Europe: A Planner’s Dream

I remember one of the reasons I was so attracted to the University of Waterloo’s urban planning program, outside of my love for cities, was the opportunity to travel abroad in Oxford, England. While at the time I knew very little about the program I knew I wanted to travel and see the world and this offered me one opportunity to achieve that.

Now having finished classes of my final semester last week, my dream of traveling to Oxford and beyond becomes a reality tomorrow. I will traveling for 7 or so weeks around Europe with various groups of people and in various different styles of travel. While the Oxford planning course is a main focus of my trip I will learn in every city I visit and see incredible examples of urbanism.

This is an opportunity to take my learning beyond the classroom or a co-op placement.  It will help me understand what similar challenges other places face and how they manage them. My goal for this adventure is to learn about planning in such a way that I could make positive changes in how I plan for urban change and challenges when I return home.

 

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Sorrento and Capri

Sorrento was next on our tour and while it as quite a journey to get there and the roads were terrifying (narrow along cliffs) along the Amalfi Drive, we finally made it to Sorrento, a place I was very excited to visit! 

The town overlooks the Bay of Naples and you can see Capri and Vesuvius from the coast. The coastal views are stunning and show the elevation, and the beautiful water below. We even climbed the hundreds of stairs back up after our ferry from Capri.

Views from a restaurant in Sorrento:


The pasta in Sorrento was some of the best I tasted in Italy. The people were lovely and the town felt small, intimate and unique. 

Sorrento is known for growing lemons, and we visited a lemon garden and of course the area is famous for the Limoncello liquor, which can be sampled in many shops, as well as varieties such as melon and coconut. 
The highlight of these couple of days was absolutely the visit to Capri and a cruise around the Isle. The views are amazing and the water is simply breathtaking. We got to see the incredible Blue and Green grottos. 

Photos from our cruise around the Isle of Capri: 

Capri itself was a lovely Italian island complete with beaches, sea side restaurants, plenty of shops and panoramic views. It was an absolute dream of a day to spend it here.

Photo from the beach in Capri:


While Sorrento and the area may be a bit out of the way on a typical trip to Italy, it is truly beautiful. While it was known as a tourist area, it seemed much less crowded than most places, even at the end of May. I will definitely go back and could spend so much more time enjoying the areas natural beauty, delicious food, limoncello, and lovely people!

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre was absolutely worth all of the hype it gets and truly looks even more amazing in real life than on instagram. It’s a group of five brightly coloured villages along the Italian Riviera. The villages were historically small fishing villages that are now famous for their beauty and a popular spot for tourists. The area is remote and wasn’t always accessible to visit, and visiting by train will connect you easily to all 5 villages, but it can also be done on foot. Be ready to walk, climb stairs and be sure to pack a bathing suit because you won’t be able to resist the amazing seaside. The higher parts of the villages are full of unique walking trails with picturesque views. It’s easy to see why it’s a UNESCO heritage site. 

Vernazza offered a lovely mix of local Italian seaside town and beautiful tourist destination. Here we enjoyed our weight in gelato and enjoyed lovely coastal views stunning architecture. 

The area is very rugged and has various terrains. The swimming spot in Manarola makes for an incredible day:

The incredibly bright colours of the buildings is unique. 

The absolutely picturesque village of Manarola, where we sipped sangria from a cliff side spot: 

The water in the area is spectacularly blue. 

Monteresso offers the best strip of true beach out of the five villages: 

The villages are full of friendly locals and endless amounts of places to enjoy wine, gelato and Italian cuisine. The area is specifically known for pesto, and while it is different than the pesto you are likely used to it is delicious and a must try. The area is also well known for seafood, not surprising based on its location! 

An all day train pass is the best way to see the area quickly, and it’s very affordable. Most train rides between the towns are 5-10 minutes

For me, of the 5 key areas of Italy I visited, Cinque Terre wowed me the most and would absolutely be on the top of my list of places to return to in the future. 

Nice, Côte d’Azur and Monaco

After six weeks of traveling typically cooler places, with the exception of Barcelona, the next part of my trip began with a group tour with a company called Contiki. The specific trip I selected was Mediterranean Quest, which took us from Barcelona, through the south of France and throughout Italy.

Nice was our first stop on this tour. I had heard it was beautiful, but I really didn’t know what to expect. It was a beautiful smaller french city, with lovely architecture, a great tram system and stunning views of the coast and the ocean.

Views from outside of Nice:

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In Nice, we visited a french perfumery, and then had an afternoon to explore. We went off to find possibly the most beautiful beach I have seen in Villefranche-sur-mer. It was a stunning coastal town, complete with shops and restaurants, all on a large hill leading down to the ocean. The water was perfectly blue and the perfect temperature to swim. Many of the beaches in the area are rock beaches, not sand like we’re used to in North America, but this one had small pebbles.

Beach at Villefranche-sur-mer:

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Villefranche-sur-mer:

This area was absolutely a highlight of my trip! Next time before booking a trip to the Caribbean, I would definitely consider the French coast.

Our evening just continued the wonderful day we were having with an excursion to Monaco. Our tour group was lucky enough to be there during the Monaco Grand Prix weekend. Our evening was a dinner, with free time to explore Monaco and the Monte Carlo casino. Think tons of fancy Ferraris and Lamborghinis and people dressed in outfits you thought only existed on runways. Yachts + rich people = Monaco.

Princess Palace in Monaco:

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Monte Carlo Casino and the yachts at night:

Overall, seeing this region was absolutely amazing. I would absolutely go back and could happily spend a week or two, enjoying the beaches, seeing the sights and pretending to be rich and famous!

Amsterdam

Amsterdam was definitely one of the coolest and most unique cities I have visited on this trip. The city has beautiful architecture, a lovely canal system, and overall a very cool vibe. 

I spent 3 days in Amsterdam which I found to be a good amount of time. 

We were lucky enough to be visiting during the last weekend of the tulip festival at Keukenhof Tulip Festival. This is where the massive tulip fields and gardens are located about 30 minutes outside of Amsterdam. It was absolutely beautiful to see all of the different colours and types of flowers and different types of gardens and even a petting zoo. We walked around for about half a day here because there was so much to see. Earlier in the season (April), the fields are still filled with tulips so I hope to have the chance to go back then!


The city is also full of local flower markets which are lovely to see. The local markets in general are very nice to visit and offer lots of good food options for snacks, lunch and groceries! We ended up grabbing everything we needed for a picnic lunch from one of these markets.

A flower market in Amsterdam:


Amsterdam is well known for its night life, specifically the Red Light District. It’s definitely one of the most unusual things to see that is unique to the City. 

The city has absolutely beautiful architecture with buildings dating back hundreds of years. We learned on a tour that the city was built on a swamp and that’s why the canals were built. Some of the buildings are even slanting forward because of the uneven soft foundation.


Amsterdam is very well known for its bicycle culture. Everyone is on bikes all the time, they are definitely more prominent than cars or even pedestrians. We did a 3 hour bike tour which was by far the best way to see the city and learn about the history of the city. As a planner it was amazing to see a place where cyclists are the priority on the streets. Think bike lanes on steroids, with cyclist signals and bike racks everywhere! No one even wears helmets when cycling because it’s so safe, and people carry all kinds of things while biking including their children in baskets on the front of their bikes! 

It’s also worth noting that the city also has a great metro and tram system. We bought two day passes when we were there and got a lot of use out of them! 

Bikes:

We decided when we were in Amsterdam that we wanted to do a Canal tour. Luckily after some research we realized we could actually rent our own boat! We rented a boat for two hours which was surprisingly affordable for a group of five. This was a great way to explore the canals on our own, have a “picnic”, and learn how to drive a boat! 


The food in Amsterdam was really unique! From stuffed jacket potatoes, frites and Dutch pancakes think carbs, potatoes and cheese. We also had some great fish and of course lots of sweets! 

Amsterdam has a ton of museums as well, which I will definitely check out on my next visit! The Van Gogh museum would be first on my list! 


From a city with lots to see and do, to neat food and beautiful scenery, Amsterdam is a must see on any European adventure! 

Oxford

Imagine a beautiful English city mixed with the Harry Potter movie set and loads of college campuses and students and you get Oxford. 

I was lucky enough to call this beautiful city home for 3 weeks while I was taking a course at Oxford Brooke’s University. 


Our first day there was May Day, where the tradition is to participate in May Morning. Complete with a 6:00 am start, singers on the church towers and Morse dancers, it was a neat experience. Al the students and locals were out, there were thousands of people in total. 

The best part of Oxford in my opinion is the mix of beautiful buildings and gardens and nature. Everywhere you look, buildings have unique features and amazing details. The narrow streets and loads of pedestrians and cyclists, mixed with gardens and green spaces make the town very picturesque. 

The Radcliffe camera is one of the most significant buildings to see in Oxford:


The Oxford Brooke’s Headington campus where I studied was very modern compared to many of the Oxford schools and campuses. The facilities were excellent and the campus was just a short walk away. 

Punting was one of the many popular activities in Oxford. It involved a group of people taking a long wooden boat out on the river with a large pole to push the boat along in the shallow water. Sounds crazy, and it’s definitely more challenging than it looks but it’s also a lot of fun! You can pack a picnic and some champagne and have a great afternoon. 

The Botanic Gardens are located right along High street near the river. These gardens are absolutely beautiful and offer a lovely area to spend time next to the water.

Oxford Botanic Gardens:


The Oxford High street offered lots of shops and restaurants. The best part of the city is that with all of the students, many places are very affordable or offer student discounts.

View of High Street:


Going for a tea was a classic English affair that we did in Oxford. Cream tea and scones became a favourite! My favourite spot was The Vault, which was right across from the Radcliffe Camera. 

A typical afternoon tea and scones:


Overall, Oxford was a lovely city and I was very lucky to spend three weeks here. I will definitely go back to visit! 

Barcelona

Barcelona is one of those places you always hear about, and I was so lucky to have the opportunity to finally see what it was all about. From sangria to beaches and stunning architecture, there was a lot to see and do in just a couple of days.

Gaudi:

Antoni Gaudí is a famous architect, very well known for what he designed and built in Barcelona. He was a practitioner of Catalan Modernism. While he is probably most well known for the amazing feat that is La Sagrada Familia, we also visited Park Güell and Casa Battlo. All of his works are very intriguing, especially because even though they were designed in the 1800s and early 1900s, they are some of the most modern designs in Barcelona.

Gaudi’s Casa Battlo:

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Park Güell:

Park Güell was probably my favourite spot to visit in Barcelona. As an urban planner, it was amazing to learn about a planned space that started to be built in 1900.

The site was originally designed as a housing site that was financially unsuccessful. It then transformed to be a public park space. It is also a UNESCO heritage site.

The architecture was very unique and modern and full of detail. From the beautiful columns and stunning mosaic tiles, it is definitely something worth seeing, just be sure to buy tickets online in advance!

Park Güell:

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La Sagrada Familia:

La Sagrada Familia is one of the most amazing architectural stories. Another Gaudi feat, the massive church started being constructed in 1882 and is still not finished! The anticipated date to finish completion is 2026 at the earliest. It is estimated to be about 70-75% complete, depending on various sources. The Basilica is absolutely massive in size and visible from many parts of the city. It dominates the City’s skyline.

While we did not choose to go in, if you do go it costs about 15 euros and be sure to buy your tickets in advance!

La Sagrada Familia:

Montjuic:

Montjuic was another interesting spot to visit. It is a prominent hill with a historic castle. It is essentially the “top” of Barcelona, overlooking the City’s harbour. It historically served as both a castle and a prison. From Montjuic, you get breath taking views of the entire City and the harbour. You can travel to Montjuic by public bus or also by Funicular.

View from the Funicular from Montjuic:

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Probably one of the most touristy areas, the Gothic Quarter offers stunning architecture and history. There are nearby markets, La Boqueria, being the most prominent, is a great spot to check out to see how locals live and also get some fresh fruit and seafood for lunch. La Rambla is a massive pedestrian street offering a lot of restaurants and shopping. It is definitely a tourist hotspot but still a great place that eventually leads right to the Port.

Food:

The food was definitely one of the highlights of Barcelona. We had amazing Tapas – think patatas bravas and seafood croquettes, which was one of my favourite meals of my trip. A must try is definitely the Paella (choose the seafood if you like it!). And of course, the sangria is available everywhere and is wonderful. I don’t know how they make it differently, but it’s the best!

Beaches:

One of the reasons I was most excited for Barcelona was the beaches. What I quickly learned is that they are very touristy, and you should always seek out the smaller, more local beaches. But be warned, they are packed with vendors and people trying to sell you everything from mojitos to massages and it can make for an annoying and not so relaxing experience. But, if you stick to the smaller spots, it is better.

Overall, Barcelona was one of the most unique places I visited in Europe and it had a very distinct, Spanish feeling to it. The city is loaded with history, unique architecture and great food. Next time, I would definitely take advantage of doing some day trips outside of the City to smaller coastal towns.

 

Paris

Paris was one of the few places I visited on this trip that I had visited before. I was there four years ago, but it is a beautiful city that deserves more than one visit. 

The architecture is obviously beautiful, there are numerous famous landmarks to see and the Parisian culture is unmatched anywhere. Baguettes, wine and accordions… need I say more? 

One stop I made on this trip was to the area of Montmartre. It’s located on a giant hill and offers spectacular views of the city. The best part was how close this was to the Gare du Nord so perfect to visit if you’re traveling to or from Paris by train. 

The area is also home to the Sacre Coeur Basilica:



The Eiffel Tower is obviously a must and it’s hard to miss from many areas of the city. Sometimes, the best views are from further away or other vantage points such as Trocadero. If nothing else, grab a bottle of wine and have a picnic near the Eiffel Tower. 

 I personally find the Eiffel Tower most beautiful at night. We decided to go up at night and it was definitely worth it and only €8 for students. 

We took advantage of Sandemans free walking tour which offered a great summary of the city’s history. We saw key spots like the Louvre, Notre Dame and the Latin Quarter. 

Notre Dame:

The Louvre at Sunset:

Picnics all over Paris are definitely the best part! Enjoy the beautiful buildings, architecture, and food! 

Parisian picnics: