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I’m writing about something a little bit different today, and I am thrilled about it. Someone emailed me and asked what were the must-see cities for their first time in Europe.
And, because I want everyone to get the most bang for their travel dollar (as well as fall in love with it all like I did), it took me a minute to think about.
Of course, London should be on the list, right? It’s my favorite city in the world and we were so lucky to call it home for nearly six years. And then Paris is just a short train ride away, so tack that on. But how can you miss Rome? And Florence? And Barcelona? Don’t forget about Amsterdam.
Before long, I had a 10-day travel itinerary planned out for them that had them zigzagging their way around the continent. Clearly that was a terrible suggestion and would lead to a disappointing and exhausting first trip to Europe.
I searched the interwebs to see what other people were recommending, and I didn’t like the answers. So I went back to brainstorming and created an itinerary that was truly the must see cities for their first time in Europe.
The Definitive List of Must-See Cities for Your First Time in Europe
Whether this is your first time in Europe or your fifteenth, here’s the itinerary strategy I recommend: visit one big city and explore a nearby, smaller area.
For must-see cities in Europe, I recommend these cities and surrounding regions for your first time in Europe:
- 1. London and the Cotswolds
- 2. Paris and Dijon or Il de Rey
- 3. Florence and San Gimignano
- 4. Munich and Garmisch-Partenkirchen
Trust me when I say that this is probably the best strategy for your first trip to Europe. It’ll give you a good introduction and leave you wanting more.
First time to Europe itinerary: the strategy
Most first-time-to-Europe lists will tell you to visit three cities: London, Paris, and Rome.
Let’s say you’re planning a 10 day trip to Europe — that means you have 3 days in each city (plus one day to travel home). That puts you on a tight timeline.
Add travel days between cities, and you’re really looking at two fully enjoyable days in each spot. You’ll be rushing through the city to get snaps in front of the different monuments, and collapsing into your hotel room each night.
That doesn’t sound like much of a vacation.
But picking just one city might not be the right strategy either. 10 days in London is a lot of days in London.
Why this strategy works for your must-see cities in Europe
There are a number of reasons why I love and highly recommend this itinerary strategy of visiting one big city and exploring a nearby, smaller area.
See more of the country you are visiting
First, not only do you spend less time traveling, but you also get to actually see more of the country you’re visiting.
For example, there’s more (much, much more) to the U.K. than just a nickel and dime tour of London. Heading to a mid-sized city — or better yet, to the small villages — will give you a different appreciation of that spot.
Reduced travel day costs
Second, the cost. Travel days are not only tiring, but they’re also expensive.
That quick little train ride to Paris is likely going to cost you $100 per seat. A flight down to Italy will likely cost more, depending on the season.
Add in taxis or ubers to get to and from stations with your luggage (unless you love the tube like I do) and it all just adds up. Plus, cities are usually the most expensive locations you could stay in.
I love using my rewards points (we used this credit card to book our most recent night in London), but I also love staying in cool places that aren’t very expensive. Like an old manor house in the countryside, a villa in the Tuscan hills. I mean, who doesn’t like that?
Europe at a relaxing pace
Third, it’ll likely be a much more relaxed pace and you may even return home feeling well-rested.
This has never been more important than now, with us traveling around with a toddler. Carting him through numerous big cities on one trip? Hard pass.
Four itineraries for your first time to Europe
What would your trip look like if you picked one of these countries from the list? Rest easy knowing you picked the right European cities to visit. Here are four itineries when planning to go to the must-see cities for your first time in Europe.
London and the Cotswolds
Obviously I’m biased here, but I think London is one of the most fantastic cities in the world and is a perfect way to dip your toe into visiting Europe.
They are an English speaking country, which should make an easy transition for your first trip. But though we share a somewhat common language, you are in for a cultural treat.
- Get tea at the Goring.
- Visit Buckingham Palace.
- Ride bikes through the Royal Parks.
- Take a cruise down the Thames.
Enjoy the beauty and splendor of one of the most famous cities in the world. It is truly not overrated.
Once you’ve seen the sights in Londontown, grab the train or rent a car and head out to the famed Cotswolds.
This picturesque part of the English countryside is perfect for long walks and pub visits. While it’s quiet, the beauty of it doesn’t get old. We made annual weekend getaways to the Cotswolds and I think I loved it more each time.
Stay in an inn, an old manor house, a pub (yes, many come with rooms to rent) or book a quaint Airbnb.
Paris and Il de Rey
Paris is always listed as one of the top cities to visit for a first trip to Europe, and it’s easy to see why. Between the beautiful architecture, the impressive museums, and the food, Paris is a romantic trip.
Enjoy the city of lights for a few nights:
- take in the Eiffel Tower
- explore the museums
- take a trip to Versailles
Then pack your bags and hop a train. Take a three-hour journey to the region of Burgundy and stay in Dijon, Beaune, or another town in the Burgundy region.
Spend your days wine tasting, touring the French countryside, and eating as many baguettes as humanly possible.
Or, if wine isn’t your thing, take a five-hour drive to Il De Rey, a picturesque island off the west coast of France. You can rent bikes, visit the beaches, and enjoy a top-quality seafood dinner every night.
The island is small, peaceful, and offers a completely unexpected pace after a few days in Paris.
Florence and San Gimignano
Florence rarely makes the top of the list for cities to visit your first time in Europe. Most websites will send you to Rome.
While Rome is, well, Rome and is well worth a visit, Florence is the gateway to a beautiful part of Italy: Tuscany.
Get your Italian sea legs during your first few days in Florence and after the espresso, pizza, and gelato, then walk your way through this beautiful city.
- take a tour of the Duomo
- see Michelangelo’s David
- walk the Ponte Vecchio bridge
Then, grab a car and head out to explore the rolling hills and medieval walled towns like San Gimignano.
You can choose to stay at a hotel in the center of San Gimignano or book a room at a farmhouse. The countryside is beautiful, the food is fresh, and you’ll still have plenty of historical sights to visit.
Munich and Garmisch-Partenkirchen
Germany has some beautiful cities, but my favorite is Munich. Bavaria is a beautiful region and Munich is the capital, which makes it a great city to see before you explore the rest of the region.
While you’re in Munich,
- walk through the English Garden
- head to the Marienplatz and watch the glockenspiel
- have a meal at the Hofbräuhaus
It’s a beautiful city that is easy to walk around and explore.
Then hop a quick 90-minute train ride down to Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
That can be your base for exploring Bavaria and southern Germany — and maybe do some day trips into other countries like Switzerland, Austria, and Lichtenstein.
We spent our days driving around the countryside going to Neuschwanstein Castle and hiking, with a quick day trip to Austria.
Ready to pack your bags for Europe?
Great. Take me with you. All of these locations are beautiful, culturally and historically interesting, and will leave you with memories that last a lifetime.
Jordan and I love to make our dollars stretch while traveling, especially with family.
Save on food and flights while making your first trip to Europe memorable. Download our free Don’t Go Broke Guide to Travel for our favorite travel advice. Plus, get our 3 tips for picking the right reward credit card.
Take 10 seconds to enter your first name and your email address. You will then be taken to a landing page that reminds you ever so sweetly to check your email inbox for the confirmation link. That email will then let you download the travel guide.
With the travel guide, you won’t go broke traveling with family. You’ll get home ready to save up for another trip abroad.
Erica Gellerman is a CPA, MBA, personal finance writer, and founder of The Worth Project: personal finance and family travel. website. Her work has been featured on Forbes, Money, Business Insider, The Everygirl, The Everymom, and Lifehacker. When she's not writing about personal finance you can find Erica exploring Europe from her temporary home base in London.
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