Europe packs a pretty rewarding travel punch: in less than an hour, you can find yourself in a different country with a different language, a different cuisine and an entirely different culture. Almost everyone has fought with everyone over the years in Europe, making the recent European Union project all the more impressive in binding together people with so many different points of view.
I would always encourage you to seek out the less well known corners and countries of this fascinating continent. But, if time is short, of course, I’ve gathered together some highlights below. Don’t be offended, Europeans. I’ll keep it all updated regularly and shift around whatever I consider to be the best!
I’ve also split my European recommendations into a section for first-timers and another section for those who either live here or who frequently travel in Europe. If you’re a first timer, then read on. If you know Europe well, then skip on further down the page.
Many non-European first time visitors make the mistake of thinking they can notch up the London-Paris-Milan-Berlin-Rome-Madrid-Barcelona route in two or three days and still have time to head to Athens or go to the beach. While budget airlines and (mostly) slick rail services do connect up this patchwork continent pretty well, the distances are still large and the cultural changes immense. Plus, why miss out on so much? A better plan is to break down your trip into 2-3 countries max unless you have the luxury of more than a month to spare.
Unappreciated by many of its countrymen, Paris will always be one of the best cities in the world to me (alongside London, of course). The way the lampposts glow alongside the Seine as the winter mists creep by. The squat profile of Notre Dame and the white whimsy of the Sacré Coeur with the view of the city spread out at its feet. Even the scarlet seediness that surrounds the Moulin Rouge. Paris pulses and changes to fit a modern world by splashing glass pyramids onto royal palaces and constructing inside-out buildings like the lego-land Pompidou. Yet it never throws away its historical heart, nor its self confidence, of which you’ll find aplenty. For an unusual thing to do in Paris, head to the renovated Curie Museum to learn more about the woman who won two Nobel prizes in two separate subjects. Alternatively, strip for a black soap hammam in the city’s Mosquée de Paris.
Vienna oozes class and restraint, through its stately Rathaus, its world class art galleries, its links with Mozart and its genteel obsession with coffee and chocolate cake (rich Sachertorte, dear readers, in case you feel compelled to, er, research.) But, like most of Europe, it has a dark side too, this one all the more interesting because few people talk about it. Like Berlin, Vienna lay divided at the end of World War Two, split between France, the US, UK and Soviet Union. You can still visit the Vienna Wall, where bullet marks from the Second World War still scar the side of the buildings.
Picking Madrid as the city for Spain was a difficult, even treacherous thing to attempt. More than perhaps any other country (except, just maybe, for Italy below) Spain has spread its cultural wealth across its many cities. Barcelona, Valencia and Seville easily challenge the crown but it’s Madrid that wins out here for me thanks to its colossal art history museums (because, let’s face it, great food, nightlife and bright, dazzling architecture can be found in each of the other three too). But, Madrid has El Prado, an artistic megalith joined in its heavyweight status by the Reina Sofia down the road (this is the museum that houses Picasso’s Guernica, an iconic depiction of the impact of war). But for something unusual, and sweeter if not lighter, try churros and chocolate at Madrid’s oldest chocolateria. Get there early to beat the crowds – or, in fact, very late on your way home after dark.
Destroyed and rebuilt, divided and rejoined, the history of Berlin through the 20th century is about as tumultuous as it can get. Today, it looks towards the future, attracting an edgy, hipster crowd, while commemorating its past, both grizzly and stately, in an unflinching way. The Brandenburg Gate and the remains of the Berlin Wall are the undisputed icons of the city and are a must, particularly for first time visitors. But for understanding what makes Berlin go round, and to lighten the heavy historical load, visit the Currywurst Museum and learn all about the city’s signature dish.
Rome, Florence, Verona, Milan. Yes, yes, yes and yes. All fantastic world class cities. But. I’m going to go with Venice. Yes, it’s as crowded as a Boxing Day Sale and yes all those other wonderful cities have great fashion, art, history, architecture and more. But it’s Venice. Venice. The home to sleek black gondolas, watery canals and streets so achingly beautiful you can hardly believe you’re alive. It has vaporetti. Gelato. It has the Bridge of Sighs. To paraphrase a little, if you are tired of Venice, you are tired of life. Or of beautiful life anyway. Yet, despite the heavy footfall in this swirling, sinking city, it is possible to find unusual things to do in Venice. Drift away from the signposted route and explore Il Ghetto, home to the city’s Jewish heritage and the enclave whose history gave the word ghetto to struggling areas around the world.
Currency: Bulgarian lev
A Balkan nation with a varied terrain, Bulgaria has a rich heritage with a mix of Greek, Slavic, Ottoman and Persian influences. I spent most of my time in its capital, Sofia. At times, it can feel empty and lost. But with a little help from Spotted by Locals, the city opened up to me.