Encapsulating 50 nations and a dizzying amount of cultural and natural diversity, Europe is a traveler’s playground. From the haunting northern lights casting their eerie glow across Norway’s stark arctic snowfields to celebrity-spotting among the bustle and glitz of the French Riviera, Europe offers a dazzling array of opportunities and adventures, and simply nowhere else rivals its unique combination of history, food and stunning natural marvels. Whether you prefer to slowly sip a coffee and people-watch in Milan or you’re more about scaling mountain peaks in the Swiss Alps, Europe can provide a trip tailored to your every whim.
Some of the earliest European civilizations were Mycenaean and Minoan, both of which were prehistoric and collapsed in approximately 1200 BC. Classical antiquity followed, which encompassed the rise and dominance of ancient Greece, including its time under the rule of Alexander the Great. Ancient Rome similarly emerged, reached its zenith and eventually collapsed, giving way to the Middle Ages.
Western Europe soon fell under the control of the Germanic Franks, while Genghis Khan and his Mongol empire extended as far as Eastern Europe. These various periods of dominance were concurrent with the Viking Age (roughly 8th century to 11th century).
The Late Middle Ages were a difficult and tumultuous time in Europe. This time period included the Black Death, which historians estimate claimed anywhere from 75 to 200 million people. Wars, struggles and conflicts raged, and the 1453 fall of Constantinople marked the conclusion of this dark era.
By the 14th century, the Renaissance—an era of intellectual and scientific discovery—emerged, developed and spread throughout Europe. In the late 1400s, the Age of Discovery followed, which more directly linked Europe to Asia, Africa and the Americas through progressively extensive overseas exploration.
After yet another tumultuous period of fighting (from 1610 to 1700), the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution emerged in Britain, as well as much political change, including the history-shaping reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. As the Age of the Empire dawned, many European countries scrambled for colonies and dominance, primarily in Africa and Asia. Britain and France emerged as the most powerful empires.
As nationalism rose in Southeastern Europe, the world edged toward war. This eventually culminated in the then-unprecedented World War I. In 1917, the October Revolution led to the creation of the Soviet Union, the first official communist state.
After a prosperous decade in the 1920s, the Great Depression (starting in 1929) had devastating effects on democracy throughout Europe. Just four years later, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime came to power, and World War II followed approximately six years after that.
When the fighting eventually ceased in 1945, the Iron Curtain separated the Moscow-controlled East and the capitalist West. This continued until the fall of Soviet hegemony in 1989. The European Economic Community morphed into the European Union, which grew over time and continues to thrive. Today, despite setbacks, such as the global recession of 2008 and subsequent financial woes, Europe is one of the most politically and culturally powerful global regions, and it remains an incredibly popular hub for tourists all around the globe.
With 50 countries under its umbrella and millennia of history, Europe cannot be said to have one overarching cultural aesthetic. That being said, it has been one of the most influential regions in the world in nearly every facet of culture, from art and literature to music, film and beyond.
From the classical art of ancient Greece to the Renaissance greats (da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael) to names practically synonymous with visual art (Picasso, van Gogh and Monet), Europe has always been at the forefront of movements within the artistic realm.
While most people think of classic French film noir or the bizarrely innovative films of Federico Fellini, European film also gave us the canon of Sir Alfred Hitchcock and gold-standard film festivals, such as Cannes and the Berlin International Film Festival.
Starting with Homer and Sappho and continuing on to modern giants, such as J. K. Rowling (the Harry Potter series) and Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), European literary figures abound. Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen just scratch the surface. Outside of England, there’s Goethe, Kafka, Flaubert and a cadre of other influential literary groundbreakers.
Classical music is populated with European names: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and many others. Popular music, however, also owes a great debt of gratitude to European outfits, such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, U2 and ABBA.
Good to Know
Tipping is customary in Europe, but don’t expect it to be as automatic (or as generous) as in the United States. In many restaurants, you’ll notice a service charge already included on your bill. In those instances, tipping is not necessary. If no service charge has been added, 5 percent is adequate, and 10 percent is generous. In many cases, for the sake of simplicity, people simply round the bill up to the nearest number.
It’s also good practice to round taxi fares to the nearest number and to tip porters about a euro for each bag carried.
While Europe covers a range of cultures and traditions—all with their own rules and social mores—there are a few general etiquette tips to keep in mind:
- Talk quietly. Americans have a tendency to boom, and especially in churches, museums and cathedrals, this can be viewed as rude or even disrespectful.
- In some languages, such as French, there are two forms of “you”: a formal and informal. Using the informal in a situation that calls for the formal could be perceived as rude or insulting. While the formal in a casual situation might seem distant or snobbish, if you’re ever unsure, it’s best to err on the side of formality.
- The relative comfort with and attitude toward nudity varies from country to country. In the Netherlands, for example, which embraces sauna culture, nudity is less sexualized and offensive than it might be in the United States.
- Talking about (or asking another about) money, wealth or income is widely considered rude.
Again, how best to conduct yourself depends on the country you’re visiting. Do a bit of digging into your desired destinations to avoid any major faux pas while abroad. (Be sure to check out our various in-depth Travel Guides here!)
Throughout Europe, you’ll find 220 voltage, which differs from the 110 of the United States. The plug types will also vary from country to country. If you’re traveling from the United States and you plan to visit multiple European countries, make sure to pack a universal travel adapter and converter.
The facilities in European public bathrooms shouldn’t be too confusing or unfamiliar to Western visitors, but in a few locations, you might come across the odd squat toilet or two (a “squat, hover and aim” style of facility). Flushing mechanisms might also cause a moment’s pause. If there’s not a handle flush, check for a pull string on the wall above the toilet. This style is common in older bathrooms.
Toilet paper is used widely in Europe, but bathrooms might not always be stocked. Have a spare roll handy in your day bag. If you see a waste basket in the stall (common in places like Greece and Turkey), that means the country’s plumbing can’t handle paper waste. Look for signage telling you whether toilet paper is OK to flush or not, but if you see that little telltale garbage can, it’s a good bet you shouldn’t be throwing your paper down their pipes.
Pay toilets are pretty common throughout Europe. The equivalent of about $0.50 in local currency is usually enough to cover entry. In a few major cities (Amsterdam, Paris, London and the like), you might even find coin-operated bathrooms. Simply drop in your change, and you get about 15 minutes in the facilities, which largely resemble telephone booths from the outside.
Backroads Pro Tip
If you’re having trouble finding a bathroom, check out restaurants, bars, train stations, bookstores, museums and more. You might have to buy something small in the retail or dining locations, but all these places should be outfitted with facilities.
Tap water, by and large, is safe to drink throughout Europe, but there are countries where you should avoid it. In some places (Albania, Belarus and others), avoid the tap water altogether; in other places, major cities (Sarajevo and Budapest, for example) provide safe tap water, but in more rural locations of the nation, you should opt for bottled, filtered, boiled or sanitized water.
Always research the specific countries and cities you’ll be visiting before trying the tap water. When it comes to the safety of drinking water, it’s undeniably better to be safe than sorry.
There are currently 28 currencies used throughout Europe, and the euro is the most common. Of the 28 current member states of the European Union, 19 use the euro. The pound sterling is used throughout the United Kingdom, and many countries have their own dedicated currencies, such as the Norwegian krone, the Serbian dinar, the Swiss franc and many others.
When possible, wait to exchange money until you’re actually abroad. You’ll get more favorable exchange rates, and ATMs and exchange bureaus are plentiful in many major European airports.
Even if a particular store advertises that it accepts US dollars, be wary. You’ll likely pay upwards of 20 percent more to purchase the item with dollars rather than the local currency. The same goes for the euro outside of the eurozone. In general, any time you’re paying in something other than the local currency, make sure you’re not getting an unreasonably poor exchange rate.
Backroads Pro Tip
Rather than printing paper currency for smaller denominations, many European countries use coins instead—meaning a handful of spare change can actually add up pretty quickly. While you might chuck a bunch of US change into the bottom of your bag, European change can easily buy snacks and other small-ticket items. Don’t forget to use it!
ATMs are plentiful throughout Europe, and while you’ll probably be hit with a foreign transaction fee either way, debit cards usually offer fewer financial penalties than withdrawing cash on credit. For day-to-day purchases, many merchants readily accept credit cards. Visa and Mastercard are both good bets.
When to Visit Europe
Europe offers year-round delights (northern lights in Iceland, anyone?), but generally the best time to visit is late spring to early autumn. Depending on where you’re headed, weather tends to be most agreeable during these times, and long hours of daylight ensure you can pack a lot into every day.
If you’re looking to hit a particular cultural event or natural phenomenon, your itinerary will likely determine your travel dates. Just make sure to do your research to find the ideal time for whatever you have planned, and remember, booking ahead, when possible, is always a good idea.
Read our When to Visit Europe article for more info.
- Europe is the second-smallest continent on the planet (only ahead of Australia).
- At one point, the British Empire spanned nearly one-fourth of all the world’s territories.
- Coming in at 6,000 kilometers, the world’s largest ant colony was located from the coast of Spain to northern Italy.
- Construction began on the Sagrada Familia church, which is located in Barcelona, Spain, in 1882. To this day, it’s not finished, meaning the structure will have taken longer to build than the pyramids.
- Bulgaria hasn’t changed its name since 681 AD.
- Iceland is 100 percent free of mosquitoes.
- Lanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (in Wales) is the longest city name in Europe.
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Regions and Cities
A seamless blend of city and wilds, Austria is as much a land of pristine alpine mountains as it is the cultural landscape that gave rise to Mozart, Haydn and Schubert. Take it all in—from the lavish Hapsburg influence to the perfect visions of flower-filled meadows.
An imposing clifftop fortress might dominate the city landscape, but Salzburg provides smaller wonders as well, including immaculate green spaces, wonderful food and active concert halls.
Seemingly every corner of Vienna houses another museum, architectural feat or cultural marvel, and while Vienna is perhaps best known for its heritage of classical music, modern Vienna also offers a delicious array of lavish coffee shops and swanky wine bars that aren’t to be missed.
Beautiful Belgium has an effortless way of blending the old (medieval-era castles) with the new (the hippest cafes and most modern museums). Whether you’re there to enjoy the history of years gone by or the lively scene that’s emerged today, get ready to eat. From waffles to mussels to chocolate, Belgium is known for its local cuisine.
One of Europe’s best-preserved gems, Bruges is a medieval wonderland. From picture-perfect market squares to stunning canals, you won’t want to skip this town’s sheer structural beauty. Stay at least one night to take in the breathtaking floodlighting after sunset.
With all the elements of a storybook land, it’s almost hard to believe Croatia is real. If Croatia is on your next travel itinerary, get ready for Mediterranean weather, impossibly blue water, walled cities and a countrywide love affair with food.
Limestone streets. Baroque buildings. Ancient city walls. The Technicolor Adriatic. Dubrovnik enchants on every front. Don’t skip a chance to walk the walls or lose yourself in the winding streets.
Step into Split, and you’ll be treated to modern Dalmatian living. It’s a city of undeniable energy and life, and nowhere is that better experienced than in Diocletian’s Palace. From the bars to the ancient walls, you’ll get a delightful interplay of old and new that helps make Split unforgettable.
Read our Croatia Travel Guide
Post-1989 Czech Republic has truly become one of the most popular destinations in Europe. From the beating cultural heart of Prague to the folk culture of Bohemia and Moravia, it’s easy to see why.
Many count Prague among Europe’s city elites, considering it the equal to Paris, Rome, London and others. Whether you want to stroll the historic Charles Bridge or enjoy one of Prague’s world-renowned beers, this city is definitely worth wandering (and getting lost) in.
If Denmark is a fairy-tale land, it’s a decidedly modern story. Castles pepper the cityscape, but an undercurrent of progressivism mingles with all that old-world charm. From architecture to social programs to cultural views, Denmark is on the cutting edge.
Colorful Copenhagen is an undeniably beautiful city, and a sense of effortless cool pervades nearly every aspect of the place, from chic commuters to thrilling eateries. It’s an eminently livable city that’s easy to get around—and too easy to get stuck in.
Rolling green hills coexist with buzzy, eccentric London on this island that once nearly ran the world under its empiric rule. From cozy pubs to flashy modern nightclubs, England is an embrace of tradition and modernity.
Big Ben might dominate the postcards, but London provides a nearly dizzying array of activities. Hit any number of galleries and museums, or grab a pint in a quiet pub. Whether you’re looking for traditional tourism or a slice of local life, the multicultural, multifaceted, surprisingly walkable London can accommodate.
When it comes to culture, many French citizens believe their nation is the yardstick by which all other countries measure themselves. Art, architecture, food and wine all rise to the level of quasi religion here, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s all museums and cafe culture. From sand dunes to oak forests, France offers up enough natural playgrounds to satisfy any outdoor enthusiast.
Normandy is a must-visit site on the merits of its natural, rugged beauty alone. Add in its role in the 1066 Norman invasion and 1944’s D-Day landings, and you get one of the most historically important (and stunning) stops in France.
Boasting one of the most iconic and instantly recognizable cityscapes in the world, Paris is an endless delight of monuments, world-class museums and eminently charming boutiques. Hit the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, the magical Seine River and all the other tourist attractions, but don’t forget to wander and get a bit lost while you’re here. Half the fun is stumbling upon some incredible hole-in-the-wall restaurant or marveling at the unparalleled street art culture.
Read Our Paris Travel Guide
When And God Created Woman, starring Brigitte Bardot, was filmed here in 1956, this once-quiet fishing village was transformed practically overnight into a sultry, hip hot spot, and the town never relinquished that movie star glitz and glamour. Lavish yacht populate the old port, and tourists come en masse to catch a glimpse of the rich, powerful and famous.
Read our France Travel Guide
With scenery so atmospheric and picture perfect you’d swear it came straight from a fairy tale, Germany’s natural beauty is an undeniable draw. (One pass through the stunning Rhine River Valley is enough to make any photographer swoon!) Then you dive into the incredible food and beer, chat with the friendly locals and start to muse on all the historical heavyweights Germany has provided (Einstein, Goethe, Marx and more), and you realize just how special this place really is.
Few places have as complex and foundational a history as Berlin. Just walk the remains of the Berlin Wall or stand in the Wannsee Villa, where the Holocaust’s nightmarish Final Solution was planned, and you’ll feel this town’s historical import. Berlin’s not about looking to the past, though. Culture trendsetting and a serious party scene make this place distinctly modern.
This Bavarian capital is, perhaps, best known for Oktoberfest, the raucous tribute to all things beer that over six million people attend annually, but don’t forget to also hit the Kunstareal (the art quarter) to take in one of many other important facets of this affluent, friendly place.
Read our Germany Travel Guide
Whitewashed buildings set against striking blue skies. Ancient ruins of cultural and anthropological significance. Cuisine filled with olives, bright Mediterranean flavors and caught-that-day fish. Iconic Greek images and experiences are certainly part of this stunning country, but it’ll also surprise you with its lesser-known sites (Meteora’s monasteries, for one) and also with its bold and contemporary art scene.
History doesn’t get much more vivid than in Athens. It’s quite literally around every corner, serving as a reminder that you’re strolling the streets of the world’s ancient capital. The Acropolis is as stunning and impressive as you’d imagine, and despite recent economic struggles, the city still positively buzzes with life, light and energy.
Read our Greece Travel Guide
From Roman ruins to stunning art nouveau structures, what strikes many when first exploring Hungary is the wealth of architectural marvels. Architecture isn’t all it offers, though. Good food, vibrant folk culture and beautiful natural scenery combine to give Hungary its unique flair.
This lovely capital on the Danube is a joy to explore. Whether you’re there for its varied and impressive architecture or its surprisingly sophisticated and diverse gastronomy, Budapest delights. Don’t forget to “take the waters” in one of their many hot spring bathhouses.
Experience everything from geothermal activity to waterfalls so thunderous you can feel the crashing in your belly. Iceland is quickly being discovered as the newest hot spot for travel adventurers, and it’s easy to see why: stunning natural beauty, friendly people and one of the trendiest music scenes around.
Don’t let the size fool you. What Reykjavik lacks in area and population, it more than makes up for in sheer beauty, colorful architecture, creative people and some seriously party-hearty nightlife.
Read our Iceland Travel Guide
Everywhere you go in Ireland, breathtaking countryside mixes with prolific cultural output (particularly in the literary and musical realms). By all means, indulge in the highlights (the Blarney Stone, the Causeway Coast and others), but don’t miss the subtle charms too, from the friendly locals to those hole-in-the-wall pubs.
Hit the pub, grab a Guinness, and chat with a local. It’s one of the many pleasures of this historic and charming capital. Even Dubliners will confess their town isn’t winning any beauty pageants, but it more than makes up for it in history and charisma.
Read our Ireland Travel Guide
It’s easy to forget among all the religious and political strife that Israel is also stunningly beautiful, and it offers up unexpected treats in the beaches of Tel Aviv and the wines of Galilee. Whatever brings you to Israel, one constant is true: it sticks with you long after you’ve returned home.
Sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, Jerusalem is a beguiling and fascinating mixture of religions, cultures, triumphs and tragedies. A perpetual lightning rod, Jerusalem’s tumultuous past transitioned into an equally contentious present, but for every deep scar, there’s corresponding beauty—from the incense-filled markets to the wonder-filled tourist praying at this most holy of cities.
If you’re seeking renowned art, amazing architecture, stunning scenery and out-of-this-world gastronomy, look no further than Italy. Whether you’re hitting the tourist trail in Rome or going farther afield, Italy is a kaleidoscope of options, which makes it overwhelming in the very best sense of that word.
If you want to spend your days musing on local produce, sampling wines and enjoying world-class art, don’t neglect Tuscany on your next Italian visit. Sun-drenched hills of olive groves and vineyards give way to medieval villages here, and there’s a constant sense of exciting modernity mingled with the best history has to offer.
A UNESCO-recognized destination, the Amalfi Coast is iconic, seductive and gorgeous. Mountains meet sea here in dramatic fashion, and whether you’re looking for world-class hiking or unmatched restaurants, this playground of the famous can provide.
Even though these five interconnected cities are no longer the undiscovered gem they once were, it does nothing to take away from their grandeur and beauty. Pastel buildings cling to cliffsides, and it’s easy to get swept away by the history around every corner.
Surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, Sicily offers up its unique blend of cuisine, scenery and art (spanning from Byzantine to baroque).
Walk the streets of Rome and be inspired. This former capital of the world offers up iconic delights (the Colosseum, the Pantheon, St. Peter’s Basilica and others), but it also has unexpected treasures up its sleeve. Find hidden restaurants and people-watch across ornately decorated piazzas. All of Rome is an experience; drink as much of it in as you can.
Read our Italy Travel Guide
While Montenegro might be miniscule in size, it packs a lot of punch into its limited borders. Marvelous seaside scenery, mountains and pristine beaches abound, and unique and fascinating culture result from decades of straddling the West and the Eastern Bloc. All this has led to the world taking notice. Despite a recent uptick in tourism, however, the people remain charmingly unchanged. Expect warm welcomes, gregarious greetings and effusive hospitality.
Podgorica isn’t the most widely-known nor most visited European capital, but for those who make the stop, this charming, unpretentious city delivers. After centuries of passing from one ruling power to the next, Podgorica’s history is fascinating and diverse. Walk past Ottoman relics and brand-new commercial ventures, and you’ll feel the simultaneous influences of this town’s storied past.
The picture-perfect image of tulip fields and immaculate windmills is certainly part of the Netherlands, but the nation (sometimes informally referred to as “Holland”) is so much more. You’ll also get an immaculate art scene filled with equal parts masterpieces and cutting-edge design, and the almost perfectly flat (but stunning) terrain also makes this every biker’s personal heaven!
The joy of Amsterdam is in the exploration. Make a point to get lost down its many narrow lanes and discover something new every time. Stroll the countless museums filled with priceless pieces by van Gogh, Rembrandt and Vermeer. Indulge in long walks by the canals, opulent meals and Amsterdam’s unique breed of gezellig (coziness).
There’s little mystery about why droves of tourists descend on Norway every year. Simply put, it ranks among one of the planet’s most beautiful countries. From impossibly steep fjords to imposing glaciers to the austere magnificence of the Arctic, Norway’s natural beauty is mesmerizing, but its vibrant culture rounds out the picture. Grab a latte in a chic Oslo coffeehouse, and then catch a glimpse of polar bears in Svalbard. Norway is truly every adventure traveler’s dream.
Nestled between sea and mountains, this urban, contemporary, growing capital is a mecca for architecture, nightlife and a newly invigorated culinary scene. While many associate Oslo with two pioneering cultural figures (Edvard Munch and Henrik Ibsen), Oslo is also distinctly forward thinking. Named 2019’s European Green Capital, Oslo is leading the way with its low carbon footprint, public transport system and emphasis on sustainable food production.
Read our Norway Travel Guide
Outside of Poland’s exciting urban scenes and stretches of impressive medieval castles, you’ll find its unspoiled wilds waiting to be explored. Wander through the low-lying hills, or jump into a kayak to navigate the many lakes and waterways. When you get back to civilization, you’ll find a spread of comfort food available. When combined with Poland’s lengthy history, including its tragic role in World War II, you’ll start to appreciate the complexity and diversity this nation offers its visitors.
Magical Kraków enchants on every level. Its architecture alone is worth the stop, but an atmospheric wonder can be felt in every corner of this place. From the seemingly magnetic draw of Wawel Castle to the lesser known stretch of restaurants, bars and clubs, there’s a pervasive and harmonious sense here of both past and present.
Warsaw is survival personified. Despite the best efforts of World War II, Warsaw lived through near obliteration and rebuilt into the hectic, diverse and lovely cityscape it is today. Warsaw is an embracing of the past through thoughtful museums, and it’s a constant eye to the future through innovative restaurants and rollicking nightclubs.
From an expansive and fascinating history to the sheer natural beauty of its beaches, Portugal offers a little bit of everything. If you want medieval castles, idyllic beaches and lively festivals, as well as simple, alluring cuisine, Portugal packs it all within its relatively small borders.
The seven hills of Lisbon might be less known than Rome’s, but they’re no less breathtaking. Take in the incredible panoramas, and soak in centuries of history, cobblestoned streets and a healthy dose of ancient ruins. Don’t let the idyllic scenery fool you, though. Lisbon knows how to throw a party, so dive in and explore its many diverse eateries and bars.
At once contemporary, daring, opulent and traditional, Porto has much to offer: a historic center, one of the most underrated European food and drink scenes and locals who’ll quickly win you over with their charms.
Read our Portugal Travel Guide
The country might be small, but it packs in natural and cultural wonders into every corner. You’ll be treated to skies dotted with eagles and waters filled with otters, minke whales…and possibly even Nessie. After a full day of exploring Scotland’s natural offerings, jump into its many cultural marvels: a classic glass of Scotch whiskey, Robert Burns’s canon of poetry and a thriving musical festival scene.
Classically stunning, Edinburgh wows visitors with its rocky hills and seascapes, but this “Athens of the North” is also defined by its passion for literature, art, philosophy and science. Don’t worry, though. There’s nothing stuffy or elitist about this fun-loving town. For every lofty cultural ideal, you’ll find, in equal measure, rowdy pubs, irreverent stand-up comedians and parties that rage on past sunrise.
Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow is many things at once: an array of Victorian architecture, a proud emblem of Scotland’s working class, a cattle call of friendly, buzzing pubs and a carousel of shopping options. Whatever you’re here for, get ready for a charming blend of modern sophistication and disarmingly down-to-earth people.
Read our Scotland Travel Guide
With its Adriatic coastline, network of impressive caves and snow-capped mountains, Slovenia is irresistible to the outdoor traveler. Hike, raft and bike your way through this tiny but impressively diverse nation, but don’t forget the treasures offered by humankind as well. Decadent cuisine that borrows heavily from its neighbors, architecture spanning from rustic farmhouses to art nouveau and a vibrant museum scene are all integral facets to the Slovenian tapestry.
The image adorns nearly every postcard of Slovenia: the perfect little church on an island in blue-green waters, a medieval castle seemingly grasping to the rocky cliff edge and the Julian Alps looming behind it all. It doesn’t matter how often you see it in print, though. The image remains breathtaking and awe inspiring in real life. If you can only fit one thing in your day bag here, make it your camera!
Welcome to the good life; welcome to Spain. Diverse landscapes range from arid plains to snowcapped mountains to Mediterranean coastlines, and everywhere you go, you’re in for culinary treats, lively dance and the cultural inspirations that spawned Spanish innovators like artists Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso.
Spanish Basque Country (distinct from French Basque Country) is a land of soaring mountain peaks and powerful Atlantic coastlines. Don’t leave without exploring modern Bilbao and San Sebastián.
A delight of the senses, Barcelona is the perfect place to dive into Spanish culture. Best known for its impressive culinary spreads, iconic architecture and, of course, boisterous, wild nightlife, this seaside city is not to be missed.
Madrid is where fine food, drink, art and partying collide. It’s the perfect blend of old and new, refined and wild. Spend your days serenely wandering the Museo del Prado, and then dance until dawn at any one of Madrid’s cocktail bars or nightclubs.
For those seeking traditional Spain, look no further than Seville (“Sevilla” to the locals). Here you’ll find a barrage of baroque churches and ancient cobbled lanes—with just enough tucked away flamenco clubs to keep everything lively.
Located at the base of the Sierra Nevada, Granada isn’t quite like any other Spanish city. It’s where Islamic and Arab influence mingle with traditional tapas and a resoundingly modern graffiti art movement, and this bohemian vibe provides endless entertainment and intrigue. Don’t miss the city’s crowning jewel: the Alhambra palace and gardens.
Palma de Mallorca
If you’re seeking that postcard-perfect Mediterranean island, add Mallorca to your must-visit list. It’s a place of stunning beaches, vibrant color and mountains waiting to be scaled—all embraced in soulful tradition and history. It’s island life at its best.
Read our Spain Travel Guide
Vast stretches of frozen land and untouched forests coexist with impeccable, fashion-forward towns. Add in a rich tradition of reindeer herding and Viking roots, and you’re starting to see the diverse appeal of Sweden.
Stockholm has a deeply rich and well-preserved history, but fashion, beauty and design constitute the trifecta today in this elegant and modern city. Even the smallest coffee shop is sure to look magazine ready, and the shopping and dining here are some of the most sophisticated on offer.
You might only think of cuckoo clocks and chocolate, but Switzerland offers a whole lot more to its visitors. The scenery, including the stunning Alps, is some of the most dramatic our planet has to offer, and for city hoppers, this contemporary nation offers a host of delightful, edgy, avant-garde museums and cultural experiences—everywhere from Bern to Zürich.
With its red roofs and the surrounding snow-capped peaks, Bern is an eminently charming, quaint capital. Its Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, its museums are top notch, and the friendly locals are happy to share their city with you, as well as a beer and a chat.
Known for its wealth and robust financial center, Zürich has long enjoyed the reputation of being one of Europe’s most livable cities. In recent years, though, it’s taken on a new fun dynamic. This distinctly modern, hip vibe is felt most clearly in its factories renovated into living quarters and its raucous annual Street Parade.
Worth a Visit
Sure, you’ll certainly be sharing Europe’s most iconic places with lots of other tourists, but these wonders are famous for a reason! From the Eiffel Tower, Colosseum and Grand Bazaar to Big Ben, the Acropolis and the Cliffs of Moher, Europe is absolutely brimming with places that draw millions of visitors each year. While finding those hidden gems is certainly part of Europe’s appeal, don’t opt out of all the major attractions. Even with all the hype, many live up to (and surpass) all expectations.
From the catwalk-ready Milan to the effortlessly chic Stockholm, many European cities take fashion very seriously. Haute couture transcends clothes, shoes and accessories here; it’s a way of life.
Whether you’re adventuring in the Alps, the Dolomites, the Pyrenees or any other number of mountain ranges, Europe offers its visitors some of the best alpine experiences in the world. Enjoy day hikes, or indulge in more strenuous multiday adventures. Whatever you do, just don’t forget your camera!
Europe’s long and storied history offers endless marvels, but it comes with heavy losses from atrocities as well. Distant wars can be remembered in the hushed and reverent halls of Auschwitz and the somber memorials of Normandy, and more recent tragedies can be understood in the buildings of Sarajevo, so fresh from war that many still exist as crumbling husks pocked with mortar damage.
Things to See and Do
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How to Get to Europe
By and large, a US citizen doesn’t currently need a visa to enter the European Union for stays of 90 days or less, but there are political rumblings that this might change in the future. Russia (which is largely considered both Asian and European) does require a visa before arrival.
Political relationships and bureaucratic logistics are always shifting. Before you travel, make sure to get the most up-to-date information about whether a visa is required for the country (or countries) where you plan to stay. (Check out this site for guidance and information: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel.html.)
If you’re coming from the United States, you’ll likely be entering Europe by air. Most countries have international airports, so you can easily reach any desired destination. If you’re entering through a major European hub, it’ll probably be through one of these 10 busiest airports in Europe:
- Heathrow Airport (London, England, United Kingdom)
- Charles de Gaulle Airport (Paris, France)
- Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (Amsterdam, Netherlands)
- Frankfurt Airport (Frankfurt, Germany)
- Istanbul Ataturk Airport (Istanbul, Turkey)
- Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport (Madrid, Spain)
- Barcelona El Prat Airport (Barcelona, Spain)
- Gatwick Airport (London, England, United Kingdom)
- Munich Airport (Munich, Germany)
- Leonardo de Vinci-Fiumicino Airport (Rome, Italy)
Getting Around - Transportation
Public transportation—both between and within cities—is very much a part of European culture, and travel in Europe (among locals and tourists alike) often depends on it. The infrastructure and mind-set are so ingrained that some Europeans don’t even bother learning how to drive. Trains are a great (though often expensive) way to get from large city to large city, and with the elimination of border checks and customs within the Schengen Area, you often won’t even have to get off the train when you cross into another country.
World-class subway systems grace many large cities (think Paris and London), and trams, buses and even the odd taxi are convenient ways to get smaller distances within towns.
Backroads Pro Tip
Be especially alert on any European public transport system. As you’ll find in any large city, thieves and pickpockets love to congregate in these places—especially in densely crowded areas, such as turnstiles and escalators. Tourists are particularly susceptible because they can be distracted by figuring out the unfamiliar transport system.
Renting a car is a great option in Europe, and while it’s probably not ultimately as cheap as public transport, it’s convenient, allows for a bit more flexibility and can get you to more remote areas in less time. Many car rental agencies are available in Europe, and the big-name firms you know from the United States will likely be available as well.
Backroads Pro Tip
Many US credit cards include some form of rental car insurance coverage. If you’re planning on renting a car, call your credit card company to find out what they offer. This could help you save money on your rental and make car hire more reasonable.
The following are a few things to keep in mind if you’re considering car hire in Europe:
- Manual cars are the norm, and an automatic could cost you upwards of 50 percent more.
- Car sizes will likely be smaller than you’re used to in the United States, but that’s often OK. With Europe’s narrow, winding streets, the maneuverability of a small car can be a blessing.
- Remember, certain European countries drive on the left side of the road (Great Britain, Ireland, Cyprus and more).
- Driving in Europe can be taxing. Given the traffic, unfamiliar signage and narrow streets, consider picking up your car somewhere outside of a big city. This can greatly minimize the stress that can sometimes come with navigating busier roads.
- When possible, avoid having a car in big cities. Parking can be difficult and costly, and the often excellent public transport systems offer cheaper and more stress free ways to travel.
Europe is a vast continent that spans many countries and cultures, and the languages spoken here are unsurprisingly diverse. In general, Indo-European languages dominate Europe, including Slavic, Romance and Germanic. There are also small linguistic families, such as Baltic languages and Greek.
Most Europeans working in the tourist industry speak excellent English, but even when encountering Europeans who aren’t fluent in English, US citizens who don’t speak the native language can usually get by with a little bit of creative communication. If you’re consistently drawing blank stares from the locals, though, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Speak slowly, simply and deliberately, but remember, there’s no need to shout. The person you’re trying to communicate with might catch a few extra words if you slow down, but no one benefits from simply repeating the same sentence at an ever-increasing volume!
- Avoid contractions and slang. Many Europeans learn English from a book, and while “do not” is English 101, “don’t” can throw them for a loop—especially when they’re listening to you rather than seeing the words written down.
- The idea is to get your point across, not to say the most grammatically correct sentence. When the goal is to be understood, “Bathroom?” is arguably more effective than, “Pardon me, but could you please tell me where the bathroom is located?”
- Speaking in a foreign language (with a native speaker) is always a bit uncomfortable and nerve racking, and the onus shouldn’t always be on the local to use his or her English. If you know any of the language where you’re visiting, make an effort to use it. Even if your attempt is shaky—or downright wrong—locals often greatly appreciate the effort.
Here are just a handful of basic phrases to try out in some of Europe’s major languages:
- Hello: Hola (Spanish); Bonjour (French); Hallo (German); Ciao (Italy)
- Good-Bye: Adiós (Spanish); Au revoir (French); Auf Wiedersehen (German); Addio, or Ciao (Italy)
- Thank you: Gracias (Spanish); Merci (French); Danke (German); Grazie (Italy)
- I’m sorry: Lo siento (Spanish); Je suis désolé (French); Es tut mir Leid (German); Mi dispiace (Italy)
- Excuse me: Disculpe (Spanish); Excusez moi (French); entschuldigen Siem ich (German); Scusami (Italy)
- Yes: Sí (Spanish); Oui (French); Ja (German); Sì (Italy)
- No: No (Spanish); Non (French); Nein (German); No (Italy)
Food and Drink
European food and drink constitute one of this region’s biggest delights. While every nation has its own rich culinary traditions, here are some highlights from several European regions:
Central Europe (Austria, Poland, Slovenia and others)
From Austria’s Wiener Schnitzel to Czech Republic’s renowned beers to Hungary’s goulash, Central European fare is hardy, simple and delicious.
Eastern Europe (Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and others)
On the Eastern European menu, don’t miss Ukrainian borscht, Russian pirozhki (a variant of the pierogi) and, of course, the classic chicken Kiev.
Northern Europe (United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and others)
For the adventurous eater, dive into sautéed reindeer, Scottish haggis and Norway’s lutefisk (dried cod or ling steeped in lye). For the more wary traveling diner, partake in a traditional English Sunday roast, tuck in to a plateful of Swedish meatballs, or enjoy cod fresh caught from the Baltic Sea. Don’t forget to wash your entrée down with an Irish Guinness.
Southern Europe (Italy, Greece, Croatia, Spain and others)
Centered on the Mediterranean, this region’s food selection is heavy on pastas, olives, great wine and seafood. Hit the classics with a variety of Spanish tapas or Neapolitan pizza, or venture into the less known with delicious staples like Bulgarian banitsa.
Western Europe (France, Belgium, Netherlands and others)
French cuisine, of course, dominates the Western European culinary scene. Producing world-renowned wines and a cattle call of Michelin-approved restaurants, France is largely considered the gold standard for high-end eating. Dining in Western Europe doesn’t begin and end with France, though. Don’t forget to partake in the delicacies of its neighboring countries as well!
Any Europe travel guide could easily fill pages upon pages with the food and drink on offer throughout the continent. While you might not be able to try every dish you want in your limited time, just remember to treat the food and drink as integral parts of your cultural immersion. Bon appétit!
Food in Europe: What to Know and to Eat—Full Article Coming Soon!
Europe is a large continent that encompasses 50 countries. As such, the relative safety varies from location to location. In general, though, Europe is a safe place to travel, especially if you stick to tourist-friendly locations and exercise common-sense precautions. If you’re concerned about any number of safety threats in your destination, check the US Department of State website for current travel advisories.
For many tourists, the largest safety threat in Europe is petty theft. Be especially wary in crowded areas, such as town squares or public transport. Pickpockets know distracted tourists are likely to be in these places. Always keep an eye on your luggage or bags, and keep essential documents (passport, credit cards, cash and the like) on your physical person. Be especially wary of common two-person scams, including when someone comes up to ask you a question (usually with a map or something similarly distracting) and the accomplice sneaks up behind and snatches your luggage while you’re not looking.
If you need emergency services in Europe, the first number to try should be 112. Every member nation of the European Union, as well as many other European countries, use this number (in addition to their country-specific emergency numbers) for emergency support.
Check the country-specific emergency numbers of your destination country (or countries) if you need specific numbers, such as those for ambulance or fire.
What is Backroads
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. Explore all our Europe tours here, and we hope this guide will be enlightening as you plan your next great adventure!