Planning a trip in Europe is a dream come true for most people. Retirement gives us the time and opportunity to turn those dreams into reality. But the logistics of the trip is more difficult as we age. We’re past the point of staying in hostels and backpacking, but still want to squeeze as much as we can in the time (and budget) we have. Especially if we’re traveling in Europe for the first time! Can you explore Europe – the cities, museums, and historical sites – and still come home refreshed? Can you plan a European trip that still feels like a vacation? Yes! Our tips for traveling in Europe will help you plan a trip that’s both inspiring and relaxing.
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Schedule Downtime to Stay Relaxed on a European Vacation
For many of us, a trip to Europe involves an overseas flight. We may arrive tired and are then faced with currency changes, language barriers, and a new time zone. Not easy for anyone, but especially difficult for older travelers.
- Schedule rest days into your itinerary. One day at the beginning of your trip and at least one additional day per week of the trip. Though this might seem a waste of valuable time and hotel dollars, the rest days will pay for themselves in your ability to enjoy the rest of the trip. Note:
- taking a walk, going to the spa, or the beach, all count as rest!
- rest days help to keep you healthy. For more tips read Older Adults Guide to Staying Healthy While Traveling
- Minimize the number of hotel/travel days on the trip. Packing and unpacking takes time from your day and adds stress to the trip.
- Book private tours with door-to-door service. A private tour is well worth the money as you’ll have the full attention of the guide and can design the tour around your interests.
Focus on One Location (or Two) when Planning your European Trip
Though tempting to book a European group tour, you will enjoy your trip much more if you choose one or two locations for longer stays. Bus tours and packed ‘if it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium’ itineraries are a recipe for exhaustion. Instead, we recommend you determine what destination is most interesting to you and plan your European vacation around that. Give yourself the time to fully explore one area, adding an easily accessible second location if you’d like. Bonus points if your second destination is in a beautiful and relaxing location.
By not trying to pack too much into your trip, you’ll get a deeper appreciation of your destination AND you’ll come home refreshed.
10 best European cities first time travelers
It’s difficult to rank cities in Europe, but we have put together this list of cities we suggest for first time visitors from North America. Though admittedly subjective, we have based our recommendations on six factors:
flights- availability and time | attractions of interest to an average first time traveler | expense- lodging, meals, etc. | safety (as rated by the Economist) | ease for exploration | language barriers
London is probably the best city for first time visitors to Europe from North America. In addition to the many wonderful attractions of the city, the flight is short, and the language ALMOST the same as in the U.S. and Canada. The city is easy to explore on your own, though a local guide will enhance your trip if you choose to schedule a tour. Four days is the minimum we’d suggest for a first visit, though you could easily spend a week or two exploring the incredible museums, gardens and historical sites.
Pair London with a few days in the Cotswolds, one of the most lovely areas of Great Britain.
If your time is limited, head to Claridge’s where you can indulge in that most British of luxuries – High Tea! Or schedule a day in one of London’s renowned spas.
Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Give yourself time to walk, as the city is best seen on foot. Many of the best museums are in Paris, as are some of the best restaurants. Five days is best for the first-time visitor, though longer is better! Exploring Paris on your own is easy, but the Paris Night Bike Tour remains one of our favorite experiences ever. Highly recommend!! (We enjoyed it so much that we booked the Versailles Bike Tour for the following day.)
Pair Paris with a trip into the French countryside: With only one day, book a car for a ride out to Giverny, to visit the home and gardens of Claude Monet. It’s a lovely way to get out of the city.
Or take the high-speed train to the Loire Valley for days of hiking, biking, and vineyards.
Direct flights to Amsterdam Airport Schiphol make this city an easy destinations for travelers from North America. Amsterdam is one of the safest cities in Europe and an incredible city to explore. Allow yourself at least three days to visit the extraordinary museums and historical sites, and a few lovely evenings for strolling the canals. To see our favorite things to do in Amsterdam read: 8 Must-Dos in Amsterdam
Pair Amsterdam with a few days in Brugge in Belgium. Brugge is a storybook pretty walking city with fun things for the whole family to enjoy. Brugge is easily reached by train from Amsterdam.
Another peaceful extension: the countryside of the Netherlands is a cyclist’s dream. Rent a bike and spend some time exploring. We took a whole week to do this and loved it. Read about our experience: A Cycling Adventure in the Netherlands
Berlin is marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall in 2019. This once divided city is a fascinating destination for history buffs, but also boasts some wonderful museums and vibrant nightlife. The city is safe and easy to explore.
Rome, the Eternal City, is a must for most European visitors. The beauty and the history is evident everywhere you go. Explore the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Vatican, the museums – the list is endless. There is so much to see that a tour might be wise. We created our own walking tour based on the Dan Brown bestseller, Angels and Demons. But there are countless other tours that will get you around this not always easy to navigate city. For a different view of Rome we enjoyed an evening Trastevere tour with dinner in a private villa. (similar-Trastevere Food Tour by Night)
Restful extensions: so many choices! Spend a few days on Capri, Positano, or on the beaches of Cinque Terre.
Florence, the magnificent Renaissance city, is only 160 miles from Rome and easy reached by train. Enjoy this city but book your lodging outside Florence in the Tuscan hills. You can relax or spend your days touring local vineyards.
A little over two hours from Rome is the town of Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast. Enjoy a few days on the beach or explore some of the UNESCO sites near Sorrento. For ideas read: Excursions from Sorrento
Dubrovnik has gained popularity with the Game of Thrones series, but it is a spectacular destination on its own. The walled city is easy to explore and has a photo op on every corner. Getting there from North America is more of a challenge, but once there the options for fun and relaxation are endless. We booked a private tour in Dubrovnik to get the most of our time there.
Pair Dubrovnik with a few days in nearby Hvar where you can visit vineyards, sail in the beautiful harbor or just relax with a good book.
Barcelona is a direct flight from many North American cities. It’s a lovely, often underrated city, with fascinating museums and architecture. Unlike most of the cities on this list, Barcelona has beaches within the city lines. We recommend taking a tour in Barcelona as it would be easy to overlook some of the historical spots in the city. Read What to Do In Barcelona
Barcelona beaches are lovely, but a day or two in the Penedès wine region will be just the restorative Cava lovers need.
Athens is another must-see city in Europe. The beauty of the Acropolis cannot be overstated. Athens is not the easiest city to navigate however, and we had difficulty finding English speakers to ask directions, so we would recommend either staying near the city center or taking a tour.
Athens isn’t always the most relaxing city, but gorgeous beaches and villages are only a ferry ride, or short hop, away. If you’re heading to Athens, book a few days on one of the islands. You won’t regret it!
Istanbul surprised us by being one of our favorite cities ever visited. The city, former capital of both the Byzantine and the Ottoman Empire, straddles two continents and has a fascinating history. Spend your days visiting the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the markets, and take an evening foodies tour to get a local’s view of the city. We loved exploring on foot and felt perfectly safe wherever we went. The locals we met, though not always English speakers, were wonderfully helpful.
Restful day trip: take a ferry ride on the Bosphorus. You can get on and off wherever you’d like but will love having a quiet day on the water.
Venice is on every traveler’s bucket list. It is beautiful, fragile, and overcrowded. But don’t let the crowds deter you. There is much to see and do if you explore Venice Off the Beaten Track. Just be prepared to spend a lot to visit Venice.
Restful extension: book a hotel away from central Venice if you’re craving peace. There are some lovely resorts on the island in the archipelago. Getting to St. Mark’s would involve a bit more time, but the relaxation factor should compensate.
Easiest Way to Enjoy a European Vacation: Cruise!
Designing your trip around a cruise is probably the best way to combine excursions and relaxation. There are literally hundreds of options for exploring Europe from the water. And on any of them you unpack once, make friends on board, and travel without the worries of transportation. Just knowing where you’ll find your go-to breakfast items can be a relief when you’re traveling overseas. You can book a river cruise in the interior of the continent, an ocean itinerary in the Baltics or around the British Isles, or a luxurious Mediterranean cruise.
Make the most of your trip by combining the cruise with a city stay. Arrive a few days before the trip to ensure against flight delays AND to give you a chance to really explore the port city. Stay a few days after the cruise and again you have the opportunity to delve deeper into an area.
Your cruise line may offer these extensions (known in the cruise business as a “cruise and stay,’ ) with the benefit of transportation provided to and from the cruise terminal, and often guided tours in the city. But an independently planned itinerary might be preferable to you. We opt to book and explore on our own, but have used the cruise line’s transportation to get to city center.
Tips for cruise traveling in Europe
- Bookend cities. Fly into a city you’ve been hoping to explore and book a few days to a week in that location. Similarly, book rooms and tours for the disembarkation city. Athens, Copenhagen, Istanbul, Lisbon, Vienna – many major European cities have cruises departing from their ports. One of our favorites, Barcelona, is wonderful for a Mediterranean cruise and stay.
- Choose a cruise line that matches your personality (and budget!) Many European cruises are port heavy, which is great for the tourist, but can be exhausting for the traveler. If you’re feeling tired, stay on the ship one day, or take a taxi to a beach or spa. No excuses needed!
- Review your itinerary to see what ports are most interesting to you. Book private shore excursions for those ports. Why book private excursions? Touring with a private local guide will let you get a better insight to the port, focus on only what you want to see, and tour at your pace. Nothing more frustrating than spending valuable time in port waiting for other passengers to shop or make frequent bathroom stops! Read about our experience with private tours on a Mediterranean cruise.
River cruise: the Danube from Vienna to Budapest (or take the train!)
Only 130 miles separate these two gorgeous cities. If you can’t manage a river cruise, enjoy a few days in either city before jumping on a train to the other. Both cities offer castles, opera houses, and incredible food possibilities!
Relaxation tip: hike the Vienna woods, enjoy a concert, or book a Riding Dinner – an eating and sightseeing tour in a horse-drawn carriage.
Preparing to Go on Your Relaxing European Vacation
Once you’ve planned your itinerary it’s time to start getting ready. This is the fun part! Research your destination, picking out restaurants you’re eager to try, make a ‘destination bucket list’, and learn a few phrases in the language. We love reading fiction and nonfiction to get us in the mood and to learn a bit of history and culture.
Recommended Reading Suggestions for European Travel
Pack for Luxury and Ease of Travel in Europe
Wherever you decide to travel when you plan your European vacation, you would be advised to pack light. Unless you’ve decided to book a luxury group tour, you will be responsible for transporting your luggage. You may be faced with cobblestone streets, stairs, etc., so make sure you are able to carry what you pack.
Is it possible to pack light for a luxury trip? Yes! Invest in high quality, but packable pieces that you can dress up or down. Stick to solid neutral pieces to make creating a capsule wardrobe easy. Throw in some silk scarves and costume jewelry and you are ready to go to the Viennese Opera House or the theater!
Touring in Europe will likely have you visiting many sacred places. Dress respectfully. Carry a scarf to cover bare arms if necessary. We usually try to err on the side of dressing up – not fancy, but ‘country club casual’.
Shoes will be the challenge. You will be doing a lot of walking in Europe. Invest in some good walking shoes that’ll also pass for casual wear. Bring along one pair of dress shoes.
Remember: the people in Europe will never see you again. Dress well to be respectful but no worries if you’re not the fashion icon you are at home! You likely wouldn’t be able to compete with European fashionistas anyway…
Organize your travel gear to simplify moving between accommodations
As always, being organized on a trip will make your life much easier. Knowing where your essentials are will make everything simpler. We use folders and packing cubes to facilitate our packing. For more ideas read: How to Stay Organized on a Long Trip.
Hope these travel tips for traveling in Europe encourage you to start planning a trip. For those who’ve made the trip already, please share any suggestions for European travel itineraries in the comments!