8 European Cities to Visit This Year

Thermal baths in Budapest, Thieves Market in Lisbon, Islamic culture in Granada. Scratch under the surface of these cities.  
8 European Cities to Visit This Year 7
The fortress palace complex of Alhambra. Photo by: Gonzalo Azumendi/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Granada, Spain

The Spanish poet García Lorca had described Andalucía as a land brimming with “gypsies, horses, archangels, planets, its Jewish and Roman breezes, rivers, crimes, the everyday touch of the smuggler and the celestial note of the naked children of Córdoba.” The 20th-century writer’s description still holds true. When in Granada, you can spot all of this revelling in its dark shadowy streets and nameless squares.

Granada’s pull is tough to ignore. It calls to you with the splendour of its opulent Alhambra palace and citadel, a preserve of medieval history as the last stronghold of the Islamic Moors in Western Europe. Hemmed in at the foot of the desolate Sierra Nevada mountains and the plains of Vega de Granada, this tiny city rolls with the twang of Spanish guitars. The flourish of its flamenco bars is seductive and the scent of oranges lingers in its winding lanes.

A neighbour to Seville, Granada offers a fascinating mix of ancient Islamic and a more recent Christian culture. The epic and the edgy host a stunning contradiction in Granada, and while you’re here you could visit a mausoleum of Catholic monarchs or you could unwind at old bars serving tapas. You could wile away your afternoons at Arabic teterías (tea rooms) and later, you might find it hard not to dip into Granada’s jovial nightlife that is suffused with the vigour of a gypsy culture.

 

Vienna, Austria

The St. Charles Church also doubles as a concert venue. Photo by: artherng/room/Getty Images

The St. Charles Church also doubles as a concert venue. Photo by: artherng/room/Getty Images

Almost all visitors would agree that Vienna never gets old. The city’s jewel-studded history, grand palaces and classical music scene comprise its primary charms. Add to that its vibrant coffee house culture, design dens and bustling Naschmarkt, and you’re in for a culture overload. Visit the Schönbrunn Palace for a taste of baroque architecture and history that spans over 300 years, reflecting the changing tastes of successive Habsburg monarchs. The imperial palace is surrounded by an elaborate park, the world’s oldest functioning zoo, and the lavish Mirror Room where a six-year-old Mozart gave his first concert before Empress Maria Theresa in October 1762. If you have never been to Vienna, every turn seems to have a capacity for surprise.

If you’re an art lover, spend some time at the Belvedere, which houses the world’s largest collection of Gustav Klimt paintings, including “The Kiss” and “Judith I”. And make time for a waltz at the Viennese city centre at the start of the Carnival in November or catch a classical concert at the acoustically renowned Musikverein. Discover quality Viennese vino that is grown on the edge of the Austrian capital. Drop in at the Heuriger, wine taverns in the woods, where wine growers offer tastings of their new wines often accompanied by performances of the traditional Schrammel music. In summer, few places are as perfect.

 

Lucerne, Switzerland

Lucerne, the gateway to central Switzerland, sits on a lake. Photo by: Christian Heeb/AWL Images/Getty Images

Lucerne, the gateway to central Switzerland, sits on a lake. Photo by: Christian Heeb/AWL Images/Getty Images

The city for all seasons, Lucerne is one of the prettiest towns in not just Switzerland but in all of Europe. Ringed by the Alps, this lakeside city hums with a lively music scene with regular concerts of classical, jazz and blues held all year round. Its piano festival (which will be held in November this year) attracts musicians of international repute from all corners of the world.

Lucerne’s network of sunny plazas, covered wooden bridges—it is home to Kapellbrücke, Europe’s oldest covered bridge (now restored)—and turreted buildings will keep your eyes peeled for hours on end. You are advised to take a walk along the Reuss and absorb the medieval aura of the flower-decked Chapel Bridge that runs across it.

In Lucerne, you’ll find yourself within touching distance of the stunning white Alps. Dig into a high-altitude lunch while you’re atop Mount Pilatus, admiring its jagged form. You could also just enjoy your day in the sun with a hike up the mountain. But if you’re the sedentary type and would rather sit and watch, hop into a gondola and let it steer you along the cobalt blue Lake Lucerne. It is bound to open up some dazzling views in the late afternoon light. In the end, it would be wise to grab some home-brewed beer and dessert at the Rathaus Brauerei. They make it easy to mull over how any place on this earth could be so otherworldly.

 

Brussels, Belgium

The Ferris wheel is a hallmark of Christmas markets across Belgium. Photo by: Walter Bibikow/Photolibrary/Getty Images

The Ferris wheel is a hallmark of Christmas markets across Belgium. Photo by: Walter Bibikow/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Any place with a mix of Dutch and French maybe curious, but hardly boring as Brussels is often accused of being. Belgium’s fascinating capital, and the bureaucratic headquarters of the European Union offers an inventive balance of the staid and the frivolous. It is historic and hip, creative and restrained, and thoroughly multicultural. The city’s beer is exceptional, the variety of its waffles and chocolates overwhelming, and its double-fried frites ubiquitous. It’s also especially fond of art and takes it seriously. Pick a sunny morning to follow in Hergé’s comic footsteps along Brussels centre and discover Tintin and Snowy busy snooping around along building walls that serve as giant canvases. Learn about the greatest exponents of the ninth art at the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée (Belgian Comic Strip Centre).

One of the best things about Brussels is that some of its major tourist attractions are within walking distance of each other. At the heart of the city stands the 17th century La Grand-Place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, displaying a perfect blend of medieval architectural styles. A short walk away is the tiny pissing boy, Mannekin Pis statue, a popular Brussels export. A stroll away lies Galeries Royales St-Hubert, Europe’s first shopping arcade, opened in 1847, and the best place for chocolate tasting and shopping in the country.

 

Budapest, Hungary

The Gellért Thermal Bath is housed inside the art nouveau Hotel Gellért. Photo by: Cultura RM Exclusive/Philip Lee Harvey/Cultura Exclusive/Getty Images

The Gellért Thermal Bath is housed inside the art nouveau Hotel Gellért. Photo by: Cultura RM Exclusive/Philip Lee Harvey/Cultura Exclusive/Getty Images

Previously known as the Paris of the East, in Budapest you’d find some of the best art nouveau architecture in Europe. Renowned for its spa culture with thermal baths built in the 16th and 17th century, dating back to the Ottomans, the city offers care not only for your wandering soul, but also for your tired bones. There are more than a hundred geothermal springs in Budapest. This clustering of thermal water can be attributed to the Earth’s crust being fairly narrow in the Pannonian Basin and a geological fault line, marked by the Danube River, which runs from north to south, halving the city into hilly Buda and flat Pest. Budapest’s ‘spa parties’ are legendary, and the city offers the largest medicinal bath in all of Europe.

Besides the hot baths, there’s grand architecture in the form of baroque and art nouveau buildings that dazzle. A home to artists and culture, Budapest rocks the boho chic atmosphere. Tuck into the Hungarian staple of goulash, a spicy vegetable and meat stew. Grab a drink or many at one of the ‘ruin bars’ or romkocsma, housed in dilapidated, abandoned, previously Jewish quarters, to befriend the city’s hipsters. Take the funicular from the Danube to the castle district on the Buda side. Marvel at the intricate tile work at the Mátyás Church, and make a stop at the Dohány Street Synagogue, Europe’s largest, to reflect upon its violent past.

 

Venice, Italy

Display windows of food stores across Venice are drool-worthy. Photo by: Gary Yeowell/ Photolibrary/Getty Images

Display windows of food stores across Venice are drool-worthy. Photo by: Gary Yeowell/ Photolibrary/Getty Images

Even the great Italo Calvino had confessed that Venice resisted definition. Objectively speaking, though, Venice is a city that floats on the shimmering blue Adriatic. Given that floating cities are not an everyday thing, this is perhaps reason enough to pack your bags and take that flight to Italy.

Popularly known as ‘the grand old lady’ or the ‘queen of the Adriatic’, Venice is perhaps dealing with some tourist fatigue. Despite all that hype, though, it still remains the undisputed monarch of travel destinations. Few cities in the world compare. Standing on the waterfront, you can lose yourself wondering how this Renaissance jewel had emerged from a cluster of humble fishing villages.

There’s plenty to do in Venice. You can take a swift tour of St Mark’s Square and explore the gritty and bustling open-air markets of Rialto. Hop into a gondola after and navigate the watery thoroughfares. A tour on the Grand Canal will open you up to the treasures of Venetian architecture that line the banks. The gondola ride will also reveal bylanes that hold Venice’s secrets. Royalty, politics, trade, art, a bubbling pot of melting cultures—Venice brims with variety, history and excitement. Lagoon aquaculture lends Venetian seafood a speciality, thanks to its access to ancient spice routes. To sample what royalty ate centuries ago, make time for a sit-down Venetian seafood and prosecco while you’re there.

 

Lisbon, Portugal

Tile decoration in Adega Machado restaurant, Lisbon. Photo by: Holger Leue/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Tile decoration in Adega Machado restaurant, Lisbon. Photo by: Holger Leue/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Lisbon has long lived in the shadows of its mighty European neighbours, but slowly and surely, it has been claiming its place in the European tourism sun. Blessed with both sea and the bountiful sun, and built on seven hills, Lisbon is buzzing all year round.

Hear the thunderous bells of the Moorish Alfama district and watch over the red-roofed jumble of a neighbourhood below. Revel in the warm sun of the Cascais beaches, or learn about Portuguese history while strolling through the central Baixa district. Watch the sun go down by the pine-fringed Miradouro da Graça with sundowners and splendid views over central Lisbon. And you must also experience Portugal’s soulful fado singing at the small clubs that crowd the Alfama and Graça districts.

Visit the Feira da Ladra on Campo de Santa Clara for surprise bargains and trinkets. Held every Tuesday and Saturday, the market goes back a 1,000 years. Its name when roughly translated means ‘Thieves Market’, and is known for handmade crafts, music, books, clothes, antiques and furniture. Once you’ve had enough of climbing the cobbled winding streets, stop for a calorie shot at one of the pastelerias (pastry and cake shops) for cream-filled delights. The flaky pastéis de nata (custard tarts) and bicas (espresso) are a big hit with the locals.

 

Stockholm, Sweden

Östermalm is good for both a stroll and bar-hopping. Photo by: Carlos Sanchez Pereyra/AWL Images/Getty Images

Östermalm is good for both a stroll and bar-hopping. Photo by: Carlos Sanchez Pereyra/AWL Images/Getty Images

Set in the midst of a network of 14 islands and 57 bridges on the cold Baltic, Sweden’s capital is an engineer’s dream. The narrow, cobblestone-laid old town has one overarching effect—it makes you want to linger. You could hang by the vibrant waterfront, or indulge in what locals call fika, their coffee-drinking and cake-eating culture.

More than two-thirds of Stockholm is either water or parks, making it one of Europe’s least urban cities. It is, as a result, best suited to be explored by foot or on bicycles. Despite its bucolic surroundings, Stockholm does remain a modern metropolis and home to some of the world’s top tech companies such as Spotify, Skype, Candy Crush and Minecraft. To repeat an oft-cited cliché, the city really does have something for everyone.

However, Stockholm, with all its postmodern glory, doesn’t have to be a wallet buster if you’re careful. Alongside Michelin star restaurants—there are as many as eight of them in the city—you will also find regular eateries that offer fresh Swedish staples and international cuisine from sushi to wood-fired pizza. Art haunts such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Natural History, the Swedish History Museum and Skokloster Castle are now more affordable after the government decided to slash their entry prices to boost tourism.

 

If you need more reasons to visit Europe, go here; for essential experiences you must-have in the continent head here; read about places to pamper your taste buds here; and raise your glasses to Europe’s finest brew here.

  • Debashree Majumdar is a failed skier and enthusiastic hiker. When travelling, she seeks out the hum of old neighbourhoods and the noise of bazaars. She is a freelance writer-editor and currently lives in Geneva.

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