Ten of the best European cities
Recently I posted a blog about my ten favourite American cities; you can read it here if you missed it.
Among the comments was a good-natured challenge from Andrew Petcher of Have Bag, Will Travel, suggesting that Europe’s cities have a lot more to offer the visitor. It got me thinking about which would make my Top Ten and after some deliberation, here are my choices.
In the heart of beautiful Extremadura, Cáceres is one of those finds that you agonise over telling others about for fear of drawing the crowds. This is the kind of place you’ll want to keep for yourself. The labyrinthine Ciudad Monumental, crammed full of mediaeval mansions and delightful churches, absorbs as much time as you’re prepared to give it. I’d have still been there were it not for the promise of the tastiest suckling pig in the region and late night drinks in the palm-lined Plaza Mayor.
Over the border, the Portuguese capital is one of the most absorbing on the continent. Its rich maritime history is proudly remembered across the city such as in Belém’s Monument to the Discoveries. The #28 tram ride linking the lower and upper towns might be touristy, but it’s still a must for its heritage wooden cars and the views along the way. But again, it’s food that is my fondest memory, particularly the delicious Pastéis de Belém warm out of the box – you’ll have to queue, but it’ll be worth it.
The reason I’m so taken with the Swedish capital is that it doesn’t have to be a city break at all, if you don’t want it to be. The Feather Islands are just a thirty minute boat ride away, but a tranquil spot for lunch and a short stroll if you’re fed up with city traffic and noise. Skeppsholmen Island reveals a collection of historic boats and Benny from ABBA’s recording studio, while Djurgården Island is where you’ll find the ABBA museum and the astonishingly well-preserved 17th century Vasa ship.
Of Germany’s cities, Bremen stands out. The Schnoor quarter is packed with timber-framed houses once occupied by fishermen but now home to a plethora of boutique shops selling artisan crafts. The city’s historic heart is eclectic, its Flemish-style Schütting, a 16th century guild hall, and the windmill in Wallenlagen Park a reminder of how close you are to the Netherlands. But it’s four small creatures that were the reason for my trip – donkey, dog, cat and rooster from the Grimm’s fairytale.
Krakow is one of those cities that no matter how many times you visit, you’ll never tire of it. Nowhere is this more true than in the Old Town’s largest square, Rynek Glowny. It’s dominated by the centuries-old Cloth Hall; duck under its arches to find shops selling amber and other local wares. I enjoy it best at night, when huts selling pierogis and tender ham hocks draw people away from the many souvenir stalls of the market.
I first squealed with delight at Hellbrunn’s trick fountains as a small child. Years later, I returned to find I wasn’t too old to have the exact same reaction. Just as much fun was a bicycle tour of the main sights featured in The Sound of Music – yes I know Mozart was born there but I’d much rather be yodelling with a lonely goatherd. This December I’m visiting the city’s Christmas markets for the first time. Can. Not. Wait.
Give me a choice of Italy’s large cities, and this would be my choice, rather than Rome or Florence or Milan or Venice. Why? This is a city that is focused on food, from the delis that cram into its narrow alleyways to the platefuls of snacks laid out to soak up the Aperol Spritz at passeggiata hour. Thoughtfully, they even built a tower to climb so you can work off some of the calories; it’s 498 steps to the top of Torre Asinelli.
To see Dubrovnik at its best you’ve got to time it so that the cruise ships aren’t in dock, and that takes some planning – or at least an overnight stay. You’ll be rewarded with empty city walls to walk, piazzas and cobbled streets lined with cafes and restaurants and a host of other sights that are far better without the crush.
When it comes to the Baltics, it was a tough decision for me to choose between the Latvian capital Riga and its Estonian counterpart Tallinn. In the end, I opted for the former. Don’t miss the Three Brothers, the oldest buildings in the city, and the House of the Blackheads which houses Parliament. Both are a must for architecture fans. They also have some innovative ideas to help you avoid putting a dent in your bumper.
Bisected by the River Danube, this is a city with a split personality, so whatever mood you’re in, you’ll find half the city to suit. Fishermen’s Bastion in Buda is a good place to get your bearings, and admire the Gothic architecture of Parliament across the water. After coffee in Cafe Gerbeaud, the market hall in Pest is perfect for stocking up for a riverside picnic. And don’t forget the city’s many thermal baths for when your muscles begin to ache.
So there you have it. Apologies if you were looking for Amsterdam or Paris, Berlin or Barcelona. While I enjoyed the latter pair, the first two still fail to wow me. And I’ve deliberately stuck to mainland Europe, hence the lack of London, York, Bath or Leeds. What would you have included on your list of Top Ten European cities?