There’s a lively debate going on among scientists as to when the continent of Europe was first populated. We know for certain that modern humans have been in Europe for at least 45,000 years, but recent discoveries in parts of Russia indicate that these people may have been there much, much longer. There’s no doubt however, that Europe’s history, ancient and modern, is fascinating stuff.
The major events that shaped modern Europe also had a huge impact on the rest of the world. New ways of thinking regarding art, politics, religion, commerce, science, and philosophy are all the result of the Renaissance and Reformation periods. The colonization of other parts of the world made European influence a dominant global force.
As a result, Europe is a hugely popular destination for tourists. From the prehistoric mystery of England’s Stonehenge to the still unfinished Sagrada de Familia in Barcelona, there is no shortage of amazing places to visit. Over 15,000 museums chronicle the achievements of scientists, artists, explorers, and politicians who helped shape our modern world. Many people visit Europe to unearth their personal family history since most people have roots and even living relatives there.
But you wouldn’t want to spend all your time in museums, when there is so much more to see and do. Cruise the scenic fjords in Scandinavia, take a winery tour in Tuscany, explore the magnificent castles along the Rhine River, or sunbathe on the French Riviera – no one can be bored on a vacation to Europe.
You’ll definitely want to take some time to get to know the local people and traditions that make each location unique. Autumn would be a great time to visit Germany and Austria to experience Oktoberfest. A visit to Turkey should include a performance of the Whirling Dervishes (and of course a meal of moussaka and ouzo!) Where better to watch a Shakespearian play than the Globe Theater in London? Gondola ride…Venice. Parasailing…Malta. And no matter which country you visit you’ll encounter wonderful European cuisine that has influenced food favorites worldwide.
A trip to Europe is one you’ll remember forever whether your focus is history, art, photography or food and wine.
Unless you have unlimited funds and time for a visit to Europe, you’ll need to plan your visit carefully to squeeze in the sights and experiences that are important to you. Following are several areas of interest and highlights for each to help you maximize your visit.
Places of historical importance – this shortlist barely scratches the surface of all the historical wonders to visit.
- Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England – the mystery of this ancient site has yet to be solved.
- Kronberg Castle in Helsingor, Denmark – the setting for Elsinore Castle from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
- Acropolis in Athens, Greece – the center of democracy and philosophy for this advanced population perched on a hilltop with an impressive view of the city.
- Ruins at Pompeii in Naples, Italy – for a glimpse into the daily lives of citizens of the city, frozen in time by the devastating eruption of Vesuvius.
- Berlin Wall in Germany – a testament to the struggle for freedom of those trapped behind it.
- The Colosseum in Rome, Italy – the largest amphitheater in the world and the site of Roman entertainment of all kinds.
- The Alhambra in Grenada, Spain – Moorish royalty built this fortress in the 9th century, and it was later converted to a palace.
Best cities for art lovers – again just a fraction of all the magnificent art collections housed in Europe.
- Florence, Italy – always at the top of the list, Florence is home to Italian Renaissance masterpieces by Michelangelo and others.
- Paris, France – where you can spend days strolling through the Louvre or enjoy impressionist treasures at the Musee d’Orsay.
- Rome, Italy – a visit to the Sistine Chapel is a “must” for art aficionados.
- Amsterdam, Netherlands – is the location of the Van Gogh Museum and also the Rijksmuseum which houses works by Vermeer and Rembrandt.
- Vienna, Austria – has a mix of classical art museums as well as many featuring contemporary art.
- Bilbao, Spain – where you’ll find interesting rotating exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum, located in the middle of an eclectic art district.
- Barcelona,Spain – offers a Museum Pass which allows you access to six of the city’s remarkable museums including collections of Picasso and MIro. While you’re there don’t miss the amazing architecture of the Sagrada Familia basilica.
And if you’re a fan of street art, you’re in luck! Athens, Barcelona, Belfast, Berlin, Budapest, Glasgow, London, Lisbon, Naples and Warsaw all have impressive displays. No charge to stroll the neighborhoods and enjoy the work of these innovative painters and sculptors.
Those who enjoy scenic beauty – photographers especially – will enjoy the following locations.
- The peninsula of the Amalfi Coast in southern Italy has been a playground for the wealthy for years. With good reason!
- The Isle of Skye in the Scottish Highlands has a Harry Potter-like landscape and misty coastline.
- Hallstatt, Austria, surrounded by mountains, is especially beautiful in autumn.
- Meteora, Greece, where you can still view 11th century monasteries sitting perilously atop sandstone towers.
- Plitvice Lakes in Croatia. This national park boasts 16 lakes formed by scenic waterfalls.
- Santorini, Greece makes it onto every photographer’s bucket list, so it should be on yours too.
- Provence, France is a place where you’ll find scenic fields of lavender sweeping across valleys and roads that take you through mountain passes to the pristine beaches of the Mediterranean.
How about you travelers who come to Europe to shop, eat, and drink? You’re in the right place!
- Amsterdam’s “Nine Streets” is a neighborhood filled with shops ranging from thrift stores to trendy boutiques and high end jewelry stores.
- MOOD in Stockholm is a popular mall with all the latest European fashion in women’s clothing and shoes.
- Sukiennice, in Krakow, Poland’s Old Town, is the place to go for handmade Polish goods at bargain prices.
- Dusseldorf, Germany has stores that sell everything from luxury fashion to ethnic clothing from around the world.
- Ljubljana, Slovenia has the distinction of being one of the world’s most environmentally friendly cities. Porcelain and lace are two of the specialty items sold here.
- Of course, London and Paris speak for themselves when you’re talking “paradise for shoppers.”
For the food and wine connoisseurs, Europe is pretty much heaven. You can’t go wrong with pizza and pasta in Italy or bread, cheese, wine and pastry in France. Below are listed some of the top destinations for foodies – some might surprise you.
- Azores, Portugal for fresh seafood and exotic fruit
- Brussels, Belgium famous for chocolate, waffles and beer
- Santorini, Greece’s local vineyards produce excellent white wines
- Barcelos Portugal known for its flavorful grilled chicken dishes
- Amsterdam, Netherlands for gouda and other specialty cheeses
- London, England for (what else??) fish and chips
- San Sebastian, Spain for delectable tapas on a stick called pintxos
- Lyon, France’s “bouchon” restaurants, specializing in classic French fare
Are you convinced yet? If you haven’t been to Europe, you’ve been missing a lot!
This might seem obvious, but make sure your passport is valid for the entire duration of your trip (some countries require that it be valid up to 3 months after your trip ends), and check visa requirements for the countries you intend to visit.
Pack light! You won’t need a new outfit every day, and schlepping heavy bags over cobblestones and up flights of stairs is no fun. Laundromats are plentiful in almost every city you’ll visit. One thing you will definitely need is a pair of comfortable shoes.
Inform your bank and credit card company that you’ll be traveling and let them know which countries you plan to visit. Charges popping up from all over are a trigger for credit card companies to freeze your account, and you don’t want that when you’re tired and trying to check in to your hotel.
If you can, travel during the off season. It will save you lots of money and you’ll be able to pack in a lot more sightseeing when you’re not constantly fighting crowds and waiting in line.
If you don’t speak the language of countries you’re visiting, consider downloading Google Translate as well as Google Maps to facilitate getting around. Many Europeans speak English, but not everyone, and if you’re on a tight schedule and need to get to the train station these apps can be lifesavers.
Bicycles are an important mode of transportation in most European countries. So leave bicycle lanes to the cyclists and don’t use them like a sidewalk. You’ll get a lot of glares and a hefty fine if you do. Ditto for jaywalking – cross at the designated crosswalk and wait for the green light.
Carry some local currency, especially if you’re traveling away from major cities – not every shop or restaurant accepts credit cards.
Buy tickets for popular attractions in advance. And if you’re buying train or bus tickets, remember to have them validated before you start your journey.
No matter where you travel, always be aware of your surroundings and try to avoid looking like a tourist. Leave the flashy jewelry and expensive luggage at home.