Paris, France’s capital, is a major European city and a global center for art, fashion, gastronomy and culture. Its 19th-century cityscape is crisscrossed by wide boulevards and the River Seine. Beyond such landmarks as the Eiffel Tower and the 12th-century, Gothic Notre-Dame cathedral, the city is known for its cafe culture and designer boutiques along the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
The famed Louvre museum houses da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” The Musée d’Orsay has Impressionist works by Monet, Degas and Renoir. On the Seine’s Right Bank, the Montmartre neighborhood is home to Sacré-Coeur Basilica and sweeping hilltop views. In the Marais, nightclubs sit among restored 17th-century mansions. On the Left Bank are the Latin Quarter, bustling with Sorbonne scholars, and the historically bohemian Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The city’s open-air cafes are an institution for casual eating and people-watching. Fine-dining restaurants, bistros, markets and patisseries reflect other aspects of France’s famed culinary heritage.
Barcelona, the cosmopolitan capital of Spain’s Catalonia region, is known for its art and architecture. The fantastical Sagrada Família church and other modernist landmarks designed by Antoni Gaudí dot the city. Museu Picasso and Fundació Joan Miró feature modern art by their namesakes. City history museum MUHBA, includes several Roman archaeological sites.
Barcelona’s medieval roots are seen in the mazelike Gothic Quarter. The bustling central promenade, La Rambla, is lined with cafes. North of La Barceloneta, a neighborhood with a wide beach and seafood restaurants, Parc de la Ciutadella is home to the Zoo Barcelona. Parc Güell is a hilltop garden with colorful Gaudí mosaics and panoramic views. A funicular climbs to the top of Montjuïc, where the Magic Fountain presents light and music shows, and the Palau Nacional displays Catalan art. The culinary scene, anchored by La Boqueria market, ranges from fine dining to tapas bars. Vibrant nightlife can be found in El Born and Eixample.
Amsterdam is the Netherlands’ capital, known for its artistic heritage, elaborate canal system and narrow houses with gabled facades, legacies of the city’s 17th-century Golden Age. Its Museum District houses the Van Gogh Museum, works by Rembrandt and Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum, and modern art at the Stedelijk. Cycling is key to the city’s character, and there are numerous bike paths.
Vondelpark has cafes and an open-air theater, and the nearby Royal Concertgebouw is a prominent classical-music venue. In the Jordaan district are shops and galleries, as well as the Anne Frank House, where the Jewish diarist hid during the Second World War. Dining ranges from casually decorated “living room” restaurants to traditional Dutch eateries and Indonesian rijsttafel (“rice table”) specialists. Coffee shops sell small amounts of marijuana. The neon-lit Red Light District is home to the Erotic Museum, exhibiting provocative paintings and prints. In spring, Amsterdam is a base for visits to the surrounding tulip attractions.
Madrid, Spain’s central capital, is a city of elegant boulevards and expansive, manicured parks such as the Buen Retiro. It’s renowned for its rich repositories of European art, including the Prado Museum’s works by Goya, Velázquez and other Spanish masters. The heart of old Hapsburg Madrid is the portico-lined Plaza Mayor, and nearby is the baroque Royal Palace and Armory, displaying historic weaponry.
In the 1970s Madrid became the epicenter of La Movida, a burst of expression in the arts. The Prado forms a “Golden Triangle” with the Reina Sofía Museum (home to Picasso’s “Guernica”) and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. Sunday flea market El Rastro is in the medieval La Latina neighborhood, popular for nightlife, theater and tapas bars. Central square Puerta del Sol houses the statue of the Bear and Strawberry Tree from the city’s coat of arms, while the Museo Arqueológico Nacional displays a vast collection of historic artifacts. Real Madrid, the dominant soccer club, plays at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.
Rome, Italy’s capital, is a sprawling, cosmopolitan city with nearly 3,000 years of globally influential art, architecture and culture on display. Ancient ruins such as the Forum and the Colosseum evoke the power of the former Roman Empire. Vatican City, headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, has St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums, which house masterpieces such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes.
The 18th-century Spanish Steps sit at the heart of Rome’s high-end shopping district, with designer boutiques lining Via Condotti and Via Borgognona. Visitors toss coins into the iconic, baroque Trevi Fountain. The Pantheon, dating to the second-century A.D., holds Raphael’s Renaissance-era tomb. Rome’s hearty cuisine includes such traditional dishes as carbonara, amatriciana and saltimbocca. After-dark activities range from seeing one of Verdi’s classic operas at Teatro dell’Opera to club-hopping in working-class Testaccio, once the city’s slaughterhouse district.