“The map? I will first make it.”
– Patrick White, Australian author, from Voss

Throughout this journey, people always ask “So Matt, what’s your favorite destination so far?”

To avoid overanalyzing myself into a seizure, I always default to Iceland. It was an adrenaline-filled first stop on my journey, signifing the end of a life chapter and the beginning of a new one. To top it off, I was with two friends from Chicago. And let’s face it, all great (and terrifying) stories in life involve a group of single, twenty-something friends on a trip:

“So I was [traveling/on the road/on vacation] with [arbitrary number] friends in [miscellaneous cool place] and….”

(For my PG-rated version, see: Icelanders Are The Best. For the R-rated version, you’ll have to wait for Stephen Markley’s book, Tales of Iceland).

Picking a favorite destination, I’ve realized, is an impossible task. Each place has impacted me in its own unique way. Ireland got me Lost. Lithuania made me fall in Love. Estonia challenged my Freedom. Croatia made me Bold. The places which brought me to my knees mean as much to me as those that inspired me to new heights.

Your Attitude & Your Altitude

Thinking back to the 17 countries and 40+ cities and towns (so far), I’ve realized the tourism industry has it all wrong. It’s not about the monuments and museums. It’s not about the castles and the churches. It’s not about the food and drink. No, it’s not really about any of these physical things. By themselves, they have little power to make a trip memorable and life-changing. That is, at least, once we get past viewing travel as an act of consumption.

Like anything in life, relying on external things for happiness is a spotty proposition. And relying on others’ opinions assumes that we all view life through the same lens.

The church that puts one speechlessly in awe, leaves another underwhelmed. A city that speaks to the soul of one, makes another eager to leave it behind on the next train. The same presidential candidate can inspire one to believe in endless possibilities, yet fill another with hatred and doomsday scenarios.

So if not these physical things that make a trip memorable, what is it then?

For one, it’s the people. Your travel buddies (or lack of travel buddies). The travelers you meet (or don’t meet). The locals you take an interest in (or don’t take an interest in).

But more importantly, it’s your attitude and how you feel. There are countless factors affecting your attitude. Your health. The weather. Your expectations. How the city compares to the place you just arrived from. How curious you decide to be. How friendly you decide to be. The people you surround yourself with and the people who surround themselves with you also play a part in your attitude.

My Favorite European Cities (Part 1?)

So keeping the huge disclaimer above in mind, I’d like to introduce my favorite European cities so far. Some of which you’ve probably never heard mentioned. Most of which you’ll never find on a list of “must see” European gems. But each place has left a mark on me and almost all convinced me to stay a week or longer.

Here are the factors I subconsciously consider in determining my favorite places. Each pass at least four out of five:

Size & Feel. Small enough that you can walk around the city in a day; big enough that you can exist in anonomity if you wish.

Cafes. Easily accessible cozy cafes with tasty coffee and solid WiFi.

Bars. Friendly bars and clubs conducive to meeting locals.

People. Warm, welcoming, and friendly. Bonus points for beautiful women.

And just for fun, Late Night Food. After making friends at fun bars, you gotta eat. Not saying it has to be good…it just has to exist.

1. Akureyri, Iceland

Akureyri’s main street.  Photo compliments of https://elleswim.net/

Size & Feel: Tiny. Even with less than 18,000 people, it’s Iceland’s second largest urban area. Everything is basically on one main street.

Cafe: Bláa Kannan CaféSteve, Mike and I fell in love with this cafe’s fantastic coffee, chai tea, and soups. It had nothing to do with the cute waitresses.

Bar: Pósthúsbarinn (Post Office). This nightclub doesn’t get crowded until after 1am. It’s touted as “a nice and cosy nightclub for 22 years and older.” At first, I read that as “younger” and hesitated to include it as my favorite.

People: Will give you the shirt off their back. Literally. For no good reason, a guy took of his long-sleeve Akureyri Motorcycle Club T-shirt and insisted I keep it (don’t tell him I lost it).

Also, will cook you dinner. We met a group of pretty Icelandic girls who would later cook us a traditional Icelandic Sunday dinner in Reykjavik.

Late Night: Tikk Takk. Turns out pizza is the predominant late night food in Iceland. My only reservation about Tikk Takk is that they made us wait 15 painful minutes after they refused to serve us the first pizza made because it fell apart, despite our plea that we’d eat ANYTHING.

2. Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius from above.

Size & Feel: Capital city that feels like a town. This main part of Vilnius can be walked in a day, but its charming open cafes and cobbled streets kept me there for over a week.

Cafe: Coffee InnThis is the Starbucks of Lithuania. There are several around Vilnius and I visited all of them.

Bar: Baras. I’m not sure what its real name is, but it just says “Baras” out front (Lithuanian for bar). This dive has incredibly cheap and tasty Lithuanian beer, an outdoor patio, and live music most nights. The only non-locals are the ones Lina brings from Home Made House hostel.

People: Offer to take you to the Lithuanian countryside. One night at Baras, I had three unrelated and unsolicited offers to join people in the Lithuanian countryside for the weekend.

Late Night Food: Fried Bread with Cheese. It’s as healthy as it sounds and best eaten with beer.

Annual Hitchgathering in the Lithuanian countryside

 

3. Tartu, Estonia

Kissing Students statue in Tartu, Estonia.

Size & Feel: Vibrant university town. I happened to be in Tartu during the first week of a new semester and the place was buzzing.

Cafe: Crepp. This place has hands-down the best savory crepes for the price. Come for the $5 Chicken & Avocado crepe, stay for the coffee and free WiFi.

BarMökuThis tiny basement bar is located right on the main pedestrian strip. To kick off the semester, there was a line up of student bands playing outside for a couple hundred people (video below).

People: Adopt you for a night. My first night out in Tartu, I went to Möku alone. A couple hours later, I left with a group of Estonians who took me to their favorite bar, then to their apartment to cook me delicious pasta and let me crash on their couch.

Late Night Food: Hesburger. The Baltic equivalent to McDonald’s Big Mac. I’m not proud of it.

Music outside Moku bar in Tartu:

4. Zadar, Croatia

Zadar has a heavy Roman influence.

Size & Feel: Quaint coastal beauty. Within moments of smelling the sea air and seeing locals relaxing over cigarettes and coffee, you sense Zadar’s chill vibe. The sunsets here are spectacular.

CafeEverywhere. There’s a heavy Italian influence in Zadar which is especially clear when noticing the infinite outdoor cafes. Plus Zadar has citywide WiFi in Old Town, so connectivity was never a problem.

Bar: Some nameless club. I was already feeling down before I went to this club in Zadar alone, so arriving there made me depressed. But hitting rock bottom was necessary to rise up and out. The next day, I filmed Being Bold in Zadar.

People: Will pick you up when you’re stranded. On my way to Zadar from Zagreb, I stopped in Plitvice Lakes National Park to hike for a couple hours. After I missed the last bus out and found myself stranded in the middle of this national park, a guy picked me up and drove me into Zadar even though it was out of his way. (Nevermind he was a Turk, but hey, it happened in Croatia.)

Late Night Food: Homemade Nutella crepes. Since I didn’t go out much in Zadar, I didn’t experience the late night food scene. But I did enjoy some homemade Nutella crepes from my Airbnb.com host.

‘Sun Salutation’ in Zadar at sunset

 

5. Belgrade, Serbia

Most of Belgrade is pretty grey, but the view from Kalemagden Fortress is spectacular.

Size & Feel: Big & grey. Belgrade proper is over 1 million strong, so it’s bigger than other cities I tend to like. Although I’m discovering new parks every day, it’s not the prettiest cities I’ve visited. But for the reasons below (mostly because of the people), I love this place.

Cafe: Coffee Dream. This seems like the Starbucks of Serbia. As baristas get sick of me, I make my rounds to other locations. One (huge) downside: smoking is so popular and encouraged it feels like 1972 up in this place.

Bar: Kafanas. These festive cafe/bars are filled with live Serbian music and happy Serbs. They’re welcoming and it’s easy to join the singing and dancing. I’ve been told I dance like a Greek.

People: I have a few…

Will make you eat and drink until you can’t eat and drink anymore. One of the first nights here, we made friends with two great guys, Vladamir & Marko. They took us to southern Serbia for a local celebration called “slava,” where we drank homemade rakija (brandy) and ate twelve identical meals of pork, sarma (cabbage & meat), paprika, and cheese.

Will kiss you. In a completely straight way, I’ve been kissed by more men than women here…which I guess technically could just mean one man kissed me. Serbs are quick to kiss, hug, and touch. They may be the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

Will stun you. The women are stunningly beautiful and assuming they speak English, incredibly friendly and easy to talk to.

Late Night Food: Pljeskavica. This is a lovechild of a burger and pita. In fact, it’s just a huge meat patty inside a pita. Add lettuce, onion, and a bunch of condiments and it hits the spot after a night of rakija. I’m actually eating one right now.

Causin’ a ruckus in the Serbian countryside at slava.

These are, in my opinion, the best European cities that no one really talks about. But don’t take my word for it. Go out, explore, and decide for yourself!

What are your favorite European cities that no one seems to talk about?


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