Europe’s Best Countries: #20 – #11

When I tell people that I’ve been to all fifty countries in Europe, their first response is usually “so what was the best one you’ve been to?!”.

Rather than just talk about one country and explain why it’s above all the others, I thought I’d showcase my adventures around the continent with a good-old fashioned top twenty countdown. Also, as it would be in extremely bad taste to miss out the other thirty countries, which were all special and unique in their own way, I’ve created a gallery featuring a photo from each and every country – you can find that here.

Complete with stories, a small selection of my own photographs, and even a tiny little flag for each place – this is part one of Europe’s Best Countries!

20 Croatia 🇭🇷

Where? Dubrovnik in July 2010 and Zagreb in October 2015.

I’ve been to Croatia twice, and feel that I’ve seen two totally contrasting sides to the country. On one hand, you have Dubrovnik with its throngs of tourists and picturesque blue seas and booming nightlife. On the other, Zagreb is the more conservative and traditional Croatian city with its abundance of churches, old, intricate buildings, and that magnificently dry Balkan sense of humour.

  • I got told off in Dubrovnik for wearing a Serbian football shirt because my naïve, younger self thought the Balkan countries were all friends now…
  • After a day of sunbathing on the beach, I got home to realise that I’d stupidly forgot to put sun-cream on one of my legs and the searing heat had basically given me third-degree burns. The owner of the hostel we were staying at, a seventy-something Balkan man who had lived through it all, took one look, shook his head, and headed for the kitchen. He came back with some yoghurt and gestured for me to put it all over the burn. Sure enough, four days later I had a normal leg again, but I haven’t dared sunbathe since.
  • Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships is one of the best most intriguing activities to do in the city. It’s filled with real stories about, well, broken relationships and each one is accompanied by an artefact or physical memory from the author.
  • St Mark’s Church in Zagreb is the go-to place for newlyweds and their families; there was an entourage of people outside it at the weekend waving Croatian flags and downing whiskey while singing and taking photos with the bride. That’s the Balkan party life!

19 Hungary 🇭🇺

Where? Budapest in March 2013.

Not many cities can boast of having a castle, one of the oldest metro lines in the world, a huge river running between it, and a purple and white parliament building. Budapest has them all!

  • I stupidly decided to climb up the hill towards the Liberty Statue in pitch black. But she looked so majestic shining over the city. There was hardly any lighting or people around, and I resigned to either being molested or falling to my death.
  • The House of Terror was a real highlight, providing a harrowing experience in memorial of the victims of the fascist and communist regimes that descended on the country. The building was formerly used by Hungary’s secret police and, as such, many people were interrogated and murdered on the site.

18 Serbia 🇷🇸

Where? Belgrade in July 2010.

I’ll always remember Serbia fondly, as it was the first country that I visited entirely on my own. In hindsight I probably could have picked an easier country to begin my solo adventures but my nineteen-year-old self thought differently. I remember sitting outside Nikola Tesla airport after arriving for a good hour or two in total disbelief that I’d actually flew halfway across Europe by myself – I had no idea what to do, where to go, and I wondered whether I’d actually be able to go through with it all.

I managed to muster up the courage to find the bus to the city centre, completely overwhelmed by the Cyrillic letters and general hustle and bustle of the airport, and stayed in the hostel for the rest of the night. But the next day, I ventured out on my own for the first time and absolutely knew that travelling alone was something I’d love. I walked for miles; around the centre where turn-of-the-century buildings flirted with pock-marked neighbours scarred from the NATO shelling, over to Kalemegdan with the views over the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, and even across to Novi Beograd for a glimpse of the Brutalist architecture. If it wasn’t for Belgrade, perhaps I wouldn’t have got a taste of the travel-bug so much as I did.

  • “Mister Bill Clinton” – I wandered around one of the open markets near Kalemegdan Fortress and found an old guy selling Yugoslav dinars from the nineties when the country faced such extreme inflation that they had to produce a 500 billion dinar note. Having never seen a note of such value before, I asked for two, one each for my mum and myself, to which the guy started laughing and calling me Mister Bill Clinton, Mister America, and Mister Money while carefully placing the pristine notes in a little plastic wallet before saying “you have good day Bill”.

17 Greece 🇬🇷

Where? Athens in February 2010.

Of course Greece is on the list because how could anyone forget about a country so rich in history that visiting its capital is like all the history lessons you never had at school? When in the ancient city of Athens, you can’t move for historical sites and ruins popping out from somewhere – basically, everything that you seen on Disney’s Hercules is real, and it’s all here. The Greeks are fiercely proud of their heritage, and quite rightly so – to think that some of the buildings here are over 2500 years old is just remarkable, and seeing them in real life makes you realise just how insignificant some of the trivial things we stress over actually are.

  • We got caught up in one of the first of many national strikes in Greece, meaning our flight was cancelled and we had to stay in Athens for an extra five days!
  • We also went to OAKA stadium where there was this huge, demon dog barking at us as soon as we got there. We got scared and left.
  • Rakimelo: the easiest, and sweetest way to get hammered.
  • The worst thing about Greece by far is this whole no toilet paper down the toilet thing, absolute nope.

16 Denmark 🇩🇰

Where? Copenhagen in October 2010 and May 2014.

I went around Sweden and Denmark in 2010 and absolutely loved Copenhagen, something about winter fitted the winter perfectly. The dull, grey sky was welcomingly contrasted by the bright red and white buildings that adorn Copenhagen and I wondered what it would be like in the summer. I got that wish thanks to Emmelie de Forest and her 2013 Eurovision win, and I can safely say that Denmark’s capital is beautiful both on sunny, and not-so-sunny, days. It’s clear to see why the country enjoys the tagline of ‘The Happiest Country in the World’.

  • A young Spanish couple gave me a ticket to Tivoli for free, no questions asked on my first visit. That was great because I’m sure I saved about £4000 from that because Danish prices.
  • In a hungover daze from a few nights of Euroclubbing, I bought an 18-pack of toilet roll from Netto and found myself wondering what life had become.
  • The entire arena of over 10,000 people sang along with Conchita Wurst as she took the stage in what was the most breath-taking performance I’ve seen at Eurovision.
  • Denmark’s hosting of Eurovision 2014 was notable not only for being held in a former shipyard, but for the humungous bar inside which was almost the same size as the arena itself. The Danes love a drink, automatically making it the coolest Scandinavian country, and so it was a welcome addition to be offered a carry-tray of five pints of Carlsberg to take inside the venue and dance the night away. It’s slightly possible that this is why I don’t remember much of the show…

15 France 🇫🇷

Where? Paris in September 2012, Nice in February 2016.

France is the stalwart of any travel countdown, often cited as one of the most brilliant countries on the planet to visit, and rightly so. It’s plethora of attractions and cultural heritage combine to make it the most visited country in Europe year in, year out. What I love about Paris is that there is never a shortage of things to do and see, and the lesser-known landmarks can be just as entertaining.

Being a total nerd for architecture, I spent around three hours walking around in awe at the skyscrapers at La Défense, and found it a great place to play my favourite travel game of people-watching away from the crowds of tourists. Having said that, I will never forget walking out of Trocadéro metro station just before midnight, and seeing the Eiffel Tower beaming back at me for its hourly display of flashing lights.

14 Azerbaijan 🇦🇿

Where? Baku in May 2012.

I visited Azerbaijan for a fortnight in May 2012 for a relatively unheard-of competition of music and song. Hosting Eurovision was the self-proclaimed Land of Fire’s first foray into putting on an international event, and boy did it show. The inexperience and lack of infrastructure was glaringly obvious, but in a sense it added to the charm of the country. A charm which has only been made more evident thanks to Baku 2012 being bookended by contests held to extreme perfection in the West.

Sure, waiting hours for a taxi was annoying, the security everywhere was rigid, and there was no alcohol sold in the arena. But the Azeris were extremely welcoming and would go out of their way to help you, the old town was breath-taking to walk around, and the entire city seemed to be caught up in Eurovision fever. I haven’t been to a place quite like Azerbaijan, and for that it’s one of the countries I remember most fondly.

  • When phoning for a taxi, you would always, always, ALWAYS, get put on hold and were forced to listen to a clip of  Running Scared, the song which brought Azerbaijan its Eurovision win.
  • In fact, Running Scared was played everywhere at all times for the entire fortnight.
  • Walking around Baku with your Eurovision accreditation badge around your neck was a sure-fire way to get noticed. The locals seemed to be in awe of the influx of foreigners who had descended upon their city and would have no qualms in coming up to you, grabbing your badge to look at, and then asking if they could get a photo.

13 Portugal 🇵🇹

Where? Lisbon and Porto in January 2014.

Portugal was definitely the country that surprised me the most. I wrongly assumed that it would be a Mini-Spain but actually found it to be a lot more exciting, colourful, and down-to-earth than its neighbour. Whilst Belem Castle and the yellow and white Tram 28 are the two attractions most linked with Lisbon, the statue of Jesus Christ towering over the city from across the Tagus River was the best part for me.

Lisbon is a sort of cool, up-and-coming city which sets it apart from many other places in Europe, and with it being blessed by lovely warm weather all year around, there isn’t really a bad time to go. It’s one of those places that you can easily walk around, get lost, and find something completely off the beaten track. Yet despite this, Portugal seems to be often ignored by many tourists on the hunt for a city break or beach holiday and I can only do my bit by saying ‘GO!’.

  • “Drugs for sale” – As Portugal decriminalised drugs back in 2001, it’s relatively common to be politely offered cocaine on the streets of central Lisbon. In fact, one extremely welcoming dealer told me his name and where I could find him if I changed my mind. Service with a smile!

12 Iceland 🇮🇸

Where? Reykjavik in September 2016.

Iceland is Europe’s most beautiful country; if you can think of any natural wonder, you’ll find it here. The Golden Circle, whilst the most popular of Iceland’s attractions is, I feel, simply an introduction to this wonderful country – sure you get to see volcanoes, powerful geysers, and incredible waterfalls, but I’m sure there’s much more on offer.

My fondest memory is from my last night in Iceland when the country was blanketed in a heavy fog and the Aurora tour I’d booked to go on was cancelled again. I decided to go for a little walk in the evening, and almost out of nowhere the fog lifted and these huge green lights started bouncing around in the sky. Seeing the Northern Lights is something I couldn’t really explain while giving them justice; it was easily one of the most awe-inspiring and humbling experiences of the entire European adventure, made even more poignant by it happening on the last day in the fiftieth and final country. It was almost as if being there at the right time was a gift from Iceland for travelling to each and every European country.

  • Reykjavik has its own Penis Museum, for real. It’s basically a collection of penises from animals that inhabit Iceland and yes, there is a human one at the end. Bizarre.
  • I was crouching down, taking pictures of Gullfoss waterfall when this incredibly powerful wind came from nowhere and blew me over. Totally mortified.
  • Iceland is notorious for being one of the most expensive countries in the world, and I’d say from experience that it’s the most expensive in Europe by a distance. The entire country is seemingly built on the tourist trade and with visitor numbers booming, they can charge what they like. As I point-blank refuse to spend £11 for a hot dog, I basically only ate bagels from Dunkin’ Donuts for three days because they were the cheapest food I could find.

11 Bulgaria 🇧🇬

Where? Sofia in August 2014.

I arrived in Sofia after a taking a seven-hour bus journey from Bucharest, and my initial reaction was ‘shit, what have I done’. The dull and dingy bus station, filled to the brim with the most harassing and pushing taxi drivers in the land, was certainly not the best first impression to get. Thankfully, when I stepped out of my hostel and onto Vitosha Boulevard after a good night’s sleep, I found a modern, cosmopolitan capital city littered with Roman ruins and remnants of a Soviet past all surrounded by beautiful snow-capped mountains.

The free walking tour of the city was a particular highlight, as was the seemingly open-all-the-time-to-anybody National Palace of Culture – a gift from the USSR. I was a little disappointed that I missed out on the park just outside the city which is filled with Soviet propaganda and statues of Lenin thanks to Europe’s obsession with closing museums on Mondays, but I’m sure I’ll get the chance to go back and see it again sometime.

  • Sofia’s incredible National Palace of Culture was definitely a highlight. It’s seemingly open for the public to go and take a look around too. Either that or I’m a trespassing king.
  • Continental Europe’s obsession with closing museums on a Monday meant that I missed the chance to see the Lenin statues and other Soviet memorabilia that are hidden away in a car park outside of the city.
  • I tried to buy a ticket to Skopje, Macedonia but was flat-out refused by the bleach-blonde, middle-aged lady behind the counter. I wouldn’t have minded, but the bus was right there and had about 4 other people on it. No matter how much I tried to persuade Old Lady Bus Stop, she was having none of it and insisted that I could only buy a ticket for the next bus which was in eight hours.

 Part two of the series, counting down from numbers ten to six, will be available very soon.

For those of you who just can’t get enough of travel blogging, click here to check out my photo gallery featuring one picture from each of the fifty countries in Europe.

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