Tips for the first time traveller to Europe

The biggest question on the lips of those travelling to Europe for the first time is: “Where do I start?” With 44 nations, each with its own personality, choosing where to go, what to do and how much to pack into a single trip can be a bewildering decision. An organised European tour is ideal for anyone who wants to get a flavour of several countries in one trip without the stress of sorting out the logistics. Or you might prefer to focus on getting to know just one destination.
The day trip to Mljet was particularly special. The island and monastery looked like a picture in a fairy tale, and swimming in the Adriatic was magic.
– Ann Anderson on our cycling holiday in Croatia
If you want to be steeped in history and culture, you can’t go wrong with Italy, Greece or France, while Georgia, Romania or Russia will deliver historical thrills without the heaving crowds. And don’t forget that Europe is as much for outdoor enthusiasts as it is for culture seekers. If you love watersports, Croatia and Montenegro are brilliant choices. Meanwhile, Europe’s wild spaces deliver wildlife adventures, including wolf spotting in southern France, husky safaris in Finland and tracking bison in primeval Polish forest.
Keep reading to discover our tips for your first holiday to Europe…

What to expect

History & culture

Europe’s heritage looms large wherever you go, and it’s what draws many tourists to the continent in the first place. For a look at Europe’s cultural superstars, head to the birthplace of democracy in Greece, soak up Italy’s Renaissance art and architecture, or stroll Dubrovnik’s historic city walls. For a less obvious slice of Europe’s past, try the East-meets-West mash-up of Istanbul, the Imperial palaces of St Petersburg, the medieval splendour of Macedonia, or the castles of Transylvania. You’ll never run out of museums and art galleries on a visit to Europe. The continent has some of the best in the world, from the Louvre in Paris to Florence’s Uffizi Gallery to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. There’s music everywhere. World-famous DJs play clubs in London, Berlin, Ibiza and Belgrade, while old-school drinking dens abound in Dublin, Amsterdam and Vienna. Fancy a festival? Rock out at Roskilde or immerse yourself in EDM at Belgium’s Tomorrowland. Opera lovers are spoilt for choice in Europe, but most atmospheric of all is the Verona Opera Festival, which takes place in a restored Roman amphitheatre. Foodie classics include pizza in Naples, steak frites in Paris and tapas in Spain. But Europe’s diversity is one of its major assets, including when it comes to food. The UK has some of the best Indian restaurants in the world, while couscous is a well-loved part of French food culture; and the Netherlands is home to the best sate and gado-gado outside Indonesia. The vineyards of France and Italy, and Portugal are justifiably world-famous, but Slovenia, Hungary and Georgia also produce excellent wines. For lovers of the hard stuff, there’s whisky in Scotland and Ireland, vodka in Poland and Russia, and gin distilleries in the Netherlands and Scandinavia.

Wildlife

The Azores is one of the best places in the world for viewing both whales and dolphins. Blue, sei, fin and humpback whales cruise past the islands on their way to summer feeding grounds in the North Atlantic, while sperm whales are present in Azorean waters year-round. Rather than just spotting dolphins, swim with them! In the Azores, you can snorkel with five different species. For an unforgettable wildlife experience, bear spotting is right up there. Some 6,000 brown bears roam Romania’s forest in the Carpathian Mountains, while around 500 live in the pine and beech forests of northern Greece. The arrival of summer in the Svalbard archipelago, meanwhile, is the perfect time to see polar bears. Cruises allow you to spot them travelling across the pack ice or on ice floes. For a truly wild adventure, hike through the mountains with a specialist guide, tracking elusive wolves. You could choose to join a skilled wildlife tracker in the dense taiga forest a few hours north of Stockholm. Or head to Mercantour National Park in southern France, where you can search for wolves in the mountains or visit a sanctuary where sightings are guaranteed. Some 500 European bison roam Poland’s Bialowieza Forest – the last remaining swathes of a massive primeval wilderness that once stretched across Europe. Sign up for a tour led by an experienced guide, and sightings are virtually guaranteed. Moose, beavers and otters live here, too, alongside harder-to-spot lynx and wolves.
I think we will all remember watching the cubs not-so-gently nursing with their mom, the mucky, fun mess of making bear ice cream, and just watching the bears be bears.
– Heather Jain on our volunteering with bears family holiday in Romania

Language & culture

According to a German study in 2002, there are 87 distinct people of Europe: 33 that form the majority population and 54 ethnic minorities. Though there are only 24 officially recognised languages within the EU, there are more than 60 indigenous and minority languages spoken by over 40 million people, including Basque, Catalan, Frisian, Saami, and lots more non-indigenous migrant community languages too. Over 50 percent of people in Europe can speak at least two languages, and almost 40 percent can speak English. Basque is spoken by over 700,000 people in Spain and France. Not only is it not related to French or Spanish – it has nothing in common with any other European language. Its origins are a mystery. Italian aperitivo and Spanish tapas are early evening bar nibbles (cheap or sometimes free when ordering drinks) and are particularly popular in Milan, Rome, and Naples in Italy or Granada, Almería, or Jaén in Spain. They’re a great way to eat and meet locals. Sweden’s larder is renowned for the brilliantly fishy: multiple ways with herring; dazzling crustacea; succulent oysters and mussels; freshwater treats like pike perch; and superb caviar. Provence’s markets are a browser’s paradise: strings of pink garlic frame sack upon sack of colourful French produce. Stock up on marinated olives, pungent cheese and artisan oils.

Travel requirements

At present, citizens from Australia, Canada, UK and the USA can enter most European countries without a visa for stays of less than 90 days. From 2022, tourists travelling to the 26 members of Europe’s Schengen Zone will need to register with ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorisation System), a travel authorisation for visa-free visitors similar to the American ESTA. You need to have at least six months left on an adult or child passport to travel to most countries in Europe. Check Fit For Travel for up-to-date information about travel health in Europe.

Travelling to Europe & getting around

Transport links in Europe are excellent and capital cities have regular direct flight links. Getting around Europe is straightforward, with largely reliable train and bus services as well as generally excellent roads. Our partners can organise railway holidays, fly-drive holidays, and sailing holidays, whether you’re travelling alone or in a small group. You could also opt for a cycling or walking holiday, during which you’ll pedal or hike your way around villages, mountains and national parks.

Our top Europe Holiday

Split to Dubrovnik Luxury cruise, Croatia

Split to Dubrovnik Luxury cruise, Croatia

Cruise Split to Dubrovnik in luxury via Croatia's islands

From £899 to £1599 8 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2021: 19 Sep, 26 Sep, 3 Oct
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Europe or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Highlights

There’s a huge amount to see and do in Europe and you don’t want to exhaust yourself by trying to pack in as much as possible. Instead, look through our highlights, choose one or two favourites, and take your time to really enjoy your destination.

Croatia

Croatia’s coastline is sublime, and with more than 1,000 islands anchored offshore you won’t be short of beaches or sailing routes. You just have to choose between Istria, the mini Italy of the north, and Dalmatia, the coastline heading south and home to the ancient seaside cities of Split and Dubrovnik. Elsewhere, you’ll find a handful of national parks protecting mountains, rivers, waterfalls and lakes, all still relatively unknown.

Beach breaks

There’s a beach for your every mood in Europe. Want blissful blue waters and soft sands to rival the Caribbean? Head to Greece, or the Spanish and Italian islands. Beachside glamour comes courtesy of the French Riviera, while dramatic, wind-battered wonders can be found on the Scottish and Welsh coastlines. Norway’s deep fjords and remote islands, meanwhile, transform ferry rides into some of the most scenic voyages in Europe.

France

France may be known for its fine cuisine, world-class art and architecture and cultural sophistication. But it’s the beauty of the great outdoors – made for walkers, bikers and skiers – that brings people back again and again. With extraordinary highlights such as the Alps, Pyrenees and picture-perfect Provence, as well as some of the finest sand dunes in Europe, outdoor enthusiasts will scarcely know where to begin.

Greece

For too many people Greece is solely about sun, sand and sea. Yes, the islands are glorious – but try to make time for its other highlights, too. There are rivers, mountains and dramatic gorges, plus quiet hiking trails as easy or as difficult as you wish, and even snow covered peaks in winter. Not to mention the thousands of years of colourful history revealed through some of the world’s finest archaeological sites.

Italy

Italy is packed with both natural and man-made treasures, from the mountains of the north right down to the sun-baked island of Sicily. In the middle you have Tuscany, with its vineyards and world-famous art, and just next door are the less starry hills of Umbria and Le Marche. The peaks of the Dolomites are ripe for hiking in summer and snowshoeing in winter, whilst the Amalfi Coast is scented with lemon blossom and full of retro glamour.

Offbeat destinations

Paris and Rome are undeniably lovely – and they’ve got the crowds to prove it. So how about a jaunt around Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova or a short break to Georgia, known for its heritage sites, ancient wine traditions and polyphonic folk singing. Got beaches on the brain? Try sizzling on the sands in Bulgaria or strolling Sweden’s windswept Kulla Peninsula.

Portugal

Beyond the Algarve beaches and city break hotspots of Lisbon and Porto, Portugal remains a mystery to many foreign tourists. The interior is a patchwork of vineyards, hills and bucolic woods rustling with wildlife, while the country’s 1,800km coastline is dotted with wild beaches and laid-back fishing villages. Get around on hiking or cycling holidays with nights spent in distinctive country inns called quintas.

Railway holidays

On a European railway holiday, every station you arrive at promises new adventures. Mainland Europe has an excellent and generally inexpensive rail network so you get to cover serious ground while sitting back and taking in spectacular scenery. A multi-country tour could take you to some of Europe’s top highlights. But you could also choose to focus on the Scottish Highlands, or take a slow ride though the best of Bulgaria.

Winter breaks

Winter allows some breathing space in usually heaving Venice, Barcelona or Paris, while twinkling Christmas markets pull in the crowds across Germany and Austria. For winter sports fans, Lapland is a fantastical expanse of frost-tipped forest and frozen lakes in winter, where you can try husky sledding, cross country skiing and snowshoeing under huge, crisp skies.
Hard to pick whether the best part of the vacation was sailing with dolphins and turtles, diving with octopus, or eating all the delicious local foods.
– Jen McDaid after returning from our diving and sailing holiday in Greece

...and what not  to do

The cruise industry is polluting much of Europe’s coastline with messy mass tourism and fuel. All across the Mediterranean, you’ll see giant floating hotels that can unload up to three times a day, with thousands of passengers spilling onto the streets in a single wave. If you want to take to European waters, stick to a small ship cruise. You’ll steer clear of massive marinas in favour of island idylls, allowing you a greater connection with nature and local life. Wildfires are a risk throughout the long, hot summer months in forested areas and the countryside. Be extremely careful when driving, do not discard cigarette butts and never leave glass bottles lying around, as they can spark a fire in dry vegetation. In some regions of Spain for example, starting a forest fire – even if it is an accident – is treated as a criminal offence. All-inclusive resorts scatter the European coastline, but they are best avoided. You (and your money) end up staying within the walls of the hotel restaurant, bar and pool, rarely making it to the surrounding communities – many of whom, particularly across Southern and Eastern Europe, are in the tight grip of unemployment, recession and urban migration, and welcome visitors.

Best time to go

Europe is not a seasonal destination; you can visit any time, depending on what you’re looking for. For beach holidays, the best time to visit is June to September, with the fewest crowds and optimal conditions around mid to late-September. Late July and August sees peak crowds across the Mediterranean, so if you are going to some of the popular spots – particularly on the coast – be prepared for crowds. It will also be searingly hot for inland sightseeing, hiking or cycling, although mountainous regions, such as Spain’s Picos de Europa and Sierra Nevada, will be much cooler. November to March tends to be cold and wet in much of Italy and France – apart from the mountains, when this is the time for winter sports. Italy’s historic cities can also be moodily atmospheric – especially a twilit Venice without the crowds – while glittering Christmas markets get going across Europe in December. Midwinter is pleasant in southern Spain and Italy – on a sunny day, temperatures can be in the low 20°Cs and rain is rare. In Croatia and Montenegro, the weather can be ideal for hiking right up until November.

How long is needed to see Europe?

In a week

With a week, you’re best off sticking to one country. Decide what you’d most like to do and see where’s best to do it. For example, you could brush up on your Spanish on a walking holiday in the Picos de Europa, try a multi activity break in Montenegro, or opt for a yoga holiday in Greece. A week is also just enough time to get stuck into some winter sports, such as a husky safari in Finland or snow shoeing in the Dolomites.

In two weeks

With two weeks to play with, you can get into some real depth on a small group exploration of Spain, a self drive holiday in Montenegro, or a Turkey history tour. This is also enough time to explore two or three countries in the same region, such as Spain and Portugal, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, or the rich cultures of Georgia and Armenia.

Three weeks or more

This is where you get to embark on some serious adventures. You could try a cruise in the Arctic, spend a month on a backpacking adventure around the Mediterranean or Eastern Europe, or combine Europe with Asia by boarding the Trans Mongolian railway and exploring Russia and beyond. Got even more time to spare? Cross France, Austria, Romania and Russia on your way from London to Vietnam.
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: ZM_Photo] [Top box: Josh Berendes] [Turkey: Anna] [Bear - Romania : NH53] [Croatia: Dominik Lange] [Greece: Arthur Yeti] [Portugal: Karol Stafanski] [Greek street: Johnny Chen]