Europe offers more architecture, wine, music, fashion, theatre and gastronomy per square kilometre than any other continent. It boasts more than 700 million people, in excess of 450 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and more renowned paintings than you can point your camera at. This means heading off the main routes will still land you waist-deep in cultural treasures.
Whether you’re dreaming of climbing a Swiss Alp, soaking your toes in the Adriatic or renting a surfboard in Portugal, here are 30 ideas to inspire your trip…
1. Explore Sarajevo, Bosnia–Herzegovina
With its spiky minarets, grilled kebabs and the all-pervasive aroma of ground coffee, many travellers see this city as a Slavic mini-Istanbul.
2. Take a bath in Turkey
Nothing scrapes off the travel grime quite like a trip to a hammam. These enormous marble steam rooms, often fitted with hot baths, showers and cooling-down chambers, can be found all over the country.
3. Climb the cliff-top monasteries of Metéora, Greece
James Bond climbed the walls to one of these monasteries using only his shoelaces in For Your Eyes Only, but it was a favourite spot among travellers long before that.
4. Row down the Danube, Hungary
Rowing and kayaking are both possible on the Danube. In Budapest, you can rent boats, kayaks or canoes on Margaret Island or along the Romai River Bank.
5. Sip an espresso in Tirana, Albania
Albania’s colourful capital, a buzzing city with a mishmash of garishly painted buildings, traditional restaurants and trendy bars is better for strolling than sightseeing – but there’s plenty to keep you occupied.
Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, Kotor is Montenegro’s only major tourist spot, with tiled roofs and a clear Venetian tilt to its architecture. This is not a sunbathing destination, but there’s plenty to keep you busy.
Explore the nightlife and café culture of Serbia’s hedonistic, hectic capital – at its best in spring and summer when all ages throng the streets at all hours.
8. See the northern lights, Norway
You don’t need to head up to Hammerfest as Bill Bryson did in his book Neither Here Nor There; this celestial show can be viewed across the country (October, February and March are ideal, but the rest of winter is also good).
You can easily rent a bike and find your way around Amsterdam, but there’s really no reason to stop there. Dedicated signed trails lead you from town to town.
10. Get a sense of history in Kraków, Poland
This southern city emerged from World War II relatively unscathed, making it one of UNESCO’s 12 greatest historic cities in the world and an architectural treasure trove. It may look like a history lesson, but the city is very much alive and buzzing.
11. Spend a weekend in Venice, Italy
Venice is sinking (possibly under the weight of all the tourists), and there’s a chance the water may be knee-deep in St Mark’s Square by the time you visit. But go now and stroll around the city when the crowds are at their smallest (off season, or at sunrise), and it’s sure to be every bit as magical as you’d imagined.
12. Go wine tasting in Slovenia
Slovenia has been making wine since the time of the Romans, so it’s not surprising that they figured out how to do it well over the years. There are 14 distinct wine-growing regions to explore here.
Situated near the southern border with Serbia, this 1300-year-old architectural city gem has been lovingly rebuilt, stone by stone, since the intense shelling in 1991, and is looking better than ever.
This famous border town is not only worth a visit to pay homage to the man, but also has churches so cute you want to pinch them, plus plenty of art, pretty city squares and chocolate galore.
15. See the Alhambra in Granada, Spain
Resting majestically atop an enormous citadel in the centre of Granada, the Alhambra is a visual overload. The structure’s Moorish columns and domes and light-reflecting water basins inspire even the weariest traveller.
The most popular tourist attraction in Belgium is this entire town, the best-preserved medieval city in Europe. On some streets you feel as if you’re wandering through a museum’s thirteenth-century installation.
Louis XIV certainly knew how to live. There’s the grand entrance, endless gardens that require an army of pruners, and a hall with more mirrors than a Las Vegas magic act. It’s good to be king.
Arguably Bulgaria’s greatest asset, the beaches of the Black Sea rightfully fill up during the summer holidays. The best ones can be found northeast of Varna.
You can probably count on one hand the number of people who’ve visited Prague, and never seen the Old Town square. This 17,000-square-meter centerpiece is the heart of the city, and has been since the tenth century.
20. Be a big kid at Legoland, Denmark
The little plastic snap-together blocks have got a good deal more sophisticated than they once were, but their simplicity is still their strength, and a visit to their Danish birthplace should cap off any lingering childhood fantasies about an entire Lilliputian Lego city.
21. Wander Tallinn’s Old Town, Estonia
Often compared to Prague, Estonia’s capital is an up-and-comer on the budget travel scene, as is its burgeoning nightlife. Check out the area round Toompea Hill, where the aristocracy and clergy once lived.
Germany’s most famous spa lies in the heart of the Black Forest. Its famed curative mineral waters bubble up from thermal springs at temperatures over 68°C.
23. Surf Portugal’s Atlantic coast
Portugal’s waves aren’t in the same league as Hawaii’s, but there are enough breakers around the country to keep most beginner and intermediate surfers happy.
24. See a play at Shakespeare’s Globe, England
A reconstruction of the original open-air playhouse, the Globe Theatre in London is Shakespeare’s backyard. The season runs from April to October.
Guinness may look like discarded brake fluid, but this thick stout with a scientifically measured head of foam is worshipped like a minor deity. And the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin is the high altar.
Low-key charm, a museum of wine, and pavement cafés aplenty can all be found in the Old Town centre of Bratislava, Slovakia’s “little big city“.
27. Visit Bran Castle, Romania
Also known as “Dracula’s Castle”, this popular castle actually has no ties to Vlad Tepeş, the medieval prince associated with the vampire extraordinaire, but none of this seems to deter visitors from coming.
28. Hike Sarek National Park, Sweden
The glaciers, peaks, valleys and lakes of this remote northern park cover 2000 square kilometres. Note that the trails are demanding and best suited for advanced hikers.
This glam skiing and mountaineering resort is tied to the fame of perhaps the most visually stunning Alp: the Matterhorn (4478m).
30. Shop in Helsinki’s Stockmann Department Store, Finland
You can’t miss it in Helsinki: it’s one of Europe’s largest department stores, selling everything you need and even more that you don’t.
Plan more of your first trip to Europe with The Rough Guide to First-Time Europe.