The Prettiest Cities In Europe
With more than 800 to pick from, whittling down Europe‘s most eye-catching cities is no easy task. Beauty may well be in the eyes of the beholder, but these 10 European cities all stand out for their picturesque architecture, history-stitched streets and ridiculously photogenic settings. From the old classics to a few more off-radar treasures, here are our favourites worth adding to your future travels list…
With its shiny limestone streets and hotch-potch of medieval, renaissance and grand baroque architecture, lost-in-time Dubrovnik – one of Europe’s best-preserved walled cities – has a cinematic beauty to it. From the ramparts of the UNESCO-protected, terracotta-hued Old Town, views peek down to pine-studded pebbly beaches (a honeypot for sun-seeking locals) and boats bobbing in the harbour – making this the perfect city break with a slice of sea too. It’s easy enough to check off the main sites in a weekend, so linger for a few more days to island hop around the sleepy nearby Elafiti Islands or explore Lokrum, a pretty islet and nature reserve within kayaking distance of the shore. Both spots are mercifully removed from the madding cruise ships crowds – which, in high summer, can sometimes become a bit of a blot on the Old Town’s beauty.
Norway isn’t short of beautiful scenery, but Bergen, ringed by snow-capped peaks, glassy fjords and wild islets, parcels up a little bit of everything that makes the country so beguiling. Despite being Norway’s second largest city, it has a toy-town charm, crammed with colourful gabled houses stretching out along the historic wharf, steep, narrow streets and white-painted wooden buildings hugging the misty hillside. For the best views, ride the funicular up to the top of Fløyen, one of the city’s seven mountains – it’s the jumping-off point for hikes through pretty pine forest and around icy lakes. Getting rained on is a given (Bergen has been crowned one of Europe’s wettest cities), but there’s a wealth of art galleries, museums and a world-famous fish market to duck into if you ever need to run for cover.
Lisbon‘s been having a moment for some years now. And it’s easy to see why so many fall for this colourful Portuguese city, packed with beautiful old buildings painted in warm ochre and blushing pink, grand façades lined with glossy azulejos and elegant rococo squares draped in blousy bougainvillaea. This is Europe’s second oldest capital (after Athens) and history resonates everywhere – from the tapestry of cobbled streets to the ramparts of São Jorge Castle, the most distinct feature on the city skyline. By far the most fun way to explore is by hopping on a canary-yellow tram; if you ride just one, make in number 28, which trundles through some of Lisbon’s most beguiling ancient barrios. You’re never short of views here either – best sucked in at sunset from one of the many lookout points, when that famous Lisbon light bounces off terracotta rooftops before sinking behind the seven hills cradling the city.
It’s hard to ignore the high-rises gobbling up the distant horizon as you fly into Tallinn – yet this under-the-radar Baltic gem is the absolute antithesis of the grey former Soviet city you might expect. The real jewel of the pocket-sized Estonian capital is the absurdly photogenic Old City, where pastel-pink houses wrap around the main square, grand Gothic spires and crenellated castle turrets stud the romantic skyline and hidden alleyways open up onto medieval courtyards with extraordinary, still-intact Hanseatic merchants’ houses. Up on Toompea hill – the focal point – the Disney-esque castle provides a striking contrast to the black gilded domes of the Russian-Orthodox cathedral (which wouldn’t look out of place on the streets of St Petersburg). If you can, visit in winter, when a thick layer of snow crunches underfoot and the city takes on a whole new atmosphere.
History-rich Bath sits right at the top of the list of the most beautiful cities on home turf. This quietly charming Somerset town shot to fame in Roman times for its mineral-rich thermal waters, later becoming a stomping ground for well-to-do Georgians who flaunted their wealth by building the elegant streets and curvaceous crescents from buttery Bath stone. Today, it’s a picturesque bubble of cosy tearooms, artisan markets and independent boutiques, anchored around the magnificent seventh-century Abbey and gorgeous Pulteney Bridge, Bath’s answer to Venice‘s Rialto or Florence‘s Ponte Vecchio. If you’re seeking fresh country air, Royal Victoria Park is an oasis of botanical gardens, wild meadows and gurgling streams, while the pretty Cotswolds gently but gloriously unfurl along the fringes of the city.
Brimming with olde-worlde hotels, quirky bars, shops peddling chocolate and lace and art galleries lined with Old Masters, the beautifully preserved historic centre of Bruges is the real star of this canal-laced city best admired from a boat. Time seems to stand still as you float past medieval façades and romantic stone bridges, soaking up the extraordinary gothic architecture and gingerbread-like houses jutting out over the water. It’s a delightful place to wander on foot too, nosing around ancient churches, navigating maze-like cobbled streets and attempting the 366 steps to the top of the belfry – the city centrepiece and prime spot to take in the incredible views. For a change of scenery, hop on a bicycle and head out of town towards Damme, a lovely medieval canal-side village and perfect place to while away a go-slow afternoon.
No list would be complete without Paris, the poster child for beautiful European hubs. There’s a reason why such fuss is made of the city of love and lights, an intoxicating mix of grand boulevards and secret cobbled passageways; arresting architecture and peerlessly elegant gardens; world-class museums and gilded history – and of course, a clutch of the most instantly recognisable monuments in the world. There’s too much to tick off in one visit, yet one of the joys of the city is its patchwork of arrondissements, each neighbourhood its own little pocket of charm, character and beauty, from artsy Saint-Germain to hipster Belleville and deliciously bohemian Montmartre. Getting lost in Paris is part of the fun – as is stopping to soak it all in from a wicker-chair-lined pavement café, one of this place’s greatest institutions bar none.
Set along the dramatic foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Granada refuses to be overshadowed by its bigger-hitting Spanish neighbours. Awash with Andalucian charm, it’s been shaped by centuries of Moorish rule, leaving behind both an extraordinary cultural legacy and one of Europe’s most seductive monuments. Of course, it’s the mighty Alhambra palace that epitomises its beauty; an exotic hilltop tangle of citadels, colonnaded courtyards, jasmine-scented gardens and tinkling fountains. But don’t overlook the rest of this captivating city, filled with half-forgotten churches, galleries, cloisters, and the striking old Arab quarter, where traces of ancient bathhouses, former city gates and vine-draped whitewashed buildings with Moorish detailing hark back to its very chequered past.
There’s no other city quite like Venice. Little changed over the centuries, it’s a whirlwind of history, architecture, culture and art. There are plenty of big-ticket sites to soak up: the Grand Canal, surely the world’s greatest thoroughfare; glimmering St Mark’s Basilica; the Gallerie dell’Accademia with all its visual drama. But by far the best way to get under the skin of the place is by wandering from piazza to palazzo, criss-crossing over pretty bridges lined with candy-striped gondola moorings, ducking down alleys, peeking into backstreet churches and stumbling upon hidden cicchetti bars. At times, Venice risks being mired by its own beauty, so when the crowds get too much, flit over to one of the islands on the quieter side of the lagoon, such as Burano, a colourful kaleidoscope of quaint fishermen’s houses and a more authentic side of the city.
Resplendent with its twisty-turny ancient streets, worn ornate façades on butterscotch buildings and original 16th-century bastion walls, the tiny sepia-tinged, sun-drenched Maltese capital is one of Europe’s most underrated delights, sitting plum at the crossroads of the Mediterranean. But it’s not all antiquated. Since being crowned a European Capital of Culture in 2018, Valletta’s been buffed and preened to perfection, paving the way for a crop of new restaurants and funky boutique hotels delicately shoehorned into handsome medieval buildings anchored around the sparkling Grand Harbour. Best of all, it’s just a hop, skip and jump from the rest of this minuscule island’s treasures, so after a full-on morning of sightseeing, it’s an easy retreat to the blue lagoons and golden beaches for the afternoon.