Cuisine, but this dessert is so good it is worth highlighting on its own. I would describe it as a cream puff pastry that comes in cake form: alternating layers of puff pastry and cream filling, flaky and smooth, crunchy and soft. I’m not even a dessert person but it took all of my self control to keep from ordering this with every meal. Fun fact, this has been renamed kremowka papieska (papal cream cake) because it was a favorite of Pope John Paul II.
We haven’t been to many museums outside of London (where they were free of charge), but the Rijksmuseum is well worth the price of admission. The presentation is just superb, the way the lighting can draw you in, sometimes it feels like you are part of one big painting looking at smaller exhibits within. If there is one museum you do in Amsterdam, make it this one.
Public Transportation: London
Not the most exciting category on the list, but an important one for backpackers trying to get around sprawling European cities. London covers more square miles than Los Angeles, yet you can traverse it quickly and cheaply without any need for a car. I think everyone could learn a bit from the UK’s efficiency.
Walking Tour: Krakow
Free walking tours are a staple of backpacking around Europe, and our tour of Krakow had a little bit of everything: humor, history, architecture, and lots of Pope John Paul II. The Polish really love their Pope! I would recommend taking a walking tour anywhere in Europe if you have the free time, but the one in Krakow was my personal favorite.
In my Top 10 Places I Want to Visit, I listed Berlin as number 3 and my top place of interest in Europe, and I am so happy that I was right on the mark with this place. Berlin is the only city we have been to that I think I could actually live in permanently. I don’t know whether it is the friendly people, great food and nightlife, alternative lifestyle or what, but something about Berlin resonates with my soul in a way that very few places have. Many of the stops on our trip I have doubts that I will ever have the chance to visit again, but I will be plotting ways to come back to this great city for the rest of my life.
Poland was the big surprise gem of Europe, and I predict possibly even of the whole trip. I was excited to spend time in probably the closest country I can regard as a “motherland” considering as a kid I was exposed to a good deal of Polish culture from that side of my family. I knew the food would be good and everything would be pretty cheap compared to the rest of Europe. I did not think Poland would (or could) be beautiful. I did not think we would want to spend twice as long there as we actually did, or want to come back before we leave the continent. We only had a chance to see Krakow and Zakopane, such a tiny fraction of the country. I cannot wait to come back to visit Wroclaw, Warsaw, Gdansk… Such an underrated place, don't leave it off your list!