By Wilson C. ’20
If you’ve read my previous article, The Best and Worst US Cities to Visit, you’ll know the direction in which this article is headed. I’m about to provide unabashed, abridged, and extremely opinionated points of view on ten different popular tourist destinations in Europe; five will be positively reviewed, and five negatively. Some reviews are based on fact and personal experience; others on the perception of trusted travel reviewers, with a dash of pure conjecture sprinkled in. I hope you enjoy this thoroughly-researched list, but I recommend that you don’t use it to inform your travel decisions, unless specifically stated in the article. As with the American article, we’ll start with the worst cities.
Dublin, Ireland: London’s Fat Little Brother (Population: 540,000)
It pains me to say this, because I do have Irish blood in my veins, but Dublin is not worth visiting. It’s a smaller city than it’s made out to be, and although it is the largest in Ireland, it pales in comparison to somewhere like London. Dublin has neither the charming low-rise architecture of Paris nor the strong, sky-scraping skyline of London, and the lack of a distinct style makes the city somewhat unpleasant to look at. One of the tallest buildings in the city is the St. James Gate Brewery, home of Guinness, Ireland’s national treasure. They have an entire six-floor museum on the history of Guinness beer, which I assume must be interesting for some people, topped off with a panoramic rooftop bar. Aside from this, Dublin has nothing else to offer in terms of architecture or attractions. They have a few bleak, grey, uninspired churches, which I would not recommend wasting time to visit. In terms of culture, Ireland doesn’t have a nearly as vibrant or distinct culture as England or Scotland. The food is rather simple and uninspired, and it gets boring quickly. The British Isles have many stunning cities to offer, but Dublin is not one of them. If you’re going to visit Ireland, Dublin would probably be a good place to spend one night after flying in. After that, I’d recommend that you check out the Irish countryside, which is especially beautiful in areas like County Kerry.
Brussels, Belgium: Boring and Bleak (Population: 175,000)
Belgium has become a popular destination for budget travelers, and for good reason. Belgian tourism advertising promises a Paris experience without the steep price, especially in Brussels, but this is not true of Brussels. Brussels is the capital of the European Union, but is not nearly as exciting as many of its other fellow European cities. The city has become overrun with budget travelers expecting a London or Paris-type experience who are extremely let-down upon their arrival. Belgium’s most famous landmark, the Mannequin Pis, is an underwhelming, miniature sculpture hidden on a random street corner in the city. Not only are travelers underwhelmed by the city’s landmarks, but they are also surprised by the steep prices. Although Brussels is somewhat cheaper than Paris, it’s still very expensive, and in Brussels you won’t get the same “bang for your buck” as you would in other Belgian cities such as Ghent, Bruges, and Antwerp. You might find some delicious Belgian waffles or chocolate here, but the prices will quickly drain your wallet. Brussels, being the capital of the European Union, is also drowning in government officials and buildings, and this certainly takes away from the authentic Belgian experience. Many travellers also find it hard to get around the city because of the wide variety of languages spoken in the city such as Dutch, Flemish, and French, which can make signs confusing, as they are inconsistent in which languages they show throughout the city. Ultimately, although it is the capital and largest city of Belgium, Brussels is not the best option for visitors due to its high price and underwhelming attractions. That’s not to say that there is nothing to do in Brussels; it’s just not worth visiting due to its high price and the abundance of cheaper alternatives for travellers who want to experience the true Belgian culture.
Reykjavik, Iceland (and outlying areas): Drowning in Tourists (Population: 123,000)
Iceland was a country essentially untouched by tourists before the 21st century, but since the turn of the millennium, things have really taken off, and it’s had a terrible effect on the travel experience. Don’t get me wrong: Iceland looks absolutely beautiful, and it’s somewhere I’d be dying to visit if there weren’t so many tourists absolutely flooding the country. In 2018, 2.3 million people visited Iceland; a number 7 times higher than the country’s population. Iceland’s infrastructure simply has not been able to keep up with the growing number of tourists, resulting in a massive overcrowding. What was once pristine, untouched wilderness is now drowning in massive retiree tour groups. The city of Reykjavik itself isn’t terribly interesting, but most tourists only use the city for lodging. They expect to have an opportunity to explore and enjoy nature with little human contact. To their surprise and disappointment, they realize that Iceland has simply become a massive parking lot for tour buses. Recently, Iceland’s overcrowding has become more apparent, and on a month-by-month basis, tourist numbers are slowly creeping downwards. This has partially been due to the collapse of one of Iceland’s airlines, WOW Air, but has also been due to concerns over overcrowding. Reykjavik is having a hard time preserving its heritage with current tourist numbers, and an increase in tourist infrastructure would further compromise Iceland’s pristine landscape. Ultimately, the window has passed to visit Iceland; these days, it probably isn’t worth going, unless you are willing to brave the cold offseason. Reykjavik and the entire country of Iceland is just too packed during the summer months. If you want to see similar nordic landscapes, I highly recommend the Faroe Islands. Although the landscapes are not quite as extreme as Iceland, the Faroe Islands are also volcanic. The Faroe Islands are rarely visited but have modern infrastructure and amenities, and are sure to draw more tourists in the future. The Faroese tourist industry is what Iceland’s was 15 years ago, and they are a really strong alternative to the cramped streets of Reykjavik.
Oslo, Norway: Brussels of Scandinavia (Population: 634,000)
If you’re looking for an authentic Norwegian experience, do not visit Oslo. Oslo’s architecture is an awkward blend of depressing Soviet and London Shard, and it makes for a really ugly skyline. The waterfront is pleasant, but the weather is often very poor and this prevents anyone from enjoying the coastline. The food in Oslo is also fairly uninspired and you’ll have a somewhat difficult time finding true Norwegian cuisine. Oslo is the largest city in Norway, and as one of the main financial centers of Scandinavia it has built up quite a few banks and office buildings called the Barcode Project, which look just as you’d imagine. There’s also not that much to do within the city limits, aside from an Opera house and a museum dedicated to the works of Edward Munch, which opens in 2020. Oslo’s other main attraction is the Viking Museum, which sounds fun initially, until you realize that it’s quite far outside the city center, and that you must take a long boat ride to reach it. After the boat ride, tourists arrive at the shore, expecting to see the museum right along the coast. What wasn’t advertised to them is that they actually come ashore in a residential neighborhood, and then must walk another mile to the museum. Finally, once they arrive at the museum, they discover that it is a poorly-kept house which holds a few Viking longboats and artifacts. This museum is certainly a tourist trap; not in the sense that it is cheesy, but in the sense that it is simply not worth the journey. You’ll probably have to connect through Oslo on your way into Norway, but I wouldn’t recommend leaving the airport. The second largest city, Bergen, will provide a much more authentic Norwegian experience, and it’s definitely cheaper to visit as well. If you’re visiting Norway, skip Oslo and go to Bergen instead.
Geneva, Switzerland: Burns a Hole in your Pocket (Population: 199,000)
Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries to visit in Europe, and Geneva is one of its most expensive cities. Home to the second-largest UN headquarters in the world, Geneva receives a lot of exposure in the news and is often referenced in TV shows and the like. This causes many people to think of it as an exciting travel destination, as TV portrays it as one of the most important and prominent cities in Europe. Similarly to the reality of Brussels, the reality of Geneva is not proportionally as exciting as its pop culture reputation may suggest. Although the architecture is charming, you won’t be able to stay long to enjoy it, because you’ll have spent all of your money. Geneva is the 5th-most expensive city in the world, and 3rd-most expensive in Europe, just behind Paris in terms of cost. This would be fine if Geneva was nearly as exciting as Paris, but unfortunately, it falls quite short. The city’s main attraction is the UN headquarters, which is quite underwhelming for visitors, given that the actual General Assembly is in New York (a fact which many internet reviewers somehow missed when planning their trip). One other major attraction in Geneva is its “geyser,” which is essentially a large sprinkler aimed at Lake Geneva. Although the natural scenery is certainly much better in Geneva than in Brussels, Geneva has just as high a population of expats. This takes away from the cultural experience of the city, and Geneva has a more international feel than a Swiss feel. Geneva also has great food, but its cost is so steep that you won’t be able to enjoy much of it. Geneva is a beautiful, charming city, but it’s simply too expensive and has no must-see attractions. Unless you are there on a work trip, as many Europeans find themselves on, there’s no real reason to visit Geneva.
And now for the best:
London, United Kingdom: God Save The Queen (Population: 8,136,000)
London is one of the world’s greatest cities, and certainly one of Europe’s. London is both a cultural and historical capital. It is the “Mecca” of club soccer, the city in which many of Shakespeare’s plays were staged, and is the hub of English society, which has touched every corner of the globe. London also has numerous notable landmarks, including Big Ben, Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, and Westminster Abbey. London has world-class museums like the British Museum, which boasts one of the most impressive collections of historical artifacts in the world, and the National Gallery, which boasts an equally impressive collection of European art. London is the kind of city where you could spend two weeks and still not see everything. Furthermore, London does a brilliant job of both welcoming international influence and balancing traditional English culture. As a result of being the capital of a far-reaching empire, London has long-attracted people from all around the world, adding to the city’s charm. However, unlike other cities on this list, such as Brussels and Geneva, London has still held on to the classic British charm as well, which you can catch at the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace or while sipping tea in the afternoon. Although London is expensive, it’s not nearly as expensive as other cities on this list such as Geneva or Reykjavik, and is accessible to budget travelers due to its many airports and sheer size. London is a city that should be at the top of anyone’s list of travel destinations; it’s simply a city that you can’t miss.
Paris, France: Fashion Capital of the World (Population: 2,141,000)
Paris is known as being the grandest city on Earth, and this is an apt description. It’s arguably the cultural capital of Europe, and, as the title for this section dictates, the fashion capital of the world. The locals are extremely well-dressed, and almost every major fashion brand has a store in Paris, many of them along the famous boulevard, the Champs-Elysees. It’s somewhere every clothing company feels like the need to be, because Paris is where many new fashion trends begin. Aside from clothing, Paris is also famous for its food, including crepes, croissants, cheese, macarons, and, of course, baguettes. Paris’ impact on the culinary world is unparalleled, with the impact of Parisian cuisine being noticeable worldwide. Paris is also a very historic city with famous landmarks including Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, Arc de Triomphe, and the Eiffel Tower. Paris also has many large parks and gardens, such as the Tuileries and Luxembourg Gardens, which add to the city’s beauty. Paris is also one of the best cities to visit for art lovers, being home to two of the world’s top museums in The Louvre and Musee d’Orsay, the former of which houses the Mona Lisa. Despite all of these fantastic landmarks, however, one common complaint about Paris is the attitude of locals. While some find the Parisian attitude cute and charming, it can also come across as pretentious and offensive. Often, Parisian people are seen as being high-and-mighty. Yes, French people actually adhere pretty closely to their stereotypes; they are extremely French, and this can rub the wrong way on some people. Despite this, as stated earlier, some enjoy this attitude and may even begin to feel a bit Parisian themselves during their visit. Overall, the people, whether likeable or not, cannot detract from the absolute experience that Paris is, although the price might. Paris, depending on where you choose to stay, can be very expensive, but the price paid for a visit to Paris is certainly worth it.
Rome, Italy: Historical Capital of Southern Europe (Population: 2,873,000)
One city that often gets unfairly snubbed in discussions of the best cities in Europe is Rome. As I’ve done on this list, cities like London and Paris often come before Rome on a list of top European travel destinations. Don’t be fooled; a visit to Rome will be just as rewarding as a visit to London or Paris. Rome, being one of the world’s oldest capitals, has historical landmarks that top those of any other city in Europe such as the Colosseum, Roman Forum, the Pantheon, and the Sistine Chapel. Rome is not as ancient as some people might expect; the city also boasts more modern landmarks such as the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. None of the landmarks in Rome are overrated; they are all worth visiting. Rome holds on to a fascinating number of 2,000 year-old ruins, but you’ll find that city life does not match the old Roman customs depicted in many of the museums. In Rome, you’ll find countless restaurants which will make you real Italian pizza and spaghetti, among other less stereotypical Italian dishes, and countless gelato shops that make real Italian gelato. Rome, and Italy as a whole, has had a massive impact on global cuisine, and it is a place where visitors are able to explore the source of many of these culinary influences. Aside from history and food, Rome is also of massive cultural significance, holding the most significant Catholic site in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica. The Basilica is located within the micronation of the Vatican City, also known as the Holy See, which is completely enclaved within the city of Rome. The Vatican City is the home to Catholicism’s leader, the Pope, as well as many important cardinals and the impressive Vatican Museum. While Rome is certainly less modern than Paris and London, there’s something to be said for its classic Italian charm, and its global influence is undeniable.
Copenhagen, Denmark: Bikes and Tall People (Population: 602,000)
Copenhagen was recently named the best city to visit in the world by Lonely Planet, and for good reason. Copenhagen is a very clean city with very little pollution and low crime rates. It’s a very happy place, and you’ll find that the local people are very kind and generally positive with tourists. The locals also enjoy riding bikes, which might make traffic seem a little hectic at first, but Copenhagen is a very bikeable city and this is one of the more popular activities for tourists and locals alike. Aside from their stereotype of being very tall and attractive, Danish people are also very easy to communicate with. Although you might not find as much fluency in English in the countryside, almost everyone in Copenhagen speaks fluent English. This is something rare to find in Europe, and allows travellers to experience a foreign country while still remaining within their comfort zone. Copenhagen really doesn’t have many major attractions, aside from the famous The Little Mermaid Statue, but this actually works in the city’s favor; it helps to keep crowding to a minimum and allows travellers to explore the beautiful harbors of the city and its impressive shopping district without feeling obligated to visit massive tourist sites. The lack of major sites that doesn’t pan out in Oslo works really well in Copenhagen; and this is largely due to the atmosphere. Oslo feels cold and the people are at times shut-off, but the Danes are definitely the party people of Scandinavia and this keeps Copenhagen much more lively than Oslo. Copenhagen is the kind of city where you can begin to feel like more of a part of the city that a tourist after a week or two, simply because visiting Copenhagen is experiencing more than seeing or touring. It’s not to say that Copenhagen doesn’t have any sites worth visiting; it has a few nice palaces and museums, but the absence of one major tourist site makes those places more enjoyable as well. Overall, Copenhagen is a very relaxed place where travellers feel safe and at ease, and can allow themselves to be charmed by Danish culture without having to seek it out through tourists attractions.
Vienna, Austria: Birthplace of Modern Art (1,868,000)
Vienna is perhaps the most artistically significant city in all of Europe. Its music halls have hosted the likes of Mozart and Haydn, its museums hold the works of Gustav Klimt and other artists of the Vienna secession, and one of its most famous residents, Sigmund Freud, produced an understanding of the human mind the likes of which the world had never seen or even imagined. The art heritage in Vienna has always been a clash between the classic and the modern; it was home to some of the most important composers as well as the Hapsburgs, arguably the most conservative dynasty in Europe during their existence, but also gave birth to one of the first organized movements of modern artists in 1897. Vienna blends the baroque, medieval, and modern, in a distinct blend that cannot be found anywhere else in Europe. Visitors can travel through centuries of architecture just by walking a few blocks. The artistic story that Vienna has to tell is unparalleled, and its artistic legacy is felt throughout all fields, whether it be painting, architecture, music, sculpture, or even interior design. Aside from its artistic and architectural beauty, Vienna also has beautiful nature. The gardens in front of the Schönbrunn Palace are a must-visit for tourists, and a walk along the Danube is also very highly-rated. Like Copenhagen, Vienna doesn’t draw huge numbers to any one tourist attraction, and this plays to the city’s advantage. Viennese people, while not necessarily as laid-back as Copenhagen, are certainly open to tourists, and are generally friendlier in interactions with them than their German neighbors. The truth is, the kind of people who are drawn by Vienna’s artistic prominence are exactly the type of people who are welcomed into the city with open arms; it’s not the type of city that usually draws tourists who are attempting to check it off of a list. Most people who visit Vienna leave extremely satisfied with their visit, but it’s certainly not for everyone; visitors will spend most of their time enjoying the architecture and museums of the city. I would caution against visiting if that doesn’t sound enjoyable to you, but for those who, like myself, find that sort of vacation interesting, you’ll absolutely love Vienna.
Europe has a lot of beauty to share with the world, but some of that beauty is not worth the expense. Some of that beauty is simply too popular to enjoy, and beauty can’t be found everywhere in Europe, either. Beauty, of course, is subjective, and I haven’t been to many of the cities on this list, so I can’t even provide a biased first-hand account. I admit, much of my bias towards these cities is second-hand, which makes my opinion even less valuable to guide your travel decisions. In this article, I sought to provide a perspective that would be more personal than what you might find on a tourist website, which focused on the more intangible qualities of the cities listed. That being said, everyone has their own qualities which they appreciate in a city, and these may disagree with the opinions listed above. I did my best to provide a reasonable guide to what you can and can’t miss in Europe as an American tourist. Unlike the article about visiting American cities, this article is much less scathing of European cities; not because they are superior in any way, but because we as Americans are simply more detached from the European lifestyle and may fail to understand or fully grasp subtle cultural undertones that are at play in the places we visit. Just like European tourists visiting Las Vegas, expecting a grand and royal experience, Americans visiting Europe can sometimes be very wrong about a European city. After reading this article, readers should understand what qualities make European cities enjoyable, and what qualities make them avoidable, and then use these to guide their own potential travel destinations.