There are certain ideas that New Yorkers take as articles of faith. We think of ourselves as the world’s savviest, able to pinpoint the genuine and bypass the second-rate.
But as I’ve spent more time in Europe over the past several years, my assumptions have been upended, one after another, by the way my Continental friends and relatives actually see their turf. Along the way, I’ve made a mental list of these truisms – a catalog of classic mistakes that New Yorkers (or any well-informed American travelers) make abroad.
Here are the top four:
1. To find the best grub, ask a local.
In New York, it’s an article of faith that asking a local will result in revelatory insider tips: the organic coffee joint, the most exquisite artisanal bread, the off-the-radar restaurant gems. You’d think, as I did, that this strategy would be successful everywhere. But it isn’t.
That’s because societies like New York are highly competitive and historically diverse, so there is a lot of variation – and an equally high level of sophistication among patrons. But in many parts of Southern Europe, there’s a startling degree of sameness; most traditional restaurants in Spain or Bulgaria have more or less identical menus which haven’t changed in generations. My friends there choose whatever café is handiest, and they’ll order without glancing at a menu. Spain is a hotspot of cutting-edge cuisine – but not for most locals, who wouldn’t know molecular gastronomy from molecular astronomy and for whom a meal at any ambitious place the Times recommends costs the equivalent of a week’s pay.
With some exceptions, the poorer the region, the less diversified the local palate, and the less discerning the recommendations (though the food itself can be very, very good). So I go with instinct; if a menu looks unusually savory or sophisticated, or the setting memorable, I’ll give it a try.
2. There’s no point renting a car when Europe has such great public transit.
The simple pleasures of Europe’s countryside – its most distinctive features, from crumbling castles to cliffs and fjords – are best appreciated from the open road. Sure, you can take a train to a town full of perfectly preserved castles, complete with admission fees and tourist lines. But when you drive through rural France or Southern Italy, the revelation is in how ordinary those medieval ruins truly are in a landscape historically removed from anything in the U.S.
Weaned on Metrocards, New Yorkers can go pretty much anywhere without turning the ignition. (Besides, much of our exurban landscape is less-than-scintillating.) We marvel at Europe’s comprehensive network of trains, discount airlines and buses, which go straight to all the places mentioned in guidebooks.
But to really get to know Europe, you have to get behind the wheel. Make friends with the stick-shift or pay up for an automatic, and you’ll be glad you did.
3. Avoid high season for the best prices and most “authentic” feel.
I have written many times about the advantages of off-season travel: thinner crowds, a more “local” feel, cheaper rates. It’s this last factor that drives many New Yorkers to postpone an overseas jaunt until November, the magic month when fares drop.
But while some destinations are equally terrific year-round (indoorsy, museum-rich cities like Paris and London come to mind), others have high and low seasons for a very good reason. Anyplace with a beach, or with deciduous trees, is likely to be a pale shadow of its most robust self from November to March. When my friends trek off to Barcelona in November, they get only half the experience — taking in the stunning buildings but missing out on Europe’s most vibrant summer beach scene.
4. If it’s swarming with tourists, steer clear.
Obviously some very touristy things are touristy because they’re simply amazing, like Venice. What I’m talking about are the less-obvious joys – the legendary open-air market in a big European city, for instance, or the cafes lining a waterfront terrace.
Just as no New Yorker would tour Times Square on a nice Saturday or eat at the Olive Garden, I long assumed that “authentic” gems had to be hidden away for locals, evident only to the savviest of visitors.
Gradually I noticed that all my local friends shop at the grand open-air markets of Paris and Sofia, ignoring the camera-clutching mobs, to buy the city’s freshest meats and fruit. They sit in the antique café where Picasso drank because it’s handy. In smaller European burgs, what’s touristy is what’s local because there aren’t so many alternatives. You might as well pull up a seat.