I think it’s fair to say, I have an ongoing love affair with Europe. Over the last three years, Alex and I have traveled to nine different European countries, and each visit leaves me craving more and more European adventures. From historical sites to people watching from street-side cafes, to simply getting lost to experience life as a local, Europe has so much to offer. And perhaps my favorite aspect of European travel is discovering just how many cultural differences exist between our two continents. Most I wish I could embrace and bring back to New York City — like sitting in a cafe and enjoying a cup of coffee without feeling like I need to go, go, go, but others, I am blown away with — no matter how many times I encounter them.
This post is for all of you Europe-bound travelers, whether its your first or tenth time visiting. If you’ve traveled to Europe before, what’s the biggest cultural difference you’ve identified? Are there any you wish you could bring back home? Or, are there any that have completely surprised you? I’d love to hear from you!
There Is No Such Thing As A Free, Public Restroom
This was by far the biggest surprise when I first arrived in Europe, and three years later, I still cannot comprehend how there is no such thing as a free, public restroom. When sightseeing in New York City, it’s so easy to find a Starbucks or McDonalds, pretend like you’re a customer and use the restroom. But in Europe, you can 99.9% guarantee that there will be an employee charging for the use of the stall. (And yes, this goes for fast-food chains, some museums, and even restrooms labeled as public!) From personal experience, these employees take their jobs very, very seriously, so if you don’t have enough coins, you better keep on walkin! While the cost is minimal — about 1 euro, the whole concept of charging to use the restroom seems so incredibly foreign. I would definitely understand if the bathrooms were sparkling clean, but I have yet to find such a gem…
The first McDonalds to open in Hungary in 1988 — one step closer to the West and a move away from Communism. And, as no surprise, you have to pay to use the restroom!
There Is No Drip Coffee
If you are addicted to coffee, just like Alex, you will be very sad to learn that drip coffee is almost impossible to find in Europe. The majority of cafes and coffeehouses only serve Americanos or shots of espresso, so prepare yourself for multiple trips to the coffeehouse! And speaking of coffee, you will never observe Europeans taking their coffee to go. European cafes are the epitome of disconnecting from the world, taking time for yourself, or spending quality time with friends and family.
Morning espresso & tea in Brugge, Belgium
Beer Is Cheaper Than Water
Never in the United States would you find a restaurant where beer is cheaper than tap water. But in Europe, water is not considered a staple to meals, and if you dare to order tap water — even after reading this post, you will probably be looked at as though you have three heads! Expect a tap water fee added to your bill, largely disproportionate to the cost of beer (and even wine)! And if you’re thinking about ordering a side of ice to go with your water, you might as well excuse yourself from the table because there is no such thing as ice water. Mind blown.
Enjoying our cheaper-than-water beers at the Andech’s Monastery in Germany
Make Dinner Reservations Ahead of Time
My biggest piece of advice regarding dinner in Europe is to research and make reservations ahead of time. After exploring and sightseeing all day long, the last thing you’re going to want to do is find a restaurant that accepts walk-ins. And this is especially true in off-the-beaten-path areas — restaurants with few tourists, serving mostly locals. Regardless of restaurant capacity, some restaurants will simply turn you away because you don’t have a reservation. This was something I didn’t understand at first, but now I have grown to appreciate the underlying reason: uninterrupted meal time in a relaxed atmosphere where you can sip your wine, savor your meal, and enjoy endless conversations with your plus one.
One of the best decisions I ever made: dinner reservations at CoVino in Venice, Italy
Don’t Expect The Check Until You Ask
Not only is dinner considered a sacred time in Europe, but you never have to worry about being pestered to pay the check so your table becomes free for the next guests. When Alex and I first traveled to Europe, we were so accustomed to American table service that we became confused as to why no one would bring us the check. I mean, our table had been cleared and our drinks emptied — we just couldn’t figure out what was going on! After observing several other groups asking for the check, we followed suit, and to our relief, we could finally head back to our hotel to sleep off our jet lag. This is definitely a cultural practice I wish the United States would embrace.
A Mediterranean feast in Amsterdam! We were so worried we would never get the check because we couldn’t even come close to clearing our plates!
Tipping in Europe isn’t as automatic or generous as it is in the United States. And while tipping practices vary country to country, wages in Europe are generally higher, and tips are seen as small bonuses to reward good service. Make sure you check the menu to see if a service fee will be added to your check! In general, 5 to 10 percent is considered a big tip.
Dinner in Budapest. We had to ask for water — typical tourists (sorry, not sorry)!
There Is A Clear Distinction Between Work & Life
At any hour of the day, expect to see locals frequenting coffeeshops, restaurants, and bars. (On our last trip to Europe, I jokingly told Alex that it seems like no one works…but this is the European way of life!) While it’s no surprise Americans are often overworked, very few Europeans work over 40 hours a week. Not only does this sound amazing, but most Europeans receive AND use at least four weeks of vacation per year! (Where can I sign up for this?!) This is definitely a cultural difference I would embrace in a heartbeat.
Coffee & Coconuts (Amsterdam) on a Tuesday morning
Be Prepared To Walk, Bike, And Get Active!
European cities are so much more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, encouraging people to get out and be active! On our most recent trip to Europe, we were so surprised to see just how many people walked and biked to work. In Amsterdam alone, there were hundreds of thousands of bikes. In fact, the city’s infrastructure has been built around the love of biking! Over 70% of Dutch urban streets are bicycle friendly, and there are over 22,000 miles of dedicated biking streets in the Netherlands. I love how you can really learn and explore a city simply by skipping the subway or taking a cab.
One of many bike racks in Amsterdam
Public Transportation Is Top Notch
I’ll be the first to admit some U.S. cities have public transportation down to a T. But, once you’ve taken public transportation in Europe, your life will forever be changed. First and foremost, the trains and buses are spotless. I can’t tell you how many dirty or smelly subway cars I’ve ridden in New York City. Second, public transportation is almost always on time in Europe. Again, New York City public transportation = delays, delays, delays. And finally, public transportation is tourist-friendly! In every European city we have traveled to, there are employees available to help with purchasing of tickets and directions. Plus, many locals don’t mind helping out either!.
The train station in Budapest, Hungary