France, Switzerland, Czech Republic, England/Wales & Scotland

The world's most visited historic, expensive and irresistibly beautiful countries on planet. We cover little of Europe in detail (due to sheer attraction/country density) - but couldn't leave these out.

Forest Some things you might want to know in the way of backpacking, budget travel country advice, tips, info and summaries for:

France, Switzerland, Czech Republic, England/Wales and (never to be forgotten) Scotland.

Warning: can be expensiveThere is very little on Europe on this site due its sheer size, diversity and number of attractions. However several readers have contributed their thoughts on a few of the most visited countries.

Add Many thanks to Philip Navatsyk for Switzerland and his video, Peter John for his England summary, Andy for his comments, Paul Canessa for France, to Darren Craig for the Scotland Mini Guide and to Katerina Labanicova for her Czech/Slovak Republic info.

 It is worth looking, if you have not already, at the example layout to see the guidelines each section of information is based on - or for other travel advice and site home head for www.travelindependent.info

Do note that information here is contributed from various authors and not the main site author. The views and facts expressed here are well-researched and good quality, but just bear in mind they should perhaps not be compared directly to other country summaries by other authors.

Highly Recommended

  • TowerIntro: The key word to introduce France is diversity (although you could probably also pick 'beauty' and 'money-draining'). From the snowy peaks of the Alps, Renaissance castles in the Loire valley, beaches in the South, laid-back countryside landscapes, Roman ruins France has a lot to offer. As tourist numbers testify (France is the world's most visited country) it probably has something for everyone and it doesn't matter too much when you visit. The country is dense enough in sights, both natural and cultural, that you could easily spend months within its borders. It is safe/easy to explore, and as such (along with the UK and Italy) makes a perfect introduction to Europe.

    However the plain fact is that for too many France is summoned in just one city: - the most visited in the world - Paris. It is unfortunate that almost every French cliché is actually a Parisian stereotype, rude waiters, poor English, fashion shows - you know the rest. Now it's true that France is very much centralized around its capital, from both an economic and cultural stand-point, and that a peek of the Mona Lisa or the Eiffel Tower ranks high among travellers' expectations. Nevertheless the country around Paris deserves more than its share of attention. So instead of taking the first plane to Rome to get a pizza and a photo in front of the Coliseum, take some time to explore the rest of the country!

    Highlights: Paris (and all that comes with it), Provence (a Van Gogh painting, only better), the little-visited countryside regions of the central area of the country where French cuisine, landscape and rural life are best experienced (Périgord, Auvergne, Jura, Midi-Pyrénées), Brittany, Corsica, the Alps and the lesser-known Pyreneans. Needless to say the skiing is great!

    Lowlights: Sticking to must-sees and touristy rip-offs in Paris (Paris is silly expensive at times), Mont Saint Michel (a tourist trap), the French Riviera in summertime (overcrowded, overpriced and overrated; a better playground is to be found in nearby Italy or Spain, along the Atlantic Coast or in Corsica), mosquitoes in Camargue during summertime and the weather.

  • Visa strategy: No visa required for the usual suspects. All European Union (EU) and EEA citizens can live and work in France for as long as they like. France is part of the Schengen area and has the same visa policies as the most of the EU. There are almost no controls at land borders with its EU members neighbours. In case of trouble, pretty much every country has an embassy in Paris.

  • Typical tourist trail: Sadly, most people stick to Paris and the sights accessible by RER - the rapid transit system serving Paris and its suburbs - the palace of Versailles and Disneyland being the most common day trips. The much-travelled route to "do” France uses the TGV from Paris south to Nice (via Lyon for the city itself and the nearby Alps, Marseille/Avignon/Aix as a gateway to Provence) and then off to Italy. If going to Spain, Toulouse, Bordeaux and the Basque country (especially Bayonne and Biarritz) are popular stopovers.

  • Dangers: The country is safe with no natural hazards. The most trouble travellers are likely to run into is petty theft and pick pocketing in Paris's busy areas, but these are easily avoided. As with all countries, some of the major towns' suburbs should be avoided at night  but a tourist isn't likely to go there in the first place, so nothing to worry about.

  • FranceHot/cold, wet and dry: France is a temperate country with many different climates prevailing on its soil. The sunniest and driest part is the Mediterranean coast, making it a domestic tourist's magnet for summer vacations. Paris has a continental climate (well mildly continental, this is not Mongolia), with cold winters and hot summers, and gets an even amount of rain year-round (less than, say, London). Cold is to be expected over the winter in the mountainous areas and in the centre of the country.

  • Costs: On a 2-person [sharing] basis, with basic accommodation in a double room, cheap meals (sandwiches, cheap restaurants or cooking your own food), plus one or two attractions a day, 50€ a day in Paris, Lyon and the seaside, and 30-40€ elsewhere [each]. If you plan to move around, adding train tickets or renting a car, the bill can rise up to 70-100€/day/person. Be warned Paris, like London can be crazily expensive.

  • Money: The currency is the euro (€) like in all the neighbouring countries, save for the UK and Switzerland. For groceries, train tickets, etc. credit/debit cards are accepted almost everywhere, although you'll have better chances with Visa or MasterCard than with an American Express. ATMs are everywhere and cash is the way to go for smaller expenses like bread, museum tickets, etc. The law requires all shopkeepers to display their prices, and with tax included.

  • What to buy: Obviously, if you're not on a budget, a fine bottle of wine or a saucisson will delight folks back home. It would be a crime to visit France and not spend a penny on one of its wonderful cheeses.

  • Getting around: For long distances, travelling by train is undoubtedly the best option (although buses can be cheaper) as the network is dense, travel times are short and the system is efficient, in spite of the occasional delay. But book in advance (www.voyages-sncf.com) as a TGV ticket bought on the spot can reach +100€ for a Paris-Marseille trip during peak hours! Your Euro-rail pass will cover you for France.

    Car hire is highly recommended and really needed to explore the countryside and get to many of the [cheap] campsites, but as trains/buses go everywhere, it's never compulsory. The roads are on the whole excellent, but the main highways are not free to use. On long journeys the costs mount very quickly and if you can hire a car for 'local' exploration it makes sense rather than for a full country tour. If planning to explore the whole country by car at least check the prices of tolls before you leave to understand this extra cost. Marseille - Paris will be around 50EUR. Like the rest of Europe fuel is also very expensive.

  • Guidebook: The Lonely Planet is not bad. The Paris edition is worth its salt if you stay longer in Paris and want to leave the crowds. The Michelin guides are somehow pointless. Of course, the best detailed guides for each region are in French (Le Routard, Petit Futé).

  • People vibe:

    • Locals: Very blasé in Paris; being rudely asked in English for the 25th time that week where the Sainte Chapelle is probably gets old quickly. A few French words and a smile will go a long way. People are much more stress-free and accessible outside of Paris and other major urban areas. Speaking some French makes a big difference.

    • Other travellers: Every country must have a tourist in Paris  loads of American, Japanese and Chinese group tours. Outside of Paris, you will find many expatriates or regular visitors (most of them German or British) and of course, many domestic tourists, especially along the beaches!

  • Tourist factor: Paris: 9.5/10, 10.5/10 at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. Elsewhere: ranging from 6/10 to 9/10 for the most popular spots.

  • Accommodation: Pricey. Hotel rooms in Paris are expensive and hostels where you find them are not world-class. Given that hostels are not that common outside of backpacking hubs, for budget options it's worth considering couch surfing or taking a tent (if you have your own transport and not visiting during winter) and investigating the cheaper (and depressing) motel chains.

    • Average cost: typically around 60-80€/night in Paris for an okay double room. Much less in rarely visited areas (as much as half as much). Global chains like Ibis often provide basic and unimaginative but cheap accommodation around France.

  • Communications France is a developed country, so the Internet is everywhere, much of it Wi-Fi.

  • Media:

    • Books: Several English libraries can be found in Paris, Lyon, Marseille or Lille. It's much harder to find anything elsewhere as France is very protective of its language. So why not learn some French on the road?

    • TV: Most hotels feature at least one English speaking channel (usually BBC and CNN) and every major town has a movie theatre playing subtitled movies in English  look for VOST in movie schedules.Wine

  • Food: It's good, but maybe not as fantastic as you expected it to be. Top-notch cuisine in Paris is for the happy few, and too many tourists end up eating in average restaurants with poor value for money. The further you'll be from famous landmarks, the better and the cheaper your meal should be  just watch where the locals eat, and follow. Just like there's no Chinese cuisine, there's no French cuisine, but many regional specialties; to get the real thing, travel there. The best value is found at restaurants adjacent to farmhouses or small villages that do not cater to foreign tourists; finding them is difficult, but very rewarding. The same goes for wines. If you stick to cities, Lyon offers a range of gourmet opportunities that many French people deem superior to Paris'.

    • Vegetarians: No problem for vegans, actually some of the country's most famous specialties are meat-free (like ratatouille, tapenade, omelettes, etc.)

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: 2/10. Some touts and annoying street sellers in Paris, but they aren't very insistent.

  • Local poisons for the body: Drugs are illegal and youngsters-packed buses from Amsterdam are often inspected by Belgian and French customs. Cigarettes are heavily taxed and the law prohibits their use in public places such as bars or restaurants - people smoke outside. Like anywhere else, being hammered in the street is likely to get you into trouble.

    * Rating: (With a healthy budget, time and the right climate) 9/10. On a budget: 7.5/10

Miss at your peril: Paris and the best of the French countryside, without a doubt, one of the world's great cities and most beautiful countries - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'
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Warning: can be expensiveHighly Recommended

Map At a glance Switzerland travel overview map

  • Intro: Lying at the centre of Europe (although not part of its union) and at a transit point between France/Germany and Italy, Switzerland packs a lot in for a small area. When considering a typical backpacking (budget) trip in Europe, Switzerland is often left out of the itinerary, due mainly to its reputation for being fearfully expensive. Nevertheless when prices are high, value/quality is also high and there are plenty of ways to save money making a trip to some of the world's best and accessible scenery quite possible on a limited (although far from shoestring) budget.

    Whilst Switzerland's cities are very pleasant they are mostly expensive traps with little to hold your time when compared to the Milan's and Prague's the continent. They are also small, which is reflective of the whole nation, meaning jumping from place to place on the highly efficient public transport network is easy, fast, comfortable and normally come with breathtaking views. The country (about the size of Maryland US) is dominated by lakes and mountains and it is here - that if the weather allows - are the real attraction. From skiing (although France is better, bigger and cheaper) to swimming in drinking quality water lakes and rives to hiking in accessible mountain regions with breathtaking views (Sierre (Rhone valley and Zermatt) and  Bernese Oberland are the stand outs here with unparalleled vistas and super easy access).

    Again, money and costs are an issue - largely due to the Swiss Franc gaining 'safe haven currency' status (meaning it is strong and you don't get many for your Dollars or Euros), but you get what you pay for to some extent. Coming from Paris, Amsterdam or Milan you will find it expensive, coming from Prague, the Balkans or Spain you will find it extremely expensive. Nevertheless, it is cheaper than Norway and if you skip the expensive hotels, buy your food and beer from the supermarkets and hunt the transport bargains (such as using the rail passes and free bikes) and it's not too bad. And boy is it worth it in places especially when the sun shines! To die for scenery, mountains, lakes and cities will makes you wonder why you didn't visit Switzerland earlier and forget all about the high cost.

    With thanks to...

    Philip Navatsyk, whom you see (and was the creator of) in the above video. As told Switzerland is expensive, but quality is high and it is not out of the reach of a budget visitor.

    The CHF was about 1:1 with the USD when this video was made and article was written.

    Highlights: Short distance between attractions, views from the trains - especially special trains such as Glacier Express. The views are the really draw card if the sky is clear. The best are: Lauterbrunnen (and around), Zermatt, almost all mountains regions and the northern shore of Lake Geneva around Montreux. An organised network of mountain hiking and bike paths. Lakes and high quality trains/hostels. Zurich street parade (second Saturday or August) and Luzern Fasnacht (weekend up to Mardi Gras) are two events that will make you wonder where the hell you are and forget notions that the Swiss are dull.

    Lowlights: Prices! Eating out and some accommodation is very poor value. Weather can be unpredictable. Fewer options for late night food and entertainment than some European countries.

  • Visa strategy: Switzerland is part of Schengen and almost anyone from a developed country won't need a visa. Crossing overland from neighbouring countries it is unlikely that passports will even be checked.

  • Typical tourist trail: Inter-continental flights will arrive at Geneva or Zurich. Most tourists will head for Luzern and Interlaken with some making the trip to Zermatt. Typically travellers will transit the country going from France or Germany to Italy or vice versa. Obviously in winter, many tourists head to ski resorts.

  • SwitzerlandHot/cold, wet and dry: As with the rest of Central Europe it is a four season climate - meaning you might get four seasons in one day. When it is good it is great, when it is bad it is bad. Even in the height of the summer expect the possiblity of cold (if high in mountains) and rain. Typically the worst you find in the winter in major towns is -5-2C and the hottest in summer 25-30C. Regions South of the Alps are slightly warmer in summer and towns such as Zurich, Bern and Geneva don't often see snow in winter, whereas all mountain areas will.

  • Costs: Switzerland is expensive, but varies dramatically on what you want to do. Staying and seeking out hostels and drinking wine/beer on the street or in your room rather than a bar will save you a fortune. Restaurants and anything involving people and service is incredibly expensive - so wait until Germany/Italy for that haircut and get your food from plentiful supermarkets. Transportation is a major cost as are lift passes in ski areas both can really add up. If you want to get the most out of the country you need to buy a rail pass or 'half tax' (a card that will make all transport half price). The Swiss rail website - sbb.ch has plenty of offers for tourist and those who really explore the country and get the Swiss Rail Pass (note this is heavily discounted for under 26s) will feel they got much better value for money than those who buy one or two full price tickets to a place of interest before heading elsewhere.

  • Money: No Euros here (Swiss Francs CHF) - you can spend them in many places, but at terrible rates. As with most of Europe, there are plenty of ATM's available all around the country. You can pay for almost everything with a debit or credit card.

  • What to take: In winter, be sure to bring plenty of cold-weather clothing. In summer, just keep a light jacket for the cooler nights and some good walking shoes (you'll want to do some of the mountain hikes).

  • Getting around: Public transportation is incredible and typically punctual (though not as high as Japanese standards). The SBB mobile app can give you the times and locations of upcoming trains, buses and boats. Before going, look into investing in the Swiss Pass, perfect for travelling the whole country with ease. There are plenty of other options available as well for saving money on public transportation full details on the sbb.ch website.

  • Guidebook: The Rough guide is preferred, but if you skip a guidebook you will find loads of free maps and information in any major tourist area. The Swiss are very well geared to visitors.

  • People vibe: Despite having four different languages spoken in various regions, most people in Switzerland speak at least some English - more so in the major German part - with the younger generation and those in the tourist industry having perfect English. Note the German spoken does not actually sound much like actual (high) German and can be very difficult to understand.

    • Locals: Very helpful and kind. Feel free to ask any questions about culture/traditions, places to go, hiking routes to take, etc.

    • Other travellers: Typically Australian, American, Japanese or Korean and normally a little older (due to cost). Plenty of visitors from China and especially India (normally on tours) who make a bee-line for Bollywood filming locations. There are plenty who come for up-market winter sports and adventure in terms of base jumping, hiking and climbing of which there are plenty of Mecca's. Due to the higher cost you don't find many of your typical gap year or spring break European backpacker.

  • Tourist factor: Much heavier in Interlaken and Zermatt, but no part of the country is overwhelming in terms of tourism.

  • Accommodation: Certainly more expensive than other European hostels, but slightly less that in cities like New York or London with high quality. The Valley Hostel in Lauterbrunnen is a perfect example" clean, secure, and with beautiful views (at about 50% of the price of alternatives nearby). Always good to book ahead of time.

  • Average cost: Roughly 30 Swiss Francs per person per night. There are always a few cheaper options at main tourist locations and many more expensive ones. Note that if you are visiting at a peak time you need to book head for the cheapest options, budget accommodation is not in huge supply and you need to bank on ~120CHF if you move to guesthouse level. Camping is an option in some places, but you need your own transport to get to most camp grounds.

  • Communications: You will find perfect internet connections at the hostels/hotels.

  • Food: Stick to the supermarkets if you are on any kind of a budget. Hostels will have kitchens, but there is plenty you can prepare 'on the go'. Cheese and potato (Rosti - a kind of hash brown) features in traditional dishes and there are plenty of opportunities to overdose on cheese in the form or fondue or Raclette.

    • Vegetarians: Fine. Plenty of options. After all the world's first vegetarian restaurant was in Zurich.

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: The noise of bells around cows necks is about as annoying as it gets!

    * Rating: (With a healthy budget and the right climate) 8/10. On a tight budget: 7/10. On a clear summers day in the mountains or floating in a river: 9/10

Miss at your peril: The Bern Oberland and Swiss Alps - however lacks the diversity of France and is expensive on global standards - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'
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  • PragueIntro: In much of Europe, most people associate the Czech Republic with Prague alone and a popular stag or party destination. Somewhere, where the beer is cheap and the people are beautiful. Obviously there is much more to the Czech Republic that just Prague and cheap beer. Prague is architecturally stunning, easy to get to and great value compared to Western Europe, however during 'peak' times (which is actually most of the year apart from a few months in the winter each side of Christmas) the historic heart struggles with the number of visitors and the most famous sites crowd easily.

    It probably would not be an overestimation to says most of the visitors to the Czech Republic never leave Prague before rushing home or onwards to Munich, Budapest or Vienna. As a landmass the Czech Republic is much smaller than Poland or Germany and has none of the mountains Slovakia and more spectacularly Austria and Switzerland can offer. Nevertheless it is escaping Prague (at least the very heart of it) that is most rewarding since the rest of the country sees few international travelers.

  • Visa strategy: Part of Schengen so visa free for EU nationals and most developed nations.

Highlights: Prague (the Castle, Old Town & the Jewish Quarters, Charles Bridge and not forgetting acclaimed the Prague Zoo), Cesky Krumlov, Kutna Hora (but check out other UNESCO protected sites too), spa towns in the northwest (Karlovy Vary and Marianske Lazne), the fortress Terezin (that served as concentration camp during the WW2), medieval castles of Karlstejn and Konopiste. For beer fans, the Pilsner Urquell brewery in Plzen, or the REAL Budweiser in Ceske Budejovice. Great variety of natural sites and outdoor activities when weather permits.

Lowlights: Prague tourist numbers during peak seasons.



3rd party With thanks to... Katerina Labanicova for her help here.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: Continental climate with proper four seasons. Beautiful springs with blooming trees, summers can be hot with temperatures in high thirties (though it can also rain for days), autumns with vivid colours, and winters with snow and temperatures that can reach negative twenties. There is no low season for Prague. Some public gardens in Prague will be closed with winter time (last weekend in October to last weekend in March), and some castles and palaces outside Prague may run limited visitor schedule in the same period.

  • Typical tourist trail: Prague - Karlstejn - Cesky Krumlov - Terezin

  • Costs: Prague offers western standards for still relatively eastern prices. If you stick to beer, you will be able to get [properly] drunk with €10-15 in Prague (and probably get some food too), less if you're elsewhere. There is a wide price range of restaurants and accommodation, on the low end you should be able to get by for €40-60 per day all included.

  • Money: ATMs are everywhere. Most places will accept cards, although AMEX holders may struggle. Withdrawing from an ATM is more convenient than exchanging money in bank (foreign exchange agencies on the streets around Prague city center are best avoided, however respectable they may look). Also, most supermarkets and restaurants will accept euros, but will give you the change in CZK using a rate that is not always accurate.

  • People vibe:

    • Locals: The locals may appear reserved and closed, but if you spend enough time in the country and try to socialize with the Czechs, they will eventually become friendly and accepting. Of course in big university cities like Prague, Plzen or Brno, the young crowd is more accessible and friendly. Young people generally speak English, as it is compulsory in schools now. There is one thing that the Czechs hate, and that is being mistaken for Russians. If you try using the few Russian words that you know from James Bond films, you may be under impression that you are being nice as you try using a similar language. But what the Czechs really understand is that you make no difference between the two nations, and they become very grumpy. Just speak English, it's fine. Or German.

    • Other travellers: Anyone from Chinese organized package tours, Italian school trips, English stag dos, honeymooners from all over the world in Prague and the main sites, you will not meet many foreigners off the beaten track.

  • Tourist factor: 9/10 in Prague and UNESCO sites, 3/10 off the beaten path

  • Getting around: public transport is very good and reliable. You can find all trains and buses, operated by all companies on http://jizdnirady.idnes.cz/vlakyautobusymhd/spojeni/. Make sure to travel on a valid ticket when using the Prague public transport. The controls are quite frequent and merciless, and the officers can ask for the fine in many world languages.

  • Accommodation: Wide range of hostels and hotels of any standard in Prague, Airbnb is a good option if you are travelling in larger group.

    • Average cost: starting EUR10-15 a night in a hostel or penzion (b&b), sometimes cheaper. Most university dorms in Prague offer the rooms emptied by the students for the summer break for as little as €5 a night, but not all dorms have bathrooms in every room,

  • Communications: Free Wi-Fi in most bars/cafes and fast food chains. Pay as you go SIM cards easily available in most supermarkets.

  • Food: Meat roasts, meat stews and meat products if you're going for the typical food. An OK range of Italian and Mexican restaurants. Best to avoid ethnic food (as the only real available option is Chinese adapted to the local taste (fried, greasy, abundant and cheap), but if you manage to find an Indian restaurant, it will be bland, as most Czechs would not eat anything too spicy). People who have a problem with garlic may experience some difficulties to find anything garlic-free and they also should probably avoid public transport in the morning, as garlic soup is believed to be natural remedy for hangover.

    • Vegetarians: Fine-ish in Prague. Although grilled fish, fried cheese and egg omelet will often be considered vegetarian options in typical eateries (especially outside Prague). Vegans will struggle.

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: None

    • Women alone: Fine

  • Local poisons for the body: Beer. Cheap, good, everywhere. Note that a typical pub has a contract with one brewery, so they will only have one beer (or at most, a lager and a dark beer, if the brewery produces both). Each pub sports a signboard that will inform you which beer it sells. In the local non touristic pubs, you will not be asked whether you want another beer (sometimes you won't be even asked what you want, and gesturing a number towards the inn keeper is commonly understood as the number of beers you wish to order for the table). A new one will be placed in front of you when your current one is almost finished. There has recently been an increase of craft microbreweries too. Important: Budweiser is the German name for Budejovice, where Budvar (the REAL Budweiser is brewed). You would be wise to never call it Bud. You can still smoke in most places, even if they serve food. There is a decent choice of non-smoking restaurants/pubs in Prague and some bigger cities, but the option is almost inexistent in the countryside.

    * Rating: 7/10

  • Intro: The land of King Arthur, the Beatles, Buckingham Palace, Shakespeare, the Sex Pistols - even Karl Marx lived/died here. England has an unbelievably diverse range of characters and attractions, and enough to keep a traveller occupied for months. London, the capital, is one of the most diverse, international, stimulating and expensive - cities in the world, with an unequalled range of culture and entertainment. The famous cathedral and university cities of Oxford, Cambridge, York and Durham and the Roman settlement of Bath are also on many travellers' itineraries, as is Shakespeare's city of Stratford-on-Avon and the iconic Stonehenge. Plus the beaches of Cornwall are not too bad... if, like the rest of the country - the weather holds out.

    Highlights: London: its diversity, museums, parks and general buzz. Cathedral and university towns (Oxford, Cambridge, Bath, York, Durham). Cornwall, the Lake District and Brighton. Getting away from the crowds to some of the stunning National Parks.

    Lowlights: Midlands and Northern industrial cities, food (outside London) and the prices. Plus of course the weather. The jury is out on the English/Welsh drinking culture, it can be as fun as it can be menacing. London crowds and costs.

  • Visa strategy: All All EU and EEA citizens can live and work in England for as long as they like. Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders receive six months free on arrival and Americans three months. Working visas are available for young Canadians, Australians, South Africans and New Zealanders and indeed when there is a strong pound, many take advantage of this opportunity. British ancestral visas are worth considering for those with a British grandparent. Almost all other nationalities require a visa, which unfortunately is become more of a pain for many. The UK is unfortunately not part of Schengen like most of mainland Europe.

  • Typical tourist trail: The vast majority of visits start and end in London, and indeed many never leave as the capital has so much to offer. Most visits that explore the rest of England at all include some combination of Windsor, Oxford, Bath, Stonehenge, Cambridge, York, Cornwall, Cardiff and the Lake District. Brighton (debatably England's San Francisco) due to its proximity with London is often visited.

    Often ignored over the many attractions and bright lights of London, the two major Northern cities of Manchester and Liverpool are not without attractions and a much better example of 'real' England than the parts of London most tourists will only ever see. Obviously a must for music fans and some soccer (football) fans, others will find the pace less rushed and people more accommodating (if only harder to understand). If visiting only briefly, it is easily possible to see both cities in one day although you wouldn't get to see that much. A train from Manchester to Liverpool city centres take only about 45 mins. Equally, a high speed train from central London can have you in Manchester or Liverpool in less than 2 hours (although you need to travel outside of rush hour and if possible book in advance on the internet to get a reasonable ticket price).

  • Dangers: No exceptional dangers, other than a small risk of violent crime. Many shopping streets in city centres are best avoided when the pubs are closing.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: England has a mild, fairly damp, temperate climate, which gets colder the further north and wetter the further west you go. It rarely drops much below freezing in the winter, or rises much above 27C in the summer. It is, however, famously unpredictable, and what starts off as a nice sunny day can turn damp or thundery without warning, and then change back again.

  • Costs: Much depend on the strength of the pound and where you are. The GB£ long overvalued came down to earth with a crash after the financial crisis of 2008 and made the country excellent value, but has started to strengthen a little. You still pay over the odds for virtually everything in London, but it is much better than before. Unless camping, it is difficult to get by on less than USD 50-70/day, and easy to spend much more. London is more expensive than the rest of the country for accommodation, though can be cheaper for eating out as competition can keep prices low and quality high, plus many excellent museums are free to enter.

  • Money: ATMs are everywhere, and most don't charge a fee. All banks take travellers cheques and you can find many Amex offices which cash them commission free.

  • UK mapGetting around: England is relatively small and heavily populated, and almost everywhere is accessible by public transport.

    • Train tickets, like plane tickets, are more expensive the closer to the date you buy them, so that £10 ticket to York a month in advance can become £80 if bought on the day. Book your train tickets as far in advance as you can from www.nationalrail.co.uk. Euro rail passes are not valid. Megabus does some inter-city bus journeys for as little as £1.

      Internal flights are not really worth it, except between London or Cornwall and the far north.

      If heading for rural areas such as the Cotswolds and/or hitting many places in a short space of time then car rental can be considered as rates are not too bad and there are practically no toll roads (although note a charge for driving in some parts of central London and some bridges/tunnels. Nevertheless, the cost of fuel is among the world's highest. 99% of roads are free to use (unlike France/Italy)

    • For those using public transport in London, the transport for London website is really the holy grail. It provides the best routes from A to B combining the Underground (Metro/Tube), buses, trains and trams. Also up to second travel information is available and route plans are adjusted when problems occur. A tip for those planning to use the underground at weekend, repairs and upgrades area always done on weekends so anyone travelling on the underground at weekend must check that there are no closures to their line. You will usually get a replacement bus service but this can easily double your journey time in central London.

      People who stay for longer than a few days would be advised to get an Oyster card, it a little plastic top up card that is used instead of cash fares and can hugely reduce the cost of getting around in London. They can be picked up for a refundable five pound deposit at all manned ticket booths. Final tip - anyone travelling on escalators on the Underground should make sure to stand to one side so people can pass, as most people are in a hurry. Tourists blocking escalators and standing back viewing direction signs on the underground is a pet peeve of many people, as even after years of use most tunnels look very similar so can be hard to be sure the right direction to go.

  • Guide book: You're spoilt for choice. Rough Guide or Lonely Planet both produce weighty, worthwhile tomes. If you are on a European tour it might be worth getting a European guidebook, all of which include England (just!). If you are just sticking to London, there are numerous capital specific guides.

  • People vibe:

    • Locals: Mostly friendly and welcoming, except sometimes in central London. Aggressive drunkenness is a real social problem on Friday and Saturday evenings in town centres.

    • Other travellers: The full range. You never know who you'll meet next in London or on the British backpacker trail. A disproportionate number of Commonwealth citizens, many of whom are on working holiday visas.

  • Tourist factor: 8/10

  • Accommodation: Very expensive and generally poor quality for what you pay. London Pride

    • Average cost: at least 30 USD for a bed in a basic hostel, much more in London. Many hostels still have curfews and lockouts. A double room in a one or two star hotel can be 80 USD and up, much more than that in London.

  • Communications: Inte Internet cafes in major towns, most public libraries have free Internet. You will find Wi-Fi in many pubs and all accommodation. Pick up a local SIM card in most supermarkets.

  • Food: In addition to the famous fish and chip shops and the universal fast food chains and pizza and pasta places, Chinese and (especially) Indian restaurants are hugely popular and ubiquitous. In London the variety and quality of restaurants is stunning, but the rest of the country can be disappointing.

    • Vegetarians: Fine

  • Local poisons for the body: England has adopted many American customs, but Prohibition has never stood a chance. The traditional centre of male (and increasingly female) social life in England has always been the pub, and indeed it can be difficult to socialise without drinking. Some would argue, the further north you go the better/crazier the nightlife is. Tobacco is expensive and smoking in public areas is banned.

    Rating: 7/10

Miss at your peril: London, without a doubt, one of the world's great cities - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'
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  • ScotlandIntro: Scotland's a country with a reputation of punching above its weight. Full of friendly folk and superb countryside / scenery. Public transport is generally good, allowing you to get to almost any area using train, bus, plane (hardly required for internal transport) and post bus in remote areas (where you share a lift with the postal delivery). Although having a car make life much easier and the weather is a big factor in enjoying the best of the scenery. There has been a recent revival in the traditional patriotic nature of the Scots with the introduction of a Scottish Parliament with devolved powers and a recent (2014) referendum for independence.

    As in Ireland, the tradition of a booze loving nation is apparent from their liberal drinking laws compared to some other parts of the UK. The country has the rolling hills of the central lowlands and Borders to rugged mountainous terrain further north.

    Glasgow on the west coast is more of a sprawling industrial city with a very distinct character, yet a very fashionable city, and provides easy access to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland providing some of Europe's last remaining true wildernesses. Despite often experiencing four weather seasons in a day, Scotland has a great love of the outdoors and almost everything is possible from mountaineering to mountain biking to Caribbean style white sandy beaches to clay pigeon shooting.

    Highlights: Fast train connections between Edinburgh and Glasgow, a mere 35 miles away, make it easy/essential to visit both as they are both very different cities. Edinburgh is more like a large town than a capital city and generally considered to be the most cosmopolitan city. Its annual festival month of August plays host to several arts festivals with shows starting every couple of minutes in venues ranging from public toilets to the back of cars to large theatres, culminating in a fantastic fireworks display over the castle.

    Lowlights: Don't expect everyone to be walking around in kilts, eating deep fried Mars bars, shooting drugs as in the film 'Trainspotting', or bouncing around the streets after being intoxicated by Whisky. Ginger hair and bushy beards are not as common as you are led to believe!

  • Visa strategy: Despite what some Scots will tell you, Scotland is part of the UK and does not require separate visas for entry. The only placed you can get a Scottish passport is the souvenir shop. Being part of the EU, visa requirements will be similar to other EU countries. Check with your local embassy.

  • Typical tourist trail: Typical tourist trails will involve a visit to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness, Skye and Mull with the more adventurous heading to Aberdeen and outlying islands known as the Outer Hebrides, or further up the west coast. A brief introduction to each area is providing by joining the minibus tours such as the Haggis tours, MackBackpackers, or Rabbies trail burners. These provide hop on, hop off itineraries

    Those who make the effort to get off the beaten trail will be rewarded with remote stunning scenery that resembles Mediterranean beaches and sea and you'll have it to yourself. Islands and parts of the west coast are almost like visiting a different country to the central lowlands that contain the bulk of the population. If you don't have a lot of time you could do worse than visit the Isle of Arran - "Scotland in Miniature". A 7am train from Glasgow can get you on the island via ferry by 9am, and on the mountains by 9.30am.

    As the home of golf, Scotland has over 500 courses in a nation of around 5 million people - you could always splash out and treat yourself to some rounds.

    Please note that some Scottish people resent being called British, and don't generalise and call them English! Remember ~48% voted to be independent from the UK in 2014.

  • Dangers: No real dangers to speak of. Although petty crime will happen, there is not generally the same risk as in some other western countries.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: Four seasons in a day. Generally cold and wetter in the winter months, but not as cold as other countries lying this far north. Summer can vary from beautiful hot days to snow on the mountain tops. Sometimes all this happens in a day. Be prepared for damp weather any time of year, particularly if you venture more into the hills or the west coast. The Scottish Midge can become very prevalent in the countryside in the summer, and some people say even 100% DEET won't repel them. Don't be put off adventuring but buy a midge net if camping on a non-windy day in summer. Avon "Skin so Soft" comes as an unusual recommendation to ward them off from the outdoor community!

  • Costs: Arriving from other countries, some may find Scotland expensive, but it is on a par with other western countries. Hostels and campsites cost around US$15-US$30 a night and hotels can cost anything from US$45 to hundreds of dollars a night.

    All travel is on relatively modern transport. The rail network is notorious for making it difficult to purchase tickets well in advance. Competition has driven down the prices of intercity bus services to the point where you can travel between Edinburgh and Glasgow or Perth for as little as US$1.50. If using Megabus or CityLink it can be far cheaper to buy online if you can print your own ticket.

  • Money: Banks and ATMs are everywhere unless you venture to very remote parts of the Highlands and Islands.

  • What to take: There are no special recommendations except a midge net and cream if camping in the summer months. A lightweight waterproof jacket or umbrella always comes in handy!

  • What to buy: This is the land of Whisky and golf. Unfortunately due to UK taxes, Whisky is probably cheaper to buy in your home country! Pick up some tacky tartan souvenirs from the souvenir shops, or your very own mini bagpipes.

  • BookGuide book: There are hundreds more guidebooks and walking books on Scotland. Here are a few recommended ones. Please note the below links are for Amazon in the UK, to view Canadian version click here, for USA version here.

    Scotland The Best - Not your standard guide, this book gathers together what is best about Scotland. If on a budget and public transport you may want to complement it with a Rough Guide or Lonely Planet.

    The best bit is its not "Scotland the Most Expensive", it's not "Scotland the Twee-est", it's exactly what it says on the cover.

    Rough Guide To Scotland - Where this guide is especially useful is in its travel and accommodation listings for the highlands and islands--areas geographically not far from Glasgow and Edinburgh yet in holiday terms a world apart.

    From the lochs to the glens, and from the Isle of Iona to the Shetland Isles, the authors suggest places to stay off the beaten tourist track. What the guide lacks in photographs it makes up for with its quirky contexts section containing fascinating information on Scotland's history, architecture, music and literature.

[Book] Munros SMC guide - This is a fully illustrated guidebook to the principle hillwalker.' Routes on all the 3000 ft. mountains of Scotland.' This book offers an inspiring description of some of the most striking mountains in the UK, useful to both experienced Hill Walkers and newcomers alike, after offering a brief introduction and history of the mountains the book gives a series of excellent one to two day walks, offering perhaps the best route for ascent in each case.

Rough Guide to the Scottish Highlands and Islands - Third edition a complete handbook to this dramatic and varied region. There are lively accounts of every attraction, from castles, lochs and mountains, to deserted beaches and classic train journeys. For every town and village there are insightful reviews of places to stay, eat and drink that give a refreshingly candid opinion. Less used than the LP, find practical tips on the many outdoor activities available, from Munro bagging to skiing and mountain biking.

Lonely Planet Scotland - Last but not least is the best-selling, popular guide with details of the historic and rugged Scottish Highlands and the hundreds of idyllic Shetland islands for anyone visiting the area. Also included here is a concise Gaelic language guide, plus details on golf, fishing, etc.

  • Accommodation: A wide variety of accommodation is available throughout the country varying from designer upmarket hotels to independent hostels. Generally accommodation is of a good standard although customer service isn't quite the full-on "American" experience.

    Booklets covering accommodation in each area of the country are available from tourist offices although they only cover accommodation of members. Specialist booklets are also available from the tourist board. The best place to view and book hostels is through hostel world. Click here. Or try Hostel in Scotland as a good overview.

  • Communications: Internet cafes are plentiful in the main towns and cities. International phone calls, as always, can be expensive from a call box.

  • Tourist factor: Scotland gets reasonably busy in the main summer months with tourists, but nothing like some other western countries which is one of its joys. Edinburgh during the festival month of August is mayhem and you are advised to book accommodation months in advance, or be prepared to travel out of the city where you won't experience the festivals to the full. The same advice applies to New Year in Scotland. It is very easy to get off the beaten track and have whole areas of countryside or pockets of cities and towns to yourself.

    ...just one small tip, best recommended not to turn up in Edinburgh on Six Nations rugby weekends as well (just like the Festival) with no hotel room booked - especially if there are 35,000 Welsh or Irish fans in town! Finding a room can be a total nightmare!! For people to check when these weekends are, suggest they visit Scotland rugby's website, www.sru.org.uk where they'll find the fixtures. (thanks Owen)

  • People vibe: Generally Scottish people are renowned throughout the world as being friendly as shown by the national football (or soccer!) team's following fan base The Tartan Army. However some will say this is a hit and miss affair (like the football team!), depending on who you meet and under what circumstances. The west coast are generally known as being a bit more friendly than the east, and in Edinburgh sometimes you'll think its been invaded by the upper class English. You will experience a huge range of dialects and accents spoken throughout the country, to the point you may wonder whether they are speaking a different language. There's a good social pub culture throughout the country and if you are in smaller west coast communities you could find yourself a lot more immersed in their traditions than in the big cities.

  • Media & entertainment: The List magazine is the main fortnightly entertainment magazine covering everything in Glasgow and Edinburgh. It seems like more and more free entertainment and gig guides are being supplied in cafes and pubs every month although they won't have as wide and detailed a coverage as The List. A web search should find a selection of What's On guides as well. Other areas will provide What's On guides at tourist offices.

    Foreign newspapers are available in some newsagents, and for Edinburgh that is McColls in the St James Centre, and the cigar shop on the Royal Mile.

  • Food: A wide variety of foods for all tastes and budgets are available. A sandwich will cost £2-4, main courses £6-15 on average. Look out for pre-theatre and Bring Your Own Booze restaurants to limit the cost.

  • Local poisons for the body: Cigarettes and alcohol are all over the place. There is a huge pub culture in Scotland with the pub being the common meeting place for friends whatever the night of the week, although the weekend and the run up to it are busiest in the towns.

    Smoking is banned in pubs and other public areas. Equally and unfortunately some areas (Glasgow as an example) have banned drinking alcohol in public to cut down on nuisance.

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: Compared to other western regions there are not any significant dangers. The most chance you'll have of getting hassled is in the early hours of the morning when the nightclubs kick out.

    * Rating:6.5/10

For sheer diversity considering the size and population, its a winner, although be prepared to go off the beaten track, and enjoy the outdoors, to experience the most of the country and its stunning character. Plus have the cash to do so.

Add Scotland Mini Guide: © Darren Craig - subs 'at' darrencraig.com

"Circumstances are beyond human control, but our conduct is in our own power”

— Benjamin Disraeli - (British Prime Minister, 1804-1881)