First trip to Europe? Focus on these 5 great cities rather than cheap ones

Rijksmuseum LawnNot long ago, I scrolled down the homepage of this website – priceoftravel.com – and noticed that almost every article had the word “cheapest” in the title. This is what happens when you run a site dedicated to researching and reporting travel prices, and certainly there is a demand for these lists and prices.

Also recently, a friend of mine who’s never visited Europe asked me which cities I recommend for a first trip. Only then did it occur to me that I actually think it’s important to start with the truly great cities first, even though they tend to be among the most expensive. In other words, articles like the cheapest cities in Europe might encourage people to go to some places for what could be the wrong reasons.

Start with Europe’s greatest cities, and work out a budget from there

For those of us who are traveling constantly it’s easy to forget that most people are lucky to visit Europe (assuming you live elsewhere) even once in their lives. Sure, many people are inspired by a first trip and will continue to gp back and explore, but others don’t have the time or the means, and their first trip might be their only trip.

For that reason, and also to help the chances for that inspiration leading to later trips, I recommend first-time visitors begin in the most famous cities, in spite of high costs and crowds.

Europe’s 5 Great Cities for visitors

1 – London

London Thames ViewThe only town that can compete with New York City for the title of Capital of the World, London is where everything comes together. And obviously as an English-speaking city (mostly), it’s among the easiest to begin adapting to the culture and style of Europe.

The main downside to London is that, until you know where things are, it feels like the most expensive place on earth. There are ways to keep London cheap if you really have to, but at first it’s probably not a bad idea to splurge and just go with the flow. Fortunately, all of the famous museums are free to enter, and there are several new free walking tours to choose from, so it’s getting a bit easier to keep expenses reasonable.

  • Backpacker Index: US$69.35 per day

2 – Paris

Paris Seine ViewDefinitely more intimidating than London, and also far more beautiful, Paris is a city that so many people gush over that you might assume there’s no way it could live up to the praise. Then you go to Paris for yourself and you start gushing yourself. Walk for thirty minutes from anywhere near the city center and you’ll keep seeing buildings and bridges and public art that will make you want to start checking apartment prices.

Every city has problems, even Paris, but it’s hard to imagine anyone being sorry they visited. While Paris is an expensive city, it’s actually a bit easier to keep costs down, mainly because the extensive Metro system means that you can still have a great and convenient time if you stay in a cheaper hotel outside of the main tourist center.

  • Backpacker Index: US$79.04 per day

3 – Rome

Rome ViewUnlike London and Paris, the city of Rome does actually seem to have a group who’ll tell you to avoid it. Rome is frustrating in many ways, with crazy traffic and a sense of disorganization that is hard to adapt to, but there’s also no denying that it’s one of the world’s greatest and most important cities.

It’s easy to tell people to avoid a city once you’ve been there yourself, but no one gives points to those who would brag about never visiting a city because they heard it was too crazy. With Ancient Rome, the Coliseum, and the Vatican just for starters, Italy’s capital is worth the hassle to see it at least once, and many people love it so much that they keep returning. Hotels in Rome are weirdly expensive, but other costs are reasonable, and it’s totally worth it at least once in your life.

  • Backpacker Index: US$80.38 per day

4 – Venice

Venice ViewSome cities are really beautiful from certain vantage points or certain angles, but Venice is beautiful from all of them. As a touristy city for several hundred years now, the biggest problem with Venice is the crowds it attracts. Even in winter, the main pedestrian routes can be so packed that it frustrates nearly everyone. And in summer, they are worse, of course.

Even though hotels in Venice tend to be quite expensive, the best way to visit is to spend at least one or two nights on the main island. You’ll find that early mornings and evenings are far less crowded, as most groups head to the mainland to sleep. Venice is also small enough that 36 hours is plenty of time to see the best bits, so it’s worth a one-night splurge for a good location.

  • Backpacker Index: US$90.26 per day

5 – Amsterdam

Amsterdam ViewSome people might not put Amsterdam on this short list of great European cities, but plenty of people agree with me that it’s another of the world’s most beautiful and interesting places. Most of the city center is perfectly preserved from its beginnings in the 17th Century, and it’s been quite wealthy ever since.

Many cities around the world boast that they have more canals than Amsterdam, but except for Venice, none are nearly as stunning. Add in the way bicycles dominate the landscape, the weirdness of the Red Light District, and its pleasant overall nature, and Amsterdam is worth a visit in spite of its relative high prices for most things.

  • Backpacker Index: US$86.67 per day

Include the above cities as part of bigger trips

The 5 cities mentioned above are the ones that I think are the best and most dramatic introduction to Europe, and the most likely to inspire more trips, but I wouldn’t recommend just trying to see these 5 and then heading home. Depending on budget, season, and trip duration, you could add or subtract many other worthwhile cities to make the perfect itinerary.

If you’ve traveled all over Europe yourself, do you agree or disagree with the cities selected above? I can’t think of another that deserves to be in this top tier, but I’d imagine that other people might have other ideas.



18 Responses to “First trip to Europe? Focus on these 5 great cities rather than cheap ones”

Astoria Greek says:

Where would you rate Athens?

 

    Astoria,

    Very interesting question, and I would personally rank Athens #6 in this group. Historically it couldn’t be more important and its center has become very tourist-friendly as well. I put it above Madrid or Berlin or Prague as an essential European city, but I cut this list off at 5. Thank you. -Roger

     
George says:

Venice has never wowed me. It seems nice enough, but lacks interest for a prolonged stay. It’s also smelly in summer and flooded in winter, and over-touristed in all seasons.

I would rate Barcelona in the top five. Beautiful architecture, great restaurants, and friendly residents. And how can you forget about Istanbul?

 

    George, that’s interesting about Venice for you, and I agree that its weakness is that it’s too crowded all year. I think people who stay overnight on the main island can get a wonderful experience if they try. As for Barcelona and Istanbul, they’d certainly both be in my next five, but for me they don’t compare with the others for impact on a first-time visitor. It’s all opinion though, and thank you for yours. -Roger

     
Julia says:

Having traveled extensively around Europe (and living in Vienna), I would definitely add Berlin, Barcelona and of course Vienna to the list! Great cities regarding culture, food and nightlife and also budget friendly if you look around a little. I personally would leave out Rome because it is very stressful and go to Florence instead for the museums and Tuscany in general, but that’s just me 🙂

 

    Julia, thank you for your thoughts, and you make good points. Personally, I prefer Berlin to all of them on my list, but this post was meant to be about the “great” cities that will change your life after experiencing them. The sights and history of Rome are far more interesting than those of Florence, although I agree about the stress factor of Rome. -Roger

     
Susan says:

I have never been, so this list helps. They are mostly what I was leaning towards anyway with the exception of Amsterdam. My first choice is Paris, then Venice, Florence, maybe Rome, but the stressful factor has me rethinking Rome, but maybe one day in Rome would be eventful and an experience and well worth it. Something has me running from London and not sure why. The english speaking comment about London makes sense though. Maybe it should be the first stop! I wonder where you would put the French Riviera on the list? Nice and Saint Tropez?

 

    Susan,

    I’m glad you found this helpful. If you are going to Italy it would be a shame to skip Rome. A one-day visit would be far better than skipping it, but I’d really urge you to plan at least 2 days in Rome, if not 3. It’s true that it’s a bit stressful, but I really don’t think it would be a problem if you are aware of it and plan accordingly. Mostly it’s just that street traffic is somewhat chaotic, and pedestrians become unpredictable as a result. Also, the main attractions such as the Vatican Museum and Coliseum tend to have long queues, so once you reach them through the traffic, it’s still tough to relax. But the thing is, you can’t see the Vatican Museum and Coliseum anywhere else in the world, and they are so worthwhile that Rome makes my list, and everybody else’s list.

    But if you mentally prepare yourself for the crowds, and book a hotel that puts the main tourist sights within fairly easy reach, you’ll love the place.

    I’ll also encourage you to include London if you can. I understand why it might seem relatively bland compared to the others, partly due to the language and so much shared culture with the US and elsewhere, but it really does live up to the hype. Though it might feel like “Foreign Travel 101” as an easy introductory stop, once you are there it feels like a “capital of the world” similar to how New York City does.

    As for the French Riviera, it’s quite a lovely place and well worth a stop if you have time. Most people agree that St. Tropez is a bit overrated on its own, as it’s quite expensive, fairly crowded, and without much to see. The best stop for most people is Nice, which is larger, quite budget friendly, and also loaded with good museums and interesting cultural sights as well as the beach itself. Nice has a rocky beach, but you can take the train to Cannes and its sandy beach for a day trip, which is only about 30 minutes away. And Monaco is even closer by train in the other direction, and it’s so small that you can see all the main things in only a few hours. Of the three cities mentioned, Monaco is actually the most visually stunning for a quick stop, but Nice is the best place to stay.

    I’m sure you’ll have an incredible time no matter which destinations you choose. -Roger

     
luca says:

I completely agree with your list, if you did a top ten I would add Barcelona, Prague, Athens, Berlin and Vienna

 

    Luca,

    Thanks, and I couldn’t disagree with any of your next five. I’d be tempted to include Istanbul in order to make it even a bit more diverse, but then it would be hard to figure out which one of those to remove. I appreciate the comment. -Roger

     
Aditi says:

Hi Roger,

I am planning to visit Europe for the first time in May 2017 with my husband for a 15 days trip. I want to include the top 5 cities mentioned above. Can you please plan an itinerary for me which would include the top 5 cities as well as some others worth visiting, with the duration mentioned, for each city. Also, if you feel, I should cut down on any of them due to paucity of time, or as a first timer I should plan my trip in a different way covering some other cities, your suggestions are most welcome. I don’t want to rush anywhere. Totally depending on your views, as I am totally confused what to visit.

Many many thanks in advance.
Aditi

 

    Aditi,

    I’m happy that you are so open minded when planning this trip. Many people start with a very tight schedule and then struggle to change plans when they learn that they are trying to move too quickly. My general advice is to stay in each city for 3 nights, except for the largest and most sight-filled cities like London or Paris, if you have time. There are also a few cities that are small enough to cover in 1 or 2 days, as long as you don’t spend too much time in transit in and out.

    First off, it’s a shame that these 5 cities aren’t quite so easy to string together on a 2-week trip, although it could be done like this:

    Fly into London for 3 nights
    Take a train to Amsterdam for 3 nights
    Take a train to Paris for 4 nights
    Fly to Venice for 2 nights
    Take a train to Rome for 3 nights
    Then fly home from Rome, or fly back to London for a flight home that same day

    That itinerary is obviously filled with highlights, but I think I might instead suggest:

    Fly into London for 3 or 4 nights
    Take a train to Paris for 3 nights
    Fly to Venice for 1 or 2 nights
    Train to Florence for 2 or 3 nights
    Train to Rome for 3 nights

    The second version is also filled with highlights, and the overall travel time is several hours shorter on a few of the journeys. By skipping Amsterdam on this trip, and doing Florence in between Venice and Rome, you get all the best sights in Italy as well as enough time in London and Paris, with short travel times.

    See what you think about that, and I’ll be here to help more in the future when you have more questions. -Roger

     
      Johnathan says:

      Hi Roger,

      Just wanted to mention that if one did want to visit London, Paris and Amsterdam, it would be much faster to go from London to Paris to Amsterdam. Not sure if you intended to write your first itinerary in that order.

      If you were to focus on those 3 and save Italy for another trip, would you recommend adding Brussels or another city as a stop between Paris and Amsterdam? Do you have a better recommendation?

      Johnathan

       

        Johnathan,

        This list is mostly in the order that I think the cities are critical for first-time Europe visitors, rather than an actual itinerary to follow. I put Amsterdam at #5 because I think the other 4 are even more impressive and important. I lived in Amsterdam for a while, and I’m based in London at the moment, even though I’m an American, by the way.

        So yes, you are right that the Eurostar from London to Paris is very efficient, and then the high-speed Thalys train from Paris to Amsterdam, changing in Brussels. I sort of have mixed opinions on Brussels. My uncle lives there and I’ve visited several times, but I find most of the city to be a bit generic, expensive, and mostly focused on business and government employee travelers. On the other hand, the main city square (called the Grand Place) is quite amazing, and the historic area surrounding it is definitely worth seeing.

        As a result, my common recommendation is for people to stop in Brussels and leave their bags in the train station, and then go out and explore for a few hours and have lunch or dinner. After that, get on the train to Bruges, which is 1 hour 7 minutes away on a direct train. Bruges is an almost perfectly preserved medieval town that will remind you of a smaller and more mellow version of Amsterdam. It’s really nice, and it’s cheaper than Brussels. You can see most everything there in about two days. There are a few other Belgian towns to consider such as Antwerp or Ghent, but Bruges has more hotels and more sights by far.

        The only downside of visiting Bruges before Amsterdam is that the architecture is pretty similar since they were built up in the same era. In other words, Amsterdam would seem a bit more spectacular coming straight from Paris rather than from Bruges, but I’d still recommend Bruges if you have two days or so. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

         
Ina says:

Hi Roger, I’m planning on a 2-3+ week trip to Europe for the first time next year. First stop would be Vienna then hopefuly Italy, France, Spain and Greece. London is out of the picture, unfortunately, cause I would need another visa for that. I don’t know how to go about my trip. I just want it to be a relaxed one and not rushing from city to city. It is also important for me to experience the culture through their cuisines. Can you suggest an itinerary for me? Any suggestions about the places I want to visit? Thank you!

 

    Ina,

    Particularly if you want to do a “relaxed” journey, you’ll want to plan on at least 3 nights in each city you visit. That gives you two full sightseeing days in each place because the travel day will take most of your daylight hours in almost all cases. And on a relaxed trip, I’d allow 4 days in Paris, partly because you mention food and it has so much exceptional food that 7 or 8 meals isn’t nearly enough.

    And rather than planning on countries you want to visit, it’s much easier and more helpful to think about the cities. In Austria you’ll start in Vienna and if you want to do another stop it should be Salzburg. In France you won’t have enough time to see more than Paris in 3 or 4 days, but fortunately it’s so wonderful that it will be enough. If you want to go to Spain, the fastest trip I’d recommend would be 3 nights in Barcelona and 3 nights in Madrid. Each is a large city loaded with great attractions, and they are very different from one another.

    The fastest Italy trip that I recommend is 1 night in Venice, 2 nights in Florence, and 3 nights in Rome. That is a lot of rushing, so 7 or 8 days is much better if you have the time. And as for Greece, the only must-see place is Athens, but it’s quite out of the way and I don’t think you’ll have time on this trip. Aside from Athens many people also go to one or more of the islands, but they are more about relaxation and partying than about culture and food. So I’d save Greece for a future trip.

    With all of that in mind, you have to decide which cities you really want to visit, and will have time to visit. Once you have that list I’ll be happy to help you sort out the itinerary. And it’s also best if you can plan cities that are within 5 or so hours of each other by train. If they are farther apart you’ll probably want to fly, and that gets a little complicated and less pleasant than doing it all on the train.

    So think about it, and I’m happy to help you once you have your priority list and total time frame decided upon. -Roger

     
Rajatha says:

Hi Roger,

My friends and I are planning a 2 week trip and we were hoping to cover France, Italy and Netherlands. I’m not entire sure of how to get from one place to the other. I’ve read quiet a bit about Eurail and from what I understand its pretty expensive. Are there any other options on how to commute? And it would be great if I’d get some advice as to where to begin our trip and where to end it. An itinerary would help.

Thanks a tonne.

 

    Rajatha,

    The best way to get between those places is by train. Europe has an extensive rail network, and fares are surprisingly cheap if you buy your tickets at least a month or two in advance. It’s easy to confuse the European rail network with “Eurail Passes”, which are prepaid ride passes that are good for people who want to make plans as they go, but quite expensive compared to individual tickets bought well in advance.

    It’s probably easiest to fly into Amsterdam and spend a few days there. Then take the high-speed train to Paris (3 hours) for a few days. After that take a train to Milan or Venice in Italy. From Paris to Italy it might be cheaper to fly, so compare both options. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

     

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