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The best capital cities to visit in Europe

Updated On 12th April, 2021

If you’re looking for the best Europe city breaks for 2021, look no further. The let up of the pandemic lockdown is on the horizon, and so many of us cannot wait to travel (once it’s safe to do so). To have the freedom to explore, to wander, and to soak up another culture… it’s so close I can almost taste it! So if you’re planning a trip to Europe, ready for when we are allowed to get on a plane, I don’t blame you. There are so many cities in Europe to visit, in fact there are between 44-51 countries in Europe (and therefore capital cities), depending on which list you look at… you just need to decide which European city to visit first!

Whether you want to soak up the ancient history in Rome or Athens, go for a swim in the river in Vienna, visit a European city with a beach like Lisbon, see the most famous European landmarks in cities such as Paris, London or Berlin, or go a little off the beaten track and visit European hidden gems such as Tirana in Albania, Europe has plenty of adventure and choice for everyone. There are so many top city breaks in Europe and each one offers something unique.

Rome, Italy: one of the largest cities in Europe

A few Europe city facts for you…

Largest city in Europe:

Population: The largest or biggest city in Europe in terms of population is Istanbul in Turkey, with over 15 million inhabitants. The largest or biggest capital city in Europe in terms of population is Moscow in Russia, with 12.5 million inhabitants.

Area / land size: It is much more difficult to find out which is the largest or biggest city in Europe in terms of land area, because the statistics differ depending on whether you are talking about the city centre, or also the suburbs and surrounding urban area. But, most people swing between Moscow, BerlinParis and Rome

Oldest city in Europe:

The oldest city in Europe is Plodiv, Bulgaria, which has been inhabited since around 6000 BC. The oldest capital city in Europe is Athens, Greece, which has been inhabited since around 5000 BC.

Cheapest city in Europe: 

This really depends on your spending habits! But in terms of value for money and exchange rate against the £, the cheapest cities in Europe tend to be outside the eurozone (think Poland, Hungary, Czechia, Albania…). Within the Eurozone, you’re looking at ItalySpainGreece and Portugal. But, remember that capitals tend not to be the cheapest cities in Europe, or anywhere!

For a full list of cheap places to visit in Europe, check out this blog post.

48 hours in Berlin, Germany
Berlin, Germany: one of the largest cities in Europe

It was pretty difficult to come up with a ‘Europe city breaks top 10’ list, so I’ve gone for my top… 24! It can be so hard to decide where in Europe to visit, and it’s almost impossible to say which is THE best city in Europe or THE most beautiful city in Europe. But, hopefully this list will inspire you and give you lots of ideas for city breaks in Europe. 

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Europe city breaks: The best capital cities in Europe

1. Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Amsterdam is one of the most popular capitals for a Europe city break, and for good reason. This European capital city is more compact and ‘village’-like than the likes of megacities such as London, Paris and Berlin. It’s less overwhelming but still as beautiful, and can largely be explored on bike or on foot. And if Amsterdam is a bit small for you, you’re a stone’s throw (sometimes as little as ten minutes) from another city for a day trip.

Amsterdam is famous for its canals which create what appears to be a floating city. As well as admiring the canals by bike, other must-sees in Amsterdam include some stunning historical architecture and monuments, a thriving contemporary art scene, and the tulip fields and windmills that are dotted around the city.

2. Athens, Greece

Athens is one of the oldest cities in Europe, and in fact the oldest capital city in Europe. It’s essentially a huge, open-air museum, so perfect for anyone who is looking for a Europe city break and loves ancient Greek history. Whether you’re touring the Acropolis, admiring the grand Temple of Zeus, or stumbling across more ancient ruins, there’s something for every culture vulture in Athens. Once you’ve finished marvelling at these ancient structures, go for a wander through the back streets of Plaka, enjoy some of the Mediterranean cuisine or take in the hustle and bustle at one of the many markets.

3. Berlin, Germany

The plethora of European history that you can learn about in Berlin, for example at the Berlin Wall, Soviet Memorial or Holocaust Memorial, is just one reason to put this one your European capital city bucket list. Berlin is also one of the coolest cities in Europe. It’s a creative and cultural hub, and boasts some of the best nightlife and one of the best music scenes in Europe. Not to mention the green spaces you can relax in when the sun is shining, museums you can wander round and street art to admire. 

4. Bern, Switzerland

Bern, the capital city of Switzerland, is often overlooked when it comes to planning a trip to Switzerland. I mean, who can blame you when the country offers things such as road trips through the Alps and city breaks in Geneva or Lucerne? However, the city of Bern should be a city in Europe that you visit soon. From the picturesque old town to the beautiful rose gardens and fountains, the view of the skyline over Munsterplatz and hiking up the Gurten, there are lots of things to do in Bern than make it worth a visit.

5. Bratislava, Slovakia

Bratislava is both one of the oldest cities in Europe and one of the youngest! While it’s been home to a permanent settlement since around 5000 BC, it’s also one of Europe’s youngest capitals (it was formerly part of Czechoslovakia, and only became the capital in 1993 when the countries split). Located on the River Danube, Bratislava is a beautiful city in Europe to visit. There’s the stunning castle to the iconic Blue Church, as well as a great cafe culture and street art scene. Bratislava is also one of the cheapest cities in Europe, and it’s only an hour from Vienna, so you could easily combine the two during your Europe city break!

6. Brussels, Belgium

Brussels is the queen of Art Nouveau, so if you’re into architecture, you should definitely put the capital of Belgium on your Europe bucket list! It’s also the political heart of Europe with centuries of history to be discovered. As well as the thriving jazz and art scene, and eating your weight in chocolate and waffles, don’t miss the ‘comic trail’, where you can learn about all the cartoons that were created in Brussels as you wander the back streets of the city. Brussels is also the perfect base if you want to see more of Belgium, such as Bruges or Ghent

3 days in Belgium: Brussels, Bruges & Ghent

7. Copenhagen, Denmark

From the colourful buildings along the waterfront of Nyhavn to reliving the tales of Hans Christian Anderson at the Little Mermaid statue, it’s hard not to fall in love with Copenhagen. For me, the biggest pull was the hygge culture: being so cosy and comfortable that this fosters a feeling of contentment and well-being, and you certainly get that vibe at a lot of cafes here. The food is great, the people are really friendly and the architecture and gardens, such as Rosenborg Castle and Kastellet, are truly beautiful. I can’t wait to get back to Copenhagen and explore some more; I think it’s one of the best places in Europe for a city break.

Six cities in seven days: Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo

8. Dublin, Ireland

Dublin is a beautiful medieval city, the capital of Ireland, best known for its pub/Guinness culture and the surrounding areas of rolling green hills. It’s a city full of energy and life and there’s always something going on and things to do in Dublin. Enjoy ‘the craic’ (fun) in Temple Bar or any Dublin pub, visit the Guinness brewery, or get out into a park in Dublin or the Irish countryside. Come rain or shine, Dublin is one of the best places for a city break in Europe.

15 OF THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN DUBLIN, IRELAND

9. Helsinki, Finland

Helsinki is a really serene city and definitely somewhere to consider if you’d like a calmer Europe city break. As well as marvelling at the architecture in the city centre (such as Helsinki Cathedral, Temppeliaukio Church and Uspenskin Cathedral), visiting some of the famous landmarks, such as Sea Fortress Suomenlinna and Seurasaari Island, and enjoying the laid back lifestyle in Helsinki, you can visit many a sauna or take a day trip to the Nuuksio National Park. 

4 Days In Southern Finland exploring Helsinki, Salo and Hanko

10. Lisbon, Portugal

I most recently visited Lisbon during my Portugal road trip, where I visited lots of places in this beautiful country having driven my van over from England to Portugal. And Lisbon was the perfect city break to end a van life adventure! Lisbon is one of the best places for a city break in Europe due to its affordability, it’s diverse tourism offerings, it’s plethora of day trip options and, of course, it subtropical/typical Mediterranean climate. From exploring the Tagus River and Alfama to hiking up to Castelo de São Jorge, as well as snapping Torre de Belém, Rossio Square and the 25 de Abril Bridge, Lisbon offers it all. 

A guide to exploring Lisbon, Portugal

11. London, UK

London is by far one of the most iconic cities in the world. From the hustle and bustle of Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Street to the black cabs and red buses lining every street insight, it’s just as crazy and just as beautiful as you’ve seen it in the movies. London is fast-paced and pretty crazy at times but you could literally spend a lifetime exploring the city and never be stuck for things to do.

London is often the starting point for many international travellers heading over for the ultimate European adventure, due to it’s connectivity to the rest of the world via planes, trains, Eurostar and car. It’s an epic hub and the perfect gateway to exploring Europe. Even if big cities aren’t your thing, you have to experience London at least once, even just for a day! It’s a great place for a Europe city break.

12. Madrid, Spain

The weather in Madrid is pretty good year-round, meaning you can explore the city at any point of year and on your own terms. From marvelling at the world-famous Royal Palace of Madrid to eating some of the world’s best tapas, or enjoying a picnic in Retiro Park, Madrid is a great, affordable place for a Europe city break. Having been to Barcelona twice, I can’t wait to see what Madrid has to offer!

13. Nicosia, Cyprus

As well as Athens and Bratislava, Nicosia is also one of the oldest cities in Europe on this European capital cities bucket list. I haven’t been to Nicosia before, but from what I saw of Protaras, Cyprus is a truly beautiful country. As well as visiting some of the many museums in Nicosia, make sure you take a walking tour to get a real feel for the city. Enjoy some Cypriot cuisine for lunch followed by a Cypriot coffee, and then take a hamam bath. There’s also the nearby Athalassa National Forest Park if you want to get out of the city centre and into the nearby nature!

14. Oslo, Norway

Oslo beautifully combines city life and nature life all in one. It’s easily accessible by bus, train and plane, and very close to the Oslofjord and forested hills and mountains. It’s also a really environmentally friendly city, which is great for those of us who are trying to travel more sustainably. From the fresh sea air at the harbour to the unusual architecture and art exhibitions in the centre, Oslo is a great place for a Europe city break.

15. Paris, France

Paris, the capital of France, is definitely one of the most popular places for a Europe city break. It’s fun, it’s busy, it’s romantic, and it’s stunning. From eating in a Michelin-starred restaurant in the Eiffel Tower to watching a show at the Moulin Rouge, marvelling at the Notre-Dame and l’Arc de Triomphe to admiring the artwork in the Louvre and the Château de Versailles, Paris is a must-visit city in Europe. The hustle and bustle of Paris isn’t for everyone, but I think it’s one of the best places to visit in Europe, even if you only go once! 

16. Reykjavik, Iceland

There are loads of things to do in Reykjavík, including visiting Hallgrímskirkja Church, engaging in the Icelandic bathing culture at a local swimming pool, admiring the brightly coloured buildings, street art, and city pond, getting a bargain at the flea market, immersing yourself in art and culture, exploring the food scene and night life, and marvelling at view of the city from Perlan on Öskjuhlíð hill. Reykjavík is also a really good base for whale watching tours, a trip to the Blue Lagoon, or a starting point for the infamous Golden Circle – the perfect Iceland road trip.

17. Rome, Italy

If you’re looking for places to visit in Europe or Europe city break ideas, Rome has got to be near the top of your list. One of the most romantic and historical cities in the world, Rome is known for its raw beauty, evident history, its infinite charm and of course, the famous Italian cuisine. Home to the Colosseum, the eternal city of Rome offers so much for a Europe city break. I fell in love with the exquisite Roman architecture that caught my eye around every corner I walked. 

18. Stockholm, Sweden

2.3 million people, 14 islands, 57 bridges… welcome to Stockholm! Also known as the Venice of the north, it’s the perfect place for your Europe city break. Heartwarming food, cherry blossom season, the colourful Old Town, the constant fresh sea air, as well as Fika cafe culture… surely you can’t need more persuading?

6 Cities in 7 Days: Scandinavia (Stockholm, Copenhagen & Oslo)

19. Tallinn, Estonia

With a stunning and well-preserved medieval and gothic old town, Tallinn is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and definitely somewhere to look at if you want ideas for a Europe city break. It’s one of those cities that is lively, yet peaceful, quirky, yet photogenic, old, yet modern.., it’s everything, all at once. Kadriorg is a beautiful city park if you need some time to just take everything in and relax, and make sure you get a walking tour of the Old Town to learn about Estonian history. 

A 48-hour guide to Tallinn, Estonia

20. Tirana, Albania

The capital of Albania is likely to be the starting point on your Albanian adventure and it’s worth of a Europe city break in itself. With a mix of Ottoman and Italian architecture, it’s hard to believe this city was once full of grey, communist buildings. It’s a chaotic city, but it’s fun, especially at night in the trendy Blloku area. Don’t miss catching the cable car up to Mount Dajti for panoramic views across the city.

21. Vienna, Austria

Grab your besties and some cheap flights and get a taste of the unique Viennese charm that runs through this city on your next Europe city break! From UNESCO heritage sites (including the Schönbrunn Palace) to cozy coffee shops and wine bars, swimming in rivers to taking free walking tours of the city by night, Vienna has something for everyone and is one of the best places to visit in Austria.

22. Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated Europe city breaks, despite being overlooked by tourists for other cities such as Wrocław, Gdańsk and Kraków. The capital has undergone a lot of change since the fall of communism in 1989. The Old Town itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (having been rebuilt after WWII) and you can learn a lot about Poland in WWII in the many museums in Warsaw. Praga is one of the more arty, quirky neighbourhoods and definitely worth exploring, and Łazienki Park is one of most beautiful city parks in Europe. I could go on, but it’s probably best that you see it for yourself on your next Europe city break! 

23. Zagreb, Croatia

Despite being the capital of Croatia, Zagreb doesn’t attract the same tourist crowds as the likes of Dubrovnik or Split and therefore tends to be a more enjoyable, less crowded Europe city break than other places in Croatia. Wander in and around the Old Town, get involved in Croatian cafe culture on Tkalciceva Street, and with the nearby Medvednica Mountain, you’re never too far from a breath of fresh air.

Which places are on your Europe city breaks bucket list?

Which are your favourite capital cities in Europe to visit? Any you’d add to this Europe bucket list?

Love as always and happy adventuring,

Mollie.

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I’M MOLLIE AND I STARTED THIS BLOG BACK IN 2013 WHEN I HEADED OUT ON MY FIRST BACKPACKING ADVENTURE. I’D LOVE TO SHARE MY STORY WITH YOU…

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