10 essential stops for Europe first-timers

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We've come a long way since the emergence of the 17th-century 'Grand Tour,' when the wealthy (mostly Brits) finished their education with a real year in the world, learning to fence in Paris, studying art in Florence, climbing the Swiss Alps, and complaining about the service in Athens.

Over time, the first-timer traveler's trails across Europe have swayed back'n'forth, with changes ushered in by the advent of trains, Mark Twain's 'is he dead?' jokes, and the rising or falling of an Iron Curtain or two.

So, what is the 'Grand Tour' version of today? The Lonely Planet Discover Europe guide has one that gives a wide-eyed first-timer the 10 best of Europe's cities in three weeks. (Of course, it's OK to take longer.)

LONDON

Two days isn't a huge amount of time in a city with so much to do but you should still be able to see highlights like the Tower, Tate Modern, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace as well as attend a West End theatre show and enjoy the ethnic eateries of the East End.

PARIS

A high-speed Channel Tunnel train takes you to the sights in Paris. Overlooking the avenues from the Arc de Triomphe, seeing the Louvre or Versailles and a beautiful church or two is the least you can do. Try lively Montmartre for dinner.

BARCELONA

An overnight ride of the rails and you’re at your next stop, colourful Barcelona, where the organic Modernista architecture and Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia will wow you. Don’t miss the Catalan cooking. Your first flight of the trip moves you along to…

ROME

The Eternal City; they say a lifetime isn’t enough to know it. During two days sightseeing in Rome, choose from among the monumental attractions of the Colosseum, Vatican City, Pantheon, Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. Evenings you’ll be eating out in the centro storico and Trastevere.

VIENNA

Overnight on the train to the imperial city of Vienna (which 'waits for you' according to Billy Joel), where you’ll linger in a coffee house, watch the Lipizzaner stallions, wander the pedestrian shopping streets and see a performance at the Staatsoper.

BUDAPEST

Just three hours away, Budapest also has a lively cafe culture, plus a vibrant mix of old and new. Be sure to visit Castle Hill and take a soak in one of the city’s thermal baths.

BERLIN

A full day riding the rails brings you to the sights of Berlin, Europe's most rapidly changing (and exciting) city; must-sees include all the Berlin Wall galleries, memorials and museums, plus new city sights like the Sony Centre and Filmmuseum. At night Kreuzberg is the alternative nightlife hub, while Prenzlauer Berg is more grown up.

DUBROVNIK

You’ll have to board a plane in order to be dazzled by the marble streets and red roofs of Dubrovnik, Croatia. By all means, first walk the city walls; the views over the town and sea are great. Explore the rest of the old town and take a seat at a cafe or along one of the beaches.

ATHENS

The Greek capital is a treasure trove of ancient ruins with the magnificent buildings of the hill-top Acropolis heading the list. Below it stand more impressive remains, plus bustling flea markets and lively tavernas giving you a taste of more modern Athenian life.

ISTANBUL

Once you’ve touched down you’ve reached the edge of Europe, where east meets west. In Old İstanbul explore the Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace and Aya Sofya. Then shop and dine in modern Beyoğlu, centre of the city’s nightlife. A boat ride on the Bosphorus gives you the chance to step foot in Asia, looking back at the Europe you’ve just explored.

FURTHER READING: There are plenty of related articles on lonelyplanet.com. If you want to concentrate on the East, check out the top 10 Eastern European getaways. Or swap your Western Europe sites for some recommended Eastern alternatives. But hey, they're all good!