It’s nearly April… I’ve been wondering where to spend my summer. While I’m looking at spreading my wings as far as Thailand or America (I know, completely different ideas there!) this year, I think I’ve definitely scattered my heart across different cities of Europe, including good old England. Then again… I tend to say that about pretty much every city and country I visit, so no doubt as I wander further afield, that list will just grow longer and longer.
I love the diversity of Europe; the array of cultures and languages and delicacies, the contrast of stark differences and intermingled traditions from border to border. There are some cities that I just find myself going back to again and again, and it never gets old – there are always new cafes serving coffee even more delicious than the last, more landmarks that I haven’t found the time to visit yet and beautiful little streets that are deserted but for myself and the occasional knowing local.
This wasn’t easy at all, but I managed to order my unruly top 10:
1. Paris. For years Rome held this top spot, but France’s capital has rather snuck up on me over the years – every time I go I love it more and more, even if I’m literally just passing through on a train, and somehow, it overtook Rome. Yes, the people can at times be a little snooty, but most of the time the snooty-ness that I have witnessed against tourists is purely because they are not meeting Paris’ standards – arriving in Paris in dirty clothes and Birkenstock with a tatty rucksack on your back is not going to make you the darling of the city. It’s quite like trying to wear jeans and a t-shirt to a ball. Everyone makes an effort in Paris, even if it is in that je ne sais quoi, ‘I just fell out of bed’ Parisian sense. They’re experts at putting in a lot of effort in looking effortless. Try to blend in, and that snooty-ness will disappear. Or so I find.
2. Rome. See, my ex-top spot has not slipped far. I love history. I love art, architecture, literature and the renaissance, all of which can be found on every corner of Rome. I feel comfortable walking around the city without getting lost – I can act as tour guide to fellow travellers. There’s no better feeling than realising that you know a foreign city. It’s not just a place that I have visited a few times anymore. I’ve always been and will continue to be lured to Rome for its history, its art, its food and its coffee. Yes, yes, yes and a very big yes from me on those fronts!
My one pet peeve when in Rome? Arrogant, metrosexual Roman guys who still live with their mothers well into their thirties. They linger around Trevi Fountain in droves. Huge, huge pet peeve of mine.
3. Prague. When I first visited Prague, I didn’t really know what to expect. It’s just not a place that I have looked into too much before I arrived at Hlavni Nadrazi station. Until then my Pinterest (what came before Pinterest? Good old fashioned cut-and-paste scrapbooks?) had been full of photographs of Paris, Rome, Athens, The Great Pyramids, Macchu Picchu and Buddhist Temples. I’d always planned to visit Prague, but somehow looking at what it was like never occurred to me. The beauty of the place blew me away. It’s a perfect blend of East and West European; some streets could easily pass for France or Italy – or even England, when suddenly you’re surrounded by Eastern European architecture, Czech music ringing through your ears and people drinking brands I can’t even pronounce.
Also, Prague is one of the most beautiful cities at night.
4. Venice. Yes, it’s quite a pricey city, but then I’ve found that I can still keep my budget low – Venice is not a city teaming with museums and must-see sites with expensive ticket fares like other touristic cities. I’m also not big on souvenirs, which could prove to be super pricey if I were. Venice is the city I head to if I want to see Italy, without the hustle and bustle of Rome or Milan or – to some extent – Florence. I tend to avoid the few busy spots of the city – St Mark’s Square and Ponte di Rialto. Two or three streets from these Venetian hot-spots, and you’ll find deserted streets, a woman beating sheets over her balcony perhaps, the occasional cat, but otherwise you’re entirely alone. No cars, no noise. It’s wonderful.
5. Florence. Yes, Paris may be my number one city, but Italy is clearly my number one country. Florence is a nice balance of everything I love about Italy. It’s not as mad as Rome, or as busy and metropolitan as Milan, and while it has that same peace as Venice, it’s gifted in sprinkles rather than spades. It is quintessential Italy in the country’s best region: Tuscany – I love taking day trips from Florence to explore the beautiful surrounding countryside.
6. Lisbon. I tend to yo-yo between Porto and Lisbon when choosing my favourite Portuguese city, but right now, I’d choose Lisbon. It’s true what they say – ‘Porto works and Lisbon plays’. Things are much more relaxed in the south, and people seem to mysteriously work less and yet are richer. I do have one issue with Lisbon – its treacherously slippering paving stones.
Seriously, I had to buy a new pair of shoes just because wearing my sandals or ballet flats was about as effective as wearing Cinderella’s glass slippers. Otherwise you pretty much have to choose between risking your life by walking in the road, or risking your life because every step could end in a broken neck.
Still, Lisbon is beautiful, not majorly touristic and yet not entirely isolated to the lone traveller who doesn’t speak a word of Portuguese – like me. Actually, that’s a lie. I can say thank you. I think thank you is the most important phrase to learn in every language. Even more so than hello.
7. Budapest. Another city that I had little knowledge of – like Prague. I knew it to be cheap, but that’s about it. Yes, it is cheap, though as tourism grows, so do those prices. The architecture is sophisticated, the people are sophisticated – but for a few old men who linger on park benches whistling at passing women. So many people have apologized for ‘the habits of the older generation’ – honestly, it’s fine. Clearly they have never passed a building site in the UK. The famous thermal baths are wonderful. I recommend visiting the bath houses during winter – it’s instantly even better when you’re lounging in the steaming water watching the snow fall outside.
8. Barcelona. I’m not a fan of gaudy Gaudi, but of course, his architecture makes Barcelona what it is. I find it amazing how we all flock to see a building that is not due to be finished until 2026. I mean, of course, La Sagrada Familia. However, one place where I feel Gaudi’s unique style does work within the city is Park Güell – also the spot of my favourite (yet discovered) view in Barcelona. In Park Güell you will find pianists, violinists and musicians of instruments so exotic that I don’t even know what they are. They claim a spot and play beautiful classical pieces to entertain tourists and locals alike. It’s quirky and amazing.
9. Vienna. A haven for museum-geeks like me, my favourite being the Sisi museum; a museum dedicated to the life of Empress Elizabeth of Austria. It’s cleaner than Paris and Rome. It’s more efficiently run than England, but it’s not as frustratingly perfect as a few cities I have been to; so perfect that they no longer feel real. Also, the people who live there are unbelievably lovely.
10. Off the beaten track. Finally, while I could go on and on about this city and that city, for me, one of the best parts of Europe is the little villages whose names I never learnt before I moved on to the next. I love the lakes, beaches, rivers and hills. I’m a country girl as well as a city girl, and I love rambling around woodland and climbing hills to see the view at sunset. So if you’re going to Europe, don’t just stick to the ‘must see cities’.