Top Cities to Visit in Europe
One of the best parts of expatriating is the simple fact of living abroad and getting to travel in a new region. Living in Copenhagen, I can get on a plane and be in Southern Spain in the same time I could travel from Philadelphia to South Florida. Unlike traveling around the United States, however, Europe’s unique regions are incredibly diverse in cultural influence, spoken language and centuries of history that make even a short car ride seem like you’ve been transported to a new world.
The cheap airfare and short flights made travel appealing to Mike and I during our first six months in Denmark. We also were unsure of how permanent our stay in Copenhagen was, so we made the most of our expat experience and saw as much as we could of beautiful Europe.
Without fail, one of the first questions we hear when we see our American friends is, “What was your favorite city?” We’re always happy to answer, especially because they’re often looking for advice on their own travels or considering an excursion to book while visiting us in the future. For that reason, I decided to break down some of our favorite destinations throughout Europe.
1 – Paris
Paris is stunning, this isn’t new information, but you don’t realize the level of grandeur until you visit the City of Lights for yourself. Quite simply, the city is a masterpiece. You could spend a week in Paris and still not discover all that it has to offer, but why not give it a start and leave something to come back for?
Make sure to see: Montmarte – It’s the eclectic bohemian neighborhood where Moulin Rouge still stands today. This former artist haven is gorgeous, full of fun nightlife and charming shops. Climb the hill of Montmarte, the highest point in Paris, and discover Sacré-Cœur Basilica. Also known as The Basilica of the Sacred Heart, this holy structure crowns a previously rebellious neighborhood and is the perfect perch for a picturesque view of Paris that includes the Eiffel Tower. This neighborhood has so much to see just off the beaten path so don’t miss it.
2 – Amsterdam
The unassuming beauty of Amsterdam is unrivaled in Europe. My favorite designation so far, Amsterdam has an incredibly welcoming feeling. English is spoken in every pub across the city. The cultural mantra is live and let live – anything goes in Amsterdam and they’re not trying to impress you. Amsterdam is the Britney Spears of European capitals, it used to be the biggest star in the world and can still wow you… PLUS THOSE CANALS!
Make sure to see: See my blog piece for 5 Things You Can’t Miss in Amsterdam. One place I left out of the piece is the gay area. It’s in the inner canal ring and it is awesome! The bars are located on the same street and on weekends, it’s closed to motorists. The street is full of life – friendly locals mingle with tourists and English is the language of choice.
3 – Edinburgh
I went to Edinburgh with ZERO expectation and was blown away by this tremendous city. Everything looks like Harry Potter World, it’s incredibly easy to get around and the restaurants and nightlife are great. The Royal Mile is rich with Scottish history and will lead you to Edinburgh Castle. I don’t always recommend them, but the Big Red Tour bus line, which is a staple in European cities, was a great way to see the city and hop off at attractions.
Make sure to see: New Town Edinburgh, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was built in stages from 1767 and 1850. Princes Street is the most famous thoroughfare and has the best preserved Georgian and neoclassical architecture in the world. Bonus feature – there are some great Scottish Pubs on the side streets and a lot of great shopping along Princes Street.
4 – Budapest
The Hungarian capital of Budapest is a European comeback story of the last century. After period upon period of occupation, Budapest has transformed into a modern EU democracy. The best part of Budapest is the budget-friendly entertainment you’ll experience there. The nightlife, the layers of history and the beautiful landmarks made Budapest one of my favorite destinations.
Make sure to see: The ruins bars and the thermal baths MADE this trip for me. Avoid the city sightseeing bus, as it backtracks a few times and you are better off exploring by foot. Check out my blog piece on 6 Things You Have to Hit in Budapest for more information and some other tips.
5 – London
London is fantastic and huge, without being intimidating. The tube in London makes it incredibly easy and simple to get around by subway and is impressive for a city the size of London. There are a ton of museums and impressive landmarks that make this city beautiful and vibrant. Spending time there on the weekend also means that you’ll have smaller crowds – London is a city of commuters and you really notice it during the week. There are also a plethora of theaters and it’s easy to fit a live performance into your visit.
Make sure to see: the hop on hop off City Sightseeing Bus – it was tremendous and helps you to see the many landmarks spread throughout London. There is even a combo ticket available with a cruise down the Thames River. I almost feel like this is travel cheating or speed dating for tourists, but the bus was well worth the ticket price. I also recommend Churchill’s War Room if you have to pick a museum and was something less traditional.
6 – Stockholm
If you love waterfront scenery and captivating history, you can’t go wrong with Stockholm. Built on 14 islands, this Scandinavian gem is full of natural wonder. The city has amazing museums, natural beauty to tour and a one of Europe’s best preserved medieval town centers. If you like the outdoors, there are countless activities you can find from kayaking to cycling. Stockholm can be tough to navigate because the city is composed of islands and water systems so you want to look for accommodations near the city center. Some attractions were in close proximity, but required multiple transfers on trains, ferries or buses because of Stockholm’s unique geography. To make getting around easier there are transportation passes available and 24 hour or 72 hour passes.
Make sure to see: The Vasa Museum, which displays a near-perfectly preserved Swedish Warship that sunk into the harbor during its maiden voyage in 1628. The cold, brackish waters kept the ship in great shape when they rescued it in 1961 and it’s a must see in Stockholm. I have never been to an exhibit with a more fascinating exhibit. Seeing this majestic ship in such perfectly preserved condition is a fantastic way to step back in time and learn about life in the time of The Vasa.
7 – Prague
Like something from a fairy tale, Prague is a majestic central European beauty! History abounds in this Bohemian capital and it is extremely well-preserved despite multiple world wars and decades behind the Iron Curtain. The Czech capital boasts a beautiful castle, Gothic churches, a medieval town square with the famous Astronomical Clock and colorful baroque buildings. Beyond the beauty, Prague also has budget-friendly price tag to make your vacation even better. Like Budapest, Prague is extremely affordable and your money will go far while you sip Pilsner Urquell or dine in Prague’s fantastic restaurants.
Make sure to see: a walking tour! Prague is a great city to explore by foot and there’s a terrific public transportation system to connect you in between attractions. In the Old Town you can find two tours that I highly recommend, McGee’s Ghost Tour and The World War II Walking Tour. The ghost tour with McGee’s offers four English speaking tour options and convenient online booking with PayPal. We took the Ghosts & Legends of Old Town tour and were very impressed by the professionalism and content of the tour. The World War II tour is fascinating and includes a trip inside Prague’s Old Town Hall and the tunnels beneath where you can see the medieval streets and former hideout of the Prague resistance.
8 – Berlin
Berlin is a modern and historic city with a new adventure around every corner. The city itself is massive and stretches a long distance on both sides of the former wall. There are layers upon layers of history in this town and it’s hard to visit Berlin and not be entranced by its past. The museums and monuments honor Germany’s past and those affected by the Holocaust and Communist era. Berlin also has a colorful nightlife and dining to meet the palate of any visitor.
Make sure to see: Teufelsberg, the abandoned NSA spy station that has been reclaimed as a street art and graffiti showcase. This unique site includes a hike in West Berlin and a fascinating glimpse into the Cold War history of West Berlin and the modernity of German street art.