My goal when I moved to Europe three years ago was to travel beyond the major cities and see what else I could discover for myself. I read a New York Times list with the same kind of theme as this one, and I revisited it every once in a while as I checked the sights off my bucket list.
After three years of traveling through almost every European country, I came up with my own comprehensive list of all my favorite experiences I had during my trips. While some of them may seem obvious, I hope that most will open your eyes to new activities and new destinations. People tell me all the time that they only think of cities when they think of Europe, but I learned that every country has a combination of natural beauty and cultural hubs.
1. Swim in the Blue Lagoon in Malta
The Blue Lagoon on the small island of Comino, Malta, is one of my favorite places in the world, and it’s also the best Blue Lagoon I’ve ever been to. When the sun is shining, the water is an incomprehensible shade of blue, nearly fluorescent. I have only been in March, where I indeed swam but nearly got hypothermia. I highly recommend taking the Luzzo cruise that spends the entire day there—it’s a perfect spot for hiking and picnicking as well.
2. Ride horses at sunset in Cyprus
I have horse-back-ridden on other vacations, like in Colorado and the Bahamas, and I desperately wanted to find a place to do it in Europe. Eagle Mountain Ranch in Paphos, Cyrpus, was a great pick. They take out riders of all abilities on trails through a beautiful nature reserve. The ride ended at an overlook with a perfect view of the sun meeting the Mediterranean Sea. It was stunning and the most memorable way I’ve seen a sunset.
3. Climb a fortress in Montenegro
During our cruise of the Adriatic Sea, and after some delays getting ashore from the ship, we had about three hours in Kotor, Montenegro. It’s a small town, but its fortress alone makes it worth the trip. We climbed 1,600 steps racing the sun, trying to reach the top before it set behind a hill. It was so physically demanding that I was a sweaty mess when we reached the top, but that just means you appreciate the view even more. I had seen the postcard-perfect landscape in photos online, and I can say that it does not disappoint in real life.
4. Walk the city walls of Dubrovnik
Game of Thrones fans will especially appreciate this one, where you can see various filming locations. If you’re not a Game of Thrones fan (like I was the first time we went to Dubrovnik), you will still love the views over the UNESCO-World-Heritage-listed old town. The walls are still intact, fully circling the city, which is extremely rare. There are endless photo opportunities and it is truly the best way to see Dubrovnik. Arrive right when they open, as they do get crowded and hot in the summer.
5. Stop and smell the roses…err Tulips…in the Netherlands
The highlight of the short time we spent in the Netherlands was an afternoon spent at Keukenhof, a large botanical garden filled with tulips and other plant displays. In some areas, the flowers carpeted the ground. It’s truly a sight to see all the vibrant colors arranged perfectly in beautiful formations. The gardens are only open about two months per year when the flowers bloom—in 2020 the dates are March 21 to May 10.
6. Step inside a fairytale at Neuschwanstein Castle
My favorite place in Germany sits high on a mountain in the Bavarian Alps—Neuschwanstein Castle. I saw many castles in my three years, but it’s the location that sets this one apart from the rest. The view of the castle as well as the view from its grounds is just breathtaking. We didn’t even bother going inside because the exterior of Neuschwanstein is its main draw. Tour companies run day trips there from Munich, or you can stay in the small town of Füssen nearby and take full advantage of the area’s hiking trails, lakes and German country charm.
7. Go to the top of Europe in the French Alps
Excluding Russia and Georgia, France is home to the highest point in Europe, the summit of Mont Blanc. Take the cable car up from the adorable town of Chamonix to the Aiguille du Midi, the highest mountain peak served by an aerial lift system. From there, you can walk all along the complex for 360-degree views of the Alps, including the snow-covered summit of Mont Blanc. You can “step into the void” by standing on a glass box with nothing but the mountains below. There are also hiking opportunities at this altitude.
8. Wander Around Lake Bled
Another beautiful destination in the Alps is Bled, Slovenia. The lake is one of the most peaceful, scenic places I’ve ever been. A paved path circles the whole lake in about six kilometers or three and a half miles, and then hiking trails will take you higher up. I stopped after about a 20-minute climb to the Mala Osojnica lookout, where you could see the surrounding mountains, the bright turquoise color of the lake, and its island with the church. There is another lookout even higher up if you feel like climbing some more.
9. Dine in the Baltics
When I think about my time in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, I think about how I had three of the best dinners of my life—one in each of these countries. I don’t know what it is about this region’s cuisine that blew me away. Perhaps it was the modernization of comforting, Eastern European flavors. In Vilnius, be sure to check out Mykolo 4—I had an amazing prix-fixe four-course menu for $35. Restaurant Pētergailis wowed us in Riga with its delicious cheese plate and perfectly-cooked duck. And you can’t miss Väike Rataskaevu in Tallinn, especially their frozen blue cheese cake.
10. Explore Ancient Rome at the Roman Forum
Of all the attractions we visited in Rome, this one was my favorite because it did a wonderful job of showing what life was like in ancient times. A lot of the structures from a couple thousand years ago still stand, and it’s a huge complex with a ton to explore. We downloaded a free audio guide from Rick Steves onto our phones, but if I had to do it again, I would pay for a guided tour because we loved it that much. Without some sort of explanation, the ancient ruins don’t have much context.
11. Take a Gondola Ride in Venice
The lack of roads and cars make Venice quite a unique city. Instead, they have canals and gondolas! It will cost you roughly $80 to $150 per boat, which holds about five people, depending on how long of a route you choose, but it will be worth it as you navigate the city from a new perspective. It’s easy to find one as there are gondoliers around ever corner and at nearly every bridge waiting for passengers. Go first thing in the morning so you miss the afternoon traffic jams with other tourists.
12. Kayak the sea caves of the Algarve
The southern coast of Portugal has some of the best scenery I’ve ever seen. It’s perfect for relaxing beach days, hiking, and other outdoor activities, including kayaking. We did a tour that took us through smaller sea caves before reaching our final destination, Benagil. There are viral images of this cave all over the internet, and I have always dreamed of going. The only ways to enter the cave and actually walk around are by kayak, swimming from Benagil Beach and stand-up-paddle-boarding. Boat tours will go inside, but not let passengers off, though it’s a good option for the less active. Try to go as early as possible—we were one of the first groups to enter the cave that morning, so we managed to get some pictures without too many people in them.
13. Visit Auschwitz
I truly believe everyone should visit a concentration camp once in their lifetime. I’ve actually been to two: Dachau, near Munich, and Auschwitz, an easy day trip from Krakow, Poland. They were the most educational, eye-opening experiences I’ve ever had. At the first camp, Auschwitz I, we walked through exhibits that showed piles of shoes, hair, glasses and home items that were taken from prisoners. The large scale of the piles just from this one camp, and not even all the prisoners that were there, is heartbreaking and jarring. We stood in the gas chambers that were used to kill millions of people. We saw headshots of hundreds of victims with their heads shaved and loss of hope in their eyes—and those were just the prisoners of war. In the widespread grounds of Auschwitz II, we saw where the train tracks ended, marking the end of the lives of roughly one million people who died there. It’s chilling and depressing, yet so important to experience in your life.
14. Crawl through the corridors of the Anne Frank House
We didn’t love Amsterdam as most people do, but the one thing that really impressed us in the city was the Anne Frank House. I remember reading her diary when I was in sixth grade, roughly the same age as she was when she wrote it. From the outside, the building is unassuming, blending in with all the others in the city, but once you get inside and pass behind the bookcase that hid their secret annex, you step right into her shoes. The space is cramped and dark, and it’s hard to imagine how she and her family lived there for such a long time.
15. Road trip in Mallorca
On a brighter note, you may need some sunshine to warm you up after learning so much about the Holocaust. Mallorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain, is a beautiful beach destination. While it is popular, mostly with Germans and Brits, for partying, there is so much natural beauty to discover, and there are specific resort towns that cater to the partiers, so that environment is easy to avoid. The island is fairly small, so it’s really easy to drive all over the place. I loved the food there too—we found an amazing coffee shop called Arabay Coffee, as well as innovative tapas and modern Spanish cuisine in every town we visited. Cala Ratjada is a beautiful white sand beach, and I also highly recommend driving the Cap de Formentor, where there are various lookout points, hikes and beaches. Caló d’es Moro is the most stunning spot on the island, but make sure you get there early if you want a spot to sunbathe on the rocks.
16. Drink beer at Oktoberfest
I’m pretty sure this is on everyone’s German bucket list, as it should be! The festivals are the best thing about German drinking culture, in my opinion, because you can enjoy alcohol in a fun atmosphere that isn’t a crowded bar. The music is super fun to dance to, especially when everyone stands up on the benches of the tables. And let’s not forget about the outfits! Munich is the biggest Oktoberfest, but it’s also the most touristy. Stuttgart has a large, more local, celebration, but there is one in nearly every city, so you don’t HAVE to go to Munich. I had a more authentic experience just by going near where I lived, plus they’re cheaper and less packed. If you can’t make it during Oktoberfest, I recommend coming to Germany during other festival seasons, like the summer wine festivals or the Christmas markets.
17. Sunbathe on the Turkish Steps in Sicily
Sicily is one large, beautiful island, and my favorite sight I saw during my four days there was the Turkish Steps. They are a natural rock formation shaped by erosion on the south coast near the city of Agrigento. You can only reach them by walking along a beach, where you will see the mass of white rock protruding from the cliffs. I’m a sucker for cool geological formations, and these are some of the coolest I’ve ever seen. I was there in November, but I could see how in the summer it would be a perfect spot to lie out and swim.
18. Appreciate Gaudí’s work at Park Güell
Park Güell in the hills of Barcelona is not just a park; it’s an outdoor art museum exhibiting the work of local architect and artist, Antoni Gaudí. He designed buildings all throughout the city, including the Basílica de la Sagrada Familia and Casa Battló. Park Güell was my favorite place to enjoy his work because of the nice paths winding around, gardens and view over the city.
19. Cliff Jump in Croatia
I’m always down for an adrenaline rush, and the Mediterranean Coast is a beautiful spot to face your fears. I first went cliff jumping on the island of Lokrum near Dubrovnik, but there are tons off opportunities. Just follow the crowd! I somehow felt better doing it knowing there were other people jumping in front of me. Another great spot was at Kašjuni Beach in Split, which everyone should visit anyway because it’s much nicer than the city beach.
20. Cruise around Capri
The Amalfi Coast is my favorite part of Italy, and I’m so glad I went back after only going for a quick day trip from Naples. We returned with the sole intention of going to Capri, which we missed the first time around. We took a ferry over to the island for the day from Sorrento, and right when we got off, we were able to book a boat tour at the port. The cruise took us around the entire island, and we got to see everything from the Blue Grotto to the “Love Arch” of the Faraglioni rock stacks. Capri is one of the most stunning islands I’ve ever been to, and you have to experience it from the sea as well as on land.
21. Compare old and new architecture in Valencia
Of all the cities I’ve been to in Spain, this birthplace of paella was one of my favorites. The architecture of the old town, especially the cathedral, displays the city’s vast history, while the modern structures of the City of Arts and Sciences will blow your mind. In some ways, they reminded me of the Sydney Opera House, my favorite building in the world. The complex is home to museums, an aquarium, and theaters, but it’s nice even just for a walk. If you go there from the old town via the park built in the dried-up riverbed (great use of space if I do say so myself), you will have roughly 90 minutes to two hours of photo opps along orange-tree-lined paths and beautiful architecture.
22. Ride a donkey in Greece
I’m pretty sure every millennial girl who’s seen the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movie has dreamed of riding a donkey through the stony streets of Santorini. I certainly had. I didn’t ride donkeys in Santorini, but rather on the island of Hydra, which we visited as part of a day cruise of the Aegean islands from Athens. What makes this island unique is that there are no cars, so donkeys and horses are the only mode of transportation. While I felt like an obnoxious tourist, it was an experience I needed to have, and it was actually quite a pleasant way to navigate the tiny cobblestone streets.
23. Summit a mountain in the Swiss Alps
I’ve never been a serious hiker, but I’m inspired after hiking the Augstmatthorn near Interlaken, Switzerland. You don’t need to be an experienced hiker to reach the peak, but you do need to be reasonably in shape. It took us nearly six hours from when my sister and I arrived by funicular to Harder Kulm and started on the trail to when we met our mom at a restaurant in Lombachalp. The first four and a half hours were spent basically climbing nonstop along the narrow path through the forest and then on the mountain’s ridge, with nothing but a steep decline and Lake Brienz below. Then the last hour and a half, we were descending on an incredibly steep and muddy path where I fell slid down the hill about six different times. It was the most difficult physical feat of my life, which made me appreciate the sweeping alpine views so much more and why I am now hooked on hiking.
24. Be blown away by the Giant’s Causeway
I say “blown away” because the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland was super windy, so much that I was prohibited to even climb on top of some of the rocks because the gusts were strong enough to knock me off of them. Shockingly enough, however, the rocks were created by an ancient volcanic eruption, not the strong breeze and crashing waves of the sea. It’s called Giant’s Causeway, though, because legend says giants created the landscape—that’s up to visitors if they believe it. The rock formation is so unique with the 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns fitting perfectly together. We saw it as part of a day trip from Dublin with Wild Rover tours, and it’s not too far from Belfast.
25. Fall in love with Norway’s waterfalls
I went to Bergen to see the Norwegian fjords, but sadly it rained most of our trip, and we couldn’t see much of the fjords at all. On the bright side, we saw tons of Norway’s natural beauty in waterfalls scattered throughout the dramatic landscape of the Hardanger Fjord region east of the city. We spent an entire day driving around in our rental car chasing waterfalls, and were satisfied we got to see four, the highlights being Fossen Bratte, Steindalsfossen, and Vøringsfossen. I’ve never seen waterfalls quite like these, and they made up for our rainy weather during our fjord tour the day before.
26. Admire Positano from the water
Positano is, for me, the most scenic town in Italy. However, when you’re walking the streets, they can be cramped and crowded, so it’s easiest to appreciate it when you are in the water. The stunning view of the stacked houses is possible from a boat, as well as from a swim in the crystal clear sea water by the beach. So you get to stay cool while also avoiding fellow tourists, so it’s a win-win!
27. Marvel at the tile work in Spain’s prettiest plaza
Nearly all the cities I visited in Europe had some sort of central square or plaza, but none of them were as captivating as the Plaza de España in Seville. There are tile masterpieces lining the walls to represent each Spanish province, as well as a canal, beautifully decorated bridges, and a large palace with baroque and Moorish architecture designed to look like it’s giving visitors a hug. It’s truly one massive, breathtaking work of art.
28. Explore the remote Isle of Skye
When I look back on all my trips in Europe, Scotland was one of my favorites because of the tour we did: three days through the Scottish Highlands and Isle of Skye. At the time, the island was the most remote place I had ever been, full of natural beauty and a sense of serenity that I had never felt before. We did the tour with Rabbie’s, a company offering a variety of options to see the highlands, but if you’re not scared of driving on the opposite side, I’m sure it would make an excellent road trip.
29. Dive into the Mediterranean at Calanques National Park
My first time swimming in the Mediterranean Sea was at Calanque du Sugiton, near Marseille, France. A calanque is a narrow inlet, basically like a cove. We took a grueling hike down from the parking lot to the water (which became even more grueling when we made a wrong turn) with an incredible view the entire time. Then, once we got to the sea, there were tons of people enjoying this natural “swimming pool.” The water was so clear and to look back up at the mountain I had just climbed down was so satisfying. If you visit in the winter or don’t want to swim, there is still a hike that goes all along the coast past all of the calanques. If you don’t want to hike, you can see the calanques from the water by taking a boat ride.
30. Watch the glow of the Northern Lights
This natural phenomenon is one you have to see to believe. In pictures, it looks awesome, albeit a little photoshopped, but in real life, it is indescribable to watch the glow dance across the sky. There are so many factors that contribute to whether you will see the lights, including solar activity and clouds, so when you do actually see them, you realize it’s an experience you can’t even put a price tag on. Not to mention we could see the Milky Way on this super clear night! We went in Iceland with Gray Line tours, and they took us to several spots in a national park for observation where it would be completely dark. We learned on the tour that Iceland isn’t actually the best place to see them, so if you’re dead set on this experience, I recommend checking out northern Norway, Sweden, or Finland, which are all within the Arctic Circle.
31. Pour your own pint of Guinness in Dublin
I’m not a big fan of dark beers, but when in Dublin, visiting the Guinness Storehouse is a must. While I didn’t really like the “self-guided tour,” which basically just means you have to walk through and read everything yourself, getting to pour my own pint of Guinness was the best part of the experience. I never knew there was such a science to it, starting with a 45-degree pour, then waiting 119.53 seconds for it to settle, and then another pour pushing the tap away from you to get the perfect foamy head. I’m all for a hands-on experience, and the Guinness tasted even better knowing I put the work into it myself.
32. Take a dip in one of Germany’s mountain lakes
I really started to miss the beach after living in Germany for three years, but one thing I did appreciate was the inexplicably clean waters of its lakes in the alpine region of Bavaria. The water is cold, but in the summer, it can still get hot enough that you may want to swim. I really like the Walchensee (“see” actually means “lake” in German) because of how scenic, yet quiet, it is, but there are tons of lakes south of Munich to check out. The Eibsee at the base of the Zugspitze, Germany’s tallest mountain, is also stunning, though it wasn’t warm enough outside for a swim when I was there.
33. Enjoy the View of Toledo
I saw El Greco’s “View of Toledo” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art years ago, and when I stood at the Mirador del Valle overlooking the entire town, I understood his inspiration for the painting. The landscape is straight out of a postcard. I visited this medieval Spanish town from Madrid, taking the train for the day, and it taught me the importance of exploring beyond the big cities. Spain’s capital was cold and underwhelming, while Toledo was warm and filled with history and culture. My favorite part of the day was my visit to the Cheese Museum, where I got a sampling platter of cheese with a glass of wine for only €4.
34. Delight in a life of luxury on the French Riviera
Nice, a city on the Mediterranean Sea, is a ritzy metropolis, so perhaps that is why I loved it so much. It had the architecture and colors of Italy’s towns with the classiness and cleanliness you expect from France. We did a day trip that took us to several towns along the coast, including Eze, a stone, hilltop town, Cannes, and Monaco, the second smallest country in the world by area. I could just feel the wealth as I walked Monaco’s unbelievably clean streets; it was like a utopia. We went inside Monte Carlo and gazed at the luxury yachts in its harbor. In Cannes, we walked along the sandy beach with fancy hotels lining the street. For people like my mom and I who don’t care to spend a lot of money, you don’t have to shell out anything extra to enjoy this atmosphere; Nice is still comparable in price to other cities in France as far as meals and Airbnb costs.
35. Take a train ride through the Postojna Caves
I went to at least five different caves/cave systems while I was living in Europe, but the most unique experience was riding a train 15 minutes and three kilometers into Slovenia’s Postojna caves. I felt like I was at Disney World, except the set of the ride was actually real! It’s fun for kids and adults alike as it takes you through various lit rooms exhibiting the natural wonder. I somehow no longer have the video, so please enjoy this dimly lit photo instead!
36. Soak in a thermal bath, or beer, in Budapest
Budapest is one of my favorite cities, and the best thing to do there is to relax in their thermal baths. Széchenyi is the most popular complex with tourists, and they have a beer spa within the beautiful bath house. The ticket to the beer spa includes entry to the Széchenyi complex, use of a changing cabin, a 45-minute soak in the ingredients to make beer (hops, malt, barley) that have their own health benefits, and a tap for unlimited beer during those 45 minutes. It’s a great deal and a must-have experience for beer lovers.
37. Monkey around in Gibraltar
Brits seeking sun aren’t the only residents of this UK territory on the south coast of Spain. Around 300 Barbary macaques live on the Rock of Gibraltar in five different families, called troops. The species appears to come from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, just across the Strait of Gibraltar, though how exactly they got to Europe is still uncertain. The monkeys’ home, then nature reserve at the top of the rock, is open to visitors, however, it’s important to keep in mind they are wild animals, so they do get aggressive over food (no feeding them!!) and when they feel threatened by a human, so don’t get too close!
38. See The Last Supper in Milan before it deteriorates
I wouldn’t call myself an art buff, but there is something extra moving about seeing an iconic painting in person. I saw Guernica in Madrid and The Birth of Venus in Florence, but the most spectacular was The Last Supper. Leondardo da Vinci painted the scene on a wall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie Church in the 1490s, but the painting has been deteriorating ever since due to humidity and other environmental factors, including a bombing during World War II. Restoration attempts have been mostly unsuccessful. You can only see it if you go as part of a tour, so be sure to book your tickets ahead of time because slots do fill up.
39. Roam among the stones at Stonehenge
Stonehenge is one of the greatest mysteries of the world, but you can’t really comprehend just how large the stones are until you are walking among them. Most visitors will only see the rocks from a distance, but we booked a day tour that allowed us to go off-path and walk all around the inner circle. The stones are certainly much larger than I had imagined, so their formation is even more mysterious. We went at sunrise, but it was fairly cloudy. I can’t imagine how beautiful it must be on a clear day.
40. Celebrate Christmas in Prague
My mom and I decided to get away for our first Christmas in Europe because we didn’t have any family to celebrate with, and we chose Prague for its beautiful markets. The Old Town square came to life with the decorations of each stand and the smell of trdelnik (chimney cake). I appreciated the large Christmas tree as the centerpiece of the display. There was also a smaller market at Prague Castle. Overall, I thought it was a beautiful city that I would recommend for visits year-round but especially in December.
41. Climb the Eiffel Tower
If you’re reading this and haven’t dreamed of seeing the Eiffel Tower, you’re probably lying. It is a symbol of France known all over the world, so when I saw it for the first time in person, my heart jumped. I recommend going to the top for 360-degree views of Paris and just for the experience. For those who don’t like stairs, there is an elevator going all the way up, but my sister and I welcomed the challenging climb to savor every step of this once in a lifetime experience. Note: you don’t actually climb to the very top, but instead go about halfway up and then catch an elevator the rest of the way.
42. Revel in the beauty of Santorini
The white houses and blue domes of Santorini are the first thing I think of when I think of Greece. We went as part of a cruise when 5 other cruise ships were already docked, so the two main cities, Oía and Thira, were extremely crowded. Seeing the beauty of these towns is still a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I’m glad I had, but I recommend going about it differently. Staying overnight ensures that you can get out and sightsee (and capture your Instagram photos) before the tourists flood in from the sea. I’ve also heard of amazing day cruises around the island, or even sunset sails, that would avoid the chaos on land.
43. Stroll the South Bank in London
London is a gigantic, busy city with tons of nice outdoor spaces to enjoy a [rare] sunny day. My favorite way to appreciate the skyline is by walking along the south bank of the Thames River, starting from the London Eye with a perfect view of Big Ben and following along until you reach Borough Market, a good finish line for people who may be hungry after the walk. There are tons of photo opps as you pass the Tate Modern (which has free entry if you want to stop in and enjoy art or their observation deck), the Millennium Bridge (made famous by Harry Potter), and St. Paul’s Cathedral across the river. Borough Market is located under London Bridge, and from there you can also see the skyline of the tall skyscrapers in the central business district.