If you’re studying abroad in Europe, or planning to study abroad in the near future, I’m sure cities such as Paris, London and Rome have come up at one point or another. Western Europe is chock full of popular potential destinations, either for the study abroad program itself or side-trips while in Europe.
While popular cities for students studying abroad certainly have their merits (there must be a reason they attract so many tourists!), there are plenty of other places in Europe worthy of your consideration.
Based on my own experiences while studying abroad in Prague, I’ve compiled a list of four notable places in Europe to consider visiting while on your study abroad program, especially if you’re itching to wander off the beaten path.
1. Czech Republic
Okay, I’m a bit biased since I studied abroad in Prague, but there is so much more to this country than the crazy nightlife and dirt cheap (cheaper than water!) beer that attract people to its capital city.
First off, if you are at all into history, this place is full of it. From the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to Nazi control, to Soviet invasion, this country has seen it all. Remnants of the many regimes are everywhere. Castles that rival Disney, churches more ornate than your grandmother’s gaudy jewelry collection, and depressingly gray communist constructions (and ruins).
Cities of note are Kutna Hora (home to a church made entirely out of bones), Plzen (from which Pilsner-style beers get their name and the site of the famous Pilsner Urquell brewery), and Terezin (once home to the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt).
In addition to the sights to see and history to revel in, the Czech Republic is one of the cheapest places in Europe, having resisted the push to switch to the Euro. This may not last for much longer though, so it’s best to plan your trip sooner rather than later.
Right next door to the Czech Republic is its slightly smaller sister Slovakia. Once joined with the Czech Republic as a single country, Czechoslovakia, many would say Slovakia was given the short shrift upon the split. Left with mainly agricultural land (most of the industrial area became part of the Czech Republic), and losing most of the intellectual elite class to the Czech Republic as well, Slovakia has oft been overshadowed and overlooked.
This is no reason for you to write Slovakia off as a place to visit while studying abroad in Europe. Things are changing now that Slovakia has joined the European Union. In fact, the country has already adopted the Euro, even before its big sister to the West.
The capital city, Bratislava, is definitely worth a visit. With beautiful baroque churches, cobblestone streets, and a picturesque castle juxtaposed against minimal communist apartment buildings, Bratislava is almost like a smaller (less touristy!) version of Prague. Also, its proximity to Vienna (Bratislava and Vienna are the two capitals closest to each other in all of Europe) makes it easy to check two cities off of your list with one trip.
There is much to see outside of the city as well. If you find yourself studying abroad in Europe during the winter, the Tatras, breathtaking mountains in the north of the country, are a must for any ski bunny. Also, be sure to try the halusky – a popular national dish of little potato dumplings served with fresh sheep’s cheese and bacon (optional for those herbivores like myself).
Bulgaria is a vast, beautiful country that lies right at the crossroads between East and West. Seldom thought of as a top European destination in the US, Bulgaria is a great place to go if you are looking to escape the sea of tourists and get a heavy dose of genuine eastern European culture and hospitality.
Though my stay in Bulgaria did not allow me to see much outside of Varna, a beautiful city on the Black Sea, I did get to see quite a bit of the countryside while driving through by car, and I can say that the rest of the country is stunning.
In terms of Varna, things to expect include beautiful beaches (with beautiful people), incredibly fresh (and cheap!) Mediterranean-style food, and great open-air clubs right on the beach with parties that go strong into the wee hours of the night.
Many central and eastern Europeans choose Bulgaria as the destination for their summer beach vacations, but few Western tourists make the trek. You aren’t likely to hear much English spoken here. This makes Bulgaria (and Varna in particular) a great alternative to the more obvious European beach destinations such as Spain, Italy, and the south of France.
I may have subconsciously saved the best for last. Of all my trips while studying abroad in Europe, Croatia was my favorite. The perfect balance of history and natural beauty, my stay here was at once both a fascinating learning experience and a rejuvenating escape.
The gorgeous Dalmatian coast is the perfect destination for backpackers and those seeking a little fun in the sun. There are cities and islands worth visiting all the way down the coastline, from the border with Italy in the north to the city of Dubrovnik in the south. The only difficulty is deciding which ones to choose.
In my opinion, the most notable places were Split (a historic port city centered around an ancient Greek palace), Hvar (a popular island with trendy night spots), Korcula (another, slightly less popular, island with remarkable ancient architecture) and Dubrovnik (a fortified city riddled with history and bullet holes).
The beautiful rocky beaches and cliffs jutting into the Adriatic Sea were a highlight. You will definitely want to leave some time to lay on the beach, bask in the sun and eat ice cream, which, combined, seems like some sort of Croatian national sport. But with all of the turbulent history surrounding the Balkan region and former Yugoslavia, at least make an effort to do your professors proud and learn something.
Studying abroad in Europe is an incredible, eye-opening experience no matter where you go. But while you and your friends might be tempted to visit Venice or frolic in France, I say think again. You will likely have other opportunities in the future to travel to such mainstays on the to-do list of European travel. While you are studying abroad and have the chance, why not forego the obvious and discover Europe off the beaten path?