Ahh, Europe. Who from America hasn't dreamt of backpacking across it, honeymooning in it or spending an extended holiday immersed in it? There's something quite magical about the continent across the pond, but it can also be quite overwhelming trying to figure out just where you want to go, especially if you're visiting for a short time. After careful consideration -- based on up-to-date research, our experiences and yours, too -- we've come up with this list of our top choices for Europe.
Why go: With its interesting mesh of Catalan and Spanish cultures, its amazing food scene (tapas, wine), insane "Gaudi" architecture, huge nightlife scene and even beaches (albeit not very nice beaches), Barcelona is an eclectic destination and makes for a very fun and cultural experience. Accommodations range from backpacker hostels to über-modern hotels, which right now aren't too expensive, especially when compared to other European destinations.
Why go: Paris is a no-brainer, really. A picturesque city split by the River Seine, Paris is filled with museums like the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay, with gardens like the Tuileries or Luxembourg, with monuments like the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, and with churches like the Sacre-Coeur and Notre Dame, as well as chic shopping and renowned restaurants galore. To say that it might appeal to a wide array of travelers is an understatement. And although the City of Lights has a reputation for très cher hotels, budget options are available, too.
Why go: Budapest, nicknamed "the Paris of the East" is an intriguing place to vacation -- and is even exotic with its thermal baths. Although it's not top-of-mind for many Americans traveling to Europe, travel aficionados say it should be for its beauty, cheap eats (and drinks for that matter) and its raging nightlife. And right now, even Budapest's nicer hotels are offering reasonable rates -- but this could change as more and more travelers "discover" this Hungarian city.
Why go: Touring a world-class museum (Tate Modern, British Museum), seeing a West End musical in Leicester Square or a mime in Covent Garden, enjoying high tea at Claridge's, touring Parliament or the London Tower, gorging on fish 'n' chips at a local pub and partying at one of the city's top nightclubs are all things you can do here. Plus, there's no language roadblock, and there is a great public transportation system. While London might be one of the best cities in the world to visit, its high prices edge it out of our top three.
Why go: Zürich is a city that offers its visitors a breath of fresh air. Yes, there are the requisite churches (Chagall did the stained glass), museums and the historic old town of cobbled streets, but there's a modern city with a vibrant nightlife centered in Zurich West, amazing chocolate and pastry shops, retail therapy (the Bahnhofstrasse), as well as an active populace who enjoy spending warm days swimming in the city's lake and hiking the nearby mountains. Hotels tend toward the expensive side, but budget accommodations are available.
Why go: Close at London's heels is another United Kingdom destination, Edinburgh. An ancient city set in the sweeping Scottish highlands, Edinburgh is a quaint town with a storied history in a breathtaking environment. From traipsing the Royal Mile to climbing the nearby hills and shopping in New Town's Princes and George streets to taking part in the Hogmanay festivities, Edinburgh abounds with things to do. Also, the city's numerous bed and breakfasts offer visitors an authentic experience and affordable lodgings -- plus, the Scottish are known for being more friendly than the English.
Why go: Crete is relatively cost efficient, despite the hassle of getting there -- a connecting flight or ferry from Athens. But once you finally make it there, travel writers say you'll be enchanted by Greece's largest island. Crete abounds with things to do for just about every type of traveler -- outdoorsy folks, beach bums, partiers and gourmands.
Why go: Although it might be fading as the "it" European city to visit, we still think that fairytale Prague is an excellent city for a vacation. Prague's charming architecture and quaint streets are added to the city's love of music, (from jazz to rock), local lagers, ambient trams and an awesome café culture, (many of the cafés sidle the picturesque Vltava River), giving Prague its place as one of the top ten European cities.
Why go: One of the biggest perks of Lisbon is its cost of vacationing. Yes, you might pay a hefty sum getting to this city in Portugal, but once you're here, you'll pay next to nothing (especially compared to other European destinations) for nice accommodations, meals and attractions. Plus, much of this city's allure is free and comes in meandering Lisbon's skinny streets and taking in the sights of gothic cathedrals, quaint shops, interesting museums like Gulbenkian and Chiado's shopping. Clubbing in Bairro Alto should be high on your list, and these too, are very affordable.
Why go: There's so much more to this city than just the Red Light District and the weed; Amsterdam actually offers lots for families to do together (museums for kids, bike riding, pancake eating). It's also a great place for romantic getaways, (canals at dusk, fine restaurants, cute neighborhoods to explore, tulips), and several world-class attractions, including the Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh Museum. Although the accommodations tend to be short on space (converted canal homes), the views are picturesque.
Why go: The capital of Spain is filled with marvelous examples of Spanish culture, including bull fights, flamenco, museums (Prado, among others), and delicious tapas and local wines. And because it's one of Western Europe's must-hit cities, travel to and from Madrid (by plane or train) is relatively pain-free (to your credit card). Once you're in the city, you can get around easily on Madrid's efficient public transportation system; and room rates won't break the bank either.
Why go: Roma is another 'duh' city. It's a huge, busy and cosmopolitan city, but like Madrid, it abounds with Italian culture. Authentic Italian cooking wafts from the city's many restaurants, locals stalk the street wearing Italian designs (Versace, Gucci, Prada) and gorgeous architecture lines Rome's streets, giving visitors a taste of Italian culture, which is also filled with more than a week of things to do. However, it gets bumped off the top 10 because its peak season fills with throngs of tourists (ever tried to manuever the Vatican Museums in the summer? not fun!) and sends hotel rates skyrocketing.
Why go: Istanbul has a split personality: Sliced in half by the Bosphorus Strait, there's an Asian/Anatolian side and a European side, which each offer tourists different experiences. Although most tourists tend to stay on the European side, (where most of the attractions are located), travel writers recommend taking a ferry over to the strait to view the Asian side. The Grand Bazaar, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque make for cool -- almost exotic -- cultural experiences, as does the idea that right in front of your eyes, two worlds are colliding.
Why go: The capital of Germany, Berlin can be likened to the other major cosmopolitan and cities of the world like London and New York. But in addition to all its urban charms -- buzzy nightlife, fine dining, seriously original fashion, museums and cultural experiences -- Berlin also offers visitors a history lesson, albeit a very difficult one to swallow, with Holocaust memorials and remnants of the Cold War.
Why go: Ever been to Denmark? It's located between Germany and Sweden and holds the city of Copenhagen, known for its canals, castles (Rosenborg), parks and gardens (Tivoli), museums (Thorvaldsens), antiques shops and a great flea market. This makes for a great vacation for urban adventurers who relish in "taking the road less traveled" and exploring perhaps less popular but just as interesting European cities.
Why go: Mykonos is the Greek isle of partying, with bars and clubs remaining open until the wee hours of the morning. Picturesque accommodations nestle into tangled streets of shops and restaurants, and beaches ring the island; several sights, like the Kato Mylli windmills and the Paraportiani church, round out your visit. Travel experts say Mykonos is ideal for a few days stop on a ferry-hopping jaunt across the Greek isles, but after that you might want to experience another island.
Why go: Glasgow has a bit of a reputation for being Edinburgh's ugly stepsister, but experts say travelers shouldn't believe everything they hear. Although the two Scottish cities, separated by only about an hour's car drive, are fiercely different, both have their merits. So if you visit Edinburgh for its ambience and charm, you visit Glasgow for its hot live music scene and its out-of-this-world shopping scene. You can also tour a nearby whisky distillery and enjoy several acclaimed museums, while keeping comfortably within your budget at one of the area's hotels.
Why go: Krakow might not be the first place you think of when you're planning a European vacation, but you might do well considering it. Although it's set in a landscape of historic architecture -- the Wawel Castle and Old Town's Rynek Glowny -- Krakow is a modern city with a vast nightlife of live-music bars and nightclubs and a cultured, cosmopolitan local populace.
Why go: Because Firenze (Florence) fills with art and architectural masterpieces, not to mention its set in gorgeous Tuscany, this little city gives visitors a taste of a more authentic, small-town Italy. You'll not want to miss the art at the Uffizi, viewing the David or climbing to the top of the Duomo, but you'll also not want to miss losing yourself in the skinny, stone streets. Experts say Florence is an intimate place to spend three or four days, but you might grow bored if not before the end of the trip -- than definitely by its end.
Why go: Peter the Great (for whom St. Petersburg is named) built this city on the unlikely site of a swamp, but it became "the window to the West." Today, it remains Russia's most ambient city, according to writers, and it fills with tsarist palaces to explore, museums like the Hermitage to tour and vodka bars to enjoy. Travelers should note that flights and hotel rates can be pretty high in Russia; if budget is an issue, travelers might want to vacation in another Eastern European city.