Travel to Europe is always a good idea.
For many North Americans, traveling to Europe is THE dream vacation. There are few regions in the world that can compete with Europe when it comes to history, diversity, variety and accessibility.
Whenever we talk about future travel plans, a destination in Europe almost always pops up. Scandinavia is next on our travel wish list.
One of the things we love about travel in Europe is how connected everything is. The train system in Europe is awesome. We love that you can cross borders and encounter a different culture within an hour.
Even if you only have a few days or a week, you can visit several places in a short period of time. And, if you need to cover a lot of ground, short flights within Europe are often quite cheap, sometimes as low as $100.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve received a number of messages asking us about where to go in Europe in September/October. I always find these types of questions difficult to answer, especially when we don’t know the person asking the question. Travel is personal, which makes it almost impossible to predict what destination will resonate with them.
First-time visitors to Europe will likely want to include stops in London, Paris, Rome and Venice, arguably the world’s most fascinating cities. If you haven’t visited these cities, you most definitely should. At least once in your life.
What European cities will we revisit?
Most cities and towns in Europe will deliver an awesome travel experience, but there are a few cities in Europe that we always recommend, when asked. While we enjoyed our time in Paris, Rome, London, Berlin, Venice and Madrid, they did not make our short list.
The European cities we recommend are ones that we will continue to revisit again and again, which says a lot about how we feel about these cities because we try not to duplicate travel experiences.
The 5 recommended cities below always leave us wanting more.
Who knows, maybe these cities will have the same impact on you?
1. Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul is one of our favourite cities. If we had to pick only one city from this list, Istanbul would be the one. What makes this city unlike any other is that it’s divided by two continents. The Bosphorus Strait separates its continental European and Asian portions, which means you can literally cross continents in the same city.
Istanbul was named a European Capital of Culture in 2010.
Two years later, the city welcomed over 11 million foreign visitors, making it the world’s fifth most popular tourist destination. The numbers make for a compelling argument.
What makes this city great is its fusion of old and new, modern and traditional, east and west. Istanbul’s biggest attraction is its historical Old City, also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the Sultanahmet district you’ll find the Topkapı Palace, Byzantine Hagia Sophia, Sultan Ahmed Mosque (pictured above), Egyptian obelisks and the Roman-era Hippodrome. You’re head will spin!
History and architecture aside, Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district (located on the European side) is loaded with entertainment and shopping. We lost many hours dining at outdoor restaurants eating mezze and drinking Raki, an unsweetened, anise-flavored drink that is considered to the national alcoholic beverage of Turkey.
The people are warm, generous and welcoming, and their curiousity about North America makes for fascinating conversation. We enjoyed sipping sweet tea at old cafes while listening to the soothing call to prayer blast from the endless minarets that fill the city’s skyline. It’s pure magic.
2. Budapest, Hungary
Budapest is one of Europe’s most underrated cities. When we visited Budapest the first time we went in with low expectations because we knew nothing about it.
We arrived late at night via train, so we jumped in a taxi without seeing much of the city. The following morning, we took a stroll down the Danube River and witnessed the jaw-dropping Hungarian Parliament Building for the first time.
Holy WOW! We couldn’t believe our eyes.
After the initial moment of speechlessness, we turned to each other with slight embarrassment and said, “How the f$%# have we never heard of this building before?!”
I suppose our ignorance was a big part of the knock-out punch.
To this day, we have yet to find a building that can compete with the Hungarian Parliament Building’s magnificence (okay, maybe the Taj Mahal). If you have, leave us a comment below.
As we explored the city over the coming days, it became crystal clear that Budapest is one of Europe’s not-so-secret masterpieces.
The city itself is practically a UNESCO World Heritage. The list of World Heritage Sites includes the banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter, Andrássy Avenue, Heroes’ Square and the Millennium Underground Railway, the second-oldest metro line in the world [source].
The city also boasts the world’s largest thermal water cave system and it is home to the world’s second largest synagogue.
We later learned that Budapest attracts over 4.4 million visitors each year, which is said to be the 6th most in Europe. So, if you have not visited yet, what the heck are you waiting for?
3. Prague, Czech Republic
We’ve been to Prague several times and it still ranks high on our list of European Cities we will revisit. Why, you ask? Well, the simple answer is that Prague is a really cool city.
Sure, Prague is loaded with history, Gothic cathedrals and medieval squares, but what we love most about this city is its social atmosphere. It’s trendy, sophisticated, carefree and casual.
We could literally spend days bouncing from underground pubs to open-aired restaurants, with a little sightseeing in between, just to keep things respectable.
Let’s not forget about the beer!
The Czechs have been famous for producing some of the world’s finest brews for many years, which is probably why Czechs drink more beer per capita than any country in the world.
First-timers will want to visit Prague Castle and St. Vitus’s Cathedral, the Astronomical Clock in Old Town Hall, the world famous Charles Bridge, the Museum of Communism and the Convent of St Agnes, Valdštejnský palace gardens, St Nicholas Church and Petřín hill.
Prague is a very walkable city.
You can easily walk from Wenceslas Square to the Old Town Square, or from the Old Town to Charles Bridge and the Castle District. There are dozens of fun walking tours that your can take, from a Ghost Tour to Communism Tour to Art Lover’s Tour.
4. Amsterdam, Netherlands
Similar to Prague, what we love most about Amsterdam is it’s atmosphere and attitude. It’s a big, iconic city that acts and feels more like a town.
Amsterdam is a city of contradictions.
It’s vibrant and relaxed, where old meets new and where Red Light ladies conduct business near the city’s oldest church. The city’s liberal lifestyle and controversial laws have made it a model and scapegoat by many.
Amsterdam prides itself on its tolerance and accepts that some people enjoy soft drugs and prostitution. Rather than criminalize these human desires, Amsterdam approaches these issues in a very different way.
Whether you agree with these values or not, it certainly creates a unique atmosphere, one that many North Americans find fascinating.
Amsterdam’s Red Light District leaves little to the imagination. It’s pretty much exactly what you envision it to be, but it’s still worth checking out. It’s located in one of the oldest and most beautiful parts of the city, so the red lit windows are not the only thing that will grab your attention.
There’s plenty to see and do in Amsterdam, like visiting the Heineken Experience, explore the medieval Old Centre and Dam Square, take a canal cruise, visit a world class art museum like the Rijksmuseum or Van Gogh Museum, or take a Jordaan District walking food tour and visit some favorite local food shops and eateries (make sure you sample the pickled herring).
Amsterdam is often compared to Venice because of it’s many canals and bridges, but we don’t see the similarities (besides the waterways). We love Amsterdam’s a unique architecture, it’s tall, thin homes and bike friendly culture.
Open your mind, rent a bike and let the city guide you.
5. Lucerne, Switzerland
I think it took us about 5 minutes to fall in love with Lucerne (aka Luzern). It may have been sooner, but we were pretty focused on finding our hotel and didn’t notice our surroundings until we reached the iconic Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke) with its stone water tower (Wasserturm).
Lucerne has everything we look for in a European city – architecture, outdoor restaurants, cobblestone roads, red roofs, fresh flowers hanging from windows and pointy cathedrals that dominate the skyline.
While it’s not exactly stroller friendly, the wooden bridge crossings and cobblestone streets in Old Town will transport you back in time. We loved the variety of restaurants that line the Reuss River in the Old Town. Initially we were surprised by all of Italian restaurants in Luzern, but then we realized how close Luzern is to northern Italy.
Aside from the iconic stone water tower and wooden bridge in the Old Town, the Golden Round Trip to Mount Pilatus is a popular thing to do in Lucerne.
The Golden Round Trip is a half or whole day excursion that includes a boat trip on Lake Lucerne and ride up the world’s steepest cogwheel railway to the peak of Pilatus Kulm (altitude 2,132 metres or 7,000 feet). After exploring the futuristic facility, you descend down an aerial cableway and a series of panorama gondolas.
Have you visited any of these European cities?
What cities would you like to revisit?
Share your recommendations in the comments section below and tell us why.