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

Planning your first trip to Europe can be challenging because we hear so many great things about so many different places, it’s tough to know which to see first. There are interesting cities like Copenhagen and cheap cities like Krakow and even some cities that are interesting and cheap at the same time such as Cesky Krumlov. Still, I’m here to recommend starting with the classic and famous cities first and then exploring other places starting on your second trip (and there WILL be a second trip).

The list of 5 cities below can make for a perfect first-time to Europe itinerary all by itself if you have two weeks or so to spend, and I even tell you exactly how to do that at the end. Traveling can seem competitive in certain circles and it’s hard to brag about having visited Belgrade or Riga if you haven’t been to London, Paris, and Rome before. We keep an updated list of European cities from cheapest to most expensive and most of the cities I mention in this article are on the expensive end of the list, and they are still worth it.

This article was last updated in August, 2022.

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

If you are planning your first trip to Europe, hopefully it will be the first of many. Once you get a taste of the place and the crazy variety you’ll experience there, you’ll be ready to start planning your second trip before you even get home from your first.

While it might be tempting to start by visiting some of Europe’s cheapest cities, it’s actually much better to start with the classics to see what all the fuss is about before you branch off into more obscure destinations. And good news for Americans in 2022 who are planning a trip because the Euro and British Pound are both very weak right now so even the top cities such as London and Paris will be relatively cheap, even compared to visiting, say, Chicago, this year.

Suggestions for your first trip to Europe

Due to the unexpected popularity of this article and the many questions in comments about first-time itineraries, I’ve created a new and detailed article with all of my best suggestions.

>>>11 Best itinerary ideas for your first trip to Europe

Once you at least scan that article you’ll have some itinerary ideas for your own trip and I’ll be happy to answer questions at the bottom of that one.

Europe's 5 Great Cities for visitors

1 – London

The 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 first time you see Parliament and Big Ben just around the corner from the London Eye, you’ll know you are somewhere important and unforgettable.

London also used to be famously expensive and it still can be if you are holding money in Euros or British pounds or some other currency that is low at the moment. But if you are from the US or Canada, London has come down in price quite a bit in the last few years due to a currency drop. It’s true that there is inflation as well and some prices have gone up for visitors, but generally London is relatively cheap for most people in 2022.

This is also a perfect place to start your first Europe trip because there won’t be a language barrier (although some accents are harder to understand than others) and you can get the feel for Europe and the time zone without also having to worry about being understood by the people you meet.

  • 2022 Backpacker Index: US$92.67 per day

2 – Paris

Definitely 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.

Another thing to mention is the food. Somehow, the French people care a lot more about food than any other nationality and they are amazing at it. Seriously, it’s almost impossible to find a meal that isn’t unusually great. You can even order the Plat Du Jour (plate of the day) at the closest neighborhood restaurant to your hotel and it is almost guaranteed to be amazing and also reasonably priced.

  • 2022 Backpacker Index: US$85.11 per day

3 – Rome

Unlike 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.

In 2022 all of Italy is relatively inexpensive because of the low Euro, so it’s a good time to visit some of the normally expensive cities like Rome. There are probably 10 famous attractions in this city that are each more amazing and interesting than any attraction in most other European cities such as Berlin or Brussels.

  • 2022 Backpacker Index: US$71.49 per day

4 – Venice

Some 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.

Try to visit Venice when there are no cruise ships parked nearby, although that can be tricky in summer. You’ll enjoy how empty the island feels in the early morning hours and also late into the evening. The restaurants tend to close early and there isn’t much raucous nightlife, so after 10 PM or so the walkways are mostly empty and it’s another great time to enjoy Venice.

  • 2022 Backpacker Index: US$90.97 per day

5 – Amsterdam

Some 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.

Hotel prices in Amsterdam have gotten somewhat out of hand so it’s a good thing the Euro is lower if you are coming from outside the region. Still, as good as the public transportation system in Amsterdam is, you’ll have a better time if you pay a bit more to stay in a hotel or hostel in the compact city center, roughly from the Princengracht canal ring to Centraal Station and anywhere in between.

  • 2022 Backpacker Index: US$93.69 per day

The most efficient way to visit all of them on one trip

If you are planning your first trip to Europe and you’ve got about two weeks to spend there, it’s quite easy to visit all 5 of the above cities on one efficient trip. You can even sneak in another amazing city for a day or two if you’ve got it to spare.

You can do the following itinerary in either order, but I do think starting in London is better than starting in Rome on your first trip.

  1. Fly into London and spend 3 or 4 days there
  2. Take the Eurostar train (90 minutes) to Paris and spend 3 or 4 days there
  3. Take the high speed train from Paris to Amsterdam (3 hours 20 minutes) and spend 3 nights there
  4. Fly from Amsterdam to Venice (or nearby Treviso) and spend 1 or 2 days there
  5. Take the train from Venice through Florence (2 hours) to Rome (another 90 minutes) and spend 3 or 4 days there
  6. If you have one or two days to spare, stop in Florence in between Venice and Rome
  7. Fly home from Rome or back to London to board your flight home

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.

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All Comments

  1. Caroline says:

    Hi Roger
    I’m planning a solo trip to Europe for the first time and I have a total of 21 days including travel days. The destinations I have in mind are below. Please advise on how I should plan out the itinerary for easy and convenient access to these places. I plan on flying into London from USA just to see family for a day or 2 then proceed from there. I was thinking of probably getting a 15 day Eurail pass but not sure if this is a smart idea or maybe flying is cheaper? Please advise on that and the ideal budget you think is reasonable for this cities. Would you recommend budget hotels, hostels or Airbnbs?

    London 3 days
    Paris- 3
    Amsterdam-3
    Italy – Rome 3, Florence 3 and Venice 2

    Please Advise

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Caroline,

      Your plan looks really nice and pretty much a perfect first trip to Europe. Eurail Passes can be great for longer trips where people want to be able to make plans as they go, but for trips like yours it’s generally a lot cheaper to just buy individual tickets in advance. So you can fly into London and then take the Eurostar to Paris and then the high-speed train to Amsterdam, and if you buy those a couple months in advance they will be reasonably priced. Buy a plane ticket from Amsterdam to Venice (or nearby Treviso) and then book train tickets to Florence and to Rome. Those Italian train tickets will be surprisingly cheap if you book them at least a month in advance. You could instead fly from Amsterdam to Rome and then go north to Venice, as it all depends on your flight back to London for your trip home.

      As for a budget you should be helped by our Europe Backpacker Index, which tracks typical daily expenses in 56 cities, including all of these. The daily price includes a hostel dorm bed so if you want to stay in hotels it will be a bit more expensive. Speaking of that, these cities all have “single” rooms in many or most hotels and they are ideal for a solo traveler. They will be rather small (all European hotel rooms tend to be small) and these single rooms can be shockingly small when you first see them (especially in London), but they are good value and often much less than a standard double room meant for a couple. You can often find single rooms in hostels as well.

      And speaking of hostels, they are something you should consider because they almost always come with access to a communal kitchen and a lounge area. Those places are wonderful for meeting other travelers and making friends. At a typical hotel you might eat breakfast in the same room as some other couples staying there, but they tend not to be social. So if you stay in hostels you’ll have the option to keep to yourself and the option to meet other people. Hostels are also great for activities such as “free” (tips-based) walking tours and pub crawls and such. I tend to be bad at meeting people and making fast friends, but when staying at a hostel it is MUCH easier for solo travelers. And of course if you DO sleep in dorms it’s even easier. I’d try it at least a couple times to see if you like it and save some money.

      Airbnbs tend to be much more expensive than hostels and usually with less central locations than hotels so they are not ideal for solo travelers. But it doesn’t hurt to look around. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  2. seema says:

    Hi Roger,

    I am travelling to Europe in April and planning to stay for 15-20 days.
    I am thinking of staying in:
    1. Amsterdam(3nights)
    2. Train to paris 4th day (spend 2 nights )
    3. Travel to switzerland (4 nights)
    4. travel to Italy(4 nights).

    I have three more days that I can add to the trip. Please let me know if above itirenary is doable and anything you would like to remove /replace from above and add something else.

    My top priorities are above 4 countries, but if that is not a perfect choice i am willing to remove and replave with someother place.

    2 query with 2-3 additional day,what else i should not miss?
    3. what should be my mode of travel from 1–>2–>3–>4.

    Thank you so much for your help.
    -Seema.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Seema,

      Your plan looks quite good. If you have 3 more days I’d add them in Italy. So it could be Amsterdam for 3 days and then a train to Paris for 2 days (3 would be better) and then a train to Interlaken and Lucerne for 3 or 4 days and then a train to Venice for 1 day and then a train to Florence for 2 or 3 days and then a train to Rome for your final 3 days. I’d probably add one day to Paris and then two days to Italy so you can visit Florence. Let me know if you have any other questions. This should be an amazing trip this way. -Roger

      1. Steve says:

        Comment*its my first time going to Europe. I’m in the beginning stages of planning. Should I omit London? I like the template suggested.

        Thanks in advance Steve

        1. Roger Wade says:

          Steve,

          London is an amazing city, but it’s obviously a bit remote as well and it’s easy to reach on its own. I think doing a trip of the other four cities would be a great first visit. London is also the easiest to visit for those of us who only speak English, but each year that goes on it gets easier for the others so I think skipping London is a good idea if that sounds good to you. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  3. Ashish Sen says:

    Hi Roger,

    I am so thankful to find this blog. Reading through the comments has provided a lot of insights on how to plan Europe trip. Your responses are very through and informative.

    My wife and me are planning for a 21 day trip during the month of April (or May) from India. We would be visiting Europe for the first time.

    The plan so far is to distribute our days as follows:
    Day 1 – 4: Amsterdam
    Day 5: Brussels
    Day 6: Bruges
    Day 7 – 10: Paris
    Day 9 – 12: Interlaken
    Day 13 – 14: Lucerne
    Day 15: Venice
    Day 16 – 17: Florence and Pisa
    Day 18 – 20: Rome

    Was wondering if you could answer a couple of queries.

    1. Do you think this is good itinerary? I am open to all suggestions and if you think any of these places should be replaced with some other then its perfectly fine. Does the order in which we are visiting these cities look good to you.
    Somewhere in this thread you mentioned that Bruges is sort of a “mini” version of Amsterdam. Is it worth going there?
    We have been to San Francisco, Las Vegas a couple of months back would prefer if none of the cities in our itinerary are similar to those two.

    2. When do you suggest we take the trip – starting from April 1 or May 1?
    Are there any pros and cons here in terms of crowd, weather. I tend to not like cold weather. With that factor in consideration would your prefer May over April. Is April a good time to visit. We do not like crowds but on the other hand we do not want to be in a situation where there are no tourists and some are not opened for tourists.

    3. If we could add 4 more days to our vacations what would you recommend.

    Thanks.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Ashish,

      I’m always happy to hear that this information is useful. Your itinerary looks excellent and the order looks perfect. One thing I’d consider would be staying two nights in Bruges and visiting Brussels for an afternoon as a day trip. From Amsterdam you take a fast train to Brussels and then a local train that takes one hour to reach Bruges. In my opinion, the historic center of Brussels is really lovely (the area around the main square, which is called the Grand Place), but the rest of the city is spread out and not all that interesting. You could stop on your way to Bruges and put your bags in a locker or at a left-luggage counter for a few hours while you explore central Brussels and then head to Bruges for two nights. Or you could go straight to Bruges and then come back for a few hours the following day. Either one of those would save you from having to check in and check out of a hotel in Brussels.

      It’s true that Bruges is sort of a mini Amsterdam, but I do think it’s worth visiting both. Amsterdam is loaded with amazing sights and it’s also quite crowded so being in a mellow version of it is a nice change, and there are many unique things in Bruges as well. None of the cities on your list will remind you anything of Las Vegas, and almost nothing of San Francisco either, so I’m sure you’ll enjoy them.

      The crowds in these cities tend to get a bit bigger as April goes on, but the weather in May will be warmer so you might prefer it anyway. I’d go whenever you can get good flights. The hotels might be slightly more expensive in May, but again, you’d probably not notice. My favorite months for these cities are April, May, and September because they have pleasant weather and smaller crowds. I think any time in that area will be great.

      If you have 4 more days you might consider a stop or two in Germany on your way from Belgium to France. There are some wonderful options and you can scan them in my article on where to go in Germany. And/or you could spend more time in Florence and that area, which would give you a chance to visit Cinque Terre in addition to Pisa. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger