With its sophisticated culture, rich history, and abundant beauty (both natural and man-made), Europe offers satisfying experiences for every type of traveler—your greatest challenge is narrowing down your choices from among so many options. Looking over the categories below can help bring focus to your trip; you can also get a sense of which countries are best for which experiences by looking for the "Top Reasons to Go" under each countries "Features" sections in our destination guides.
Step Back in Time: Experience History
When you travel to Europe, it can feel as though you’re entering a time machine—history stretches back for thousands of years, and its remnants are found everywhere. For Europeans, 1776 seems like yesterday. They think nothing of living in 500-year-old houses, strolling along thousand-year-old streets, and passing between columns where Aristotle and Julius Caesar once roamed. Many of Europe’s historic structures were built to impress; there’s no book learning required to feel a sense of awe when you enter the Alhambra in Granada or St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Nonetheless, a little knowledge goes a long way. The descriptions found in our destination guides will give you an overview of each sight’s essential facts and historical highlights. The amount of further study you can do is nearly limitless. Some travelers enjoy zeroing in on one particular sight from their itinerary, researching it in depth before they leave home, then dedicating a day (or more) to exploring their chosen destination. If research isn’t your thing, you might instead try hiring a tour guide—a good one can bring a pile of ancient stones to life.
Drink Up: Best Wine and Beer
In much of Europe you’ll find wonderful wine: France, Italy, and Spain are top producers, in terms of both quality and quantity. You don’t have to be a connoisseur or a big spender to enjoy a good bottle. The first rule of thumb is to drink what’s made locally. Whether you’re in Chianti or Bordeaux, there’s nothing quite like sipping a wine produced from the surrounding vineyards. It’s a fortunate phenomenon that the places in Europe not known for their wine often make great beer. Belgium, Holland, Denmark, England, Ireland, the Czech Republic, and Germany (no slouch in the wine department itself) all turn out exceptional brews, from crisp pilsners to sturdy stouts. Whether it’s beer or wine, Europe has set the standard for the rest of the world.
Getting Around: Hike, Bike, and Drive
Europe’s greatest treasures aren’t all found in museums and palaces. Natural beauty is abundant and diverse, from the soaring peaks of the Swiss Alps to the craggy shores of Ireland's Ring of Kerry. And on the whole, getting out into nature is easier in Europe than anywhere else in the world. Hiking trails are everywhere, and they're usually maintained with care. Exploring by car curtails your access to a degree, but you can still wind through forests and scale mountains on Europe's excellent network of roads and highways. Bicycling is a popular way to tour both town and country. You can rent bikes by the hour, the day, or the week, either going it alone or joining organized excursions. Europeans' enthusiasm for cycling means that bikers' rights are respected—drivers know how to share the road.
Get Your Caffeine Fix: Coffee, Cafés, and Tea Time
Having a cup of coffee in Europe can be a cultural adventure. In the coffeehouses of Vienna, arguably the most renowned on the continent, patrons linger through the afternoon over a whipped-cream-topped cup and a decadent pastry. Cafés in Paris are communal living rooms, where customers exchange ideas, share gossip, and people-watch. In Italy most coffee-bar patrons sip their espresso standing at the counter and after a minute or two are on their way. The English, meanwhile, are legendary tea-drinkers; for some afternoon tea, accompanied by scones, biscuits, cakes, and sandwiches, serves as the fourth meal of the day. From Greece to Sweden, every country has its own coffee- or tea- drinking rituals that have been refined over centuries. Joining in is easy and (with a few luxe exceptions) inexpensive.
Hit the Beach: The Mediterranean and Beyond
With so much to see and do in the Europe, you stand the risk of running yourself ragged. Scheduling some time at the beach can be a great "vacation from your vacation." In the height of summer, locals head to stretches of sand all along Europe's coasts (there's even beach-going in Ireland), but for a truly exceptional experience, set your sights on the Greek islands or the French Riviera. The sand and sea are gorgeous, and if you want it you can find glamour and sophistication unlike any other beach destinations in the world.
Go Slow: Not Just for Food
The Slow Food movement was initiated in the 1980s to oppose the opening of a McDonald's restaurant in Rome's historic Piazza di Spagna area. Though it failed to prevent the opening—today the McDonald’s is one of the busiest in Europe—the movement sparked a flourishing "Slow" phenomenon, with the central goal of preserving tradition and pushing back against the forces of mass-production and cultural homogenization. Today the organization Slow Food has more than 80,000 members scattered around the world and an increasingly famous logo featuring the stylized image of a snail. It has also sparked a minor mania for all things slow; in your travels you may well encounter Slow Cities, Slow Design, and Slow Companies. In every case, "slow" is synonymous attention to detail and adherence to tradition, and fortunately it's a concept that's still second nature to many Europeans, regardless of whether they're consciously taking part in a movement. You can encounter it almost anywhere—from a French meal that took hours to prepare, to a medieval cathedral that took centuries to build.