Wednesday, July 10, 2024
HomePhilippines TravelOur 27-day Europe trip – Travel Up

Our 27-day Europe trip – Travel Up

Traveling to Europe has always been on our travel bucket list. We originally hoped to go on a European tour in May 2020 for our 10th wedding anniversary, but we all know what happened that year. In the past few years, I’ve realized that life is short and we should take the time to travel and enjoy life while we can. Fast forward four years later, and the dream came true when we finally went on our first-ever trip to Europe to 10 countries for almost a month in June 2024.

As first-time travelers to Europe, I thought of sharing our itinerary, visa experience, things to do, where to stay in different European cities, and other practical tips that might be of interest.

Traveling to Europe involves a lot of planning especially for Filipino passport holders who first need to secure a Schengen Visa. Originally, we planned to limit our trip to just 2 or 3 countries and travel for only 2 weeks given Art’s limited vacation days from full-time work. But since it was our first time in Europe, my parents who had previously traveled there suggested we take a package tour to eliminate some travel uncertainties and avail of refundable trip reservations.

We used the services of the travel agency TRAVEL ENTERPRISE CORPORATION based in Ortigas Center, Pasig to make flight reservations (not actual bookings), travel insurance, and secure a Visa appointment. We applied and got our visas from the Italian Embassy in Manila since the package tour started in Rome and we planned to stay in Italy the longest.

Apart from the hassles of securing all the requirements (bank statements, Income Tax Returns, Employment certificates, etc.), the Visa application process was straightforward and did not involve any interviews. We just had to submit all our documents and get biometrics done and wait, which is always a nerve-wracking process. Thankfully, we were granted a multiple entry visa just 4 days after we applied and given more days than what we requested, so we changed our flight dates and extended before and after the tour.

NOTE: Once your visa is approved, you can change your itinerary and go wherever you want within the Schengen Zone. There’s no border or passport control between countries. However, it’s still best to enter through the country you applied in and stay there the longest.

From Manila, we flew via Etihad Airways to the Fiumicino Rome Airport in Italy, with one layover. The flight time (9 hours to Abu Dhabi + 6 hours to Rome) plus airport transfers took almost 24 hours because of a layover delay. To get to the city center from the airport, I booked a Fiumicino Airport – Rome Bus by Terravision (P379) to the Rome Termini via Klook . You can also ride the train directly to the city, but the bus is cheaper than the train (€14 or P885) and is more secure if you have big suitcases. You can also use Uber and Freenow in Rome if you prefer private transport.

Our flight back to Manila was from the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam with a travel time of over 17 hours (6:25 hours to Abu Dhabi + 9:10 hours to Manila) including the 2 hour layover. You can book shared bus transfers to the Amsterdam airport (P411) but we just booked a taxi to the airport from the hotel (€45). Take note that there’s a 6 hour time difference between the Philippines and Central European countries.

Other airlines that fly from Manila to Europe include Emirates, Qatar Airways, and China Southern Airlines. According to various news reports, Philippine Airlines (PAL) is eyeing to resume flights to Europe with direct flights from Manila to France by 2025.

We explored Rome in Italy on our own for 4 days before the start of the 15-day tour to 8 other countries, which included a visit to ancient sites in Rome and Vatican City. For history buffs, Rome is an amazing destination because of its ancient archaeological sites and historical landmarks like the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.  

I found Rome very walkable and easy to navigate on foot. We ended up walking more than 10 km a day just to visit the different tourist spots and churches, and rented bicycles to cover more ground. It felt safe walking around and biking in the less touristy areas. The highlight of Rome for me was biking to the Appian Way (an ancient road built to transport troops outside the smaller region of greater Rome) and Trastevere (a hipster district known for craft beer pubs) on rented bicycles.

Rome isn’t a cheap destination, but there are a lot of free attractions and affordable food options even in the middle of the busy tourist areas. I found the food here more flavorful compared to other European cities and enjoyed chowing down on pizza, pasta and beer.

We avoided the crowds by visiting The Colosseum in the late afternoon and heading to Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and other landmarks in the early morning (around 6:30 – 7:00 am). I would have loved to go to other Italian cities like Florence, Milan and Lake Garda, but we decided to take it slow first to save our travel budget and energy for the other more expensive cities. 

If you can, I’d suggest you walk as much as possible. Rome’s public transportation is efficient and easy to use, but many friends warned us about the high incidence of pickpocketing, which we witnessed while taking the subway.

Things to do in Rome

  • The Colosseum 
  • Roman Forum
  • Trevi Fountain
  • The Pantheon
  • Piazza Navona
  • Spanish Steps
  • St. Mark’s Basilica and other free churches
  • Trastevere
  • Via Appia
  • Largo di Torre Argentina
  • Villa Borghese

Where to stay in Rome

Vatican City, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, is a separate country from Italy. This landlocked enclave within Rome is considered the smallest state in the world and can be visited in just half a day if you’re already in Rome. 

Lines getting in here can be notoriously long, so we took a skip-the-lines tour to enter and visited the Vatican Museums, which displays the collection amassed by the Catholic Church throughout the centuries, including several of the most well-known Roman sculptures and masterpieces of Renaissance art in the world. 

The guided tour included a visit to the Sistine Chapel, which contains the ceiling painted in fresco by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, considered a cornerstone work of High Renaissance art.

Things to do in Vatican City

  • St. Peter’s Basilica
  • Sistine Chapel
  • The Vatican Museums
  • Vatican Necropolis
  • Raphael’s Rooms
  • Vatican Gardens

From Rome, we made our way to Venice by bus, stopping at Villa il Leccio near Tuscany for lunch. The scenic drive passed through rolling hills, picturesque vineyards, and medieval towns. Tuscany is known for its olive trees and wheat, historically planted together to form the best produce in all of Italy, as well as wines.

From the mainland of Italy, we boarded a ferry to Lido Island, a small island in the Venice lagoon where we stayed for 2 nights. Lido is much quieter than its famous neighbor, but from here you can visit the main tourist area of Venice easily via water taxis.

Venice, known as the “City of Canals” is one of Italy’s most picturesque cities, with striking architecture and beautiful bridges set amidst winding canals. Venice is built on an archipelago of 118 small islands connected by over 400 bridges over the complex network of canals.

Venice has been used as a filming location for movies like The Italian Job, Casino Royale, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Despite its immense popularity and cost, it continues to attract tourists. We enjoyed wandering through the maze of alleyways to hunt for Libreria Acqua Alta (a cozy, offbeat bookstore with books piled on top of gondolas and adorable resident cats), sipping on Aperols and Bellinis, and the delicious home-cooked salmon risotto and seafood pasta meals in the hotel we were staying in.

Things to do in Venice

  • Gondola rides 
  • Piazza San Marco
  • St. Mark’s Basilica
  • Doge’s Palace
  • Ponte de Rialto
  • Bridge of Sighs
  • Venetian glassmaking
  • Libreria Acqua Alta
  • Murano and Burano Islands

Where to stay in Venice

From Venice, we headed over to Austria in Central Europe, which lies in the Eastern Alps. Most of us are familiar with Austria having grown up watching the classic film The Sound of Music. The real von Trapp family once lived in Salzburg and the movie was filmed in and around the city. Austria is renowned for its natural landscapes, literature, art and music. It’s the birthplace of classical composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Strauss.

We stayed 2 nights in the capital city Vienna, had picnic meals in the gardens of Schonbrunn Palace, strolled around the city center, visited the colorful Hundertwasserhaus artist’s village, tried Schnitzel, watched an entertaining classical Viennese concert, and went craft beer hunting at night.

What struck me the most about Vienna was how clean, neat and organized everything was. It’s no wonder classical musicians thrive here. Everything felt so orderly. Their modern public transportation works on an honesty system, with no ticket barriers at stations and no formal, permanent ticket checks on subways, local trains, trams and buses. Vienna felt very peaceful, walkable and safe. I’d recommend Vienna for solo travelers.

Things to do in Vienna

  • Schönbrunn Palace
  • St. Stephen’s Cathedral
  • The Ring (Vienna’s historic city center)
  • Hofburg Palace
  • Hundertwasserhaus (artist village)
  • Viennese Concerts

Where to stay in Vienna

From Austria, we traveled to Slovakia, a small country that was formerly part of Czechoslovakia before it officially split from the Czech Republic. While we didn’t stay long here, I liked the vibe. Locals in cafes and souvenir shops were friendly and welcoming. The capital Bratislava is the only capital in the world that borders two countries (Austria and Hungary), making it perfect for day trips from those countries.

Bratislava, set along the Danube River, is surrounded by vineyards and mountains, crisscrossed with forested hiking and cycling trails. The best place to go is the pedestrian-only, 18th-century old town known for its lively bars and cafes. From here, you can see the reconstructed Bratislava Castle perched atop a hill overlooking the old town and the Danube.

Things to do in Bratislava

  • Bratislava Castle
  • Michael’s Gate
  • The Blue Church
  • St. Martin’s Cathedral
  • Bronze statues of various figures (Napoleon’s Army Statue, Schone Naci, ČUMIL the Manhole man, Hans Christian Andersen Statue, etc.)
  • Obchod v Muzeu (Oldest Shop in Town)

Then it was onwards to the Czech Republic, where we stayed for 2 nights in the capital Prague. The Czech Republic is famous for its beer, with Czechs consuming the most beer per capita in the world, and they’re proud of it.

I found it refreshing to see locals socializing and drinking openly along the riverside and parks. The vibe in Prague was very artistic and laid-back. People were friendly, and food and drinks were affordable.

Aside from visiting a few architectural sites and landmarks, we visited the Prague Beer Museum, tried Goulash (a thick beef stew made with onions and spices), strolled around Charles Bridge at night, stumbled upon a lovely bookstore with a den, and drank craft beer in a bike-themed bar under a bridge.

I loved the vibe in Prague and wouldn’t mind staying longer next time.

Things to do in Prague

  • Prague Castle
  • Charles Bridge
  • Old Town Square 
  • Astronomical Clock
  • St. Vitus Cathedral
  • Wenceslas Square
  • Dancing House
  • Lennon Wall
  • Kafka Museum
  • Jewish Quarter
  • Prague Beer Museum

Where to stay in Prague

After crossing the border in Germany, we stopped first at Regensburg, a UNESCO-designated Old Town, home to 1,500 heritage buildings, including the 800-year-old Stone Bridge and 9th-century Alte Kapelle. Here, you can find the roughly 900-year-old Historic Sausage Kitchen of Regensburg, one of the oldest restaurants in the world.

Then it was off to Munich, Germany’s third-largest city after Berlin and Hamburg, where we stayed for one night. Munich is home to centuries-old buildings and numerous museums. It’s famed for its annual Oktoberfest celebration and its beer halls.

Our introduction to Munich was walking through the famed Hofbräuhaus. Founded in 1589, the most popular beer hall and one of the most famous in the world. Rowdy celebrations were in full swing due to ongoing Euro Cup. We also went on a stroll around the old town hall area to gaze at the Glockienspiel, a world-famous mechanical clock, along with hordes of other tourists.

Things to do in Munich

  • Glockenspiel
  • Marienplatz
  • Hofbräuhaus
  • Neues Rathaus (town hall)
  • English Gardens
  • BMW Museum
  • Oktoberfest (September to October)

Where to stay in Munich

From Germany, we made our way to Switzerland passing Liechtenstein, another tiny European country ideal for day trips. The sixth-smallest country in the world is located between Austria and Switzerland, and is known for its medieval castles, alpine landscapes and villages linked by a network of trails. The capital, Vaduz is a cultural and financial center and main tourist hub, home to a row of souvenir shops, cafes and museums.

Liechtenstein is visa-free or offers visa on arrival access to 180 countries and territories including the Philippines. However, it doesn’t have an airport of its own and is usually accessed through either Austria or Switzerland by land (which do require visas). The nearest airports are located in Switzerland and Germany.

Things to do in Liechtenstein

  • Vaduz Castle
  • Kathedrale St. Florin
  • Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein (modern and contemporary art)
  • Postmuseum (Liechtenstein’s postage stamps)
  • Vaduz City Train

Then it was off to Switzerland, one of the countries I was most excited to visit. We stayed 2 nights in the Lucerne, one of the most beautiful Swiss towns. Nestled between mountains and a shimmering lake, Lucerne offered the most picturesque views of the lake and snow-capped mountains.

Our hotel was conveniently located right across the lake and we enjoyed strolling here and watching the swans and ducks swim. There are a few restaurants by the lake, but you can also take out food from stalls or have a simple picnic by the lakeside.

The highlights of Switzerland included riding the Cabrio cableway and funicular railway (dating back to 1893) to go up Stansershorn, which had an amazing mountain view and view deck. We also took a scenic cruise around Lake Lucerne, strolled around the Old Town, visited the Chapel Bridge, a wooden bridge decked with vibrant paintings that spans the Reuss River and spent a leisurely afternoon walking around the gardens of Meggenhorn Castle for free. 

While Switzerland was the most beautiful country we visited, it was also the most expensive. The cost of everyday items in convenience stores, food in restaurants and beer felt significantly higher. Locals use Swiss francs here, which is stronger than the Euro. Switzerland is another country where I would have loved to stay longer, especially to try the different trains to other cities.

Things to do in Lucerne

  • Stanserhorn
  • Chapel Bridge
  • Lake Lucerne
  • The Cruise
  • Meggenhorn Castle

Where to stay in Lucerne 

Crossing back through Germany

From Switzerland, we crossed back to Germany and stopped for lunch in Heidelberg, which is home to Germany’s oldest and one of Europe’s most reputable universities. Heidelberg is also known for cuckoo clocks.

From here, we proceeded to Sankt Goar and cruised through Rhineland, passing vineyards and fantasy castles. We stayed another night in Koblenz, one of the oldest towns in Germany, before another long drive to Netherlands.

Where to stay in Koblenz

On the way to the Netherlands, we passed through the town of Cologne, home to the Cologne Cathedral, the largest Gothic church in northern Europe. This amazing church features immense twin towers that stand 515 feet (157 meters) tall. The cathedral was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

Netherlands is world-famous for its windmills, tulips, clogs, cheese and vibrant bike culture. We spent two days visiting the Dutch countryside, went inside a traditional windmill, learned how traditional wooden clogs were made, and took a boat cruise around the canals.

Amsterdam was the last stop of the tour, but we extended our stay for another week, and decided to go to Belgium, leaving most of our luggage in storage in the last hotel we transferred to. 

We also hung out in Vondelpark, toured the Heineken Brewery, walked around the infamous Red Light District and had dinner in Chinatown as a break from Dutch food.

Things to do in Amsterdam

  • Windmills
  • Vollendam
  • Monnickendam
  • Canal cruise
  • Heineken Brewery Experience
  • Red Light District
  • Vondelpark
  • Zaanse Chans
  • Anne Frank House
  • Van Gogh Museum

Where to stay in Amsterdam

We booked tickets on the spot to travel by NS International train from Amsterdam to Brussels in Belgium, which is about 2-3 hours away. At this point, we were a bit tired from the constant moving around and wanted to chill out a bit and Brussels was a great place to do that.

The hotel I picked in Brussels was not as expensive as Amsterdam and was centrally located near the Grand Place, so it was easy to explore on foot. We spent 3 nights in Brussels and decided to skip Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp to take it slow.

We enjoyed the beer culture, walked to parks and churches, did a self-guided tour of the comic book route, went food tripping, tried different Belgian beers and chocolates. I also met up with a Belgium-based friend (Aleah of Solitary Wanderer) and had a nice catch-up session over Belgian waffles and coffee.

Things to do in Brussels

  • Grand Place
  • Les Galeries de Royale
  • BoursBeurs
  • Manekin Pis 
  • Chocolate
  • Beers
  • Comic Book Route
  • Bruges and Ghent
  • Luxembourg and Dinant

Where to stay in Brussels

Back in Netherlands

From Brussels, we took the FlixBus back to Netherlands (which was cheaper than the train) and spent another three days in Amsterdam.

One of the things Amsterdam is known for is its vibrant biking culture. The city has more bikes than people and the highlight of our last leg was biking around the city. There are various biking routes around Amsterdam that we were choosing from, so we tried to do 2 in one day.

We ended up going on an 80-kilometer ride to Zaanse Schans, a historic neighborhood that has the look of an 18th/19th-century village, and Marken (a coastal village with a port and traditional houses) and back to Amsterdam the same day, making the most of the long daylight hours (the sunset was at 10pm).

Amsterdam is also known for historical figures like Anne Frank and artists like Vincent Van Gogh. I’m glad we were able to pre-book museum tickets for the the Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh Museum on the day of our flight back.

I feel extremely grateful for this trip to Europe. It’s been a whirlwind of memorable experiences along with travel mistakes that could have been avoided (but at least we now know better). Each European country and city had a different character and vibe. There were some places where I wouldn’t mind returning to and staying longer, other places I’m satisfied with seeing just once in my lifetime, and other destinations I wish we could have included if our time and budget permitted.

But overall, I think our first trip to Europe provided a great overview of different country highlights and what to expect on future trips.

10 COUNTRIES: Italy, Vatican City, Austria, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Netherlands, Belgium

16 CITIES (in the order we visited): Rome, Vatican, Venice, Vienna, Bratislava, Prague, Regensburg, Munich, Vaduz, Lucerne, Heidelberg, Sankt Goar, Rhineland, Cologne, Amsterdam, Brussels

I’ll try my best to write more detailed country guides/travelogues (especially the DIY bike tours, memorable beer experiences, and notable museums) and link back to them in this post, but for now I hope other travelers will find the basics and practical information helpful for their own trip planning.

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