A photo of a sign post with different European country names

What Surprises Americans Most About Europe

If you’re an American traveling to Europe and thinking “We’re not in Kansas” anymore, you’re right!  Americans often think Europe is an easy place to travel to because it is closer than most other continents, English is widely spoken, and it has a similar socio-economic level.

As an American who has spent six years in Europe in three different countries, I know Europe well.  But, many differences between North America and the U.S. still surprise me.  Also, as a trip leader, I get to see students travel to Europe for the first time and witness the things that surprise them.

Obviously, there will be language and culture differences from country to country across the continent, but on the whole, here are some of the things in Europe that Americans do not expect.

Things That Suprise Americans In Europe

Space and Size

The number one difference that I feel physically is the lack of space in Europe.  Europe (at least the most commonly visited parts) is more densely populated than the United States.  European cities, especially, feel tight because they were built hundreds or even thousands of years ago when people were smaller.  

If you rent a car in Europe expect to need to fit into some tight spaces!  Driving through the streets of Europe is much more tight that in the U.S.  My family once got a rental car stuck between the floor and the ceiling of the exit of a parking garage because the attendant erroneously told us it would fit through.  I’ll never forget coming out to see my dad at the wheel and the parking attendant standing on the back bumper, trying to get pull the car down to slip through!  Europeans seem to just make it work.

A small rectangular sink on a wall of green tiles


Toilets don’t have a handle to flush, they have a button on the top of the toilet or on the wall.  In fact, there are usually two buttons, one for a full flush and one for a half flush to save water.


A fitted sheet and a duvet with a cover is the norm here, not a fitted sheet and a top sheet like in the U.S.  When I arrived at a dorm in Denmark where students were given sheets and had to make their own beds, I got lots of messages from students that they were missing a sheet!  So I made them a quick video of how to put a duvet cover on a duvet.

No Window Screens

As a midwesterner who would perish without screens to keep out blood-thirsty mosquitos in the summer, this is one difference that is hard to get used to.  You almost never find window screens in Europe.  Windows are kept open, but there are no screens.  Insects can and do come in, but the mosquitos never seem to be a major problem.

Public Transportation is convenient and safe

Buses, trains, and subways in Europe are convenient, safe, and affordable.  They are used by everyone from students to businessmen to retirees and are always well-connected to the airport and the city center.

Cities in the United States are spread out, and public transportation is limited outside of major metro areas. People who can afford a car and parking will usually drive because it is more convenient. Public transportation in some places is considered unsafe, dirty, and only for people who don’t have a car. 

Lack of Accessibility 

In large part due to the older infrastructure of buildings, Europe doesn’t do a great job with accessibility for people with disabilities.  There are lots of places with no elevator and cobblestone steps are difficult for many people from the visually impaired to those pushing strollers.  

Stone buildings and a cobblestone street in the town of Lochronan

Environmentally Conscious

One thing Europe does much better than the U.S. though is being environmentally responsible.  Europeans have higher energy costs and are used to conserving energy and water.  Bans on single-use plastic have recently taken effect and bringing a reusable shopping bag has been the norm for years. 

Later Dinner Times

Most Europeans would never dream of eating dinner before 7:30 pm or 8:00 pm.  Dinner in places like Spain can typically be as late at 10:00 pm!  This shocks most Americans, who are used to being finished with dinner before 7:30 pm.  It can also be difficult for Americans to find restaurants that are open for an early dinner if they don’t want to eat late. Many restaurants close between lunch and dinner, so don’t expect to find restaurants open for dinner at 6:30 pm.

Store Hours

In the U.S., if you need something after typical working hours, you’ll usually have lots of choices of stores and fast-food restaurants that are open. 

In Europe, store hours are reduced. On Sundays and holidays, most places, including grocery stores and shopping malls are closed. 

Vacation Time and Shorter Work Weeks

Depending on where you are in Europe the average work week is around 37.5 hours and dropping. That’s significantly less than the U.S.

In addition to working less hours each week, Europeans have a minimum of four weeks of vacation time each year, as mandated by European Union legislation. Some countries like France have even more than four weeks. This is double what the average U.S. worker has.

In July and August, it is not uncommon to see restaurants and stores closed for weeks at a time while owners and employees go on vacation. It can be very frustrating for travelers to find many places closed, but the European attitude is that vacation time is sacred.

I hope this post helps prepare you to travel to Europe or help others better prepare. If you’re a frequent traveler, what did I miss? Let me know in the comments.

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