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. Heidi says:

    Hi Roger!

    I am beginning to plan a trip for my family for July 2019. It will be myself, my husband, 13 year old son and 10 year old daughter. We are planning on 14 days at the most. We are thinking of flying into London, take the train to Paris. I know you said that Amsterdam was easy to get to from Paris, but what about Edinburgh? We will fly out of our last city. We are planning on using Air BNB while in London. Any specific areas we should look at? Also, what day trips do you think would be best? In Paris, we are Disney Vacation Club members, so we will probably stay there (not go to the park though). What about Amsterdam or Edinburgh for areas to stay? I am only in the beginning stages of planning, so I’m feeling a little overwhelmed. Any advice you have would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Heidi,

      Edinburgh is about 4 hours 20 minutes from London on the high-speed train and it’s very worthwhile to visit if it interests you. The one challenge is that to get to mainland Europe you’d have to fly or take the train back to London and then the Eurostar train through the tunnel. But the Edinburgh Airport is large and they have good fares on flights so you could fly from there to Amsterdam.

      If you are planning 14 days at most I would choose 4 cities to base yourself in. London, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, and Paris are all great choices. You could do 4 nights each in London and Paris and 3 nights in the other two because they are both much smaller.

      The most popular day trips from London are an all-day bus tour to Stonehenge, Bath, and sometimes also Oxford. Those are all really interesting places but it’s a long day. London is so full of attractions that in four days you will still have things there you want to see. In Paris the Palace at Versailles is a bit outside of the city and it’s a great half-day or day trip.

      One challenge with Airbnb in these cities is that any apartment that is fairly large and within the desirable tourist areas will be very expensive. There are plenty of places that are more in residential areas that are a bit away from the attractions that offer good rates. In my opinion the most convenient neighborhood in London that might have Airbnbs is called Bayswater, which is just north of Hyde Park.

      In Amsterdam the close places will be expensive as well. The best locations are the ones closest to the main train station, and especially those on the same (south) side of the IJ river. Edinburgh might be a little easier. The best tourist neighborhood is called the Royal Mile, but the area called “New Town” is also very convenient (and it’s almost as old as Old Town). I can help more as the trip approaches so you should be fine and you’ve got plenty of time to sort it all out. -Roger

  2. Jay says:

    Dear Roger,
    Thank you for the detailed advises you shared for first timers in Europe. I am planning to go in December (for 3 weeks ‘til first week of Jan) during Christmas time. Madrid, Barcelona, Paris and Italy (Milan & Rome) are some of the places of interests for me. Do you have any particular advice on which route to take first? And the weather, would it be a good idea to travel to these cities in December. Should I get ready for a wet snowy weather in these cities? Could you give me an idea where to start (which city)? In Paris, I might go to Disneyland to savour the Christmas festive mood. Thank you in anticipation of your reply!

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Jay,

      I’ll be happy to try to help. Fortunately, Europe doesn’t get very wet or snowy in winter, at least in average years. You might get a bit of snow if you are unlucky and you’ll probably get some light rain and colder temperatures, especially in the northern cities, but it’s rarely a problem for visitors.

      You might have a quick look at my recommendations for the best Europe destinations in December. You are already planning to visit many of them so I think you are on the right track. Generally speaking the coldest time in Europe is middle to late January, so average temperatures will be slowly falling during your visit. In other words, it’s probably best to start in the north (Paris in your case) and then do Italy and then Spain, as Spain has the mildest winters in that group. So you could fly into Paris for 3 or 4 nights and then fly to Venice for 1 or 2 days, or Milan if you prefer (Milan isn’t a classic tourist city but if there are things you want to see there then it’s worth a visit), and then you can take the train down to Florence for a few days and then Rome for three days. Then fly from Rome to Barcelona for a few days and then take the high-speed train to Madrid.

      You have many other great options within Spain (Seville, Granada, Toledo, Valencia, Malaga) to round out your trip. Madrid is the hub for the high-speed trains to all of those other places. I’m happy to help more if you have any other questions. -Roger

  3. sandra says:

    Roger,
    Thanks for answering both of my questions…sorry…i think we’re dropping athens and the cruise and so this itinerary….we have friends in frankfurt so therefore the stop….looking at flights into frankfurt but i think we will fly into london and fly on to frankfurt stay the night and take the train next day late afternoon to munich…
    munich 3 nites
    train to salzburg 2 nites
    train to venice 2 nites
    train to florence 2 nites
    train to rome 3 nites
    fly to paris 4 nites
    eurostar to london 4 nites
    found our hotels for each place and train schedules..etc
    how does that sound???
    thanks

  4. sandra says:

    Hi Roger,
    I found your website while searching for a trip to europe itinerary and really liked all the info…My husband and I are planning a trip to Europe for June/July 2019…He wants to go to Paris, Munich and Italy and I want to go to London, Frankfurt and Salzburg. We dont have a time limit but dont want to be exhausted…So far this is what I’ve come up with…
    Fly into Frankfurt
    Frankfurt 1 nite
    train to Munich 3 nites
    train to Salzburg 2 nites
    train to venice via innsbruck 1 nite
    train to florence 2 nites
    train to rome 3 nites
    fly to paris 4 nites
    eurostar to london 4 nites
    Is this itinerary doable…seems it will take us about a month….Just don’t want to be burned out at the end…we want to take our time and not be in a rush….your advice will be greatly appreciated…thanks

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Sandra,

      I think I answered your questions on the other version, and I’m sorry I didn’t get to it sooner. One thing though, there isn’t anything interesting to see in Frankfurt aside from banks and the airport itself, so I’d take a train directly from Frankfurt Airport to Munich, which takes 3.5 hours. It might seem like a long trip after an overnight flight, but at least this way you wouldn’t have to check in and out of one more hotel. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  5. Joanne says:

    After reading this comment on your site, “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”, I have spent a great deal of time trying to determine which is the main island of Venice. Can you please clarify?

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Joanne,

      The “main island” of Venice is the one that has St. Marks Square on it. The Grand Canal snakes through that island and it sort of looks like two islands on a map. The bridge from the mainland also has train tracks, which lead to the Venice train station, which is also on the same island, out in the middle of the lagoon. Hotels on the mainland are cheaper so it’s tempting to stay there, but Venice is so crowded with visitors from 10am until 6pm because of cruise passengers and people on bus trips and people sleeping on the mainland, that it can be frustrating. If you stay in the main Venice island itself you’ll find that there are much smaller crowds in the evenings and mornings, so those are nice times to stroll around. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  6. Stella Z says:

    Thanks a lot for your detailed reply.

    After some reading, we narrowed down about 14days trip to below cities
    Bascially, due to white sand and nice beach we adding Greece.

    France : Paris
    Italy : Rome, Venice
    Greece : Athens, Santorini

    Would you mind sharing some info on rough cost (travel/accommodation/meals/activities etc) for two?
    Also, some tips on how to travel (flights/train?) between my locations eg London, France, Italy and Greece? Accommodation tips?

    TIA

  7. Stella Z says:

    Hello Roger,

    We are very lucky to have someone like you to help greater community. Your inputs are fabulous.

    Here is our situation…we are flying from Sydney (Australia) and will visit family in London in start of July 2019. We are 2 adults and 2 kids ( 4 and 6yrs). We will stay in London for 2weeks and will do bit sightseeing in London in that time. Then we would like to spend 2 weeks in some other great countries/cities.

    London
    Train to Amsterdam (Netherlands) – 2 nights
    Then Train to Paris (France) – 3 nights
    Then train to Lucerne(Switzerland) – 3nights
    Then train/fly (?) to Rome (Italy) – 3 nights

    We are thinking if this plan looks ok to you esp travel with kids. Also, Can we add any more place? Or change anything from this list or number of days?

    We wanted to add Greece to the list but seems tight or hectic, what you think?

    If you can please share some recommendations/inputs, it will be of great help to us.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Stella,

      Thank you for the nice words. Your plan looks really good. If you are interested in seeing as much as possible in those two weeks without going overboard I would recommend the following. Take that Eurostar train from London to Amsterdam and then a train down to Paris and then a train to Interlaken (or Lucerne) in Switzerland.

      From Switzerland you can take a train through the Alps (and it’s really beautiful) to Venice (with a train change in Milan). You can visit Venice in about 24 hours and then take a train to Florence for two days and then a train to Rome for your final three days. Again, that’s the fastest trip that I’d recommend, but at least most of those train rides are fairly short and quite scenic so they won’t be too much of a grind. I recently wrote an article about the best Europe destinations for families with kids, and I left Venice off because there are very few family-focused attractions there, but it is amazing to see once in person and staying 24 hours should not be too much for the young ones. Or you could skip it and go directly from Switzerland to Florence. Or you could skip Florence, although that would be a shame.

      I think a trip like this will work better than Greece. One tough thing about Greece is that you have to fly in and out of Athens because the rail connections are terrible, and then you have to fly to one of the islands or take a fairly long ferry ride there and back.

      Think about that itinerary and then customize it to suit your tastes. I’m happy to answer any other questions if you have them. -Roger

  8. Angie says:

    Hi Roger, our family (me, husband, 3 daughters ages 22, 20 and 15) is planning a trip this June to Paris and then Italy for 10 days. Could you plan an itinerary for us please? Thanks!

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Angie,

      I wrote all of the suggestions in the article and beyond that I don’t normally like to recommend specific itineraries because tastes and budgets are different for everyone, but in this case it’s pretty simple so I’ll give it a shot.

      I’d spend 3 or 4 nights in Paris and then fly to Venice (or nearby Treviso Airport) for 1 or 2 nights. Venice is small enough and quite crowded so one or two days is plenty for most people. Then take a train down to Florence and I’d spend 4 nights there. You can see the main sights in Florence in 3 nights, so you could use the extra day for a day trip to Pisa (one hour each way by train) to see the Leaning Tower and Cathedral there, which really only takes about 4 or 5 hours round trip. You could even do a day trip to the Cinque Terre towns, although in June they will be very crowded.

      After Florence take a train down to Rome for the remaining days. You can enjoy Rome in 3 nights, but if you have an extra night you can do a day trip to Naples or Pompeii, or something else of your choosing. That is the best and most popular Italy itinerary for a trip around this length, but please read up on the places and change whatever you feel. I’m happy to answer other questions if you have them. -Roger

  9. Linda says:

    Hi Roger, My daughter will be in a study abroad program just outside London. We are thinking about visiting her on Easter break (end of March beginning of April) and traveling to 2 or 3 locations. We’ll have 10-12 days. Is this a bad time to travel? We’re coming from the US and would maybe want to see London, Paris and Amsterdam.
    Thank you!

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Linda,

      That sounds fantastic. I’m sure you are aware of London’s famous weather and you can expect it to be chilly in late March and possibly drizzly as well, but it’s rare that it really rains for more than an hour or two at a time, so it’s more like Seattle and Portland. Amsterdam has similar weather and it’s probably going to be cloudy. Paris will be a bit nicer, but still pretty chilly that time of year.

      I think keeping it at those three cities is perfect. If you can spend 3 days or so in London itself that should be enough to cover the main highlights. Then you can take a Eurostar train to either Amsterdam or Paris and then the high-speed Thalys train to the other one before taking the Eurostar back to London for your flight home. I’d recommend 3 nights in Amsterdam and 3 or 4 nights in Paris. Those three cities are each really amazing and each quite different from each other, so they make a great trip and I don’t think it would be better if you rushed around more and added another city. I’m sure you’ll have a great time and get mostly good weather. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  10. RICHI says:

    Hello Roger,

    Really a fan of your website. Been reading from last one week and amazed by the amount of information is provided
    We Indian couple are planning to do THE Europe Trip (First time) from Australia.
    So at this moment our itinerary is
    1. London 4 days
    2. Amsterdam 2 days
    3. Paris 3-4 days
    4. Lucerne / Interlaken – 4 days
    5. Spending 7-8 days in Italy (Basically Rome, Venice and (Florence)
    6. Ending trip with spending a day or couple at Amalfi coast
    7. Return to Melbourne.

    Please advise and recommend any must do and must not based on your expertise.
    Thank you .

    1. Roger Wade says:

      RICHI,

      Thank you for the kind words and I’m always happy to hear that people find this useful. I think your trip looks really well planned and I think my only comment is that it would be nicer if you had a third day in Amsterdam because staying only two nights will only allow you to see a few things. Still, two days in Amsterdam is definitely worthwhile so if that is all you have I’m sure you’ll love it. You might also know that now you can take the Eurostar train from London all the way to Amsterdam, so that should work out well for you. The rest of your trip will work well with normal trains, although (except for domestic Swiss trains) it’s better to book as early as possible for the cheapest fares and best selection of departure times.

      My best recommendations for each of these cities can be found in the various pages and articles on this site. If you have any other specific questions feel free to ask. -Roger