Top ten lists seem to be de rigueur when blogging about travel, so here’s one from me. Being a Londoner, and a travel junkie, I’m one of the lucky people for whom the delights of Europe are pretty much all within a three-hour cheap flight.
We try and do all ‘the culture stuff’ during the day and explore the various cuisines (solid and liquid . . .) and nightlife of an evening. Some of the more enlightened of us often try and catch the local football team in action as well. To be honest, most of us need a holiday on our return!
At the last count, I’d taken short breaks (usually Friday to Monday) in nearly 30 different European cities – and here’s my top ten list (in alphabetical order, as there’s no way I can rank them) of European cities I’ve visited . . . so far!
The capital of the Spanish region of Catalunya is fiercely independent and provides attractions galore in the year-round sunshine. Barcelona is busy, bustling and loud, but warm and welcoming. Don’t miss the architecture of favourite son Antoni Gaudi – not least the awe-inspiring church of the Sagrada Família, which was begun in 1882 and is scheduled for completion in 2026! The Gothic Quarter is the centre of the old city and many of the buildings date from medieval and even Roman times. Art lovers are particularly well served – particularly if you like the Modern variety. Check out La Rambla, the mile-long, tree-lined central street that is popular with tourists and locals alike for its tapas bars, street vendors, flower and bird sellers, street performers, cafes, restaurants and shops. Or escape to Montjuïc hill for the views of the harbour, the castle, Barcelona’s biggest park and the 1992 Olympic stadium. Oh, and don’t forget the marina and the beaches, which are just a short stroll away. And the clubs. Salud!
With a chequered but fascinating history behind it, Berlin has a uniqueness that still prevails. These days, it revels in its status as one of the most stimulating creative and cultural centres in Europe, famed equally as a hedonistic hub for clubbers, a magnet for culture and history buffs and, increasingly, as a destination for families. You can get pretty much anywhere, anytime thanks to an excellent transport system, allowing you to take advantage of the vast array of museums and other cultural and historical sights. You’ll likely spend most of your weekend in Mitte which is the historical centre of the City and also the hub of the former East Berlin. Cafes, restaurants, museums, galleries and clubs are abundant throughout the district, along with most of the significant sites of historic interest. Don’t miss the Berlin Wall Memorial, the Brandenburg Gate, the Bundestag parliament building, Berlin Zoo and a Sunday afternoon stroll in the Tiergaten, Berlin’s largest park situated conveniently in the heart of the city. Prost!
‘The Paris of the East’ is a captivating mixture of beautiful neo-classical architecture dating back to the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, aligned with a youthful vibrant energy. Budapest is really the conjunction of two areas, straddling the beautiful River Danube. Buda hill – traditionally the older and more historical area – offers Castle Hill, the views from the Fisherman’s Bastion, the Royal Palace and the wonderful Matthias Church. On the flatlands of Pest you’ll find the newer city and, most importantly, the nightlife and entertainment. Check out St Stephen’s Cathedral, the immense Gothic Parliament Building and Andrassy ut (ut = Street), a boulevard built to emulate the Champs-Élysées in Paris. It connects downtown Budapest to Heroes Square in the delightful City Park. Budapest is built on one of the world’s largest geothermal spring systems, so you absolutely must check out one of the many natural spas – the Gellert Baths within the similarly-named hotel feature a well-preserved Art Nouveau interior with colourful mosaics and columns, stained glass windows and statues. Nazdravey!
Denmark’s capital is big enough to be a proper city, but small enough to retain that community feeling that all good towns have. It’s safe, friendly and easy to get around – and possibly the most cycle-friendly capital in the world. Indre By (The inner city) is the historical centre, encircled by lakes and the harbour, and is the home of most of Copenhagen’s attractions, nightlife options, and hotels. While there make sure you visit the medieval square, catch the changing of the guard at the Amalienborg Royal residence, tour the magnificent City Hall and wander around the magnificent ‘Tivoli Gardens’ park and funfair. Good food and great beer goes without saying, but this young town has its fair share of nightlife as well. And catch the Freetown of Christiania, established by a bunch of hippies in 1971 as an alternative to mainstream culture. Long-standing counter-cultural activities such as the open use (and, some years ago, sale) of soft drugs are now a memory, and Christiania is now a safe and popular tourist and arts community. Skol!
The Portuguese capital is one of the oldest cities in the world, but today it thrives as a modernising metropolis with a knowing nod to its maritime history. The distinct neighbourhoods, winding hills, small cobbled streets and alleyways, and clusters of bleached stucco buildings mark it as unmistakeably Mediterranean, despite its Atlantic outlook. The people are friendly and easy going and love their customs such as eating Baccalau (salt cod), drinking their marvellous wines and enjoying the traditional ‘Fado’ – a form of mournful folk singing. Explore the labyrinthine alleyways of the Alfama neighbourhood before getting a tram up the hill to the Castelo de São Jorge (St. George’s Castle). Check out Rossio Square to experience everyday life and take a short excursion out to the port area of Belem to visit the Belem Tower and the beautiful Jeronimos Monastery, before sampling another local cuisine in the form of a Pasties de Belem – a traditional creamy custard tartlet, best served with a strong espresso. In the evening, head uphill to the Bairro Alto neighbourhood, for stunning views of the city – and wild partying in Lisbon’s most main bar and nightclub district. Saúde!
Rome is ‘old Italy’ but the northern second city of Milan sits at the heart of Italy’s largest metropolitan area and is its financial hub. Because it was heavily bombed in the Second World War, Italy has more beautiful cities than Milan, but none quite as cosmopolitan. Milan is Italy’s centre of living la vida loca. There’s nowhere in Italy better for eating, shopping, football, opera, nightlife, fashion – if it arouses the famed Italian passion, Milan has it. Of course, it also has more than its fair share of cultural attractions: don’t miss the Duomo, one of the grandest Gothic cathedrals anywhere; La Scala, possibly the world’s most famous opera house; the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, an ancient and glamorous arcaded shopping gallery; and the Brera art gallery, with some of the finest artistic works in Europe. The Milanese are a cultured bunch, so make sure you’re there on a Sunday they come out to ‘promenade’ – essentially a Sunday stroll around the centre of the city, dressed in their smartest ‘casual’ duds! And, even if you hate the game, try and score tickets for a game at the San Siro, the magnificent home of both Milan’s football teams – AC Milan and Internazionale. Salute!
Welcoming, beautiful, sparklingly clean, and within proximity of the Alps and some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe, it’s not surprising that everyone wants to live in Munich. As is so often the case, the old city is at the heart of things and the New City Hall (Neues Rathaus) with it’s world famous exterior Glockenspiel, the Residenz (Palace of the Bavarian kings), Nationaltheater (opera house) and the Hofbräuhaus am Platzl beer hall are all within walking distance of each other. Scores of outstanding museums jostle for your attention, not to mention countless churches, three of the old city gates and the magnificent Englischer Garten – a city park that makes Central Park look like a village green! And if that’s not enough, petrol-heads will be bowled over by the BMW HQ and museum – which is a short hop from the 1972 Olympic Stadium complex. A short bus ride out of the centre finds the magnificent Schloss Nymphenburg, the baroque palace which served as summer residence of the Bavarian kings. There really is something for everyone here – before you’ve even sampled the famed Bavarian beer hall atmosphere. Prost . . . again!
Nothing can prepare you for Iceland and its capital. The country was founded by a bunch of Vikings who found their Norse homeland a little too comfortable! It’s almost entirely fuelled by geothermal energy, while the people are fuelled by beer, coffee and folk stories and are unceasingly (almost unnervingly) happy. Where else could you look in the phone book and find the Prime Minister’s home number? In terms of sightseeing it’s no Rome or London, but the Einar Jónsson museum and sculpture garden, the postmodern Harpa concert hall and the iconic Hallgrímskirkja Church are all essential – as is the bar and coffee-shop culture. Iceland is a fishing nation, so a stroll around the working harbour is essential. And it’s there you’ll stumble across the Baejarins Beztu Pylsur – a harbour-side kiosk which has been serving freakishly good hot dogs for 70 years – and is regularly voted as Iceland’s favourite restaurant! Hire a car and drive into the striking volcanic countryside and catch the awe-inspiring Gulfoss Falls, the Pengvillir National Park and its geysers, and the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa, which is handily on the way from and to the airport! Skál!
‘The Eternal City’ doesn’t have history, it IS history. It’s a heady mix of culture and modernism and, of course, being the capital of Italy, it’s pretty much happy chaos 24/7. You simply can’t do Rome justice without doing a bit of background reading – I promise you it will reward you in bucket-loads. You’ll find yourself walking miles without realising it, so pack your sturdiest shoes! In terms of the sheer number of recognisable historical sites, Rome’s list tops them all. The heart of ancient Rome (the Colosseum, the Forums, the Markets of Trajan, the Capitoline hill) will take a day at least. Then you’ve got to squeeze in the Quirinale, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Campo de’ Fiori, the Villa Borghese, the Spanish Steps, shopping along the Via Veneto and a thousand other sites you didn’t realise you knew. And that’s before you’ve made your way to the Vatican City! And had a gelato and espresso! When the sun goes down, a city of romance, fine dining and excellent wines takes over. Cin cin!
Facing north into the Gulf of Finland, this quaint and older-than-you-realise city gets very cold in the winter – but that’s the time you must go! Wrap up in your best (fake) furs and experience a city that has been shaped by various invading and ruling countries but still kept its own unique character. At the heart of things is the historical medieval city centre (Toompea Hill) lined with cobbled streets and alleyways and genuine medieval houses and town squares. Check out the streets and viewpoints, but don’t get too excited by the cluster of touristy amber shops. The Tallinn Christmas Market which lives in the main square for all of December is a wonder to behold, especially as the snow falls. Check out the ornate Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a classic onion-domed 19th-century Russian Orthodox church. And finally, whether you are a fan or not, don’t miss a drink at the DM Bar, an alleyway bar devoted (almost scarily so) to the band Depeche Mode! Terviseks!
So there you have it – my top ten European city-break destinations. Want more? Check out Athens, Madrid, Ljubljana, Valencia, Riga, Stockholm, Prague, Bruges, Krakow, Vienna, Antwerp, Paris and Turin. In fact, I honestly can’t recall a European trip I’ve done where I haven’t been enthralled, enchanted, educated, entertained, amazed and amused – mostly all at the same time.
But of course, you’ll have your own opinions! Feel free to use the comments section to tell us your favourite European cities and why.
And remember, when you do make your travel plans, be sure to invest in Travel Insurance to help give you added peace of mind while you’re on the go.
Now, when are they going to come up with low-cost supersonic flight, so I can ‘do’ the rest of the world?