The 10 Most Beautiful Cities in Europe

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The 10 Most Beautiful Cities in Europe
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by Peter J. Frank - https://travelcurator.com/

FLORENCE, ITALY

Let’s start with the obvious: The cradle of the Renaissance, Florence dazzles with its maze of terracotta-roofed buildings, majestic palazzi, swoon-worthy sculptures (ew, David!), and perfectly laid out gardens. The crown jewel — and still, by decree, the city’s highest structure — is the Duomo, capped by Brunelleschi’s astonishing red dome. But don’t miss the green-and-white Basilica di Santa Maria Novella (and around the corner, the boutique of its fabulous skincare line, est. 1221); the Basilica di Santa Croce with its frescoes by Giotto; the fountain- and sculpture-strewn Boboli Gardens (recently restored by Gucci); and, of course, the Uffizi Galleries, home to the embodiment of Beauty herself, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. It’s not all art and architecture here, though. A stroll down Via de’ Tornabuoni is a visual feast for style-seekers — a few of the hometown brands you may have heard of include Gucci, Pucci, and Salvatore Ferragamo.

Where to Stay: The historic Helvetia & Bristol Firenze, which opened in 1885 as Florence’s first luxury hotel, is a veritable museum of Florentine craftsmanship, from glass and fabric to antique furnishings. Located in the heart of the historic district, it’s about to unveil 25 new rooms and suites designed by Anouska Hempel. Or book one of the Panoramic Suites and indulge your Room With a View fantasies.


BRUGES, BELGIUM

Think “pretty European city” and you probably picture cobblestone lanes, picturesque canals, colorful markets, and ornate churches. In other words, you’re thinking of Bruges, one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe, the so-called “Venice of the North” is quaint and romantic, and compact enough to explore on foot in just a couple of days. Start in Market Square, where step-gabled merchants’ houses surround a broad plaza lined with cafés that serve piping hot bowls of steamed mussels and frothy beer. Climb the 366 steps of the 13th-century Belfort bell tower for a panoramic view of the oval-shaped town. A stroll along the tree-lined Dijver canal leads to the Groeningemuseum, whose collection of Flemish Master paintings reflects Bruges’ prosperity in the 14th and 15th centuries. The icing on this fairytale cake of a city? The four perfectly charming windmills still stand on the city’s eastern banks.

Where to Stay: The just-renovated Grand Hotel Casselbergh located steps from Market Square and has 118 rooms spread among three historic buildings and a modern annex. The design artfully blends traditional with contemporary (damask wallcoverings here, an Eames lounge chair there), and you can work out any cobblestone-induced kinks at the spa.


PORTO, PORTUGAL

Not to take anything away from lovely Lisbon, but Porto has our vote for the most authentically beautiful city in Portugal. Its charms are organic and lived-in — from the banks of the Douro River, lined with port wine warehouses and ramshackle cafés, to the cheek-by-jowl rows of historic buildings that rise steeply from its banks to the medieval churches clad in intricate blue tiles. But this is not a city that dwells in a storied past: Some of its most captivating sites are of more recent vintage, like Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Música, a concert hall shaped like a faceted diamond, or the blindingly white and angular Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect (and Porto native) Álvaro Siza Vieira. Porto is a place to stroll, sip (white port and tonic, the city’s favorite cocktail, is unexpectedly delicious), and discover at ease. Around any given corner, you might find a hip seafood restaurant like Peixaria da Esquina; a bookstore whose Baroque staircase inspired Harry Potter (we’re talking about the Livraria Lello); a provocative street art mural; or a miradouro (viewpoint) looking out over the iconic Maria Pia Bridge, designed by Gustave Eiffel.

Where to Stay: Port wine got its name from the city that has been trading it since the 13th century, so staying at the wine-themed The Yeatman is a natural choice. Stylish and luxurious, the hotel has 70 rooms with balconies, a restaurant boasting two Michelin stars, and a spa specializing in vinothérapie treatments by Caudalie.


ST. MORITZ, SWITZERLAND

Winner of the prize for City With the Most Ridiculously Gorgeous Setting, St. Moritz occupies prime real estate in the Swiss Alps, nestled beneath the spectacular Piz Nair mountain and overlooking the splendid Upper Engadine Valley and postcard-perfect Lake St. Moritz — all at a snowy-white altitude of nearly 6,000 feet. The town has a reputation for glitz and glamour, and you’re not unlikely to spot a few crowned heads and fur-swathed supermodels in the winter season. But at heart, it’s a sportsperson’s destination, a place for ice-skating under the stars, tobogganing on the famous Cresta Run, and, of course, schussing down the slopes at Corviglia. The town’s 300 days of sunshine add glimmer to the skyline, an architectural melting pot that runs from the iconic tower of Badrutt’s Palace to futuristic buildings like Sir Norman Foster’s Chesa Futura. St. Moritz is charming in its eccentricity, and therein lies its beauty,

Where to Stay: The legendary Kulm Hotel more or less invented winter tourism in the 1890s, and it remains a staple of Swiss luxury. After an elegant six-course dinner in the chandelier-bedecked Grand Restaurant, head up to your suite, light up the log fireplace, and gaze out the window at the twinkling lights surrounding the lake.


PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC

When it comes to historical ambiance, Prague is unbeatable. This imperial city flourished throughout several eras you’re supposed to remember from history class — Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Austro-Hungarian, and so on. Translation: a lot of incredible architecture, most of which was spared destruction during WWII. The highlights? Medieval Charles Bridge, whose stone arches and baroque monuments are atmospheric despite the crowds; the ornate, brooding St. Vitus Cathedral; enormous Prague Castle; and the Old Town Square, where the Astronomical Clock has been chiming every hour since the 1300s. At night, the whole Old City lights up, its spires and rooftops reflected on the Vltava River beneath a seemingly endless parade of arched bridges. (The city is also particularly fetching in the early morning, while all the tourists are still at breakfast.) Get a great view from Petrin Hill, or from Terasa U Zlaté Studne, a hilltop fine dining restaurant with three terraces.

Where to Stay: Right below Prague Castle, the Aria Hotel has 51 luxurious rooms, each with a different musical theme, from Dvorak and Beethoven to American blues. Bonus: The hotel’s private entrance to the Vrtba Garden, itself one of Prague’s most beautiful spots.


LECCE, ITALY

Yes, it’s a little unfair to have two Italian entries in a list of the most beautiful cities in Europe. But we couldn’t help ourselves: The Italians just know how to do it right. This time, we went a bit further afield, to the increasingly popular region of Puglia on the heel of the boot. Commonly called the Florence of the South, Lecce has a remarkable collection of Baroque monuments (but a fraction of Florence’s crowds), most of them built in the region’s pale golden limestone. The city is small enough to check off the important landmarks in a couple of days: the Roman Amphitheater, the ostentatious Duomo, the intricately carved Basilica di Santa Croce. But we love just wandering the web of streets, ducking into alleyways and under arches, popping into cafés for an iced espresso with almond milk, a Leccese specialty. Indeed, the rustic regional cuisine is one of the most beautiful things about Lecce. Sample it at Le Zie Trattoria, where the nonnas will fill you up with orecchiette and other freshly made pasta.

Where to Stay: An old masseria (farmhouse) turned into a luxury boutique hotel, La Fiermontina has 15 exquisitely designed rooms where you’ll sleep in minimalist furniture under arched limestone ceilings. Alfresco dinner in the garden, surrounded by olive and orange trees, is simply divine.


TOLEDO, SPAIN

Spain has no shortage of beautiful cities: majestic Madrid, exuberant Barcelona, elaborate Granada. But for us, Toledo takes the prize for being so easy to experience. A one-hour train ride from Madrid, this ancient capital has been occupied by Visigoths, Romans, Moors, and Castilians — all of whom left behind architectural and artistic treasures. The town sits on the top of a mountain whose slopes are dotted with astonishing monuments, from the grandiose Gothic Cathedral to the foreboding Alcázar fortress to the El Tránsito Synagogue, decorated in finely filigreed plasterwork. Don’t miss the El Greco Museum, which houses many of the Toledo artist’s brooding masterpieces. And book a meal at Restaurante Adolfo, where the gastronomic Spanish dishes are matched only by the views from the rooftop terrace.

Where to Stay: Imagine relaxing by a pool with a cocktail as you gaze at the twinkling lights of Toledo in the distance — that’s the setting of the Parador de Toledo, one of the jewels of the Spanish network of government-run hotels. Rooms retain a classic sensibility, while the elegant dining room serves delicious Iberian cuisine.


COPENHAGEN, DENMARK

We can talk for hours about the physical beauty of Copenhagen’s historic waterfront and quaint canals, its princely palaces, and charming gardens. But the Danish capital merits a place on the list of most beautiful cities in Europe for its contemporary style alone. The fashionably dressed Danes riding everywhere on bikes. The perfectly designed chairs (the Design Museum is a must-stop for furniture fanatics). The restaurants serving innovative cuisine impeccably presented on oh-so-chic plates. (If you can’t get into Noma or Relæ, try Kødbyens Fiskebar, a cool seafood spot in a converted warehouse.) Even the air feels fresher here, thanks to the Danish dedication to sustainability. Leave enough time in your itinerary for a side-trip to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, whose show-stopping seaside setting is around an hour north of the city.

Where to Stay: Lovers of great interior design are spoiled for choice here, but we often gravitate to the Radisson Collection Hotel, Royal Copenhagen, a Midcentury Modernist masterpiece designed by Arne Jacobsen in 1960 and smartly updated in 2018 by of-the-moment firm Space Copenhagen.


TALLINN, ESTONIA

One of the most beautiful cities in Europe that you may not have heard of, Tallinn wins us over for its perfectly preserved medieval core, fairytale castles, Hanseatic houses, and nearby Baltic beaches. Within the 13th-century walls of the Old City, narrow, cobblestoned lanes lead to charming cafés, onion-domed churches, and viewpoints that show off the city’s red-roofed skyline. (In fact, the best view may be from the top of St. Olaf’s Church, whose steeple was the tallest building in the world for a stretch — around 450 years ago!) The crowds can become overwhelming, especially when cruise ships are in port. But it’s easy to make your escape. Try one of the leafy parks, such as Kadriorg, designed for Tsar Peter the Great; or to the Rotermanni quarter, a warehouse district that’s been stylishly redeveloped; or the affluent Pirita district with its seafront promenade.

Where to Stay: Located within the walled Old City, the Three Sisters occupies a trio of merchants’ houses and offers 23 rooms, each of them uniquely and smartly designed. Yours might feature a spiral staircase, a four-poster bed, or a clawfoot tub looking over the city’s rooftops.


PARIS, FRANCE

Did you get to the bottom of this list and think “How could they forget Paris?!” Mais non! We wouldn’t dream of it. Paris is hands-down the most beautiful city in Europe, if not the world. The broad boulevards are lined with mansard-roofed buildings. The snow-white domes of Sacré Coeur and the Neoclassical stateliness of the Panthéon. The ethereal stained-glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle and the Beaux-Arts grandeur of the Musée d’Orsay (not to mention the Monets and Dégas and Van Goghs inside). The gardens and parks and benches and streetlamps. Even the Métro stations are works of art. Paris, simply put, casts a spell, and while there are some poor souls who are immune to its charms, to the rest of us Paris is a series of small but breathtaking moments. The crackle as you bite into a warm, just-baked croissant. The sight of a child floating a boat in the Jardin du Luxembourg. A glimpse of the Eiffel Tower peeking between buildings as you speed by in a taxi. Open your heart and your eyes to Paris, and she always delivers.

Where to Stay: There are many superb choices in Paris, but we’re particularly smitten these days with La Réserve, a Haussmannian mansion originally built for Napoleon III and now redone by Jacques Garcia in an opulent but understated style. The rooms, common areas, and restaurant spare no luxury but still feel intimate, like the Paris pied-à-terre of your dreams.

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