How long to stay in each city? Itinerary tips and tricks

Munich Train StationWhether you are the type who loves pre-trip research, or the type who prefers to just wing it upon arrival, the issue of how long to stay in each place is a major one. We all want to maximize our time in the better places when on multi-stop trips, but figuring out which those are isn't quite so obvious on your first visit to any part of the world.

Some of the best and most famous tourist cities on the planet are actually best visited in one well-planned day, while many others require 3 or 4 days to even feel like you are scratching the surface. Having been around the world a couple of times while studying these places as I go, I've sorted out some “best practices” on itinerary planning.

And lately I've been answering dozens of questions for readers in both the Europe itinerary planning and Eurorail Pass articles, so hopefully this will be of use for those going through the process soon.

>>>Germany itinerary suggestions
>>>France and Italy itinerary suggestions

How to figure out how long to stay in each city

If you are forming an itinerary for a multi-stop trip, the tips below should help you confidently make a plan you'll enjoy.

Move as slowly as you can allow yourself to

London Ben viewFor the longest time I was tired of hearing seasoned travelers preach about slow travel and its virtues. I even wrote a response about the benefits of fast travel, which I still stand by. But while helping people sort through their proposed itineraries lately I can't deny that the most common mistake continues to be trying to see too much in too little time.

Many of the specific reasons are outlined below, but to sum it up, you'll have a better time if you remember that it's supposed to be a vacation and not a race. If you try to visit a major city in only a day or two you'll mainly be left with the knowledge that you ended up skipping a long list of worthwhile things. Most likely you'll have future trips to see the next set of cities, so it's unwise to plan as if this is your only chance.

For major cities, 3 nights is a minimum, and 4 or 5 is better

LouvreSo with the above in mind, you should already be crossing stops off of your itinerary, but when you get down to adding up days the first rule is to allow at least 3 nights in major cities, and especially the spread-out ones. In Europe, the major cities include London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Rome, Florence, Madrid, Barcelona, and Istanbul.

Most other cities deserve a minimum of 2 nights (although 3 is often better). As we'll discuss below, your travel days will almost never be fruitful sightseeing days, and traveling every other day gets tiring in general.

For compact cities, 2 nights can be long enough

Edinburgh Royal MileAgain, discussing the minimum duration to make a visit even worthwhile, quite a few of the world's best tourist cities have one central core that can be walked across in an hour or less. In these cases, you can actually see a lot in just two days, especially if you choose a central hotel or hostel as well.

European examples of this include Dublin, Edinburgh, Cologne, Munich, Nice, Copenhagen, Krakow, Budapest, Bratislava, Belgrade, Naples, and most cities in France and Spain except for the largest ones. There are dozens if not hundreds more just within Europe, and you can often tell which they are when you look at a map of hotels or hostels and discover that most of them are clustered within a couple square miles or so in the center.

A few famous cities can be done in 1 night, but only if you plan well

Venice BridgeAnother popular rule of itineraries is that you should never travel on consecutive days, meaning trying to see a city in one day or less. While this is a good rule, there are a few interesting exceptions to it, but only if you've planned it in advance. My favorite example of this is Venice, but it also works for Rothenburg, Germany, or any of the other compact medieval cities.

Cities like these tend to be insanely crowded from about 10am until 6pm because they are filled with day-trippers on bus tours. Some of them, most notably Venice, are also very expensive, so most budget tourists stay outside of the city if they stay in the area at all.

So the one-night strategy is this:

Arrive early, hopefully by noon, and check into a hotel or hostel in as central a location as you can afford. Then see the sights for a few hours until you tire of the extreme crowds, and go back to your place for a rest. About 6pm, head out again to discover you will soon have the city almost to yourself, and walk around enjoying the scenery before dinner and maybe a couple drinks into the late evening.

The following morning, wake up early and see whatever leftover checklist sights you missed the first day, and come back to check out of your hotel when it gets too crowded again. By noon or so, you are off to the next place, where you can catch your breath and slow down again.

Day trips to small and/or expensive places are good strategy

Monaco HarborContinuing to focus on Europe because it's both popular and compact, there are many interesting and worthwhile towns that are 90 minutes or less by train or bus from larger cities. Depending on the specifics, it's usually better to stay in the larger city and see the others as day trips rather than spending a night or two there. It's wise to take train or bus fares into account, and if a round-trip seems to expensive and you are moving in that direction anyway then it might be better to change cities.

Famous examples of this are seeing Monaco and Cannes (both expensive) while staying in relatively inexpensive Nice on France's southern coast. You can visit Pisa (which is only worth a couple hours) while staying in Florence, and you can visit many interesting places while staying in Paris. The point is, when places look close together on a map, investigate the day-trip strategy.

Mix shorter stays with longer ones every week

Amsterdam Guild HallAs long as your whole trip is at least two weeks (and I hope it is), you'll also want to take general pacing into account. If you line up a bunch of cities that look like they can be visited in one or two days each, it's still not wise to move so quickly. A general rule could be to limit your travel days to no more than 3 per week, or 5 in two weeks.

One time I had a Eurail Pass and I did 11 cities in 17 days (including stopping in Munich for 6 hours during Oktoberfest on my way to Innsbruck), and it was ridiculous. As relaxing as trains can be while they are moving, being on them several times per week gets exhausting, and flying is even worse.

Research flight or train durations before adding too much

Amsterdam FlyoverAnother of the more common mistakes people make in Europe in particular is not realizing how long it can take between some cities. While most of the major cities are 5 or fewer hours apart by train, there are many that take 12 or more hours and might require a change along the way. A night train could be a good strategy for those, or flying, of course, but however you do it you'll need to factor that into your trip.

So whether it's a 12-hour train ride or even a 1-hour flight where you have to get to the airport two hours early and then take another 2 hours getting into town after you land, days like these can be pretty much written off for sightseeing. By the time you arrive you'll be disoriented and exhausted, so having dinner near your hotel or hostel might be all you'll be capable of. The point is, on flight or long train ride days, add another night in order to see the new city properly.

If money is an issue, check our price indexes and plan accordingly

London HostelIt seems like most of us are trying to keep expenses low while we travel, and this is one major reason I created Price of Travel in the first place. Not only should it be helpful to know about how much each city costs (at least relative to the others), but it should help you sort out an itinerary where you maximize time in the cheap-great cities while hustling through the expensive-great cities.

Hopefully you are already aware of the Backpacker Index, which calculates typical expenses for budget travelers and backpackers. The Europe Backpacker Index ranks 47 cities by price, with the cheapest only costing a quarter as much as the most expensive. There is also the Europe 3-star traveler Index, which does the same thing for mid-range travelers. The Asia Backpacker Index ranks the most popular destinations on that continent, which are also the cheapest in the world.

Don't plan itinerary stops just because you've heard of a place

Belgrade Street SignAnother mistake that seems common is that people plan stops in cities just because they've heard of them or maybe they are the next major city on the map. Now, a travel purist might argue that every city has its own charms to be discovered, which is true (sort of), but remember our goal here is to maximize time in the great places and minimize time in the duds.

You might even ask yourself, with each city on my list, can I form at least a sentence or two on exactly why I am going there? Do you know of specific attractions you don't want to miss, or is there a certain local food you've been intending on trying? If you can't come up with something concrete about each place, it's time to research and consider cutting it. Good examples of cities like this are Frankfurt, Brussels, Rotterdam, Dresden, Bratislava, Belgrade, Zagreb, and even Milan. I've stayed in all of those, but I wouldn't recommend any of them for a first visit to Europe unless you have particular reasons.

If you plan to move quickly, better to wing it than lock it all in

Galway Girl and BirdsSo, you are still planning on visiting 10 cities in 21 days. You might actually pull it off exactly as planned and you might love it, but I'd be willing to bet that along the way you'll realize you are spending too much time moving and too little time appreciating what you've come to see.

The best favor you can do for yourself if you want to try something like this is to lock in the first 2 or even 3 destinations with hotel reservations and transportation, and then evaluate the rest of it as you go. In other words, please don't buy airline or train tickets all in advance for such a wild itinerary. If by Day 11 you're really enjoying your 3rd or 4th city, you don't want to have to keep racing to the next ones just because it seemed like a good idea when you were at home a few months before.



14 Responses to “How long to stay in each city? Itinerary tips and tricks”

Nia says:

The skipping itinerary part made me sad because a lot of those cities are actually places I really want to go to! What is wrong with them? I love Europe and want to see as much of it as I possibly can!

 

    Nia,

    Nearly any city in Europe will be interesting, but some famous cities aren’t nearly as interesting as others. The classic example is Frankfurt, which is famous because it has Germany’s busiest airport and it’s also the home to most German banks. But as a tourist city it might rank no higher than #10 in Germany. For one thing, many European cities were destroyed by bombs in WWII, and some were rebuilt with generic brick buildings and glass towers that could be anywhere in the world. But other cities mostly survived intact or were rebuilt to resemble how they were before the war.

    My main point is that you shouldn’t visit a city just because you’ve heard the name many times. You should visit if there are specific things there you want to see and do. If you have things you want to see in Frankfurt then by all means go and you’ll enjoy it. Just don’t go to Frankfurt because it’s a large city with a big airport. -Roger

     
Nia says:

The only reason I commented was that some of the cities on the list are ones that I’ve actually been interested in for a long time. I totally get what you are saying though.

 
Juan says:

Thanks for this article!, it really helps me a lot for my upcoming trip to Europe, do you think 5 main cities (Barcelona, Lisbon, Prague, Capadoccia, Rome) and 2 1-night stand (Rothenburg, Innsbruck) is too much for a 19-day trip?

 

    Juan,

    I’m happy to help. The places on your list are all really good choices, but it’s an odd collection because none of them are near each other. You’ll not only have to fly between all of them, but there are some long and complicated flights in there. If you have 19 days I’d highly recommend trying to choose a group of cities that are all connected by train rides of 6 hours or less. Taking trains between European cities can really add to the trip because you get to see so much of the countryside and scenery, and it’s an almost zero-stress way to travel. But flying in Europe is as much of a hassle as it is anywhere in that you have to take public transport out to the airport and then go through security and wait around a lot. If you did those cities on your list you’d spend between 5 and 9 hours every third day with the flights and airport transportation.

    Also, Innsbruck is a wonderful ski area, but the city itself is pretty dull and I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are skiing. Salzburg is much more interesting, and Rothenburg ob der Tauber is really nice as well, and small enough to enjoy in a day.

    So again, if you don’t mind spending a third or more of your vacation in airports and such, you could do what you have planned. But I really think it would be FAR more enjoyable if you kept the number of flights down to 1 or 2. Cappadoccia is an amazing place and Goreme is the coolest town there to stay, but it would require at least two flights in and out, as you’d probably have to change planes in Istanbul. I hope this helps and I’m happy to answer other questions if you have them. -Roger

     
jarrett says:

going to Europe for the 1st time sept 1-21 what do you think of this itinerary? fly to london rail to paris then fly to barcelona,rome,prague,amsterdam ,fly home from frankfort is it to much am i missing someplce on the way that i should see? I dont mind being on the go what do you think? please let me know thanks

 

    Jarrett,

    Six cities in 21 days is actually a pretty leisurely pace and you might be able to add one more. Those are all great cities so I think the plan looks good. You can take a train from Paris to Barcelona and it takes just a bit more time than flying but it’s also far more enjoyable because you don’t have to do all the security and airport hassle. You could add Berlin between Prague and Amsterdam and take trains between them and then a train to Frankfurt for your flight home, but flying from Amsterdam to Frankfurt is probably better since you’ll need to be at the airport anyway. I typically recommend 3 nights in each city if you want to travel quickly, so your plan would give you 3 or 4 nights in each city, which is great. I think it looks good and let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

     
Kieran says:

This is a difficult one for me I think. Starting first week of December I’ll be solo backpacking 6 months in Europe. it’s something I’ve never done before and In fact I have only ever been abroad once in my life and that was to Berlin, Germany, for 9 days. After 7 days I started to get tired due to the immense amount of walking around I was doing per day (7+ hours it felt like). I decided after the 7th day to extend my stay for two days but I kind of just wanted to rest in my hostel and not really do much.

I plan on going to Bratislava, Prague, Budapest, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Podgorica, Tirana, Pristina, Skopje, Sofia, Bucharest, Chisenau(maybe), Kiev, Krakow and Vilinus.

(With potential trips to other parts of the country outside the main cities, but I’d prefer to look into that when I am physically there so haven’t planned that extensively).

A lot of these places you could spend mere days in according to a lot of people due to their relative size and number of attractions among other factors. For example that works out at around 12 days per country, which for some of these might seem like a ridiculously long period.

The interesting thing about it all however, i find, is that I don’t know what is considered a decent amount of time to spend in these places, and that in particular is what I find exciting in planning this adventure, because it will all be new to me. For all anybody knows, someone might say 2 days is enough for Skopje, but I could arrive in Skopje, fall in love with it and decide to stay there for 3 weeks. In contrast, someone might say one week is good for Prague but I might find it boring and decide to move on after a few days.

 
Arman Aziz says:

Hi Roger:

I am planning a 2 week tour of Europe with family (me, my wife and two young boys 8 and 11) in June 2019. I am happy with the first part of my itinerary (covering France and Switzerland) up to Day 7 when I would be in Lucerne; and on Day 12 I need to be back in Paris. Between Day 8-12, my Plan was to cover 4 destinations @ 1 night each: INNSBRUCK, BERLIN, AMSTERDAM and BRUGES. I should mention, I’ll be travelling on Eurail pass. But your write up motivated me to reconsider this leg of the journey. Would you recommend me to drop one or two cities? Which ones?

Arman

 

    Arman,

    That sounds like a great trip, but I’d DEFINITELY recommend dropping two of the cities. Even two nights each is really rushing since the trip between them will take most of a day. I’ve actually written a newer version of the article above where I go into more detail about why I think 3 nights is the sweet spot for a fast-moving trip.

    In your case the choices are pretty easy. Innsbruck is mainly a ski resort town and there isn’t much to see there unless you’ll be on the slopes yourself. Salzburg, on the other hand, is wonderful and filled with great sights and scenery. So drop Innsbruck. And also drop Bruges. Bruges is basically a smaller and more quiet version of Amsterdam and it was built in the same era. On longer trips I think Bruges is a nice stop because it’s mellow and there are some different things there, but it looks very much like Amsterdam except it doesn’t have the blockbuster sights that Amsterdam has.

    The train ride from Switzerland to Berlin will be a long one and you might even consider Munich instead to save some time. Of the two cities I think Berlin is more interesting, but Munich is also very nice and it would save you many hours on the trains. Amsterdam is only a bit over 3 hours back to Paris on the high-speed train. I think there is a supplement for Eurail Pass holders, though it’s still a great journey and worthwhile. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

     
Ell says:

Hi Roger!

Thanks for the helpful tips in your article. I was wondering if you could offer some advice on my husband & I’s planned itinerary for 21 nights in Europe probably around October this year. We are thinking of doing London 3n, Paris 4n, Cologne 4n, Venice 2n, Florence 4n & Rome 4n. My husband is concerned this will be a bit too rushed & not long enough in each location & that we’d be better to drop an Italian city to spend a bit longer in the other places. We are both more interested in seeing Venice & Florence over Rome, but also ditching Rome on our first trip to Europe feels like we’d be missing a big part of Italy. We do feel like it will be a big busy city & not necessarily the best place at the end of our trip though. What would you recommend? I know that this is no-where near as packed as some other travellers fit into 3 weeks, but also that with travel time (trains mainly except probably flying Cologne>Venice) we don’t want to feel like we haven’t had time to properly enjoy a place before moving on. Would love your thoughts.
Thanks!

 

    Ell,

    I’m glad to hear that this is helpful. Interestingly enough, even though I’m an advocate of “fast travel,” in these comments I still spend most of my time encouraging people to slow down a bit. In your case I feel like you could actually move a bit quicker if you wanted to.

    First off, 3 nights in London is enough, but if this is your first visit there I’d probably recommend 4 nights because it’s a huge city packed with great things to see and do. Paris in 4 nights is perfect. Cologne, on the other hand, is a bit of a head-scratcher. I am wondering if you have family or friends there? Or perhaps some other reason for spending so long there? For the typical first-time visitor the main highlights are the amazing cathedral and the lovely Old Town, both of which are right next to the main train station. It’s one of the few cities that you can actually experience in 24 hours or so without feeling like you are missing much. They have famous beer and Christmas markets, but aside from those things it’s not a big draw.

    Venice is an interesting city to visit because it’s amazing and unlike anything you’ll ever see, but it’s also annoyingly crowded from about 10am until 5pm every day, so many people are happy to stay about 24 hours and then move on. It’s a bit like going to Disneyland where it’s breathtaking and by the end of the day you are glad to be going home and don’t want to return the next day. Two nights there is lovely though, and I encourage you to stay ON the main island because it’s magical before 10am and after 5pm when the crowds are much thinner.

    Four nights in Florence is fantastic. You’ll be able to see the main sights in two days or so, which will leave you time for a day trip to Pisa and/or Siena and/or one of the nearby hill towns.

    Usually I recommend 3 nights in Rome for the reasons you mentioned. It’s honestly a chaotic city that tires people out more than most other places, but it’s also packed with some of the world’s best attractions, especially the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica. As long as you pace yourself you’ll have a wonderful four days there.

    As always, let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

     
Jana says:

Hi, I stumbled on your page and absolutely love your tips and advice. My husband an I are looking at a trip November 1-17 (arriving in the morning on November 2nd and leaving early afternoon on the 17th). He spent a summer in college leisurely touring much of Europe, and I have never been. We need to fly both into AND out of Paris (our city now has non-stop flights and it’s less than half the price of two one-way tickets to go in and out of different cities).

Definites on our list are Paris, London, and Rome. I am hoping maybe we can pick one other city to spend one or two nights in. I was thinking of Florence because my husband loved it so much on his trip.

My questions are: 1) Do you think we could squeeze in a fourth city without feeling like we gave up too much time in the others? 2) Would you agree with Florence as a good option, or suggest Amsterdam, Switzerland, or somewhere else instead? and 3) How would you divide up time?

I so appreciate any advice you can offer! Thank you!

 

    Jana,

    I’m happy you find this useful. I actually have a newer version of this article that focuses more on how three nights is the optimum amount of time to stay in each European city for those trying to see as much as possible.

    Since you’ve got 15 nights to work with you’ll definitely have time for four cities, and actually time for a fifth quick one if you like. You could do Amsterdam or Switzerland, but since you’ll definitely go to Rome I think it would be best to save those for a future trip and spend a bit more time in Italy. Here’s what I’d recommend:

    Fly into Paris and spend 4 nights there. Then fly from Paris to Venice (or nearby Treviso Airport) in the morning and spend about 24 hours in Venice. Then take a short train ride to Florence and spend 3 nights there. Then take a short train ride to Rome and spend 3 nights there. Then fly to London and spend 4 nights there. Then take the Eurostar train from London to Paris in the morning before your flight home from Paris that afternoon. You can get more detailed information about the Italy stops on my article about best Italy itineraries. Venice is small enough and so crowded that it’s easy to see and enjoy in about 24 hours, and the longer you stay the more you’ll get tired of the crowds.

    For the flights and Eurostar train it’s cheapest if you book at least 2 or 3 months in advance. The Italian train tickets are also cheaper if you book early, but a month or so in advance should be good enough. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

     

Leave a Comment

    Name (required)
    Mail (will not be published) (required)