As someone who feels the need to incessantly plan everything out when traveling in order to make the most out of a vacation, one of the best things that a full semester abroad offers is the time and space to have accidental experiences. While any seasoned traveler will say that it is best to get off the beaten trail to fully experience a culture, it can be difficult to skip out on doing the “must-sees” in certain places where your time and money is restricted. After all, “must-sees” are usually “must-sees” for a reason.
During my first three weeks abroad, I have seen London, England; Munich, Germany; Salzburg, Austria; and Budapest, Hungary. With each city came a new set of sights, adventures and TripAdvisor recommendations, but here are the three best experiences I have had so far that were completely unplanned, unorganized and unforgettable.
1. Booking a two-hour trip to Munich for Fasching… and missing the festival.
One of the most popular festivals in Germany is Fasching, or Carnival. It takes place each year during the season leading up to Lent and is especially popular in Munich. Because Munich is only two hours from Salzburg, a group of us set our sights on experiencing the final day of the festival. Because it was a Tuesday and we had class until the late afternoon, we ended up booking cheap bus tickets that would give us just over two hours in the city.
When we arrived, Fasching appeared to be in full swing. There were mobs of people flooding the streets in ridiculous costumes, with food vendors and open concerts everywhere. We immediately had confetti thrown in our faces and proceeded to buy pretzels bigger than our heads – this is the Fasching experience we had anticipated. What we had not anticipated was the crowd shifting back toward the train station and the vendors shutting down within a half hour of our arrival. The festival was over. We were left confused as the street slowly emptied, with nothing to do but finish our pretzels and observe the comedown of Fasching.
With an ironic hour to kill before our ride home, we wandered the square and laughed about our first spontaneous trip. In the end, we can still say we’ve been to Fasching in Munich.
2. Stumbling across a book flea market on a Sunday morning.
Unsure of what to do on one of my first Sundays in Salzburg, I set out to explore the city and see where I ended up. While walking along a quiet street near Schloss Mirabell, I saw a sign that said Bücherflohmarkt. Thanks to my orientation German class and the practicality of the language, I could decipher it: book flea market. As an English major on a college student’s budget, few words bring me more excitement than those.
After opening various doors inside a dark inlet of the building, I finally found the room tucked away in what appeared to be some sort of university or church complex. There were shelves and tables separated into genres, as well as collections of records and DVDs scattering the floor. Most of the books were in German, but there was a small section of books printed in English consisting mainly of Bridget Jones’s Diary and The da Vinci Code. Regardless, I ended up buying an old book of what I think is German poetry (haven’t quite figured that out yet).
Given the fact that I found the market accidentally and wandered through a maze of doors to find it in the first place, I am not sure how easily I would be able to find it again. If you are interested, though, the only direction I can offer is to drift aimlessly along the river near Mirabell on a Sunday morning, look for a neon poster board with handwritten scrawl and open any (unlocked) door you can find.
3. Booking a night cruise on the Danube in Budapest.
For our first weekend excursion since arriving in Salzburg, a group of us decided to visit Budapest. Budapest is incredible and, yes, if you go, the TripAdvisor must-sees are actually must-sees.
The trip-planner in me was out in full force during the week leading up to the trip, so when we arrived and decided to book a nighttime river cruise just two hours in advance, I was a bit thrown off. I knew exactly which castles and cathedrals we needed to see, but reserving an activity that we had only heard about through word of mouth was new for me. In the end, it was my favorite part of the whole weekend. We stood on the top deck of the boat in the sharp cold, leaning over the edge and watching the orange reflections of the city lights color the Danube below us.
The highlight of the cruise was when we passed the Hungarian Parliament – easily the most surreal sight I have ever seen. Its complex, vibrant, almost bizarre architecture combined with the overarching experience of seeing it lit up on the second longest river in Europe made it feel like we were in a different world, one where you could not designate a time and place in your itinerary to feel blown away – it just had to happen.