I’ve hit most of the major European cities in my various travels and one thing I always find sad is the number of people who spend their precious holiday time stuck in the tourist trap that is the ‘historical centre’ of these beautiful cities. I recently spent 4 days in Istanbul and it reaffirmed all my suspicions and generalizations. I don’t care what Rick Steves or Lonely Planet books say, the historical centre of any major European city inevitably is going to be:
- Full of crappy, overpriced hotels.
- Home to a bunch of restaurants who cater strictly to tourists and although they claim to serve authentic cuisine, are most likely serving overpriced, greasy, processed and/or frozen food.
- Full of, well other tourists. You will also see a lot of locals who are trying to sell you things you don’t need or want, hustle you into their restaurants and perhaps even rip you off. What you won’t see is locals enjoying the same things you’re supposed to be enjoying.
- The epicenter for a good chunk of your sightseeing. Historical centres have developed overtime to make it as easy as possible for tourists to get into a city, see its sights, and then leave, without really experiencing the city itself.
Now, that makes a historical city centre sound like a terrible place, but they can really be quite enjoyable if you have a game plan to get in, see what you want to see, and get back to your awesome neighbourhood of choice where you can experience the city for real. I’ve used this approach in Prague, Vienna, Copenhagen, Oslo, Venice, Florence and Istanbul. I wasn’t wise enough to do it in Paris, Munich or Milan and as a result, these cities, although amazing in their own rights, have fallen low on my totem pole of memorable experiences.
To make the most of your city experience, when it comes to booking accommodation in a major city, ditch the guide book straight away and go right to airbnb. It’s your key to finding awesome apartments (shared or private) in some of the hippest neighbourhoods in Europe. Do your research in advance to find a hood that fits your lifestyle and interests and then narrow your search based on that. Two great examples of awesome neighbourhoods I would have never experienced if I hadn’t been staying in them are Copenhagen’s Nørrebro and Istanbul’s Chiangir.
The beauty of unique neighbourhoods is that you run a way smaller risk of being ripped off. You also get a way better selection of restaurants, cafes and bars. And you’ll be hanging out with locals, instead of other tourists. Don’t get me wrong, I love meeting other tourists when I travel, but I tend to reserve these experiences for seaside towns and small off the beaten path places where you can’t avoid being a tourist. As a city dweller, I like to see how other people like me live day to day, and becoming a temporary resident of their neighbourhood allows me to do this easily. Hands down, the worst meals I’ve had traveling have been in tourist centres. Sometimes you can’t avoid it (lunch, snack, it’s too hot and you need a rest). And some of the best and most memorable have been outside these traditional tourist enclaves. For example, I had the best veggie burger of my life at Bronx Burger in Copenhagen, far far away from KFC and McDonalds madness.
The other reason I like to stay outside the historical centre is it encourages you to walk. You’re never forced as there is always a quicker way (transit, taxi, bike), but walking around in a city is truly the best way to see it. We have often taken transit into a city centre in the morning, do our sightseeing and then walked back to our apartment. Typically the apartments we rent are about a 30-40 min. walk back. It gives you an opportunity to not only see things you wouldn’t otherwise see, but it’s a great excuse to stop for an espresso or glass of wine and just watch the city go by.
Shopping is always going to be better once you’re out of tourist dodge as well. In the centres you’ll usually find all the North American chains (including at least 3 H&M’s), tourist shops selling everything from t-shirts to key chains to chocolates, and big department stores, which I actually like to go into. In neighbourhoods like Istanbul’s Galata or Cihangir you’ll find little boutiques with better prices and often locally made jewelry and clothing. I get it, if all you want is pizza for dinner and an I ♥ CPH shirt then stop reading this now!
And lastly, the beauty of renting an apartment in a neighbourhood a little out of the way is that you have the ability to cook your own meals. There is nothing worse than paying 16 EUR for fruit and croissants at your hotel when for 6 EUR you could get beautiful local produce from a greengrocer, cheese, fresh bread and yogurt. The same goes for dinner. I love eating out, but after a few days of travel I start to miss my kitchen. One thing I didn’t get to do on my trip to Turkey was cook. The food was just too good and cheap in restaurants, but in other cities it’s been a great way to save a little money and extend our travel dollars. And as one of my dear friends always says “you don’t want to be the dining dead in a restaurant” which can happen after a long trip.
Here are some of my great airbnb finds, but you don’t have to take my advice on these as half the fun of planning a city trip is finding a place that makes you happy!
Prague: Hana was a great host and this place was easy to get to on the tram from the main train station. It was about 15 min. into the city centre on transit, and a nice 40 min. walk.
Florence: Top floor of a 4 floor walk up building about a 10 min. walk from the central train station. Although it’s in the city centre it still feels very authentic. The rooftop terrace was the piece de resistance, offering 260 degree views of duomo and surrounding countryside.
Copenhagen: People will tell you that Østerbro is the best place to stay in Copenhagen, but I beg to differ. Yeah it’s trendy and cool, but it feels a bit manufactured. I loved Nørrebro because it’s still being re gentrified and the restaurants are a lot cheaper.
Istanbul: Idil’s apartment is outstanding value for money. It’s a little difficult to find, tucked away in the tangled, hilly streets of Cihangir, so just take a taxi from the airport and then you’ll be able to get your bearings. We were a 2 minute walk from all the best brunch spots in the hood, and a quick 10 min. walk up to Taksim.