Europe’s varied terrain, vibrant history and wildly diverse cultures and cuisines make it a terrifically rich place for wanderers to explore. It’s also incredibly compact, a jigsaw of countries and cultures fitted tightly together, and it has pretty damn slick infrastructure when it comes to making your way around. Skeptics and hardcore backpackers often complain about the prices of backpacking through these first-rate cities, but in fact, Europe has the best hosteling scene in the world, and whatever time you stumble into any reasonable-sized city, you’ll be able to find a cheap bed in a tightly-packed dorm room somewhere. Just take a look at these ten destinations, and imagine weaving them together into a single backpacking trip – you’ll be packing your bag in no time.
Let’s begin our exploration of Europe back where it all began, in Rome... Well this isn’t true, of course, the Romans were simply the continent’s first uber-successful imperialists, crushing other cultures beneath their leather-soled feet. History textbooks have been good to the Romans, and what remains is a phenomenal visible legacy. In the empire’s heart, visitors can visit the grand oculus-lit Pantheon, a homage to all the gods; they can wander the imposing ruins of the Roman Forum; and they can imagine the roar of lions and clash of weapons in the Colosseum. Then there’s the city’s other great power cult, Roman Catholicism, embodied in St. Peter’s Basilica and the bone-hung cellars of the Capuchin Crypt. After all this historic and architectural pondering, the city’s unmatched café and restaurant scene provides a welcome respite, and some sensual delight after a day of exploring. And being Italy, there are plenty of great and affordable little eateries where budget-conscious travelers can drop in to treat themselves.
For those excited by power politics, sites such as the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and the spiky gothic Houses of Parliament offer a feast of political history. For those more interested in social history – how ordinary people lived, worked, dreamt and thought – then the Dockland’s Museum, the Clink (a reconstructed medieval prison) and the Women’s Library evoke the lives of London’s less-chronicled inhabitants. Then there are some of the continent’s best art galleries, such as Tate Britain and Tate Modern; a thriving music and literary scene, with manifestations throughout the city’s many districts; one of the world’s most vibrant queer scenes; and superb restaurants showcasing pretty much every cuisine in the world. While booze is pretty damn pricey, many of the museums and art galleries are thankfully free, and although accommodation isn’t exactly cheap, there are plenty of reasonable hostels in which to lay your spinning head.
Ah Paris, the city of sophistication par excellence. Site of the da Vinci-hoarding Louvre and the world’s most famous Boulevard, the Champs-Élysées, framed by grand Napoleonic buildings and the Arc de Triomphe. Literature lovers can sit by the banks of the Seine where Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir thrashed out their diverging views on existentialism, or slouch through Saint-Germain de Prés, hot on the heels of ragamuffin writers such as Rimbaud and Henry Miller. Modern-day highlights include Shakespeare & Co, the vast second-hand bookshop with frequent live music. Then there are classic, unmissable sights such as the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral. Oh, and of course Paris has its very own Disneyland. While the rich and reckless can blow huge quantities of money on a sheen of Parisian glam, plenty of penniless writers, artists and travellers have carved out some kind of life here over the past century.
Barcelona has drawn the ragged and the broke, the artistic and the dissolute for many decades, and upon setting foot in the city’s center, it’s not difficult to see why. The grand central thoroughfare, Las Ramblas, may be flanked these days by nothing more Catalan than chain stores and designer clothes shops, but it still manages to cling to some semblance of distinctive character. Even better is to dart off this main artery into the labyrinthine districts of Barri Gòtic and El Raval, picturesque warrens of bars, cafes and restaurants which, during spring and summer, it’s simply glorious to wander aimlessly around, dropping in and out of whatever bars takes your fancy. Later on, Barcelona’s legendary nightlife is concentrated around bigger squares such as the Plaça Reial. If you’re after something more substantial than such drink-fuelled meanderings, then the city has plenty to satisfy you, too: take in the Gaudi architecture at Parc Güell, visit the terrific Picasso Museum, or head down to the beach at Barceloneta. Wait, that last one’s a little leisurely too... Well, I guess that’s just Barcelona for you...
Athens, more than Rome, can claim to be the city that spawned western civilization. Its ancient world, famed for its philosophy, literature and pederasty, today composes some of Europe’s most evocative and thought-provoking sights. Most spectacular is of course the Acropolis, perched on a plateau of rock and containing an amazing wealth of classical Ancient Greek architecture. This includes the huge Parthenon, temple to Athena, and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which is still used for performances today. At the foot of the Acropolis, you’ll find the pretty, winding districts of Plaka, Monastiraki and Thissio, strung with 19th century Neoclassical homes, Roman ruins, and endless small cafes and restaurants. Recommended backpacker hostels located centrally include AthenStyle and Athens Backpacker.
Known as the crossroads of Europe, Prague is a beautiful city that has slightly rusted around the edges, which from certain angles only adds to its charms. At its heart, arching across the Vltava River, is the historic Charles Bridge, completed in the 15th century, which contributed to Prague’s role as a key city on the trade route between western and eastern Europe. With its stunning gothic bridge tower and its decorative series of baroque statues, it’s a fabulous introduction to Prague’s fairytale architecture. This is continued in the Old Town itself, with its fabled Astronomical Clock and the sharp black spikes of the dramatically Gothic Tyn Church. A bit of background to these sights can be gained at the National Museum, which overlooks Wenceslas Square, the center of the New Town and the launching point for many a wild adventure through Prague’s chaotic nightlife. An old classic of Prague’s cheap and cheerful hostel scene is the Clown and Bard, which has its own lively wood-walled pub downstairs.
Amsterdam packs a diversity of attractions into its compact center, threaded through by lamplit canalways. Fans of expressionist art could lose themselves for days in the fantastic Van Gogh Museum, Dutch Golden Age art is displayed at the Rijksmuseum, including works by Rembrandt and Vermeer, while the pulse of Amsterdam’s current art scene can be felt at the Nieuw Dakota contemporary art gallery. Amsterdam was also Anne Frank’s hometown, and visiting the secret room where she hid from the Gestapo in an inconspicuous townhouse will be a deeply moving experience for anyone who has read her diaries, written in that very space. And then of course there are the baser pleasures, for those of you who feel the need – take in a tour round the Heineken Brewery, a furtive trip to the Red Light District, or a couple of spliffs in one of Amsterdam’s famous coffee houses.
Budapest is divided in two by the Danube River. On one side there’s hilly, wooded Buda, dominated by Castle Hill. Here you’ll find the Royal Palace, with a set of museums on Hungarian national history and a National Gallery displaying the country’s finest art collection. Beside the Royal Palace, atop a plateau overlooking the city, there’s a series of gardens, squares and terraces, bedecked with plants, fountains and cafes, which together form a lovely place to while away an afternoon during the warmer months. From this vantage point you can see down onto the city’s parliament building, perching on the far bank of the Danube, which takes the Gothic Revivalism of the UK’s Houses of Parliament and pushes it to a far wilder and grander conclusion. Delve into Pest, then, on that opposite bank, and you’ll plunge into a fabulously lively city. There are many bars, restaurants and pubs with a distinctive interior decor, friendly atmosphere and (for western pockets) exceptionally cheap alcohol, making them a delightful place to sit down and sup through a few drinks. This is another city flooded with cheap hostels, of which The Loft and Maverick are among the best.
Sometimes a tumultuous history can make for an exceptionally vibrant cultural scene, and this has definitely been the case with Berlin. Ever since its reunification, it’s been one of Europe’s best cities for backpackers, far cheaper than its counterpart capitals across the rest of western Europe. This scene is concentrated in the south-east of the city center, spread across the districts of Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg and Neukölln, which mix hip art galleries, music venues and bars with the best of the city’s Turkish street food. And if you want to delve into Berlin’s turbulent recent past, there are a host of really excellent museums at which to do so. The best of these cover the Soviet era (the Berlin Wall Monument, the Museum at Checkpoint Charlie); Nazism and WW2 (the Topography of Terror, the Berlin-Karlshorst Museum); and the experiences of Jewish people through that conflict and the centuries preceding it (the Jüdisches Museum, the Wannsee Conference Center).
Ios, one of the sun-drenched isles of the Cyclades group just off the south coast of Greece, has all the stunning scenery that you’d expect: rugged cliffs, rolling green hills, white-hued villages, and a fringe of sandy beaches, all encircled by the blue-green Mediterranean. But of its 2000 neighbours, Ios has long been the most popular destination with backpackers, known as a party island where the young and the broke can take advantage of the cheap and excellent food and alcohol. This party scene is concentrated in the main town of Hora – start in the main square, then let the currents of the night carry you through the winding streets and the plethora of bars surrounding it. The Greek Islands don’t have the array of low-price dorm-bed hostels characteristic of much of Europe, but there are some cheap hotels, and when it’s warm enough – that is, most of the year – then there are a handful of campsites, too.