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Thanks to a sweet combination between a strong US dollar, cheap fares from low-cost carriers like WOW Air and a crazy amount of recent flight deals, hopping the pond is easier — and more affordable — than ever. But not every city in Europe is created equal. To help you select the right destinations to visit, here’s our list of which European cities to visit and which to skip, especially if you’re looking to have a more authentic experience without having to deal with the crowds.
Romantic Italy: Verona Instead of Venice
While Venice is home to the world’s most romantic canals, the hordes of visitors and tourist prices can become tiresome, especially during the high season — it’s not uncommon to spend $25 for a coffee and ice cream in St. Mark’s Square, for instance. The perfect alternative is the nearby town of Verona, home to the legendary lovers Romeo and Juliet. Most tour buses stop by briefly midday, but strolling the town on a warm summer evening can be just as romantic as a Venetian canal ride — and surprisingly tourist-free. History buffs will appreciate the extremely well-preserved Arena di Verona, which hosts Shakespearean theater and live concerts at night — the incredible acoustics make it even more memorable. You can even visit the Capulet balcony where Juliet reputedly pondered the sweetness of a rose, or shop for Carnival masks without fretting about Venice-level markups. Although there’s no canal in sight, Verona inspires real Italian romance.
Insider Tip: Valentine’s Day is a serious occasion here, and the parties are unlike any other. Visit in mid-February for an extra-romantic vacation.
Authentic Spanish Flair: Madrid Instead of Barcelona
Gaudi’s incredible architecture makes Barcelona a prime destination, especially as the famous Sagrada Família church is well on its way to completion. But tourist overcrowding is becoming a serious issue — this past year, there were 32 million visitors in addition to the 1.6 who call this city home — so the city is cracking down on illegal home rentals, pickpocketing and noise laws. Walking along Barcelona’s streets, you’ll hear strains of English, French and Russian… but less and less Catalan or Spanish spoken.
Madrid, on the other hand, will force you to pull out some of that trusty-but-rusty high-school Spanish vocab, but it’s well worth it. Even though Madrid is Spain’s capital, it somehow remains refreshingly unpretentious and traditional. Here, dimly lit, trendy new restaurants and bustling food markets stand alongside 200-year-old, family-owned tapas bars. Fountains, monuments and statues cover the city, and there are many green spaces and parks to explore. Madrid’s cultural scene goes well beyond some of the world’s most famous art museums — ever heard of the Prado? — with dozens of smaller niche museums, art galleries, cinemas, musical performances, festivals and sporting events to keep you busy. Beyond that, the friendly locals, cheap wine and heavenly tapas will make you fall in love with this city. If you’re still not convinced, 300 days of sunshine a year certainly helps make any vacation memorable.
Insider Tip: The trendy Chueca and Malasaña or more traditional La Latina or Huertas neighborhoods are great areas to get lost in, shop, explore the bar scene and down tapas.
Wine Tasting Heaven: Porto Instead of Lisbon
Porto is the lesser-known little sister of Lisbon, famous for its sweet port wine. All of Portugal is cheap at the moment, but Porto is truly up-and-coming, with a broken-down kind of charm that makes it all the more alluring. It’s actually composed of two distinct cities — Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia — separated by the River Douro. The two are connected by the Dom Luís I Bridge — built by Théophile Seyrig, a colleague of Gustave Eiffel — is reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower, with double-decker metal arches towering above the river. Wine tasting in Gaia is cheap and delicious. Wineries line the riverside, and tasting tours can be as inexpensive as 2 euros (~$2) per person. If you don’t feel like walking, you can take the cable car along the river and enjoy stunning views of Porto’s rooftops. Harry Potter fans will love sipping a coffee in the decadent Majestic Cafe, where J.K. Rowling supposedly wrote much of the series. The Livrario Lello, often called the most beautiful bookstore in the world, will wow you with its intricate ceiling and bright red staircase.
Insider Tip: The further up the hill you get from the Dom Luís I bridge, the cheaper the wine tours become.
Eastern European Charm: Budapest Instead of Prague
Prague is an incredible city, but the excessive crowds of tourists have made it unappealing. Budapest, though, is quickly becoming more popular with tourists, offering similar local charm while maintaining the comforts of a major European city. Like Port, Budapest is really two cities split by a river. On the Buda side, you’ll find historical landmarks like the incredible Buda Castle, winding, hilly streets and beautiful, towering monuments that are a pleasure to explore during the day. In the evening, the Pest side is bustling with restaurants and its popular ruin bars. Set up in spots like old factories or abandoned lots, these giant bars usually consist of several rooms, and each has its own special vibe. If you’d prefer something more relaxing than the party scene, the thermal baths are an experience unlike any other, and you can spot groups of Hungarian locals chattering away in their bathing caps.
Insider Tip: Get to the top of Buda Castle Hill by taking the funicular instead of walking. Avoid midday lines by getting there early in the morning or late afternoon.
Want more tips on what cities to visit and which to avoid? Check out Go Here, Not There: Southeast Asia Edition.
Which European cities do you think deserve more attention? Which do you avoid? Sound off, below.
Featured image courtesy of JTB Photo via Getty Images.
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