What the most beautiful cities in Europe look like
The cobblestone path you’re walking on was probably built by a mason 500 years ago. To your right, you see a colossal cathedral with stain glass windows and pointy Gothic spires. To your left, a gentle river skirts around beautifully painted homes (that you can totally imagine yourself living in). You decide to sit down on a bench in the Old Town, when your ears suddenly perk up at the sound of people speaking a foreign language. You don’t understand what they’re saying, but their hand gestures and facial expressions give you a slight indication.
Welcome to Europe, a continent of timeless intrigue that is home to some the most beautiful cities in the world. This scene could describe hundreds of beautiful cities in Europe, but which are the most beautiful? Based on my travels and social media inspiration from others, here’s a list of the 17 most beautiful cities in Europe. (Don’t pay too much attention to the order, as beauty is in the eye of the beholder).
1. Dubrovnik, Croatia
Dubrovnik is a charming coastal city nestled on the shores of the Adriatic Sea. Nicknamed the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” Dubrovnik has been a treasured seaport and cultural center since the Middle Ages.
When you step inside Dubrovnik’s 16th century walls, you’ll be dazzled by its Baroque architecture and limestone streets. As expected, the Old City of Dubrovnik is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After the dreadful bombings during the Siege of Dubrovnik in 1991, Dubrovnik underwent extensive restoration work to preserve its medieval flair. Today, the cityscape has been fully restored and contains many trendy shops and restaurants.
Top attractions include walking on the Walls of Dubrovnik and taking a ferry ride to the nearby island of Lokrum. Due to its rich cultural identity and architectural splendor, Dubrovnik deserves the top spot among the most beautiful cities in Europe.
Sunday church bells in Dubrovnik
2. Strasbourg, France
Strasbourg is the capital of the Alsace region in eastern France. Cherished for its vibrant timber houses, Strasbourg looks like a scene straight out of a fairytale.
Strasbourg has endured a rocky past, switching hands numerous times during the centuries between Germany and France. As a result, you will hear French, German, and Alsatian (a language similar to Swiss German) spoken on the streets.
Popular attractions in Strasbourg include La Petite France, a district adored for its canals and timber homes, and the Strasbourg Cathedral, a Gothic cathedral dating back to the early 15th century. When you visit Strasbourg, be sure to indulge in the Alsatian wine and cuisine. Bon appétit! Guten Appetit! E Güeter!
3. Florence, Italy
Florence (Firenze) is the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region. It is the notable birthplace of the Renaissance, which is strikingly visible throughout the city. Florence is also known for its world-class art, fashion, and cuisine, which embody the city’s dolce vita (“sweet life”).
During the Middle Ages, Florence was the wealthiest city in Europe due to its thriving trade and banking. Florence’s top-notch standing was shaped by the Medici family, a noble dynasty that dominated the city’s political and financial landscape during the 14th and 15th centuries.
The magnum opus (masterpiece) of Florence is the Duomo di Firenze, a Gothic Revival and Renaissance cathedral. Another top sight is the Piazzale Michelangelo, a hilltop square with stunning panoramic views of Florence. The entire historic city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Revered for its art and architecture, Florence is unequivocally one of the most beautiful cities in Italy and Europe.
4. Santorini, Greece
Santorini is a Greek island in the Aegean Sea comprised of several tiny villages. Its most popular settlements include Oia, Fira, and Imerovigli. For the purposes of this article, I’ll consider Santorini a city, as these settlements form one municipality.
Santorini’s rugged clifftops formed during a massive volcanic eruption 3,600 years ago. Similar to the Roman ruins at Pompeii, Santorini’s prehistoric settlement, Akrotiri, is miraculously well-preserved. This excavation site sheds light on the Minoan Civilization that thrived on Santorini between the 4th and 3rd millennium BC.
From sunset cruises to hikes along the coastline, Santorini has something to offer for everyone. Santorini’s white-washed houses, brilliant blue roofs, and crystal clear water are a feast for the eyes.
5. Venice, Italy
Venice is the capital of Italy’s Veneto region, and comprises more than 100 small islands in the Adriatic Sea. Nicknamed La Serenissima (the most serene), Venice is one of the most beautiful cities and UNESCO Sites in Europe.
This city of canals has been a cultural and commercial center since medieval times. Venice is home to numerous historic and architectural treasures, including the Piazza San Marco, Grand Canal, and Saint Mark’s Basilica.
When in Venice, you’ll be enchanted by the sight of gondolas and ferryboats maneuvering through the city’s narrow waterways.
Among the most beautiful and historically significant cities in Europe, Venice is certainly top-notch.
6. Salzburg, Austria
Salzburg is a picturesque city in western Austria that borders Germany and the Eastern Alps.
As the birthplace of Mozart, Salzburg is often branded as the “capital of music”. Fittingly, it’s also the setting of the popular 1960s movie, The Sound of Music.
Salzburg’s Altstadt, or Old Town, is a remarkably well-preserved UNESCO World Heritage Site that embodies classical Austria. Here, you’ll find marvelous sights such as the Hohensalzburg Fortress, Mirabell Palace, and Salzburg Cathedral.
Needless to say, Salzburg’s pristine scenery and medieval architecture will have you singing.
7. Paris, France
As the capital of France, Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world. Paris is a global leader in the arts, fashion, and cuisine.
The Parisian cityscape is defined by world-class attractions such as the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame Cathedral, and the Louvre Museum. This cosmopolitan city is also home to wide avenues like the Champs-Élysées and massive monuments like the Arc de Triomphe.
The River Seine skirts around the city, offering sightseeing tours and dinner cruises. With over 20 arrondissements (districts), it would take years to explore all that Paris has to offer.
8. Nuremberg, Germany
Nuremberg is a magical medieval city in northern Bavaria. Dating back to the early days of the Holy Roman Empire, Nuremberg was an attractive residence for kings and artists alike.
The charming city of Nuremberg is best depicted by its imperial castles and vibrant facades. Some of the top sights in the Old Town (Altstadt) include the Nuremberg Castle and Albrecht Dürer House.
Nuremberg’s beauty is magnified during the wintertime when the city unveils its Christkindlesmarkt, arguably the most beautiful Christmas Market in Germany.
During World War II, Nuremberg was reduced to rubble. However, during the decades that followed, Nuremberg was seamlessly reconstructed to return the city to its former splendor.
Today, Nuremberg is one of the most beautiful and romantic cities in Europe!
9. Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona is the capital and cultural center of Spain’s Catalonia region. Attracting 32 million tourists last year, Barcelona is the most visited city in the country.
Nestled between scenic mountains and coastline, Barcelona has a diverse natural and cultural landscape. From the top of Mount Tibidabo to the base of the Barceloneta Beach, Barcelona has something special to offer for everyone. Barcelona’s popular cultural attractions include the Sagrada Família and Parc Güell —built by the acclaimed Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudí.
(Check out my guide to spending a long weekend in Barcelona)
Treasured for its culture, cuisine, and history, Barcelona is a beautiful city that has everything you could possibly desire.
10. London, UK
London is the capital of the United Kingdom. Even though London isn’t as colorful as the cities above, its authentic charm and riveting history bring out its beauty.
Founded during the Roman times, London has arguably been the most influential city during the past millennium. Kings and queens have reigned from its royal palaces, which are a hallmark of the British Empire’s global presence and prosperity.
Many of the city’s historic and cultural treasures are found in the City of Westminster. Top sights here include Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and the Westminster Abbey.
For nature enthusiasts, Hyde Park offers a serene setting away from the hustle and bustle of the city. This park is also home to Kensington Palace, a residence of the British Royal Family.
Given its extraordinary history and brilliant architecture, London deservedly closes out the top 10 most beautiful cities in Europe.
11. Vienna, Austria
Vienna is the capital of Austria, an Alpine country in Central Europe.
With a history spanning 2,000 years, Vienna was founded by the Romans as a strategic fortification along the Danube River. During the subsequent two millennia, Vienna was at the helm of powerful empires, including the Holy Roman Empire and Austria-Hungary.
As a cultural center in Central Europe, Vienna is well-known for its operas, waltzes, and classical music. The city is also a top destination for international conventions and congresses.
Throughout Vienna, you will discover an array of parks, gardens, churches, and palaces. Most notable among them are the Volksgarten (People’s Garden), St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and Schönbrunn Palace.
Vienna is so beautiful that it’s considered one of the most livable cities in Europe, and even the world.
12. Bruges, Belgium
Bruges is a scenic city in the Flemish Region of Belgium.
Interestingly, Bruges was one of the world’s first tourist destinations. It was here, where wealthy British and French tourists began visiting en masse during the second half of the 1800s.
Its name is derived from the Old Dutch word “brugga”, which means “bridge”. With a plethora of canals, Bruges is nicknamed the “Venice of the North”. As such, its most picturesque spots are best seen by boat.
Bruges’ historic city center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains many medieval buildings that are remarkably well-preserved. These sights include the Church of Our Lady and the Belfry of Bruges.
With its medieval architecture and Old World canals, Bruges earns a top spot among the most beautiful cities in Europe.
13. Prague, Czech Republic
Prague is the capital city and cultural center of the Czech Republic. Located along the Vltava River, Prague was a strategic city for mighty empires, including the Holy Roman Empire, Austria-Hungary, and Bohemia.
Prague’s historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some of the city’s most noteworthy sights are the Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, and Old Town Square. Each of these landmarks are very well-preserved and embody Prague’s medieval flair.
Aside from its rich heritage, Prague is also a modern city known for its world-class dining, art, and nightlife. In recent years, Prague has become a very popular weekend getaway destination in Europe.
14. Lucerne, Switzerland
Lucerne is a small city in the heart of central Switzerland. This Swiss city is situated between an idyllic lakeside setting and snow-capped mountains.
To complement the countryside that surrounds it, Lucerne is enlivened by its vibrant streets, colorful houses, and covered bridges. Many of Lucerne’s medieval features date back to the 14th century. Chief among them are the Musegg Wall and Chapel Bridge.
Not only does Lucerne embody the Old World, but is also offers a dose of modernity. Lucerne’s Culture and Congress Centre is a sleek, state-of-the-art venue where the Summer Festival and concerts take place.
As the gateway to central Switzerland’s Alpine landscape, Lucerne is a must-visit during all four seasons.
15. Valencia, Spain
Mounted on Spain’s eastern seaboard, Valencia is the third largest city in the country. Valencia is the birthplace of paella, and a cultural center where the past coexists with the present.
Known as the “City of Arts and Sciences”, Valencia has a variety of innovative and contemporary attractions. Most notable among them is the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències, an ultramodern entertainment complex that includes an aquarium, planetarium, museum of science, performing arts center, and opera house.
Valencia also has an old town, or Ciutat Vella, which is hailed for its distinct architecture, quaint cafes, and cobblestone streets. Here, you’ll find many Roman and Gothic marvels with a tinge of Arabic influence from the Moor’s occupation nearly 1,000 years ago.
Valencia is also one of the most livable cities in the world. As such, there is no shortage of parks, beaches, and greenways. Valencia is perfectly partitioned by the Turia Park, spanning 5 km from the western part of the city to the beach. Along the park’s many paths, you’ll discover pretty playgrounds, bike lanes, and gardens.
With its eclectic cityscape and delightful nature, Valencia is befittingly one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències
16. Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul is one of the best-preserved ancient cities in Europe. It’s nestled on the Bosphorus Strait where Asia meets Europe. As such, Istanbul was once a pivotal port city along the historic Silk Road.
Istanbul has a population of 15 million people, making it the biggest city in Turkey and among the top 5 in the world. However, you wouldn’t know the city’s sheer size when you’re strolling through Istanbul’s historic center (Sultanahmet).
Some must-see sights in Istanbul are the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Grand Bazaar. Hence, each of these stops should definitely be included on yourIstanbul itinerary.
(Planning a layover to Istanbul? Check out my latest blog post: How to Spend a Layover in Istanbul: Travel Guide + Things to Do)
In addition to its assortment of historic attractions, Istanbul is also a cultural and entertainment hub in the region. The city is sprawling with lively shops, bars, and restaurants at every turn.
With a history dating back more than 2,500 years, Istanbul is truly an open-air museum that you should add to your bucket list in 2019!
17. Kotor, Montenegro
Camouflaged by a bulwark of mountains and coastline, Kotor is a small municipality in Montenegro. The Bay of Kotor, a fjord-like waterway, surrounds the city.
The Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This area includes the Old Town, its fortifications, and the adjoining bay.
Within the Old Town of Kotor, you’ll find medieval architecture dating back the 12th and 14th centuries. In particular, the St. Tryphon Cathedral and St. Luke’s Church are two architectural masterpieces that were built in the 1100s. Another top attraction is the Castle of San Giovanni, a hillside fortification with breathtaking vistas of the city and bay.
From walking tours of the medieval ramparts, to boat cruises around the bay, Kotor offers a harmonious blend of attractions that make it one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
Criteria for deciding the most beautiful cities in Europe
I hope you enjoyed reading and learning about these 17 most beautiful cities in Europe.
Ironically, the hardest part about writing this article was choosing the “right” cities and ranking them. With hundreds of beautiful cities in Europe to pick from, I selectively narrowed down my list to only 16. Admittedly, this process was pretty heartbreaking (Amsterdam, Krakow, and Sevilla, I’m looking at you).
In addition to the “Instagram” definition of beauty, I also considered each city’s culture, history, and overall personality. After all, there is more to a place than meets the eye.
Based on your travel experiences, what do you think are the most beautiful cities in Europe? Perhaps they will appear on this list in the future.
Happy Travels! -Jon
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