Krakow Rynek Glowny
Europe,  Travel

Top European Capital Cities: my favourites

From time to time I get asked, as an european and having traveled more than half the European countries: what capital is the best you’ve seen? What would you recommend visiting? What can’t be missed when in Europe?

Difficult question. Most capitals in Europe are so different, so culturally rich and having such a strong identity that it’s nearly impossible to compare with each other. It’s like comparing a beach destination with a mountain one: apples and oranges, too different.

So, in any case, after some pondering and in no particular order, that’s my 6 top european capital cities.

Berlin

Gendarmermarkt at dusk
Gendarmermarkt at dusk

So many people fall in love with Berlin and so many dream of visiting it. I didn’t nor I wasn’t one. Yet it is one of a kind city that has to be visited in your lifetime. You may love it at first sight, as many, or not, but it is definitely worth going.

For me Berlin was so heavy with recent history that I was fascinated to visit the remaining of the Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, the East Berlin socialist buildings, Spandau and so on that the whole trip was like reading an history’s book on WWII and Cold War.

What surprised me the most though, and positively so, was the eerie feeling of being in a city split in two still, with metro making weird turns to go from west to east (as until the fall of the wall it was not possible of course), where there are areas that seems still totally abandoned right in the center of it (where the Wall passed through), where you can experience a fully german, even Viennese perhaps, city in the Kurfürstendamm area and after 15 minutes of metro be brought back to the Cold War in the Karl-Marx Allee area. No other city I’ve ever visited has this strong architectonic contrast of buildings built at the same time.

Lisbon

Lisbon view from Castelo de Sao Jorge
Lisbon view from Castelo de Sao Jorge

I wasn’t prepared for Lisbon. Now it is trending and many travelers flock there but when I first visited it, Lisbon and Portugal were considered the poor man’s version of Spain.

Wrongly so. Portugal and its capital have a distinct feeling than its bigger neighbour. Lisbon captivated me because it is much more calm than, let’s say, Madrid or Barcelona. The city definitely has a feeling of a rich city that lost most of its money, which is what actually happened: from the heart of a vast commercial empire spanning from Brazil to Indonesia, to a regional capital. You see it on the buildings, splendid but decadent, to the music, the melancholic fado, that permeates the city.

Lisbon is definitely on the process of renovating itself. A mix of modern buildings and old area in need of restoration is still preponderant and after all it is part of its charme. You have to dig to discover Lisbon’s true beauty, its staircases, its cobblestone streets, its airy coast. A truly surprising european capital.

London

London cabs and buses
Photo by Sabrina Mazzeo on Unsplash

London is too vast, complex and contradictory to itself to be described in a few phrases. What I personally love of it are the myriad of small pubs, each one with its personal identity, the old areas mixed with the new ones, often right next to them, the projecting itself into the future with skyscrapers and modern technologies while being strongly faithful to old traditions like the monarchy.

Another european capital of contrasts, it is big enough to be a world on its own, perhaps only european city that could be considered so. You may love the arts, mostly free too but expensive when not so, or the vibrant modernity of it. Or perhaps the fascination of the financial center of the City. Or maybe the mundanity of its jet-set. Or even the vast choices of cuisines from all over the world to be found in London.

There’s truly something for everybody in London. Which may be an advantage or a disadvantage, as never boring or too confusing. I personally loved London and am always glad to come back to it.

Warsaw

Warsaw by night
Warsaw by night

I felt an immediate love with Warsaw. Surprising myself too. It is admittedly not the prettiest in this list, and its inhabitants know it. It’s often disliked or dismissed as a an uninteresting version of either Prague or Budapest or Berlin, according to with whom you’re speaking with.

Yet Warsaw has plenty of charme and a really good, chill vibe. Unlike most other european big cities, you still feel like you don’t have to behave in a specific way here, don’t have to rush things and are not fighting against other fellow tourists for a spot at a museum. It’s an easy going city, with a long history but very little to show it as WWII wholly destroyed it. It has been rebuilt, in part, but the scars remain. Which only increase its weird, “poor but optimistic” atmosphere. Nowadays it is becoming more and more modern, a-la Berlin, and I bet in 10 years it will be as full of visitors as any other european capital.

Visit it now before it gets too crowded.

Oslo

Oslo Townhall
Oslo Townhall

Not surprisingly for older PaperSounds reader, Oslo makes this list. Another city that I totally fell in love with as soon as I entered its boundaries, I’ve already written about my Oslo impressions.

It is by far the most “civil” experience I’ve ever had in an european capital: few cars, many even electric ones, very clean, not crowded, chill atmosphere and lots of green areas. It remembered me how a very rich and progressive Berlin/Warsaw but with way better houses. Living standards are very high in Oslo.

Among all these european capital cities, Oslo is the one I would more happily choose to live in.

Madrid

Madrid
Photo by Diego Muñoz Suárez on Unsplash

Madrid stands as the quintessential spanish city. Often obscured by the constant popularity of Barcelona and the rising one of Sevilla, Madrid grabs a spot in my top european capital cities list because it is an elegant and modern capital, with large avenues from the 19th century along with impressive attractions as the Cibeles and Colon fountains and the big Royal Palace.

It is very spanish but in a more modern way than it may be Toledo or Sevilla. Those are more romantic and hosting dramatic views and ancient art, Madrid is more a place you could actually live and love, not just visit. I feel it is the most underrated in this list, and I wonder why.

Other capital cities

Among those who didn’t make this list, an honorable mention goes to Paris and Rome: as per art and history they have nothing to envy any other city in the world but I found them way too chaotic and sprawled over a vast territory for my liking. They gave me a sense of disorder, which I utterly dislike. Most like with London but London had something way more peculiar that made me overcome the chaos of it.

Still I felt both Paris and Rome were worth mentioning, even if everybody knows them. Also a shoutout for Prague, deliciously medieval but tiny compared to the others in this list, is due.

What other city do you believe it should be on this list? What is your top european capital city list?

Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

Neapolitan programmer, traveller and metalhead, co-author of PaperSounds blog.

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