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No matter what photos you’ve clicked through or stories you’ve heard, there are some places you really just have to see and experience for yourself. These cities regularly appear on TV or in movies, but are destinations that you’ll never truly get a feel for unless you walk the streets, eat the food and take the time to discover the secrets that make them so special. So don’t discount a place just because it’s popular – go find out why other travellers adore these cities, and then fall in love yourself.
#1 Prague, Czech Republic
A medieval wonderland set on a river with castles, bridges and clock towers vying for your attention, Prague is a city with over a thousand years of well-preserved history, and some of the best beer in Europe – what more could you want? There are fascinating suburban areas, huge parks and outdoor markets as well as a famous wall where students protest by painting colourful song lyrics. An underground tour of the city’s hidden catacombs is fascinating – especially at night. When you come up for air, the Museum of Sex Machines is eye-opening and the city’s nightlife caters for all tastes – make sure you have a drink at the industrial-style Cross Club where the building’s many moving crankshafts, pipes and parts pulsate to the beat of the music.
#2 Paris, France
At least once in their life, everyone should wander along the bridges and banks of the Seine River at twilight. Or sit in a cafe and nibble on a pastry while watching perfectly-dressed Parisians walk their immaculately coiffured dogs down a cobbled street. It goes without saying that Paris’ famous museums, wildly varied neighbourhoods and iconic landmarks are worth seeing, but Paris’ true splendour lies in allowing yourself to feel chic, cultured and Parisian for even just a day. Don’t waste your time in the queues for the Eiffel Tower – instead climb the big hill in Montmartre and sit in front of the Sacre Coeur with a bottle of wine, a perfect baguette and some mind-blowing cheese and take in the free, stunning view of this city of romance and light.
#3 Barcelona, Spain
Sun-soaked, fast paced and sexy, Barcelona sure knows how to party. Internationally famous for food, drink and culture, it’s a city full of creative and outgoing people who take late-night fun very seriously. Gaudi’s bizarre but beautiful architectural artworks litter the sprawling suburbs – the full tour of his masterpiece church La Sagrada Familia is worth both the money and time. If there’s an opportunity to watch a football game – even just at a crowded bar – take it. You’ll never see more passion, joy and despair than in Spanish sports fans. The most famous street, La Rambla can be a bit of a tourist trap, but incredible authentic food and bars can be found in its side streets and alleys and the nearby Boqueria market is perfect for a true taste of the city. For something a little different go get lost in the Labyrinth Park of Horta hedge maze.
#4 Amsterdam, The Netherlands
So much more than windmills, canals and a red-light district, Amsterdam is a city of cosy coffee shops, quirky boutiques, nightclubs and literally hundreds of museums. A visit to Anne Frank House is a must – it’s incredibly moving and well put together, but go super early in the morning or just before it closes to avoid the crowds. Make like a local and hire a bicycle to properly explore the city’s narrow streets or the vast expanse of the Vondelpark, then head to one of the city’s many craft breweries to see how their fabulous beer is made. Sweet-tooths will revel in stroopwafels (syrup waffles) and poffertjes (tiny pancakes), while the Dutch obsession with hot chips with mayo will keep everyone else happy. The floating flower market is wonderful, but exploring the De Pijp neighbourhood and its street art is just as colourful.
#5 Rome, Italy
A walk through the streets of Rome can be chaotic, dirty and confusing – but then you’ll turn a random corner and stumble upon the magic of the Trevi Fountain or the Colosseum. Apartment blocks and businesses are built right on top of these works of human genius, with the city’s incredible history celebrated and lived in rather than simply revered. Chic bars are built into 16th century buildings and gelato stores operate in the shadows of ancient palaces. Finding genuinely good pizza or pasta can be a challenge, with many mediocre places exploiting the tourist dollar – ask a local where they like to go, and avoid eateries with a spruiker out front. At night head to Monte Testaccio, a ‘mountain’ near the port which is actually made from ancient broken urns. It’s now a vibrant clubbing district full of tiny venues – some hidden away in what used to be wine cellars.
#6 Dubrovnik, Croatia
An ancient walled city, surrounded by hills and some of the bluest water you’ll ever see, this jewel of the Adriatic has marble streets and a gorgeous laid-back vibe. Walking the walls is a must, but do it early in the morning before the heat of the day and the endless swarms of cruise-ship passengers. Spend the afternoon on a local beach, or wandering through the quiet backstreets of the old town – there are also kayak tours around the city if you’re feeling more adventurous. Avoid the tacky, overpriced shops and boutiques inside the walls and save your money for a cocktail at Cafe Buza where you can watch the sun sink slowly into the water. At night head outside the old town to one of the beach cafes which turn into nightclubs after sunset – their fire twirling and cocktail flairing is always a highlight.
#7 London, England
You may think you know London from crime dramas, news reports and terrible Hugh Grant movies but unless you’ve been there, you have no idea what this multicultural, historic and dynamic city is really about. From the hipster boroughs of Hackney and Shoreditch where you can find breakfast cereal cafes and taxidermy emporiums, to glitzy Soho and the West End where musical theatre is still king, there’s truly something for everyone. A walk along the Thames River will give you the best views of the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, the London Eye, Tate Modern and Tower Bridge, but walking tours through more diverse areas like Brixton will give you a true glimpse of this city and its people. On the weekends, the historic Borough Markets are worth a visit, if only to pick up fixings for a glorious Hampstead Heath picnic.
#8 Edinburgh, Scotland
Quirky, yet full of tradition. Modern but with an ancient castle casting shadows across the narrow streets – Edinburgh is an eccentric city that’s hard to pin down. The old town is perfect for exploring on foot, though the steep streets aren’t for the faint-hearted. Climb to the top of Arthur’s Seat, an ancient extinct volcano that looms over the city, then plan a pub crawl through the Cowgate or Royal Mile making sure to stop in at some of the many comedy, theatre and burlesque venues scattered across town. Ghost tours and Harry Potter tours abound (J.K Rowling dreamed up the boy wizard in the Elephant House cafe) but for our money, an underground tour of this medieval city will give you the best taste of its dark and often seedy history.
#9 Berlin, Germany
The German capital combines the old and the new better than almost anywhere on earth. Berlin is a party paradise, with an unrivalled music and nightclub scene that will make you question why sleep is even necessary. It’s a dream for history buffs too – many of the events that shaped the 20th century happened across just a few city blocks. There’s an entire island dedicated to incredible museums, while the Mauer Park daily fleamarket will help you perfect your vintage style. On hot days, drinks at one of the bars scattered along the banks of the Spree are a must – but save some energy for clubbing. Stattbad (where you’ll dance in an empty Olympic swimming pool), White Trash and of course Berghain are among the best venues – just be prepared for queues. A late night currywurst and some glowsticks, and you’ll be set to go ‘til dawn.
If you don’t believe the hype, you should. Go and experience the greatest European cities that are seriously worth the talk with Contiki. They’ll transport you to the best of Europe from Amsterdam, to Italy and Paris on an unforgettable 16-day European encounter where you’ll get to do some serious bucket list tickin’. Find out more here.
Bonnie Sutherland is a children's puppeteer whose show takes her around the world. She lives for food, new and weird experiences and giggles.