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Top 10 European Cities for Backpacking

By Simon Thompson
The secret to backpacking across Europe, believe it or not, is being prepared. Europe has so much to offer in terms of arts and culture diversity, and it’s right on our doorstep! You’ll be surprised at what you can find, and gutted at what you might miss.

Here is my top 10 of European cities you CANNOT afford to miss and why!

10. Paris

A clichéd city to some, Paris has more to it than romance, snails and tourists. In the north of the city, Montmatre is magical (have you seen the film Amélie?!) with its highlight being the Sacré Coeur – arguably the city’s best view over Paris. In summer ‘la plage’ comes to Paris in an artificial beach along the banks of the river Seine. Who’d have thought you could tan on the sand with the Eiffel tower in the background?! Something to take advantage of in such a pricey city is free entry for 18-25s from the EU to most of Paris’ monuments and museums – Eiffel Tower not included. Just show your passport and you’ll in for free to the iconic Louvre, Le Musée d’Orsay, Le Centre Pompidou; and can climb Les Champs Elysées and Notre Dame. We recommend a lovely little hostel minutes away from the Sacré Coeur on Coulaincourt Rd called ‘Coulaincourt Boutique Hostel’ (2 Coulaincourt sq) and Blue Planet (5 Rue Hector) across from Gare du Lyon.

*AFS TIP* Be careful of pickpockets, especially on the metro. The place for drinking is the Bastille region with bars open until the early hours – but don’t drink too much.

9. Berlin

Berlin is a must for history and clubbing. We recommend the Judisch museum (9-14, Lindin strasse) and the Berlin Wall, which you’ll find scattered in parts around the city. The outskirts of Berlin are where most things are at, being chock-a-block with late night bars, restaurants and limitless, inexpensive fast food options. I can thoroughly recommend the ‘Hostel X Berger’ down the road from the Schlesisches tor metro stop – friendly, clean and simple.

*AFS TIP* Navigation can be tricky but people are friendly and speak enough English to help. If the complex tube system is too much after a few drinks, be patient and stay with the U-bahn – you’ll inevitably find your way home somehow!

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8. Munich

Its pinnacle may be the ‘Oktoberfest’ 16 day festival that runs from late September (a bit of a push on a backpacker’s budget), but Munich is a charming city all year round. From the picturesque English gardens to the poignant art in the Neue Pinkothek, Munich is a welcoming destination for the English traveller. A highlight in this city is the Lutheran Church, Frauenkirche, in Marienplatz.

*AFS TIP* We’ve stayed several times at the A&O hostel on Arnullstrasse and found it clean and friendly with a very sociable bar. In fact, we recommend hostels like A&O and Wombats in any European city as they’re always clean, cheap and manned with excellent staff, in our experience.

7. Vienna

If you have a taste for art & culture, Vienna’s the city for you. By day, discover the city by foot and by night, jump on a tram as it glides around the lit-up buildings in the city centre. A visit to Belvedere House to see the Gustav Klimt exhibition is a must (just opposite the south train station or a brief walk south of the Shottenring). This museum hosts a spectacular gallery of art classics and even the main lobby is a work of art!

*AFS TIP * There are plenty of hostels, especially by the Westbanhof. And don’t forget to try bratwurst (German sausage) from a street van!

6. Budapest

If you arrive by train to Budapest from Western Europe, you’ll notice the slow erosion of ‘Old Europe’ into new. Stroll down the river and see the Changing of the Guard in the Hungarian Parliament building to get a true feel for this city. Oh, and don’t leave without seeing the Szencheynl bridge lit up at night with the Buda castle behind it - breathtaking. We suggest staying in the ‘Marco Polo Hostel’ on Nyar Utca. It’s friendly, clean, safe & cheap, costing as little as 7 Euros a night for a bed in a dorm.

*AFS TIP* Budapest is out of the Eurozone and their currency is Forints. Shop around for the best exchange rates and bring some before you go to avoid paying fees to withdraw at a cash machine. Also, travel by foot as without tickets the bus system is very complicated.

5. Krakow

Arguably Poland’s oldest and most beautiful city, Krakow is enchanting in both summer and winter. Once Poland’s royal capital, this city is dappled with splendid Gothic and Renaissance architecture, miraculously intact after WWII. Get cosy in a warm cellar bar or restaurant for a drink and meaty grub, or have a helping of history at Wawel castle or Schindler’s Factory. Culture buffs will enjoy the Old City in particular and the main square (Rynek Glowny), which is magical at Christmas and New Year – but very snowy, so wrap up! Or if you’re there for the vodka, well you’re spoilt for choice and you won’t believe how cheap it is!

*AFS TIP* If you can’t afford the train or plane and can handle a long trip, Eurolines do fairly cheap coaches from Krakow-London and vice versa.

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4. Amsterdam

A city that needs little introduction, there’s actually a lot more to Amsterdam than its notorious Red Light District and coffee shops. We strongly recommend a trip to Anne Frank’s house and a stroll around Dam Square, not to mention the Van Gogh and Rembrandt House Museums. For some free fun and a great photo opportunity, head to Museumplein and get a shot of you in front of the giant ‘Amsterdam’ sign. Rembrandtplein is Amsterdam’s focal point for drinking, eating and clubbing.

*AFS TIP* The best way to discover Amsterdam is by bike, and they’re cheap and easy to rent. The Dutch peddle/brake system may seem unnerving at first, but it’s easy to get the hang of (peddle backwards to brake!) The cycle lanes around the city are very sophisticated and a charming spot for a peddle is Vondelpark. Oh, and if you’re on foot don’t walk in the cycle lanes!

3. Barcelona

There is so much do in Barcelona – from the golden beach, the iconic Gaudi architecture in the Sagrada Familia and Park Güell and the smoking hot nightlife. Remember, Spaniards go out to dinner around 9-10pm with wine and sangria and don’t go clubbing until 1ish, which is later than we’re used to in the UK. Equity Point hostel is well located and relatively well priced.

*AFS TIP* Barcelona is famous for pickpockets - watch yourself at the train stations and keep your vital documents and cash in a secure wallet tucked under your clothes, in a bumbag or on a chain.

2. Madrid

In true Spanish siesta style, the people of Madrid have calm, quiet afternoons and lively nights - on a hot July or August, most people will be out until 3 or 4am, or later. Puerto Del Sol is a good spot to get your bearings and seek out a chorizo sandwich and beer. And don’t forget a visit to The Royal Palace, from where you can stroll through the Sabatino gardens in one side, or to the world-renowned Prado museum from the other – the museum is closed on a Monday.

*AFS TIP* A number of museums and sites offer free entry on certain days of the week. Look these up before your visit to save money.

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1. Seville

In the heart of Spain, Seville oozes Conquistador spirit and is incidentally the resting place of Columbus. Here you can get a real taste of authentic Spanish living, which extends right through Andalucía if you get a chance to visit other cities such as Cordoba, Granada, Tarifa and Gibraltar. We recommend the Sevilla Inn hostel, which is fun, friendly, clean and also boasts views of the largest gothic building in the world, the Cathedral.

*AFS TIP* In the July/Aug heat, it gets HOT after midday into the late afternoon, so it’s best to spend some time in the shade.

Interrail Tips

If you like the sound of these destination, why not visit them ALL by interrailing?! Global train passes are available from most travel agents and online from Interrail, or opt for a mixture of multi-region passes lasting 5 or 10 days, or a month.

Cost: About £300-500 for a global rail pass (depending on length of travels) and you can probably live (eating & sleeping, no drinking) on 30 Euros a day (double for Paris).

Plan your trip, but stay flexible and positive as things don’t always work out how you planned – not necessarily a bad thing! Stay safe, be sensible and immerse yourself in the culture and traveller lifestyle. Oh, and have fun!

*AFS GENERAL TIP* You can use sites like or to find hostels and reserve rooms for a small price, although they’ve been known to make mistakes and turn backpackers away - book via a hostel’s official website where possible. In peak periods (June & July) a lot of hostels fill up quickly, so book early if you can.

Written by Lewis MacLean

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