london and its highlight - england travel

Best cities in Europe to travel through

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 listen, hit play below or find episode 199 in iTunes or Soundcloud:

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, England

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.

london and its highlight - england travel

London, one of the best cities in Europe to visit

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.

SEE: Travel in England

Paris, France

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.

paris france travel - city of love - notre dame

Inside Notre Dame, Paris

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.

paris, france travel - reflections at the louvre

Reflections outside the Louvre, Paris, France

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.

SEE: Travel in France

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.

amsterdam canal netherlands holland travel

Amsterdam, the Netherlands from the Canal

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.

SEE: Travel in the Netherlands

Some lesser-known European cities that you really should visit:

Goteborg, Sweden

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.

Angered Tram runs through Goteborg Sweden

This 'Angered' tram runs through Goteborg, Sweden

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.

SEE: Is Sweden expensive?

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.

czesky krumlov, vlatava river

The Vlatava River, Czesky Krumlov - A great river to raft down

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.

Utrecht park, Utrecht, Netherlands

Water fountain at a public park, just outside Utrecht

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.

SEE: Travel in the Netherlands

Vienna, Austria

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?

sunrise at the hofburg, vienna, austria - travel

Sunrise over the Hofburg, Vienna, Austria

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.

SEE: Travel in Austria

Tallinn, Estonia

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.

tallinn town square, estonia

Medieval town square in Tallinn, Estonia

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.

Sofia, Bulgaria

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.

sofia avenue, hdr from sofia bulgaria

Sunset over Sofia, Bulgaria

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!

SEE: Travel in Bulgaria

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.

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18 Responses to “Best cities in Europe to travel through”

  1. Thom S June 21, 2011 at 3:30 am #

    Complaining about the pervasiveness of Wetherspoons and Greggs while enjoying the cheapness, welcome to The English Way :)

    • Craig and Linda June 21, 2011 at 3:40 am #

      Yep, that’s the problem, huh?! If only we could have the economies of scale the homogeneousness brings, with the interesting differences of small, locally run places.

  2. Steve June 25, 2011 at 8:33 am #

    Enjoyed the podcast. You are right about how homogeneous the pubs have become. The local pubs are really struggling to survive at this moment. Belated birthday greetings to the pair of you. Just celebrated my birthday on the 12th too.

    • Craig and Linda June 26, 2011 at 6:58 pm #

      Happy birthday, birthday twin! We also share it with Nomadic Matt.

      It’s a shame that they are, because there are some fantastic pubs around. We stayed in St Albans for about three months … that is the ultimate pub city, but even then a lot of the high street pubs are being bought out or becoming franchises.

  3. Nomadic Samuel August 1, 2011 at 10:04 pm #

    Stumbled upon your website just now. I’m looking forward to checking out more podcasts soon :)

  4. Kerri September 29, 2011 at 8:08 am #

    Just stumbled across this page and read the lot! It’s great to see some honest writing and love your take on things. Very true about London too!

    • Craig and Linda October 1, 2011 at 5:44 pm #

      Great, Kerri – glad you stumbled upon us, and really glad you enjoyed what you found :)

  5. Stephen November 10, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

    Utrecht is located less than 30 minutes south of Amsterdam by train.

  6. nicole masters December 19, 2011 at 11:05 am #

    omg those pics are really amazing cant wait to see them in 1and a half year yea

    • Craig and Linda December 19, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

      Thanks Nicole :) What are your plans? Just heading over to Europe for a bit?

  7. Chad from america February 14, 2012 at 3:45 pm #

    Y isn’t Dublin der man? Dublin has loads of attractions such as the guiniss buery, the BIGGEST CLOTHES shops in europe and it has loads of good transport links like Dublin airport trains stations that go around the country, Lias(tram) and Dublin bus offers a large variety of bus routes around Dublin and northern Wicklow, so tge dublin a try and I promise u wont be dissapointed! 😉

  8. i love this blog May 27, 2012 at 11:12 pm #

    yo i love thisblog

  9. Steve September 12, 2012 at 5:28 am #

    I’ve been to most of the places listed above and consider every one of them worth a visit. However my own list of best or most beautiful European cities (of those I’ve visited) would have to be 1) Strasbourg, 2) Prague, 3) Venice.

    • Craig and Linda September 13, 2012 at 5:09 am #

      Hi Steve, the most beautiful places in Europe would certainly be a tough list to put together… There’s so much to consider!

      I can’t disagree with those cities: I can see why they’d be a personal favourite very easily!

      We tried to include some of the big names everyone’s heard of, and also some of the really interesting small places that you wouldn’t think to go to. Venice and Prague definitely make it onto the ‘superstars of Europe’ list, but why Strasbourg? I’d be fascinated to know.

  10. Steve September 13, 2012 at 9:25 am #

    I’ve seen many great cities around the world but I have never come across a more visually attractive place than Strasbourg. Large parts of the city are close to waterways, with endless bridges offering spectacular views. In fact, I found an outstanding view worthy of a photograph from almost every street corner. My favourite part of Strasbourg is the Petite France area, which strikes me as similar to Venice in some ways but with an architectural variation, based on Alsace designs that are influenced by both Germany and France. Whilst it’s hard to rival the sheer beauty of Venice, Strasbourg is more of a practical city, and beyond Petite France it also has endless attractions in the form of museums, palaces and churches, the most striking of all being Strasbourg Cathedral, which has to be one of the most visually impressive cathedrals in Europe, towering magnificently above three or four centrally located squares (most notably Place de la Cathedrale and Place Gutenburg). Further from the centre is the Place de la Republique, the grandest of all the squares, with a small central park area surrounded by impressive theatres, museums and administrative buildings. The whole city has a very relaxed feeling, with probably more pedestrians and cyclists than car drivers. It doesn’t have quite the same upbeat international atmosphere as Prague, for example, but it more than makes up for this in its stunning aesthetic qualities. All in my opinion, of course.

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