For those who love to travel, but are on a budget.
A couple of girlfriends and I decided we wanted to travel abroad, but weren’t sure where. We did research on locations with shorter flight times, so we wouldn’t most of our time in the air. We were originally set on Croatia… because, well, Croatia. But decided to go to Bavaria after finding an amazing Cyber Monday sale flight to Copenhagen out of New York City. We ultimately decided to make the most out of our time abroad by making plans to visit multiple cities across Bavaria, or Western Germany.
The next few weeks, we began to book housing. Each of us took a location or two, and were in charge of booking the best option. It was nice to be able to space out the bookings over a few weeks. Essentially, I dedicated a portion of each paycheck to paying for a certain aspect of our trip: flights, housing, rental car, etc.
Due to an impending snow storm in NYC, Delta gave me a waiver to adjust my travel plans. The girls and I moved our flights up, for lead time. Of course, because we’d planned ahead, the snow storm proved to be not that bad. We had about 10 hours to kill in NYC, and decided to spend that time in Brooklyn.
A confusing train ride and lots of questions of strangers got us to Brooklyn, where we decided collectively, we all wanted Middle Eastern cuisine. A quick check of Zomato showed Bedouin Tent to be a tasty, quick, and inexpensive option. After meandering around Brooklyn, we found the restaurant, and enjoyed a delicious lunch/early dinner of falafel wraps, babaganoush, hummus, and fresh pita. After lunch we stumbled inside Brooklyn Consignment. For fashionistas on a budget, it’s a must see.
We flew Norwegian Air on a brand new Boeing 787. The plane was very nice. Getting to the plane, not so much. The line to drop off bags was crazy long. Then, once we got to the representative, we each were told we had to get in a different line. Me, to pay for my checked bag. That meant an even longer line full of people young people with shortened tempers. Once paid, I had to show the receipt to the teller, who then approved my bag to get onboard the plane. Then the line for security, equally tedious. A brief jog across the terminal and we were at our gate. After a short delay we got on board. I honestly was surprised that for such a new and nice plane, the seats weren’t more comfortable, but I wasn’t going to split hairs over it, given how tired I was. We made our best attempt at a seven hour nap before landing in Copenhagen. This airline has a budget feel, filled with young people also trying to stretch a dollar. Bags and seats both have additional cost.
Copenhagen mass transit:
I can’t say enough about the cleanliness, ease of access, and efficiency of Copenhagen’s public transit. I will say, though, it isn’t super easy to navigate, because there’s little signage.
We stayed at the Urban House hostel in Central Copenhagen, steps from Central Station. (Or if you are us, a very long walk in a circle.) It was the only hostel on our trip’s course that offered suite-style rooms, and was therefore the only hostel we stayed in. The room was large enough for three, plus all of our luggage, and had a small, intimate bathroom. No bells and whistles, but clean and efficient.
After a quick shower, we walked towards Nyhavn and popped in a cafe for coffee and sandwiches. After a smoked salmon panini (mmm Scandinavia), I was back to life. We did some meandering and shopping along the route to the water. There, we stumped upon an adorable tea shop that smelled heavenly. We each picked up a little something from A.C Perchs Thehandel and carried on.
A friend with Danish roots suggested the round tower totake in all of Copenhagen from 125 feet. We found it with ease. Getting to the top, not so much. It was beautiful, but gated all around, making the photos just… eh. But for 25 DKK, it was worth it.
As we made our way closer to Nyhavn, we stumped upon a cafe selling Belgian Waffles on a stick. Obviously we had to pop in. For about the equivalency of $7 US, Rajissimo offered up a delicious waffle, covered in toppings, and the recommendations of a charming shop girl. A friend wanted to visit Christiania. She told us the way.
Christiania is Denmark’s “Green Light District.” My take: go see it. Casually walk down a sidewalk full of ply-wood structures and hooded men selling pot to foreign customers. Take it in, but I don’t suggest spending more than 20 minutes or so. If pot’s not your thing, there’s not a lot for you there.
After Christiania, our feet were killing us. We were exhausted from sleep deprivation, and wanted to find a place to grab a quick drink before heading back and to sleep. We found most bars don’t open until 10. We did our best to meander and occupy time, but decided that drink was now or never, and stepped in to “Stress Free Bar”, a cozy underground bar with stuffed chairs, cocktails with fun names, and 2000s hip hop playing overhead. Exactly what we needed.
In total, with souvenirs and what not, I’d say I still spent less than $100 US. But it is worth noting, I would suggest ordering Danish Kroner from your bank about one month out from your trip. Few American banks have partnerships with Danish banks to avoid ATM fees. The currency conversion places charge sky-high fees. And many shops don’t take all American credit cards. Visit our bank and order the cash, with plenty of time for delivery, to avoid having to ask your friend to spot you and paying her back with Venmo later, like I did.
I also suggest spending a couple of days in Copenhagen, and in the spring or summer. We enjoyed our time there, but it was cold. And not like gorgeous snowfall cold, just wet cold. Half the attractions are outside and require beautiful weather. We didn’t get that experience. I wish we had.
We took an early KLM flight to Munich with a layover in Amsterdam. The one-way flight was $210, a pretty hefty investment, but the only real option for CPH to MUN. We rented a car and spilt the cost, so we’d get to experience the AutoBahn and the cozy little towns between cities.
The first stop was Dachau, a WWII concentration camp. I added that visit to our trip after reading about it in Joe Biden’s book, Promise Me, Dad. He wrote that he made a point to take his children and grandchildren there. Dachau is a 30 minute or so trip outside of Munich. The weather was grey, a little damp, and very fitting for the location. If you find yourself in Munich, visit Dachau. It is important. It is powerful. It is saddening.
We headed back to Munich for our AirBnb, dropped our bags, and hopped on a train for the city center. It was dark by that point, rainy, and a little dreary, so we dried out inside Hofbrauhaus, Bavaria’s most famous Biergarten. Down the road, Germans would mock us for this choice, but hey.. when in Munchen. A friendly Lithuanian family invited us to sit with them. We enjoyed beers, brats, pretzels, and great company as traditional bar maids sold cookies and traditional German music played overhead. I highly recommend the Hefeweizen.
We spent our one night in Munich at a nightclub called “Call Me Drella.” It was filled with locals, loud music, and lots of dancing.
Sunday morning we rolled out of bed and headed for Marienplatz (the city center). The 12th century structure is impressive and a gathering point for tourists. The area is filled with all your favorite chain stores, but also a lot of local finds and gorgeous buildings, used as office space for various businesses.
Surprisingly, just about everything was closed. I guess I didn’t expect that in the tourist area, even for a Sunday. I suggest using Sundays as a day to take a tour. St. Peter’s Church was open and made life seem so fleeting as we looked at artifacts inside a building that has stood more than 700 years.
By the time we got checked in to our Airbnb in Stuttgart West, it was dark, rainy, and cold. We headed for Schlossplatz anyway, the city’s most popular attraction and were sad to learn people aren’t actually permitted to walk around inside the new palace. Various websites online said the attraction closed at 8pm. Turns out that’s only for groups with a prearranged reservation. Because it was a Sunday night, just about everything was closed. We meandered around a bit, taking in the sights, before hopping in a cab for some traditional Bavarian cuisine.
This place proved to be a real treat. The traditional restaurant is actually built on to the city’s ancient wall. We read in the menu, once the invention of cannons made city walls obsolete, residents were permitted to build against it, so one wall was a very dense and ancient brick. The restaurant was decorated like an old German inn. The food was rich, heavy, and delicious, with plenty of options, even for a vegetarian like myself.
I’d read a lot about “three mile bar”, the city’s party district. We decided to swing through and see what it was about. Unfortunately, because it was Sunday, I don’t think we got the full experience. It reminded me a lot of Athens, GA – a city block with a lot of bars, but was nothing to write home about on a Sunday.
Monday morning we got up to revisit some of the sights we’d missed in the rain. St. John Church at Feuersee was the first stop, as it was closest to us in Stuttgart West. Very little of the church is original after being bombed in WWII. The tower was only partly remodeled as an homage to the war. The grounds were unkept. Ducks floated in a lake alongside beer bottles and cigarette butts.
Schlossplatz the second time, again, proved to be underwhelming. It was picturesque, but pictures are about the only thing you get out of the experience. Many of the buildings aren’t open to the public and museums in the city are closed on Mondays. We did our obligatory sight seeing and got some pictures.
Probably the coolest part of Stuttgart, in my opinion, was the city market. Cheeses, meats, and every pastry under the sun fill the historic market. The sights, the smells, the contents all a dream for those who love to cook.. or, if you’re like me, eat. Picture your favorite farmer’s market, bring it inside, then quadruple it. Customers can purchase pre-made meals, sandwiches, and delicatessen for takeaway. It was truly a sight. I left with a gift bag full of sweets and treats, all for under 7 Euro.
After we wrapped up in the city center, we drove to Killesberg, the modern-historic mix neighborhood carved into the hills of Stuttgart. The Killesberg Park Tower is what drove us to the area. The steel structure offers a panoramic view of Stuttgart and for free. If you go during warmer months, the grounds are covered in flowers. It was nice to visit the park and see green. After being in cities for days, I missed the sights and smells of green space.
We planned to visit the Porsche museum, but again, most museums are closed on Monday, so we drove past and absorbed Porsche’s huge presence in the city, then hopped in the car for a quick hour-long drive to Heidelberg.
If you’re looking for a true German experience, I highly suggest Heidelberg. Shortly after arriving in Heidelberg, we hopped a train to Alt Stadt (Old Town) . Our budget had us in an Airbnb about 10 minutes: 3 stops or so, from the Central District. Much of the walk to Alt Stadt, on the banks of the Neckar River, resembled Stuttgart, Munich, and Copenhagen: big box retailers and common European names working to draw tourists in. But further in, right on the bank, is Alt Stadt, the oldest part of the city. Filled with shops, narrow streets, elegant architecture, and history. A short walk lands you at Alt Brücke Heidelberg.
The Old Bridge:
The “Old Bridge” has been there in some form since around 800 A.D., the “new” Old Bridge is around 300 years old and connects the two sides of Heidelberg. The bridge was under construction while we were there, but nonetheless, offered iconic views of the ancient city. A quick glance east, and Heidelberg Castle was rather hard to miss.
Heidelberg Castle was everything I could have hoped for in a glimpse of Bavarian royalty. Its troubled past was more than made-up-for in rich history and outstanding views. It is dark, romantic, and intriguing all in one. We read that pieces and parts of the 16th Century castle are always under reconstruction, assuring generations to come will get to enjoy its beauty and splendor. I’m hoping that continues, and one day we will get to enjoy what’s inside. Much of the Castle is considered ruins. War, lightning, and townspeople ravaged the castle, then left it for hundreds of years, meaning reconstruction and renovation will be long-term. Even still, I highly suggest Heidelberg and particularly the castle. I wish we would have taken a walking tour with a knowledgeable guide, but couldn’t find one in budget/on our time frame.
Another note: when in Heidelberg, pay close attention to bus and train times. We weren’t able to take the cable car to the castle, because it was under inspection. Instead, the man at the depot suggested we take a bus. After trekking around the castle for an hour-and-a-half, we found the bus stopped running at 6, while the castle closes at 8. We ended up hiking our way back down and were exhausted at the end. Don’t be like us; check the schedule.
After hiking back down to Alt Stadt, we popped into a burger place I’d read a lot about in reviews: Hans im Glück. The drinks were delicious, affordable, and just what we needed after a damp castle experience and long walk back. I suggested the restaurant because it had a lot of vegetarian options. It didn’t disappoint. I got the spinach and cheese patty with fresh cheese and lettuce. Then the girls and I split a pound of sweet potato fries.
Exhausted and full, we walked past Heidelberg University, and back to our AirBnb for a good night’s sleep.
Limburg and Cologne:
On our way to Cologne, we decided we wanted to pop in a town along the way and see what Bavarian life is like outside of the big cities. We found ourselves in Limburg, a town of about 34,000 people, with a very rich history. The winding, hilly, and narrow streets were lined with local shops, art galleries, and lots of authentic Italian restaurants. We decided to get out and walk a bit, and within seconds found ourselves at Limburg Cathedral, an ancient Bavarian beauty.
This church may have been the only one we visited that didn’t have damage from the war. Dating back around 1200, a church likely has stood in that same spot since around 800 A.D., making everything we consider to be history in the U.S. so New Age. The construction was gorgeous, particularly for being outside of your major German hubs. If you find yourself between Heidelberg and Cologne, I suggest dropping by the town, enjoying a Margherita pizza, and visiting the Cathedral.
I took over driving duties from Limburg to Cologne. All three of us girls on the trip are car enthusiasts, so we sprung for a BMW X1 rental, to truly enjoy the AutoBahn experience. I found the AutoBahn to be just like any American interstate, only faster. It wasn’t as I’d envisioned, with each car topping 100mph. Just like in the U.S., there were slow cars in the fast lane, those booking it, and everywhere in between. Going 120+ felt like nothing when the cars around us were doing the same. But no one drove recklessly, which made the AutoBahn feel safer than American interstates. If you’re a car enthusiast, or have time to kill, I suggest renting a car, at least for a little while, to be able to enjoy the speeds and sights around you. If I were to find myself in Bavaria again, I’d likely shoot for the ICE train or even the S train. Same sights, less concern about parking, more time for sleeping.
Cologne was rainy and freezing. We did our best to enjoy the city, but got there close to dark, and could barely stand the temps. Our train stopped right outside Cologne Cathedral, and I do mean right outside. If you’ve ever been to Rome, you understand. Historic structures shake from passing trains, works of art stand next to fast food restaurants. It was difficult to even get a good picture of the Cathedral, due to the Metro signs and advertisements creeping in to its splendor.
Cologne’s most popular attraction was immaculate and awe inspiring. It’s sheer size was something to behold. Inside were some of the most beautiful stained glass windows I’ve ever seen, dozens of historical religious relics, and a crypt of Archbishops. Certainly the “must-see” feature of Cologne, with no admission cost.
We attempted to visit a few of the other sights, including City Hall, but found them inaccessible due to construction. Cold and exhausted, we decided to visit a brew house to warm us up before dinner.
At Petere’s Brauhaus, we were seated beside a lovely German couple on layover. We enjoyed potato pancakes with smoked salmon, the house beer, and great conversation. It’s not quite as touristy as Hofbrauhaus in Munich. If you find yourself in need of somewhere to kill few hours in Cologne, I recommend Petere’s.
After our beers, we hopped on a train for the bank of the Rhein for dinner. Reviews said Scampino Wein is the spot for great seafood in Cologne. Sea bass was cleaned at the table, everything was super fresh, and the tiramisu rivals any I’ve had across Italy. They didn’t mind our tourist attire, our loud conversation, and our lack of Italian language skills. We shut the place down, our bellies and hearts full, then headed back to the Airbnb across town to pack and head for the airport back to Copenhagen.
Copenhagen Round 2:
The girls and I had about six hours to kill in Copenhagen before our flight back to the States. We spent the afternoon doing some of the touring we hadn’t been able to do in the daylight earlier in the week. Nyhavn proved to be even more of a treat during the day. The air crisp and cold, but the views gorgeous. For a tourist attraction, Nyhavn doesn’t feel it. The streets are clean and the locals are busied, on their way to work and running errands. It’s easy to fit in here, even if you don’t. Even the food is superior for a tourist hangout. We grabbed traditional pizzas at Gorm’s, because surprisingly, it was one of the highest-rated pizza places in town.
The Little Mermaid:
Before Disney, The Little Mermaid lived in Copenhagen. The story of The Little Mermaid was written by Hans Christian Anderson in 1836. The success of his tale was forever commemorated by the statue in the busy cruise port. It is cute. It’s one of those must-see Copenhagen sights, but it is a haul to get to. If you don’t have a “hop-on-hop-off” bus pass, like us, (honestly, we didn’t know that was an option until we saw one parked outside of the mermaid), then it is going to take some time to get there. Tourists crowd the attraction, and if it is cold, you likely don’t want to risk falling in the water to take a picture. We spent probably two hours getting two and from the statue, only to get this picture and sore feet.
We headed back to the airport, having seen and learned a lot in our busy week abroad.
What I learned:
Order cash before-hand. Many banks offer that option. It is less expensive than converting at the airport, and more of a convenience than hunting down a bank partnered with yours to withdrawal.
If you’re used to visiting foreign countries and finding markers in English, don’t expect that in Germany. In Copenhagen nearly everything had an English translation, but in Germany, that was not the case. We found the Google Translate app helpful at times, but not 100% accurate. Most people though, do speak English. The Germans and Danes we spoke to said that’s the language they use to communicate with most tourists.
A couple of us got AT&T’s new international “day pass.” It was a really nice alternative to paying for international coverage a month-at-a-time for a week’s use. For $10 per day, your current plan can be used abroad. Something worth noting though, I found my battery was drained much faster than in the states. I don’t know if that had to do with the international roaming, or what, but I highly suggest putting your phone on airplane mode when you don’t need it, then carrying an external battery and charging cord with you at all times. That way you never miss a moment.
Study the metro systems ahead of time. Generally every mass public transportation system works the same across the globe, but with different idiosyncrasies. If you don’t regularly use public mass transportation, spend more time studying your stops and which trains lead to those stops. We found the signage not to be particularly helpful. Before heading to the train station, I highly suggest knowing your stop names, the route to get there, and what time they stop running, Also, to save yourself some time, have cash on-hand.
Google Maps is your friend. It can help you route on-foot, in a car, or on mass transit. Just make sure you’ve got enough battery to get you through.
In our experience, many places overseas won’t take American Express. If you have Chase or Visa and are planning to bring a credit card for backup, I suggest bringing one of those. But check to see if there’s any additional fee for using the cards.
Construction can be a problem. One of the reasons we were able to do this trip on a budget, is because it’s not the “tourist season.” We found that also meant that many structures are under construction during that time, like Cologne’s City Hall and the Old Bridge in Heidelberg. If you want to get the full experience, you may have to fork out the cash and visit during the busy season, otherwise, expect scaffolding and detours.
Many airports and train stations offer luggage lockers, so you can tour without all your gear. We found them to be safe, though not particularly affordable, especially if you have big bags. I suggest researching where you can find them, and planning ahead. We found the lockers weren’t always in a central location.
Day after Christmas sales are the bomb. If you know you want to take a trip, but aren’t set on any particular location, scour the web for deals. My friends and I would have never had this experience, would have never chosen Bavaria, if it hadn’t been for the incredible Day after Christmas deal.
For more photos, follow me on Instagram at @winnieawright.
(The views expressed in this blog post are my own, and do not reflect my employer, TEGNA.)