The Curmudgeon's Guide to the
Best Big Cities of Europe
by James Martin
My favorite big cities in Europe, usually...
What's the best place in Europe?" is the inevitable question asked a million times, a question as impossible to answer as "how long is a piece of string?" Imagine: if we all lusted after exactly the same place, the world would likely wobble out of its orbit from the weight imbalance. But there comes a time when the hapless travel writer must take a long gulp on his Bourbon and Branchwater and apply himself to the impossible task of telling people what their favorite places ought to be without knowing their likes, dislikes, or inseam measurements. Harumph...and so be it.
The Curmudgeon's Choice of Europe's Top Vacation Cities - From North to South
Who Should Go:
- Tourists afraid to be in a country where they don't know the language (remember not to leave anything in the boot of your car while in London!)
- Pale penny-pinching paupers without the money to fly further than the first cheap stop in Europe (they'll pay in the end--London is expensive!)
- Travelers who like strong ale and theater
- History buffs - Even American History buffs - and English lit fans
When They Should Visit: May through October, but you're liable to get rained upon anyway.
A crisp winter's day is not altogether bad, though, especially if you're planning a day out in the burbs.
Best Bets: British Museum (free), Tate Modern (if you like modern art), Victoria and Albert Museum (Decorative arts), Buckingham Palace, Westminster Palace. The list seems endless, especially if you have only a few days, as most folks do.
Up and Coming: Little Venice, St. Katherine's Dock (restaurants, clubs, cafes)
Literary figures to follow: Imagine Dickens' London as you trundle through the historic city, stopping at his house and his character's favorite haunts.
Who Should Visit:
- Lovers of Dutch Masters (artists I mean, like Rembrandt, not cigars).
- Bicyclists. It's a bike city in a flat land
- Free spirits, and those who need chemical assistance to accomplish the dream of free spiritage because they've exhausted all other possibilities
- Unfree spirits; those who believe that allowing folks the slightest personal freedom leads only to despair and the eventual downfall of society
When They Should Visit: It can rain at any time in Amsterdam, but that's not a reason not to visit this fascinating city. Off season tourists will be rewarded with enough decent weather to stick around. April-May is tulip season. Summer is good for sun worshippers--July and August is the peak season--but there's nothing like brooding off-season clouds for this photographer.
Best Bets: Munching at an Indonesian rijsttafel, wandering along the canals and through the Royal Palace, Rijksmuseum, and Van Gogh Museum. Heading off to the red light district and cafes may suit the free spirits and self-proclaimed, um, sex anthropologists (who should visit the Amsterdam Prostitution Information Center for the down-to-earth scoop) . And of course, Anne Frank's house to end it all on a thoughtful note.
Up and Coming: Reguliersdwarsstraat is the hippest street for nightlife--for a good time...try saying it three times briskly.
Who Should Visit:
- Starving artists
- Henry Miller fans
- Traditional foodies
- Anyone wondering what the fuss is all about
When to Visit: Springtime, of course! That's what they all say, anyway. Fall isn't bad either, except I'd rather be rooting around the south of France in search of truffles in the autumn. Summer in Paris isn't bad, really, the city can absorb tourists just fine.
Best Bets: Those who walk the line between starving artists, Henry Miller fans, and traditional foodies will be glad to know that the traditional literary salons are not completely dead. You'll pay more than Henry Miller did. Otherwise, the city is your oyster: hit the Louvre, gawk at the Eiffel Tower and tap your feet to some jazz in the Montparnasse.
Always an odd treat: Place Pigalle's sex museum (yes, they had--and recorded--sex way before Hefner and digicams). Then there's catacombs and sewers and all manner of offbeat Paris stuff to upon which to fritter your tourist dollars away.
Who Should Go:
- Romantic dreamers who like strolling through automobile-free streets
- Your Mother (she'll want you to take her, trust me)
- Pretty much anyone who wants to see something really different and crumbling in a pleasing-to-the-eye, romantic sorta way
When to Visit: February is when the famous Venice Carnevale is held and the weather is usually cold and foggy--perfect weather for Venice. Venice should be viewed through a shroud that blurs the tourists and the neon so that the jewel of the ancient city shows through. But then, the curmudgeon is warm blooded enough not to mind the cold.
Summer? Hefty tourists in shorts and whiny children ruin the atmosphere in the grand campos, but there are plenty of dark alleys for hopeless romantics to get lost in. Of course, you'll be perfectly thrilled in spring or early fall, too.
Best Bets: Take note of the contrast between the opulent Doge's Palace and the nasty prison on the other side of the canal. Then again, anything touristy can be magic in Venice--it's just a crazy anachronism in a precarious environment. You need to see it. No one can explain it, not even Italo Calvino.
Up and Coming: Most folks never visit the La Serenissima's maritime roots at the Naval History Museum. Pity.
Who Should Go:
- Art Lovers
- Renaissance historians and pretenders with an eye for style
- Leather Handbag Shoppers with high credit limits
- The rest of the herd, who form tight clots around other tourists, who themselves seem lost and uninspired.
When You Should Go: Spring or fall. Sane wanderers avoid summer in Florence (and the thundering herds) like the plague.
Best Bets: Yes, go ahead and see David. The disproportionate body leaves me cold, but I wasn't looking at sweet Davide from defeated Goliath's perspective--where the exaggeration would make sense to me. That's why I'm a curmudgeon, but a practical one: I like the covered market. Still, the Uffizi houses the premier collection of Italian Renaissance art, the Ponte Vecchio is the most photographed bridge (with...shopping!), and the Duomo hosts Brunelleschi's dome and Giotto's bell tower (go downstairs in the Duomo for ancient history, climb the dome for views of the city).
Who Should Go:
- Lovers of conspicuous consumption - You've got plenty of ATMs and three streets to savage--Via Condotti, Via Borgognona and Via Frattina. Good hunting.
- History and archaeology buffs - anyone who's lent an ear.
- Lovers of the irrationally rational
- Youthful music-clubbers
When you Should Go: Rome is a carnival all year long. Italians avoid Rome in August because it's hot and muggy and everybody who's anybody is away at the beach, so August isn't even high season. You'll find lodging bargains in late July and August, but demand air conditioning and thick windows. You'll thank me later.
Best Bets: Rome, like Venice is a walking city. Lots of things you've always wanted to see are free or cheap, so don't sweat the entertainment budget if you're reasonably mobile (don't throw it away, either--you'll spend it on lodging).
Up and Coming: An area in the south of the Eternal City called Testaccio is becoming a booming center of the Rome music scene in clubs dug out of a hill made up of old, busted up Roman amphoras.
Who Should Go:
- Night Owls; Madrid never sleeps
- Art Lovers: The Prado is second only to the Louvre in presenting serious art
- Partygoers - Did I mention Madrid never sleeps?
When You Should Go: Spring; days are warm and the nights pleasantly cool. Pent up demand for outside eating and drinking starts ramping up in March-April. Street life peaks in June, then slows in July and August as the temperature peaks. Autumn is also good, although you'll risk some rain.
Best Bets: Tapas in the evening, and maybe later you'll feel like eating somewhere along the Hemingway trail (maybe at Casa Botin or another of Madrid's top restaurants). Visits to the Prado and then on to the Reina Sofia--where you'll see more modern art like Picasso's Guernica--are good bets for the art lovers.
Up and Coming: Madrid's restaurant scene,
in the doldrums since Hemingway wolfed down his roast suckling
pig, is undergoing a Renaissance of its own. You'll eat
late though--things don't start moving until 11 or so in
And in Conclusion...
That about wraps up my idea of the modern Grand Tour. Hope it gave you some ideas. Don't try to do the full circuit in a week. But if you really want to get filled with information that conforms to your specifications, read How to Ask a Travel Question and head off to our forums and get some sound travel advice from people who've been there and done that--advice that we all hope fits your emotional (and financial) needs, once you tell us about them.