Europe is and always has been a continent crammed full of incredible sights with so much beauty and history. On most people’s bucket list are countries such as France and Italy, where not only the sights are great, but the countries offer the whole package of history, lifestyle, great food, and joie de vivre.
For this article, I loosely use both the statistics from the World Population Review and the U.S. News’s ranking of the most visited European countries by Americans. This will give you the most popular spots in Europe, their sights, my personal recommendations as to what to expect, and how to get the most out of them.
France holds the top rank as the world’s most visited country with some 89.4 million tourist arrivals per year. And the vast majority of people coming to France also have a look at Paris; I mean, why wouldn’t you? Within Paris, there are two notable hotspots: The Louvre and the Eiffel Tower.
The world’s largest art museum and home to the Mona Lisa, the Louvre is a must-see for every first-time visitor to Paris. But it gets crowded. With queues snaking in front of the glass pyramid, even if you have a pre-booked ticket, patience is required. You can, however, enter via the underground entrance straight from the metro stop at Palais Royale-Musée du Louvre. Try this, preferably on a Friday night, when it is open until 9:45 p.m.
The Eiffel Tower
With roughly 25,000 visitors each day, the Madame de Fer, or the Iron Lady, gets busy. And, I get it, it is the landmark of Paris. It is beautiful, but seriously, do you need to get to the top? If you feel that you don’t want to bother beating the crowds, have a picnic on the Champ de Mars looking up at the tower. Then, climb to the top of the Arc de Triomphe and get a view of Paris with the Eiffel Tower. It is much less crowded and has more impressive views.
While Italy welcomes around 64.5 million visitors each year, it has the distinct advantage that there are plenty of other cities and sights, from Tuscany to Florence and Naples to Sicily. That means not everybody clogs up Rome, even if it is a forerunner when it comes to popularity, with the world’s best Roman sights and a city-state within its center.
The Vatican — a city-state — holds the seat of the Pope, a vast museum full of truly mind-blowing art, and a basilica whose interior makes it the world’s largest church. To see all that, and more than 1.5 million people do each year, takes time. So, you have to weigh up the time and crowds. Personally, I would suggest one early tour to beat the crowds and see the Sistine Chapel and then a repeat visit to take your time and explore all the side rooms.
Truly colossal, this Roman amphitheater’s size can work to your advantage. If you go on a tour, you tend to get stuck in all the same places, but if you go it alone or with just you and a guide, you’ll have a chance to spread out and avoid the hotspots.
There is a friendly rivalry between London and Paris as to which is the more popular city when it comes to tourists, and most of the time Paris wins. But that does not make London empty by any stretch of the imagination. What speaks against London is its size and the time it takes to travel between the main sights, but on the whole, it is not as busy as Paris.
The Tower Of London
A former palace and prison, the Tower of London is well worth lining up for, especially as it has the crown jewels inside. We have all had a chance recently to view some of these glittering gems in action. Start early, pre-book your ticket, and be patient. It is not as bad as some of the aforementioned sights, and to see the jewels, you have to stand patiently on a conveyor belt taking you past the exhibits. (Everybody gets the same amount of time to look at the jewels.)
With the new king residing in the palace, there are few and far between ways to get inside, but there are special exhibitions at certain times, making it worthwhile to book tickets. On a normal day, walk through St. James Park and feed the very friendly squirrels against the backdrop of the palace. This is much more fun.
While the best thing to do in Amsterdam is ride a bike along the canals, there are some must-see sights that require you to go inside. I suggest exploring one museum a day, especially art museums, because otherwise, it all becomes a blur, especially in Amsterdam.
Anne Frank’s House
Anne Frank’s House along the lovely Prinsengracht is Amsterdam’s most visited sight. This small house gets extremely cramped despite the timed slots and limited tickets. And, you need to plan ahead: Tickets for the museum are released every Tuesday at 10 a.m. Amsterdam Time, which corresponds to 4 a.m. Eastern Time. Tickets are available for dates 6 weeks in advance.
The Rijksmuseum And Van Gogh’s Museum
The Rijksmuseum with its Rembrandts and Vermeers is a must-see, as is the Van Gogh Museum. It is best to avoid weekends, holidays, and midday time slots. Go either first thing or opt for the last admission slot at 4:30 p.m., by which time crowds have slimmed down a little. Another trick is to become a “friend” of the Rijksmuseum and go for one of its special after-hours openings. But for that to work, your timing needs to be very flexible.
Barcelona is one of the most popular cities in Spain, so much so that locals often demonstrate against the incredible 27 million-a-year influx of tourists, clogging up the old town and the famous Las Ramblas streets. Barcelona offers not only a city full of architecture, history, great shopping, and superb food but also a beach location and access to the Costa Brava coastline. You can’t blame people for continuing to visit.
The pedestrianized strips of Las Ramblas — a tree-lined street filled with stalls and cafés linking the town center with the coast — are perfect for strolling, with occasional side trips to the La Boqueria Market, Placa Reial, or the cobbled streets of the old town. But expect to be surrounded by the rest of the world and many pickpockets. So far, I have only been once to Barcelona when none of my travel companions were robbed in some way. Please hang onto your possessions. The best time to go for a walk is around breakfast time, strolling while others are still in their hotels. The evenings, while atmospheric, are the worst for crowds and pickpockets.
Luckily, Gaudi was a prolific architect. There are plenty of his sights to see and the tourists spread out among them. Absolute must-sees are La Sagrada Familia (a still-unfinished basilica), the wonderful Casa Mila, and Park Guell. All get busy, but there are special tours available to allow you either early entry or even super-exclusive tours of Sagrada Familia and Casa Mila. While access to Park Guell is restricted to 400 people a day, booking the earliest slots at 9:30 a.m. is the best way to have some breathing space to enjoy the sights.