Travel is a funny thing. You can stare at guidebooks until your contacts dry out and you can consult Google maps for days on end, but try as you might, there’s no way to fully prepare for what’s ahead. No matter what, you’ll get lost, you’ll overestimate your energy level, and you’ll get caught in a surprise downpour without raingear. And at least once in your life, you’ll misread the timetable, find out the next train doesn’t arrive until 1 a.m., and spend the next few hours on an uncomfortable bench nibbling vending machine food and using your backpack as a pillow.
Unexpected moments like these can make or break a vacation, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Here, I share a few stories of cities that exceeded–or didn’t meet–my expectations.
Before I visited Paris, I heard a few less-than-flattering anecdotes from friends that convinced me I’d find the French capital dirty, crowded and underwhelming. In a way, I’m glad I flew into Charles de Gaulle Airport one October morning with such low expectations. I’ve never been so pleasantly surprised!
Back in Italy, my study-abroad friends and I felt a little like the fates were already conspiring to make our trip to Paris terrible. The forecast called for constant rain, and there were so few hostel options left in the weeks before our departure that we took a huge security risk and booked a place in the Latin Quarter that didn’t offer storage lockers–something I’d never recommend to anyone. And yet, the moment we emerged from the underground Metro, I felt like I was living out an Edith Piaf song.
Everywhere we went, magical things happened. We made fast friends with our hostel bunkmates and spent a memorable night with them at a perfectly Parisian hole-in-the-wall student hangout down the street. One relentlessly cloudy morning on Ile de la Cité, we rounded a corner just in time to see clouds parting poetically above the majestic Notre Dame. In the suspiciously empty Louvre, I had the Code of Hammurabi and Venus de Milo to myself for minutes on end. We got to Versailles three hours before the inside of the palace opened, and it was the happiest accident we could have made: the royal grounds were so vast and beautiful that we lost track of time exploring them.
I could write rapturously about so much more–every plaza, every sidewalk cafe, all the incredible and affordable prix fixe restaurants–and maybe I will when I return someday.
What I learned: Go to Paris in October. Most of the tourists are gone, and the city is somehow even more beautiful when it rains.
For years and years growing up, I dreamed of visiting Venice. The bright colors, majestic palaces, tiny canals and romantic narrow streets looked so unreal in pictures. I’m a little ashamed to admit how major a factor Venice was in my desire to study Italian in college. I spent so long idealizing the place that a letdown was almost inevitable.
I really, really hated my first trip to Venice. I went with two friends on a rainy Sunday in September, and the entire city center was so clogged with tourists and day-tripping Italian families that it was hard to see anything around me. There were long lines everywhere–at major attractions, restaurants, even stores selling Murano glass jewelry. After having spent a month studying in an authentic Italian town, Venice felt less authentically Italian than a Spaghetti Factory…and a heck of a lot more expensive.
The whole experience was so disheartening that I used the next day’s class assignment as an excuse to rant about it.
Unfortunately, the next time I found myself in Venice was the night before my departure from Italy. To prepare for our upcoming flight out of Marco Polo Airport, everyone in my cohort got a hotel room for the night in nearby Mestre and decided to venture into the lagoon for dinner. Without the rain and summertime crowds, wandering through the cobblestoned alleys in a less central part of town was pure magic. I kicked myself for spending so long nursing a grudge against Venice, the city that had been only an hour’s train ride away for a whole semester.
What I learned: If I ever go back to Venice, I’ll do it right. I’ll make sure I spend the night there so I can see its magic without the crowds. I’ll build a ton of wandering time into my trip and get lost on purpose. And I will never, ever visit on a Sunday.
New York City
Last year, I decided to take my very first trip to the East Coast. I’d always wanted to visit New York City, and I figured I’d come away from my five days there with the same opinion a lot of my friends hold: that while New York is a wonderful place to visit, I’d never be able to live somewhere so large and loud.
Boy, was I wrong.
How did I manage to fall in love with a city so expensive that I spent most of my nights bunking with 18-year-old boys in a hostel? So humid that I risked ejection from the U.S. Open stadium hopping between shady seats that weren’t mine? So crowded that I couldn’t find a single free seat to watch the Oregon game at the only Ducks bar in town?
I’m still not sure. The world-class art certainly had something to do with it: At the Metropolitan Museum, I had as many legendary pieces to myself as I did at the Louvre. (Do I just have good museum luck?) The surprising plethora of free activities, from Central Park to window shopping to the High Line to free Fridays at MoMA, played a role too. So did the huge selection of food from all over the world, from Jamaica to Yemen to Cambodia.
But what captivated me most about New York had nothing to do with its most legendary sights. It was the way I felt walking down the street. Even in my stretched-out shorts and sweaty cardigan, wandering around New York made me feel like I could take on the world. Knowing I might be strolling down the same cobbled lanes as legends like Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Henry James once did was thrilling. Even though its poetic old alleys and grimy brick facades may now be home to more millionaire movie stars than immigrant tenements, it’s still America’s Melting Pot, and it still pulses with infectious energy.
What I learned: I could totally live in New York…if I won the lottery.
When I moved to Seattle, I discovered that most Pacific Northwesterners know and love Vancouver. But I can attest that people in my home state of California have little interest in British Columbia’s largest city. Its metro area is home to more than 2 million people, yet before I lived in Seattle, I knew it to be nothing more than an affordable filming location.
Those two decades of ignorance were my loss. Vancouver boasts fantastic ethnic food, stunning views, beautiful parks and so much more.
In a handful of weekend trips over the last six years, I’ve discovered that pretty much anyone can enjoy Vancouver–including people who hate cities! Backpacking college students will find fantastic, cheap and authentic ethnic food in almost every neighborhood, and they can party the night away on Granville Street, which turns into an energetic pedestrian mall on the weekends. Couples looking for a quiet weekend escape can the explore wild, forested Stanley Park, take in world-class museums and performances on the UBC campus and discover quaint ethnic bodegas and cafes in Kitsilano. Solo travelers will find anonymous company on Granville Island, a huge farmers’ market with endless gastronomic curiosities and tourists from all over the world. Hikers can take on the Grouse Grunt, one of the steepest schleps out there, and they’ll be rewarded with a jaw-dropping view and a complimentary gondola ride back down. And I’ve only just scratched the surface!
What I learned: It’s never a good idea to write a city off just because you haven’t heard much about it.
I traveled to the capital of Hungary in 2008, before the age of Pinterest and career travel bloggers. At that time, the internet yielded curiously little information about the city. My travel buddy and I found a few key sights to check out, but we weren’t sure what to expect. I wasn’t so clueless about lesser-known Eastern Europe to believe the scene from “Eurotrip” was right on the money, but I admit I had vague images of unattractive concrete buildings, crumbling train stations and miserable weather.
Ironically, my travel buddy and I experienced all of the above during our three-day trip. But for every time-worn train station, there was a mind-blowing museum or a magnificent tiled roof. Next door to every midcentury monstrosity, we encountered an awe-inspiring synagogue or an intricate sandcastle come to life. And frankly, we weren’t too upset when temperatures dropped or the rain began to pour, because it meant we could duck our heads into one of the city’s many beautifully ugly ruin bars for some warming stew and beer.
I like to think that Budapest is the new Prague, which used to be Europe’s premier unpolished jewel. Prague is still unbelievably beautiful, but the crowds have descended and much of the city has been sanitized for the visitors’ benefit. But in Hungary’s largest city, charming seediness and urban grit are still as prevalent as old-world grandeur and cute shops selling handmade lace. If you’re the kind of traveler who doesn’t mind visiting a museum that houses world-class art but doesn’t translate its guides to English, or if you’d sooner grab a drink in a not-quite-converted warehouse than in a sleek new lounge, Budapest is the destination for you.
What I learned: Hungarian is one of the coolest and most confusing languages I’ve ever tried to speak.