The 10 Best Western European cities to visit focus on all the positives each city mentioned has going for it. Those positives include the city’s ambiance, culture, and the local population’s hospitality rating. What makes the difference between a good city to visit and a great city to visit isn’t necessarily about the commercialized tourist attractions. It comes down to how appealing the city is between its impressive architecture, dedication to its local impact on the environment, and how well the tourists are treated when they come to visit. The city’s overall safety score also plays a factor as tourists want to be assured they’re going to feel safe when they embark on a vacation, no matter where it is in the world. The cities mentioned in this article have the most going for them, not only as the best places to visit but the locals may argue the best places to live in as well.
10 Best Western European Cities to Visit
#10 – Lyons, France
The highlight of Lyons, France, is the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere as it overlooks the city from its tallest hill. It was built in the late nineteenth century to honor the Virgin Mary as it demonstrated the city’s wealth. The neo-Byzantine basilica has since become the official symbol of Lyon. This church is referred to by the local population as an upside-down elephant as it has a large rounded body and four main towers that look like legs. Inside the church, you find it lavishly decorated with stained glass and mosaics.
The crypt of Saint Joseph is here, along with a museum of sacred art. Fourviere Hill is one of the best places in town to obtain a panoramic view of its cityscape. You will also find the underground Gallo-Roman Museum, an archeological splendor that was built into the side of Fourviere Hill. This was built as a means to preserve the archeological site above. Upon entering this incredible museum, you will descend to a concrete statue that will lead you to the discovery of statues, tablets, and other ancient artifacts from when Lyon belonged to the Roman Empire as Lugdunum.
There are two large windows cut out of the hillside to allow visitors to observe the Roman ruins sitting next door. While inside this museum, you may feel as if you stepped back in time to when the Romans ruled the world. The infamous Circus Games Mosaic is the only ancient representation of a chariot race still in existence. The influence of Ancient Rome is also felt at the Grande Theatre and the smaller Odeon next to it. These were sites that date as far back as 15 B.C., serving as the center of the city while it was still under the ruling thumb of the Roman Empire. These are the oldest Roman structures of their kind in France. On an annual basis, cultural events are held here, including the summertime festival, Nuits de Fourviere.
When touring the Old City, you’ll find passageways known as traboules. Starting in the fourth century, these were built for merchants who could travel throughout the city of Lyons unseen. Nowadays, they’re walkways open to the public that allow a more in-depth view of a city rich with so much history and culture. You may have to duck through the entrances tucked between local businesses but you will find yourself in a world that feels completely different than the modernized one we live in today.
While visiting Lyons, visit Croix-Rousse if you want to see first-hand why the city is considered Europe’s silk production capital. You will come across canuts, (known as silk workers) that still continue the fine craftsmanship of putting scarves and ties together at a quality level you won’t find anywhere else. When visiting the Maison des Canuts Museum, you will learn more about the silk industry’s history as you watch the weavers use the same techniques that were used back in the fifteenth century.
Did you know the birth of cinema as we know it began in Lyons, France? The Lumiere Brothers invented the camera that doubled as a projector back in the 1890s, which drew in massive crowds to theaters at the time. The Institut Lumiere is a museum completely dedicated to the history of cinema, daily film screenings, and the October Lumiere Film Festival. In 1895, the Lumiere Brothers shot Employees Leaving the Lumiere Factory, which many movie historians regard as the first real motion picture ever filmed.
# 9 – Zurich, Switzerland
The capital city of Switzerland is Zurich. This is also the international capital of banking and finance as the wealthiest people and corporations have their Swiss accounts nestled here. It is also a major tourist attraction, thanks to the scores of art galleries, museums, and the incredible combination of manmade and natural scenery. If you’re looking for a city loaded with fascinating architecture, culture, and history, Zurich is it. This was already a city long before the ancient Roman Empire discovered it and its current landscape is graced with an impressive collection of churches, museums, and theaters. There is also Lake Zurich, a favorite hangout for locals and visitors alike, as well as the Swiss Alps. The Old Town is where the Romans settled when they took over the city. When venturing into this part of Zurich, you can feel the echoes of the past as you take in the view of the ancient architecture and the artifacts that have been carefully preserved for at least a thousand years and longer. While in Zurich, don’t pass up a hike on Uetliberg Mountain. This is a magnificent experience that should be on your bucket list of activities to do as a visitor.
Zurich’s native language a German dialect elated among its four hundred thousand plus residents living within its city limits. The metropolitan area sits at about two million. This is a major traffic hub for airplanes, automobiles, and trains. Over two thousand years ago, Zurich was founded as Turicum by the Roman Empire. Long before this, it was inhabited by settlers who once upon a time called it their home as well. You learn all this while visiting the impressive collections it has, namely the Kunsthaus and the Swiss National Museum. If you’re into theater, Schauspielhaus Zurich is considered one of the most important in German culture.
# 8 – Salzburg, Austria
If you’re looking for a storybook-style city loaded with culture, Salzburg, Austria is it. This is also a city dedicated to the church as there are loads of buildings dedicated to God located throughout. The city is small with a population of about one hundred and fifty thousand people as it comfortably sits at the foot of the Alps. This should be your clue in the natural scenery surrounding Salzburg is part of the charm that makes this city so great. If you’ve ever heard of a certain musical artist known as Mozart, this is the place he called home. The staging of several Sound of Music sites is also in this city. If you really want to get to know Salzburg, this is how you do it.
The old town, along with the original Baroque architecture, has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. While in Salzburg, be sure to check the ancient Hohensalzburg Fortress, which has a history going as far back as 1077. There are also the natural wonders of the city’s ice caves, salt mines, and the fast-flowing Salzach River that add to the beauty of this city which feels more like another world than simply an urban development. If green is your scene, the Mirabel Garden would definitely be worth checking out. There is also the splendor of shopping at Getreidegasse Street.
Part of the challenge Salzburg faces is adding contemporary design as part of its cityscape that is dominated by its Baroque architecture without losing UNESCO’s World Heritage Site status. They have been able to do it, but the main draw that tends to have tourists out-populate the locals from time to time sits with the city’s historic center, as well as its collection of churches and theaters. Among shoppers, Getreidegasse is a major favorite, packed with busy stores as they’re characterized by the high townhouses along its narrow street.
# 7 – Lucerne, Switzerland
The beauty of Lucerne, Switzerland, can be contributed to the lakeside setting it has, as well as the Medieval architecture, and the snow-capped backdrop that amplifies the city and its surroundings so beautifully. For snow bunnies, Lucerne is the “it” city to have some fun in the Swiss Alps. Located in central Switzerland, Lucerne is located on the shore of Lake Lucerne and is surrounded by Pilatus, Rigi, and Staserhorn mountains. The raw beauty of Lucerne alone is what draws millions of visitors to the city each year.
The Reuss River cuts through the city, which drains into the lake, so the city’s landscape features a number of bridges, including the most popular Chapel Bridge. This wood-covered bridge is considered to be the oldest of its kind in Europe. Inside this bridge are paintings that illustrate the history of Lucerne. There is also Museghmauer, the will that was built in the city in the fourteenth century as a means of protection from the enemies it had at the time. The twin towers of the Church of St. Leodegar are an iconic part of the cityscape, as are the Swiss watch shops. Although in Switzerland, the majority of the locals speak German, which is the language primarily used throughout Canton, the province Lucerne belongs in. There are about eighty thousand people who call Lucerne their home.
# 6 – Vienna, Austria
Vienna, Austria has been a favorite destination for tourists, drawing in millions of visitors year after year. The incredible architecture, along with the historic palaces, are definitely worth the visit as you get swept away with the best this wonderful Western European city has to offer. While here, be sure to check the Opera. Also, if you’re a fan of coffee, you’re in the right place as Vienna has an entire culture dedicated to this infamous hot beverage.
The beauty of Vienna has often been captured in film and television and is regarded as one of the most romantic cities for honeymooners to start their lives together in wedded bliss. As dedicated as Vienna is to its colorful history, it’s also dedicated to keeping up with the trends of today. The mix of both worlds is what continues to make Vienna so popular. The infamous Danube River flows through Vienna, serving as an entryway between Western and Eastern Europe for centuries. Whenever Austria is captured by the camera, the colorful collection of its historical architecture gracing the shoreline of the Danube is what’s featured the most often. However, there is more to this city of approximately two million people than its most famous landmark. The legacies of Beethoven, Gustav Klimt, Mozart, Schubert, and Strauss are profoundly felt here.
The first evidence of settlement in Vienna dates around 500 BC when the Celts arrived. In 15 BC, the Romans built it as a fortified frontier city named Vindobona. It was used to guard the Roman Empire against the Germanic tribes to the north. Despite the Roman rule, Vienna maintained its connection with the Celtic. As dynasties have come and gone, Vienna remains with so many stories to tell through its architecture and museums that have kept track of it all. Since the beginning, the demographics of Vienna have made it a hot spot for visitors and new residents alike.
# 5 – Brussels, Belgium
When visiting Brussels, Belgium, doing so without checking out the small historic city of Bruges is a must. This has been designated as the crown jewel of Belgium as it receives the most amount of tourist traffic, year after year. From the summer season to Christmas, this is the “it” place to go as you wander about the cobbled streets. Be sure to make the most out of your visit to Bruges by indulging in the beer and waffles as a wonderfully delicious way to get a taste of what makes the iconic Belgian waffles so special. While in Bruges, check out the Bruges Belfry.
As for Brussels specifically, this is the capital city of Belgium that sits smack in the middle of a nation with a population count of over one million people. There are well over two million people who live in the metropolitan area. This city started out as a rural settlement along the Senne River before becoming one of Europe’s most important cities. After the conclusion of World War II, Brussels has become the favorite destination for international politicians to swarm in from their respective countries to meet. On an official scale, Brussels serves as the de facto capital of the European Union. Originally starting out as a Dutch-speaking city, Brussels became a bilingual city after the immigration of French-speaking residents had its population outnumber the original inhabitants. Now multilingual, English is spoken as a second language in Brussels.
Brussels’ recognition by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site is credited to its Atomium, Grand-Palace/Grote Markt, and Manneken Pis. There are also key cultural landmarks such as La Monnaie/Du Munt and the Museums of Art and History. The history of the city dates as far back as the Stone Age. It was also occupied by the Western Roman Empire before it became the property of the Frankish Empire. In 977 AD, the city’s first permanent fortification was ordered to be built by Duke Charles of Lower Lorraine. Charles was the brother of King Lothair II, ruler of Lotharingia. This was a short-lived kingdom belonging to the Carolingian Empire, which belonged to the Frankish Empire. Since being founded as a city, Brussels continues to make history, as well as attract visitors from all over the world.
# 4 – Munich, Germany
The capital of Bavaria, Germany is Munich. This is the home to the infamous Oktoberfest which has become one of the world’s favorite opportunities to take in good food, good beer, and good entertainment. However, the rest of the world doesn’t quite compare to how the locals in Munich do it. Some travel guides suggest avoiding the city during Oktoberfest as it does indeed become an extremely lively, crowded place during that time. Among visitors opting for a quieter visit to take in the sites, it’s recommended to visit Munich anytime between the spring and summer. During this time, you can enjoy the city’s history with the wealth of museums scattered throughout the city. You can also take advantage of the food markets, as well as the city’s infamous beer halls. You don’t need to wait until Oktoberfest to enjoy Munich.
As a city, Munich was first established as a city in 1175. The naming of this city came from Munichen, which means “by the monks” in the German dialect. The city’s coat of arms features the image of a monk on it. According to archaeological findings, Munich’s settlement connects to the Bronze Age, then the Celts moving in during the Iron Age as a settlement. During World War I and World War II, Munich was not an easy place to live. Visitors who come to this city now have access to learning about its history. This even includes historical events that have taken place since then, even leading up to today. The current population of Munich is over one million people and it’s metro population sits at about six million. This is a very busy city, loaded with locals and visitors.
# 3 – Amsterdam, Netherlands
Among many travelers who’ve been to Western Europe, Amsterdam, Netherlands is often one of the cities referred to as the best to visit. Between the beautiful canals and magnificent displays of its architecture and whatever treasures the museums hold inside, Amsterdam has so much going for it as the ultimate destination as a tourist attraction. The vibrance of its culture is also something to behold. Even for a big city, it is remarkably laid back. If you’d rather have a more lively experience in Amsterdam, the Red Light District would be the place to go for that. However, among the romantics who’d rather stay away from the district’s unorthodox approach to tourism, the canal-side rambling would be a top choice, especially at twilight.
Be sure to take in an Indonesian meal while in Amsterdam as this is a tasty experience you likely won’t forget anytime soon. There are also boutiques gracing Nine Little Streets, a shopping paradise for locals and tourists who can’t resist the bargains and trends found there. When visiting the maze of canals belonging to Amsterdam, try to visit the historical home of Anne Frank, a survivor of the Holocaust that claimed the lives of millions of imprisoned Jews by Nazi Germany in the events leading up to and during World War II. This is an emotional experience but a valuable one, helping you as a visitor understand how history really went down and not some of the popular beliefs currently being told by people looking to alter the history books. Amsterdam is one of the most liberal cities in Europe but hasn’t forgotten its roots or the rest of its history as a city.
Fans of fine art will no doubt be interested in the expressionism of Vincent van Gogh. No other city displays his works as wonderfully as Amsterdam. What’s great about this city is the ability to cater to every visitor type, regardless of age and personal preferences. There are over nine hundred thousand residents living in the city limits while the metro region has over two million people as part of its population. The founding of Amsterdam itself made reference to its location along the river bank.
Starting in the late tenth century, the earliest settlement of Amsterdam began with farmers who lived more inland and upstream but accessed the banks of the river’s mouth. Amsterdam was first recognized as a city going into the fourteenth century by the Bishop of Utrecht. The pilgrimage of Amsterdam witnessed ninety thousand people pour into the city during the heyday of the Stille Omgang and the Protestant Reformation. Like most European cities, Amsterdam isn’t without its fair share of history that’s seen conflict and wars erupt that would eventually turn it into the city it is today. What makes cities like Amsterdam so appealing to visit is the mix of history and natural beauty that characterizes the best qualities of a city that continues to be young at heart.
# 2 – Paris, France
Most vacationers, especially honeymooners, looking to travel to Western Europe tend to pick Paris, France more often than any other city combined. Millions of visitors come to this city from all over the world. The primary reason for this is Paris has been referenced as the City of Love and is often advertised as such in more than just tourist-related commercials. In movies and television, Paris is one of the top cities chosen whenever it comes to a storyline revolving around romance.
This is also a city that has the impressive landmarks of the Arc De Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Sacre Coeur. In addition to its reputation as a romantic city, Paris is also known as the City of Light. This was because it played a leading role during the Age of Enlightenment and was one of the first large European cities to use gas streetlights along its boulevards and monuments. These were first installed in 1829. The food and drink also serve as highlights, especially when enjoying the experience from one of the city’s many bistros.
While in Paris, traveling the gentle River Seine will have you in awe as you observe the stately churches and museums. The blocks of Rococo and Neoclassic design architecture are truly magnificent as it seemingly puts you in what feels like a much better world than what we live in now. As impressive as this city’s array of buildings is, so are the cascading trees and growing streetlamps. Be sure to take a walk on the cobbled walks of the Seine and its graceful bridges. What a great opportunity to observe the city’s local culture as chic Parisians go about their business in a city that has consistently been on top as one of the best worldly cities to visit.
The long list of things to see and do categorizes Paris as a city that needs more than just a weekend to explore. In order to capture as much of the best of Paris as you can possibly take in, you need no less than two weeks to do it. Perhaps this is why many people who’ve visited Paris for the first time try to come back at least once more so that they can revisit some favorite spots while checking out what they’ve missed at the same time.
Over two million people live in Paris. The metropolitan area consists of over thirteen million residents. The Celtic subtribe, Parisii, inhabited what we know as Paris today going into the third BC century. The Romans conquered it in 52 BC and called it Lutetia. Going into the third AD century, Christianity was introduced by Paris’s first Bishop, Saint-Denis. This was the same man who was beheaded by the Roman Empire when he refused to denounce his faith as a follower of Jesus Christ. This led to the shrine, Basilica of Saint-Denis.
This is the same one that serves as the final resting place for many French kings. The history of Paris is long and extensive. It continues to make history even today as its very demographics of it heighten its importance. In WWI and WWII, it was the major hub of activity that seemed to have the world on its doorstep. It still has this level of interest today. In addition to military interests and politics, Paris serves as the ultimate influencer when it comes to setting global trends as a city. Before the rest of the world seems to hear about some new fashionable fad, Parisians usually know about it first.
# 1 – Cologne, Germany
Nestled in Germany’s northwest is Cologne. While the weather in this city isn’t always so favorable among visitors preferring normal climates, the main charm of Cologne is its uniqueness. Between the culture and the history, Cologne has far more to offer a visitor than meets the eye. It has a wonderful collection of museums that show over two thousand years’ worth of history that defined Cologne as a city that has become the apple of many former visitors’ eyes. Cologne is also filled with beer gardens which are a big part of the daily lives of people living in Cologne.
If one expects to experience boredom in Cologne, they’re in for a surprise. Cologne is far from boring. This city sits along the Rhine River and offers an incredible opportunity to wine and dine on the dinner cruises that are offered there. When visiting Cologne, be sure to take in the view from the city’s cable car. This gives you a bird’s eye view of a city, allowing you to see from above the entire cityscape, as well as its surroundings. With its seventy-five years plus history, over twenty million passengers have used the cable car without experiencing any issues. It is regarded as the safest means of transportation in the city with a flawless safety rating.
There are over one million people who live in this city that originally began its roots in 38 BCE when a Germanic tribe known as the Ubii settled there. In 50 CE, the Romans founded Cologne as Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippnensium. Under Roman rule, it was one of the most important trade centers. It also became a major community for the Jews when Emperor Constantine I approved their settlement after their temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, along with the families who became displaced from their homes at the time.
A true highlight of Cologne would be the Cologne Cathedral. The locals call it Kolner Dom and it is one of Europe’s finest churches due to its internal and external grandeur. Construction of this church took place about eight hundred years ago and it has been carefully preserved to this very day. Most tourists who visit Cologne do so just to visit this church in all its glory, regardless if they practice Catholicism or not. Underneath the church is a crypt that serves as the final resting place for former kings, emperors, and their families. If you do happen to be Catholic and wish to attend a mass, nothing beats the acoustics of Cologne’s most popular tourist attraction.
Saving the best for last, the Love Locks on the infamous Hohenzollern Bridge is Cologne’s main pride and joy as a reason for visitors to come to the city from all over the world. Among the tourists who’ve already been there, it’s also referred to as the Cologne Bridge or the Cathedral Bridge. After this bridge was constructed going into the twentieth century, it was among the many bridges in WWII that German armies blew up as a preventative measure for allied forces to enter certain communities. Cologne was one of those due to its level of importance with the Nazi Government at that time. As for the love locks, which are the main feature of this iconic bridge, it’s the padlocks that make it a must-see for anybody choosing to visit Cologne. There are many stories to tell from this extensive collection of padlocks that have been placed there by people who’ve wished to honor their lost loved ones. While many other European cities also have love bridges similar to this, Cologne’s is a true gem as a standout favorite.
There are many padlocks belonging to love locks that came from honeymooners and other couples who seized the opportunity to declare their love in the form of a padlock on a bridge that has just as many stories of its own to tell. Aside from the love locks, the Hohenzollern Bridge offers a tremendous view of the infamous Cologne Cathedral while stretching across the Rhine River. Perhaps on a sunny afternoon, take a walk along the bridge, install a love lock of your own, and take in the figurines, statues, and views that grace the pedestrian crossings belonging to the bridge.
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