Europe’s capital cities offer a bewildering array of attractions. By Andrew Eames
Places like London, Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam are so densely packed with goodies that one walking tour can tick off great history, culture, creativity and gastronomy, all in the space of a couple of hours.
That’s why Europe remains the top choice of U.S. travelers overseas (discounting Mexico and Canada), and why the last two years have seen steady increases in U.S. visitor numbers, particularly with 2015’s whopping 17 percent jump to a total of 12.5 million. That dropped to seven percent in 2016, but it still represents a healthy increase, and comes in the face of unsettling terrorist activity across Europe.
Looking across a range of travel agent offers, it’s clear that culture and history are increasingly the focus of interest. People want to see the famous cathedrals and the royal palaces and to visit the big-name museums — but they also want to eat in the finest restaurants and sleep in the most interesting hotels. The greatest cities, especially those detailed below, make this travel dream come true.
The German capital is the city-break success story of the last decade. It may not be architecturally beautiful, but it has a tremendous story to tell, of being divided in half by history and stitched back together again. Much of the original dividing line has been papered over with brand-new developments and upmarket shopping malls, but there are still sections of the Wall to see, particularly at the open-air East Side Gallery with its famous imagery, and Checkpoint Charlie, with adjacent museums and exhibitions. Elsewhere, there’s an unparalleled vibrancy across town, particularly thanks to a large and creative expatriate population (with substantial numbers from the U.S.) who have adopted the city as their home. Be sure to ride the S-bahn urban trains that snake right across the city at rooftop level and stop off at Museum Island, with its storehouses of world culture, and at the Brandenburg Gate to see the Reichstag parliament building and Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel’s offices.
North of Berlin lies the lake district of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, with cabin cruiser rental available. And south is Leipzig, touted as the new Berlin, one of the spots on the Martin Luther trail.
Most first-time visitors here want to tip their hat at royalty with a visit to Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard, and then to nearby Parliament Square to admire Big Ben. Across the river, the London Eye offers unparalleled views, particularly of the new big beasts of city skyscrapers: the Shard, the Walkie-Talkie, and the (free) tower in the new extension of the Tate Bankside gallery, a former power station which is now a cutting edge artspace. The Tate sits on the South Bank, whose path — well worth walking — also passes the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre en route to Tower Bridge. Most of London’s celebrated theaterland, however, is north of the river in the West End, around Leicester Square, with a huge range of plays and musicals. Everywhere is linked, of course, by the Tube, the world’s first underground railway — next year London’s train services will have a new service called the Elizabeth Line.
Just 90 minutes northwest of London is Oxford, the ancient university city with lavish colleges and gardens, and an equal distance south is Brighton, a seaside resort city famous for its picturesque pier and quaint shopping lanes.
The Dutch capital is built on concentric rings of canals, with water, cobbles and bridges at every turn. The canals are lined with tall, red brick merchant houses, many of them with elaborately decorated gables topping their facades. There are no skyscrapers and trams run clanging down narrow streets alongside streams of cyclists, so this is a city that manages to be intimate while being big. It has its cultural landmarks, of course, particularly with the Rijksmuseum and adjoining Van Gogh Museum on the museum square, but this is also a city famous for prostitutes openly on view in the windows of the red light district, and for coffee houses that legally sell marijuana and hashish.
North of Amsterdam is the Ijsselmeer, an inland lake which was once part of the North Sea. On its banks are Hoorn and Enkhuizen, fascinating, beautifully preserved trading towns that once did business with all corners of the Dutch East Indies, and which still have fleets of old sailing ships in their harbors.
Highlights include the biggest art gallery in the world, the Louvre, and the most unmistakable iron structure in the world, the Eiffel Tower. Like many great cities, Paris has a river running through it; there are unforgettable night-time river cruises on the Seine, as searchlights pick out the architectural details of wonderful buildings such as the cathedral of Notre Dame. In the north of the city, the hill of Montmartre, topped by the white domes of the basilica of Sacré-Cœur, is a lovely, moody artist’s center, with lots of little neighborhood restaurants and galleries. And, down by the traffic-filled Place de la Concorde are the grand boulevards (particularly the Rue Saint-Honoré), rich with designer shopping and fashion boutiques.
Versailles, to the city’s southwest, is the elaborate palace of the Sun King Louis XIV, set in vast landscaped parkland. On the other side of Paris, also reachable on the transit system, stands another very different kind of pleasure dome: Disneyland Paris.
Essential for anyone interested in the origins of western civilization, Athens mixes monuments and museums with lively shopping and inexpensive restaurants. Fall is an ideal time to visit, because it can be hot in mid-summer, particularly for essential sights such as the rocky bluff of the Acropolis, topped by the 447BC temple the Parthenon, with all its Doric columns. Athens is a good city to get a grounding in the richness of antiquity, particularly in places like the Benaki Museum, before heading out to see big-name countryside locations.
There are huge names in the Athens hinterland. Delphi, the place of oracles, and Mount Olympus, home of the gods, to the north. And Olympia, where the Olympic Games originated, plus the Spartan Mani Peninsular on the Peloponnese, southwest of the city across the Corinth Canal.
Often bracketed with Vienna, with which it was once the joint axis of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire, Budapest straddles the Danube, while its upriver neighbor shoves the river into the suburbs. Huge fleets of river cruisers tie up here at the start or the end of their adventures. On the west side rises the steeper and older part of the city, Buda, and on the east the newer, more commercial sector, Pest, with boulevards that could belong to Paris. This is a place of extremes: on the one side, the fantastically elaborate period coffeehouses which match anything in Vienna, and on the other the new proliferation of ‘ruin pubs’, bars created in ruined buildings using all kinds of souvenirs from the Communist era as both furniture and decoration.
It’s a gorgeous and inexpensive 90 minute riverboat trip up the Danube to Szentendre, a lovely little riverside town, cobbled and ancient, packed with crafts shops and artists’ studios, with market stalls offering wines, cheeses and goulash by the shovelful.