You want to go to Europe, but don't know where to start your travel research. From picking a country to choosing between big metropolises and quiet seaside towns, there are a lot of options. That's why we've broken down some of the top destinations in Europe, and provided a rundown of what those countries have to offer, so you can plan your next vacation with ease. Whether you want to do a multi-country trip or stick to a fan favorite like France, read on and start planning your getaway.
Romantic, picturesque, and packed with tourist-friendly cities, France is the most-visited country, not only in Europe, but the whole world. While most first-time visitors head straight to Paris, there’s much more to see than the City of Light. Ile de France is a north-central region that’s home to Paris and Versailles, an easily navigable area with famous sights such as the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, and 18th-century Palace of Versailles, plus gourmet dining, expansive parks, and great shopping. France is well-regarded for its excellent wine, and oenophiles can pick a region based off their favorite variety: Champagne offers tasty bubbly, historic cathedrals, and hilly countrysides; Burgundy is packed with the region’s oxblood-colored reds, plus foodies can sample beef bourguignon and traditional mustard in Dijon; and Bordeaux presents the quintessential French wine getaway with gardens along the Garonne River, and a look at wine production dating back to the days of ancient Rome. Lyon and the Rhone Valley, where a bustling metropolis with historic sights, Michelin-starred dining, and hundreds of wineries await, are also worth a visit.
Travelers more interested in beaches than wine tastings can explore a few coastal areas — most notably, the southeastern French Riviera, or Cote d’Azur. Top cities here include Cannes, where celebs can be spotted during the famous film festival, Nice, which has long attracted artist types and well-heeled French locals in the winter, and Marseilles, a family-friendly destination with a charming Old Port. History buffs and sunbathers should head northwest to Normandy, where you’ll find museums detailing the World War II battle, the quaint city of Rouen (a favorite subject of Claude Monet), and famous Mont Saint-Michel that’s home to an 11th-century abbey.
This is an abbreviated version of the many enticing travel destinations within France. Check out our ultimate guide to the regions of France for more info.
One of Europe’s warmest countries, Spain attracts travelers year-round with its sunny beaches, vibrant nightlife, laid-back siesta culture, and striking architecture. Tourists short on time will likely visit Madrid and Barcelona, two very different cities. The former has a nearly dead-center location in Spain, and acts as the official residence to the Spanish royal family. The capital city is a gorgeous melding of centuries-old attractions and modern-day living, featuring world-class museums like The Prado, urban parks, and popular tapas bars. Meanwhile, Barcelona is a cosmopolitan city on the northeastern coast, where beautiful Gothic architecture, sandy beaches, and nightlife that begins after midnight somehow work together. South along the coast is the third-largest city, Valencia, which offers futuristic buildings, famous paella, and a ton of science- and art-centric attractions.
Travelers more interested in clubbing than museums should head east to the party-centric island of Ibiza, where beachfront hotels consistently have renowned DJs. Calmer waterfront options include the island of Majorca to the east, northeastern Costa Brava, and the southern Costa del Sol, which is lined with resorts ranging from luxury to budget. Particularly popular with British travelers, the Canary Islands — off the coast of western Africa — are home to Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, and Fuerteventura and offer an affordable beach alternative where travelers can choose from undeveloped, nature-centric areas to generic tourist havens.
Although landlocked, Seville is a charming city that’s the capital of the southern Andalusia region. It’s famous for flamenco dancing, an astonishingly well-preserved historic quarter, and the beautiful Alcazar of Seville, which has a combination of Moorish and Spanish Christian architecture. For more Moorish design, drive three hours east to Granada, where the Alhambra fortress takes the top spot for must-visit attractions. Finally, all the way up to the northern coast is Basque Country, which includes San Sebastian — a foodie destination with promenade-lined beaches and a cobblestone old town — and Bilboa — known for its Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum.
From the boot-shaped mainland to the Mediterranean islands, there’s a ton to see throughout the diverse country of Italy. Travelers could pick their city by favorite Italian food, artwork, or wine varietal. For history and art aficionados, there’s perhaps no better destination than Rome, located in the central Lazio region. Ancient ruins, iconic art such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Renaissance architecture, and plenty of gelato shops make this one of Italy’s most alluring spots. A few hours north is the Tuscany region, home to charming Florence, which has a large student population and historic buildings such as the Duomo. To the west is Pisa, famous for its leaning tower of the same name. Numerous wineries — try Chiantis here — also dot the area’s rolling hillsides. To the north is the fashion and design capital of Milan, and the charming city of Turin in the Piedmont region, which has lovely squares, a fun live music scene, and Baroque architecture. Due east is the coastal city of Venice, which is famous for its network of canals, but it can be packed with tourists and cruise ships.
Charming cities with delicious food are found throughout, including Parma and Bologna in the Emilia-Romagna region. The southwestern city of Naples is famed for its Neapolitan pizza and its gateway to ancient Pompeii — home to Mount Vesuvius. There’s also the Amalfi Coast, a spectacular collection of cliffside towns with colorful buildings overlooking the Mediterranean. Another top coastal destination is the UNESCO World Heritage site of Cinque Terre (north of Pisa), a string of five fishing villages on the rugged Italian Riviera that are connected via hiking trails. Travelers who want to swap seaside spots for lakefront options can head to the Lombardy region, home to the well-known and beautiful Lake Garda, Lake Como, Lake Maggiore, and Lake Iseo, all set against the foothills of the Alps.
Moving off the mainland, the largest Italian island is Sicily, which has archaeological sights, pretty beaches, and active volcanoes. To the northwest is Sardinia, which is generally considered to have more attractive beaches, thanks to finer sand and blue-green water. Delicious fresh seafood, medieval architecture, and both tourist-heavy and under-the-radar cities can be found on both islands.
Part of the United Kingdom, England is one of the top destinations in Europe, largely due to its capital London. The buzzing city is often referred to as a melting pot, thanks to the multitude of cultures that coexist with centuries-old sights (Big Ben, the Tower of London) and quintessential British traditions like the royal family. A diverse dining landscape, vibrant music and nightlife scene, and world-class museums make London a must-see while in the U.K. University-centric Oxford and Cambridge offer sights in addition to their schools, while the medieval market town of Stratford-upon-Avon draws Shakespeare enthusiasts looking to tour his childhood home or see one of his plays performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Football fans can visit the riverfront Liverpool, also known as the home of The Beatles, or drive east to Manchester and Leeds (the latter is the third-largest city in the country and has the highly rated Royal Armouries Museum). For a mix of relaxation and history, head to the charming town of Bath, which is known for its natural hot springs and honey-colored stone used throughout its architecture. The country is home to dozens of quaint, historic towns — some along the water — which vary in popularity. Along the English Riviera is the beach-packed resort town Torquay, while Brighton (south of London) offers a buzzing music and nightlife scene. St. Ives, situated by the southwestern tip of England, is also a lovely beach town filled with art galleries.
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The second-largest country in Europe by population, Germany typically attracts tourists to its two main cities: Berlin and Munich. The former has a documented history dating back to the 13th century, but it’s perhaps most well-known for serving as Nazi Germany’s capital during WWII. From being bombed to hosting the Summer Olympics, the northeastern city has seen numerous highs and lows. Today, however, it’s considered one of the most cutting-edge cities in the world, with a prominent and interesting art scene, delicious food ranging from cheap street eats to Michelin-starred dining, and a vibrant underground nightlife scene with everything from drug-fueled dance parties to laid-back jazz clubs. Meanwhile, Munich sits near the southern border and lures many visitors with its annual Oktoberfest, where tourists and locals dress in traditional lederhosen and dirndl dresses and fill tented, beer stein-slinging halls. Historic buildings, excellent museums, and expansive urban parks are ideal for exploring outside of the festival.
Taking third place for most-visited city is Hamburg, a major port city in northern Germany, about a two-hour drive south of the Denmark border. Crossed by numerous canals, boat tours are a popular way to see the city, and top attractions include the Church of St. Michael, red light district, and architecture of the Warehouse District. In central Germany, Frankfurt is a financial hub, home to hundreds of credit institutions. Plus, it has a medieval district with a historic market square, the Frankfurt Cathedral, and the Old St. Nicholas Church. A bit smaller, though no less enticing, are artsy Dresden — which had to be rebuilt after WWII bombing nearly destroyed the city — and Cologne, a 2,000-year-old city along the Rhine River that has a stunning Gothic cathedral with twin spires and a progressive culture.
For more under-the-radar spots, check out our list of the best small towns in Germany.
Given that Greece is made up of thousands of islands and the mainland, choosing where to go can take some time. Travelers who want to visit the islands will first have to land in Athens, one of the oldest cities in the world and considered the cradle of Western civilization and the birthplace of democracy. At one point tacky and smog-filled, the city has had a reemergence that has left it with amazing nightlife, well-maintained streets and public transportation, and tourist-friendly navigability. Ancient ruins such as the hilltop Acropolis and Parthenon, plus the Temple of Olympian Zeus, give travelers plenty to explore. From there, it’s under an hour flight to the wildly popular island of Santorini. Known for its whitewashed architecture carved into the cliffs, the island overlooks the deep-blue Mediterranean Sea. Charming, albeit tourist-filled, towns here include Fira, the capital, and Imerovigli and Oia, which are both known for amazing sunset views. Santorini is best suited to couples, while young, party-minded travelers will likely enjoy Mykonos. Although it lacks the sensational vistas of Santorini, it’s popular for pretty stretches of sand, most of which host beach parties. Most visitors stick around Mykonos Town, which is packed with restaurants, bars, and budget-friendly hotel options.
Located between Santorini and Mykonos, Paros is a laid-back and cheaper option, though Naxos to the east is a bit more mountainous and less developed. Beaches are lovely at both. Rhodes and Crete are highly developed islands, but they’re also good budget-friendly options with plenty of scenic appeal. Off the mainland’s western coast in the Ionian Sea, Corfu has a forested landscape, a 15th-century fortress in the Old Town, and pretty cobblestone streets.
The past few years have seen Portugal rise in popularity, thanks to its array of suitable travel spots, affordability, warm weather, and long coastline. Its most-frequented city is its vibrant capital, Lisbon, located on steep hills that make for a good workout and gorgeous views. The well-preserved city has traditional red clay-tiled roofs and striking historic architecture, plus sounds of fado music and people drinking in plazas. Rampant LGBT-friendly nightlife, markets selling produce and handicrafts, and delicious food such as pasteis de nata (egg tart) add to this charming city’s allure. During the winter, many U.K. travelers in particular head to the southern Algarve region, home to a stretch of towns that range from quiet, historic spots to tourist-packed resort areas with little authenticity left. The former includes places like Tavira, Ferragudo, and Sagres, all of which have colorful pre-colonial buildings, loads of confeitarias (bakeries), and easy access to the beach. On the other hand, touristy spots like Albufeira and Portimao are packed with Irish- and British-style pubs, tacky souvenir stands, and sunbathers on the beach. Lagos offers an ideal mix of well-preserved history and tourist-friendly amenities, plus striking cliffside views and sandy breaches.
On the northern coast, Porto is known for its port wine production, grand 19th-century Stock Exchange Palace, and traditional tripe stew. About a two-hour flight from Lisbon are the Azores, an archipelago of nine volcanic islands that are known for their dramatic landscapes, water-based activities (including whale watching and windsurfing), and picturesque hiking. This is an ideal spot for active nature-lovers.
West of England, Ireland is referred to as the Emerald Isle for its abundance of rolling hills and greenery. Most first-time visitors will stay for a few days in the capital of Dublin, situated on the eastern coast of the country. Historic attractions abound, such as the 13th-century Dublin Castle and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. There are also excellent museums like the Dublin Writers Museum and National Museum of Ireland. Rampant pubs are found in the rowdy Temple Bar area and classier St. Stephen’s Green. A trip to the Jameson Distillery or Guinness Storehouse often top tourist’s must-see lists, as does Trinity College, which is home to the Long Room, a beautiful library. Just over a two-hour drive west of Dublin is the charming harbor-front town of Galway. The heart of the city centers around Eyre Square, and rows of quaint colorful houses line the bustling wharf. A burgeoning dining scene, great nightlife, and friendly locals make this an excellent stop on an Ireland tour.
A 90-minute drive south leads to the famous Cliffs of Moher, a stretch of rugged crags that plummet 700 feet. The O’Brien’s Tower observatory offers a great vantage point to take in the majestic vistas, which are especially jaw-dropping at sunset on a clear day. Another top natural attraction is the Ring of Kerry, located in the southwestern region of Ireland. It’s a circular route around Iveragh Peninsula, passing by charming villages, medieval ruins, and numerous scenic areas that keep travelers pulling off to the side to snap a photo. Stopping in Killarney is popular, thanks to the town’s hiking trails, excellent golf courses, array of restaurants and shops, and historic sights.
Get a closer look at all of Ireland’s top destinations here.
Although Turkey is suffering from decreased tourism due to a tumultuous government and terrorist attacks, it should not be cast aside for a potential vacation. From the impressively historic Istanbul to the stunning coastal towns, the country, which straddles eastern Europe and western Asia, offers a unique visit. Istanbul, which sits on both sides of the Bosphorus Strait, has iconic historic structures such as the Hagia Sophia (a Byzantine-church-turned-mosque-turned-museum) and 17th-century Blue Mosque, plus numerous other stunning landmarks in its Old City. Authentic Turkish hammams and Whirling Dervishes performances offer a traditional look at the country, while modern restaurants and buzzing nightlife in the Beyoglu district offer a contrast.
Going all the way south to the Mediterranean is the Turquoise Coast, a popular stretch of resort towns that draw high numbers of Europeans during winter months. Although varying in size, the towns of Antalya, Kemer, Belek, Side, and Alanya generally offer all-inclusive resorts, lovely beaches, and plenty of tourist-friendly restaurants and bars. Historic sights are also found in these areas, allowing travelers to experience a bit of culture with their beach time. Drive a few hours west and you’ll hit the Turkish Aegean Coast. Top cities here include Marmaris, Bodrum City, Kusadasi, Fethiye, and Oludeniz (the latter of which is home to the magnificent Blue Lagoon). Like the Mediterranean coast, these towns have some historical significance and attractions, but travelers are mostly here for the sandy beaches and large kid-friendly resorts.
In central Turkey, you’ll find the capital of Ankara, a cosmopolitan city that’s home to the State Opera and Ballet, the Presidential Symphony Orchestra, and several national theater companies. Old castles and ruins, major universities, and lovely parks give visitors a solid look at life in modern-day Turkey. A four-hour drive southeast leads to the Cappadocia region, known for its rock formations that are dubbed “fairy chimneys” for their surreal appearance. Over the centuries, locals carved into the soft rock to form houses, churches, and underground systems, giving them a honeycomb look. Hot air balloon tours offer the best views, and hotels in towns such as Goreme offer cave rooms.
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