This past winter break I traveled abroad to Europe with my family to Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria and Hungary. Although I have traveled to Europe a few times, many of these places were vastly different from any other experience I have ever had.

Traveling to Europe opened my eyes to the varying world and the cultures around me. From the food to the transportation, the ways of life in those countries oppose the culture in other countries. I soon realized how different these countries were in comparison to anywhere else I have traveled. Despite these differences, it was easy for my family to adjust to a different lifestyle for two weeks.

I initially thought it would be difficult to assimilate into Eastern European lifestyles especially since there is a language barrier; however, I was amazed to find out that despite the official language of each country, the vast majority of people spoke English and were more than willing to help answer questions. I assumed we would seem out of place since we were American travelers in a foreign country, but the reality was quite the opposite due to the warm nature of the people we met.

My trip started and finished in Munich, Germany, which is a destination I have visited before. I saw famous buildings and landmarks such as the Marienplatz, Munich’s central plaza, several historic palaces and castles. One of the greatest excursions we had was visiting one of the world’s largest Christmas markets held in the center of the city. In the middle of the market, a huge Christmas tree strung with lights towers over the many stands, all glowing with Christmas spirit. This is one of the oldest Christmas Markets in all of Europe, with a tradition dating back to the 14th century, which significantly adds to the historic feel of the city. I was amazed by the mere beauty and culture preserved in the heart of this city and was so grateful to be spending the holidays in such a festive environment.

I saw other famous landmarks such as the Nymphenburg Palace, which has a baroque style and is one of the premier royal palaces in Europe. The palace park that surrounds it is filled with different types of wildlife, plant-life and small ponds. I also felt fortunate to be able to travel the streets of Munich, visiting shops and famous department stores.

 The next adventure on my excursion was to Prague, the Czech Republic. The trip to Prague was only about four hours by train. As soon as we arrived, I came to understand how different this part of Eastern Europe was. Citizens of the Czech Republic speak Czech and the currency is Crowns, which cannot be used in any other parts of Europe. The day after my arrival, we embarked on several activities which allowed us to view and experience all Prague had to offer.

We visited the famous John Lennon mural, which immortalizes the fight for peace and free speech during the time Czechoslovakia was in rebellion under an oppressive regime. It was heartwarming to witness a symbol of peace and love that stood in a time of animosity. I was also surprised to see the preservation of a large Jewish quarter in one of the four quarters that make up Prague’s composition. Many of the temples and Jewish history had been in perfect condition, which was especially interesting to see the history of Prague up close, which was amazing since it is such an important aspect of history. We also toured Prague Castle and had the opportunity to witness the changing of the guards outside of it. Prague was definitely a highlight of the trip and I will never forget the historic landscape and beautiful scenery of the city.We then traveled to Vienna, Austria, which took about three hours via train. I was shocked to see how efficient the passenger rail system is in Europe. It is so different from the way transportation operates in America. While in Vienna, we took a tour of the city by tram, spent Christmas day touring famous wonderful castles and museums and learned about the rule of the royal family of Vienna at the Hofburg Palace. These structures were breathtaking and made me appreciate the stylistic art of the buildings around me. The Hofburg family is well-known throughout Austria, but I did not know much about them. I was able to learn about the complex family dynamics, which existed at the time, and the influence that was left on Austria today. The palace also had all of the original furniture, paintings and statues, which were maintained over the years by the professionals working at the palace. I really enjoyed seeing the influence the royal family had in Austria since America was never under a monarchic rule. Another exciting event was tobogganing in the Austrian Alps. My family and I spent a whole day traveling up to the Alps and then sledded on a toboggan down a five kilometer stretch that is used as a ski-slope during the later winter months. Tobogganing was an adrenaline rush and a thrilling experience, which made it one of my favorite experiences. The views from the top of the mountain and the adrenaline rush of the fast-paced runs and quick turns made this one of my favorite activities we did while in Europe.

The next stop was in Budapest, Hungary. The magnificent Danube River separates Budapest, the capital of Hungary, into Buda and Pest, the western and eastern sides of Budapest. Budapest ended up being my personal favorite place on the trip because there was so much to see and do there. While there, we visited the House of Parliament, Buda Castle and the famous Széchenyi Chain Bridge. The House of Parliament preserves the building that stood during World War II and contains a permanent exhibition open to the public. The catastrophes the war caused to the beautiful architecture which took hundreds of years to build really opened up my eyes to the seriousness of the tragedies that occurred during World War II. It made me sad to see all of the destruction it caused, but the building was restored almost to perfection and was an incredible sight to see. In addition to all the sights and activities to do in Budapest, the locals were friendly and welcoming. Although the food was amazing in all of the places I had been in Europe, the food in Budapest was particularly good and the authenticity of it was outstanding. Out of all the countries I traveled to, Budapest made me feel the most out of place since the culture was something I have never experienced; although this would typically be a negative feeling, I really enjoyed the excitement of such a new environment.

The unique experience I had with my family further shaped my love of Europe, traveling and my appreciation towards learning about new cultures. Several facets of traveling abroad such as the language, the food, the architecture, the people, the ways of life and the adventurous vibe of the trip made it a once in a lifetime opportunity. After being on this trip, I realized how much I was not aware of the other ways of life around the world. The smallest details which reminded me I was 5,000 miles away from home, made me even more appreciative and taught me the importance of understanding the culture of others around the world.

After traveling to all of the other countries, we finished the trip back in Munich, so we were there to celebrate New Year’s Eve. The ornate firework shows and celebrations were thrilling to watch up close. Many people came together in Munich to celebrate the beginning of a new year. This was an extremely different tradition that I had never experienced before. Despite similar characteristics, this was a whole new perspective on ringing in the new year. This trip really opened up my eyes to life outside of America, as I was exposed to people outside of the United States doing even the most minor activities differently. Their habits of eating and transportation are different; and this truly showed me how important it is to understand and appreciate cultural differences. I also found the importance of not making expectations and preconceptions of other cultures and instead embrace them in a way that will allow someone to experience life at its fullest. Different groups of people live life in a way that feels foreign to the way we do, and it is crucial to accept; my trip to Europe was a firsthand experience that proves this.