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

Not 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.

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.

>>>9 Best itinerary ideas for your first trip to Europe

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 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

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.

  • Backpacker Index: US$79.04 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.

  • Backpacker Index: US$80.38 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.

  • Backpacker Index: US$90.26 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.

  • 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.

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All Comments

  1. Ilecia says:

    Hello,
    I am so happy I found this site and found the various comments very useful.

    I am planning to attend a convention in Hamburg, Germany in June 2019 and wanted to plan to visit surrounding countries on my first visit to Europe.

    I would appreciate your feedback on the noted:

    London, England – 4 nights
    Hamburg, Germany – 4 nights
    Fly to Rome, Italy – 3 nights
    Train to Florence, Italy – 2 nights
    Train to Rome, Italy – 3 nights
    Train to Venice, Italy – 1 night
    Fly from Venice to Paris, stay in Paris, 4 nights
    Fly back to New York from Paris or London?

    I would appreciate you feedback on the noted.

    Thanks

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Ilecia,

      Your plan looks really good. I think it must be a typo because you’ve mentioned flying into Rome and then going to Florence and then going back to Rome and then going (through Florence) to Venice. If that is what you meant I wouldn’t really recommend spending 6 days in Rome and going there twice instead of adding another city. Rome is really amazing, but it’s also quite exhausting and most people are happy to be done with it after 3 days or so.

      If you can find a reasonably priced flight that flies into London and out of Paris I would do that. Usually those open-jaw flights across the Atlantic are quite expensive and it’s much cheaper to fly in and out of the same city. If that’s the case you can always take the Eurostar train between Paris and London in a bit over two hours. But to get from Paris Gare du Nord (where the Eurostar leaves from) to Heathrow Airport will take more like four hours, so make sure you research that before you book it. If you do have time for one more city you might consider Amsterdam, which is about 5.5 hours from Hamburg by train and Amsterdam has a busy airport that is easy to reach. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  2. Lorraine says:

    Hi Roger!

    I am trying to plan a European vacation for my family (husband, son (11 at time of trip) and me). I have just started to research the trip. I’m still trying to figure out time of year (possibly April), how long to stay (10 days preferably) and where to go (??). I was hoping you could help with identifying some places that are kid friendly. I’ve read a few of the comments and your replies, so I understand the sightseeing aspect is based on preference, but perhaps you can suggest one kid friendly city over another. Thanks!

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Lorraine,

      I’ll be happy to try to help. If you are going to go for 10 days I would recommend choosing 3 cities, or possibly 4 if one of them is small (such as Venice). April is a nice month as it’s warming up enough to enjoy being outside and the crowds and hotel prices are still well down before summer begins. May is also nice, and then starting in June places get crowded and hotel rates go up.

      It’s tough to say what “kid friendly” really means, although I’ll give it a shot. From a safety perspective I would say that all of Europe is extremely safe for children. An 11-year-old can certainly get around well and walk as far as the parents, so I’m guessing you mean kid-friendly in the sense of things that he will find interesting and enjoyable? My parents took me and my brother all over Europe in our youth and I remember being very bored in art museums and most other kinds of museums, and also in gardens and even most palaces. On the other hand, I really enjoyed most bus rides and trains and metro rides, and of course I really enjoyed ice cream or gelato or desserts while my parents would stop for a cup of coffee.

      These days there are also natural history museums in most large cities and those have dinosaurs and loads of other things that kids enjoy. And there are also train museums and science and technology museums that have lots of buttons you can push and moving displays. I’d think an 11-year-old would enjoy at least some of those things. So as long as you seek a couple of them out and try not to spend too much time in art museums then I think your son will have a good time.

      Italy has a strong emphasis on classical art and also ruins, but they also have arguably the best food for kids with the gelato and pizza and pasta and such. In 10 days you could do a great trip to Italy where you’d spend 3 days in Rome, 3 days in Florence, 1 or 2 days in Venice, and maybe another short stop somewhere. That said, I think I’d recommend London and Paris and Amsterdam, with 4 days in either London or Paris. All of those cities have endless great sightseeing options that should appeal enough to adults and your son, and they are also just amazing cities in general. By the way, the Red Light District in Amsterdam is now very small and it’s very easy to avoid, especially at night, so it really won’t be an issue if you do a little homework. All those cities have really good boat rides and the kinds of museums that will appeal to kids, and great food options as well. I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  3. Priya says:

    Roger,

    Thanks for your detailed suggestions. There is a slight change in our plan and now we would have only 8 days for our honeymoon. We would really appreciate if you could suggest whether we should do 4 days Paris and 4 days Lisbon or 3 days Paris, 2 days Barcelona and 3 Days Lisbon? Would it be a good idea to squeeze in Barcelona in our itinerary?

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Priya,

      This is a tough one because all of those cities are wonderful. I think 4 days in Paris and 4 in Lisbon would be the most relaxing because you’d only need two hotels instead of three and it would cut out another flight. But if you are anxious to see more of Europe then 2 or 3 days in Barcelona and 2 or 3 days in Lisbon would be really nice. All of those cities are quite different from each other, and Barcelona has more famous sights than Lisbon, but Barcelona is also more crowded and a bit more expensive. It’s really up to you and I think either of those options would be very enjoyable and worthwhile. Have a great honeymoon. -Roger

  4. Sam says:

    Hi Roger, I stumbled across your site and have really enjoyed reading your suggestions for traveling in Europe. My husband and I are just starting to discuss what a trip to Europe would look like for us and would love some input on which countries to visit as we want to visit quite a few and realize it might not be a possibility to do it all.

    The countries or specific cities we have interest in include: London, Paris, Italy, Santorini and Athens, Ireland. We’ve also discussed wanting to visit Germany and Spain.

    We are considering a 2 week vacation. We probably wouldn’t be able to stretch it much longer than that.

    Thank you so much for your help!

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Sam,

      I’ll be happy to try to help. If you have two weeks I would strongly suggest choosing 4 or possibly 5 cities (rather than countries) to visit. Here is why you should probably stay 3 nights in each place you visit. The short version is that every time you go from one city (let alone one country) to another, it takes most of that day.

      I think the best two-week first trip to Europe is something like this: Fly into London for 3 nights then the Eurostar train to Paris for 3 nights. Then fly to Venice for 1 or 2 nights and then a train to Florence for 3 nights and then a train to Rome for 3 nights and then back home. So I’d recommend you discuss which places interest you most and then figure out if you can string 4 or 5 of them together in two weeks so that you are mostly riding on trains a few hours rather than flying from one to another. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  5. Priya says:

    Thanks a lot, Roger. This itinerary looks just perfect for us. I am glad that I found your blog. Have been trying to figure out a travel plan for weeks. I am happy that the search ends here 🙂 It would be great if you could recommend some must do/visit places in these cities, which we should definitely not miss? Also, would we need separate visa for each of the country (France, Spain and Portugal) we will be traveling from New Delhi, India. Thanks again for your help!:)

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Priya,

      I’m really glad that was helpful. I get many requests for lists of things people should do in each destination, and in most cases I hesitate to do that because I think those choices are so personal. I love to research these things before I visit a city and determine which things are most interesting and will work into my schedule the best, but I think my choices are often quite different from most people’s. For example, I really enjoy those 3-hour hop-on, hop-off bus tours as early in my trip as possible because it gives you a really nice idea of what is there and where everything is. Other people find those really cheesy.

      On the other hand, I do include admission prices for the most famous things in each city on the page on this website for that city, like on this page for Paris for example. If you Google “things to do in (city)” you’ll usually see TripAdvisor’s recommendations as the top listing. I think those are pretty reliable at least for things you should know about, although they do tend to favor some obscure tours that they get a big commission if you book through them. Using lonelyplanet.com is another good place to find the top choices in each city. Have a wonderful trip.

      Oh, as for visas, all of those countries are in the Schengen Zone and there are no border checks between them, so when you are in one of them you are in all of them. Research “schengen visa” for residents of India and you should find the requirements to get into that area and you’ll be set. -Roger

  6. Priya says:

    Hi Roger,

    I am planning my honeymoon to Europe in late November and early December for 12 days. We are a bit confused in deciding the places that we can cover in this period. Also, we do not want to go to any city that is too chilly or rainy at that time of the year. I really want to cover Paris and Lisbon in our trip. Other choices are Spain and Italy. Could you please help us out in finalising an itinerary that would be perfect for our honeymoon? We are open to suggestions for other places apart from the ones I have mentioned.

    Thanks

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Priya,

      If you have 12 days I would choose 4 cities at most and 3 might even be better. Paris will be on the cool side, of course, but it’s rare that it gets chronic rain and I’m sure you’ll love it there in late November.

      Assuming you want to keep Paris and Lisbon on your itinerary, and both of those are great choices, I’d say the best itinerary would be Paris for 3 days and then a train (or flight) to Barcelona for 3 days. The train takes about 6.5 hours and it’s far more pleasant than flying, which takes about the same amount of time when you factor in getting to and from the airport and all that. Then you can take another train to Madrid for 3 days and then on to Lisbon for your last three days. One challenge is that Madrid to Lisbon is only reached by night train and I’m not a big fan of those, so I’d recommend flying, which will obviously be faster and probably cheaper as well. Spain and Portugal have the nicest Europe weather that time of year and those cities are all first class. It will be better to do Italy on a separate trip at another time. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  7. Sandy says:

    Hi Roger,
    I cannot begin to Express how helpful your information has been. You are so detailed and informative, thank you! My family and I just returned from Europe from a cruise on the Baltic which was a teaser! It was amazing, I think the kids got more of a history lesson on this 10 day trip then in the entire school year! My husband and I haven’t been back to Europe in over 17 years (Spain and Portugal) while on this trip so many encouraged us to travel by land which I love this idea. My husband loves cruising but I never want to stay too long or just a day. We are planning to travel next year in August (kids are out of school) and have 15 days to work with. I would prefer to do everything by train so I’m looking to include the obvious London,Paris but add Amsterdam. I would love to see Florence, Venice is not a must, but if we could work it in it’s fine. Rome would be nice but I would like to end it with less historical (teenagers) rather start historical and end adventurous. Not sure if it makes sense. But we don’t want to back track. All cities are doable since we haven’t seen them but I don’t want to return to Spain this trip. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks Roger.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Sandy,

      That Baltic cruise sounds fantastic. I’ve thought about those a few times before and I’m sure I’ll do one at some point. Fifteen days is pretty quick for all of those cities, but it can be done. If you want to start historical and end more fun I’d fly into Rome for 3 days and then a train to Florence for 3 days. Then it’s probably best to fly to Amsterdam because the train would take a full day and cost far more than a flight. The airport in Pisa is fairly close to Florence and it usually has cheaper fares. Then 3 days in Amsterdam and a train to Paris for 3 days and then the Eurostar to London for your last three days.

      It would be a shame to skip Venice so you could cut one day off Florence or Amsterdam and add one day in Venice, which is enough to see the highlights. Venice and nearby Treviso airports have affordable flights to Amsterdam as well. I think that is your best strategy, or something very close to that. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  8. Deborah says:

    Hi Roger,

    Me and my husband are planning a trip to Europe next year maybe around May for our 30th wedding anniversary. We are going to spend 14 days and based on your comments and suggestion I think we may follow your iternary from a previous comment:
    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

    My question is what documents do we need to get into each city? Passport? Visa? something else? And of course any other suggestions you may have. This is our first trip and maybe our only trip. We will be traveling from Washington DC. Thank you!

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Deborah,

      Everyone needs a passport to leave their country and you’ll need to show it to get into the UK and then again to board the train to Amsterdam. After that you’ll be in the “Schengen Zone” and you’ll only be asked for a passport when you check into hotels. If you are from the US or Canada or Australia or most countries like that you won’t need a visa to go to Europe for 90 or fewer days.

      I think your plan looks fantastic and I’m sure you’ll love it. If you have any more time you might consider at least a short stop in Florence in between Venice and Rome, but even if you don’t you’ll be seeing the best of Italy. You are planning just the right amount of time in each city so I think you’ve done great so far. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  9. Anoop Kumar says:

    Hi Roger,
    Thanks a lot for a wonderful insight into Europe especially for a first time traveller like me. We( myself, wife and our two daughters aged 2 years and the younger one, 4 months) are planning a euro trip from 27 Oct to 11 Nov this year. We’re apprehensive about the weather and any precautions that we should take for our daughters. This is going to be our first euro trip. Based on your experience, could you suggest an itinerary keeping our young daughters in mind. We would like to visit Paris, Rome, Venice,Barcelona & Amsterdam. We would have loved to add Munich and Berlin to it but the time is too short. We are keen on a slow paced relaxed holiday.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Anoop,

      It looks like you’ve got about 15 days in Europe and in that time I would recommend visiting 5 cities at most, especially if you’d like it to be slow paced and relaxing. You can visit Venice in a day or two, which will allow you to spend an extra day or two in another city. The five cities on your main list are all wonderful, but you’d need at least two flights in order to visit all of them. Amsterdam and Barcelona are each within a reasonable train ride of Paris, however they are remote to everything else. Flying isn’t too expensive and it’s not a huge problem, though I really think that it would be quite a bit easier with the kids on trains rather than flights.

      If you did these five cities you could go from Paris by train to Amsterdam and then fly to Barcelona from there. Then you’d have to fly to Venice (or nearby Treviso) and then take a train to Rome. Generally it’s best to spend 3 nights in each place you visit, though as I mentioned Venice is small enough to do in one or two days. I’d recommend that you save Amsterdam or Barcelona for another trip and replace it with Florence, which is in between Venice and Rome. Florence is another excellent destination, and it’s a short train ride from Venice and Rome so it makes for an easy trip within Italy.

      As far as having your daughters along, Europe is pretty good about being very family oriented with room on buses and trains to bring strollers aboard and having changing rooms in many public bathrooms (including on trains). But of course young children are usually not fans of travel, and I think flying would be more hassle than trains. The main thing is the train stations are all within the city center so you can sometimes even walk from your hotel and onto a train. The airports are obviously on the edges of town and you have to take a train and/or a bus to reach them and then deal with the security lines and all of that.

      One more option would be to just do Paris to Nice (or somewhere else in southern France) and then to Venice and Florence and Rome, doing it all by train. I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  10. Haya says:

    Thank you Roger! I chalked out this plan, please check it:

    Arrival in Barcelona, 3 days
    Train to Paris, 4 days
    Train to Munich, 3 days
    Train to Bern, 2 days to go to Interlaken and Alps
    Train to Florence from Bern with a stopover at Venice for a few hours. Florence, 3 days
    Train to Rome, 3 days

    We’re a family of 5; 2 adults, 2 youth, 1 child, so I was checking the eurail pass. Do you think I should go for the 5 day pass? Also, will I have to buy a sim card in every country for mobile internet?
    I’d be extremely grateful for any help and suggestions. Thanks again!

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Haya,

      Your plan looks great. The one bit of advice I’d offer is to stay in the Interlaken area rather than in Bern. You get more hotel for your money outside of the cities, and the whole area is gorgeous so it’s nice to wake up and look out your window to an amazing view. Bern is a lovely city, but it’s a very different experience than the Alps. The plan to spend a few hours in Venice is fantastic and I should suggest that to more people really.

      For the trains I’m pretty sure it will be best and cheapest just to buy your train tickets at least a month or two in advance. Rail passes can be great for longer trips where you want to make plans as you go because last-minute train tickets are very expensive. But advance train tickets tend to be cheaper than shorter rail passes, and they include seat reservations. With rail passes you’ll often need to buy a seat reservation and in France they can be very expensive. Check the train fares soon and you’ll probably see that they are cheaper than you expect, and cheaper than rail passes.

      As for SIM cards, it used to be a big mess but last year a law passes where “roaming” between European countries now has to be cheap at a fixed price. So you should be able to buy a one-month (or something like that) SIM card in Spain and it should be usable for your whole trip. Most people get by with just data these days, but if for some reason you’d need a local phone number in each country then you’d have to buy a new SIM in each country. The short-term ones tend to cost between €20 and €50, and hopefully you can get one in Spain for your whole trip. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger