“Picturesque.” “Postcard-perfect.” “Phenomenally photogenic.” Pick your favorite phrase for the stunning cities below. The landscape of Europe combines with its historic and modern environments for endless eye-candy encounters. Iconic landmarks and nowhere-else views define the greatest metropolitan masterpieces. With that in mind, here are our picks for the 25 most beautiful European cities.
Balancing the world’s most iconic ancient ruins with chic, modern couture, cars, cuisine and culture, Rome is beautiful whether crumbling or current. Italy’s capital, the city of Rome pulsates with some 3,000 years of history beneath its cosmopolitan sheen. Highly influenced by the presence of the Catholic church, major sights include Vatican City, the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica. Of course, that includes the Sistine Chapel and its famed Michelangelo frescoes. On the secular side, remnants of the Roman Empire impress, including the Forum and the Colosseum.
Straddling the banks near the mouth of the River Liffey on Ireland’s east coast, Dublin excites with genuine hospitality, history and habitability. The city’s history dates to the 1200s, and today it presides as the capital of the Republic of Ireland. Testament to its ruling elite of the past, Dublin Castle is a classic city landmark, along with the massive St. Patrick’s Cathedral. For an overview of Irish cultural history, visit the National Museum of Ireland. Meanwhile, Phoenix Park offers an urban oasis of green and is home to the world-class Dublin Zoo.
Sprawling over its undulating landscape, the capital of Poland has a varied architecture to match its numerous, often-tumultuous regime changes throughout history. Gothic, Soviet and neoclassical structures meld with hyper-modern skyscrapers in the city today, creating an intricate, mesmerizing urban fabric. Ravaged by World War II, Warsaw’s Old Town was restored following the carnage, now as always enjoyed for its Market Square, replete with pastel storefronts and umbrella-shaded, al fresco eateries.
With its Baltic Sea provenance, Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, is the country’s trade, industrial and cultural hub. Behind ancient walled defenses, the city’s Old Town has quaint shops and restaurants, but retains the 15th-century tower known as Kiek in de Kok. Even older, the 13th-century Gothic Town Hall occupies Tallinn’s main square, while nearby St. Nicholas Church exhibits ecclesiastical art.
San Marino, San Marino
Cradled in protective mountains close to the Adriatic Sea, San Marino is a minuscule, independent nation completely surrounded by Italy proper. The paradisiacal locale makes for a fairytale feel in the capital city, conveniently also called San Marino, which features a medieval maze of narrow, winding lanes with hidden restaurants and shops. The best views are from the ancient guard towers and open plazas, or piazzas, which reveal sweeping sights of the serene, surrounding countryside.
The capital of Spain’s Catalonia region, bustling Barcelona bursts with art and architecture. The hyper-fantasy Sagrada Família church and other modernist landmarks designed by Antoni Gaudí can be found throughout the city. More creative masterminds are represented at Museu Picasso and the Fundació Joan Miró, both of which showcase modern art by their namesakes. Barcelona’s Roman past is revealed at the city’s history museum, MUHBA, which displays findings from several Roman archaeological sites.
Straddling Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul today reflects cultural influences of the myriad empires that ruled the city throughout history. For example, chariot races were held for hundreds of years in the Roman-era Hippodrome, today in the city’s Sultanahmet district. This major metropolis in today’s Turkey still has Egyptian obelisks, along with iconic, Byzantine-era architecture and rare and ancient Christian mosaics.
Located on Scotland’s coast, where the River Ness meets the Moray Firth, Inverness is the largest city and the cultural capital of the Scottish Highlands. The city’s Old Town features the 19th-century Inverness Cathedral, as well as the Old High Church, built primarily during the 18th century, and an indoor Victorian Market selling Scottish food, clothing and crafts. The Inverness Museum and Art Gallery relates local and Highland history.
Perhaps best known as the world’s diamond-trading nexus, Antwerp is a port city on Belgium’s River Scheldt. Its rich history dates to the Middle Ages, and at the city center are the centuries-old Diamond District houses of the thousands of diamond traders, cutters and polishers that made the city’s fame. Antwerp’s Flemish Renaissance architecture is represented by the Grote Markt, a central square in the old town district. Art lovers will appreciate the 17th-century Rubens House, which displays works by the famed Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens.
Built along the slower ebb of an elbow in the Aare River, beautiful Bern dates to the 12th century. Well-preserved architecture of the time dominates the skyline of the Altstadt, or Old Town. Towering above it all is the stately and imposing Bundeshaus, or Federal Palace. The central portion of the Neo-Renaissance building is for government assembly, flanked by two wings that are home to a library and assorted governmental departments.
London, United Kingdom
London is a perennial frontrunner for pretty cities. You might not think so, what with all the fog and drizzle and presumed gloom. Quite to the contrary, the city along the Thames River balances sometimes dreary conditions with a frenetic modernity and history dating to Roman times. Scope it all out from the London Eye, the giant, modern Ferris wheel cum urban observatory. From high above, take in the Houses of Parliament, the "Big Ben" clock tower and Westminster Abbey.
Today it is a modern metropolis known for its art and club scenes, but Berlin retains reminders of its war-torn history. Among those are the Holocaust memorial and the scarred, graffitied remains of the Berlin Wall, which divided east and west portions of the city. The city’s 18th-century Brandenburg Gate has become a symbol of reunification.
The Eiffel Tower. The Louvre. The iconic landmarks of Paris need no real introduction. Along with the famed Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Seine, they typify visions of France's capital for most of us. A world center of art, fashion, food and high culture, the cityscape of Paris itself is a work of art.
The City of Brussels is the largest municipality and historical center of the Brussels-Capital Region, and the de jure capital of Belgium. The city is well-known for its cuisine, as well as for its historical and architectural landmarks, some of which are registered as UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Grand Place, or Grote Markt, is the sprawling central square of Brussels, encircled by opulent guildhalls and two towering structures, the city's Town Hall, and the King's House, or Breadhouse building, which today houses the Museum of the City of Brussels.
Dubrovnik, in southern Croatia, is set dramatically against the Adriatic Sea. Equally dramatic are the massive, 16th-century stone walls that ensconce the Old Town section of Dubrovnik and its collection of well-preserved baroque, Renaissance and Gothic buildings. Among the highlights are St. Blaise Church, Sponza Palace and Rector’s Palace, which is now a history museum. The pedestrian, limestone-paved streets of the city’s lively Stradun district are lined with eateries and boutiques.
No wonder the city of Vienna is today such a standout. Mozart, Beethoven and Sigmund Freud were all sons of the Austrian capital, and they helped define its artistic and cultural zeitgeist. The city’s imposing and impressive imperial palaces are main attractions, including Schönbrunn, the summer residence of the Habsburg dynasty. The MuseumsQuartier district is home to historic and contemporary buildings of architectural import, some operating as galleries with works by Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt.
The historic capital of northern Italy’s Emilia–Romagna region, Bologna blows you away with ornate and ancient architecture at every turn. The sweeping Piazza Maggiore is lined with arched colonnades shading quaint cafes, while medieval and Renaissance examples include City Hall, the Fountain of Neptune and the Basilica di San Petronio.
Occupying both banks of the Danube, Budapest is the capital of Hungary. The 19th-century Chain Bridge connects the Buda and Pest districts on either side of the river. A funicular takes riders up steep Castle Hill to Buda’s Old Town. There, Trinity Square and the 13th-century Matthias Church await visitors, and the Budapest History Museum documents city life from Roman times to the present. Nearby, the turrets of the Fisherman's Bastion offer dramatic views.
When it comes to masterpieces of Renaissance art and architecture, Florence has them in spades. One of its most well-known sights is the Duomo, a terracotta-tiled, domed cathedral engineered by Brunelleschi, adjoined by a bell tower by Giotto. The Galleria dell'Accademia displays Michelangelo’s famed marble sculpture “David,” while the Uffizi Gallery exhibits Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” and da Vinci’s “Annunciation.”
Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen sits on the coastal islands of Zealand and Amager, and it is connected to southern Sweden by the Öresund Bridge. The city's historic center is home to the royal family’s Amalienborg Palace. The area also features Frederiksstaden, an 18th-century rococo district, which is known for its prime examples of the popular, late-baroque period architectural style, characterized by elaborate, ornate design.
The port city of Ghent is situated in northwest Belgium, at the confluence of the Leie and Scheldt rivers. A prominent and powerful ruling city-state during the Middle Ages, today Ghent takes its cultural cues from its influential universities and their college-town, artsy vibe. The town’s pedestrian-only center is renowned for its well-preserved medieval architecture. Among the standouts is the 12th-century Gravensteen castle and the Graslei, a row of guildhalls along the Leie River.
Prague, Czech Republic
Built along both sides of the Vltava River, picturesque Prague is called the City of a Hundred Spires. The capital of the Czech Republic is noted for its historic Old Town Square, the centerpiece of an area filled with Gothic churches and bright Baroque buildings.
Canals are the calling card of Venice. Built on more than 100 tiny islands in a huge lagoon, Venice relies on its beautiful canals as thoroughfares. There are no roads. Venice is technically in the Adriatic Sea, and its canals lead to sites such as Piazza San Marco, St. Mark’s Basilica and the Campanile bell tower, the latter offering panoramic views of the city’s classic red-tiled roofs from high above.
Iceland is a contrast of remote, rugged, desolate landscape filled with natural beauty. Reykjavik, the country’s capital, lies on the southwest coast. Set along icy waters overlooking snowy mountains, the city’s vibrant color palette offsets its stark surroundings. Iceland's largest city, Reykjavik is proud of its heritage, and the National and Saga museums highlight Viking history.
Interlaken is the crown-jewel and playground of central Switzerland. It’s name translates to “between lakes,” and it is indeed flanked by the deep, emerald-green waters of Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. The lakes and their namesake town sit in the valleys of the mountainous Bernese Oberland region, a resort paradise of pristine alpine meadows, glaciers and forest land that make for perfect hiking and skiing terrain depending on the season.