If you are pondering a destination for a summer backpacking vacation, then consider no longer – emulate the adventurous spirit of Laurie Lee on the journey so evocatively described in his book As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and head for Europe. Of course, Lee’s journey presented far more hazardous situations than today’s travellers face; however, the voyage of discovery will be as interesting for the backpacker today as it was then. Let me assure you that it will be an experience that lives long in your memory.
Great variety is what mainland Europe has to offer the traveler. The impressive landscapes, architecture, language and culture is unequalled anywhere. It is your choice of course but this journey could take you to so many fascinating places, from the fairytale castles of Bavaria, to a walk around the notorious Red Light District of Amsterdam. Quite a contrast! See what I mean about variety? You can also enjoy the peaceful atmosphere and quaint architecture of Bruges in Belgium or take the opportunity to feel serene in Berlin’s Grünewald Forest.
So let us begin a backpacking journey based on a 10-day trip, starting in Munich, passing through Berlin and Amsterdam to the beautiful town of Bruges.
First Stop Munich
Munich is situated on the banks of the River Isar that carries water down from the Alps. It is undoubtedly a city of contradictions. On the one hand, it’s classy in a fancy car and power-dressed people kind of way. It has high-tech industries and a host of museums and galleries packed with wonderful artworks
What to see
Wealthy residents tend to hang out in the bohemian Schwabing district with its excellent restaurants, designer boutiques and street cafés, while locals and students relax, sunbathe and drink beer to the east of Schwabing in the English Garden. If you’re lucky enough to find a couchsurfing host in Schwabing you’re likely to find your accommodations are very good indeed.
On the other hand, Munich is home to a multitude of beer halls and gardens (biergartens) and the world’s largest funfair held at the lively 16-day long Oktoberfest in late September. More than six million people flock to the festival every year – a fair amount of your backpacking budget could be swallowed (literally) here – the beer flows freely and the thigh-slapping table-dancers clad in lederhosen have considerable capacity for it. Be warned, if you go try to curb your enthusiasm a little.
As the self-proclaimed capital of cycling, Munich has numerous cycleways – you can hire a bike and join the 170km long RadlRing München wherever takes your fancy and enjoy stopping occasionally to explore the various communities that encircle the city. To the north, between Dachau and Garching, the path crosses a gravel plain where unusual heathers and coarse grasses grow. To the south, it glides past the large forests and rocky terrain of Altmoränenlandschaft. Between Donnersbergerbrucke and Laim, Hirschgarten (Deer Garden) is well worth a visit, or venture into the rose gardens and the oriental gardens of Westpark in the southwest of the city.
Where to stay
During Oktoberfest the Hostival arrives in Munich. This is a strange nomadic campsite, dubbed the Hangover Hospital, which travels around the world following festival action. It’s a ‘happening place’, with live bands and DJs as well as guest accommodations. For an alternative budget option you could stay at the Euro Youth Hostel in its historic building just 10-minutes from Oktoberfest. A more luxurious accommodation experience is to be found at Wombat’s Hostel. This is located centrally and has the advantage of being close to the main railway station.
|Euro Youth Hostel||Wombat’s Munich|
|senefelderstr 5||City Hostel Munich|
|80336 MUNICH||Senefelderstraße 1|
As you say goodbye to Munich after a couple days you can head to Berlin – some 380 miles away. Flying is fast and surprisingly cheap while traveling by train or car takes about six hours and is expensive. The alternative is to take a Berlin Binien bus that has the advantage of providing a great view of the countryside. This will take about nine hours but the buses are modern, clean and comfortable, with toilets, sleeper seats and air conditioning. The route passes through Nuremberg, a city that might have inspired Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle and also Leipzig, the contemporary economic center of Germany and nicknamed the ‘Boomtown of eastern Germany.’
The capital of Germany, Berlin, is the largest city in the country and is home to many historic monuments, museums, and renowned universities, it is also the venue of large sporting events. It is prosperous and it shows, but it is also much loved by backpackers due to its lively bars and restaurants, great nightlife and hidden attractions.
What to see
When you have seen the Brandenburg Gate on Pariser Platz, dodge the crowds on Museum Island and head for the Boros Collection in Mitte where a converted bunker houses a private collection of contemporary art. A former air-raid shelter and then a prisoner-of-war camp, the building is as fascinating as its contents.
One of the largest Jewish Museums in Europe is in Berlin and houses special exhibitions as well as exhibiting memorials to the Holocaust. It has an unusual design and the city’s historical heritage has given it an eclectic mix of architectural styles.
Wandering the streets staring at buildings is one thing, but by going underground you will experience a walking tour with a difference. Your guide from Berliner Unterwelten will take you through a labyrinth of bunkers, caverns and tunnels and tell you about the history of successful and unsuccessful escape attempts from the East to the West; many people opted to go under rather than over the Berlin Wall. You can pop up into a subway station or visit one of the superb food markets along the way.
Don’t queue up to see the view from the Fernsehturm TV Tower – ride the elevator to the top of the Park Inn by Radisson to the Panorama Terrace Bar. There is a small cover charge but drinks are cheap and it’s a perfect way to relax.
Before boarding the bus again (the Berlin Binien service runs to Amsterdam) make time to visit the 3,000 hectare Grünewald Forest for a healthy dose of fresh air and to enjoy the lakes and ponds, and the nature preserves. If you are interested in birds take your binoculars, as there are some unusual species to observe.
Where to stay
The award-winning Circus Hostel in Berlin has dorm beds as well as penthouse suites plus 24/7 reception facilities, or choose a cheaper option and stay at the huge Generator Hostel on Storkower Strasse.
|Generator Hostel Berlin Prenzlauer Berg||The Circus Hostel|
|Storkower Straße 160||Weinbergsweg 1a|
|10407 Berlin, Germany||10119 Berlin|
Off To Amsterdam
This is a lovely, laid back place with an open-minded and supremely tolerant population. Walking alongside the canals is a great way to relax while taking a tour on a canal boat will give you a different perspective – most everyone takes a canal tour at least once. Biking is also big in The Netherlands and renting a cycle is a great way to get off the tourist track and explore Amsterdam’s secret corners.
What to see
Check out the hidden garden courtyard behind a wooden door in the busy square at The Spui. One of the city’s most beautiful, tranquil spots, it’s surrounded by quirky little gabled buildings. At its heart is a tiny chapel called Begjinhof. Amsterdam has only two medieval facades remaining and No. 34 in the courtyard is one of them.
Travel on to the outskirts of Amsterdam to discover the district’s beaches. Strand Zuid near the Beatrixpark is man-made and decidedly upscale with hammocks, loungers and a volleyball court available; Strand West is a hit with young people and students and is ultra relaxed with views over the water, music and dancing. Strand IJburg is the hippie hangout and young families love its beach restaurant, music, swimming and watersports.
Besides walking along the canal banks there’s always an opportunity for an evening stroll along De Wallen. Not much is kept secret here in the so called Red Light District, sometimes also called Rosse Buurt or Walletjes. The network of alleys and streets contains several hundred small apartments, most having only one room, that are rented by sex workers. Typically they position themselves behind a glass door or window under red lights to offer their services.
After all the biking, walking and sightseeing there’s always street food to try – bitterballen (stuffed croquettes), herring and pork buns are among the Dutch favorites.
Where to stay
For a more luxurious experience try Cocomama, close to Rembrandt Square and the Heineken Museum – a beautiful former brothel sporting high ceilings and chandeliers. A cheaper option is the Hostel Annemarie in Downtown Amsterdam. This is a good place from which to visit the Rijksmuseum, the flower market and the Rembrandtplein.
|Hostel Annemarie||Boutique Hostel Cocomama|
|Jan willem brouwerstraat 14||Westeinde 18|
|1071 LJ Amsterdam||1017 ZP Amsterdam|
Final Stop Bruges
Getting from Amsterdam to Bruges is straightforward. The two cities are approximately 250km apart and by train the trip takes about three hours. Travel by coach is the other main option. It is cheaper but the journey will take about five hours.
Bruges is a medieval city located in West Flanders, Belgium. The city’s waterways have earned Bruges the nickname ‘the Venice of the North.’ The historic architecture of the center caused Bruges to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What to see
Take a sedate walking tour of the medieval city, or walk in the direction of the city walls to enjoy the quaint art shops in the area – few tourists go there. If you like to cycle then you can rent a bike, or better still share a tandem with a pal, to enjoy the great outdoors, especially alongside the city’s waterways.
If you’re hungry for some less highbrow culture there are a couple of museums you should visit – The Friet Museum exhibits the history of the humble French fry and is believed to be the first and only museum in the world dedicated to potato fries. Follow this up with a trip to the Chocolate Museum, which lets you explore the story of the transformation of cocoa into chocolate. There are demonstrations, workshops and tastings – you may want to skip lunch that day.
In the medieval Burg Square you can take your pick of the attractions – the Bishop’s Palace, the Town Hall, the Old Civil Registry and the Holy Blood Basilica. To experience something really different, wander down to the atmospheric fish market on a Sunday evening and watch the guys there dance the tango – no kidding, they really do!
Where to stay
Among the cheaper hostels in Bruges, St. Christopher’s Inn At The Bauhaus Hostel is great value and has cute sleeping pods complete with curtains for extra privacy, reading lights and power points. For a classier experience Lybeer Travellers’ Hostel has brand new renovated rooms, both private and dorms, and free Wi-Fi.
|St. Christopher’s Inn At The Bauhaus Hostel||Hostel Lybeer Bruges|
|133-137 Langestraat||Korte Vuldersstraat 31|
|8000 Brugge, Belgium||8000 Brugge, Belgium|
Each one of these European cities has so many famous monuments, art galleries, popular cultural attractions, shopping opportunities and tourist activities just too numerous to list. The tourist attractions apart, backpacking is as much about the journey itself. Just standing still and watching what is going on around you in a city that is unfamiliar can be very rewarding. Make the most of your opportunities to meet new people and listen to their cool stories and exchange tips for places to visit. Enjoy the local color to be found in the bars and cafés and you will have made your backpacking across Europe a truly worthwhile and memorable experience.
Don’t hesitate – pack that rucksack and let your adventure begin!