10 Best Southern European Cities To Visit focuses on how each city measures up regarding what makes it so inviting as a tourist destination. Between the attractions, the scenery, and the hospitality, these cities have earned a double thumbs up in every aspect. What makes a city so great often starts with the people who built it from the ground up, then welcome travelers with open arms. It also has everything to do with its history as every city has its own story to tell. Europe, as a continent, is loaded with stories that date as far back as the beginning of mankind’s timeline itself. Southern Europe, in particular, was the main hub of activity among ancient societies such as the Greeks and the Romans. For the most part, when people visit Europe as a destination, the regions decorating the northern shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea are the most commonly chosen.
Movies and television have also done a good job glorifying some of Southern Europe’s landscape, especially among the biggest cities. So many action-based blockbusters have used at least one city among the Southern European nations, as well as romantic tales, and stories loaded with suspense. They’re also among the favorites for musicians from all over the world to hold concerts. For the most part, the climate serves as one of the biggest draws for tourists as it’s not quite as harsh as the cooler temperatures further north. The cities mentioned in our list made the cut as communities that have managed to thrive as more than just a massive collection of buildings people call home. These cities each have that special something that causes them to stand out as a haven for visitors wanting the best possible city-based vacation experience.
10 Best Southern European Cities to Visit
# 10 – Athens, Greece
Once upon a time, in an era that now seems so far away, there was a city so powerful that it seemed unlikely it would ever experience a fall of any kind. There is probably no other city throughout Europe that has as many historical stories to tell as Athens, Greece. This temple city of the Acropolis was first built on a hilltop in the fifth century BC. It can be seen anywhere in Athens as it continues to grace the cityscape as a glorious reminder of an ancient culture that so heavily influenced the world. Visiting Athens without visiting Agora would be unheard of as this is one of the city’s most significant historical sites worth checking out. When the grand promenade was built for the 2004 Summer Olympics that were held in the city, this allowed visitors to check out most of the historic attractions on foot.
Aside from its historical impact as a city, Athens is the hub of activity when it comes to art and pop culture. Believe it or not, if you’re into street art, Athens is one of the “it” cities to go to see what the locals are drawing up next. This is also a city known for its incredible food and wine as its collection of cafes, restaurants, and tavernas cater to every patron, regardless of their personal preferences. Currently, Athens has over six hundred thousand city residents while the metropolitan community has nearly four million people. Imagine living in a city that has so much wealth when it comes to archaeological, cultural, historic, and scenic value.
Athens eventually settled on its official name after the Goddess of Wisdom, Athena. According to mythical legend, she defeated Poseidon, the God of the Seas, in a battle for the patronage of the people who lived there. The king of Athens at the time, Cecrops, served as a judge to determine which deity offered the Athenian population the better gift. According to that legend, Athena gave the Athenian Greeks their first domesticated olive tree.
The timeline of ancient Athens comes with a flurry of discoveries and advancements made by a people who thrived as a culture embracing science. Despite all this, the city itself underwent a series of name changes, even going into the medieval age. Under Ottoman Turkish rule, it was referred to as Atina. Today, it’s now referred to simply as Athens. The first known human presence in the city starts with the Cave of Schist, possibly dating as far back as 11 BCE. For at least the past five thousand years, people have called Athens their home, mainly the Mycenaeans. Acropolis was the site of one of the civilization’s main fortresses. Its remains can still be seen from sections of the Cyclopean Walls.
Going into the 1970s, Athens became a toxic shadow of its former self. The pollution levels had a devastating impact on ancient architecture, as well as the local population. Starting in the 1990s, this began to change as city officials, locals, and global environmental groups took the initiative to clean the city up. While there is still room for improvement, the dedication poured into Athens has turned it into one of the best cities to visit in Southern Europe. If this wasn’t the case, it wouldn’t be attracting millions of tourists each year. Furthermore, in order to host the 2004 Summer Olympics, Athens needed to be up to par as an environmentally safe enough city to do it. The city succeeded in that goal and continues to make strides as a contributor to the positive direction nations are taking as they battle climate change.
# 9 – Dubrovnik, Croatia
One of the most beautiful cities to visit in Southern Europe is located in the southern part of Croatia. Dubrovnik offers a magnificent view of the Adriatic Sea, as well as all the scenery that surrounds the city. The old-town vibe of Dubrovnik makes a visitor feel like they’ve stepped back in time to another world. If you want a city loaded with a mix of adventure and romance, this is it. The massive stone walls that encircle Dubrovnik are nothing short of awesome.
Their history dates as far back as the sixteenth century and plays the contributing factor that makes this city feel so old-school. Also adding to the yesteryear feel is the old architecture that is so well preserved. Be sure to visit Gothic Rector’s Place, Sponza Palace, and St. Blaise Church while you’re here. There is also Placa, also known as Stradun, which was exclusively made as a limestone walkway for pedestrians. It’s loaded with some of the best shops and restaurants that are too irresistible for travelers to pass up.
Are you familiar with the Game of Thrones? This was the city that served as the show’s filming location. For years, it has been a favorite choice among film producers as they take advantage of Dubrovnik’s beauty. Aside from its yesteryear aura, Dubrovnik also has a collection of pristine beaches that add to the romance of a city that sometimes feels underrated as an ideal destination for worldly tourists. The ancient history of Dubrovnik connects to the Dalmatae’s Illyrian Tribe. Throughout the course of history, the Greeks and the Romans called it home, as well as the Byzantine.
The city walls that were discovered during a 2007 excavation revealed the Byzantine Empire had them built in the eighth century. The old basilica indicated there was a large settlement that called Dubrovnik their home at that time. The Old City of Dubrovnik is regarded by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and it is the pride and joy of Croatia’s city of over forty thousand residents.
The city isn’t big at all, at least not compared to the rest on the list but it is bursting with charm. Should you ever visit Dubrovnik, do so when it holds its award-winning annual summer festival. It runs for forty-five days as a cultural event that features concerts, games, and plays. From early July until late August, the festival livens up the city as it celebrates its independence, as well as all the qualities that make Dubrovnik so great.
# 8 – Bucharest, Romania
Should you pay Bucharest, Romania a visit, doing so without seeing the Palatul Parlamentului would seem unfathomable. This is a communist-era government building that features over one thousand rooms, 1100 to be exact, and serves as the city’s biggest attraction among tourists. It sits close to the Lipscani District, a neighborhood known for its vibrant nightlife. It too has its own collection of historical stories to tell. Another piece of history that made Bucharest the city it is today is the fifteenth-century era Curtea Veche Palace. While still on the subject of history, visiting Romania in Muzeul National al Taranului Roman museum allows visitors to view the crafts and customs of the peasants who once upon a time called this city their home. Bucharest’s quirkiness as a city makes it a favorite among travelers as it mixes history, culture, and today’s trends so well together.
Nearly two million people live in Bucharest. Over two million are in the metropolitan area. The settlement history of the city isn’t quite as extensive as most other Southern European cities. The Old Princely Court was a sixteenth-century palace that was built by Mircea Ciobanul, a Voivode of Wallachia at the time. This came approximately two hundred years after the first known settlement of the region by Vlad III the Impaler. Going into the eighteenth century, it was ruled by the Ottoman Empire before it went into the hands of Imperial Russia. Up until the Roman Revolution of 1989, Bucharest was under communist control.
Today, Bucharest has been regarded as a city with one of the lowest crime rates compared to other European capital cities. This makes this city appealing to tourists looking for a safe destination to visit, especially in a world that seems to become more turbulent by the day. Among travelers looking for a vibrant city that also happens to be loaded with Medieval culture, Bucharest is a true gem. The architectural beauty of a city that also includes Gothic Revival, Art Deco, and contemporary makes Bucharest unique.
# 7 – Lisbon, Portugal
When visiting Southern Europe, the coastal city of Lisbon, Portugal is a must. The city has a population count of half a million people while the metropolitan area has nearly three million residents. Even as a city, it has a wonderfully relaxing atmosphere. Maybe it’s the pastel-colored buildings that decorate the cityscape or the view from the Sao Jorge Castle. While at this historical landmark, be sure to view the impressive Tagus Estuary and the Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge.
While in Lisbon, be sure to visit Azulejo Museum. This is the home of decorative ceramic tiles that have a history span of five centuries. It is a national monument that tends to be one of the biggest draws among tourists. Since Lisbon happens to be a coastal city, if you want to soak up some sun and sand, definitely check out the Atlantic beaches. Don’t forget to visit Castelo de S. Jorge, Jeronimos Monastery, Praca do Comercio, and Tower of Belem while you’re here. They’re definitely worth it as attractions that are loaded with beauty and history.
That history begins with the Neolithic period as Pre-Celtic tribes inhabited the region. While there, they built dolmens, megaliths, menhirs, and monuments. Many still stand in and around Lisbon as reflections of a long-bygone era, serving as an echo of what was. During the Iron Age, Lisbon was a settlement that included the Phoenicians. Evidence of this can be found in the artifacts and displays found in the city’s museums, as well as archaeological excavations. The Castle of Sao Jorge and Lisbon Cathedral both suggest the Phoenicians resided in the area since 1200 BC.
The Iberians also called Lisbon their home, based on the sheltered harbor in the Tagus River estuary. Lisbon served as a trading post, thanks to its coastal location facing the Atlantic Ocean. From the era of the Roman Empire to the invasion of Napoleon Bonaparte, Lisbon was favored as a port city of strategic importance. It still is as Lisbon has become a favorite site for many international events. In 1994, it was recognized as the European Capital of Culture.
One of the largest music festivals in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, is held every two years in Lisbon. This festival originally began in Rio, Brazil, holding its first music festival in 1985. In 2004, Lisbon was the first city the festival took its show on the road. Although Madrid and Las Vegas have also taken part, it’s in Lisbon the festivities faithfully come back to. The only exception was in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
# 6 – Florence, Italy
The history of Florence, Italy includes the infamous Guccio Gucci and Salvatore Ferragamo as these two began their boutiques in this city, before becoming globally recognized by shopaholics around the world. Florence is the fashion capital of Italy but has so much more going for it than its trendy styles. This is a city jam-packed with fresco-decorated churches, medieval-style chapels, galleries, museums, and wonderful scenery that makes it such a delight to visit. While in Florence, be sure to visit the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Galleria Degli Uffizi, Pallazo Vecchio, and Ponte Vecchio.
These amazing landmarks are definitely worth your time as you take in the history and culture of this magnificent city. The Uffizi is Southern Europe’s biggest gallery of Renaissance work. The Galleria dell’Accademia is where David, the infamous statue made by Michelangelo stands. While in Florence, you have the opportunity to visit the tombs that serve as the final resting places of famous artists and visionaries, including Michelangelo himself. Galileo, Ghiberti, and Machiavelli are all housed in the Basilica di Santa Croce.
When in Florence, you’re in for a tasty treat with its culinary excellence. The impact of Italian cuisine has had on the world overall includes the influence of flavors that originally came from cities like Florence. If you want the best Tuscan oil Southern Europe has to offer, Florence is the city to get it. There are over three hundred thousand people who live in the city limits.
The history of Florence begins with the Roman Empire, long before it flourished during the era of Medieval times. This was the official birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. Evidence of this can be seen everywhere as Florence served as a cultural, economic, and political powerhouse from the fourteenth century to the sixteenth century. Going into the Middle Ages, it was the bankers in Florence that funded the English kings during the Hundred Years’ War. This city was the home to the Medici, one of the most important noble families in Europe, especially going into the sixteenth century.
As a city, Florence thrives on tourism. Between the months of April to October, the tourist population usually exceeds the local population. It is also the city that supposedly has the greatest concentration of art in the world as it relies on cultural tourism as the main drive to draw in visitors from all over the world. Many of the museums in the city have to be booked in advance in order to control the number of people that venture inside to view the artifacts and displays.
# 5 – Madrid, Spain
The city of Madrid has a special vibe to it that seems to behave as a fountain of youth among visitors whenever they come to this incredible city. Is it because of the monuments gracing the streets, or the impressive architecture that tells a collection of historic tales of their own? Maybe it’s the flamenco music that makes your hips want to move to the beat, regardless if you want them to or not. As a city that embraces walking as a favorite activity for its citizens, this serves as a tempting invitation for visitors to do the same. The elegance of the pathways decorates the cityscape, as do parks like Buen Retiro. This one was founded in 1631 and has remained a popular Madrid landmark since then. Don’t forget to take in the art museums, like Museo Nacional del Prado, as no trip to any European city would be complete without taking in as much of its rich culture as possible. Other landmarks worth visiting include Plaza Mayor and the Royal Palace of Madrid. The palace is a restored 1850 opera house and is one of the city’s proud landmarks which makes it so charming.
There are over three million people that live in the city limits of Madrid, and a population count of nearly seven million in the metropolitan area. It is the second largest city belonging to the European Union, just shy of Berlin, Germany. This is also the home of the World Tourism Organization headquarters belonging to the United Nations. Madrid’s infrastructure has managed to preserve its historic landmarks, neighborhoods, and streets, despite the threat of modernization constantly posing a challenge. Madrid is a city that offers the best of two worlds. For historians, the old satisfies their craving as tourists. Among the fans of today’s trends, Madrid offers more than enough to cater to their whims. For visitors wanting both worlds to blend together as one, no other city in Southern Europe can beat what Madrid has to offer. While here, make a point to visit Cibeles Palace and Fountain, one of the most iconic monuments symbolizing this city.
The history of Madrid has archaeological findings that date as far back as the Celtic Carpetani settlement. During the mid-ninth century, a fortress was built by Cordobese Emir Muhammad I, near the Manzanares River. It was one of many he ordered to be built on the border as a means of protecting his kingdom from invasion. Today, Madrid has become a more diversified city, loaded with cultural influences from all over the world. However, its Spanish flavor still reigns supreme. It also has a reputation as a city dedicated to greenery. It has the second-highest number of aligned trees in the world, sitting right behind Tokyo, Japan. Year after year, Madrid receives millions of tourists from all corners of the world. Much of this has to do with Madrid’s status as one of the top European destinations concerning art museums. This is where the Golden Triangle of Art is located, which is home to three major museums, the Prado Museum, the Reina Sofia Museum, and the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum.
# 4 – Milan, Italy
Milan is Italy’s pride and joy as the most advanced city, especially when it comes to creativity. It is also the second largest, right behind Rome with over one million people calling it home. This was also the city that served as a home for the Caesars of the Roman Empire, as well as Napoleon and Mussolini. To say this city is bursting with so much history would be an understatement. This city was a favorite among those famed rulers for a reason. Not only is Milan magnificent with the natural scenery surrounding it but was of strategic importance as a political powerhouse and a base for military operations.
While in Milan, visiting the Duomo Cathedral and Milan Cathedral is a must. The Milan Cathedral is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world that’s still standing. So is Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Quadrilatero d’Oro, and Santa Maria Delle Grazie. The architectural beauty of Milan speaks volumes, as do the art, culture, and luxuries that make this city so great to visit.
Among fans of fine art, Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco, The Last Supper, calls Milan it’s home. This is found in Southern Europe’s first public library, the Biblioteca e Pinacoteca Amrosiana. As for fans of Giorgio Armani and his contribution to the fashion industry, visit the Armani Silos Museum. Everything inside is dedicated specifically to him. As for other historical displays that illustrate Milan’s history, you will find no shortage here. From the days of the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and today, Milan thrives as a city that also passes as a living museum. It also works as a living art gallery, specializing in modernism and a futuristic concept of the world it lives in.
#3 – Venice, Italy
Hands down, what makes Venice, Italy so popular as Southern European to visit are the canals. More than one hundred islands carve this city in the Adriatic Sea as the Grand Canal serves as its own concept of the main street. There are six churches and fifty palazzi to be found here. The white and pink stone palace known as Palazzo Ducale marks the trail’s end, as well as the marble cathedral known as Basilica di San Marco. This is a massive architectural beauty that’s loaded with mosaics.
When not traveling up and down the Grand Canal, be sure to ride the smaller canals to take in even more beautiful architecture. Venice is the perfect city for honeymooners, as well as romantics. It’s also a great city for seafood fans as there is no other city that can measure up to what Venice has to offer. It’s also a city known for spices which made it a major go-to place throughout the course of time as part of a trade route. The artisan culture of Venice is unparalleled, something visitors are bound to notice while enjoying the best this city has to offer. There are so many handmade goods to be found here that shoppers are bound to find something they like enough to bring back home with them.
The population of Venice has fifty-five thousand residents living on the historical island of Venice while the rest on the mainland has over two hundred thousand people. These islands that sum up Venice are linked by over four hundred bridges that span over the canals. The shallow Venetian Lagoon is an enclosed bay situated between the mouths of the Piave River and Po River. As part of the Padua-Treviso-Venice Metropolitan Area, there are well over two million people live in the area. Venice has also been regarded as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as of 1987. It is known as a city rich with Middle Ages and Renaissance history that still has its cultural impact influence felt in and around Venice. Tourists who normally visit Venice do so to take in the art and architecture.
# 2 – Barcelona, Spain
The capital of Spain’s Catalonia region is Barcelona and it has well over one million residents who call it home. Over five million people live within its metropolitan area. As a Southern European city to visit, it is among the most popular, and for good reason. Is it the massive collection of art and architecture that brings in tourists from all over the world? That is part of it, but this is a city just as famous for its modernist style as it is for its historical significance.
The Casa Mila, La Sagrada Familia Church, and Park Guell are definitely landmarks worth checking out, each of them designed by Antoni Gaudi. These modernist styles decorate much of Barcelona’s cityscape, which makes it so beautiful. As for visitors opting to step back in time, the Gothic Quarter is the ticket to explore the city’s medieval roots. In addition to the mix of today and yesteryear as major tourist attractions, there is also the string of incredible beaches belonging to Barcelona that decorate the northern shore of the Mediterranean Sea.
No visit to Barcelona would be complete without enjoying the city’s food. This is a city that loves its seafood and olive oil, as well as the infamous tapas and Catalan cuisine that may have you forget about maintaining your waistline. When not devouring goodies at cafes and restaurants, there are also amazing food markets such as Mercat de la Boqueria and Mercat de Santa Caterina. What also makes Barcelona so appealing are some of the friendly neighborhoods. The origin of Barcelona as we know it remains unresolved but the ancient ruins found suggest it dates beyond the initial belief of 5000 BC. There are two legends that sum up the tales revolving around Barcelona. One connects with Hercules while the other suggests the founding of the city came from Hamilcar Barca, the Carthaginian general who fathered Hannibal.
Hannibal was credited as the man naming the city Barcino, despite the lack of evidence to fully support this theory. One fact that is certain about Barcelona is the influence of the ancient Roman Empire. Under its rule, Barcelona was a colony that was named Faventia. Over time, it grew to become Barcelona. In the process, it earned its own brand of independence with its own minted coins and the vast amount of resources it had as a city featuring an excellent harbor. Remnants of Ancient Rome in Barcelona can be found at the Barcelona City History Museum and its underground Placa del Rei. The Barri Gotic is a historical center that illustrates the Roman Empire’s grid layout plan while the region was ruled by them.
Barcelona was the apple of the eye among many conquerors who were so in love with the city and its location that they were determined to seize it for themselves. This happened in the fifth century when the Visigoths took it and made it the capital of Hispania. It was then briefly conquered by the Arabs three centuries later. In 801 AD, Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne the Great, took back control of Barcelona. The history of Barcelona’s role through the medieval age is well-documented in the galleries and museums, all of them worth visiting if you want to enjoy the best possible experience this city has to offer.
# 1 – Rome, Italy
Going to Southern Europe without going to Rome, Italy almost seems like a crime among most tourists. Probably no other city in the continent can honestly hold a candle to what used to be the heart of the Roman Empire when it dominated so much territory while at the height of its power. This ancient city has a history dating as far back as three thousand years ago and is bursting with majestic landmarks that continue to hold center stage as top tourist draws. The ancient ruins such as the Catacombs, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and the Roman Forum still echo remnants of the past among visitors who come to view these landmarks up close and personal.
Even as a city that has garnered so much attention from archeologists, historians, and tourists alike, new discoveries keep popping up that seem to make Rome feel supernatural as a city. As historical as Rome is, this is a city that has no trouble keeping up with the trends of today’s times as well. In many cases, it often feels as if it’s ahead of the times instead of plodding along. If you expect to come to Rome to be bored, you’re in for a surprise. There is way too much to see and do in Rome, which is why many tourists who have the opportunity to come back to this city to visit will do so the first chance they get.
Within the city limits, there are over two million people who call Rome their home. The metropolitan area caters to over four million residents in total. That is quite a population explosion since the first human occupants settled here over ten thousand years ago. At least this is the story according to the archeological findings. This is also the home to the archeological sites of Neolithic and Palaeolithic findings. Between the Bronze Age and Iron Age, the hills of the sea were topped by a village where Capitol Hill sits now. Rome became a city after a series of villages aggregated together as one.
This was arranged to increase agricultural productivity, which helped Rome flourish as one of the most powerful cities in history. The influence of Greco-Roman architecture and culture came from the close-knit ties the Romans had with their Greek neighbors. There are so many stories revolving around Rome about its true beginnings. Some of them conflict with each other to the point where it still comes up in heated debate among historians who are in disagreement with each other. Regardless of which side is more accurate than the other, the culture we know today owes its existence to the Roman Empire, as well as its most prized city, Rome.
When it comes to a list of tourist attractions that make Rome such a great city to visit, it would seem like an endless read. It is one of the most important tourist destinations in the world. Rome is an archaeologist’s dream city to visit. This is also a city especially known for its art, cuisine, and panoramic views. There is also the flurry of museums such as Galleria Borghese, Museu Capitolini, and the Vatican Museums. The dedication Rome puts into its beautification blends today and yesterday so well together that you would be hard-pressed to be less than impressed. Pretty much everywhere, Rome boasts a collection of impressive artworks, fountains, frescos, mosaics, and statues, all from different periods that make this city feel so timeless.
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