At least for the time being, tourism in Europe’s only increasing. Millions of tourists are making their way through the continent every year, which got us thinking about how many tourists are visiting each city and who’s getting the most foot traffic. We used the most recent data available (so some years use 2017 numbers, while others are 2018) to rank the ten most popular European cities.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
It’s hard to get a read on the Dutch people’s opinion of Amsterdam’s attraction. Of the Dutch we’ve met, we’ve consistently heard Amsterdam isn’t representative of the rest of the country. Which is probably good, because it has to be difficult enough to sustain a red light district as active as Amsterdam’s, let alone taking that policy nationwide. Granted, there’s enough to do in the city while avoiding those areas that no tourist will be bored, regardless of the intent of the trip.
Here’s what could be considered a mind-numbing statistic. More people visit Dublin every year, at almost six million, than live on the island of Ireland, at about 4.8 million. That could be thanks to the large Irish diaspora who want to see where their ancestors lived, the Irish people’s reputation for excellent hospitality, the stunning landscape that surrounds the city or simply Dublin’s magnetic culture of good drink and great craic. It also doesn’t hurt that Guinness’s main brewery is still in Dublin and the city’s pubs have been running a years-long friendly skirmish to see who serves the best pint.
In 1913, Adolf Hitler, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Tito, Sigmund Freud and Joseph Stalin all lived in Vienna. That’s probably not high up on the modern tourist’s list of reasons to visit the city, but it’s an attention grabbing fact nonetheless. Modern tourists are probably much more interested in the Schönbrunn palace and grounds or the hundred or so museums in the city or the permanent fairground built right after World War II or the great shopping, eating and drinking the city offers. Still, it’s important to know the history of the place you’re visiting.
Prague, Czech Republic
We’ve heard the lamentation that Prague and Berlin are two of the last cities in Europe where an artist can go and live the way artists used to, suffering for their work and living off patrons or paycheck to paycheck. While we’re not really inclined to test the validity of that statement, we’d be happy to avail ourselves of the unique culture it creates, especially in Prague. The other unique aspect of Prague is its architecture. It didn’t endure the same kind of destruction as other European capitals during the two wars when Europe tried its hardest to erase itself, so Prague retained beautiful examples of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque period architecture.
Milan’s biggest draw has to be its fashion culture, a culture that ultimately culminates in the semi-annual Milan Fashion Week. The first week comes in either February or March, with the second in September or October. During both weeks, tourists pack the city, most of them eager to see what’s going to emerge on the catwalk that year. Milan also has an interesting relationship with Rome, where the two jockey to see who’s going to pass the other in terms of total tourists. Milan’s even beaten Rome a few times, depending on how tourists are counted.
When a city contains the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Forum (where Caesar was stabbed a couple hundred times), the Trevi Fountain, a whole other country inside it and innumerable other cultural mainstays, that city is guaranteed to attract a some substantial tourism every year. Italy was a cultural behemoth for centuries, often with Rome at the center of all the attention. In fact, it was so dominant for so long, the phrase “All roads lead to Rome” is a fancy way to say something’s inevitable or you’re making your way to the core of the issue. For a few million people, that phrase is still literally true.
This is more of a subjective observation than an objective fact, but we’ve heard far more Europeans talk about vacationing in Spain than Americans, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to us. Spain, Barcelona in particular, has everything Americans could want in an overseas vacation. The city itself is beautiful, it’s super easy to travel on a budget in Barcelona, the people are fairly friendly, the weather never goes bad on you and most Americans we know have at least a passable grasp on Spanish. Let’s get those numbers up, Americans.
Istanbul has the fairly unique designation of straddling two continents, with half the city in Europe and the other half in Asia, which means there’s an argument to be made that putting it on this list is erroneous. But if you wanted to take that route and divide the city’s 12.5 million visitor count in half, Istanbul’s resulting 6.25 million visitors would still qualify by a sizable margin. So instead of all of us getting geographically nitpicky, how about we all just enjoy what the city has to offer tourists?
Paris ranking so high on a list like this shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s the city everyone thinks of when they’re putting together a stereotypical European vacation. They’ll sip cocktails at the same cafes and bars as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, take a romantic night time stroll along the Seine and eat food so good you’d never believe it was prepared by a rat pulling someone’s hair. And you can certainly do all that and have a great time, but you can also put a spin on it and visit the Parisian catacombs, take a World War II walking tour or visit any of the city's weird museums.
London outstrips the competition by nearly four million visitors, which is a bit surprising. We knew it’d be high up there, with Big Ben, Parliament, the Eye, the Globe and, without exaggeration, millennia of history to explore. We just thought Paris or Rome would give London a better run for its money. Obviously not though, as there’s a big enough difference between London’s numbers and Paris’s that you could completely replace everyone in Los Angeles. As for Rome, the 10.2 million person difference is enough to bring every single person in Sweden over for a trip and still have a few hundred thousands spots left over.