So you're planning on visiting Europe? Congratulations. But where exactly do you plan on going? It's a big place. On this page you'll find suggestions for how to make the best of your time in Europe.
Of course, different folks have different feelings about travel planning. There's no "best" way to plan your travels and no "best" destination. It all depends upon your needs and desires.
Where to Visit and How Long For?
The first questions you need to ask yourself when planning a trip to Europe is—where am I going and for how long?
Most of this page will deal with the first question, but let's start with the second question: for how long can you travel (as this will largely dictate where you can you go). Apart from your own work and home obligations, your other main consideration will be how much you can afford.
How much does a trip to Europe cost? This depends greatly on which countries you are visiting. Check out this page for some guidance:
But now, back to the fun part: choosing where to go.
Pick Your Top Destination
If you've decided you want to come to Europe, you must have a reason. Was it that you really wanted to see the Eiffel Tower? Drink tea in England? Do you have German ancestry? Or was it Italy in general that appealed most to you?
Or was it that you found a great flight to, say, Amsterdam, and thought 'That seems like as good a place as any to discover Europe from'?
Either way, having in mind where you'll begin your trip is a good place to start (literally).
By the way, if you find that your top destination and that bargain transatlantic flight aren't in the same place, don't worry—budget airlines in Europe are incredibly cheap and you'll probably find there'll be a direct flight to where you want to go that won't cost you an arm and a leg. Compare prices on Flights in Europe to see how cheap it can be.
Also, if flying into London (often the cheapest place to fly to from the US and a great destination in its own right) you have the high-speed Eurostar train to mainland Europe. Read more: Top Eurostar Destinations from London
Another way to plan is to pick one of Europe's great Summer festivals and plan around it. If it's big and well known, like Sienna's palio, you'll have to make arrangements far in advance, but you'll be rewarded by being part of a fading tradition of life-affirming (and often quite spiritual) ritual with ancient roots.
Europe's Top Vacation Cities—From North to South
Here we will be focusing on western Europe, specifically: Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, France and Monaco, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and the United Kingdom, and the principality of Liechtenstein. If you're looking for Eastern European destinations, check out Eastern Europe Travel.
Below you'll find the cities that attract the most attention from overseas visitors, for obvious reasons. They also all have major airports which means it'll be a likely first stop for you.
Who Should Go:
- Tourists afraid to be in a country where they don't know the language (remember not to leave anything in the boot of your car while in London!).
- Penny-pinchers who don't want to fly further than the first cheap stop in Europe (they'll pay in the end—London is expensive!).
- Travelers who like strong ale and theater.
- History buffs—Even American History buffs—and English lit fans.
When They Should Visit: May through October, but you're liable to get rained upon anyway. A crisp winter's day is not altogether bad, though, especially if you're planning a day out in the burbs.
Best Bets: British Museum (free), Tate Modern (if you like modern art), Victoria and Albert Museum (Decorative arts), Buckingham Palace, Westminster Palace. The list seems endless, especially if you have only a few days, as most folks do.
Up and Coming: Little Venice, St. Katherine's Dock (restaurants, clubs, cafes)
Literary figures to follow: Imagine Dickens' London as you trundle through the historic city, stopping at his house and his character's favorite haunts.
How Long Should I Stay?: As long as you can afford! Five days should be a minimum, but you could see a very cherry-picked selection in 48 hours.
Who Should Visit:
- Lovers of Dutch art.
- Bicyclists. It's a bike city in a flat land.
- Free spirits, and those who need chemical assistance to accomplish the dream of free spiritage because they've exhausted all other possibilities.
When They Should Visit: It can rain at any time in Amsterdam, but that's not a reason not to visit this fascinating city. Offseason tourists will be rewarded with enough decent weather to stick around. April-May is tulip season. Summer is good for sun worshippers—July and August is the peak season.
Best Bets: Munching at an Indonesian rijsttafel, wandering along the canals and through the Royal Palace, Rijksmuseum, and Van Gogh Museum. Heading off to the red light district and cafes may suit the free spirits and self-proclaimed, um, sex anthropologists (who should visit the Amsterdam Prostitution Information Center for the down-to-earth scoop) . And of course, Anne Frank's house to end it all on a thoughtful note.
Up and Coming: Reguliersdwarsstraat is the hippest street for nightlife.
How Long Should I Stay?: You can see the top sites in 48 hours. But that hardly allows for a coffee while people watching.
Who Should Visit:
- Starving artists
- Henry Miller fans
- Traditional foodies
- Anyone wondering what the fuss is all about
When to Visit: Springtime, of course! That's what they all say, anyway. Fall and summer in Paris aren't bad either, really.
Best Bets: Those who walk the line between starving artists, Henry Miller fans, and traditional foodies will be glad to know that the traditional literary salons are not completely dead. You'll pay more than Henry Miller did. Otherwise, the city is your oyster: hit the Louvre, gawk at the Eiffel Tower and tap your feet to some jazz in the Montparnasse.
Always an odd treat: Place Pigalle's sex museum (yes, they had—and recorded—sex way before Hefner and digicams). Then there's catacombs and sewers and all manner of offbeat Paris stuff to upon which to fritter your tourist dollars away.
How Long Should I Stay?: Three days just to explore the outdoors, then add extra half-days for each museum you'd like to explore.
Who Should Go:
- Romantic dreamers who like strolling through automobile-free streets.
- Your Mother (she'll want you to take her).
- Pretty much anyone who wants to see something really different and crumbling in a pleasing-to-the-eye, romantic sorta way.
When to Visit: February is when the famous Venice Carnevale is held and the weather is usually cold and foggy—perfect weather for Venice. Venice should be viewed through a shroud that blurs the tourists and the neon so that the jewel of the ancient city shows through. But then, the curmudgeon is warm-blooded enough not to mind the cold. Summer? Hefty tourists in shorts and whiny children ruin the atmosphere in the grand campos, but there are plenty of dark alleys for hopeless romantics to get lost in.
Of course, you'll be perfectly thrilled in spring or early fall, too.
Best Bets: Take note of the contrast between the opulent Doge's Palace and the nasty prison on the other side of the canal. Then again, anything touristy can be magic in Venice—it's just a crazy anachronism in a precarious environment. You need to see it. No one can explain it, not even Italo Calvino.
Up and Coming: Most folks never visit the La Serenissima's maritime roots at the Naval History Museum. Pity.
How Long Should I Stay?: A couple of days should suffice.
Who Should Go:
- Lovers of conspicuous consumption—You've got plenty of ATMs and three streets to savage—Via Condotti, Via Borgognona and Via Frattina. Good hunting.
- History and archaeology buffs—anyone who's lent an ear.
- Lovers of the irrationally rational.
- Youthful clubbers.
When You Should Go: Rome is a carnival all year long. Italians avoid Rome in August because it's hot and muggy and everybody who's anybody is away at the beach, so August isn't high season. You'll find lodging bargains in late July and August, but demand air conditioning and thick windows.
Best Bets: Rome, like Venice, is a walking city. Lots of things you've always wanted to see are free or cheap, so don't sweat the entertainment budget if you're reasonably mobile (don't throw it away, either—you'll spend it on lodging).
Up and Coming: An area in the south of the Eternal City called Testaccio is becoming a booming center of the Rome music scene in clubs dug out of a hill made up of old, busted up Roman amphoras.
The downside: Rome is expensive, but like all huge cities, there are lots of free things to do. You can spend days just walking around and viewing the Roman ruins that sprout like weeds in the city.
How Long Should I Stay?: Two or three days is enough.
Who Should Go:
- Night Owls: Madrid and Barcelona never sleep.
- Art Lovers: The Prado is second only to the Louvre in presenting serious art.
- Modernist Architecture: Gaudi's Barcelona is as fascinating as it is controversial.
When You Should Go: Spring; days are warm and the nights pleasantly cool. Pent-up demand for outside eating and drinking starts ramping up in March-April. Streetlife peaks in June, then slows in July and August as the temperature peaks. Autumn is also good, although you'll risk some rain.
Best Bets: Tapas in the evening, and maybe later you'll feel like eating somewhere along the Hemingway trail (maybe at El Botin or another of Madrid's top restaurants). Visits to the Prado and then on to the Reina Sofia—where you'll see more modern art like Picasso's Guernica—are good bets for the art lovers.
Hop on the high-speed train from Madrid to Barcelona (you can be there in just two-and-a-half hours) and stroll along the Ramblas before heading over to the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's famous unfinished church.
Up and Coming: Madrid's restaurant scene, in the doldrums since Hemingway wolfed down his roast suckling pig, is undergoing a Renaissance of its own. You'll eat late though—things don't start moving until 10p or so in the summer.
How Long Should I Stay?: Madrid is a slow-burner of a city. It takes a few days to get a real feel for the place. Plus you need a day for the museums. Barcelona's eye-popping sights can even be seen as a day trip from Madrid, but you really should spend at least three days.
Where to Next? Suggested Itineraries from These Top Cities
From London Take the Eurostar to Paris, or go to Brussels instead and explore Belgium and Holland instead. Read more in this Northern Europe Suggested Itinerary. (14 days)
From Amsterdam Head south-east, into Germany and then down into Switzerland, finishing in Italy. Check out this Amsterdam to Italy Suggested Itinerary. Alternatively, do the above itinerary from London but in reverse. (at least two weeks)
From Barcelona Head north along the Mediterranean coast, to Nice and then to Italy. Read more about this Mediterranean Itinerary. (two to three weeks)
Rural Travel in Europe
So you've got your major cities picked. But how about stretching your legs a little in the beautiful European countryside?
There's simply too many important European cities to also cover rural travel on this page. If you're interested in adding in some country escapes into your plans, check out these pages:
Whirlwind Tour of Europe
Starting your vacation planning with a clean sheet of paper can be fun, but if you've no idea where you'd like to go, maybe it's best to try a whirlwind tour through as much of Europe as you can. Sure, people will laugh at you, "Geez, 12 countries in three weeks, you wanna kill yourself on vacation or something?" but you'll get an overview of your favorite areas. You might want to plan a modern version of the European Grand Tour.