10 cities that are perfect for your first trip to Europe
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Europe is full of incredible cities (not to mention small towns and rural areas), so it can be hard to narrow down where you want to go, especially if it’s your first time visiting the continent. Classic favorites like London and Paris still make for a great introduction to Europe, but sleeper hits like Vienna, Copenhagen and Istanbul can provide stunning and unusual experiences too.
The cities on this list all provide a good combination of history, architecture, art, culture, nature and regional food and are easy to navigate. They’re all also connected by airlines, making it easy to fly from one to the other on points and miles. My main tip is to avoid cramming in too much on that first trip. You may only be able to hit one, two or three cities, but it will be a much better experience than squeezing in all 10. Trust me, you’ll be back.
The capital of England is popular for a reason: Aside from being easy to navigate and having English as an official language, it’s chock-full of must-see sites (Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and the Tower of London among them), world-class museums (the Tate Modern, the British Museum, and the National Gallery, to name a few) and bars and restaurants to please any palate.
Walking along the Thames River (not to mention taking a boat on it) is an experience every traveler should have. Many museums in London are free but if you plan on visiting more than two of the paid attractions, the London Pass may be worthwhile. And, of course, all the major hotel brands with loyalty programs have multiple options in the city, making London a great destination for points users.
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Just a hop, skip and a Eurostar train ride from London, Paris is a must-visit and it’s also a great city in which to use points and miles. Sample its café culture, stroll the Champs-Élysées, bring a baguette and cheese to one of its many idyllic parks and explore its neighborhoods (like Montmartre and Le Marais) by foot or bike.
Gawk at attractions like the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe and Sacré Coeur. Take in museums like the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Musee de l’Orangerie and the Centre Pompidou, as well as lesser-known ones like the Louis Braille Museum and the Museum of Fashion and Textiles.
Eat your fill of French delights like croissants and other pastries at Poilâne, gourmet chocolate and candy from Patrick Rodger and Jacques Genin, Breton crepes at BREIZH Café and Michelin-starred food at the likes of Le Cinq, Sylvestre, Septime and Saturne.
Like London, all the major hotel brands are here and there are some great deals to be had, especially at IHG brand Holiday Inn, which has several nicer-than-usual locations. Or splurge on a hotel like the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme, because Paris knows how to do luxury.
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Although it’s not Spain’s capital, Barcelona offers a funkier experience than Madrid — but the masses have discovered it, making it one of the most over-touristed destinations in the world. Nevertheless, it’s one of Europe’s best cities for first-timers, thanks to its fanciful architecture, tantalizing tapas and boisterous beach and nightlife scene. Just beware of tourist traps, not-so-great restaurants and long lines, especially on weekends.
Be sure to check out native son Antoni Gaudí’s modern architectural masterpieces, including Sagrada Familia (book tickets in advance!), Parc Güell and Casa Battló, as well as the medieval masterpieces in the Gothic Quarter.
Stroll the bustling Las Ramblas, eat your way through Mercat de la Boqueria and relax on Sant Sebastià Beach before tapas bar-hopping and pintxos sampling. Save room for dinner in one of the city’s many lauded restaurants like Fismuler, Disfrutar, and Tickets and try to hit up some late-night bars. Hotels bookable with points and miles vary, so do your homework.
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Amsterdam, The Netherlands
No, Amsterdam is not just a place to get stoned and gawk at prostitutes. Its charming canals, unique architecture, iconic art and design and tasty food (bitterbalen, stroopwafles, and Dutch fries, for starters) make it worth visiting.
Explore world-class museums like the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House, and the Stedelijk Museum; wander through the lush Vondelpark, walk or boat along the idyllic canals and sample jenever, the Dutch version of gin, with some sharp local gouda.
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It was hard to limit this list to one Italian city (Florence and Venice were also contenders) but Rome hits all the marks for first-timers: major landmarks, unique culture, easy access and navigability, and classic neighborhoods worth wandering by foot. With ancient ruins dating back more than 2,500 years, epic museums and some of the best pizza and pasta, Rome is a traveler’s dream.
The city can be crowded, though, so plan ahead and book tickets for major attractions like the Colosseum, Sistine Chapel and Roman Forum in advance. As with all cities, be sure to obey local laws and customs, especially at busy sites like the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain as the city has recently been cracking down on tourists behaving badly.
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Berlin is a diverse city that can engage all your senses — in a good way. With classic palaces, moving memorials and art-filled museums, the city has so much to offer and is easy to navigate on the U-Bahn, by bike or on foot. Visit the museums on Museum Island, reflect at the Holocaust Memorial, head up to the Reichstag’s glass dome (be sure to book in advance), marvel at the city’s stunning churches and take in the art at the East Side Gallery, the Berlin Wall’s remaining piece that features paintings by more than 100 artists from around the world.
After a long day, reenergize with some shnitzel, eisbein, currywurst and doner kebab, washed down with plenty of cheap but delicious beer. Save your stamina for the city’s incredible nightlife — it’s known as Europe’s clubbing capital. And next year Berlin will get a new airport.
Save your Hilton points for a stay at the Waldorf Astoria Berlin (56,000 to 70,000 Hilton Honors points per night).
This charming city is a sleeper hit, displaying Old World European architecture and style alongside more modern design. Stroll Vienna’s grand boulevards, sip coffee in its magnificent coffeehouses and explore its many opulent palaces and museums. But save time to discover trendy neighborhoods like Leopoldstadt and Mariahilf, see the utterly unique art and architecture of Hundertwasser and even visit a beach along the Danube River.
The city is also an under-the-radar stop for families. It’s home to the world’s oldest amusement park, the Prater, and the world’s oldest zoo. Visit the Naschmarkt for plenty of snacks and drinks, followed by a slice of Sacher torte, of course.
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Scandinavia has its own look and feel and Copenhagen is the ideal way for first-timers to sample Europe’s north country. Design lovers, foodies and anyone who’s into shopping will fall in love with the city. There’s also no lack of castles, bustling squares, picturesque buildings and magnificent churches.
Be sure to put Nyhavn, Tivoli Gardens, the Little Mermaid statue, the Opera House, the Black Diamond and at least one palace on your list, and consider leaving the city to go 20 miles north to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.
You may not be able to get a table at Noma, often rated the best restaurant in the world, but Copenhagen is full of other acclaimed restaurants pushing the envelope like Relae, Hija de Sanchez, and Amass, not to mention some of the best bakeries in the world.
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Istanbul straddles Asia and Europe, bridging the two continents in a riot of colors, smells and sounds. It can feel overwhelming, but it’s also at the top of many people’s lists of their favorite cities. The European side of the Bosphorus River encompasses the Old City of Sultanahmet, complete with the iconic Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern and Grand Bazaar. The Asian side is more residential and has fewer tourist attractions, but it’s worth exploring to see how locals live and to visit the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art.
A ferry ride along the Bosphorus is an excellent way to see more of the city and nearby fishing villages. A traipse across the Galata Bridge, sampling a fish sandwich on the way, is a must. The city also recently got a new airport, making it the world’s largest air terminal, and cruise ships are also stopping there again.
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Too often visitors keep to the western side of Europe but Eastern Europe is bursting with a life of its own. Budapest, sometimes called the Paris of the East, is one of its most beautiful cities — actually, it’s two cities straddling the Danube, Buda and Pest, which are linked by the iconic Chain Bridge.
Take a dip in hot-spring-fed bathhouses on Margaret Island, stroll through Woodland Park, gawk at dozens of magnificent churches and spend time on the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Castle Hill, which is home to Buda Castle and various museums and monuments. Hotels are a bit more limited here, but there are still several brands represented where you can spend your reward points, often for less than hotels cost in other cities.
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Featured image by Gerard McAuliffe/Getty Images.
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