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The Best Big Cities of Europe: The Curmudgeon's Guide

My favorite big cities in Europe, usually...

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rome piazza navonna

One of Europe's Great Cities, Rome: Piazza Navonna

James Martin
Amsterdam picture

Amsterdam Picture: Typical scene near the port

James Martin
paris picture

A scene in Paris, one of Europe's great cities

James Martin, Europe Travel

What's the best place in Europe to visit?" is the inevitable question asked a million times, a question as impossible to answer as "how long is a piece of string?" Imagine: if we all lusted after exactly the same place, the world would likely wobble out of its orbit from the weight imbalance. But there comes a time when the hapless travel writer must take a long gulp on his Bourbon and Branch-water and apply himself to the impossible task of telling people what their favorite places ought to be without knowing their likes, dislikes, or inseam measurements. Harrumph...and so be it.

The Curmudgeon's Choice of Europe's Top Vacation Cities - From North to South

London England

Who Should Go:

  • Tourists afraid to be in a country where they don't know the language (remember not to leave anything in the boot of your car while in London!)
  • Pale penny-pinching paupers without the money to fly further than the first cheap stop in Europe (they'll pay in the end--London is expensive!)
  • Travelers who like strong ale and theater
  • History buffs - Even American History buffs - and English lit fans

When They Should Visit: May through October, but you're liable to get rained upon anyway. A crisp winter's day is not altogether bad, though, especially if you're planning a day out in the burbs.

Best Bets: British Museum (free), Tate Modern (if you like modern art), Victoria and Albert Museum (Decorative arts), Buckingham Palace, Westminster Palace. The list seems endless, especially if you have only a few days, as most folks do.

Up and Coming: Little Venice, St. Katherine's Dock (restaurants, clubs, cafes)

Literary figures to follow: Imagine Dickens' London as you trundle through the historic city, stopping at his house and his character's favorite haunts.

Amsterdam, Holland

Who Should Visit:

  • Lovers of Dutch Masters (artists I mean, like Rembrandt, not cigars).
  • Bicyclists. It's a bike city in a flat land
  • Free spirits, and those who need chemical assistance to accomplish the dream of free spiritage because they've exhausted all other possibilities
  • Unfree spirits; those who believe that allowing folks the slightest personal freedom leads only to despair and the eventual downfall of society

When They Should Visit: It can rain at any time in Amsterdam, but that's not a reason not to visit this fascinating city. Off season tourists will be rewarded with enough decent weather to stick around. April-May is tulip season. Summer is good for sun worshippers--July and August is the peak season--but there's nothing like brooding off-season clouds for this photographer.

Best Bets: Munching at an Indonesian rijsttafel, wandering along the canals and through the Royal Palace, Rijksmuseum, and Van Gogh Museum. Heading off to the red light district and cafes may suit the free spirits and self-proclaimed, um, sex anthropologists (who should visit the Amsterdam Prostitution Information Center for the down-to-earth scoop) . And of course, Anne Frank's house to end it all on a thoughtful note.

Up and Coming: Reguliersdwarsstraat is the hippest street for nightlife--for a good time...try saying it three times briskly.

Paris, France

Who Should Visit:

  • Starving artists
  • Henry Miller fans
  • Traditional foodies
  • Lovers
  • Anyone wondering what the fuss is all about

When to Visit: Springtime, of course! That's what they all say, anyway. Fall isn't bad either, except I'd rather be rooting around the south of France in search of truffles in the autumn. Summer in Paris isn't bad, really, the city can absorb tourists just fine.

Best Bets: Those who walk the line between starving artists, Henry Miller fans, and traditional foodies will be glad to know that the traditional literary salons are not completely dead. You'll pay more than Henry Miller did. Otherwise, the city is your oyster: hit the Louvre, gawk at the Eiffel Tower and tap your feet to some jazz in the Montparnasse.

Always an odd treat: Place Pigalle's sex museum (yes, they had--and recorded--sex way before Hefner and digicams). Then there's catacombs and sewers and all manner of offbeat Paris stuff to upon which to fritter your tourist dollars away.

Click next for more of the Curmudgeon's Favorite European Cities: The Italian Big Three and Madrid.

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