A brand new, updated look at the best places to visit in Europe. Whether you’re gearing up for your first Europe vacation or it’s your tenth time exploring European destinations, you’re certain to find something new here
Asians love the Eiffel Tower and anything that is “Paris” in general, while Westerners flock to Amsterdam for different reasons entirely. Both beautiful in their own right, I do not think these are the best places to visit in Europe. In the paragraphs below I will describe some of the best places to visit in Europe and try to make a case for them. Hopefully you end up seeing a few of them and become just as enthusiastic as everyone else; the most beautiful places in Europe are not always the most obvious ones.
1. Some of the best spots in Paris – Pere Lachaise
I know I mentioned Paris as one of the obvious places, but keep in mind that this is a pretty big city, especially for European standards. So naturally, there is more than just the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. Paris stands out as a city of opposites, with an affluent centre and some pretty disturbing no-go areas surrounding the city called ‘banlieues’. Sadly, this is not an opinion, it is a fact.
A few years back a few EU politicians wanted to prove everyone wrong by visiting these notorious suburbs, and guess what happened? They got robbed.
So it is best to stay away from these sad and dilapidated areas and stick to the beautiful centre. And where better to start than Pere Lachaise Cemetery? In the middle of the city, this enormous cemetery is an oasis of silence, filled with Neoclassical Mausoleums, gothic grave art and some of the most famous deceased in the world.
Jim Morrison’s grave is always visited by newbies and judging from the other graves in a ten-meter radius covered in graffiti, it is one of the most popular graves.
Another great stopping point is Oscar Wilde’s tomb, in shape of a giant Sphinx. The history of this tomb is colourful, and until 2011, a lot of visitors applied lipstick and kissed his tomb thereby leaving a ‘print’ of their kiss. The management got so fed up with removing lipstick from this tomb that they commissioned a giant glass wall around it that now gets kissed instead.
I get it that visiting a cemetery sounds creepy, but 3.5 million visitors per year can’t be wrong. The place is beautiful, romantic and because it is a cemetery people tend to be quiet. As a result, the animals in the trees are no longer afraid of humans, and on one occasion, we had a squirrel walking next to us for almost 50 meters before it ran up a tree again.”
Some of the best spots in Paris – Palais Garnier
Palais Garnier is the most famous opera house in the world, inaugurated in 1875 and described as “”a building of exceptional opulence””. Think multi-coloured marble, cut in curves and shaped into columns, along with strict symmetry in its designs and decorations.
It has to be seen to truly grasp its magnificence, but over the years it has inspired countless visitors. Gaston Leroux’s “”Phantom of the Opera”” was written with Palais Garnier in mind, and several copies were built in the US, Ukraine, Brasil and Poland.
Nowadays no more opera is performed at Palais Garnier, as the newer Opera Bastille is better suitable, but one can still see a ballet performance and the building itself deserves a visit, as it is a truly exceptional piece of architecture, mirroring the glory of a century gone by.
My favourite part is the grand staircase, but most visitors prefer the foyer which is a 15-metre long hall, lavishly decorated for the elite of Paris in 1875. It is highly recommended to visit the Palais outside regular opening times, to have the place more or less to yourself.
Pro tip: The single chandelier in the auditorium weighs over seven tons.
2. Bruges, Belgium
For couples, Bruges is one of best European cities to visit in winter time, as attested by the recent dark comedy ‘In Bruges’, with Colin Farrel and Brandon Gleeson. If you are looking for a continental city that truly shines in the dark season, Bruges fits the bill perfectly. The movie really captures the romantic essence of this beautiful and well-preserved medieval city. So it is no surprise Bruges is considered a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Bruges offers the very best of medieval architecture, combining canals, cathedrals and churches and town markets. Note that the movie mentioned earlier was shot in winter, making the city that much more fairy-tale like. Remember this is still a Belgian city, so while the men can marvel at the intricate defensive structures, women can hop from the finest chocolatiers to genuinely cobbled shopping streets.
One thing to know about Bruges is that it is very popular with tourists, so do not expect to be alone out there during the summer months. But why not leave the crowds behind and have the town all to yourself? Again, Bruges really is one of the best European cities to visit in winter time, and the city also deserves a one-night stay at the very least, as the floodlights in the evening really add to the atmosphere.
Pro tip: If you must visit during the summer time, pick a weekday to avoid the crowds.
3. Berlin, Germany
Berlin is an incredible city and highly recommended when you travel Europe in your 20s. Compared to the Southern parts of Germany, everything is much cheaper and there is an electric air of creativity in the air that has attracted numerous artists and musicians over the years. The business world has caught up with this trend, and numerous internet start-ups call Berlin their home.
When it comes to nightlife, Berlin is unlike anything in Europe. From casual residential areas with well-hidden speakeasies to prestigious electronic clubs, Berlin caters to everyone and until the very early morning. Amongst younger Europeans, spending a weekend in Berlin for some hardcore partying is almost a rite of passage.
And for some reason, there is always something going on; whenever a renowned techno temple is torn down, three new ones seem to pop up at the weirdest locations. The influx of party tourism is managed well by the authorities and with Ellen Alien, Ricardo Villalobos and countless other international DJ superstars calling Berlin their home, it is safe to say EDM is one of the more successful export products of this amazing city.
Berlin also has an incredible recent history. What other European city can claim that they’ve seen a revolution, experienced one of the worst bombings in history, endure a separation by country border and finally saw a reunification, all within less than a hundred years? As a result, the city is littered with tangible remnants of major historical events. Wall remnants, Checkpoint Charlie, the Holocaust memorial or the communist architecture in the Eastern part are all equally impressive and deserve a visit if you are a history buff.
Pro tip: Do NOT visit Berlin in winter time! It is wet and cold and horrific.
4. Barcelona, Spain
If Berlin is the creative hub of Northern Europe that somehow combines high-tech, creativity and exciting urban life, then Barcelona would be its Southern counterpart. Located in the more developed area of Spain named Catalan, Barcelona is a wonderful artistic city in the Mediterranean.
Considered one of the most beautiful places in Europe, Barcelona checks all the boxes for travellers looking for a dose of continental flair. Perhaps it is something in the water or the food that the Spaniards eat, but for some reason everything seems to be designed.
Barcelona offers some of the very best wining and dining and the nightlife is utterly insane. If you travel Europe in your 20s, do not expect to go out before midnight because most of your peers are still having dinner. Around one or two o’clock in the morning things slowly start to pick up, and people casually choose their favourite nightclub.
For some reason Barcelona can be considered a ‘soft-city’, meaning droves of girlfriends in their gap year make it out to Barcelona every summer, religiously taking selfies at a: La Sagrada Familia, b: Park Güell and c: anything along the Antoni Gaudí walking route.
But like Berlin, it is also a start-up hub for a variety of companies who cherish the hospitable tax incentives, the presence of a large international community and the very low wages. So it is not uncommon for travellers to fall in love with Barcelona, extend their stay for a few weeks and suddenly end up with a job offer at one of the many multinationals in Southern Europe. What’s keeping you from visiting Barcelona?
Pro tip: For empty pictures of Güell, turn up in the early morning.
5. Vienna, Austria
Just like Barcelona, Vienna also attracts a lot of female visitors but for different reasons entirely. Where Barcelona is all about gothic and modernista, Vienna screams ‘baroque’. The Austrian city is also famous for its coffeehouse culture and a range of influential artists like Hundertwasser, Klimt and Schiele.
Vienna is leading both as an artistic city and an architectural one, and if that is what you came for, you are going to have your hands full. On the architectural and historical spectrum, sites like Schönbrunn Palace, the Old Town, Liechtenstein Castle and Kreuzenstein Castle beckon.
For art aficionados, the choice is much bigger and depending on what movement you are into, there are several interesting choices. Apart from the visual arts, Vienna has had numerous other famous residents over the years as well. Mozart, Beethoven and Sigmund Freud all lived here, making their mark on a spectacular city considered one of the most beautiful places in Europe.
I advise visitors to the St. Stephen’s Cathedral to book the catacombs tour, as it is much more extensive and allows for some great views of the cathedral and some special photo opportunities.
Visitors to the museum district are going to do a lot of walking, so make sure that there isn’t any rain forecasted and wear some comfortable shoes. The 7th district of Vienna is beautiful and while the biggest and best attractions are located on the same square, it is nice to make it from one building to the other without getting wet.
Pro tip: Visit Vienna during fall and plan your trip ahead.
6. Rome, Italy
People wanting to see what Christianity must have been like in all its glory should check out Rome. The Vatican City is a city-state on its own, ruled by the Pope of the catholic church (there are other popes out there too).
Rome was thoroughly cleaned up for the coming of the second millennium, and unfortunately I saw Rome the last time before that. At the time some of the best squares resembled giant building pits, but from what I have heard and seen, Rome is restored to its former glory.
Alternatively, you can also opt for Milano, which is a little less remote from the mainland. For an impression of the Italian life, either cities will do really well, as everyone in Italy loves their food, their country and can’t help but gesticulate with their hand whenever they are trying to say something. It’s awesome.
7. Ljubljana, Slovenia
Consider Ljubljana the ace up your sleeve when planning for Europe. Instead of Prague, dare to go to Slovenia instead and take advantage of a beautiful city with prices that are incomparable to any other city in Europe. Since we all used to be young and broke at one point, I consider Ljubljana one of the best cities European cities for 18 year olds.
But it isn’t just an affordable city: The Dragon Bridge seems to come straight out of Game of Thrones, but with the important difference that it was built almost hundred years before George RR Martin wrote his masterpiece.
Ljubljana has the castles, the obligatory cathedral and due to a strong university presence, the nightlife is great too. Highly recommended!
While creating this list of places in Europe, I deliberately left out the cities that disappointed. Whether it was through pricing or an atmosphere that struck me as unpleasant. The last time I was in London, things were ridiculously expensive and I couldn’t help noticing anyone in the service industry was from Eastern Europe. This says a lot about the economic state of affairs in the UK, and I hope the events around Brexit will positively affect pricing somehow.
The same goes for Prague, for which my expectations were probably too high and Scandinavia as a whole. I’d call it overrated and quite pricey. I do like Stockholm but it simply wouldn’t make my list of “go-to places in Europe”.
More Inspiration: Check out other amazing places you need to visit
Sacha Albarda is an copywriter/online media expert living in South-east Asia for the better part of a decade. Asked what he likes best about living there, he usually answers that it’s “the tightly organized anarchy”.