Even though I finished my final exams in Madrid on December 7th, I wanted to use every one of the 90 days I’m allowed in Europe without a visa as an American citizen, so I decided to bookend my quarter abroad with visits to three more European cities. It was exciting to add three more countries to my list and to experience new cultures, foods, and sights before heading back home.
First was Paris. I was already there for four days for COP 21, and you can read my blog posts from that experience here. But Paris is such an incredibly beautiful city, and I was only able to sprinkle in a tiny bit of sightseeing during the conference, so I decided to stay on for two more days to see more of it. One day I went to the Chateau de Versailles with my friend Christina, and we explored the beautiful palace and gardens, imagining what it would have been like during the age of Marie Antoinette.
On my last day in Paris, I ran around the city seeing all the sights I hadn’t seen yet. I started my day with two famous parks, the Tuilleries and the Luxembourg Gardens, and then visited the gorgeous Notre Dame.
I then headed to Mont Martre, the arts district of Paris, and climbed the hill to Sacre Coeur, where I got a wonderful view of the city. I really enjoyed the neighborhood, and I walked around a bit while eating the best piece of quiche I’d ever had. Before heading to the airport, I stopped by the Canal St. Martin.
My next city was Prague, where I reunited with my friend Rosie and we walked through the beautiful neighborhood of Mala Strana and up the hill to the Prague Castle, where we got a beautiful view of the city. Something that really struck me was how colorful the city was, from the dark purple of the Astronomical Tower to the “Statue-of-Libertied” green domes, and from the bright red rooftops to the pastel-colored buildings along the river.
We then entered the castle and visited the St. Vitus Cathedral, which had the most beautiful stained glass windows I’d ever seen in my life, and then we visited the old palace. We even caught a glimpse of the changing of the guard ceremony at noon!
Later on, we walked up and down the river and saw the Fred and Ginger building, loosely modeled after Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing, although to be honest I felt it was pretty abstract.
We then headed back to Old Town, ate dinner at the Christmas market, and while we imagined Prague is still extremely beautiful in summer, we felt something special being there around the holidays. I have never seen a city “do Christmas” like Prague did, and the medieval architecture lit up so beautifully at night, combined with the biggest Christmas tree I’ve ever seen right in the middle of Old Town Square, and some amazing Czech food and mulled wine to go along with it, was almost too much to handle. To cap off the day, we watched a classical music concert – a chamber orchestra playing pieces by Mozart and Dvorak. After all, Prague is the classical music capital of the world.
The next day, Rosie and I walked past Powder Tower, the ancient gate to the city, and climbed the Astronomical Tower to get a great view of Old Town Square and the surrounding neighborhood from above.
We then crossed the Charles Bridge, saw the John Lennon Wall, and visited the Franz Kafka Museum to finish our time in Prague.
Something else that I learned when I was in Prague was that the Czech Republic has one of the oldest large-scale aquaculture systems in the world. They’ve been farming carp for about 400 years, and the demand for this particular fish is entirely fueled by the Czech Christmas tradition of buying carp at local markets and cooking it and eating it at home with family. Since it is such an old tradition, they had to figure out how to do it sustainably, and although the enterprise is taking a bit of a hit from the new vegan fad that we observed in Prague, the Christmas carp feast continues.
My last city was Vienna, which was VERY cold but very nice. I was there with my friend Drew, and while we only spent about 48 hours there, we saw so much. First we did some obligatory Christmas market hopping, first stopping by Karlsplatz and seeing the Karlskirche lit up at night, and then heading to the center to Stephensplatz and admiring St. Stephen’s Cathedral with its extremely tall spire.
The next morning we hopped on the Metro and headed to Schonnbrunn Palace, the famous palace of the Austrian royalty, including Franz Josef in his heyday. To be honest, I liked the gardens more than the palace, but there were a couple very color-coordinated “Blue Rooms” that I really liked.
Next we headed over to the Belvedere Palace and gardens. We decided not to go inside but we had fun exploring on the outside. It’s always interesting to see palace gardens in winter, since the trees are very barren and it’s beautiful in a very different way than in summer.
The sun sets at 4pm this time of year in Vienna, so we rushed over to this big street shaped like a ring to see many of the big famous buildings while there was still daylight. We walked past the Museums Quarter, 3 more Christmas markets (I’m telling you, they were everywhere), many governmental buildings, and the gorgeous Rathausplatz. It was so interesting to come to Vienna right after Prague because the architecture styles are so vastly different – in Prague, everything is very medieval and small and quaint, whereas in Vienna all the buildings are very big and regal and adorned.
Our last activity of the day was my favorite – attending a ballet called “La Fille Mál Gardée” in the Vienna State Opera House. And get this – I only paid 4 euros to get in. There is this special deal where if you get to the theater at least 80 minutes prior to show time, they sell “standing room” tickets for 2-4 euros. Be warned though – I managed to stay standing for the whole 2 hour show, but it would have been really hard to stand that long for a 4-hour opera. It was a much more tiring and time-consuming way to attend a show there, but for me it was totally worth it to see the inside of the infamous Opera House and to watch a very high-quality ballet on a student budget.
The next day, I headed back to the historical center of the city and entered St. Stephen’s Cathedral then simply wandered around for a couple hours. There were lots of big, busy shopping streets, but I was also able to find a few little side streets where I was the only tourist. I also discovered this hip little café called Delia’s that was a very typical Viennese café in one sense but very modern and new in another sense, and I ordered one of those hot chocolates where they bring you two sticks of pure chocolate and some hot milk and you pour the milk in and watch the chocolate melt. What a way to end my time in Vienna!
These three cities were so different and so wonderful, and I’m so grateful that I got the opportunity to explore them all and see a bit more of Europe. It’s been an amazing fall studying abroad in Madrid, and while I’m heading back to the U.S. now to finish my degree, I know I will be back to Europe very soon!