The 20 Things I Did Right in My Semester Abroad

My semester abroad ended seven months ago (and began almost a year ago), and yet here I am, still writing about it. Part of me suspects I should just move on, abandon my idea for this post, and write about more current happenings. But after chronicling the 20 Things I Did Wrong while abroad, I figured it was only fair to take a look back at some of the things I got so very right during my time in Geneva and beyond. I can honestly say that my months in Europe were one of the best – or perhaps the best – experiences in my life, and here are twenty of the things I did to make that so.

1 – Embraced Food Tours:

If there was any theme to my semester, it was this: discovering a city through its food. Once I took my first food tour in Lisbon, I was addicted, and quickly signed up for more tours in almost every new-to-me city I visited. While food tours can be a bit pricey, I found them to be a good value; you get lots of food for your money and you burn off the calories by walking all over and exploring new places. For me, food tours were a splurge I was willing to make – I don’t spend a lot on hotels or souvenirs or alcohol while traveling, but I will spend a lot for a good meal. Priorities, you know?

2 – Gave Amsterdam a Second Chance:

Amsterdam was not on my travel radar when this semester began; I had visited the city in 2011 and had not loved it, so returning seemed relatively pointless. But, as my semester wore on, I felt a pull toward Amsterdam, an urge to give the city another try. And, oh man, am I glad I did. My weekend in Amsterdam was one of the best experiences of my semester. From my perfectly-located apartment rental to the gorgeous golden hour walks along the canal that became a nightly ritual, I totally fell in love with this city, proving that first impressions are not everything (and that non-rainy weather counts for a lot).

3 – Let Go of the Pressure to Visit “Must Sees”:

I have to confess that, on trips past, I’ve been something of a slave to guidebooks. In one sense, it’s natural: when it’s your first visit to a place, you don’t want to miss any of the important stuff. Yet something shifted in my travel attitude this semester. Perhaps it’s becoming a more seasoned traveler and having the confidence to trust my own judgment over some travel guide’s, or perhaps it’s just my waning tolerance for time wasting – whatever the reason, I abandoned any notion of what I “had” to see, and started focusing on what I wanted to see instead. What did that mean? Skipping things like the famed Vasa Museum in Stockholm in favor of the kitschy ABBA Museum, peacing out from Monaco when I just wasn’t feeling it, and feeling free to linger at markets in London rather than seeing more “important” sites. In the end, I was way happier for it.

4 – Booked Last Supper Tickets Super Early:

I had heard stories from people who wanted to see The Last Supper in Milan, only to arrive and find themselves out of luck because a pre-booked time slot was not available. Since seeing The Last Supper was the impetus for my entire trip to Milan, I knew I could not make that same mistake. I booked months in advance, which was possibly a bit excessive, but in the end, totally worth the obsessiveness: I finally saw da Vinci’s magnificent fresco up close, which was definitely one of the most special art encounters of my life.

5 – Walked Everywhere I Could:

One thing I did very little of this semester was use public transportation; I rode subways sparingly and almost never took a bus outside of my commute to work. Instead, I wandered around on my own two feet most of the time, even when it probably would have been more efficient to not do so. This strategy allowed me to justify indulging in some pretty delicious food while overseas. But, more importantly, it made me feel more connected to each location I visited. It gave me a better sense of place, it allowed me to find spots I otherwise wouldn’t have stumbled upon, and it gave me lots of time to think. In every city, long, meandering walks became something to savor, and my semester was all the better for it.

6 – Arrived in Montreux Super Early:

To say the least, I am not morning person, despite repeated efforts over the years to force myself into becoming one. Yet often I find that, when traveling, it pays to rise early and get to sites before everyone else, as this often means shorter lines and more opportunities to take pictures without swarms of people in them. That’s why, when it came time to visit the Château de Chillon, I got up super early to take the train from Geneva to Montreux, and then the bus out to Chillon. It worked perfectly: I rolled in before the first tour group descended on the castle, and I was able to spend most of my visit in complete peace. Early rising? Painful but oh so worth it.

7 – Added Berlin and Dresden to My Itinerary:

I had visited Berlin three years ago and loved it, but I have to admit it wasn’t high on my list of places to travel this semester; I was trying to make it to more new-to-me locales. Then, randomly, I remembered Dresden, a city that had come very highly recommended to me by a former boss (and many others), but that I had never quite managed to visit. Suddenly, I had a plan: a quick weekend trip to Germany, with a day in Berlin and a day in Dresden. In Berlin, I found even more reasons to love the city, from stunning architecture to funky street art to delicious cuisine. And in Dresden? I completely fell in love. The city was magnificent, and I’m so happy I made the trip.

8 – Lived Cheaply in Geneva:

Living cheaply in Geneva is something of an oxymoron, as the city is notoriously expensive (see: exhibit A). However, I did the best I could by avoiding the apartment rental market and slumming it in student housing for the semester – hooray, shared bathrooms! My dorm was also located in a rather notorious area of Geneva: the Paquis, home to plenty of student housing and…the red light district. While some locals are a bit wary of the area (and while it is admittedly a bit rough around the edges), I never felt unsafe calling it home, and my wallet thanked me for it. I’d happily trade luxury accommodations for a little extra money to take more weekend trips.

9 – Skipped Starbucks (Mostly):

This sort of seems like “Captain Obvious” advice, but…don’t go to Starbucks when in Europe (and, to be honest, probably not when in America either). There’s something comforting about the mega-chain, to be sure; if you’re down or homesick, Starbucks can feel reassuringly American, a comforting port in a travel storm. But, the coffee isn’t great (in my opinion), the prices are ridiculous (particularly in Europe), and you’ll miss out on other more delightful alternatives. Besides a moment of weakness in Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport, I never set foot in the ‘bucks, and I was happier for it. Otherwise, how else would I have drank the incredibly indulgent hot chocolate at Cafe Schober in Zurich, sipped cappuccino while people watching at Le Petit Cler in Paris, or cozied up over tea at Perch’s in Copenhagen?

10 – Allowed Myself to Indulge in Paris:

It probably comes as no surprise that I am an avid reader of travel and expat blogs, and many of my favorites are Paris-centric. Naturally, then, I have a huge list of Paris restaurants, cafés, and pastry shops I’m dying to visit. While my five days in Paris were not long enough to make an appreciable dent in that list, I did hit a lot of good places. I achieved that by letting myself splurge a lot in Paris – think decadent eclairs from L’Éclair de Génie, stuffed-to-the-brim falafels from L’As du Fallafel, and sinfully rich chocolat chaud from Angelina. Should you eat like this all the time? No. Should you eat like this when you’re vacationing in Paris, and not feel guilty about it? Yes.

11 – Never Said “No” to a Farmers Market:

I love a good farmers market, at home or abroad, but there’s just something special about visiting one in a new-to-you European city. From seeing the locals shopping to finding out what types of fresh produce are popular in a particular place, visiting a market always feels like a great way to get to know a city, which is why I always stop when I see one. I browsed through markets most everywhere I went – including Lyon, Nice, and Lucerne – and I never, ever got tired of it. In fact, I can’t think of a more perfect way to spend a Saturday morning.

12 – Meandered Along the Canals in Amsterdam:

Amsterdam Canals9

Amsterdam is a city of great cultural attractions, and in my two visits, I like to think I have hit many of them: I climbed the treacherous staircase up to the Anne Frank House, I visited the Rijksmuseum both before and after its renovation, I explored the entire van Gogh oeuvre at his namesake museum, and I sipped beer at the Heineken Experience. Truth be told, though, I don’t even think these are the real treasures of Amsterdam: the true gem is the city itself, and namely its terribly charming canals. Over the course of my weekend in Amsterdam, I made canal exploration a priority, ending each day with a long walk along the canals and spending plenty of hours during the day roaming around them as well. While I think the city’s museums are quite worthwhile, I would recommend letting go of the pressure to visit all of them; make sure you spend ample time soaking up that canal magic, too.

13 – Kept an Open Mind about Strange Foods:

Eat Walk Edinburgh7

When it comes to challenging foods, I don’t exactly have what you would classify as the strongest stomach. This semester, however, I made a point of trying all the local favorites wherever I went, and this meant keeping an open mind about foods that were a little scary. From haggis in Edinburgh to reindeer in Stockholm to pickled (like, excessively pickled) fruits and veggies in Budapest, I never said no to anything. I didn’t love everything I tried, but I was always happy I made the effort.

14 – Visited Castle Hill in the Early Evening:

I would like to say that I had some grand plan for visiting Budapest’s Castle Hill in the evening, that I knew most tourists would have cleared out by that point, that I anticipated how magical it would feel to watch the sun set over the city from high atop that incredible vantage point. To be honest, however, the real reason was this: I took a longer-than-planned afternoon nap and ended up having to make the trip to Castle Hill in the evening out of necessity. Happy accidents, people – they are the foundation of many of my best travel memories.

15 – Ate My Way Through Borough Market:

On my Saturday in London, I had an ambitious itinerary, and it all kicked off with the Borough Market. Just one problem: I became kind of obsessed with the market, and found myself not wanting to leave. Suddenly, I felt my plans shift: I ate breakfast at the market, ran over to the Shard for a quick visit, and then found myself coming back to the market for lunch. Yes, there were other places I had wanted to go, but sometimes, you’ve just got to stick with what works. And Borough Market has so much good food to choose from that I know I only scratched the surface; it will be on my itinerary for future London trips for sure.

16 – Sought Out Sunsets:

Something that sounds super cheesy to write but is nevertheless true is this: one of the best things I did while in Europe was give myself the time and freedom to seek out beautiful things. I visited Rue Crémieux for no other reason than that it was colorful, I spent hours wandering among the flowers at the Keukenhof, and, of course, I found myself seeking out sunsets again and again. Often, I would rearrange my schedule just to walk along the water at peak sundown hours, and more than once I dropped other plans just for the sake of seeing a gorgeous sunset (as depicted in the above shot, where I completely abandoned packing for home in Copenhagen to take one last walk through Nyhavn Harbor).

17 – Lingered in Bruges:

I’ve heard of many people doing Bruges as a day trip from Brussels, and given the close proximity of the two cities, that’s certainly a viable option. But something told me that I would love Bruges, and so I opted to spend two nights and three days there. I couldn’t have wound up happier with my decision, as I completely fell in love with magnificent Bruges. The magic of the canals, the abundance of artwork, and the wickedly indulgent waffles provided more than enough reason to linger, and I’m so glad I spent that time in Bruges rather than in Brussels, a city I couldn’t quite bring myself to love.

18 – Went Back for Panzerotti a Second Time:

Sometimes when I’m visiting a place, I make it an unwritten rule to try something different for each meal. Even if I stumble upon something wonderful, it feels right to explore as much of a city’s cuisine as possible. But sometimes, I have to abandon my self-imposed rules in favor of something absolutely delicious. In Milan, it was Luini Panzerotti, makers of the humble, cheap street food that also wound up being one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten: glorious panzerotti. It looks like a calzone, but it tastes about five thousand times better: a sweet dough with a piping hot savory filling, the combination of which was culinary perfection. It was worth the multiple visits, and the next time I find myself in Milan, you can bet Luini’s will be one of my first stops.

19 – Rectified Past Mistakes at the Reichstag:

On my first trip to Berlin, I found myself adoring the city, much to my surprise. I had no idea Berlin would be so wonderful – its amazing museums and its fun, funky vibe immediately won me over. My time in the city would have been just about perfect, if not for one big mistake: I didn’t reserve advance tickets for the Reichstag, and my sister and I were turned away at the gate. This time around, I knew I had to climb that dome, and so I planned way in advance – which was totally worth it. I loved the architectural spectacle of Berlin’s big dome, and I’m so glad I got to experience it my second time around.

20 – Cozied Up in Copenhagen:

One of the enduring dilemmas I face while traveling is this: the struggle between wanting to do things in a place and wanting to just be there. What I mean is that, when you’re traveling, there’s often pressure to see all the things, to hit every item on a city’s imaginary bucket list. But some of my favorite moments have come when I’m not doing anything at all, when I’m just lingering and enjoying a place. I had one such moment in Copenhagen, where I decided to abandon my plans to explore the city more in favor of hunkering down in a coffee shop. I sipped tea, read a book, and took refuge from an unexpectedly chilly day in May. It might not have been an afternoon of adventure or discovery, but it’s nevertheless one of my fondest Copenhagen memories.

And, with that, I’ve finally said everything I have to say about my semester abroad. It’s hard now not to look back at it with overly nostalgic, rose-colored glasses, to romanticize it as the BEST TIME EVER. But in the end, I have to say…it kind of was. Mistakes and all, I was crazy fortunate to call Geneva home for four months, and to travel all around Europe for even longer. I don’t know when – or if – I will ever have the chance to spend such an extended amount of time overseas, and so my semester-long adventure will always be super special to me. I was pretty damn lucky.

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