Europe has been on my mind lately. I haven’t visited the continent since 2012, so it could be that I simply miss the place. Or it could be that recent late night TV airings of “Skyfall” and “Midnight in Paris” have left me nostalgic for my wandering days.
I immediately started thinking of some favorite places in Europe. A few, like the Bernese Oberland of alpine Switzerland, are pleasantly rural. Most, however, are either specific sights in specific cities…or the cities themselves.
Europe is blessed with dozens of cities and towns worth visiting. I have decided to share my favorites with you in a series of top ten lists. I am dividing my rankings into three separate lists. First, large cities – cities with over 1,000,000 residents. Next, mid-sized cities – let’s say 50,000 – 1,000,000. Finally, small cities and towns – any community with fewer than 50,000 people.
Here are my Top Ten Large European Cities:
1) Paris, France: I wrote a lengthy blog entry called Paris, je te aime following 2015’s dual terror attacks on the French capital. There really isn’t much more to say, except to reiterate that Paris is magical in all kinds of weather (forgive the cliché), that its riverside green spaces are inviting, that its galleries comprise the most comprehensive collection of art on the planet, that it is eminently walkable, that its café culture reminds everyone to stop and rest once in awhile, that its famous tower – the design of which once horrified Parisians – is visible from almost anywhere, and that it contains a new photo opportunity around every corner. Go then; what are you waiting for?! If you like Paris, check out Lyon, France.
2) Stockholm, Sweden: I have made two lengthy visits to this cosmopolitan capital city, and I still haven’t been sated. Scandinavia’s largest city, Stockholm is a city of islands (over 20,000 in the archipelago!); of bicycles; of fashionable, blue-eyed locals; of birthday cake-shaped buildings; of ice-cold water that nevertheless beckons you to take a dip (it beckoned me, anyway); of Skansen, the oldest open-air museum in Europe; of prisons-turned-hostels and tugboats-turned-hostels; and of Västerlånggatan/Drottninggatan streets, which connect Old Town and New Town streets and which combine to form the grandest pedestrian mall in the world. If you like Stockholm, check out Helsinki, Finland.
3) London, England: Welcome to one of the oldest and most important cities on the planet. London was the center of the world for several centuries, and survived plagues, sieges, and decades of bad oral hygiene. 🙂 Though one of the rainiest cities in Europe, your visit to London will nonetheless leave you speechless as you stroll past some of the most recognizable sights in the world – Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament; Piccadilly Circus, with double-decker buses racing past its brand name façade of neon lights; much-photographed Buckhingham Palace (pictured below) with its never-smiling Beefeater guards; the fairy tale-esque Tower Bridge and adjacent, medieval Tower of London; and those much-photographed, still-operating red or blue phone booths, straight out of “Doctor Who.” If you like London, check out Edinburgh, Scotland.
4) Istanbul, Turkey: If Turkey is the most “Asian” country in Europe, then Istanbul is the most “European” city in Asia. Half of Istanbul is in Asia, in fact – although most tourist attractions – Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the Basilica Cistern, and the Grand Bazaar – worthy sites all, are firmly in European territory. At 14 million strong, Istanbul is the biggest city in Europe and, according to some sources, the fifth-largest proper city in the world. As nargileh (hookah) smoke mixes with the savory aroma of Turkish meatballs, the barks of carpet salesmen are drowned out by the lyrical calls to prayer. All is well. (For more Turkish flavor, read my Istanbul: A City by Any Other Name post, written one year ago and politically-charged but still relevant.) If you like Istanbul, check out Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina.
5) Berlin, Germany: Berlin is the NYC of Europe – the city that never sleeps! The once-divided city’s dynamic transformation into a reunified capital is now complete, and the end result is an exciting city with more to see and do than perhaps any other city on the continent. Cultural highlight: Berlin Wall political graffiti. Architectural highlight: The Reichstag (Parliament) Building, which survived a 1933 fire and four decades of Communism, to enter the 21st century with a striking, post-modern dome. Artistic highlight: the Neue Nationalgalerie, filled with daring contemporary art. Street food highlight: currywurst – so cheap, tasty, and omnipresent that it even commands its own museum! Read more about Berlin in my Germany – A Love Affair post from 2014. If you like Berlin, check out Amsterdam, Netherlands.
6) Kiev, Ukraine: Kiev is one of the great people-watching cities in the world. Almost three million people call Kiev home. These hard working Ukrainians run the gamut from supermodel blondes with impossibly long legs to Russian-speaking, shopping cart-pushing babushkas to mustache-wearing, mullet-coiffed, pink shirt-adorned young males who simply insist on flashing the “hang loose” sign while posing for a picture with their new gringo buddy. Although nearly all of them are Caucasian, they nevertheless represent a remarkable cultural melting pot. Did I mention that their city, Ukraine’s bustling capital, is anything but drab, despite it having been on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain for 60 years? If you like Kiev, check out Moscow, Russia.
7) Lisbon, Portugal: Portugal’s dynamic capital doesn’t receive nearly as many foreign tourists as most other Western European capitals. I myself had put off going for years. I finally went in 2011…and my expectations were more than exceeded. Lisbon is situated along the Rio Tego, just a stone’s throw from the North Atlantic. The city doesn’t make good touristic use of its riverfront, which is largely industrial, but a scenic visit to Lisboa is really about getting high. Hop on one of the omnipresent trolleys for Alfama, its hilltop district just south of the city center. Winding alleyways, panoramic terraces, and the magnificent Castle of St. George await hearty explorers, as does some of Europe’s most striking graffiti, giving the city a rough-around-the-edges charm that seems more at home in Rio de Janeiro or Bogotá. When you’re done, have some wine and seafood – Lisbon’s culinary scene is acclaimed on both fronts. If you like Lisbon, check out Marseilles, France.
8) St. Petersburg, Russia: Pardon my French, but Russia is one clusterfuck of a country. That being said, its second-largest city, Baltic-adjacent St. Petersburg, is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The magnificent Hermitage Museum (pictured below), absorbing S.S. Peter and Paul Fortress, and fresco-rich Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (a potato warehouse during Communist rule!) are three testaments to the city’s imperial and cultural might over the centuries. The Neva River flows from Lake Ladoga and passes through St. Petersburg just before emptying into the Baltic Sea. A network of canals split off the river as it enters the sea. Strange as it may sound, the thing to do during the summer months is to BYOB to any city bridge around 11 p.m., where locals gather and imbibe while awaiting the nightly bridge-raising. (Even at midnight it never gets fully dark in summer!) If you like St. Petersburg, check out Copenhagen, Denmark.
9) Barcelona, Spain: Barcelona is Spain’s second-largest city, but as the capital of the semi-autonomous “state” of Catalunya, it feels like something from a whole ‘nother country. The “Spanish Colonial” architecture that has penetrated so much of the Americas is nothing like what you’ll find in Barca. Here, Antoni Gaudi is the norm, not the exception, and the over-dramatic curves of his building terraces, the high-fantasy overhangs of his roof-combs, and über-Gothic, über-fantastic atmosphere of his churches – la Sagrada Familia in particular – are like something out of a Dalí painting. Even the language is different. Spanish will get you by but Catalan will make you feel as if you belong. If you like Barcelona, check out Monte Carlo, Monaco.
10) Athens, Greece: There were many candidates for the #10 slot. Rome…Munich…Amsterdam….I finally decided on Athens because the five days I spent there in 2009 still rank among my best travel days…period. Temperatures averaged 40 degrees Celcius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) each day and there was hardly a cloud in the sky, but I logged many miles by foot, visiting every ancient site in the city and climbing many of its prominent hills. I knew that I would love Athens as soon as I arrived – a Liszt tribute concert was being performed that night at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a 2000-year-old stone amphitheater built into Acropolis Hill. Access to the Odeon is only permitted during Athens Festival summer concerts, and I managed to secure a ticket! If you like Athens, check out Rome, Italy.
GringoPotpourri disclaimer: I hope that this list – and the subsequent lists, coming soon – generates good feedback. I tried to base my criteria on three factors: 1) Cities included have a lot to offer culturally (hence, no Frankfurt-am-Main, which is almost universally loathed by travelers for how boring it is); 2) Cities are fresh in my mind (hence, no Prague, which I visited in 2000 and liked, but don’t remember as well as, say, Lisbon, which I visited in 2011 and also liked); and 3) Cities that I have actually been to (hence, no Madrid, which has become my metaphorical white whale). It might be fun to revisit this list in, say, two years’ time. Lists, like cities, are always changing!
With that being said, what do you think of my selections? What is your favorite large European city?