Ryan and I don’t like to sit still. Some people joke that we do more in a weekend than they do in an entire month. Our German friends think we’re a little crazy for visiting so many places in such a short period of time.
But when you have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live abroad and traveling from country to country is as easy as hopping on a train or bus, you make the most of it.
While planning our Christmas vacation, we were literally all over the map. We wanted to see as much of Europe as possible but didn’t want to waste too much time getting from point A to point B. We even considered joining an organized bus tour…but quickly realized we didn’t want to be surrounded by strangers or staying at hostels. Scary to think that we’d be the oldest in the 30 and under tours! Ultimately we decided to create our own tour of Central and Eastern Europe.
Here’s a look at our final travel itinerary:
- Lucerne, Switzerland
- Zurich, Switzerland
- Vienna, Austria
- Bratislava, Slovakia
- Budapest, Hungary
- Zagreb, Croatia
- Ljubljana, Slovenia
- Capriva del Friuli, Italy
- Venice, Italy
- Innsbruck, Austria
Yes, you read that right. We visited 10 cities and 7 countries in 2 weeks with a quick stop back to Wiesbaden to celebrate Christmas.
Sit back, relax and discover the highlights of our European Christmas Vacation.
We kicked off our travels in a city (and country) we had never been to before…Lucerne, Switzerland.
This Swiss city is full of charm and home to Europe’s oldest covered wooden bridge, Chapel Bridge.
We walked through the cobblestone streets and admired the amazing views of Lake Lucerne against a picturesque mountain backdrop. The medieval architecture and fresco-painted houses in Old Town instantly take you back in time.
Another piece of Lucerne history can be found in the historic fortifications surrounding Old Town. The Musegg Wall and its nine towers offer more stunning views of the city and surrounding nature. We recommend visiting at night too to see the city all lit up.
The Lion Monument is another can’t-miss sight in Lucerne. This masterpiece was carved out of a wall of sandstone rock and built to commemorate the Swiss guards who fell fighting for King Louis XVI during the French Revolution.
At night we visited Lucerne’s Christmas markets, but they weren’t nearly as nice as the German Christmas markets…and the glühwein cost 10 Swiss francs per glass! We did get some pretty night-time views of the lake and heard popular U.S. celebration tunes at the ice rink. Why is it always American music playing throughout Europe?
TL; DR: Lucerne is a charming town with breathtaking mountain views.
To round out our weekend in Switzerland, we visited the country’s largest city and financial capital, Zurich. This popular destination is definitely more modernized than its neighbor, Lucerne, but still full of history.
Twinkling lights sprinkled throughout the city transformed Zurich into a winter wonderland. We highly recommend visiting Europe during the Christmas season!
We window-shopped along the famous Bahnhofsstrasse lined with luxury boutiques, had an authentic meal at the traditional Swiss restaurant Zeughauskeller (formerly an “arsenal storehouse” where weapons and ammunition were stored and maintained) and hopped between Zurich’s Christmas markets. Our favorite was the Singing Christmas Tree market featuring live singers in the shape of a Christmas tree.
Nodding to the boujee nature of Zurich, their Christmas markets replaced fried potatoes and glühwein with champagne and oysters. In case you’re wondering why Ryan only has one oyster on a huge platter, it’s because each oyster was 8 Swiss francs…we’re used to dollar oysters in D.C. 😉 This was definitely the most expensive stop on our winter vacation journey!
When it came time for dinner, we were craving sushi. Luckily we got a table without a reservation, but moments after ordering our server informed us they were all out of sushi. We can’t make this stuff up!
We found another top-rated sushi restaurant nearby but had to wait a little while for a table. At this point I could almost taste the shrimp tempera and spicy tuna rolls. Despite the sushi counter and high ratings on Google, there was no sushi to be found on the menu. We quickly learned the restaurant didn’t serve sushi all the time and were told to try back in a few weeks…
I was still starving after failed sushi attempt #2, so we decided to try Italian. We got a table right away but of course the restaurant was sold out of the dish I wanted. We settled for something else on the menu and had another round of drinks (and a ton of laughs). Aside from our dinner dilemna, we really enjoyed exploring Zurich.
TL; DR: Zurich is a nice mixture of old and new, and it’s true what they say about this Swiss city being one of the most expensive in the world.
After an amazing weekend in Switzerland, we traveled back to Wiesbaden to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in our home away from home.
We hit the ground running the day after Christmas and took a train to Vienna. Austria’s capital was a great starting point for the rest of our European adventure.
What better way to continue our Christmas travels than with a concert at Mozart House? Considered to be the oldest concert hall in Vienna, Mozart played here back in 1781. The Sala Terrena room is covered from floor to ceiling in late Renaissance Venetian style paintings.
During our visit to Vienna, we had just enough time to enjoy the classical music scene, fill our bellies with schnitzel, and sip on melanges at Café Mozart.
TL;DR: Vienna is a big city full of history, music, art and crowds.
When Ryan told me he wanted to go to Bratislava I immediately thought of Euro Trip…turns out I was right. Slovakia’s capital was unlike anywhere we’ve been before – and a big contrast to nearby Vienna.
The main attractions include: Michael’s Gate, Old Town Hall, The Blue Church, Bratislava Castle, UFO Bridge, and a few very unique palaces (one is even pink!). This might sound like a lot to see, but definitely doable as a day trip.
Bratislava is an eccentric city filled with unique statues. We recommend venturing out of the city center and taking a walk along the Danube River where you’re sure to find many river cruises passing by.
We ended our night with an impromptu wine tasting at Grand Cru Wine Gallery…and a tipsy sprint to catch the last train back to Vienna. Tucked away in a corner alley, this wine bar was nothing fancy but the owner welcomes you in like an old friend.
TL;DR: A quick day trip to Bratislava is just enough to get a glimpse of the Slovakian lifestyle.
Everyone raves about Budapest – and now we know why. This Hungarian city is full of interesting architecture, hidden gems and breathtaking views…like those seen from the 19th-century Chain Bridge which connects the more residential Buda district with the lively Pest district.
The highlight of our afternoon was a wine tasting at Tasting Table – filled with delicious Hungarian wines and a lovely charcuterie board.
At night we got to enjoy a Christmas light show at St. Stephen’s Basilica before hitting up Budapest’s most popular ruin bar.
Szimpla Kert wasn’t nearly as “dive-y” as we thought it would be. It had a cool, laid-back vibe, vintage decor and different areas depending on your drink of choice. We even met a few people from Germany there!
TL;DR: You need more than a day to truly experience all that Budapest has to offer. Next time we’ll check out the thermal baths.
We decided to visit Zagreb because it was in between two of our planned stops. We are so glad we added this amazing city to our list! Croatia’s capital is full of character…with boutiques, cafés and historical buildings at every turn.
We stayed at the cutest little bed & breakfast with the most perfect name…Regal Residence. It was located on a cobblestone street surrounded by shops and restaurants – easily walkable to all of Zagreb’s main sights.
During our self-guided tour of Zagreb, we stopped at a restaurant to use the bathroom and ended up with an amazing charcuterie board and free shots! How’s that for service?
Luckily for us, the Christmas celebrations were still going strong here even though it was a few days after Christmas. The whole town was filled with Christmas markets, all with a unique vibe – and lots of Instagrammable moments. Thanks Ryan for being patient as we ran around the city taking all the photos. 😉
While meandering through the city, we stumbled upon another Christmas market and were drawn in to the sound of our wedding song! It was so special and unexpected to hear it all the way in Croatia.
Another must-see in Zagreb is the Gric tunnel, originally built as a bomb shelter during World War II before becoming a host for raves in the 90s and shelter during the Croatian War of Independence. It’s now open to the public and was transformed into a Christmas playground during Advent Zagreb.
TL;DR: Make sure you visit Zagreb during the holidays to experience the amazing Christmas markets and other festive celebrations.
Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, was another surprise destination. We had never heard of the city before (and had no idea how to pronounce it) but loved our stay. Another new country in the books!
Strolling through the streets of Ljubljana was like stepping into a fairytale, complete with a castle and dragons. In the center of town, you’ll find the Ljubljanica River surrounded by boutiques, cafés, and some special bridges including the popular Dragon Bridge.
We continued our European wine tasting journey with an exploration into Slovenian wines in a 300-year-old wine cellar.
The city came to life at night with Christmas lights and live music. We had an amazing steak dinner and drinks at a local bar overlooking the river.
TL;DR: Ljubljana is must-see spot in Europe that isn’t inundated with tourists.
Capriva del Friuli
When planning our holiday vacation, we went back and forth about what we wanted to do for New Year’s Eve. After googling top places to spend NYE in Europe, we decided being surrounded my millions of people on the streets of Berlin was not our thing.
Instead, we rang in the New Year at Castello di Spessa, a remote Italian wine resort located between Slovenia and our next destination. It was the perfect relaxing getaway in the midst of our busy travels.
Built in the 13th century, this historical property originally served as the residence of the aristocracy and a frequent getaway for Giacomo Casanova.
We enjoyed a 10-course meal on NYE that literally lasted from 7pm until 1am. It was a romantic dinner and great way to kick off our first New Year’s Eve as husband and wife. Pretty sure we were the only Americans in attendance. Talk about an authentic experience!
On New Year’s Day, we enjoyed aperitif in the medieval wine cellar and popped a bottle of champagne while admiring the vineyard views.
Castello di Spessa doubles as a golf resort, but after a bottle of Champagne we decided to keep the clubs in the bag.
TL;DR: If you’re looking for an intimate getaway in the Italian countryside, look no further than Castello di Spessa.
The moment you arrive in Venice, you’re greeted by the hustle and bustle of the City of Canals. Tourists everywhere (including us – no judgement please) are in a hurry to hop on the nearest bridge and take selfies with the postcard views…even in the chilly winter months.
Narrow alleyways leading you to new bridges. Gondolas floating through the canals. Couples enjoying Bellinis at outdoor cafes. The epitome of Venetian charm.
We stayed at the H10 Palazzo Canova in the middle of Venice with a nice rooftop terrace overlooking the Grand Canal and Rialto Bridge.
A trip to Venice wouldn’t be complete without a visit to St. Mark’s Square, home to St. Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace.
Thanks to the Netflix series Somebody Feed Phil, we discovered one of Venice’s lesser known sights: Libreria Acqua Alta. Deemed one of the most interesting bookshops in the world, this “floating library” protects its unique collection of books from Venice’s rising waters by piling them high and placing them in gondolas. A little off the beaten path, it’s a perfect place to wander into next time you’re in Venice. Just be on the lookout for a few stray cats!
If you’re looking for fresh seafood, the Rialto Market is the place to go. Located alongside the Grand Canal, this Venice tradition features fresh fish, spices, fruit, vegetables and other local specialties.
We discovered another Venetian delicacy during our stay…cicchetti. Imagine all the goodness of a charcuterie board piled onto a delicious crostini. They come in all different varieties with the freshest meats, cheeses, seafoods and spreads. We could eat these every day. Luckily there was a cicchetti shop just around the corner from our hotel. Ostaria dai Zemei, a local hot spot, was nothing fancy, but featured a ton of delicious cicchettis and Italian wines by the glass.
And in case you missed it on our Instagram…moments after taking these photos, Ryan’s love for gelato backfired and my two scoops of sugary delight ended up on the ground. I wonder how often this happens.
We could spend all day getting lost in this beautiful city!
Venice was our second to last stop on our whirlwind tour of Europe. When we arrived at the train station, we found out our train was cancelled. After a few minutes of panic, we discovered we could catch the train from another Venice train station and continue on our journey as planned. Crisis averted!
TL;DR: Everyone should visit Venice at least once. The photos will make you want to go, but it’s even more magical in real life.
The final stop of our European Christmas Vacation was Innsbruck, Austria. After a lovely train ride through snow-covered mountain tops, we arrived to this charming city just in time to enjoy a stroll downtown and authentic Austrian dinner – goulash, sausage, strudel and beer.
The next morning we woke up to astonishing views of the alps and could even see the Bergisel Ski Jump from our hotel room window. A popular winter sports destination, Innsbruck can also be enjoyed by foot if you aren’t into skiing or snowboarding.
We ended our visit with a shopping trip to Swarovski.
TL;DR: Innsbruck is a beautiful city tucked beneath the Austrian Alps.
Random Travel Observations
- We need a selfie stick
- Yes, we have on the same hats and scarfs in almost every photo – don’t judge, it’s cold out!
- FlixBus isn’t a bad way to travel (and it’s less expensive than taking the train)
- Taxis are expensive in Europe…and sometimes that’s the only available method of transportation
- Cash is king and a lot of places don’t take AMEX
- You will get by just fine if English is the only language you speak
- It is possible to visit 10 cities in 2 weeks – just ask us if you need any tips and tricks on making the most of your travels (we’re also happy to provide hotel recommendations!)
Our Journey Back Home
After an amazing vacation through Europe, it was time to head back to our temporary home here in Wiesbaden. It was truly the trip of a lifetime with lots of new countries, cities, cultures, currencies, languages, and, most of all, memories with my new husband. I’m so lucky I get to travel through life with Ryan by my side.
If you’ve been dreaming of taking a European vacation, pack your bags, grab your passport, and GO! Trust us, you won’t regret it.