Smart budget travel isn't just about saving money — it's about maximizing your experience. Let me stoke your travel dreams by sharing some of my favorite European experiences from several decades of crisscrossing the Continent.
In Dublin, you can easily be the only tourist among 50,000 cheering fans at a hurling match — that uniquely Irish game that's as rough and tumble as airborne hockey (with no injury timeouts). Matches are held most Saturday or Sunday afternoons in summer at Dublin's Croke Park Stadium. Choose a county to support, buy something colorful to wear or wave, scream yourself hoarse, and you'll be a temporary local.
In northern England, hike the best-surviving stretch of Hadrian's Wall. Picture being a soldier posted there back in ancient Roman times to keep out the scary Scots. For a good, craggy three-mile walk along the wall, hike between Housesteads Roman Fort and Steel Rigg. Free maps are available at the Once Brewed National Park Visitor Centre.
Britain is full of mystery and history. Trek from a hamlet in Dartmoor — through a foggy world of scrub brush and scraggy-haired goats — to find your own private Stonehenge. Arriving at a humble stone circle, sit and observe blackbirds and wild horses, and feel the echoes of druids worshipping (and then partying) right here thousands of years ago.
A castle tucked away in Germany's Mosel Valley wins my award for the best castle interior. As you approach through the gentle trees of an ancient forest — where you'd expect the Seven Dwarves or Martin Luther to be hiding out — a castle of your fantasies suddenly appears. It is Burg Eltz, nestled in an enchanted setting just above the river, lovingly cared for by an aristocratic family that has called it home for centuries. The family's noble matriarch still puts out fresh flowers for her many visitors.
Summit the Rock of Gibraltar by taxi or cable car to find yourself at a unique perch: the only place on earth where you can see two continents and two seas come together. Ponder the energy where two bodies of water meet, creating choppy riptides where little fish gather, attracting big fish, which attract big fishing fleets. Consider the action at this meeting point of two great civilizations — Islam and Christendom — rubbing like cultural tectonic plates for 1,300 years. Then ape with the monkeys who call the Rock home and couldn't care less.
On Italy's Cinque Terre, borrow a good knife from a friendly restaurant and hike from village to village through hilly vineyards. This is Italy's most exotic stretch of the Riviera coastline. Climbing through ancient terraces, surrounded by twinkling Mediterranean views and castle-studded villages, you'll work up a thirst. Then, using a big leaf as a protective mitt, break off a spiny cactus fruit, peel it with your knife, and slurp it — sloppily savoring the sun and the fun as you explore the best of the Riviera.
Get as high as you can mechanically in Europe, riding the cable car from the French alpine resort of Chamonix to Aiguille du Midi. Up there, at 12,600 feet above sea level, just climbing a few steps gets you winded. The air is thin. Perfect strangers do the halfway-to-heaven tango, and people are giddy as they marvel at Europe's tallest peaks around them. You can almost reach out and pet the white head of Mount Blanc just across the way. To beat the clouds and crowds, leave Chamonix early in the morning or reserve in advance.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, at the crest of Mostar's single-arched bridge, survey the town that just a couple of decades ago was a killing field of sectarian strife as Yugoslavia broke apart. Take in the cityscape of crosses, spires, and minarets. Ponder the tragedy of Mostar's recent past and the hope symbolized by the bridge upon which you stand — once bombed and now rebuilt. On hot summer days, you'll see a local tradition in action — young men in bathing suits collecting donations from onlookers. Contribute a few coins, and when the total reaches 30 euros, a diver will expertly make the dizzying jump from the bridge into the river way, way below.
Every corner of Europe offers memorable moments like these. Opportunities are rich and the rewards are huge. Connecting with people carbonates your experience. If your trip is low on magic, kick yourself and make things happen. Take the initiative not to just see your destination, but to experience it.