It's pretty unbelievable that so many of the world's most beautiful destinations are in Europe, especially when it comes to cities. As someone who has only ever lived in a city (I was born and raised in San Francisco and then hopped from Los Angeles to London to New York), I know firsthand just how cramped, chaotic, and, well, unattractive, they can be. That's not to say that I don't love them, but, centuries-old charm and picture-perfect aesthetics aren't always the name of the game. Yet, in Europe, many of the largest metropolises look and feel like real-life fairytales. And that's definitely worth experiencing.
We rounded up some of the most beautiful cities in Europe for anyone who wants to take a vicarious vacation or plans on getting to know these cities in person someday. Read on to see these breathtaking cityscapes and architectural beauties filled with buzzing energy.
Latvia's capital city sits on the Baltic Sea and the mouth of the Daugava river, making its skyline of hand-painted wooden Art Nouveau buildings punctuated by tall gothic spires all the more alluring. The old town is pedestrian-only, which is a rarity in cities these days, and makes the thriving nightlife even more accessible and exciting.
Riga is picturesque all year long, but if you go during Christmas, you'll feel like you've been dropped inside a perfect miniature winter wonderland.
Next Stop: Ljubljana, Slovenia
This Catalan city is like a playground for grown-ups, especially those of us who love architecture, nightlife, and bumming on the beach. Barcelona attracts people from all over the world with its breathtaking Gothic structures and iconic Gaudí landmarks all set against the backdrop of the ocean. And aside from being a fun locale with endless activities and shopping destinations, it's also incredibly livable, with plenty of diverse neighborhoods, schools, and delicious food.
Next Stop: Paphos, Cyprus
Book your stay at Nobis Hotel if you want to be a short walk away from the picturesque canal. It's the perfect place to unwind and get your décor inspiration fix after a day of museum tours. Ride a bike or stroll along the canals. For a taste of life as a local, take a short river cruise, rent a bike, or get around on foot.
Next Up: Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Florence, Italy, is the ideal destination on all fronts—think spectacular art, architecture, food, shopping, and sightseeing. It's the birthplace of the Renaissance movement, which means it dabbles in a bit of everything. Expect to get your fill of Tuscan cuisine (hi, gelato, pizza, and pasta!), art museum hopping, and designer digs (definitely make enough time to check out Luisa Via Roma's flagship store).
Next Stop: Madrid, Spain
A bustling city with equal parts old and new, London has so much more to offer than just beautiful sights. Aside from being super-livable thanks to an incredibly efficient public transportation system, there's also street style and design inspiration on tap, some of the coolest museums and most delicious restaurants in the world.
Next Stop: Rome, Italy
The northern region of Portugal is stuffed with lush greenery and seaside fishing towns painted in bright, beautiful colors. The largest city up north is Porto, which is known for its charming, bustling roads lined with quirky shops and cafés and a peaceful river flowing through town. Come here to sip on port wine, and feast on custard tarts, the unofficial national dessert of Portugal.
Next Stop: Seville, Spain
If you love the land and the sea and the city and the beach with equal enthusiasm, a vacation in Dubrovnik, Croatia, will be your paradise. Get a taste of the history of Dubrovnik by exploring the ruins and then sip on a cocktail in one of the cliffside bars.
Next Stop: Durrës, Albania
Slightly smaller than Munich but with all that charming Bavarian character, Nuremberg is like walking through a fairytale storybook. Every street is dotted with architectural wonders, but it's also full of history, dating back to the Roman Empire and stretching into devastating and darker periods, like the Nuremberg trials.
Next Stop: Brussels, Belgium
This Finnish seaside city is equal parts traditional and groundbreaking. It's also an up-and-coming foodie destination and design hub. If you love architecture, check out the train station, concert hall, and Temppeliaukio, a rock-carved church. Set against the Baltic bays, it's a truly breathtaking city.
Next Stop: Reykjavík, Iceland
Český Krumlov, Czech Republic
Perhaps one of the most iconic and oldest cities in Europe, Prague is a destination any traveler would love to explore, and this other, smaller city is just a day trip away. The scenic views are endless and a little bit like Disneyland (just look at the Charles River above), only much more authentic and beautiful. Keep your camera on hand as you explore the enchanting neighborhoods. Then take a day trip or spend a weekend in the smaller nearby city of Český Krumlov.
Next Stop: Vienna, Austria
Paris has something for everyone, whether you love literature, art, architecture, food, nightlife, shopping, or simply walking around and exploring new cities. Aside from the usual tourist destinations, take advantage of the gallery scene and the charming cafés and bistros the city offers. It's home to world-renowned couture shopping; there's a place to indulge in a baguette, cheese, and wine around every corner; and the cultural delights are endless. What more could you ask for?
Next Stop: Zurich, Switzerland
The soft blue skies over Santorini are enough to lure us over to the Greek islands right this second. The city of Oia feels much more like a quaint, walkable beach town since it sits atop the quintessential Greek island awash in blue and white. The views are truly magnificent.
Next Stop: Birkirkara, Malta
Here's another charming-beyond-belief city on the Baltic Sea. There are still medieval walls surrounding the town, making it feel like it's still the Middle Ages. The gothic architecture is truly breathtaking, and though it's quite cold, it's a very magical place to visit during the winter holidays.
Next Stop: Stockholm, Sweden
Venice will always have our hearts as one of the prettiest places on earth, no matter how empty or cramped with tourists it is when we visit. It's truly one of the most romantic places imaginable—you'll get lulled to sleep by the water lapping against the buildings. Wander around the canals, go to Piazza San Marco (St. Mark's Square), ride a water taxi or bus, visit the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and cross the Ponte dell’Accademia.
Next Stop: Annecy, France
Get lost wandering through the windy roads in Scotland for a nostalgic adventure. The foggy cobblestone streets and intimate, traditional pubs will make you feel like you've traveled through time.
Next Stop: Cork, Ireland
Innovation and creativity meet tradition and age-old design in this pastel-colored city on the Iberian sea. Set against the backdrop of hills and ocean views with colorful tiles everywhere you look, Lisbon is one of a kind. Get to know the various neighborhoods by taking a walk and riding a streetcar.
Next Stop: Athens, Greece
Thanks to the surplus of canals, weepy trees, cobbled streets, and fairy-tale architecture, Bruges has been nicknamed "The Venice of the North." As you can probably sense from the image above, it's perfect for anyone seeking tranquility, unique backdrops, architecture, and incredible culinary experiences without all the chaos of a major urban destination.
Next Stop: Oslo, Norway
Luxembourg City, Luxembourg
The Snow White–esque charm of this tiny city is in one of the smallest countries in Europe. Surrounded by France, Germany, and Belgium, Luxembourg is mostly rural, so you'll want to come here for the outdoor activities, beautiful landscapes, and unique sites. Just beyond the bustling city, you'll find complete vast forests with such haunting beauty, you'll feel like you've been transported to another dimension. Be sure to explore the Casemates du Bock, a series of underground tunnels, galleries, and dungeons in the capital city.
Next Stop: Sofia, Bulgaria
Medieval and Renaissance architecture rule in Lyon, France. If you love Paris but prefer cities that are a bit smaller and more manageable, come here. There's an endless array of things to do, but the gorgeous architecture and charming streets have the feel of a quaint town. There's a fun university culture, fabulous shopping, a bustling nightlife scene, and incredible museums.
Next Stop: Coimbra, Portugal
This Eastern European gem is full of romantic cafés, scenic views, and endless cultural opportunities. Take a stroll along the Danube (which splits the two cities, Buda and Pest), soak in geothermal baths, and visit Fisherman's Bastion, a beautiful neo-Gothic building and lookout point. Prepare to be dazzled everywhere you look in Budapest. Since it's hard to narrow down, start by exploring the major landmarks. Take a boat tour along the Danube, see the whimsical Kelly green Liberty Bridge, head to Fisherman's Bastion to see the city from greater heights, go hiking at Gellért Hill, which also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Next Stop: Istanbul, Turkey
Kyiv has been around for centuries, long before Russia and Ukraine existed. Though we often hear about the tumult of the region, Kyiv is also a culturally rich city buzzing with both new waves of creativity and centuries-old history.
Next Stop: St. Petersburg, Russia
You'll want to yodel-ay-ee-hoo through the charming streets of this mountainside Austrian city. A bit more manageable in size than Vienna, yet just as rich in culture and beauty, Salzburg is a serious winner. Check out the Hohensalzburg Fortress, walk along the Salzach River, and listen to some Mozart (this is where he's from). Stay right outside the city in Schloss Fuschl, a castle overlooking the lake, or opt for a more central location at Hotel Sacher.
Next Stop: Munich, Germany