Traveling abroad for the first time is both exciting and nerve wrecking. Doing it on your own heightens both of those emotions ten fold. On the one hand, you’re heading to a new country! Those of us who travel alone have a passion for it and it’s something we look forward to and dream about. So the excitement is certainly unparalleled but the nervousness that can accompany it is also very real. Travel is an experience for the mind, the body and the soul and when you embark on that journey by yourself for the first time, you feel a lot of things and that's ok.
The day I left for Paris, I remember talking to my Noni (my grandma) on the phone before they boarded us onto the plane. I was by myself, I had never been to another country let alone traveled by myself before. I could count the number of trips I’d taken in my life on one hand. It was surreal but overwhelming and as soon as I hung up the phone I started crying. It wasn’t that I wasn’t excited, I was beyond ready for this experience and I worked really hard to get there. The immensity of it was an entire different situation. Knowing I’d be far away from my family for the first time, not knowing if I would even like France, and every other uncertainty weighed in my mind. But soon, they called my boarding group so I grabbed my plastic bag of homemade lemon cookies my Zia Tia made for me and put on my big girl pants. And you know what? I have never looked back.
The scariest part of traveling alone is leaving for your first trip. You know you were made for this because otherwise you wouldn’t consider doing it. Between the excitement and the apprehension and the uncertainty of it all, it’s a lot of feelings and thoughts flooding your brain. My best piece of advice...embrace it. Embrace all of it. Confront those fears and keep pushing forward because on the other side of that plane or train or car will be the first of many unforgettable and meaningful experiences on your journey.
Deciding the destination to visit for your first trip alone is incredibly personal to you. There are a lot of factors including language, location, and money. Do you want to travel somewhere that English is the main language? Do you want to travel somewhere that is more urban or more rural? Do you have a specific reason for traveling? France was a no-brainer for me and Paris was the easiest city to get to. It was also through a study abroad program so that was another factor. After a lot of research, feedback from fellow travelers, and my own personal experiences, I have come up with 8 European cities that are great for a first time solo trip. Tell me in the comments below if you have any other recommendations and if you’ve already made that first trip, where did you go and what was it like.
The #1 concern of many first time solo travelers is safety. According to an article citing The Economist, Amsterdam is the 6th safest city in the world based on a 2017 index. That alone should make anyone feel pretty great about Amsterdam. If you haven’t practiced another language, mostly everyone speaks English making it ideal for easy communication. Finally, Amsterdam is a city smaller in scale compared to other European cities like Paris, Rome, or London making it easier for adjusting and personally connecting with locals.
Besides the important factors, there are a lot of things Amsterdam offers. For starters, it has a very well preserved and rich history. You can find houses, buildings and monuments that date as far back as the 16th century and are still functioning today. Amsterdam has citizens from many different countries making it uniquely diverse in its cultural representation. This translates best to the food! You’ll find everything from pizza to pancakes and love every bite. For my fellow coffee addicts, Amsterdam is home to over 160 coffee shops many (or all) of which also serve weed (not that it’s personally for me..or you for that matter - no judgement! You do you). And let’s not forget the Canal Belt, the beautiful canal that flows through the city and offers more Instagram opportunities than anyone would ever need.
If you’re looking for a smaller yet still somewhat urban experience, Bruges is an ideal city and small enough to navigate on foot. It’s known for having a medieval feeling to it especially since it’s the most well preserved medieval city in Europe. Backpackers trek through Bruges to experience its rich history which makes it a fantastic city to connect with fellow travelers. Let’s not also forget that Bruges is in Belgium meaning an abundance of Belgian Beer and Chocolate right from the source. Bruges even has a chocolate walk! It’s certainly a city for both foodies and history buffs. In case you’re worried about communication, English is one of the three main languages spoken in this city.
According to The Daily Meal, Copenhagen is listed as #21 in the top 50 safest cities in the world. It might not be #6 like Amsterdam and it seems these surveys get different results but it’s not a bad title to have. If that doesn’t sell you, Independent named Copenhagen as the #1 most livable city in the world. The home of literature icon Hans Christian Andersen, Copenhagen is an ideal city to experience Denmark’s culture. Everyone speaks English so you don’t need to learn another language and they have an entire road system for bicycles. Denmark is also home of hygge so if you’re planning winter travel, this is the spot to go. The people of Copenhagen are supposedly the friendliest anywhere. There are gorgeous palaces to get lost in, much of the city has inspired fairy tales (*ahem* Andersen), and the world’s best restaurant is located here. What more do you need?
Dublin is one of those cities that is not only ideal for first-time solo travelers but also ideal for women in general. All of Ireland is pretty good for us ladies, to be honest. Ireland, Scotland and England are very high on my personal travel bucket list for a lot of reasons but mainly their beauty and their history. There are two main reasons Dublin (really, all Ireland) is a great place for solo travel: it’s affordable and they speak English. You may have to decode the Irish accents and slang but you’ll get by. Ireland has plenty of transportation to get from point a to point b, including in Dublin. The options are all affordable for the most part and will cover any ground you could consider. Eat Sleep Breathe Travel has a great article with more information on traveling to Ireland including tips to not make a fool of yourself.
I can’t have a travel list and not include Italy, my homeland. I chose Florence for this specific post because Rome might be too overwhelming for the first time traveler and Italians are their own breed of people. As far as I have been told (sadly, I have yet to make it to Italy), English isn’t spoken much or well in Italy. Having basic conversational skills in Italian will serve you well. According to The Curious Appetite, Florence has a surprisingly good English speaking community but it would be smart to do research before arrival on where to go and what to do.
Like the rest of Italy, Florence puts a lot of cred in style. Italians are known to dress to the nines at all times, even if it’s just to go to the corner market. If you want to fit in as a local, take on their common practices like dressing well. Besides the things to note (as there are many for Italy), Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance. You will feel its influence everywhere. The Uffizi Gallery is located in Florence which also happens to be one of the most famous art galleries in the world. The architecture is one-of-a-kind and it has a somewhat urban feel but is still small. Florence is one of the best cities to introduce yourself to Italy and its culture. And I promise us Italians are worth it 100%.
According to the same article I sourced in Amsterdam, Madrid is the twelfth safest city in the world according to a study by The Economist making it another great option for safety. And that’s not to say that the other cities on this list are not safe. These lists just happen to specifically mention a select variety of cities. There could be many variables involved including that they just did not look into all the urban areas in each country.
Madrid is a great option for first time solo travelers because it’s much less concentrated than Barcelona. While Barcelona is on my personal bucket list and is a phenomenal city to visit, Madrid is like it’s more chill cousin. Madrid has year-round ideal weather, it has a very rich culture, there are endless outdoor markets, the nightlife scene is very active which means you’ll never feel isolated walking around at night, and there are tapas! Nothing gets me excited like tapas. Whether you love to shop, enjoy great food, embrace history or take in the arts, Madrid has it all without all the crazy tourism of Barcelona. While both cities offer great experiences, Madrid is an easier entry into Spanish culture and some say a more authentic one. I would suggest freshening up your Spanish before heading there.
“We’ll always have Paris” is a phrase that means 10x more to me after having been there. As you read earlier, Paris was my first trip. It was my first time traveling out of the United States, it was my first journey on my own, it was my first everything when it came to travel and I feel so fortunate for that. France is a country that values its culture beyond anything else. Because of that, you can’t help but be immersed in it and it makes the experience that much more memorable.
There are a few reasons that Paris is a great city for solo travel, especially that first trip. You will find plenty of English speaking people. They might have really thick accents or they might be cranky about it, but you won’t struggle to find directions. That's not to say you should throw French out the window. I still suggest practicing conversational French to get by. Paris has a fantastic public transportation system making it not only easy to get around but also affordable. I would recommend against trying to drive because the roads are not made for non-Parisians. Finally, Paris is certainly French and very European but it doesn’t deliver a serious case of culture shock. It’s an urban environment where things will feel quite modern. It’s a great city for those of you who, like me, take a little extra time to adjust to change and big adventures.
Prague, Czech Republic
Prague is an easy city to navigate, it’s tourist-friendly (meaning you won’t feel uncomfortable on your own), and it has an affordable public transportation system. According to Independent, 2018 is the year to visit Prague so what are you waiting for?! Their reasons for visiting are included in any other basic “Why Visit Prague” list so I’m not quite sure why they chose this year in particular. Other reasons to put Prague in the running as your first European solo trip include: it’s affordable, it’s home to the largest “castle complex” in the world (Prague Castle, my dream home), it’s the beer capital of the world, it has some really old historical buildings and structures, plus more. From food to the history to the culture, it’s hard to find a reason not to visit Prague. They even speak English quite well.