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. If you want to choose just one country to visit on your first trip to Europe, your best choices are England, France, or Italy.

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Comments

  1. Jennifer says:

    Hi, I will be traveling to Europe for the first time with my best friend in 2017. Since, it’s not a trip we will likely be able to do again for a long time. We are trying to make the best of it. Unfortunately we can only go for 1 week. She would like to go to Italy or Paris, but I want to know what you believe is best to do for a week. We will be leaving from NYC and planning on going in October. We haven’t finalized the dates yet.

    Thanks for any and all advise.

    1. Roger Wade says:


      If you’ve only got a week and you want the best possible Europe experience, I recommend two possible choices. One would be to fly to London or Paris and spend 3 or 4 days there and then the remaining days in the other, after taking the Eurostar train between the two. Both are spectacular cities that are very different from each other, with more than enough top sights to keep you busy for 3 or 4 days.

      The other choice would be to spend the week in Italy. You could fly into Rome and spend 3 days there, then take a train to Florence for 2 or 3 days, and then another train to Venice for 1 or 2 days. Those are Italy’s Big Three, and again, they are all fantastic and all different from each other. It’s much more complicated to combine Paris and one or two cities in Italy in one 7-day trip. Whichever you choose this time, you can keep the other on your list for your next trip. Let me know if you have any questions about this and I’ll be happy to help. -Roger

  2. Koyel says:

    Hi Roger,

    Am planning to visit Europe in January 2017. This would be my first time in this beautiful continent. I have 18 days in hand. But my Schengen Visa does not cover UK. So i have roughly chalked out an itinerary which looks like this-
    Rome-Venice-Florence-Zermatt (via Milan)-Interlaken-Luzern-Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam. I would also like to include Vienna if possible. Do u think its Doable? Am open to make changes in the tour plan. Kindly suggest me an itinerary that wont be too hectic but also would let me see as much as possible. Really exited since this would be my first time in Europe.

    Thanks a lot. Koyel.

    1. Roger Wade says:


      I’ll be happy to try to help. The fastest trip through Italy that I recommend is 3 nights in Rome, 2 nights in Florence, and 1 night in Venice. Aside from that, I usually recommend 3 nights in almost any city in Europe with only a few other exceptions. So right there you’ve got 6 days spoken for.

      You might check my comments on where to go in Switzerland. I don’t think I’d recommend including Zermatt on a trip like this. Instead, I’d go for 2 or 3 nights in Interlaken and 2 nights in Lucerne. At that point you are at 10 or 11 days.

      You’ll want at least 3 nights in Paris, and 4 would be better. I just returned to London again from Paris, and Paris is such an amazing city that you don’t want to rush through it. You could spend 1 night in Brussels in order to see historic center, but you could even do that in a few hours on your way to Amsterdam. If you spend 3 nights in Amsterdam, you’ve got a pretty much perfect 18 days, and you’ll be fairly worn out at the end of it. Vienna is out of the way and I’d save it for another trip. This itinerary would work pretty well, and that is only if you are willing to move quickly through Italy like that. It might be even better if you spend 8 days or so in Italy, and perhaps save Amsterdam for a future trip. I hope this helps and feel free to ask other questions if you have them. -Roger

      1. Koyel says:


        Thanks a ton for your help. Now am more confident about making this trip. Just went through your write-up about the places to visit and stay in Switzerland. Following your advice would directly go to Interlaken and Lucerne from Italy and stay in each city for two days. Would save Zermatt for a future trip. I would like to ask you, do you think in this trip it would be more convenient to include Germany’s famed black forest for a couple of days (maybe Gengenbach?) instead of heading to Brussels and Amsterdam? That way can i save up on my travel time and get to see more? As suggested by you i would also like to add a day or two to Italy. What do u suggest?

        1. Roger Wade says:


          The Black Forest is one of those odd attractions that is famous but not very interesting. There’s really nothing special about it, aside from a few small towns that sell many cuckoo clocks to tourists. Have a look at my article on where to go in Germany and maybe you’ll get another idea.

          On the other hand, Amsterdam is an amazing and beautiful city, so if you have time to get there I’m sure you’ll be impressed. Hotels there are expensive and the trains to get there aren’t cheap either, so I won’t blame you if you saved it for a future trip. But if you do get there you’ll love it. Brussels has a beautiful historic center around the main square called the Grand Place, but aside from that it’s mostly an expensive city for business travelers and bureaucrats.

          If you can stay another day or two in Italy, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it a lot. It would take at least 10 days in Italy before you’d start to be ready for another country. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  3. Rajatha says:

    Hi Roger,

    My friends and I are planning a 2 week trip and we were hoping to cover France, Italy and Netherlands. I’m not entire sure of how to get from one place to the other. I’ve read quiet a bit about Eurail and from what I understand its pretty expensive. Are there any other options on how to commute? And it would be great if I’d get some advice as to where to begin our trip and where to end it. An itinerary would help.

    Thanks a tonne.

    1. Roger Wade says:


      The best way to get between those places is by train. Europe has an extensive rail network, and fares are surprisingly cheap if you buy your tickets at least a month or two in advance. It’s easy to confuse the European rail network with “Eurail Passes”, which are prepaid ride passes that are good for people who want to make plans as they go, but quite expensive compared to individual tickets bought well in advance.

      It’s probably easiest to fly into Amsterdam and spend a few days there. Then take the high-speed train to Paris (3 hours) for a few days. After that take a train to Milan or Venice in Italy. From Paris to Italy it might be cheaper to fly, so compare both options. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  4. Ina says:

    Hi Roger, I’m planning on a 2-3+ week trip to Europe for the first time next year. First stop would be Vienna then hopefuly Italy, France, Spain and Greece. London is out of the picture, unfortunately, cause I would need another visa for that. I don’t know how to go about my trip. I just want it to be a relaxed one and not rushing from city to city. It is also important for me to experience the culture through their cuisines. Can you suggest an itinerary for me? Any suggestions about the places I want to visit? Thank you!

    1. Roger Wade says:


      Particularly if you want to do a “relaxed” journey, you’ll want to plan on at least 3 nights in each city you visit. That gives you two full sightseeing days in each place because the travel day will take most of your daylight hours in almost all cases. And on a relaxed trip, I’d allow 4 days in Paris, partly because you mention food and it has so much exceptional food that 7 or 8 meals isn’t nearly enough.

      And rather than planning on countries you want to visit, it’s much easier and more helpful to think about the cities. In Austria you’ll start in Vienna and if you want to do another stop it should be Salzburg. In France you won’t have enough time to see more than Paris in 3 or 4 days, but fortunately it’s so wonderful that it will be enough. If you want to go to Spain, the fastest trip I’d recommend would be 3 nights in Barcelona and 3 nights in Madrid. Each is a large city loaded with great attractions, and they are very different from one another.

      The fastest Italy trip that I recommend is 1 night in Venice, 2 nights in Florence, and 3 nights in Rome. That is a lot of rushing, so 7 or 8 days is much better if you have the time. And as for Greece, the only must-see place is Athens, but it’s quite out of the way and I don’t think you’ll have time on this trip. Aside from Athens many people also go to one or more of the islands, but they are more about relaxation and partying than about culture and food. So I’d save Greece for a future trip.

      With all of that in mind, you have to decide which cities you really want to visit, and will have time to visit. Once you have that list I’ll be happy to help you sort out the itinerary. And it’s also best if you can plan cities that are within 5 or so hours of each other by train. If they are farther apart you’ll probably want to fly, and that gets a little complicated and less pleasant than doing it all on the train.

      So think about it, and I’m happy to help you once you have your priority list and total time frame decided upon. -Roger

  5. Aditi says:

    Hi Roger,

    I am planning to visit Europe for the first time in May 2017 with my husband for a 15 days trip. I want to include the top 5 cities mentioned above. Can you please plan an itinerary for me which would include the top 5 cities as well as some others worth visiting, with the duration mentioned, for each city. Also, if you feel, I should cut down on any of them due to paucity of time, or as a first timer I should plan my trip in a different way covering some other cities, your suggestions are most welcome. I don’t want to rush anywhere. Totally depending on your views, as I am totally confused what to visit.

    Many many thanks in advance.

    1. Roger Wade says:


      I’m happy that you are so open minded when planning this trip. Many people start with a very tight schedule and then struggle to change plans when they learn that they are trying to move too quickly. My general advice is to stay in each city for 3 nights, except for the largest and most sight-filled cities like London or Paris, if you have time. There are also a few cities that are small enough to cover in 1 or 2 days, as long as you don’t spend too much time in transit in and out.

      First off, it’s a shame that these 5 cities aren’t quite so easy to string together on a 2-week trip, although it could be done like this:

      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
      Then fly home from Rome, or fly back to London for a flight home that same day

      That itinerary is obviously filled with highlights, but I think I might instead suggest:

      Fly into London for 3 or 4 nights
      Take a train to Paris for 3 nights
      Fly to Venice for 1 or 2 nights
      Train to Florence for 2 or 3 nights
      Train to Rome for 3 nights

      The second version is also filled with highlights, and the overall travel time is several hours shorter on a few of the journeys. By skipping Amsterdam on this trip, and doing Florence in between Venice and Rome, you get all the best sights in Italy as well as enough time in London and Paris, with short travel times.

      See what you think about that, and I’ll be here to help more in the future when you have more questions. -Roger

      1. Johnathan says:

        Hi Roger,

        Just wanted to mention that if one did want to visit London, Paris and Amsterdam, it would be much faster to go from London to Paris to Amsterdam. Not sure if you intended to write your first itinerary in that order.

        If you were to focus on those 3 and save Italy for another trip, would you recommend adding Brussels or another city as a stop between Paris and Amsterdam? Do you have a better recommendation?


        1. Roger Wade says:


          This list is mostly in the order that I think the cities are critical for first-time Europe visitors, rather than an actual itinerary to follow. I put Amsterdam at #5 because I think the other 4 are even more impressive and important. I lived in Amsterdam for a while, and I’m based in London at the moment, even though I’m an American, by the way.

          So yes, you are right that the Eurostar from London to Paris is very efficient, and then the high-speed Thalys train from Paris to Amsterdam, changing in Brussels. I sort of have mixed opinions on Brussels. My uncle lives there and I’ve visited several times, but I find most of the city to be a bit generic, expensive, and mostly focused on business and government employee travelers. On the other hand, the main city square (called the Grand Place) is quite amazing, and the historic area surrounding it is definitely worth seeing.

          As a result, my common recommendation is for people to stop in Brussels and leave their bags in the train station, and then go out and explore for a few hours and have lunch or dinner. After that, get on the train to Bruges, which is 1 hour 7 minutes away on a direct train. Bruges is an almost perfectly preserved medieval town that will remind you of a smaller and more mellow version of Amsterdam. It’s really nice, and it’s cheaper than Brussels. You can see most everything there in about two days. There are a few other Belgian towns to consider such as Antwerp or Ghent, but Bruges has more hotels and more sights by far.

          The only downside of visiting Bruges before Amsterdam is that the architecture is pretty similar since they were built up in the same era. In other words, Amsterdam would seem a bit more spectacular coming straight from Paris rather than from Bruges, but I’d still recommend Bruges if you have two days or so. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  6. luca says:

    I completely agree with your list, if you did a top ten I would add Barcelona, Prague, Athens, Berlin and Vienna

    1. Roger Wade says:


      Thanks, and I couldn’t disagree with any of your next five. I’d be tempted to include Istanbul in order to make it even a bit more diverse, but then it would be hard to figure out which one of those to remove. I appreciate the comment. -Roger

  7. Susan says:

    I have never been, so this list helps. They are mostly what I was leaning towards anyway with the exception of Amsterdam. My first choice is Paris, then Venice, Florence, maybe Rome, but the stressful factor has me rethinking Rome, but maybe one day in Rome would be eventful and an experience and well worth it. Something has me running from London and not sure why. The english speaking comment about London makes sense though. Maybe it should be the first stop! I wonder where you would put the French Riviera on the list? Nice and Saint Tropez?

    1. Roger Wade says:


      I’m glad you found this helpful. If you are going to Italy it would be a shame to skip Rome. A one-day visit would be far better than skipping it, but I’d really urge you to plan at least 2 days in Rome, if not 3. It’s true that it’s a bit stressful, but I really don’t think it would be a problem if you are aware of it and plan accordingly. Mostly it’s just that street traffic is somewhat chaotic, and pedestrians become unpredictable as a result. Also, the main attractions such as the Vatican Museum and Coliseum tend to have long queues, so once you reach them through the traffic, it’s still tough to relax. But the thing is, you can’t see the Vatican Museum and Coliseum anywhere else in the world, and they are so worthwhile that Rome makes my list, and everybody else’s list.

      But if you mentally prepare yourself for the crowds, and book a hotel that puts the main tourist sights within fairly easy reach, you’ll love the place.

      I’ll also encourage you to include London if you can. I understand why it might seem relatively bland compared to the others, partly due to the language and so much shared culture with the US and elsewhere, but it really does live up to the hype. Though it might feel like “Foreign Travel 101” as an easy introductory stop, once you are there it feels like a “capital of the world” similar to how New York City does.

      As for the French Riviera, it’s quite a lovely place and well worth a stop if you have time. Most people agree that St. Tropez is a bit overrated on its own, as it’s quite expensive, fairly crowded, and without much to see. The best stop for most people is Nice, which is larger, quite budget friendly, and also loaded with good museums and interesting cultural sights as well as the beach itself. Nice has a rocky beach, but you can take the train to Cannes and its sandy beach for a day trip, which is only about 30 minutes away. And Monaco is even closer by train in the other direction, and it’s so small that you can see all the main things in only a few hours. Of the three cities mentioned, Monaco is actually the most visually stunning for a quick stop, but Nice is the best place to stay.

      I’m sure you’ll have an incredible time no matter which destinations you choose. -Roger

  8. Julia says:

    Having traveled extensively around Europe (and living in Vienna), I would definitely add Berlin, Barcelona and of course Vienna to the list! Great cities regarding culture, food and nightlife and also budget friendly if you look around a little. I personally would leave out Rome because it is very stressful and go to Florence instead for the museums and Tuscany in general, but that’s just me 🙂

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Julia, thank you for your thoughts, and you make good points. Personally, I prefer Berlin to all of them on my list, but this post was meant to be about the “great” cities that will change your life after experiencing them. The sights and history of Rome are far more interesting than those of Florence, although I agree about the stress factor of Rome. -Roger

  9. George says:

    Venice has never wowed me. It seems nice enough, but lacks interest for a prolonged stay. It’s also smelly in summer and flooded in winter, and over-touristed in all seasons.

    I would rate Barcelona in the top five. Beautiful architecture, great restaurants, and friendly residents. And how can you forget about Istanbul?

    1. Roger Wade says:

      George, that’s interesting about Venice for you, and I agree that its weakness is that it’s too crowded all year. I think people who stay overnight on the main island can get a wonderful experience if they try. As for Barcelona and Istanbul, they’d certainly both be in my next five, but for me they don’t compare with the others for impact on a first-time visitor. It’s all opinion though, and thank you for yours. -Roger

  10. Astoria Greek says:

    Where would you rate Athens?

    1. Roger Wade says:


      Very interesting question, and I would personally rank Athens #6 in this group. Historically it couldn’t be more important and its center has become very tourist-friendly as well. I put it above Madrid or Berlin or Prague as an essential European city, but I cut this list off at 5. Thank you. -Roger