With so many fascinating cities in Europe, how do you pick just ten? We’ve selected the ones that best trace the history and culture of the continent; that so influenced all corners of the globe. It’s in these ten cities in Europe that you begin to understand the different periods in European (and world) history; through stories of empires and conquests, and some of the greatest art and monuments ever created.
This year’s World’s Best Awards survey was open for voting from January 11 through May 10, 2021, as destinations around the world were lifting COVID-19 restrictions. Survey rules have always allowed readers to reflect on their travel experiences over a three-year period. We hope that this year’s honorees will inspire your own travels as you get back out into the world.
Europe remains the world leader in art, architecture, food, fashion, design, and urban scenery; and here are the cities where you’ll see some of the best of it all.
1. PARIS, (France)
Paris is a model of Europe, a splendid city in Europe often imitated around the continent and the world; but impossible to replicate. It captures the imagination for having mastered the art of modern living and never disappoints. Paris is often considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and also in the world.
It is called the City of Light. Containing world class museums, fashion, cuisine, and an atmosphere all its own. Paris is also a city of “many splendors,” as Ernest Hemingway recalled in his memoir, “A Moveable Feast.”
Visit the beloved Musée d’Orsay, Notre-Dame, Sacre-Coeur, Musée Rodin, Centre Pompidou, Saint-Germain, the Seine (at dusk), shop the biggest designers on the Champs Élysées or hit the boutiques in Le Marais, take in the view atop the Eiffel Tower, or even plan a day trip to Versailles Palace. But don’t miss out on the simple pleasure of meandering the marvelous arrondissements (districts), or snacking on street crepes either.
Dine like the French near the Bastille at Chez Paul or stroll among the statues at the elegant Luxembourg Gardens. To stay, treat yourself to a room at the exquisite Hôtel Plaza Athénée or the remodeled Hôtel de Crillon, which reopened in September 2017 after a four-year renovation.
Put it all together, and you’ll see why the city is firmly established; as one of the most beautiful in the world.
2. ROME, (Italy)
Rome, the city of seven hills, enjoyed a mythic beginning. Romulus and Remus; twin brothers who were nursed by a she-wolf and fathered by a war god – reportedly founded the Eternal City. And although historians are a little skeptical about this epic entry into the world, most travelers are absolutely certain that there is something magical about Rome. Whether it’s the mystery of nearby Vatican City or the ghosts of the Colosseum, an afternoon caffè on Piazza Navona, or a piled-high plate of pasta at a trattoria, Roma is sure to enchant.
Italy’s capital city, Rome is also known for a history that dates back to the eras of Octavian, Julius Caesar, and Hadrian, among others. It is the cities of Europe that mesmerize mostly as the capital of an ancient empire.
Left behind are structures like the Pantheon, the Roman Forum, and dozens of churches, among other historic gems. Art enthusiasts will relish the trove of art housed at the Vatican Museums, and foodies will enjoy the splendid Italian fare, not to mention the gelato. And though its momentous past is the focus for many vacationers, Rome is also a fast-paced, modern and relevant city, with gleaming designer storefronts, sleek hotels, and cutting-edge restaurants.
3. LONDON, (England)
If Europe has a capital, it is London. It’s the continent’s largest and richest city, but that’s not what makes it an unmissable destination. It’s its diversity and cultural influence, and the fact that there is always something new to see and experience.
The English writer Samuel Johnson famously said, “You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
Life in London is nothing short of invigorating, and travelers find that one visit isn’t enough to experience everything this two-millennia-old city has to offer. Here, the antiquated clasps hands with the contemporary. You’ll find the historic Tower of London and the avant-garde Tate Modern both considered must-sees.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are still being uttered by actors who don modern garb. Londoners most certainly still respect the royals, but they also jam to the likes of Arctic Monkeys and Adele. And while they still praise the power of tea, they now make room for some Starbucks here and there and pressed juice too. A current leader in everything from politics and banking to fashion and music, London’s culture compass is always attuned to what’s next. Discover it all on one of London’s best tours.
4. FLORENCE, (Italy)
Nowhere else can you best experience one of the greatest periods of European; and world history (the Renaissance) than in Florence. This artistic city is an open-air museum and you get a history lesson. Even if you don’t step inside any of its several museums. But no one should leave without entering the Uffizi, with its masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo; and all the other great names in the history of art.
But Renaissance art is not the only reason to come; You also visit Florence for its gorgeous sunsets, Italian cooking, and its romantic charm. Make the most of your time in the city by letting a local show you around on one of Florence’s best tours. This is a romantic city of beautiful piazzas showcasing magnificent architecture and sculpture; and all of that remarkable heritage can be admired from the top of the extraordinary Duomo.
5. BARCELONA, (Spain)
From the mountains to the beach, the historic to the contemporary; sunny Barcelona, the luckiest cities in Europe that it is has it all. Innovative Barcelona embodies contemporary Europe, an urban gem that values the past but embraces the future with vigor. It came up with some of the most original architecture of the 20th century (the Sagrada Familia is still a work in progress and you may witness a timeless monument in the making); and is now reinventing 21st-century food. It’s a city with an independent spirit, playing by its own rules; and more than any monument or museum, the main attraction is the city itself.
Barcelona contains both the authentically historic and the wildly bizarre. From the scenic trails of the colorful Park Güell to the romantic narrow alleys of Barri Gòtic; from the beachside nightclubs to the city’s dozens of sacred churches and architectural marvels; this city by the sea seems to attract all types: the adventurer, the couple, the partier, the culture lover, and more with an almost overwhelming variety of things to do.
In Barcelona, even the beach is bustling, but it’s really the cosmopolitan city that gets all the attention. Much of the activity revolves around Las Ramblas, a series of narrow streets and alleys packed with restaurants, nightclubs, and a vibrant pedestrian market.
But you should also take a tour of Antoni Gaudí’s masterpieces; Gaudí is responsible for sites like Casa Milà, Casa Batlló and La Sagrada Familia. You also shouldn’t miss out on the eclectic shopping scene and the region’s exquisite food and wine.
6. VENICE, (Italy)
Standing in St. Mark’s Square you’ll be at the center of what was once the world’s richest city and capital of trade; and you’ll fall in love at first sight. It’s home to the grandest private residences ever built. Magnificent palazzos are admired on a gondola trip down a romantic series of canals that make it the world’s most beautiful city.
Great wealth was also able to pay for great art, and you can see a lot of it at the Accademia Gallery. But the biggest work of art turns out to be Venice itself; one of the cities in Europe and also in the world that can truly be described as unique, exuding a fairytale atmosphere.
There’s nothing like Venice; Its canals, labyrinth of car-free cobblestone streets, and hidden passageways are perfect for wandering—even getting lost here is magical. After admiring the magical mixture of Renaissance, Byzantine, Gothic, and Baroque art and architecture, take some time for contemporary creativity inside the Peggy Guggenheim Museum.
7. AMSTERDAM, (The Netherland)
The Dutch Golden Age was also a European golden age, now remembered through the art in Amsterdam’s museums. The Rijksmuseum has masterpieces by Rembrandt, while across the street there’s an entire museum dedicated to Van Gogh. One of the most fascinating artists of all time.
The Anne Frank House then reminds you of the darkest period in human history. It’s the most emotive memorial of all of the Holocaust memorials and museums around the world.
And there are the canals lined by beautifully maintained buildings, making the Dutch capital one of the most beautiful and welcoming cities in Europe and also in the world. Amsterdam is also ideal as a romantic getaway for two or an educational excursion with the kids. With attractions that range from biking along a maze of canals to remembering the Holocaust through the eyes of Anne Frank; from exploring the swirling Expressionism of Vincent van Gogh to lazing in the expansive Vondelpark, Amsterdam suits a variety of traveler tastes.
8. VIENNA, (Austria)
Artistic, exquisite, and largely shaped by its musical and intellectual foundations, Austria’s capital and largest city are packed with culture. It’s the kind of cities in Europe where you could happily visit four museums in a day and still have more to see, or join fellow culture vultures for an outdoor simulcast of the latest opera—in the dead of winter. (There will always be a crowd for the opera). Make time to get a figurative taste of royalty at Schönbrunn, the Habsburgs’ former summer residence, and get an actual taste of Sachertorte, a chocolate cake that’s a local treat, at Hotel Sacher Vienna’s Cafe Sacher. Just be sure to ask for the extra decadent dessert mit Schlag—with cream.
But there’s more to this city than just music and monarchs. Vienna is also a great place to spend some cash, with independent bookstores competing for business alongside haute couture. There are also a surprising number of attractions for young ones, including an amusement park and a top-notch zoo. And although many Viennese retire early in the night, that doesn’t mean you have to; sneak out to one of the bars along the city’s Bermuda Triangle, or drop by one of the wine taverns skirting the Vienna Woods.
9. MADRID, (Spain)
In many ways, Madrid is similar to many other international metropolises. It’s Spain’s largest city, has the largest population, is the capital, and is the center for international business. For art lovers, Madrid is an unmissable destination. In addition to the outstanding collection of the Prado (filled with Goyas and Velazquez); there are more masters from the Spanish Golden Age and beyond to be seen in other world class museums. The Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. The first one is the best place to see masterpieces by Salvador Dali, Picasso, and Miró. The second covers all the major periods of European art, showing works by names like Rubens, Dürer, and Monet.
But Madrid is mostly about life, lived on the streets of Chueca, down the monumental Gran Via, and on plazas like Plaza Mayor. Stop at a tapas restaurant, lounge at an outdoor café on a plaza, and enjoy the best nightlife in Europe, the joyful Madrid “Movida.”
The magic of Madrid is best captured on foot, strolling through the streets, stopping in a museum, or sitting for a drink at La Alemana; a historic bar once frequented by Ava Gardner and Ernest Hemingway. For a taste of everyday Spanish life in this vibrant capital city, shop at El Corte Inglés, sample the market culture at Mercado San Antón and the Mercado de San Fernando, and bring your picnic to the ancient Egyptian Temple of Debod, which was donated to Spain in 1968 and can be found in the Parque del Oeste.
10. ISTANBUL, (Turkey)
Bridging East and West – Europe and Asia – Istanbul possesses a richly complicated heritage. Once the capital of the Ottoman and Byzantine empires. This city’s prestigious history has left us with many monuments to cherish. Plus, it integrates its past and present to create a unique mix of architecture; a glass skyscraper next to a Byzantine church or a colorful bazaar in the shadow of a shopping mall. The natural landscape is also impressive. The Bosphorus, a narrow strait, cuts the city in two and connects the Sea of Marmara in the south to the Black Sea in the north. From the blue waters, visitors will see a skyline of domes, steeples, and modern towers.
Although Istanbul looks serene from afar, the internal atmosphere is wonderfully chaotic. Discover the bustling streets and busy bazaar stalls that have characterized the city for hundreds of years. Drivers will jockey for position; shopkeepers will barter in an avalanche of chatter; and you’ll be struggling to digest all of the sights, sounds, and smells.
Speaking of smells … during your exploration, taste the distinctly Turkish treats off the streets, including döner, Istanbul’s version of fast food. And when the sun goes down; you’ll see that Istanbul sheds some of its conservative facades to reveal a thriving nightlife. At the intersection of civilizations and continents for centuries; Istanbul surprises visitors with its fast pace, its ancient history, and its present culture.