This week we’re talking about the best cities in Europe. In fact, we’re sneaking in one beautiful town too, just because we love it so much.
This is a follow-up podcast of a kind, after episode 193 about backpacking in Europe and summer travel in Europe. If you want all the practical advice, go back and listen to that one. You can also visit our Europe travel planning section, where we’re building up a range of resources.
To begin I guess we’d better mention three big places — London, Paris, and Amsterdam — but then I promise we’ll head out to some lesser-known cities where you can start exploring.
London’s a great place to visit, because everyone has some kind of connection there. Like New York, it’s been in so many movies and TV shows that you’ll recognise places and will want to seek out stuff you’ve seen. But unlike New York, there’s also hundreds of years of literary tradition to explore too, so it is more resonant in a way.
Those connections connect neatly with all the interesting historical stuff to see and do. There’s plenty of free museums and gardens as well as the stately houses outside the city; just wandering around can be history enough.
On one hand, London’s a very modern city: cosmopolitan with tastes and sounds from all over the place. On the other, it can be very homogenous. It’s got all of this diversity, but every café seems to be one of a few brands, or every bakery is a Greggs. It can become really boring unless you get lucky or know what you’re after.
Paris, the city of love, the capital of France … like London, it’s a city that sometimes seems more like a backdrop to drama than a place where people live — until you visit it for the first time.
I thnk a lot of people are disappointed by Paris, we certainly were. I’ve been wondering lately if it’s because whenever we see Paris on TV or read about it, it’s this glamorous stage where high drama happens and everything is resolved perfectly. Well, unless you’re watching French New Wave cinema, when it’s just weird. But Paris is just another city. It’s a beautiful city with amazingly well-kept medieval and renaissance architecture (and also modern office blocks and apartments). It’s a real, functioning city where politics gets done and people go to work.
Accommodation is expensive, even for a capital city, and most short-term visitors and travellers will want to spend time in the central arrondissements to see the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre and other famous sites. There are a lot of great neighbourhoods away from here if you want to do more than just sightseeing, and prices drop as you head away from the centre.
Amsterdam, the Netherlands
When I think of Amsterdam, I always think of the red light district — the boozy, drug-addled cliché of stag and hen parties and the American university movies with people going on big benders. But really, that’s not what it’s like at all. Amsterdam is beginning to buck against that stereotype now too as, tolerant as the city is, drunks being raucous is not really fun for anyone.Photo courtesy Everything, Everywhere.
That said, it’s a great place to party. I remember in a hostel we stayed at, we’d be heading to sleep about midnight or so, and half the dorm would be waking up, showering, and getting ready to go out until the next morning.
There’s a lot less “stuff to do” in Amsterdam. If you say you’ve just been to London or Paris, you’ll get asked if you saw this or visited that. In Amsterdam, there just aren’t these worldwide focal points, and I like that.
Maybe the most famous place is Anne Frank’s house, which is now a museum or gallery of sorts. A lot of Amsterdam’s riches were in international trade during the colonial period, with the canals leading to the sea, so you get a lot of wonderful buildings from that time, and from earlier too.
Cycling around, stopping for a beer in a canal-side café, eating all sorts of fried junkfood. It’s a fun place to be, rather than a place to do things.
Some lesser-known European cities that you really should visit:
Goteborg is a pretty little city in the South West of Sweden. It seems to be primarily a university town, with big influxes of students during term time, and can be a bit quiet over the height of summer.
The thing that caught my attention was a little warren of roads called the Haga. This is full of craft shops and some great restaurants. The central plaza outside the train station is uninspiring, but it’s nice to walk around the city, along the river or through the shopping streets.
Goteborg has a public bike-hire system, which was just being unveiled when we visited, so I’m not sure of the details — but it would be a good city to bike around. Their botanical gardens are huge, so make sure you go there if you have any interest at all in plants. All in all, it’s a pretty place and a nice urban stop if you’re heading into the wilderness further north or if you’re city-hopping around Sweden.
Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
This is the smallest place we’re going to talk about today, and it’s much more of a town than a city. It’s a small place in the south of the Czech Republic, probably an hour or so from the border with Austria. Unless you’re on the train, which we arrived on … the shuttle bus we took to leave was infinitely faster.
Utrecht, the Netherlands
Utrecht is a university town around an hour north of Amsterdam. I think it has all of the good things about Amsterdam without the tourist ghettos.
There are beautiful canals lined with cafes, bars and shops; there’s a church bell tower to climb, with guides who’ll bang away at the bells with hammers — and let you do it too; there’s lovely countryside to bike through all around the city.
It’s a university city, so there’s plenty of life and energy in the evenings. Overall, it’s just a cool place to hang out and spend some time. If you’re on super-sightseeing mode, spending a day — or even dropping in for a few hours — might be enough, but it’s also a nice place to spend a bit of time.
I haven’t looked at the population numbers, but I think Vienna might be the most populous of our picks today. Now, I’ve heard people describe Vienna as being a bit drab, but that’s normally from other Austrians … and we’ll always happy to put down our own capitals, right?
Vienna is an art-lover’s dream I think; or an architect’s. There’s so many amazing buildings from the age of the Hapsburgs, when Austria was one of the most powerful cities in Europe. Don’t get stuck in MuseumsQuartier for too many days though: the Sisi Museum is also great, then there’s demonstrations at the Spanish Riding School and the Third Man tour … all fantastic.
Listen to our Vienna city guide.
Tallinn is a great little city that does one of the best jobs of combining old and new that I’ve ever seen. Medieval facades sit alongside glass and metal frontages, both blending wonderfully together. It looks like a fairy tale would, if you actuallly wanted to have a functioning modern city to live in as well.
There’s great eating and drinking, a cheap bike tour which is fantastic, and you can wander through the old city streets for days. It’s small, about half-a-million people, and it’s quite friendly. Some guidebooks made us think the people up here wouldn’t be friendly at all, but we certainly didn’t find that.
It looks like we’re finishing the best cities in Europe with three capitals: Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria and … well, there’s just something about it that really caught our attention.
There really isn’t much to do, and that’s the strange thing. Of course, there are museums, communist- and revolutionary-era art and statues, and a growing modern café and bar scene alongside the old markets and shops. It’s all good to look around, and — overall — there’s this energy there. This energy of a city that’s revitalising itself, of people that are finding opportunities and starting up small businesses everywhere. It’s a great feeling — kind of energy and hope.
I guess that’s a really subjective reason to put this city on our list, but it made such a strong impression that … it made it onto this list!
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed our “best cities in Europe” podcast … To hear all the stories, find episode 199 in iTunes. There’s plenty more Europe travel advice in our travel planning section. You can also find out about cheap accommodation, comprehensive travel insurance and cheap tours around the world.