How long should you stay in each European city? 3 Nights, and here is why
Planning your first multi-city trip through Europe or anywhere else can be daunting, and most of us face the urge to want to cram as much into that trip as possible. Moving quickly through Europe can be fun, but moving too quickly through Europe can be miserable and a good way to ruin your whole trip.
This website has many articles about Europe itineraries and Eurail passes and whatnot, and at the bottom of many of them I get countless questions for readers seeking personalized advice. I enjoy trying to help people, but to speed things up I need to summarize at least this one important point so I don't have to keep typing it. In other words, if you are reading this it's quite possibly because I linked to it within an answer to your question about Europe itineraries.
Three nights in each city is the magic number for those wanting to see as much as possible
However tempting it might be to spend only two nights in each city or even to only spend one night in a city before moving on, please consider the points below and take them into account. And when I mention “3 nights” for me it means the same as “3 days.” In the end the days and nights will add up to the same, and the most important thing is having two full sightseeing days where you wake up and go to sleep in that same city.
A transit day is never a good sightseeing day
The short version of this whole topic is that it's very difficult to get much meaningful sightseeing in on the day you arrive, and the later you arrive the harder it is. Even if you are all checked into your hotel at 2pm, the sightseeing day is almost over and at most you'll have the time to see one meaningful sight before things start closing up.
Train and bus travel is tiring, and flying is worse
It's an odd phenomenon that seems to be shared by almost everyone that we feel tired and somewhat worn out after a long car, bus, or train ride. Personally I don't feel as tired if I'm the driver on a 5-hour car journey, but if I'm the passenger I'm always strangely tired when I arrive.
I think it might be partly that the scenery along the way is a bit overwhelming for our brains and that humans aren't adapted to go at high speeds for long periods of time. You might be a rare person who isn't affected by this, but for most of us we won't be ready to run to the first famous sight the moment after we put our bag down in our hotel room.
Arriving midday or in the afternoon is disorienting
As a veteran of about 8 total years on trips and probably close to 1,000 hotel rooms, I've noticed that I feel at least a little off until my first full day in a city where I've actually woken up there. Nearly all of my travel companions have reported the same thing, and for some people it's worse.
The bottom line is that if you arrive in a city after noon that day you'll probably feel disoriented and your time is probably better spent learning your way around rather than going immediately to the top attraction on your list like the Louvre or the Statue of Liberty.
Packing and checking out and into hotels and hostels takes precious time
You may only have a 2 or 3-hour train ride ahead if you if you are lucky, but the time from when you start getting ready to leave one hotel until you are fully checked into your next hotel is still going to be a lot longer than that.
Let's say your 2-hour train ride is at 9:30am and your hotel is only a 10-minute walk from the station. You still have to be ready to check out of the hotel at 9am in case there are people in front of you, so you have to start packing and organizing your stuff at least 15 minutes before that, and that's if you are a well organized light packer.
That train might pull into its station in the next city at 11:30am, but then you have to find your way to your hotel by foot, public transport, or taxi. Even if you arrive at noon there is a good chance that the desk clerk will point to a sign that says “Check-in time is 3pm.” They will watch your bags if you go out and come back, but then you have another chore once you return and your room is finally ready.
With two full sightseeing days you can see all the top highlights on your list
As hurried as you may feel on your travel days, the full days you have in any given city will feel surprisingly long if you plan ahead. Assuming your priority is to see the highlights of multiple cities on a trip like this, you can easily enjoy 3 or 4 major sights each day, and you'll still have a bit of time for some shopping, strolling, and a nice dinner and some nightlife.
The key is to plan your days in advance so you can most efficiently visit all of the sights at the top of your list. By the end of that second full day you will have hit at least your top 7 or 8 items, and you'll feel like you know your way around pretty well at that point. Maybe you'll decide to return someday to explore the rest of the things on your list, but even if you don't you'll still have experienced all of the things you cared most about.
A 4th day is wise in some larger cities that are packed with sights
Three days is enough time to hit the highlights of most cities in Europe and elsewhere, but if you have a spare day it can come in handy in the largest and most interesting cities such as London and Paris. For example, the Palace at Versailles is a half-day or longer trip from Paris, and Windsor Castle is also a half-day trip from central London. If you want to visit those iconic sights it's hard to include them if you only have two full sightseeing days.
Rome is another city that is large and packed with top-shelf sights, but they are all close enough together that two full sightseeing days should be enough. The more time you have to spend in each city obviously the more you can see, but for those who want to see as many cities as possible on one trip, three days is usually the magic number.
Changing cities too often can ruin a trip
For all of the reasons discussed above, the time from when you start to check out of a hotel in one city until the time you are at your hotel in the next city is usually a minimum of 5 hours or so. And when you finally get in your room in the next city you will probably feel somewhat tired and fairly disoriented. When you add it all up you'll be spending most of the middle of a day until you are ready to enjoy your new surroundings.
If you change cities every other day you will not only limit your sightseeing time, but you'll also start getting burned out quickly. Checking in and out of hotels and studying train schedules is draining, and if you do it too often you'll almost certainly regret it. Seeing 4 cities in 8 days is exhausting, and seeing 8 cities in 16 days is much worse.