From Sweden to Spain, and from France to Greece, the European continent spans 44 countries. That leaves you with a long list of exciting capital cities in Europe to visit.
You can take it for granted that any capital city showcases the best of the country’s culture, cuisine, and civic buildings. You’ll find museums, restaurants, shopping, and other attractions to keep you busy for days—or months.
Capitals also attract enough young people to drive a vibrant nightlife, cutting-edge art, and high-end fashion. Day or night, there is always something to experience, and enjoy.
Here are 12 of the most exciting capital cities in Europe to visit.
Italy’s capital surely needs no introduction as one of Europe’s most exciting cities. From literature, through music, and on to film, the charms of Rome have been celebrated for centuries.
In the Roman Forum, you walk in the footsteps of the ancient Romans. Follow their steps down to the Colosseum, the arena where gladiators once fought.
Dominating the Forum is the Pantheon, whose soaring dome inspires awe even today. Its design has influenced the U.S. Capitol, and Washington D.C.’s National Gallery.
Another Roman landmark is Castel Sant’Angelo, sitting on the River Tiber. The tallest building in Rome when it was built, it is now a museum.
In Piazza Navona, admire the statues and fountains, try some of the best food in Rome, or just enjoy soaking up the atmosphere.
And no one who comes to Rome can escape throwing a coin or three in the Trevi Fountain. Besides helping worthy local charities, there’s the promise of returning to this most wonderful of Mediterranean cities.
Aside from being one of the best cities for art in the world, the capital of The Netherlands is well known for its canals, bicycles, and cozy bars. Major sights such as the Van Gogh Museum, and the poignant Anne Frank House are must-sees for first-time visitors.
Explore Amsterdam by following one of the three major canal rings radiating from the center. Whether you take a cruise, walk, or ride a bike, you will find plenty of interesting shops, cafés, and major sights.
The Begijnhof, a hidden courtyard of 18th-century homes, is a beautiful, calm place to rest. Don’t miss the nearby Bloemenmarkt (Flower Market) in Amsterdam Centrum for colorful photos of Dutch tulips.
If you have at least three days in Amsterdam, you will also want to spend some time in the Rijksmuseum, to see Rembrandt’s Night Watch if nothing else. The Scheepvaartmuseum (National Maritime Museum) reveals more of the fascinating history of this city built on water.
The reunified German capital bears the scars of its past in plain sight. The mural-rich remnants of the Berlin Wall and the famous “Checkpoint Charlie” that served as a crossing point between East and West Berlin bear witness to that history.
At the Reichstag, tour the only parliament building in the world with a restaurant open to the public. The dome sitting atop the original neo-baroque building vividly signals how far this modern city has come in its political life.
Near the landmark Brandenburg Gate is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Better known as the Holocaust Memorial, this collection of gray, concrete blocks is an evocative sight.
Stroll along the Friedrichstraße, Berlin’s traditional shopping street, to Gendarmenmarkt Plaza. As one of the best summer destinations in Europe, you can expect open-air concerts, and in winter, a famous Christmas market.
At Museum Island’s Pergamon Museum, step back in time to see the reconstructed Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon. In the Neues Museum, the bust of Nefertiti, queen of Ancient Egypt, dates to 1345 BCE.
You could spend a week in London without even leaving the British Museum. That’s equally true of Oxford Street, recognized as Europe’s busiest shopping street.
For an overview of one of the most luxurious cities in the world, the London Eye is a good place to start. This giant ferris wheel beside the River Thames has panoramic views of the city and beyond.
From its foot, you can take a scenic river cruise to the Tower of London. Among that castle’s most secure treasures are the priceless Crown Jewels.
Even more recognizable is the mighty clock tower holding Big Ben, whose deep chimes ring out the hours. It stands on one corner of the gothic-style Houses of Parliament, the seat of both of the United Kingdom’s parliamentary bodies.
Lose yourself in Paris, the heart of the capital of romance, and of France. The city straddles the River Seine, and no day in Paris is complete without a cruise along it or a walk on its banks. Every summer, the river even has a popular city beach.
Stroll along the Champs-Élysées, one of the world’s most famous shopping avenues. It links the Parisian landmarks Arc de Triomphe and Place de la Concorde, with its 3,000-year-old Luxor Obelisk.
Walk on through the Tuileries Garden, and you reach the Louvre. The world’s most-visited art museum’s great draw is Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, with her enigmatic smile.
The most famous sight that Paris is known for, though, has to be the Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 World’s Fair. You’ll no doubt want to admire the view from the top, or capture shots of the distinctive tower from a distance.
Greece’s capital has a growing reputation for its food and nightlife, although the many Unesco-listed historical sights of Athens need little introduction.
Sitting amid the Acropolis is the Parthenon, which was built during Greece’s “Golden Age”, around 430BCE. Built as a temple to the Goddess Athena, it has been used as a Christian church and a mosque.
Find out more about the ancient Greek ruins at the nearby Acropolis Museum, which holds many ancient artifacts from the site. Highlights include the five Caryatids, with the sixth still in the British Museum in London.
Site of the first modern Olympics in 1896, the Panathenaic Stadium is the only one in the world made of marble. The original of 144 AD had 50,000 seats but was abandoned for many centuries until restored in the 1870s.
Away from history, the Monastiraki Flea Market is the place to go shopping in Athens for quirky souvenirs, and odd treasures. Amid the maze of tiny shops selling the usual souvenirs, there are some real gems to be found.
The fascinating Scandinavian city of Stockholm is centered on Stortorget, the cobbled main square with an 18th-century fountain. It’s at the heart of the Old Town (Gamla Stan), and its picturesque buildings are a delight.
Photographers will want to beat a path to Fotografiska, a photo museum that aims to elicit emotions, and tell stories. That’s also true of Abba The Museum, one of Stockholm’s best museums, where you can have fun singing along to many familiar tunes.
A more historic experience awaits at the Vasa Museum, which displays a rescued 17th-century warship. At one of Europe’s best museums, the Skansen Museum, you wander among historic houses and meet tradespeople in an open-air setting.
While in Stockholm, don’t miss impressive public buildings such as the Stadshuset (Stockholm City Hall), home to the Nobel Prize Award, or the majestic Royal Swedish Opera House. Then take a guided tour of the Royal Palace to admire some of its 600 rooms.
Denmark’s capital is regularly voted among the world’s happiest cities. No wonder, for Copenhagen is an exciting melange of canals, bicycles, green parks, museums, and great food.
The fun starts in the major central landmark of the Tivoli Gardens. This pleasure park, and amusement park, has been in operation since 1843.
The old port of Nyhavn recalls that century with its beautiful historic houses. Most are now bars, cafés, or shops that make for a popular day out in Copenhagen.
Just as historic, and even older, is the 800-year-old Christiansborg Palace, home of the Danish Parliament. Pair a tour with a visit to Amalienborg Palace to catch the daily Changing of the Guard.
You can admire the Danish Crown Jewels, and learn more about Europe’s oldest monarchy at Rosenborg Castle. It’s in the museum district of Parkmuseerne, with its six wonderful museums and three gardens.
Of the 48 capital cities in Europe, Helsinki is the second most northerly. It’s also possibly the most striking, with its Jugend (or Finnish art nouveau) architecture.
You’ll see that style at its best in the Designmuseo, or along Huvilakatu” (“Villa Street”), with its rows of multicolored houses. The earlier Empire style appears in Helsinki Cathedral, a landmark on the seafront.
The cathedral stands on Senate Square, along with the Government Palace, the University of Helsinki, and the National Library of Finland. With the Presidential Palace overlooking Market Square, these are all fine examples of this neoclassical style.
Near to Market Square is an even more typically Finnish structure: Allas Sea Pool, one of the best places to swim in the world. This marine spa has hot and cold swimming options, as well as three saunas.
There is even more excitement to be had at the Linnanmäki Amusement Park. Its rides, some of which date to the 1950s, offer entertainment for all ages.
The capital of Slovenia is dominated by Ljubljana Castle, one of the best medieval castles in Europe. Standing on a hill, surrounded by trees, it’s a handsome background to a pretty city.
That beauty is showcased in Preseren Square, named for the poet whose statue stands here. The lovely art nouveau Hauptman House and Urbanc House, are only two of the many striking buildings around the square.
Don’t miss the Robba Fountain, a masterpiece in marble and stone by Venetian-born sculptor Francesco Robba. Created around 1751, this is a copy of the original that’s now in the National Gallery of Slovenia.
Equally emblematic of the Eastern European city is the Tromostovje “Triple Bridge”, a set of three bridges over the river Ljubljanica. Among the city’s many historic bridges, they have recently been joined by the minimalist Ribja Brv footbridge.
Near the Triple Bridge is the open-air Central Market which is a foodie’s delight, with its fresh produce and food stands. There is also a fish market, and popular arts and crafts stalls.
The Icelandic capital holds about 63 percent of the country’s population. That’s a sign of just how much there is to do in Reykjavik, the world’s northernmost capital city.
Located in Downtown Reykjavik, Hallgrimskirkja—“The Church On The Hill”—is a major landmark of the city, and its design reflects the country’s epic landscapes. Ride the elevator to near the viewing deck of its 244-ft tower for panoramic views.
Perlan – Wonders of Iceland is much more than a planetarium. It holds the world’s first indoor ice cave, and an enthralling interactive exhibition on Icelandic glaciers.
The pretty white Hofdi House on Reykjavik’s waterfront is where Mikhail Gorbachev, and Ronald Reagan met in 1986. Their disarmament talks were heralded as an end to the Cold War.
One of the best things to do in Reykjavik is to take a dip in the scenic Blue Lagoon. This series of geothermically heated pools are some of the most famous in the world thanks to their setting amid a lunar volcanic landscape, the sheer novelty of bathing in the steaming water and applying a cleansing mud mask at the same time.
Tallinn has one of Europe’s best preserved medieval city centers in its Old Town. Enter through the Viru Gate to see fine buildings, cobblestone streets, and churches from the Middle Ages.
The winding streets converge on Town Hall Square, where the Town Hall’s tower is much-photographed. Cafés now line the square, which fills with regular markets, and other events.
The most notable part of the city walls is the 16th-century Stout Margaret Tower. Named for its deliberately imposing size, it is now home to a fascinating Maritime Museum.
The “onion” domes of the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Alexander Nevsky are a landmark on Toompea hill in central Tallinn. Scheduled for demolition in the 1920s as a symbol of Russian imperialism, it has survived to become a much-loved symbol of the city.
One of the best things to do in Tallinn is to admire art in Kadriorg Palace, which was built in 1725 by Russia’s Peter the Great. Now hosting the Kadriorg Art Museum, it has a wonderful collection of Western and Russian art.
But much of the joy of visiting Tallinn is simply to be found in strolling the old streets and watching the world go by from a café or cozy pub.
Read: Most Beautiful Countries in Europe
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