25 Feb,2017 By jagabond
What blog doesn’t have a “best of” list? I’ve split this up into more ‘known’ cities first, then my favorite ‘hidden gems‘. Just a reminder – this is a baseline assessment from my previous travels…with luck I still have many more European trips left to go, so the list may change in the future!
1. Lisbon, Portugal
Is it any wonder that a San Diego-lover puts Lisbon at the top? The climates are remarkably similar, and Lisbon has some of the best sandy beaches in Europe…for those who aren’t fans of the rocky beaches prevalent in places like the French Riviera and the Adriatic coast. Try to spend a night in the Alfama district listening to some live Fado music without getting emotionally moved, and check out the variety of quality street art spread around the city. A Lisbon trip wouldn’t be complete without taking a few of the multitude of day trips – I recommend Cascais for the beach and Sintra for the castles. Don’t be freaked out by all the drug dealers on the main streets, as drugs are legal in Portugal and a simple, polite ‘no’ will make them go away. Non-carnivores should definitely try out ‘The Green Room’, which was the best vegetarian restaurant I found in Europe.
2. Vienna, Austria
One of my favorite, romantic movie scenes is in ‘Before Sunrise’ when Jesse kisses Celine on top of the Riesenrad, the famous Ferris wheel in Vienna. This may not be the best solo travel city, as the aura of the place makes you wish you had someone special to share it with. Regardless it’s hard not to appreciate the beauty here, with Mozart’s music and the famous opera house that towers over one of the main squares. Don’t forget about museum quarter, which is a bit expensive but you could easily spend a day there…and a walk through the gardens of Schonbrunn palace is an absolute must. Europe isn’t known for its zoos, but one of the best ones on the continent, and the oldest zoo in the world, is here next to the palace.
3. Dubrovnik, Croatia
‘Game of Thrones’ fans will recognize Dubrovnik as the filming site for King’s Landing, but I’ve never seen an episode and I still loved this city. It may not be high on everyone’s list in the US, but the secret is out in Central/Eastern Europe and Russia, thus the best times to visit to avoid the tourist hordes are May or September. Gazing out over the bluer-than-blue water from the city walls is breathtaking, as is spending hours walking through the narrow streets and trying the vastly underrated Croatian wine. Make a point to strike up a conversation with some locals, who are often proud to show off their city. If you have time check out Cavtat, a coastal town on the outskirts of Dubrovnik County that has great views of the sunset.
4. Sevilla, Spain
When I think Sevilla, I think of sunlight (over 300 days a year), orange trees (they line most city streets), and smallpox (Columbus’s bones are buried in the famous cathedral)…half-joking on that last one, his bones really are there. One of the best walks I’ve done through any city in Europe has been from the Metropol Parasol, a modern art project that locals either love or hate, to the Plaza de Espana. As you make this walk, you pass the cathedral, the alcazar, and take a beautiful stroll along the river before entering Maria Luisa park. The perfect date night in Sevilla would involve sangria, tapas, and a flamenco show…and watching the sunrise from the hotel window.
5. Edinburgh, Scotland
I have a strong ancestral pull to Edinburgh, in fact I’ve been here twice and have met two strangers who shared my last name. This city has the most neighborhood feel of anywhere in Europe, as I was greeting people on the streets I had met for the first time the previous night at the pub. Check out the Royal Mile as a curiosity, but quickly escape the crowd and head up the hill to visit one of the best castles in Europe. For a grand time check out a football match, but choose a favorite Edinburgh team first…I prefer the Hibs but the Hearts play in a nicer part of town. Oh, and if you like dive bars with cheap scotch, visit Burlington Bertie…you’ll thank me!
6. Krakow, Poland
Pope John Paul II may be concerned at the party place his home city has become…in fact I’ve never seen this many skinny women drink so much vodka. I say let them have their fun, as it’s actually refreshing to see after the hellish years of Nazi then Soviet occupation. Krakow boasts one of the prettiest main squares in all of Europe, with its majestic cloth hall and colorful St. Mary’s Basilica. Take a sobering trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau for a history lesson on man’s inhumanity towards man, then marvel at the salt-carved chapel at the Wieliczka mine. Always finish your days here with some local brew, which is some of the finest European beer outside of Belgium.
7. Copenhagen, Denmark
Between Copenhagen and Paris…give me Copenhagen. This should be especially true for shoppers, as the walk up Stroget and Vesterbrogade rivals that of Champs Elysees, only without the crowds. Take in a dose of royalty by strolling around the King’s Garden (don’t miss the Hans Christian Andersen statue) and through the Rosenborg Castle, just one of the many castles Copenhagen has to offer. Although the Danish language is one of the most difficult in the world, most everyone speaks English here and the people are overwhelmingly nice. For a ‘speakeasy’ feel, find the clandestine ‘Union Bar’ near the Nyhavn district, and for kids and young adults don’t miss Tivoli Gardens, one of the best amusement parks in Europe.
8. Barcelona, Spain
Not sure if it was the good friends and drunk girls I met at the hostel, or the beautiful surroundings…but I loved this city. Look for the work of two great artists – Gaudi designed the stunning Sagrada Familia, the best modern church I’ve ever seen, and Botero’s statue of a ‘plump’ cat (his sculptures are mostly heavy-set women or animals) can be found on Rambla del Raval. For the Sagrada, buy tickets online in advance to avoid the slow-moving line. Take the cable car or hike to Montjuic, a park you can spend the day in just walking around, hanging out at the fortress, and catching some great views of Barcelona. Some recommendations: best hostel – Hostel One Paralelo; best restaurant – Margarita Blue; best dive bar – Nevermind; best local beer – Moritz Triple Malta.
9. Munich, Germany
This couldn’t be more different than other cities I’ve been to in Germany…I definitely connected with Bavaria much more than places like Berlin. There are so many impressively imposing buildings as you walk from pretzel stand to beer house, though it’s best to avoid the overcrowded Hofbrauhaus. For the upper crust, the opera house here is second only to Vienna’s, and for park-lovers take a walk through the majestic English Garden, with its river-surfers and naked sunbathers. Try a radler (beer + lemonade) on a really hot day, and don’t miss a Bayern-Munich match for a chance to see one of the best football squads in the world. Don’t bother renting a car here, as the public transportation is some of the best in Europe.
10. Venice, Italy
The first time I saw Venice was in Woody Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You”. This is easily the most touristy city on my list, but I see why it’s earned that reputation. The views from the gondolas and water taxi on the Grand Canal make this a photographer’s paradise…particularly the Rialto Bridge…and the scenery more than makes up for the remarkably average cuisine. I’ve often heard cities described as ‘good to get lost in’, and nothing fits this description more than Venice. Walking around the quiet streets and over the bridges on a silent night can be a romantic experience even for a solo traveler. I had a breathtaking, dream-like shot of the canals from my hotel window, and the Piazza San Marco was my second favorite square in Italy (top prize goes to Piazza della Signoria in Florence).