Planning a trip to Europe for the first time can seem like a daunting task. There are so many different countries to explore, and, in such a condensed region, it may seem like you will be able to hit them all, or at least quite a few. With 51 sovereign countries, this is unlikely for your first trip.
The best countries to visit on your first trip to Europe are:
Each of these European countries has a ton to offer for first-timers. They give an authentic European vacation vibe, but each one also has a unique culture of its own. Just know that after you visit one, you’ll, of course, want to go back again and again.
Each of these countries offers a wide range of experiences for first-timers, but depending on your interests, some countries may offer more than others. For a comprehensive guidebook on the experiences Europe offers, I use Rick Steves’ For the Love of Europe. For a quicker read, this article will detail which European countries are best tailored to your interests as a first-timer.
France Has Something for Everyone
If you are a first-timer planning a trip to Europe, then the chances are that France is on your radar. It may seem like the cliché choice, but once you discover everything that France has to offer, you’ll realize that you made the right choice.
Let’s take a look at the countless interests that a trip to France will gratify:
- Food Lovers: No country is more renowned for its cuisine than France, with 29 Michelin 3-Star restaurants, including the top-rated restaurant in the world, Mirazur, according to The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Beyond its renown, France’s versatility makes it an excellent choice for foodies of differing tastes and preferences.
- History Buffs: France also contains numerous historic sites that are available to explore. If you are interested in medieval cathedrals, Notre Dame is a must-see. If you wish to see gaudy royal palaces, the Palace of Versailles will indulge your desire. The Catacombs of Paris are a thrilling adventure, too, as long as you aren’t claustrophobic.
- Nightlife: Paris, also known as The City of Lights, has plenty of nightlife options ranging from jazz clubs to cabaret bars. However, these options can be quite pricy. If you are looking for more affordable options, the coastal cities of Bordeaux and Marseille have excellent nightlife options, especially for lovers of electronic music.
- Coastal Adventures: Speaking of coastal cities, France features plenty of beautiful locales on its western and southern coasts. The most famous of these is the French Riviera, but west-coast cities like Biarritz are equally striking. Brest and Avignon are great coastal cities for those with an affinity for France’s culture and history.
- Museum Enthusiasts: Paris is one of the premier destinations for museum lovers in the world. The Louvre, home to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, is one of the top 10 fine art museums in the world, according to National Geographic. Outside of Paris, film lovers can explore the Musée Miniature et Cinéma and Musée Lumière in the city of Lyon.
- Hiking Spots: Home to the French Alps, France features plenty of breathtaking mountain hiking trails, particularly near Mount Blanc. If you are looking for coastal or historical trails, Normandy offers some excellent hiking routes along its infamous D-Day beaches.
- Souvenirs: France offers a wide range of souvenirs to bring home to family and friends, or to simply remind you of your time abroad. For foodies, macarons are a favorite. For book lovers, a stamped book from Shakespeare & Company is a must. Finally, the Eiffel Tower is full of purchasable knick-knacks that prove you visited the iconic tower.
Note: You can actually see England from France.
Italy Also Offers Variety for First-Timers
Out of all of the potential European countries to visit, there is no better place for first-timers to visit than Italy. Italy has the history, museums, food, and coasts to rival any country, and there are activities and experiences for all ages to enjoy.
Let’s take a look at the various activities and experiences that Italy has to offer:
- Food Lovers: Italy features a large number of Michelin-star restaurants, 374, including 11 Michelin 3-star restaurants, according to Michelin Guide. Although mainly known for its entrees, Italian desserts like an affogato, cannoli, or tiramisu place Italian cuisine among the best. Pair tiramisu with a cappuccino or straight espresso for true bliss.
- History Buffs: There are few places as historically rich as Italy. In particular, Rome features notable sites such as the Colosseum as well as ancient ruins like Ostia Antica that coexist within the modern city. If you are interested in touring epic cathedrals, Florence and Milan feature the Duomo di Firenze and the Duomo di Milano respectively.
- Nightlife: Italy’s nightlife is unique in that there are options for everyone. If you’re looking for a chill, relaxing night, then Gallipoli and Venice offer relaxed vibes and incredible views. If you are looking for a party, then Sicily and Otranto are the places to be. Rome, Florence, and Milan offer an array of nightlife experiences in their own right.
- Coastal Adventures: Italy’s nightlife correlates to its vibrant coastal towns. Sicily and Otranto are perfect models for this correlation, but towns like Tropea and Versilia hold their own with some of the most popular beach clubs in the world.
- Museum Enthusiasts: There are plenty of museums throughout every major city in Italy. However, first-timers with an affinity for the arts should visit Florence for its Accademia Gallery, which contains Michelangelo’s David and the Uffizi Gallery.
- Hiking Spots: Italy’s best hiking spots tend to be in its more relaxed coastal towns. For some incredibly striking coastal views, you should check out the hiking trails in Cinque Terre National Park or the Amalfi Coast.
- Souvenirs: There is less of a souvenir culture in Italy’s biggest cities in contrast to Paris, France. However, if you are looking for a quirky, artisan gift, then there are several options. For one, check out Gammarelli, a sock store that has garnered acclaim from Pope Francis himself, according to the New Yorker.
It should be evident by now that Italy and France offer the most well-rounded experience for first-time travelers to Europe. If you are interested in any of the things listed above, then you will find your happy place in either country. However, there may be other European countries that better satisfy your specific interests.
Spain is a One-Stop-Shop for Maximum Food and Culture
As mentioned earlier, there is no country more renowned for its cuisine than France. I would hesitate to match up to any other European cuisine with French cuisine. However, Spanish cuisine comes very close.
With the third, seventh, and ninth-best restaurants in the world, according to The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, Spain holds its own against France. Spanish cuisine is based around seafood and consists mainly of smaller dishes, called “tapas.” Therefore, if the rich, carb-centric cuisines of Italy and France don’t interest you, Spain may offer exactly what you’re looking for.
I personally prefer Spanish cuisine and frequently use my copy of Spain: The Cookbook by Simone and Inés Ortega to recreate some of my favorite dishes.
Staying in Spain, you will not find more coastal towns to explore than you will on Spain’s 3,000 miles of coastline. Málaga, Barcelona, Marbella, and Ibiza have all been mentioned as popular nightlife spots. However, if you are looking for a more relaxed experience, then I would recommend Cadaqués, Alicante, or San Sebastián.
San Sebastián features golden sand beaches, lush green hills, and a lot of Michelin star restaurants. This does place San Sebastián on the pricier side of Spain, so if you are looking for more affordable options, then Cadaqués is an excellent day trip option, only 107 miles out of Barcelona. Alicante is a perfect option for those who want both the nightlife and the relaxation.
On the subject of nightlife, Spain touts a very intriguing nightlife reputation. There are upscale options like Ibiza and Marbella, as well as budget-friendly options like Granada and Málaga. Málaga hosts more bars per square meter than any other place in Europe, according to The Telegraph. Barcelona and Madrid also boast a thriving nightlife as Spain’s major cities.
Here are some restaurants and museums I suggest you to check out during your stay:
- Can Majo (Barcelona, Spain): This is the perfect spot for exceptional paella at an affordable price.
- Gaudí House (Barcelona, Spain): Entry is roughly $6 US Dollars.
- Los Montes de Galicia (Madrid, Spain): An excellent spot for tapas. Try the codfish donuts!
Note: You can actually see Africa from Spain.
Check Out England’s Explorable History
I find Italy’s blend of modernity with its ancient ruins and historical sites to be more captivating than any other European country’s explorable history. However, there are plenty of European countries that offer a comparable amount of explorable history, particularly England.
England features a great number of historical sites, some of which are mixed in with modern London, similar to Rome’s ancient ruins. The Tower of London is a must-visit for enthusiasts of English history as it has served as a backdrop for a number of historical events in England.
For more information on these historical events, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the Tower by Nigel Jones.
London features several iconic museums. For one, the British Museum, which became the first national museum open to the public in 1759, is a great, free choice for first-timers. The National Gallery, also free to enter, rewards lovers of da Vinci, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and van Gogh. The Natural History Museum is a must-see for biology enthusiasts and Paddington-lovers alike.
Outside of London, England hosts several other iconic museums in Oxford: The Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Ashmolean Museum.
Some of the most iconic historical sites in the world also exist outside of London. In Wiltshire, England, you can gaze out at Stonehenge, and in Oxfordshire, Oxford, you can tour the University of Oxford, including the Christ Church Cathedral, which was built almost a millennium ago.
There are plenty of souvenir opportunities present throughout London and Oxford. I recommend picking up a bar of Cadbury chocolate because they do not make chocolate in the US like they do in England.
Here are some restaurants and museums I recommend checking out while in England:
- National Maritime Museum (London, England): Entry is free.
- Turf Tavern (Oxford, England): An historic, charming tavern built back in 1381!
- Nando’s (Anywhere in England): This fast-food chicken spot is a staple of English culture.
Netherlands: Daytime Sightseeing and After Hours Nightlife
You will likely discover a vibrant nightlife in most major cities of European countries. I have detailed Italy’s lavish beach clubs and France’s electronic music scene, but there is one country I have not mentioned that stands out amongst the rest.
The Netherlands, particularly Amsterdam, boasts unique nightlife experiences that make it the quintessential party locale.
Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein are the two busiest squares in Amsterdam at night. Leidseplein hosts much of the city’s entertainment, such as live music, cinemas, and even a casino. Rembrandtplein is more notable for its various clubs and cafes.
The key to Amsterdam’s significance as a nightlife destination resides at the back of the Dam square; an area referred to as the Red Light District. The Red Light District offers experiences such as prostitution and “coffee shops” (for smoking weed) that are not typically found, legally, in the rest of the world, which makes it a unique locale. Although not as dangerous as It once was, this is certainly not the place to bring your kids, especially at night.
Amsterdam also possesses its fair share of iconic museums in its Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum, and the Anne Frank House. The Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum are located in the same square, aptly named Museum Square, along with two other museums. Thus, there is likely no better place for a museum day than Amsterdam’s Museum Square.
The Anne Frank House is located several miles north of Museum Square and is not as casually accessible as any of the museums previously mentioned. It is important that you book your tickets online long before you arrive in Amsterdam to ensure your entry to this sobering museum. The tour only lasts about an hour, but the experience is far more lasting.
Here are several museums and restaurants to check out during your stay in the Netherlands:
- Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam, Netherlands): Entry is roughly $22 US Dollars.
- Moeders (Amsterdam, Netherlands): A hearty restaurant known for its decorative photographs of customers’ mothers.
Experience the Iconic Landscape of Greece
Greece has one of the most iconic historical sites in the world in the Acropolis of Athens. Unfortunately, this site is also one of the least explorable as it is strictly protected under several legislative decrees, according to UNESCO. There are plenty of other historical sites to see in Greece, such as the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the town of Delphi.
Greece also features iconic hiking spots such as Mount Olympus, but this trail is built for seasoned backpackers and may not be the best choice for first-timers. However, Greece does feature a ton of beginner-level hikes that allow for breathtaking coastal and city views.
One hiking trail in particular that achieves both views is Lycabettus Hill in Athens, Greece. The trail itself is only about 3-4 kilometers in length and features a gorgeous view of the city of Athens backdropped by the Mediterranean Sea. I recommend making this trail at sunset so you can watch the city of Athens light up as you look down on it from above.
Although it does not match countries like Spain in its coastal length, Greece certainly matches up in regard to its coastal beauty. Although Athens, Greece’s capital, is a coastal city, the most beautiful coastal towns in Greece can be discovered among its islands.
Agios Nikolaos on the island of Crete is a must-see for its vibrant colors and history in US cinema. The town of Oia on the island of Santorini has a similarly picturesque look and has been included in US video games and cinema, including The Sister-Hood of the Traveling Pants.
For more information regarding Greek island tourism, I recommend Fodor’s Essential Greece: with the Best Islands by Fodor’s travel guides.
Here are a few restaurants and museums to check out during your stay in Greece:
- Klimataria (Athens, Greece): This is the place to go for authentic Greek cuisine and exceptional wine at an affordable price.
- Acropolis Museum (Athens, Greece): Entry is roughly $22 US Dollars.
Ireland has the Perfect Balance of Activity and Relaxation
If the more relaxing coastal towns in Spain and Greece are still too loud, European countries like Ireland offer peaceful coastal towns far removed from any major tourism hot spots. Galway has received the most publicity, thanks to Ed Sheeran, but if you want peace and quiet, I will steer away from Galway. Instead, I recommend visiting the quaint, charming town of Dalkey.
Dalkey is just a thirty-minute drive away from Dublin and features beautiful seaside views, lush greenery, and a friendly, hometown atmosphere. It also features the James Joyce Tower & Museum, which is a must-see for any literature enthusiasts.
Ireland is also the premier destination for all types of hiking trails in all of Europe. There are awe-inspiring trails like the Cliffs of Moher Coastal Walk and utterly serene trails like the Ballycotton Cliff Walk.
Ireland has relatively simple trails with gorgeous scenery throughout, like the Causeway Coast Hike. It also has incredibly difficult hikes with rewarding scenery, such as the Carrauntoohil Hike.
For more difficult hikes, I recommend picking up a pair of these boots:
Columbia Women’s Newton Ridge Plus Waterproof Hiking Boot for women
Columbia Men’s Newton Ridge Plus Ii Waterproof Hiking Boot for men.
Here are several restaurants and museums I recommend checking out during your stay:
- Guinness Storehouse (Dublin, Ireland): Entry is roughly $15-30 US Dollars.
- The Brazen Head (Dublin, Ireland): This authentic Irish pub was built back in 1198!
Turkey Has a Rich History with Fewer Crowds
Turkish cuisine is rather underrated in the European food scene, but its Eastern European and Mediterranean influences offer a satisfying blend of delicious European food. Turkey particularly excels in its desserts, such as baklava and sekerpare, that pair well with their coffee, the strongest you will ever have.
An excellent souvenir opportunity in Turkey is to pick up a Cezve, a brass or copper pot used to make Turkish coffee, to bring authentic Turkish coffee with you wherever you go.
Turkey also features an iconic historical and religious site in the Hagia Sophia, although its revocation as a monument in 2020 may limit your exploration of the site. Turkey is also full of ancient city ruins, such as the city of Catakhöyük, which was founded roughly 9000 years ago, according to UNESCO.
Here are a few museums and restaurants to check out during your stay in Turkey:
- Loti Café & Roof Lounge (Istanbul, Turkey): This place offers authentic Turkish cuisine, hookah, and an exceptional view for a moderate price.
- Topkapi Palace (Istanbul, Turkey): Entry is roughly $12 US Dollars.
Germany’s Museums are Unforgettable
Germany is the perfect museum destination for fans of the eccentric. You can visit the Miatur Wunderland museum in Hamburg to view miniature railway and airport models. You can visit the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden to study the science, culture, and society of German people.
There are also plenty of iconic, and some haunting, museums in Germany. These include the Deutsches Museum, the Pergamonmuseum, and Topography of Terror, which reflects on Germany’s Nazi history in unforgiving detail.
Germany also offers the meatiest cuisine you will find in Europe. Be sure to try staples of German cuisine like bratwurst and sauerkraut during your stay, but lesser-known specialties like rouladen and sauerbraten should be on your radar as well.
Germany also offers an abundance of explorable history. Although Germany’s countryside features much of its ancient history, some of its most intriguing historical sites are in Berlin and deal with more recent history. Every first-time tourist should visit the Berlin Wall and the Holocaust Memorial, both located in Berlin.
For a memorable experience and a ton of souvenir opportunities, stop by a Christkindlmarkt, or German Christmas market, to be overwhelmed with Christmas magic and childhood fantasies.
Here are a few restaurants and museums I recommend checking out during your stay:
- Topography of Terror (Berlin, Germany): Entry is free.
- Markthalle Neun (Berlin, Germany): An excellent street food market for dining on-the-go or on a budget.
- Gasthof Winkler (Bavaria, Germany): The perfect place for meat-lovers looking for authentic German cuisine.
Belgium Has the Perfect Mix of Everything
Belgium is similar to Germany in its capacity for eccentric museums. If you are into cartoons, you should be sure to check out the Belgian Comic Strip Museum. If you are into music, check out the Musical Instruments Museum. Both of these museums can be found in Brussels.
Belgium also features similar gothic architecture to Germany. Its most renowned historical site, La Grand-Place, is a remarkable market square featuring several jaw-dropping examples of Brabant Gothic architecture.
Belgian cuisine is also severely underrated in the grand scheme of European cuisine. Belgium’s beer alone is enough of a reason to make the trip to Belgium as a first-timer. I recommend visiting Kulminator or Brugs Beertje for a charming pub atmosphere and an extensive selection of beers.
Here are a few museums and restaurants to stop by during your stay in Belgium:
- Tonton Garby (Brussels, Belgium): This sandwich spot is the perfect place to stop for a satisfying lunch.
- Greoningemuseum (Bruges, Belgium): Entry fee is roughly $14 US Dollars.
Things to Keep in Mind Before Traveling to Europe
Before you begin your journey, there are a couple of things you should keep in mind.
Firstly, unless you remain in the United Kingdom throughout your trip, you will encounter a language barrier. Most people in European countries have a grasp of the English language, but it is not their duty to be able to communicate with you.
I would recommend picking up some simple travel-related phrases before you go. There are plenty of video tutorials posted online, including this French one:
Secondly, along with the language barrier, you will also experience some degree of culture shock. Even in English-speaking countries, there exist differing cultural norms to those of the United States.
It will make a huge difference if you simply try and follow the social and cultural norms of the country you are visiting. The people will respect you for it, and it will make your experience that much better to try and immerse yourself within the culture of the country you choose to visit.
With all of this being said, enjoy yourself. If you plan according to your interests and keep an open mind throughout your journey, this will be an unforgettable experience.