How long should you stay in each European city? 3 Nights, and here is why
Planning your first big trip to Europe can be a daunting task because there is just so much to see and wanting to maximize your itinerary is wise. I get a lot of questions from those planning trips, especially on my articles about the best first-time Europe itineraries and my Eurail Pass review. Many questions are something like, “Can I see these 9 cities on a 15-day trip?” My answer is always, it’s possible but you’d regret it and here is why…
After getting so many questions like that I decided it would save time to put together all the reasons why 3 days and nights in each European stop is almost always the best choice for those wanting to cram in as much as possible. So below you’ll see why I highly recommend that, and hopefully it will help you plan your own trip.
This article was last updated in August, 2022.
Three nights in each city is the magic number for those wanting to see as much as possible
However tempting it might be to spend only two nights in each city or even to only spend one night in a city before moving on, please consider the points below and take them into account. And when I mention “3 nights” for me it means the same as “3 days.” In the end the days and nights will add up to the same, and the most important thing is having two full sightseeing days where you wake up and go to sleep in that same city.
A transit day is never a good sightseeing day
The short version of this whole topic is that it’s very difficult to get much meaningful sightseeing in on the day you arrive, and the later you arrive the harder it is. Even if you are all checked into your hotel at 2pm, the sightseeing day is almost over and at most you’ll have the time to see one meaningful sight before things start closing up.
Early in your trip you might be able to climb off a train, get to your hotel to check in and put your bags down, and then have a late lunch before visiting a museum and a shopping district. But after a week or so of that pace, you will be mentally exhausted when you arrive in a new city and nothing will sound better than relaxing and maybe having a glass of wine or a beer.
Train and bus travel is tiring, and flying is worse
It’s an odd phenomenon that seems to be shared by almost everyone that we feel tired and somewhat worn out after a long car, bus, or train ride. Personally I don’t feel as tired if I’m the driver on a 5-hour car journey, but if I’m the passenger I’m always strangely tired when I arrive.
I think it might be partly that the scenery along the way is a bit overwhelming for our brains and that humans aren’t adapted to go at high speeds for long periods of time. You might be a rare person who isn’t affected by this, but for most of us we won’t be ready to run to the first famous sight the moment after we put our bag down in our hotel room.
One other thing to keep in mind is that the trains in the former Eastern Europe countries are still quite slow and there is almost no high-speed service. I recommend the best cheap Europe itinerary for 2 to 3 weeks and it includes 4 or 5 stops. Unfortunately, the trains between cities like Prague, Krakow, and Budapest are slow and they can take 9 or 10 hours. After a ride like that, it will take some effort to just get to your next hotel, much less do any real sightseeing.
Arriving midday or in the afternoon is disorienting
As a veteran of about 12 total years on trips and probably close to 1,000 hotel rooms, I’ve noticed that I feel at least a little off until my first full day in a city where I’ve actually woken up there. Nearly all of my travel companions have reported the same thing, and for some people it’s worse.
If you are staying in the heart of the sightseeing district you might have better chances of feeling okay, and that is another good reason to put ‘location’ at the top of your hotel criteria, above having a big room or a beautiful lobby. However, if you arrive at your hotel and then have to take a bus or metro or even a taxi or Uber, you will feel almost dizzy because you won’t know where anything is or which direction you have just come from.
The bottom line is that if you arrive in a city after noon that day you’ll probably feel disoriented and your time is probably better spent learning your way around rather than going immediately to the top attraction on your list like the Louvre or the Statue of Liberty.
Packing and checking out and into hotels and hostels takes precious time
You may only have a 2 or 3-hour train ride ahead if you if you are lucky, but the time from when you start getting ready to leave one hotel until you are fully checked into your next hotel is still going to be a lot longer than that.
Let’s say your 2-hour train ride is at 9:30am and your hotel is only a 10-minute walk from the station. You still have to be ready to check out of the hotel at 9am in case there are people in front of you, so you have to start packing and organizing your stuff at least 15 minutes before that, and that’s if you are a well organized light packer. Now in the era of Airbnbs, checking out is often automated and you just have to walk out the door, but a huge majority of Airbnbs are still outside of the city center or train station district, so you’ll have more travel time to get even to the train station, much less the airport.
That train might pull into its station in the next city at 11:30am, but then you have to find your way to your hotel by foot, public transport, or taxi. Even if you arrive at noon there is a good chance that the desk clerk will point to a sign that says “Check-in time is 3pm.” They will watch your bags if you go out and come back, but then you have another chore once you return and your room is finally ready.
With two full sightseeing days you can see all the top highlights on your list
As hurried as you may feel on your travel days, the full days you have in any given city will feel surprisingly long if you plan ahead. Assuming your priority is to see the highlights of multiple cities on a trip like this, you can easily enjoy 3 or 4 major sights each day, and you’ll still have a bit of time for some shopping, strolling, and a nice dinner and some nightlife.
The key is to plan your days in advance so you can most efficiently visit all of the sights at the top of your list. By the end of that second full day you will have hit at least your top 7 or 8 items, and you’ll feel like you know your way around pretty well at that point. Maybe you’ll decide to return someday to explore the rest of the things on your list, but even if you don’t you’ll still have experienced all of the things you cared most about.
For a common example of this you can check out our guide to the best Paris Pass itineraries for 2 or 3 days. Paris is loaded with amazing and famous sights, and still you can easily see the best 6 to 8 of them in two full days, as long as you plan ahead.
A 4th day is wise in some larger cities that are packed with sights
Three days is enough time to hit the highlights of most cities in Europe and elsewhere, but if you have a spare day it can come in handy in the largest and most interesting cities such as London and Paris. For example, the Palace at Versailles is a half-day or longer trip from Paris, and Windsor Castle is also a half-day trip from central London. If you want to visit those iconic sights it’s hard to include them if you only have two full sightseeing days.
Rome is another city that is large and packed with top-shelf sights, but they are all close enough together that two full sightseeing days should be enough. You’ll want to spend at least half a day at the Vatican, but you can see Ancient Rome, the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, and the Trevi Fountain in the other half of that same (exhausting) day.
The more time you have to spend in each city obviously the more you can see, but for those who want to see as many cities as possible on one trip, three days and nights is usually the magic number.
Changing cities too often can ruin a trip
For all of the reasons discussed above, the time from when you start to check out of a hotel in one city until the time you are at your hotel in the next city is usually a minimum of 5 hours or so. And when you finally get in your room in the next city you will probably feel somewhat tired and fairly disoriented. When you add it all up you’ll be spending most of the middle of a day until you are ready to enjoy your new surroundings.
If you change cities every other day you will not only limit your sightseeing time, but you’ll also start getting burned out quickly. Checking in and out of hotels and studying train schedules is draining, and if you do it too often you’ll almost certainly regret it. Seeing 4 cities in 8 days is exhausting, and seeing 8 cities in 16 days is much worse.
On longer trips of more than two weeks it can also be wise to add in a rest stop
Even if you follow this advice and you change cities exactly every three days, you’ll be seeing a lot and spending every third day traveling, and you’ll also start getting tired and burned out after only two weeks or so. If you are lucky enough to be on the road for three or more weeks, you’ll thank yourself if you build in at least once ‘rest stop’ where you stay in a place without an abundance of sights, and plan on just relaxing and doing laundry or shopping and such.
Europe is filled with wonderful smaller towns with affordable hotels where you can chill out and regain your desire to push on again. Smaller beach towns are often perfect for this, even in the colder months when room rates can be shockingly low. In my experience, it’s best to choose a smaller town whether it’s on the beach or not, rather than just saying you are going to hang out two extra days in, say, London. There would be too much temptation to see more sights in London, while if you were in a small mountain or beach town you’ll be able to properly relax and also save some money.
Hi Roger, I am planning my first European trip for 2022. I will have 16 days, that is including my flight days. Our must see’s are Santorini/Athens, Rome and Paris. This is my itinerary I have planned so far. 1. Ottawa to Santorini (spend 2 full days Sightseeing Santorini). 2. Fly Santorini to Athens (spend 1.5 days sightseeing Athens). 3. Fly Athens to Rome (spend 3 full days. One of the days is a full day trip to Amalfi coast). 4. Train Rome to Venice. I would like to stop into Florence just to see it quickly since I’m passing through. Spend half a day in Florence ***Is this doable???***(Spend 1 full day in Venice) . 5. Fly or Night Train Venice to Paris (spend 2.5 days Sightseeing Paris, including chateau Versailles). Then fly home. What do you think Roger? We want to see Venice more than Florence but since its on the way to Venice by Train, I thought why not stop in Florence to just possibly see the main square. Is this a good itinerary? Or too much? I kept the flying days as 1 full day from one city to another since I figured we will be tired. Should I do more by train or change some to flying?
You’ve really done your research! It’s good to be back to helping people plan Europe trips like this. I think your plan sounds fairly ambitious, but also doable and not too insane.
Santorini is an unusual first place to stop on a first trip to Europe, but it is most efficient that way (after changing planes in Athens anyway). If you do this trip exactly like you are planning I’m sure you will love it, AND I’m sure you’ll want to go at least a bit slower next time. Still, I don’t think you are being too fast as long as you’ve got the energy.
As for Florence, I think all trains from Rome to Venice stop in Florence anyway and in many cases you’ll be changing trains, so seeing a few things is quite easy. The train station is in the middle of the city and the cathedral (the most famous spot) is maybe a 10 to 15 minute walk once you are out of the station. If you pack light you could bring your stuff, but most likely you’d want to rent a luggage locker or two, which are available in the train station. There is probably also a Left Luggage desk where you can leave stuff with an attendant for a slightly higher price.
I’d fly from Venice to Paris because that train is slow and expensive and hard to sleep on as well.
Let me know if you have any other questions and I’ll be happy to help. -Roger
THANKS, Roger, I will be sharing the info with my daugher today. I would like to talk with her before I ask you a couple more things. Your blog is great and has been m go-to when I am getting overwhelmed. Very much appreciated. Hope your having a great day! ~ Dee. PS: I did sreview the article on Europe’s 5 greatest cities – probably the first one I came upon – very helpful 😉
Hi, Roger, I found your site a few weeks ago and sharing it with others and reading as much as I can for a very soon upcoming trip in June. My daughter is going to Europe for over a month and I am meeting her there for about 2 weeks. She is going to Scotland first for about 5 days (will be visiting a friend), then to Ireland (Dublin) to catch a tour for the week. We are trying to figure out from there how to connect. She is planning most of the trip and we are considering Hostels as we did those once in Germany. Our thoughts are:
I would fly into Dublin and then we can take a day trip to Belfast (Giants Causeway, The Black Taxi, and Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge) then back to Dublin. From here we talked about going to London/England, then Paris/France, then Italy. Then I guess fly out of Italy to NY (live in Virginia Beach).
I would LOVE your thoughts on our thoughts.
We are open to your suggestions on what to do/not do with the above. Or, if you have any better suggestions for us we would appreciate it. Any advice you can give us would be greatly appreciated including best place to consider flying out of to get home, taking a plane or train to any of the above, meeting here or there and skipping this or that….. I know we are behind the 8-ball with plans but we are going. Life has been keeping us from the planning but we are now able to get to it an need to act quickly 😉
I have used some of your advice looking for my flights and that has made it easier to do after reading some of your posts ~ Thank you!
Roger, also, on the above, if you think we would do better to skip any of the above (London/Italy/Paris) consider more time in one place than the othr we are open to your thoughts on that. My daugher found a couple budget tours: 7 day tour; Rome, Florence, Cinque Terre, Pisa and Venice. But she also said she would love to see the southern parts too (Amalfi Coast — 4 days: to visit Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri island, Amalfi coast, Positano & Naples. She for some reason said she did not know if there was as much to do/see in Paris — From your blogs there seems to be. My one concern is this tour notes Hostels and Camping Sites — do you know much about those in Italy? THANK YOU AGAIN!
I’m glad you found this site and I’ll try my best to help you. The tour of Ireland sounds like a great idea because I’m one of many people who feel that Dublin is a nice city but it’s really the countryside and castles and small towns that make Ireland so special. I actually haven’t made it to Northern Ireland yet, and I’m especially keen on seeing the Giants Causeway. The Belfast trip sounds like a good idea, although the time might be better spent in Italy.
As for the rest of the trip, you may have a scan of an article I wrote about what I consider to be Europe’s 5 greatest cities for first-time visitors. It gives my thoughts on why London, Paris, Venice, Rome, and Amsterdam should be the focus before branching out to lesser destinations. In other words, I highly recommend going to London for 3 or 4 days and then taking the Eurostar to Paris for 3 or 4 days and then flying to Venice (or nearby Treviso) for a day or two and then a train to Florence for 2 or 3 days and then Rome for 3 days. I wouldn’t to a tour of Italy because it would mean always being surrounded by 42 other people on a large bus, and only being able to go as fast as the slowest one of them. Italy is crowded enough without that, but it’s also very easy to do on your own by getting around on trains. The train tickets are fairly cheap as it is, and they are even cheaper if you buy them at least a couple weeks in advance.
If you had more time or want to skip something else you could head from Rome down to Sorrento and base yourself there for a few days to visit Naples, Amalfi, Pompeii, and the Isle of Capri. I really love Sorrento and those other places, but I think I’d recommend saving that for another visit to Italy. The main sights in the “Big 3” are really excellent and should be seen at least once. I’m happy to help more if you have any other questions. -Roger
You mention “3 days” in the title, and further down you mention “3 nights”.
Are you suggesting 4 days/3 nights is ideal, or 3 days/2 nights?
Sorry about that and you are right that it’s potentially confusing. I always mean the same number of days or nights, and whenever a travel advertisement says “3 days and 2 nights” they are trying to trick people for the most part. I’ll see if I can make it less confusing, and I appreciate the comment. -Roger