After arriving in one of Europe’s cultural capitals, you could check into your hotel and take time to rest and reset. Or you could hit the ground running – what jet lag? – and make the most of your trip. From hiking to Prague Castle, to people watching in Paris, to soaking in thermal waters in Budapest: here are the best ways to spend your first hours in town.

A hand holding a delicious cone of Italian gelato in front of the Pantheon in Rome
Why wait for that first delicious taste of Italian gelato? © Uğur Keskin / Getty Images

Stroll around Rome with a gelato in hand

The quickest way to start your Roman holiday is to find the nearest gelateria (ice cream shop) and order a cone to go. Traditionally prepared in small batches using natural ingredients, gelato (Italian-style ice cream) has less sugar and fat (and more flavour) than regular ice cream. In spring or summer, choose a flavour made from seasonal fruit, like limone (lemon) or fragola (strawberry), or opt for local favourites like nocciola (hazelnut) and pistacchio (pistachio). Traveling with kids? Ask for stracciatella – it’s the Italian version of chocolate chip. Then take a passeggiata (a leisurely walk) around Rome's beautiful fountains and squares. Staring at the Trevi Fountain or walking through Piazza Navona while gelato drips down the side of your hand is a rite of passage for first-time visitors to Rome, and you’ll see plenty of locals doing exactly the same thing. For the best gelato experience, look for signs indicating that the gelato is made in-house: key phrases are fatto en casa (homemade) and artigianale (artisanal).

Tourists biking along Barcelona's waterfront promenade with the W Hotel in the background
Get the blood flowing as you pedal along Barcelona's waterfront promenade © Margaret Stepien / Lonely Planet

Pedal along the beach in Barcelona

There’s no better way to shake off travel fatigue than to hop on a bicycle and pedal along the beach, watching waves crash in the distance as locals play volleyball on the sand. It’s easy to do in Barcelona, though it’s worth noting that the city bikeshare stands are only for residents. No problem: outfitters all over town rent bicycles starting at around €5 an hour. An hour or two is the perfect amount of time to explore the seaside neighbourhood of Barceloneta and the Passeig Marítim de Barcelona (waterfront promenade) on two wheels. It’s also a great opportunity to scope out the ideal sunset spot or tapas bar to come back to later: Barceloneta is home to a number of low-key seafood restaurants.

An aerial view of Charles Bridge and people crossing Prague's Vltava River with the castle in the background
Charles Bridge will lead the way toward Prague Castle © kaprik / Shutterstock

Hike to Prague Castle for a beer overlooking the city

Don’t let your non-existent Czech skills stop you from jumping immediately into the fairy-tale scenery of Prague. To get started on an adventure in this city, you won’t need much time to get oriented. Prague Castle looms high above the city: just locate it on the skyline and start walking toward it. If you’re coming from Staré Mesto (Old Town), where many travellers base themselves, the walk toward the castle will take you across the incredibly picturesque Charles Bridge and through the winding streets of Malá Strana (‘Little Quarter’) until you reach the steep uphill climb to the castle. You’ll be rewarded at the top with sweeping views over the city’s red roofs and romantic spires. Many cafés and bars feature outdoor terraces where you can stop for a cold pivo (beer) and toast your good fortune – after all, you’ve just arrived in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

A person bathing at Széchenyi Thermal Baths in Budapest
Soak away your travels with a therapeutic dip in one of Budapest's thermal baths © Li Kim Goh / Getty Images

Soak in thermal waters in Budapest

Whether you’re arriving in Budapest after a long plane ride or a journey by train, you’ll be glad to soak away travel-related aches and pains in the healing waters of the city’s famed public baths. One of the largest natural hot-spring spa baths in Europe, the Széchenyi Thermal Baths is not a tourist attraction (expect to be at least somewhat confused by the signs in Hungarian, not to mention the staggering number of options at the ticket counter), but a functional wellness centre and social space that’s regularly used by locals and visitors alike. Bring flip-flops, a swimsuit and a towel, if you can: towel rental is available, but bringing your own is easier. Check out the website for more information on prices and packages, and book online ahead of time if you’re hoping to try an additional service, like a massage. Note that Széchenyi isn’t your only option in town. There are more than a dozen other public baths available in the city.

A small pedestrian cobbled street in the old district of Le Marais in Paris, France, behind Saint-Gervais church, with people having lunch on the shady terrace of a restaurant by a sunny summer day
Le Marais is one of Paris' most intriguing neighbourhoods © olrat / Getty Images

People-watch at an outdoor café in Paris

First-time visitors to Paris often make a beeline for the Eiffel Tower. But there’s a better way to ease into the Parisian lifestyle that doesn’t involve battling crowds of tourists. Simply take a seat in an outdoor café – Le Marais is the perfect neighbourhood for this, but any arrondissement will do – and watch the world go by over a café (espresso) or café crème (espresso with milk).

Vintage yellow Tram #28 weaving through the city streets of Lisbon, Portugal
Hop aboard Lisbon's Tram 28 and get acquainted with the city © Jui-Chi Chan / Getty Images

Go for a ride on tram #28E in Lisbon

If you’re feeling too jet-lagged to brave the hilly streets of Lisbon on foot, your next best option is to see the city on the historic tramway. Climb aboard tram #28E, a vintage yellow tram that travels through some of the city’s liveliest neighbourhoods including Graça, Baixa, Alfama, and Estrela. A 24-hour pass, available in metro stations, costs around €6, and you can hop on and off at key stops along the way; pause to enjoy the sweeping views over the city at the Alfama miradouro (viewpoint) and Chiado, Lisbon’s arts district. Don’t be deterred by the long lines at the tram stops: most travellers in line are just waiting for a tram with available seats, but you can climb right on if you don’t mind standing.

Colourful flowers and tulips on display at Amsterdam's Bloemenmarkt
Stop and smell the flowers in Amsterdam © Life is your art / Getty Images

Wander through the flower market in Amsterdam

There’s so much to see and do in Amsterdam. A great way to get into the swing of things during your first hours in town is to visit the Bloemenmarkt (Flower Market). At the city’s iconic marketplace, which dates back to 1862 and is located on the Unesco-honoured Canal Ring, glass-encased barges house countless varieties of tulips, peonies, violets and orchids. Especially after a long trip, a wander here is a fragrant and colourful (read: Instagram-worthy) way start to your exploration of the city. Rain or shine, it’s open every day except Sunday.

This article was produced by Lonely Planet for M&S Bank and updated November 2019 for sponsorship by American Airlines. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.

This article was first published June 2019 and updated June 2019

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