Before I begin with the list it is worth mentioning that I've never been to Scandinavia, Italy or Spain - I have no doubt that at least Barcelona or Rome would probably find their way onto this list, possibly even Stockholm. Also, I've only spent 2 days in Paris and didn't really have a good time, but I think a longer, more relaxed stay could make a huge difference. I've spent at least several days in each of these listed; long enough to make a list but certainly not long enough to pretend I know everything about the cities. It goes without saying, but this is just based on my personal experiences as a tourist visiting each place for a short time.
Honorable Mentions: Manchester, Munich, Sarandë
I was very ready to leave Prague by the end of our weeklong stay. Reflecting on our time there 6 months later, Prague felt magical and hit many of the right notes, the problem is that a week is too long of a visit. A week shows you that the food there isn't really anything special, the prices aren't that great (apart from draft beer), and most of the city is overrun by tourists all day long. But for just a couple days, Prague is one of, if not the best city in Europe, and for that alone it belongs on this list. Gorgeous architecture, great beer (I preferred it to Belgium), and entirely walkable, we never had to walk more than 20 minutes to reach our next destination. Waking up at dawn and marching across the Charles Bridge and up to the Prague Castle is one of my favorite memories of Europe. The city is rarely quiet and peaceful, but that morning I felt such a calmness as we walked through the cobblestone streets. It is unfortunate that waking up that early is necessary if you want to photograph much of anything since throngs of people are out and about by 7 am, but it is what it is. I'd recommend Prague to anyone for a weekend trip if they are nearby somewhere like Germany or Poland, just don't let the city overstay its welcome.
Before visiting, I fully expected to fall head over heels for Amsterdam. Beautiful canals, hippie coffeeshops, world-class museums, what's not to love? While it has all those things and much, much more, I was a bit turned off by how difficult it was to get around and how expensive everything was. Riding a tram for 30 minutes followed by dodging bikes for 10 minutes became the norm no matter where we decided to go, and food or drink tended to always be at the upper limit of what we were willing to spend. Still, Amsterdam was chock full of pleasant surprises. The quality of the food, most notably the Indonesian food, was out of this world. No one really thinks of Dutch food being any good, but this city has so many wonderful international restaurants, we never had a bad meal. All of the locals we met were very friendly, always willing to help a tourist out, which is rare for a city with that many visitors. And the coffeeshops exceeded my expectations just in terms of how much of a blast we had hanging out in them. If you ever go, make sure to get a packet of stroopwafels from the grocery store, you won't regret it.
I have heard more horror stories about Athens than perhaps any other city in Europe. Before we arrived, I anticipated always having to glance over my shoulder and brace myself for a potential mugging. While you should always be careful, especially at night, I am pleased to report that Athens is not remotely as dangerous as I once believed and is a great place to visit for backpackers on a budget. The food is excellent, especially if you love sausage, pita bread and wine as much as I do. The ruins we visited were all jaw dropping, and we didn’t even scratch the surface of what was available for tourists to go see. I can’t speak much to the bar and club scene, mainly because we would eat dinner around 11 pm and inevitably end up too full to even consider going out. I would highly recommend setting aside 4 or 5 days to explore Athens, even if you aren’t interested in the wonderful history there, you would need that much time to just try all of the food and explore the diverse neighborhoods.
No one believes me when I tell them that Tirana feels like a Cold War era communist Miami, but it really does. Albania hasn’t been a communist country since the early 90’s, but the monuments and buildings all still remain, alongside palm trees, clubs and open-air restaurants. It somehow manages to feel very 80’s, yet quite modern, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with it the more we explored. Tirana is by far the most affordable major city we visited in Europe, which allowed us to live more like we were on vacation than anywhere else in Europe. If you aren’t into Albanian food (heavy on the meat), you can still find almost any other type of European food there, with nothing over $10 per plate. I would love to put Tirana even higher up on the list, but the one thing it really lacks is any interesting sights or activities. If you are just trying to relax, eat good food and stay under $30 per day in Europe, this is the spot for you, just don’t expect world class museums or beautiful old buildings.
Before we began our Ireland adventure, I fully expected Dublin or Galway to be my favorite city in the country. While we really enjoyed our time in both of those cities, neither felt like a place I could see myself living or even spend more than a few days in. Cork, however, checked all the boxes and made me feel genuine sadness when we had to leave. We stayed at an AWESOME hostel, Bru Bar & Hostel, which absolutely skews our experience there, but even disregarding that there is so much to love about Cork. They have fantastic live music, both traditional and more modern hipster cafe jams. The food is varied and inexpensive, something we struggled to find elsewhere in Ireland. And perhaps the greatest treasure of Cork is Murphy’s Irish Stout, the answer to the question “What if Guinness was actually good?” I paid $12 for a pint of Murphy’s in Amsterdam and I had no regrets, it’s that good.
The greatest asset that Ljubljana has is that there is no single tourist sight or reason you have to visit, you are there to just enjoy what the city has to offer as a whole. Since we weren’t beelining towards tourist activities, we managed to see and do so much in just 4 or 5 days, and at a far more relaxed pace than other European cities. We spent time at the local brewery, Union, which offered a very reasonably priced tour that was our personal favorite in Europe. There’s an “autonomous social center” called Metelkova where squatters create amazing works of art in a former military barracks. There’s an enormous castle overlooking the city, along with canals encapsulating the city center from all sides. And you will never go hungry, with an eclectic mix of Balkan and Eastern European cuisine at your disposal. We loved our time in Ljubljana and couldn’t understand why it isn’t more popular among foreign tourists - I fully expect this place to blow up over the next 5 or 10 years.
I have to put London in my top five because of the sheer amount of stuff there is to do there. We spent two and half weeks there and left so much on the table, we barely scratched the surface. Prior to this trip I spent nearly a full month there and still I feel like there are large swaths of the city I’ve never even seen. I think London gets a considerable amount of flak for being expensive (fair), unfriendly (somewhat fair) and having bland food (incredibly unfair). On this trip we were able to stay at my cousin’s house in East Dulwich, completely avoiding having to pay any sort of hostel or Airbnb fees - Thank you so much Mindy, I am so grateful to have a cousin like you. The unfriendliness I think is mischaracterized; everyone is busy and I’ve only really encountered rudeness from commuters who have probably just had a shit day at work. And I’ll never understand complaints about the food, we had many both expensive and inexpensive meals and hardly any of them were disappointing. If you are eating crappy pub food every night maybe it’ll suck, but I feel like you would have to be trying pretty hard to not have a few good meals in London. It is not a place I think I could ever live, but as a tourist London is the gift that keeps on giving.
Man, do I miss Poland. Not a week goes by that I don’t reminisce about Zakopane or Krakow. Krakow is a fascinating place, an Eastern European city that doesn’t possess any of the stereotypes one would typically associate with one. The whole city feels vibrant and alive, and doesn’t have any of that post-Communist dreariness that one might expect from a city in Poland. There is tons to see and do in and around Krakow, and in the case of places like the Wieliczka salt mine and Auschwitz, places you can’t experience anywhere else. I don’t think Polish food is for everyone, but as someone who grew up on it from my Polish grandparents, I couldn’t get enough of it. And the number one reason Krakow has a firm stranglehold on my heart: the bakeries. You haven’t lived until you have raided a fresh Polish bakery, trust me on this. Babka, kremowka, krowki, paczki, how is it is all so damn good?!
This city was the most difficult one for me to rank because I just don’t have enough supporting evidence that justifies it being so high. But this is my top 10 and I don’t really care what the evidence is, I had a kickass time in Budapest. We arrived at 5 am, after a sleepless bus ride through Slovakia, and immediately checked into the thermal baths at Szechenyi. That experience, among the fat, old Hungarian men loudly laughing at us, set the tone for the rest of our time there. Every outing was a new adventure, whether it be a haircut and shave from the most hipster barber shop I’ve ever been to, doing an Ancient Egyptian themed escape room, tasting loads of fine Hungarian wine, or meeting other tourists at the ruin bars. So many things about this city make almost no sense to me and that makes it stand out in mind as one of the coolest places to visit, I can’t wait to come back.
Berlin takes the number one spot on this list simply for exceeding the very high expectations I had for it. For a city so rich in history and culture, much of which I have had little to no exposure to, I didn't expect to feel right at home. But the opposite turned out to be true, I've never felt so immediately comfortable with a city like I did with Berlin. Cafes or craft beer bars on every corner, restaurants that wouldn't feel out of place in Old Town or Lincoln Park - I even heard far more English spoken around the city than German. I also found myself pleasantly surprised by something new every day of the week we spent there. Club Mate is the best caffeinated beverage I've ever had. The public transit is spectacular, despite having two separate train lines due to the previous separation between East and West Berlin. And even though I am not a club person, the clubs in Berlin provided us with some of the best night's out we've ever had. What an incredible place, I only wish I was cool enough to live there.