While studying in England I had the opportunity to visit several other cities abroad:
Dublin & Galway, Ireland
London & Bath, England
I had a fantastic time in all of these cities, but I definitely have some suggestions in terms of things I wish I would have known before traveling to these places. So, to start –
I adored Scotland. I actually had very little planned in terms of things to do when I went. In fact, myself and the two friends I traveled with had no plans at all, we were just going to wing it, and it actually worked out surprisingly well.
Things to note when traveling to Edinburgh, Scotland:
- Feel free to book a tour in advance, but you don’t necessarily have to. There are free walking tours of the city that meet at various locations around Edinburgh. If you find a local hostel and ask, they should be able to give you information about where one typically meets. Ours was at a Starbucks in the downtown area – super easy to find.
- Wear walking shoes. This might seem obvious to most people, but apparently some of us aren’t (ahem) that clever. Also, the majority of the city is cobblestone, so if you are not great on unsteady streets, you might want to wear something on your feet that gives you more support.
- If you are of age, drink a Scottish Red (Ale?). It is still one of my favorite beers of all time. I don’t remember the exact name of the one that I had, but if you ask any bartender, I am sure they can point you in the right direction. It’s fresh and delicious and goes great with pub food.
- Go find the graveyard where J.K. Rowling found a lot of the names for her Harry Potter characters (e.g. Tom Riddle, Alastor Moody). In that cemetery there is also a giant gravestone marking the mass burial of several hundred prisoners with a warning on it that basically says “beware” in old English; it’s pretty boss.
- Visit the National Gallery. Of all of the art museums I went to while abroad, this was my favorite. It is also the place where I found a 400 year old portrait of my cousin. I mean not really, but definitely kind of. This kid could have been my cousin’s twin. It was super freaky. Maybe a great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather? (I’m not really sure how many “greats” 400 years would require, but you get what I mean.) Also, do not skip the basement of the gallery – that is where many of the Scottish-born artists are located, and there are some amazing pieces down there.
In terms of natural beauty, Ireland was my personal favorite country to visit. The green, grassy slopes, the rocky cliff edges, and the spray of sea foam… Amazing. I went to two very different cities while there: Dublin (a city much like London in terms of its busy nature) and Galway. Galway is on the west coast; a far more rural city which we happened to visit during the last weekend of the horse races. The entire city was down to party and it was a super fun time (Oh, and did I mention that I’ve never seen so many stylish men and women all gathered in the same place at the same time? Super impressive, Ireland. Keep it up!)
Things to note/recommendations when traveling to Ireland:
- Go to the Cliffs of Moher. Go. Just go. But don’t cross the rope that says “do not cross” or you will fall off and die. If you think I’m kidding I’m not. It has happened to people before. Actually, the weekend we were there – and this is a real story, I kid you not – a dog fell off one of the smaller cliffs into the water (still around 400 ft. above sea level.) When the rescue team got down to the beach, the dog was just chilling on the sand, waiting for someone to come get him. This dog was lucky as hell. You are not this dog. Do not cross the rope.
- Be aware of bank holidays. This is something that my traveling buddies and I were not aware existed before we traveled to Ireland because it is something that just doesn’t happen in the USA (or, at least, not where I live). Bank holidays occur relatively frequently and are basically this: the bank is closed for some reason or another and, because of this, businesses are closed too. This means that there is pretty much no shopping done until later in the day, or possibly at all. I honestly can’t say that much about bank holidays since, like I said, we don’t really have them. It might be a good idea to check before you go, though, so you know if this is something you might come across. And don’t be surprised if you do.
- Try Guinness beef stew. Do it. Just do it. It’s so good! Touring the Guinness factory is also a cool time if beer is something you are interested in. If you are of drinking age, you can purchase tickets that get you a free pint at the end of the tour.
- Dublin was a really cool city; if you have the chance to pop in and check it out, I would recommend doing so. My favorite part was the nightlife because performers would come out and play at the local pubs and many of them were SO GOOD. However, this was the third or fourth big city that I visited over the course of a five to six week span. Because of this, I much preferred visiting the west coast of Ireland. This wasn’t because I didn’t like Dublin as much as the other cities, but I was just ready for something different – the west coast was exactly what I had always pictured in my head when anyone spoke of Ireland, and I loved visiting there.
So… my experience in France was quite interesting. If you happened to read my blog post “What To Do When You Are Stranded On an Island with an Idiot” you might have a better idea as to why. Separate from this, my experience in the city of Paris was a lovely one. The beauty and history of the churches is jaw-dropping. Fresh Parisian macaroons = eight thumbs up.
Things to note/recommendations when traveling to France:
- Ordering “un café” is the same as ordering an espresso, keep this in mind. If you are a coffee drinker and do not speak French, I would recommend asking your waiter or waitress (most people can speak at least some English, but you should probably learn a few simple phrases in French before travelling over there) to clarify that the drink you are ordering is, in fact, what you think it is.
- Drinks are very expensive in France. In fact, you will likely be paying more money for a glass of Coca Cola than a glass of wine. The price of your drink may even near the price of your food. Surprise.
- Visit the Notre Dame. This is what happened to me in super quick side-story format: myself and two others were visiting the church and accidentally attended Mass. Everything was sung in French and Latin, and the whole ordeal was super fancy. Too bad I quite being a Catholic, like, twelve years ago…Oops.
- Try to speak French as much as possible. I think the American double standard for this is actually quite funny. On average, when American tourists travel they just sort of assume whoever they meet is going to be able to speak English. However, when in America, people are often angered when approached by someone speaking another language who is trying to communicate with them. I have seen both of these things occur and – I hate to break it to you if you are like this – but it doesn’t work both ways. Try speaking the language of the place you are visiting. Trust me, a little bit goes a long way. People just want to know that you are willing to put in the effort to communicate with them. For some reason the French are given the reputation of “hating Americans,” but I didn’t find this to be true at all. Even a simple greeting of “Bonjour, ça va?” is enough to break the ice. If the person you are trying to communicate with recognizes that you are not a fluent speaker, they will often switch to English. Everyone I met in Paris was very accommodating and sweet.
I’ve talked a lot about my adventures in Oxford, but not so much about London and Bath, two of the other cities I visited while studying in England. I was in London relatively frequently, though I only saw Bath once. Still, I would highly recommend both cities.
- I don’t want to tell too many facts about Bath because I don’t want to ruin the tour for anyone, but you have to take the tour of the Roman baths (where Bath got its name from – whoa, didn’t see that one coming.) Aside from these (which have an awesome history) there are also many interesting things to do in Bath, including a fashion museum that tracks the history of English fashion throughout the centuries, displaying outfits worn by monarchs and British fashion icons. It’s pretty sweet. There is also this thing called the “Royal Crescent” which is basically where a bunch of filthy rich people live. It’s kind of neat to see. I am not rich, so it was something new. *Brief, self-pitying chuckle*
- In London, I would recommend visiting Piccadilly Circus. This is both a tube stop and a pretty cool shopping district. It is definitely something to experience if you are going to be in town for some time.
- You might also consider stopping by Camden Market. It is a large open-air market where you can buy different items (a lot of touristy stuff) to bring back home for friends and family. You can also find some really neat, hand-made crafts and merchandise that you can purchase for really reasonable prices. Do not be afraid to haggle with people, they will often come down in price if you make a reasonable offer! It’s definitely a fun experience.
- If you are going to be in London for a significant amount of time (2+ weeks), then you are definitely going to want to look into purchasing an Oyster card. This is the card that accesses the tube. You can do one of two things with these bad boys: 1) load it with money as you go, or 2) purchase a travel plan, which basically gives you a certain amount of rides on the tube every week/month (depending on the plan you choose). The second option is typically better if you are going to be living in London for quite some time and will be travelling to work or school everyday. The Oyster card also works with the bus system, so you tap your card against a pad near the driver, the light flashes green, and in you go. If you do choose to use the pay as you go format, keep in mind that it can get expensive pretty quickly.
Okay, so these are all of the notes and/or suggestions I can think of for the moment. If you have any questions, comments, or further suggestions, feel free to let me know in the comments! Sorry this took me two years to write. I have no excuse.