Top Five Big Cities in Europe
We often use redundant adjectives to describe many of the cities we’ve visited, like “charming” and “beautiful,” but our Top Five Big Cities in Europe offered something more—sort of a sense of breathlessness, inspiration and childhood curiosity all rolled into one. At the time, our experiences in these cities were perfect. Will they feel so on a second or third visit? Who knows, but for now, here are our favorite European cities with a population in excess of 500,000 people (in the order we saw them):
Prague was our first taste of Eastern Europe and one of the few places that lived up to our high expectations. Despite being a big city, its main attractions are easily accessible on foot. We do advise taking the short tram ride up to Prague Castle, though, where you’ll be rewarded with a spectacular view of Charles Bridge and a sea of red roofs below. Travelers say it’s not the bargain it used to be with the growing influx of tourism, but the buildings and landmarks continue to remain beautifully preserved in time.
Journey through a sprawling and fascinating city once occupied by four countries after WWII (U.K., U.S., France and U.S.S.R.) and divided by a wall into an East and West, splitting family and friends and ways of life (capitalism versus communism). Visit Berlin if you love history, delicious Vietnamese food and street art. They say Paris will always be Paris, but Berlin will never be Berlin; it’s ever changing—a visit today won’t be the same as one a year or two from now.
Krakow was a Nazi headquarter city that escaped total destruction during WWII (which sadly can’t be said for Warsaw, also in Poland). Leisurely wander through the delightful Old Town or trendy streets of Kazimirez, the Jewish Quarter. Enjoy lunch at Zazie Bistro, strong Israeli coffee next door at Chedar and dinner at Destino (for a $$$$ experience at a $$ price tag). Some of our best meals were in Krakow. If you have a few days, pay a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Wieliczka Salt Mine. This gem of a city has a lot to offer.
Stroll along the Danube River, enjoying the views from Buda and Pest, and you’ll quickly understand why we love this Hungarian capital. See the the impressive Parliament Building and white marbled Fisherman’s Bastion, cross the city’s many historical bridges and pay respect to the victims of the Holocaust at a touching waterfront memorial. You’ve barely scratched the surface! Budapest is not a city you can tire of quickly.
A skyline uniquely shaped by the domes of mosques and minarets, Istanbul is visually and culturally very different from the rest of Europe; no surprise, since the city also straddles Asia. The Blue Mosque is this metropolis’ most name-recognizable landmark, but the architectural marvel that is Haiga Sofia Museum is an absolute“must-see.” Taste fresh, pistachio-filled Turkish delight, get lost in a maze of shops at the Grand Bazaar, hear the “Call to Prayer” simultaneously amplified from every mosque and smell the colorful spices at the Spice Bazaar—Istanbul is a feast for the senses.
First Runner Up: Zagreb, Croatia
The best place for dreaming the day away at a cafe and people watching. Tourists to Croatia always flock to the coast, but don’t skip out on this inland capital. It feels wonderfully undiscovered but brimming with activity.