A Trip to Europe

The swings of the summer carnival at the Jardin des Tuileries. Paris, France

My wife and I recently got back from two weeks in Europe: six days in Paris (I was there for a tech conference) and three days each in Amsterdam and Copenhagen. My wife is something of a Europe veteran, having studied abroad in Copenhagen during college and another trip with her family afterwards. I had never been there before.

Now that I’m older I travel much more frequently than I used to, although the bulk of that travel has been domestic. A side effect of living in New York City means I look at every new city I visit through an NYC lens – is the city diverse, is it safe, how’s the public transportation, what’s the food culture, etc. And to be honest every major city I’ve visited in the states, while great in their own way, has reaffirmed NYC’s status as the best city in the world.

Paris is the first city I’ve ever visited to make me seriously question that claim. It’s diverse, rich in culture and history, has an incredible (and on most levels vastly superior) subway system and a culinary tradition that literally attracts the best chefs in the world. I’ve never understood the outside obsession/romanticization of Parisian culture until now, and I better understand the roots of the claim that Parisians are snobby (which we found suspect). The city as a whole seems more refined. Being a little snobby about it seems… well, justified.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not moving to Paris. And the “why are you walking so slow get the eff out of my way” charm of NYC is totally more my style. I’m just trying to say I understand the hype.

Amsterdam and Copenhagen were really beautiful but comparisons to Paris or NYC as cities aren’t appropriate. The relative scales aren’t comparable.

I kept track of thoughts in my iPhone as we traveled, both as travel protips and general observations about life in each city.

General Travel Tips and Observations

Money

The best rate you’re going to get for money exchange is from an ATM, and the safest place to use an ATM is at a bank. Many American banks have partner banks in specific European countries, meaning you can avoid some otherwise typical ATM fees. In Paris we used BNP Paribas, but in Amsterdam and Copenhagen we had no such luck. In Amsterdam we used local bank ATMs, and in Copenhagen some google searches said that Forex (found in Kobenhaven H, or Copenhagen Central Station) provided the best rates.

Exchanging a nominal amount of money at the airport is in some ways unavoidable if you’re looking to purchase a subway or rail pass to get to your eventual destination. Unfortunately airport money exchange booths are straight up highway robbery. I’ve read that American banks can exchange money for you before your trip with a few days/weeks notice and without ripping you off. I’ll probably explore that route in greater detail before our next trip.

Visa is generally taken everywhere (and American Express less so) but you must use a chipped credit card which AFAIK isn’t standard issue in the US. Before we left I notified my CC company that I needed a chipped card and they sent me a replacement with a chip in a few days.

Most chipped cards in Europe require a four-digit PIN and I was told by my credit card company that American CC companies don’t issue PINs. The alternative to entering a PIN is to sign the receipt, but you’re out of luck with that with the automated kiosks that are common for purchasing tickets. Fortunately despite not having a PIN our cards seemed to “just work,” presumably because we gave our CC companies a heads up about the dates and destinations of our travel.

Cell Service

As Verizon users neither of us had phones that use SIM cards. I looked into extending our cell phone service into Europe but it seemed needlessly expensive, and a coworker of mine hooked us up with a pair of old school (and I mean old school) unlocked Android phones he bought on Ebay for this exact purpose. Our plan was to buy SIM cards at each airport so we could use the web and communicate with each other while apart, which was only important in Paris since I’d be at the conference for most of the day.

In theory this was a good plan. In practice this only worked in Amsterdam.

In Paris we spent 80 euro at an airport store for an Orange SIM card, only to realize days later (and after a lot of googling) that the card required us to mail a physical letter to some central Orange office with a copy of our passport (?!). The lady who sold us the card absolutely did not mention this to us. We ended up having to buy another pay-as-you-go SIM card at a cigar shop near our airbnb, which the salesperson activated for us over the phone.

In Amsterdam there’s a cell phone activation store as you leave the airport, where a helpful attendant activated our fully working Lycamobile SIM card on the spot.

In Copenhagen we paid 40 euro for a Lycamobile SIM card that never ended up working. Calling their English support line was a neverending hold queue, which I called frequently enough that I seriously question that it actually resolves to someone.

The conclusion with regards to cell phone service in Europe is that YMMV and we were unlucky. The only real suggestion I can give right now is to find the store of a major, reputable cell phone provider and go there and watch them activate your phone. My other advice is to save offline maps on your cell phone (with an iPhone type “OK maps” into the Google app) and save destinations on that map when you’re on WIFI. We didn’t find it to be a debilitating inconvenience to be without cell service but it was more problematic in Paris since my wife and I weren’t together for most of the day.

Admittedly the hassle of it all left a bad taste in my mouth. Next time I might just pay the costs for Verizon abroad.

Selfie Sticks

Let’s appreciate the wonder that is the selfie stick.

Ours turned out to be super useful, both for its prescribed purpose (selfies) and for taking normal photos from a different perspective. I took some cool Hyperlapse videos with it when taking canal tours in Paris and Amsterdam.

I’m convinced this is a travel hack. It’s annoying to ask other people to take photos of you everywhere you go, and sometimes you don’t want to hand a phone/camera off to a stranger.

I bought one for $8 from a guy in Chinatown who set up a table outside the Canal St 6 stop.

We’re not ashamed.

European Airlines

The acceptable size/weight of a carry on in the US is significant larger than the acceptable size/weight of a carry on in Europe. This is something to keep in mind when booking tickets that leave from European countries, as checking a bag at travel time can have a significant upcharge from buying the checked bag with your ticket.

Customs and travel security practices in Europe are significantly less annoying and onerous than those set forth by the TSA. The customs guy in Amsterdam was literally a guy on a stool who waved us through without looking up. I don’t even think we went through customs at all in Copenhagen.

Place des Vosges, Paris

Paris, France

  • We were welcomed to Paris by a notable European heat wave, with temperatures during our stay reaching 104F (40 C). It was crazy hot. It doesn’t seem like the bulk of airbnb rentals in Europe provide air conditioning, and even those that claim to have it (see: ours) may actually just have a fan. Naturally the importance of this depends on the location and season of your trip.
  • The sun set at 1030pm every evening, which was awesome.
  • The Parisian subway is a marvel. It’s incredibly clean, efficient and easy to reason about, and uses the speed of the subway and well placed windows/vents to cool the train cars. While a lack of AC during the heat wave wasn’t ideal on a stagnant train car, the movement of the train was sufficient to cool the cars otherwise. It’s a logical way to make a common means of mass transit more environmentally friendly, which I soon realized was a motif throughout the design of many appliances/systems throughout Europe (see: two-flush toilets).
  • However there are stairs everywhere, and without encountering any elevators I can’t imagine that the subway system is even remotely handicap accessible. Although as a disclaimer I wasn’t actively looking for elevators.
  • Paris is super ethnically diverse, although it’s hard to differentiate local diversity from the massive influx of tourists.
  • Everyone smokes cigarettes.
  • The whole “people in Paris are assholes” thing is overblown – or just outright wrong entirely. Neither of us took French in school but a cursory understanding of a few key phrases (“Excuse me, do you speak English?”) went a long way to show respect for locals before asking questions. I don’t think it’s much different than when tourists ask for help in NYC, as courtesy and mutual respect go a long way when communicating with someone new. And frankly there are assholes everywhere, so that’s something of a dice roll no matter where you are. All in all we found the people we interacted with to be very pleasant.
Parisian pastries are no joke
  • Baked goods: holy crap. There really is no comparison between the quality of pastries/bread in Paris and pastries/bread probably anywhere else in the world. We didn’t even bother seeking out notable boulangeries/patisseries and ate mind-blowing after mind-blowing almond croissants from the neighborhood bakery down the street from our airbnb.
  • Here’s an interesting fact: a store can only be called a “boulangerie” in Paris if the dough is made on premises. And while it’s a stretch to call the baguettes government regulated, you can only label a baguette for sale as “traditional” if it contains specific ingredients – flour, water, salt, yeast – and a very limited amount of other additives.
  • On a semi-related side note, watch “Kings of Pastry” on Netflix to see how intense the highest levels of French pastry can get. For a random Saturday night find I don’t think I’ve seen a more nervewracking film in years.
  • I was pretty sick for most of my time in Europe which was incredibly lame. Finding an English-speaking doctor in Paris for a non-emergency was more complicated than I thought it’d be, mostly because the list of English speaking doctors in Paris provided by the State Department is largely bogus. I was eventually able to get a walk-in appointment with Dr. Nancy Salzman near the Ecole Militaire metro, who is an American/Canadian expat and speaks perfect English. I had to pay out of pocket for the visit though.
  • Trying to find over-the-counter medication became something of a theme throughout the rest of the trip. Luckily there are pharmacies all over Paris marked by neon green crosses.
Lunch and people watching
  • Restaurants typically won’t give you ice in your drink. The McDonalds at the Louvre will, which is why it can be important to know that there’s a McDonalds at the Louvre when it’s 104 degrees outside.
  • When you sit at restaurants and ask for water you’ll often be asked “gassy or still?” “Gassy” is obviously carbonated and so it seems reasonable to assume that “regular” is tap. Turns out “still” is bottled, which to the unsuspecting tourist can be an additional 8 euro on your final bill. “Eau de robinet” – or “tap water” – is the phrase you’re looking for.
  • All bottled water we were given in Paris was either Evian or tasted like Evian, which I find to be the worst tasting of all bottled water varieties.
  • The picture above is how you’ll typically be seated at a restaurant regardless of what time it is. Both chairs facing the street and a preference towards seating outside. We found ourselves eating next to each other much more often than facing each other across a table.
  • There seems to be a different philosophy around eating in Paris, perhaps best typified by the older gentleman sitting in front of us in the above photo. This man sat down, ordered a single espresso for a euro, and proceeded to smoke cigarettes and read the paper for ~1.5 hours. Aside from asking him if he wanted another espresso the waiter left him alone. Our meals seemed to last longer and be less disturbed.
  • French food is delicious but heavy. It seemed like every menu we came across consisted of similar options – foie gras/escargot/tartare appetizers and steak/duck/veal entrees. I’m as carnivorous as the next person but eating like this becomes incredibly tiring (literally and figuratively).
  • The best way to get to the airport to catch an early flight is the Roissybus. Straight to the airport for 11 euro from the Opera metro station on an air conditioned bus with WIFI, running every 15 minutes.
The streets of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

  • Everyone in Amsterdam speaks perfect English, in addition to the 5+ other languages they speak perfectly.
  • Verbatim from the taxi driver who brought us from the airport to our airbnb: “Welcome to Amsterdam! It is the hottest day it’s been since 1955.” It was probably 88F outside, which, while warm, was a welcome change from Paris.
  • That same taxi driver drove us in a Tesla Model S, which was all kinds of cool. It was also strangely the same price as any other cab service.
  • I talked to our driver about his car, and he mentioned that while the cost for a Tesla is high (90k euro), Teslas for European distribution are assembled in The Netherlands so it’s not as expensive as importing other cars. He offered the example that an American car like a Mustang would end up around 140k euro, which makes the Tesla seem strangely affordable until you realize how much money you’re actually talking about.
  • Amsterdam is incredibly beautiful and small enough to walk everywhere. The streets are narrow and crowded with tourists and bicyclists, and the gorgeous canal system that runs throughout the city is active with boats. It’s crowded and bike-friendly enough that driving a car within the city seems like it’d be a nightmare.
  • The above ground tram system is awesome. The swipe on/swipe off is intuitive and I remember thinking that the price for a multi-day pass was a good deal. There are also two booths for attendants per tram that you can buy passes and get answers from which was very helpful when we first arrived.
  • Amsterdam is “known” for specific things: marijuana shops and the Red Light District. Marijuana is legally sold in “coffeeshops” which seem to be everywhere, and it can be confusing as to where to get an actual cup of coffee. Coming from the US (and not Colorado or Seattle) the sheer ubiquity of the coffeeshops is surprising.
  • The city is an interesting social experiment in the legalization of marijuana. Some people definitely partake but others don’t, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a social pressure either way. Reading about it online the social norms are logical/courteous: don’t do it in public spaces if you’re around families and if you’re going to do it then it’s your own business. For something so notable it seemed to fade into the background of our trip and wasn’t a big deal at all.
  • We walked through the Red Light District during the day which undoubtedly isn’t the same as walking through it at night. It was full of drunken, belligerent Irish dudes at noon. This was enough reason not to go back to the Red Light District.
  • I understand the idea of legalizing prostitution in order to provide proper services to those who are prostitutes, but I find it hard to believe that Amsterdam isn’t a haven for the human trafficking that occurs throughout Europe.
Exploring the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
  • The Rijsmuseum was something of a revelation for me. The sheer scale and skill of the paintings, coupled with the descriptions-by-number headphone tour (highly recommended) is the first time I’ve really appreciated museum art.
  • The cafe at the Rijksmuseum was our first exposure to stroopwafel, which I can confidently declare as the greatest coffee pastry known to man. A trip to the grocery store uncovered a lot of delicious varieties.
  • The longest line in Amsterdam is hands down the line for the Anne Frank House. We didn’t get to go.
Calling Amsterdam 'bike-friendly' is an understatement
  • That picture was taken at a bike parking garage near the central station. Seriously; a bike parking garage.
  • Amsterdam seems to be a mash up of post-colonial food cultures rather than something distinctly Dutch, with a surprising amount of Indonesian/Thai/Suriname restaurants. We did manage to get a traditional Dutch meal consisting of varieties of sausage and mashed potatoes at a Yelp-popular restaurant but it wasn’t that great.
  • The hop on/hop off canal tour boat is a solid way to see the city. There’s an associated audio tour and it stops at all the major tourist areas on a 20 minute interval.
  • I think if we were to go back I’d look into staying on a houseboat.
  • Vondelpark is a massive, beautiful park that stretches from downtown into the suburbs. It reminds me of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Sunbathers/picnicers were out in full force enjoying the warm weather and these disposable aluminum grills were everywhere. I had no idea these existed.
  • If you find yourself sick in Amsterdam don’t seek out a pharmacy downtown, which are known to do things like charge tourists a surcharge just for being tourists. Find an Etos cosmetics/drugstore instead.
Nyhaven, Copenhagen

Copenhagen, Denmark

  • The euro being weak ($1 ~ 1.1euro) made Copenhagen (kroner) seem super expensive compared to Paris and Amsterdam. I paid 79kr ($11+) for a bowl of mediocre pho and had to pay 20kr ($2+) for a glass of tap water. I bought a pair of nail clippers in an everyday convenience store for the equivalent of $19. Protip: pack nail clippers in your suitcase if you’re going abroad.
  • I’d say the bike culture is just as prevalent in Copenhagen as it is in Amsterdam. One interesting difference is that nobody in Copenhagen seems to lock their bikes up and just leave them propped up near the door of buildings. It’s almost as if the fact that everyone has a bike makes stealing someone else’s bike pointless.
  • Our airbnb was located in Vesterbro, which was previously described to us as “The Brooklyn of Copenhagen.” … I guess. The comparison works as far as it appears to be a recently gentrified neighborhood with a lot of coffee shops and hipsters on bikes but I think it would’ve been nicer to be closer to the center of town. As you get closer to Kobenhaven H (Central Station) from Vesterbro it gets weirdly seedy with a lot of porn shops and strip clubs and cracked out dudes lying in the street.
  • The bus system throughout Copenhagen is just as convenient and well thought out as every other public transportation system we encountered in Europe.
Pølser - the king of street foods
  • The pølser, or the Danish hot dog, is the best street food I’ve had anywhere. I must’ve eaten 5 of these. There are a few different varieties but my favorite is the one picture above: a long hot dog topped with ketchup, mustard, mayo, raw onion, fried onions, and pickles. E says the mayo tastes different than American mayo, and to me it tastes more homemade.
  • Tivoli is right across from Kobenhaven H and is really beautiful. Its location in the center of a major city means its not as massive as a traditional American theme park, and you’re looking at anywhere between $1-$3 to get on any of the rides. It also seems to host some big names at its outdoor concert venue. Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett were scheduled to perform the day we visited.
The awesome segway tour with go-segway.dk
  • Several of the highest rated things to do on Tripadvisor are segway tours, which makes sense in a city that’s already so bike friendly. And while we recognize how shamelessly touristy a segway tour is, it was arguably the best activity we did in any country. Not only are segways interesting/fun to ride (and neither of us had ever ridden one before), but we covered so much ground across the city with our guide that it took a lot of pressure off of how we spent our remaining time in Copenhagen. I can’t recommend go-segway.dk and Will (our tour guide) enough.
  • One of the more notable tourist destinations in Copenhagen is the Little Mermaid Statue. Our tour guide told us it was recently voted the most disappointing tourist attraction in Denmark. It lived up to the hype.
  • We visited Christiania, which is the lawless state within Copenhagen. It’s really nothing more than a hippie commune, and the prices of the restaurants within Christiania are a lot cheaper for food because they don’t respect government taxes. There’s an open air drug market that I think is primarily marijuana-centric, with an explicit no photography policy and young-looking dealers wearing bandanas over their faces. To be honest coming from Amsterdam Christiania seemed super tame. We walked around, ate some ice cream and left.