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. Seema Rathore says:

    Hi Roger, Found your blog by chance and wow I am so happy! I am planning an 18-21 day trip to Europe with my husband in May 2020. The places which are a must-visit in my itinerary are London, Paris, Rome Venice, Prague, Amsterdam, Brussels, Bruges. Please help me in finalizing and the route map which I should take. Please also suggest changes which would make our first trip to Europe worthwhile.
    Looking forward to your suggestions and reply.
    Regards
    Seema

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Seema,

      Generally I recommend spending 3 nights in almost any city you visit, even if you want to see as many places as possible. It’s hard to do much sightseeing on a travel day, and if you visited 8 cities you’d have 7 of your days where you are mostly on trains or planes. That said, Venice is small enough to enjoy in about 24 hours, and Bruges is small enough to enjoy in 2 days. Still, I’d probably save Belgium for another trip.

      In order to include Prague and Amsterdam you’d have to fly in at least one direction. If you saved Prague for another time it would cut down on some flying and you could take more trains. You could go London to Paris to Bruges/Brussels to Amsterdam and then fly to Venice and then a train to Rome. That is probably your best option to cut down on flights, and you could fit in all of the other cities on your list. I’m happy to help more as you start to finalize your itinerary. -Roger

  2. Jim Donaldson says:

    Hi Roger,
    So much helpful info on your site and in your replys!My wife and I have visited London before(loved it) and will be leaving that city off our next trip. I promised to take her to Europe for her 40th birthday. We have 3 weeks in either the spring to travel. Can you suggest an itinerary for April or May?
    Thank you on advance

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Jim,

      I’m happy you find this useful. You might have a scan of my main article on European itineraries for 1 to 3 weeks. I have many different ideas on there that don’t include London. That said, the obvious places to include this time would be Paris and Italy, and both are quite nice that time of year. It’s also fairly easy to include Amsterdam and/or Switzerland between them.

      So one way you could do it would be to fly into Amsterdam and then a train to Paris and then a train to Interlaken in Switzerland and then a train through the Alps to Venice and then to Florence and then to Rome for your final stop. That would also check off the other 4 of the 5 cities in the article above, and add in Switzerland, which is arguably the most beautiful non-city in Europe. I generally recommend staying 3 nights in each stop, although Venice is small enough to see in a day or two. And if you have 4 or 5 days in Switzerland you can also add a couple days in Lucerne. Let me know if you have any other questions and I’ll be happy to try to help more. -Roger

  3. Rachel says:

    Hi Roger,
    I just found this site and so glad I did. Really great information! My son recently joined the Air Force and just got stationed at Aviano AB Italy (45 min north of Venice) So planning on a trip to see him next year. Never been out of the country, so I don’t know where to start. Would love to see London and Paris and Germany along with places in Italy. What would you suggest for a 1st timer with 2 weeks? I haven’t seen anyone talking about renting a car? Is it better to go by train? Thanks

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Rachel,

      I’m glad you found this site as well. If you want to explore the big and famous cities in Europe then it’s definitely much better to go by train rather than renting a car. The cities were all built hundreds of years ago and most of them don’t have much parking available in the tourist zones. Also, the train service is generally excellent and very efficient. If you buy your train tickets at least a month or so in advance the tickets also tend to be quite cheap.

      The fastest visit to Italy I’d recommend is one night in Venice, two nights in Florence, and three nights in Rome. If you did that you’d have about 8 more days. I assume you’d want to spend 2 or 3 days in the Venice area so it’s probably more like 6 days left. In those 6 days I think London and Paris for 3 nights each would be ideal for a first visit. For example you could fly into London and after 3 days take the Eurostar train to Paris. After 3 days there you can fly to Venice and then go south to Rome for a flight back to London and then a flight home, or you could fly from Paris to Rome and then take a train to Florence and then end your trip in the Venice area. I’m happy to help more as you are getting your plan together. I’d save Germany for a future trip. -Roger

  4. Clair says:

    Roger,
    A friend and I will be going on a 8 night cruise out of Venice to the Greek Isles & Croatia. We would like to add another 5 days on the front of the trip, while keeping it practical. I’ve traveled Italy, Spain, Germany & France but my friend is a first timer to Europe. Where would you suggest, for September travel, would be best to fly into and train to Venice prior to cruise? We would like 2 days in Venice and 3-4 days somewhere else.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Clair,

      For your friend’s sake I think going to Rome for 2 or 3 days and Florence for 1 or 2 days would be best. But if you’d rather not do more of Italy then I think your best option would be Switzerland. You could fly into Zurich and then take a train to Interlaken for 2 or 3 days or perhaps stop in Lucerne first for a day or so. You can get more ideas in my article on where to go in Switzerland.

      Switzerland is quite expensive, but very much worth it. You won’t see anything like that on the rest of your cruise. It could also work great because the train ride from Interlaken to Milan and then on to Venice is fairly short and really beautiful.

      Another option would be to go to the Nice area in France, but the challenge is the trains between Nice and Venice are pretty slow so it takes about 8 hours. There are other places within Italy you might also consider, but I’d vote for Switzerland if that interests you. -Roger

  5. Aparna says:

    Dear Roger,

    What amazing contents, questions and answers this site has! so much full of information!!

    I am planning my first trip to Europe in Oct 2019 along with my husband and 2 boys (9 year, 14 year). We will fly out from Bangalore and it would be mostly for 12-14 days in which I am looking at following destinations to visit.

    London, Amsterdam, Paris, Austria/Swiss/any other city that I can squeeze in?

    I think I will skip Italy, since looking at earlier answers, it needs a good amount of min 6-7 days to cover.

    Can you let me know your best recommendations in terms of destinations, where to fly in to and out of, where/which trains to use and any sample itinery?

    Appreciate your response! You are doing an awesome job!

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Aparna,

      Thank you for the kind words. If you’ve got 12 to 14 days I’d suggest choosing 4 to 5 total cities because spending 3 nights in each destination is about as fast as it’s worth going. If you can only stay 12 days I’d definitely choose 4 places, and if you can stretch it to 14 then maybe add one more. I agree that it’s better to save Italy for when you have more time.

      Since London, Paris, and Amsterdam are the first on your list and also easy to reach from each other I think those are the best foundation for the trip. You could fly into London and then after 3 days take the Eurostar train to Paris and then after 3 days take the high-speed train to Amsterdam. From Amsterdam you could take a train to Berlin and then to Prague, but it might make more sense to fly from Amsterdam to Zurich and then take the train to Interlaken for 2 or 3 days and then Lucerne for 2 days or so and then take a train back to Zurich Airport for a flight home.

      Switzerland has the most amazing mountain scenery in Europe, but it’s also quite expensive. Salzburg in Austria is also lovely, but I’d recommend Interlaken and Lucerne because the scenery is more dramatic. I’m happy to help if you have more questions. -Roger

  6. Khurram says:

    Thanks a lot Roger. Your suggestions make sense, I will go with this plan then.
    Once again, thank you for your help.
    Best, Khurram

  7. Khurram says:

    Many thanks for your response, Roger. It’s very helpful as I didn’t know that August is a holiday time in Italy and France (I was thinking June and July would be that). Yeah I would like to avoid insane crowds, and of course the cheaper, the better. I guess I should postpone the trip to September. Also, not a big fan of rocky beaches, I guess I should stick to big cities then, as it is my first trip to Europe, and then maybe come back later for exploring Greek or Spanish beaches.

    I’ve now planned the following itinerary based on your comments and blog: Rome (3 nights), Florence (1 night), Venice (1 night), then flight to Barcelona or Amsterdam (2 nights), then flight or train to Paris (3 nights), then Switzerland (3 nights), back in Rome to take Return flight, and staying 2 nights in Istanbul on the stopover.

    Is that a good plan? Pls advise after Venice, whether I should go to Barcelona or Amsterdam, or even skip the two and just go directly to Paris. Also, what is the cheapest way to travel between all these options. I can’t purchase train tickets in advance as I want to keep everything flexible. I know it will be expensive but there are many ifs and buts due to which I can’t purchase in advance.

    Regards

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Khurram,

      Your new plan looks quite good. Personally, I think Amsterdam is more interesting and memorable than Barcelona, but I really do like Barcelona. I just think it’ll be easier to fit Barcelona into a future trip, and the train journey from Amsterdam to Paris is only a bit over 3 hours compared to around 7 hours from Barcelona to Paris. Three nights in Paris is enough to see the main sights, but four nights is better and if you saved Amsterdam for a future trip you could spend that extra day in Florence. One night in Florence is not really enough, although the train journeys are short enough that one night is better than skipping it.

      As for getting around there’s a bit of bad news. Train tickets in Europe (except for domestic tickets within Switzerland) generally start out cheap and get much more expensive as more seats are sold and the date draws near. The good news is that those trains within Italy are pretty cheap even at full price. From Rome to Florence, for example, the tickets are about €20 if you buy early and around €50 at the last minute. If you want to stay flexible you’ll be paying much more for train tickets, and that is true for flights as well.

      I’ve done many, many trips like this and I generally prefer to keep my options open, and then I almost always end up doing the exact itinerary I planned in advance. Your itinerary choices are all good and I’d consider booking at least the more expensive train trips (Amsterdam to Paris, if you do that one) in advance, and then leaving the cheaper ones for the last minute. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  8. Khuram says:

    Hi Roger,
    Your blog is very helpful and really nice of you to provide your help to each comments. I’m planning to visit Europe for the first time with my wife for 12-13 days in early August. I’ll be taking Shengen visa so London is out of picture and I will start and end my journey from Italy (most like Rome). I also intend to visit Switzerland for 2-3 days in between. Apart from that I haven’t got much idea where to visit so that’s why searching through websites to know the best places to visit.

    Being a beach person, I want to experience and explore European beaches. So i was thinking to make a trip to French Riviera along the way but don’t know any good place to stay there. Or is it better to explore beaches in Italy such as Amalfi? Plus I’m not much interested in history or museums and (apart from beaches) would like to instead visit places with either natural scenery or fun activity / nightlife. Overall since its a short trip I dont want to spend it too much on travelling and instead want to have a fulfilling memorable experience.

    I’d really appreciate your help in devising my itinerary after Rome.

    Best

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Khuram,

      I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time, but the beach part of the trip will be a little challenging. As you may know, great numbers of offices and small shops in Italy and France shut down for all of August so the whole staff can take the month off. Anyone who can afford it will head to the beach, so beaches are packed and the hotels are charging their highest prices of the year. You can join them, of course, but it’s not as pleasant as it would be in, say, June or September.

      In 13 days or so I’d spend 3 nights in Rome and 3 or 4 nights in Switzerland, which would give you 5 or 6 days left. Most people who visit Italy do the “Big 3” cities of Rome, Florence, and Venice. You can see Venice (highly recommended) in about 24 hours, and Florence is a convenient stop in between Rome and Venice. You can enjoy Florence in two nights or so, but if you prefer beaches to history and museums you might also skip it.

      As for which beach area(s) to go, that is tricky. Most of the coasts of France and Italy are rocky or cliffs, so swimming beaches are pretty rare. Many of the small beaches that ARE there have rocks or pebbles instead of sand, though that doesn’t stop locals from parking beach chairs on them and spending all day in the sun anyway. I think I’d focus on the Italian Riviera rather than go into France because it’s all pretty similar and it will save you time to stay in Italy. There are some nice public beaches even in the Cinque Terre area, which isn’t far from Florence and Pisa. Perhaps better still, there are some nice beaches in the Genoa area, and that area will have smaller crowds and fewer foreign tourists than Cinque Terre and Amalfi. If you research for beaches in the Liguria area of Italy you can probably find something that appeals to you and that won’t be insanely crowded or expensive. At least you’ll get good nightlife in any of the beach areas because almost everyone there will be on their month-long holiday. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  9. Craig says:

    OK Roger. We’ve got our tickets and ready to finalize our trip. I’m going to list our initial plan and would like your opinion and/or suggestions in what you would change.

    Land in London on June 4-7: train to Paris 7-10: fly to Venice 10-12: train to Florence 12-14: train to Rome 14-18: fly to Madrid 18-22: fly to London 22 to go home. Wife wants extra time in Spain to see Toledo & Santiago de Compostela.

    Any changes you would recommend?

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Craig,

      That trip looks fantastic and I don’t have any suggested changes. It looks like you’ve done your homework and that is exactly how I’d do that trip. Let me know if you have any other questions and I’m sure you’ll have a great trip. -Roger

  10. Georgette says:

    We are going on an 11 day Eastern Mediterranean cruise leaving from Venice, cruising to Kotor, Dubrovnik, the Greek Islands, Malta and various Italian cities including Livorno (Florence) and ending in Rome. We would like to take a land trip for about 7 to 8 days before our cruise. We were thinking of Budapest, Vienna and Prague. Is 7 or 8 days sufficient . Should we add additional days, just visit 2 of the cities or pick other cities to visit. We have visited Madrid, London, Paris, Monaco, Nice, Marseilles and Rome before. By the way, the cruise starts on June 9.
    Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thank you

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Georgette,

      That sounds like an amazing cruise and I’m trying to do a Med cruise myself this coming June 9 as well, starting in Rome and ending in Barcelona.

      My normal recommendation is to spend 3 nights in just about any city you visit, but in this case I think you could have a great time in 8 days for those three cities. I’d recommend 3 nights in Prague then a train to Vienna (4 hours) and then probably two nights in Vienna before taking the high-speed train in 2 hours 20 minutes to Budapest for 3 nights. They are all large cities, but Vienna has quite a compact town center area and you can see a lot in a short time there.

      However, if you feel like you have a longer list of things you want to see in Vienna than the other two you could spend 3 nights there and 2 nights in one of the others. Since the train rides between them are fairly short you’d be able to see enough in each place. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger