9 Best first-time Europe itineraries for 1, 2, or 3 weeks
Nearly everyone who wants to visit Europe for the first time is determined to see at least a few different places on that trip. Many people make the mistake of thinking they can maximize what they see by going from one city to the next every day or two, but that is actually a better way of getting to know Europe's trains and train stations than it is of enjoying Europe.
Hopefully you have more than a week for your first visit, as even 10 days is far better than just the 7 since you are likely coming from a long way in the first place. The longer you have the better your trip and the more you'll get to see, but racing from place to place isn't as fun as you might assume. Below are 9 starter itineraries of about a week each. Choose the one that sounds most interesting to you, and build from there with your remaining time.
There are 9 starter itineraries described in detail below
- Classic London and Paris
- England and Scotland
- France, Belgium, and Netherlands
- Paris and elsewhere in France
- Best of cheap eastern Europe
For each itinerary there are suggestions of other destinations that are easy to add on to the main cities.
Building the best itinerary for your first trip to Europe
Below there are 9 popular itineraries for one week in Europe. If you've only got a week then choose one of them and assume you'll return again to conquer more of this amazing part of the world. If you've got more time then you can choose from some of the top add-on suggestions for each one.
Start in the most famous cities
Your first visit to Europe is no time to try to be different or edgy. I recommend that you focus on these 5 great cities before you start branching out into cheaper or more obscure places.
Keep your travel days to a minimum
The closest major European cities are at least two hours apart by high-speed train, and from the time you check out of one hotel until you are checked into your hotel in the next city, it's going to be 5 or more hours in most cases. A travel day isn't much of a sightseeing day, so if you change cities every day or two, you'll have very little time to see the things you've actually gone all that way to see.
Spend 3 (or 4) nights in almost every major city
Cities like London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Berlin, Madrid, and Barcelona are all large and packed with world-class things to see and do. Since the day you arrive and the day you leave will offer little sightseeing time, you need at least two full sightseeing days in order to even see your choice of the top sights.
3 (or 4) nights will be enough for any city on your first trip
Most first-time visitors are tempted to move too quickly, but it can also be a mistake to move too slowly. It's really amazing how much you can see in two full sightseeing days. If you spend too long in one city you'll end up seeing things that are way down your list, while you could be in another city seeing things at the top of your list there.
Choose cities that are easy to reach from each other
Since traveling from one city to another will take at least half a day, you don't want to waste more time by visiting far-flung cities. Prague and Madrid are both fantastic cities to visit, but they are on opposite ends of Europe.
For your first trip it's best to visit cities that are no more than a 5-hour train ride apart.
Choose cities that are connected by reasonable train rides rather than flights
To build on the point above, finding cheap flights within Europe is easy, but train travel is about a million times more enjoyable and less stressful. You'll enjoy the train rides almost as much as the cities, so focus on places that are within 5 hours of each other by train.
Start with one of the classic itineraries below, and then add to it if you have more time
If you only have 7 days then you'll find a list below of classic itineraries that are well-suited to a first visit to Europe. Hopefully you have more than 7 days though, and if you do you can add in one or more of the suggested add-on cities to build an itinerary that appeals most to you.
Best 1-week itineraries for the first time in Europe
Itinerary 1: Classic London and Paris
Fly into either city and take the 2-hour Eurostar train between them
Honestly, unless you have a specific reason why not, this is probably the best one-week itinerary for most first-time visitors to Europe. If you can read this article then London will be easy for language reasons. It's packed with famous sights and it's a major world capital.
Paris is actually far more beautiful than London and the food is famously much better as well. Since Paris gets so many tourists from non-French speaking countries, it's easy to get by on just English, and the Metro system makes it fast and easy to get around.
Best add-ons to London and Paris
- Edinburgh (2 or 3 nights, from London)
- Amsterdam (2 or 3 nights, from Paris)
- Bruges and Brussels (2 nights, from Paris)
Itinerary 2: England and Scotland
London to York: 2 hours
York to Edinburgh: 2 hours 30 minutes
If you prefer to focus your first Europe trip on England and Scotland, you can have a great time and save the Continent for next time. London is the obvious place to start and spend 3 or 4 nights before taking the train north.
York is a small Roman city with intact city walls and one of the most famous cathedrals in Europe. Edinburgh is not only the capital of Scotland, but it's easily the second most interesting city in all of Britain. If your time is short, skip York and spend more time in Edinburgh.
Best add-ons to England and Scotland
If you think you want to spend your whole trip in Britain you should have a look at our article on the best itineraries in England, Scotland, and Wales.
Itinerary 3: France, Belgium, and Netherlands
Paris to Brussels: 1 hour 22 minutes
Brussels to Bruge: 58 minutes
Bruges to Amsterdam: 2 hours 45 minutes
Amsterdam to Paris: 3 hours 17 minutes
If you want to save the UK for a future trip, starting in Paris on a first Europe visit is ideal. You'll probably land in the morning so you'll have almost 3 full days for Paris sightseeing. After that you can hop on a high-speed train for 1 hour 22 minutes to reach Brussels, or go straight to Amsterdam in a bit over 3 hours total.
Spending 4 nights in Paris and 3 nights in Amsterdam would be a great trip, but if you want to see something else you've got a couple options in between. My advice is to spend an afternoon looking around the Grand Place (main square) in Brussels and then hop a 58-minute train ride to Bruges for a night or two. Brussels isn't a great tourist city, but Bruges really is so it's a better option for most people. Whatever you choose out of this group, you can be back in Paris on another high-speed train for your flight home.
Best add-ons to France, Belgium, and Netherlands
- Luxembourg City (1 or 2 nights)
- Cologne, Germany (1 or 2 nights)
- London (3 or 4 nights)
- Interlaken, Switzerland (2 or 3 nights)
Itinerary 4: Paris and elsewhere in France
- Paris (3 or 4 nights)
And a choice of:
- Nice/Cannes/Monaco (2 or 3 nights)
- Avignon (2 nights)
- Bourges (2 nights)
- Bordeaux (2 nights)
- Aix-en-Provence (2 nights)
- Reims (2 nights)
- Dijon/Burgundy (2 nights)
France is such a rich country for tourism experiences that you could spend a month there and still feel like you are missing significant sights. Obviously you'll want to start in Paris, and then after that it's just a matter of what interests you most and how much time you have.
While Nice is a wonderful tourist city for a look at the French Riviera, the other larger cities of Lyon and Marseilles are probably better saved for a future trip because they are light on key sights compared to many smaller towns. Wine lovers can rent a car or take trains into Bordeaux or Burgundy. Since you can get between most of these towns by train in 2 hours or less, spending only 2 nights in each one is a reasonable option if you want to see a lot in a short time.
Best add-ons to Paris and elsewhere
- More France, of course
- London (3 or 4 nights)
- Interlaken, Switzerland (2 or 3 nights)
- Amsterdam (2 or 3 nights)
Itinerary 5: Italy
Rome to Florence: 1 hour 16 minutes
Florence to Venice: 1 hour 53 minutes
Especially for first-time visitors to Europe, Italy might be the most popular destination of all, and for good reason. The country has a famous “Big 3” destinations in Rome, Florence, and Venice, which are all teaming with worthwhile sights and they are conveniently located fairly short train rides from each other. Rome is by far the largest of those and it's packed with great sights, but it's also a bit chaotic, so 3 nights is a good stay for a first visit.
Venice is small enough that you can see the main sights in about 24 hours, and it's so insanely crowded that many people tire of it after about a day as well. It's better to pay more for a hotel to be on the main island and visit quickly than to save money with a hotel on the mainland where you'll be in crowds going back and forth as well. Florence is the most relaxing of the 3, and also a great base for side trips to Pisa, Siena, and Cinque Terre, just to name a few.
Best add-ons to Italy
- Milan (1 or 2 nights)
- Lake Como (2 nights)
- Siena (2 nights)
- Cinque Terre (1 night)
- Naples/Sorrento/Amalfi Coast/Pompeii/Capri (3 to 5 nights)
- Sicily (3 to 4 nights)
Itinerary 6: Spain
Madrid to Barcelona: 2 hours 30 minutes
Spain is another huge country with many things to see, but on your first visit to Europe it's best to focus on its two huge cities. Madrid, which is the capital, and Barcelona, which is on a northern Mediterranean beach, are very different from each other and not substitutable for each other at all. A day trip on a 33-minute train ride from Madrid to Toledo is very worthwhile, although there are many other options.
A huge part of Spain's tourism industry is built around its southern beaches and islands such as Ibiza, Mallorca, and Tenerife. For most people it's best to ignore those places on your first trip because none of the beaches are special enough to spend days on them compared to the culture of the cities.
Best add-ons to Spain
Itinerary 7: Germany
Berlin to Munich: 6 hours 2 minutes
Munich to Rothenburg ob der Tauber: 2 hours 56 minutes
Munich to Füssen: 2 hours 4 minutes
Germany is a popular first-time Europe destination for those with family and/or roots in the country, even if other people save it for a 2nd or 3rd trip. Berlin is the capital and the most interesting city in the country by quite a bit, and it's also pleasantly affordable compared to the other large cities in Germany. Munich is wealthier and more relaxed, and different from Berlin in many other ways as well.
Those two cities are the keys to a Germany visit, and after that you've got a wide variety of choices. I cover most of the popular choices in my article on where to go in Germany, which covers several smaller towns that are major highlights.
Best add-ons to Germany
- Cologne (1 or 2 nights)
- Hamburg (2 or 3 nights)
- Amsterdam (3 nights)
- Prague (3 nights)
- Salzburg (2 or 3 nights)
- Vienna (3 nights)
- Interlaken, Switzerland (3 nights)
- Lucerne, Switzerland (2 or 3 nights)
Itinerary 8: Switzerland
Zurich Airport to Interlaken: 2 hours 10 minutes
Interlaken to Bern: 53 minutes
Bern to Lucerne: 1 hour 50 minutes
Lucerne to Zurich Airport: 1 hour 3 minutes
If you aren't much of a city person at all and you have a much stronger desire to see beautiful scenery and landscapes, then Switzerland could be a good choice for your first visit to Europe. The large cities here such as Zurich, Geneva, Lausanne, and Basel are all fairly dull and very expensive, so it's better to minimize your time in any of them and head straight to the smaller scenic towns.
Interlaken is the best hub for the most dramatic Alps views and experiences. The one-hour cable car ride up to the Schilthorn observation deck is something you'll never forget, and the only thing that might be more dramatic is the train ride up to the Jungfraujoch station, which is the highest in Europe. Lucerne is almost as beautiful with a scenic lake at its heart and also great mountaintop views nearby. If you do want to see a Swiss city then the capital of Bern is the most interesting and photogenic on a short visit. Read more about where to go in Switzerland for even more ideas.
Best add-ons to Switzerland
Itinerary 9: Eastern Europe's best cheap cities
This isn't really recommended for a first trip to Europe unless you are a backpacker who is sure they are going to be able to visit Europe again when they have more money. If you can get a cheap enough flight, the 3 best cheap European cities to visit are Prague, Budapest, and Krakow, which are all around half as expensive as most of the other cities on this list.
Each of these cities is beautiful and historic, but English is less widely spoken so they can also be quite a bit more challenging for a first-time visitor. Another difficulty is that the trains between them are still quite slow compared to the high-speed rail in the West, so it takes most of a day from one to another, and a bus is often a better choice.
Prague to Budapest: 6 hours 41 minutes
Budapest to Krakow: 9 hours 54 minutes (flying might be better)