The trip to Europe is over, and it was one of the best things I’ve done in my life.
I’m typing this out rather hurriedly at Iceland’s Keflavik International Airport, so my thoughts will be as brief yet as detailed as they can while still allowing anyone who reads this a chance to do so while I’m in the air. Grab a donut and a cup of coffee because here we go.
The trip took me over three countries in 10 days. I flew from Seattle to Reykjavik Nov. 1, switched planes to London Gatwick hours later, spent three full days in London, flew to Berlin Schonefeld Nov. 5, spent three full days in Berlin, flew back to London Nov. 8, spent a night in London again, flew back to Reykjavik, spent two nights there, and then boarded a flight to Seattle.
Whew. That’s a lot of ground to cover. And cover ground I did, walking an average of 21 kilometers (13 miles) per day save for yesterday, in which I was on a tour bus for most of the day. I relied heavily on public transport, including a mixture of buses, trains, trams and so forth to get me around. I used Google Maps’ transit feature as well as Google Translate to intepret text to both German and Icelandic (and vice versa), and everything happened as well as it could during the trip.
I lugged around a backpack with 25 pounds of material that later grew to 28 pounds, and while it made airport check-in, departure and arrival a breeze, laundry service for three changes of clothes got expensive quickly. Of course I dropped the backpack off at hotels on my check-in, so the majority of ground I covered was with just me, my wallet, passport, camera and a good amount of whatever the local currency was in cash form.
With my mind primarily on photographing landmarks and other things that caught my eye, I eschewed guided tours, tour buses, etc. save for yesterday in Iceland because I was spent and didn’t want to rent a car.
Now, a description of each place I visited:
London and its surrounding areas were intriguing, and I was probably less impressed with what the city turned out to be in real life as opposed to what I thought it would be. Still it was a great city.
I visited Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and the Stratford area, Elizabeth Tower and much more. My base was Croydon, which meant each day I would wake up and walk to the East Croydon railway station and take either the Thameslink train to London Bridge or the Southern to London Victoria and travel by foot or Underground from there.
Getting around London was easy with Google Maps, but the weather only cooperated for a couple days. Much of the time I was in London, it either rained or was overly cloudy. That said, the weather couldn’t stop me from going where I wanted to go.
London is the European equivalent of New York City. There are a ton of people that live there and a ton more that commute from out of town. There are also a ton of tourists at any given spot, regardless how trivial the tourist destination may be. I had to seek a lot of alternate photography angles to get away from a lot of annoying people. Many people stopped in the middle of the sidewalk or a road to get a photo or the perfect selfie, and you could tell a lot of people driving through London had zero patience for it.
As for the Londoners I met, most were cordial and would help with any questions I had. One gentleman in particular told me an easy way to take the Tube to where I needed to go, which was still quite complex, but helped me understand the system a little bit better.
The highlight of my visit to London, I’d have to say, was St. Paul’s Cathedral. No photography was allowed inside the cathedral directly, which I understand, but it was an impressive structure and the amount of detail was amazing. I spent three hours in there and could have spent much longer. The Whispering Gallery, up about 280 steps from the floor, was something else, and another gallery a couple hundred more up offered fantastic views of London on a good day.
Overall rating: 7/10, would visit again if I had to.
I didn’t want to stay in London all 8 available days of my trip, and since I was already in Europe I wanted to visit another city on the European mainland. Since much of my family is from Germany, Berlin sounded nice. And it was the cheapest option of all German cities.
The flight from London to Berlin and back was $90. You’ll not often find a deal like that in the States, but deals like that are all over Europe.
I was more impressed with Berlin than I thought I’d be. As a pretty cerebral person, I was impressed with the layout of the city, the complexity of its transportation network and the dichotomy of a rapidly expanding city with a very rich history. I really enjoyed seeing the architecture of Olympiastadion (where the 1936 Olympics were held, a very intriguing piece of history in and of itself), the Brandenburg Gate, and much more.
I spent Sunday in Wittenberg to visit a friend from Missouri who had moved over for a year to volunteer with the organization hosting the celebration for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We visited All Saints’ Church, where Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door; and also the church in which he preached much of his life. The city was very beautiful and it was definitely a highlight of the trip.
I mentioned that Berlin’s public transport is highly complex. There are three train systems that take you into and throughout Berlin: the S-Bahn, U-Bahn, and Deutsche Bahn trains. Deutsche Bahn red trains and their ICE counterparts are for more long-distance intercity travel, S-Bahn is a more regional network that connected major commuter points in the city, and the U-Bahn is a largely underground network servicing many specific neighborhoods. Many times, these three would intersect at a train station and I needed the help of Google Maps’ real-time transit tool to help me figure where I needed to go.
Although I speak very limited German if any at all, Berlin was easy to get around because they had a lot of stuff in English. Many in the service industry also spoke English and that was a help.
It only rained once when I was in Berlin but was very cold. The last day I was there, it was 1 degree Celsius and everyone was bundled up. But the city was very beautiful and I was impressed by it.
Overall rating: 9/10, would definitely visit again maybe in warmer weather.
I was here by courtesy of my two-day layover on the flight from London back to Seattle. Since I wasn’t here long and didn’t see too terribly much, I can’t write a ton about it. But I’ll try anyway.
This was the most difficult place to navigate even though it was small, and I did not do myself any favors by getting a hotel room five miles south of the city itself. Unlike Berlin, it doesn’t have much in the way of signage and directions translated into English, which meant I had to heavily rely on Google once again for help. Sensing a theme here?
The first day I arrived, weather was alright but very cold. I took a bus from my hotel in a town whose name I can’t pronounce so I won’t even try to downtown Reykjavik, where I bought dinner and withdrew way too many krona from an ATM. Navigated a bit of downtown and shot photos of the big church that dominates the shopping district, then headed back to the hotel.
I have to admit I was pretty well spent upon arrival in Reykjavik and I went to bed before 9:30 p.m. the first night.
But the second day was awesome. Woke up at 7:30 a.m. and booked a Grey Line tour throughout Iceland’s Golden Circle, where a bunch of us saw a few places of interest, Gullfoss the big waterfall and the Geysir geothermal area. It was a fantastic eight-hour round trip, but is probably better experienced with a companion.
Back to Reykjavik and back to the hotel I went, and I was tired yet again. I fell asleep before 10 p.m. and would have earlier if not for noisy neighbors, which is really the only complaint I have about most of the hotels I stayed in (see my previous post detailing my experience at Russ Hill near Gatwick for hell on earth).
Today there wasn’t too much I could do as I met up with parents of a friend who were also vacationing in Iceland (sweet coincidence) and had to make my way to the airport soon, which is where I am now.
It’s cold, windy and rainy out there now and I saw no Northern Lights.
Overall rating: 6/10, cloudy all the time and I was too tired to enjoy much of anything.
In the coming days and weeks I’ll post a bit more about each place and what it was like to navigate, what to see, what to do, etc. I made this entire trip happen for less than $1,500 — and that includes the airfare, hotel stays, food, transportation and small unexpected expenses.
Overall the trip was very fun and a tremendous experience. More to come on the finer points of it, but for now I hope this helps everyone understand a bit of what it was like.