While London is a treasure trove of shopping, historical sites, and killer Thai food, one of the city’s best assets is undoubtedly its location. As a metropolitan hub, London is only a short train, plane, or even bus ride away from most major cities in continental Europe, making travel within the continent easy and somewhat less painful than journeying to Europe from America. Because flights across the English Channel are significantly less expensive than flights across “The Pond,” I decided to take advantage of my location (and my month-long Easter break) by trekking across northern Europe with a few good friends.
The first part of any adventure starts with actually planning the adventure. It was Danielle—my best friend, traveling companion, and fellow transplanted Vassarian—who originally suggested that we travel to countries that we would otherwise have little inclination to visit if we were back in the States. Because we could envision our older, richer selves planning weeklong trips to France and Italy, those countries were out of the running. Eventually we settled on a route that would take us across northern Europe with stops in Belgium and the Netherlands before leading us up to Denmark.
When booking our trains and hostels, we found that thorough research and extensive price comparisons saved us hundreds of Euro, allowing us to travel relatively inexpensively. For example, although we both heard much about the Eurail pass—which, for €288 would allow us to travel through up to five countries on certain pre-selected days—we both found that it would be less expensive to buy our tickets individually and directly from the train companies. We also decided to take an overnight train from Amsterdam to Copenhagen, saving us fifteen hours of daylight as well as money on hostels. Although price and cleanliness were two of the primary factors we considered when choosing our overnight accommodations, we also looked for hostels that were within walking distance of the city center, ultimately saving ourselves money on public transportation costs. We also looked for hostels that included breakfast in the cost of our stay. Even if it meant paying a few extra Euro, we both decided that not having to scrounge an unfamiliar area for food and caffeine first thing in the morning would be a good idea. Reviews on the websites HostelWorld and HostelBookers.com were invaluable in helping us decide which hostels would best meet our criteria.
Bright-eyed despite our lack of mascara and coffee, we left our dorm at 5:40 the morning of our departure, leaving plenty of time for us to go through security and immigration before boarding our 7:10 Eurostar train to Antwerp via Brussels. I had been told by a number of reliable sources that Brussels was somewhat “sketchy,” so naturally when we transferred trains at the Belgian capital, I kept my eye out for any evidence of illicit activity. However, after witnessing none, I imagine that these sources were referring to an illegal waffle and chocolate trade.
Around noon, Danielle and I finally arrived in Antwerp, a glistening Flemish city situated on the banks of the river Scheldt. The name Antwerp—or as it is referred to by the locals, “Antwerpen”—comes from “werpen,” the Dutch word for hand. Legend has it that long ago, a giant who lived on the banks of the Scheldt used to terrorize locals by forcing them to pay a hefty toll to cross the river. Sick of the giant’s cruelty, a young hero named Brabo killed him, chopping off the giant’s hand and flinging it into the rive in the process. This mythical scene is immortalized by a fountain, which stands in front of the Town Hall in the Grote Markt. Statues and icons featuring the giant’s hand can be found throughout the city.
As well as for its mythology, Antwerp is perhaps best known as the hometown of Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. His house and workshop, which feature his private collection as well as paintings by his students, is open to the public. For individuals under the age of 26, admission is €1. Other attractions in Antwerp include the Cathedral of Our Lady, the tallest cathedral in the Low Countries, and the Plantin-Moretus Museum, which houses the collection of rare manuscripts and printing presses used by renown printers Christophe Plantin and Jan Moretus. Admissions are €3 and €1, respectively.
After three days of museum hopping and eating our weight in French fries, mussels, and other Belgian specialties, Danielle and I packed our bags and caught another early morning train to Amsterdam, where we met up with our friends Samantha and Alex. To say that Amsterdam is a beautiful city does not do justice to its breathtaking system of canals and adorably crooked houses. Although it is perfectly acceptable to tour the city by foot, most Amsterdammers—approximately 600,000 of them—prefer to pedal alongside the canals by bicycle. However, when our friend Alex revealed that he never learned how to ride a bike, we instead decided to tour the city by boat, and were consequentially treated to spectacular views of the city’s neighborhoods and landmarks.
Although our visit to the city occurred exactly one week before the Rjiks Museum reopened after a ten-year closure, we were able to see the city’s collection of Van Goghs at the Hermitage. Due to its high level of tourist traffic, it is recommended that you buy your tickets to the exhibit beforehand to avoid standing in line. Fortunately, our hostel sold tickets to this and other attractions in the city at a discounted price.
While Amsterdam may be famous for its coffee shops and for producing Heineken, few people realize that the city is also one of the best places to get Indonesian food in the Western Hemisphere. Indonesia was a colony of the Netherlands until the late 1940s, and Dutch sailors naturally brought many of the country’s cultural practices and cuisines back to Amsterdam.
After bidding farewell to Sam and Alex, Danielle and I clamored aboard our fifteen-hour overnight train to Copenhagen. In addition to sharing a cramped sleeping car with four random strangers, our train screeched to a halt at the German border and all passengers were forced to present their passports to a German police officer combing the train for illegal immigrants. Needless to say, I’m glad I had the experience, but do not look forward to repeating it anytime soon.
With its clear blue skies and endless views of the Øresund—the strait that separates the Baltic from the Atlantic—Copenhagen is even more beautiful than Amsterdam, if such a thing is possible. After initially getting lost on our way to the hostel, we eventually found our friend Breanna and began exploring. The first thing that all young women apparently do when they enter Copenhagen is search for the Little Mermaid, a statue erected in tribute to Danish author and folklorist Hans Christian Andersen. A native of Copenhagen, Andersen is buried, along with Danish philosopher Søren Kirkegaard, in Assistens Cemetery in the Nørrebro district of the city.
In theme with fairytales and princesses, the Danish monarchy, led by Queen Margarethe II, has a vibrant presence in Copenhagen. Visitors can watch the changing of the guard outside of Amalienborg Palace, or can view the Danish crown jewels on display at Rosenborg Castle.
With its historic link to the Vikings and its proximity to the Baltic Sea, the Netherlands unsurprisingly boast a cuisine that consists primarily of fish. However, Copenhagen is also famous for Smørrebrød, a piece of dense brown farmer’s bread covered in butter and topped with pieces of fish or Danish meatballs. This specialty is naturally best paired with Carlsberg beer, brewed in Denmark.
After three full days of exploring, walking, and eating, Danielle and I left Copenhagen and returned to London, exhausted but thoroughly pleased with our journey. It is tempting to end this post with brain-numbing clichés about it being “an experience of a lifetime” and “a trip I will always remember.” However, I will say that I realize my time abroad will in all likelihood be the only opportunity I have to travel extensively within the next ten or so years. For those who plan on studying in a foreign country, I recommend seeing as many places as your budget will allow, trying as many new foods as possible, and never taking your opportunities for granted.