Interlocking countries and cultures create a jigsaw of history, art, architecture and cuisines, along with time-honoured traditions and inspired new trends.
In Western Europe, history is all around you: in prehistoric Cro-Magnon caves, in other-worldly passage tombs and stone circles, in the tumbledown remains of Greek temples and Roman bathhouses, in ostentatious chateaux, castles and palaces where power was wielded and geopolitical boundaries were shaped and reshaped, in the winding streets and broad boulevards of the many stately cities, and at poignant sites including the D-Day beaches and the remnants of the Berlin Wall. Understanding Europe's history is a vital part of figuring out what makes these countries what they are today, both individually and as part of a greater whole.
Extraordinary Art & Architecture
An architectural heritage spanning seven millenniums has given rise to iconic, instantly recognisable landmarks, from Rome's gladiatorial Colosseum to Cologne's colossal cathedral, London's Big Ben and Paris' art nouveau Eiffel Tower, along with sky-scraping contemporary additions. This expressive environment is inextricably tied to Western Europe's artistic legacy. The home turf of virtuosos from Michelangelo to Monet, Da Vinci to Dalí, Rubens to Rembrandt, Botticelli to Banksy continues to inspire boundary-pushing new artists. A cache of monumental and intimate museums, galleries and public spaces throughout Western Europe showcase their exceptional works.
Distinct cultures, defined by their language, customs, specialities, idiosyncrasies, sense of style and way of life, make Western Europe an endlessly fascinating place to travel. Along country borders in particular, you can see where cultures intertwine and overlap. You'll also see subtle cultural shifts between each country's own regions, and the influence of trade and immigration over the centuries. Wherever you travel, allow time to soak up local life in public squares, parks and gardens, vibrant festivals, and in neighbourhood pubs and cafes where you can watch the world go by.
Celebrated Food & Drink
Eating and drinking is celebrated with gusto in Western Europe. Every country has its own unique flavours, incorporating olive oils and sun-ripened vegetables in the hot south, rich cream and butter in cooler areas, fresh-off-the-boat seafood along the coast, delicate river and lake fish, and meat from fertile mountains and pastures. Each country has its own tipples too, spanning renowned wines, beers, stouts and ciders, and feistier firewater including aperitifs and digestifs. One of the best ways to whet your appetite is to browse vibrant street markets laden with seasonal produce.
Why I Love Western Europe
I love that you only have to travel a short distance in Western Europe to find yourself in a completely different environment. From the language, streetscapes, street food, music and fashion to the climate, topography and spectacular landscapes, as well as the rhythm of daily life, there's an astonishing diversity in this compact area that's easily accessible thanks to its fantastic transport network. What I love most, though, isn't the countries' differences but the similarities that unite them – above all, a passion for the quality of life here and a community spirit that transcends individual borders.
Budget: Less than €100
- Dorm bed: €20–50
- Double room in budget property per person: €40–65
- Excellent markets; restaurant main under €12
- Local bus/train tickets: €5–10
- Double room in midrange hotel per person: €65–125
- Restaurant main €12–25
- Museum admission: free–€15
- Short taxi trip: €10–20
Top End: More than €250
- Iconic hotel per person: from €125
- Destination restaurant three-course meal with wine per person: from €65
- Prime tickets to a performance in a grand opera house per person: from €60
Regions at a Glance
Each Western European nation's own distinct and tangible culture – and often more than one, given regional differences within each country – is one of the true joys of travelling throughout the continent. Whether you're visiting Western Europe's powerhouse nations, midsized countries or diminutive principalities, you'll see that size doesn't matter: cultural traditions are tied to history rather than the influence of any particular country, and even the smallest nations here have their own customs, cuisines and way of life that make a visit fascinating.
With a pedigree spanning Mozart to Strauss, Austria has some magnificent performance spaces and fabulous summer music festivals; in winter, skiers flock to the Alpine slopes. The country's baroque streetscapes and palaces are steeped in imperial history.
Belgium & Luxembourg
Belgian beer, in its multitude of varieties, is renowned, as is the country's heavenly pralines and other exquisite chocolates. Belgium's most splendid towns include canal-woven Bruges and picturesque Ghent, while Luxembourg City is neighbouring Luxembourg's showpiece.
Stonehenge's standing stones and the astonishing Roman remains of Hadrian's Wall are just some of the millennia-old historical remnants here. Shakespeare is among the wordsmiths to have left his literary legacy, inspired by Britain's glorious landscapes.
France's beautiful capital, Paris, headlines a roll-call of enchanting cities, Lyon, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Marseille and Nice included. Wherever you go, you'll find exceptional cuisine – from lace-curtained bistros to Michelin-starred extravaganzas – matched only by renowned French wines.
With its grandiose castles, hallowed universities and sobering 20th-century monuments, Germany is a history classroom writ large. Its beer-purity law dates from 1516, and the country has well over 1000 breweries as well as rollicking festivals.
The Acropolis is the iconic symbol of an ancient civilisation that’s a basis for so much of Western culture. But civilisation feels a world away on Greece's beguiling islands with their beaches, tavernas and ultrafresh seafood.
It's not the Guinness but the engaging locals that make Ireland's pubs unique. Whether in plays, literature or music, they've created cultural poetry, drawing on the rugged hills, stone-walled fields and cliff-framed coastlines of the Emerald Isle.
The Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Vatican…Italy's history is woven into the country's contemporary fabric. Works by Renaissance masters Michelangelo and da Vinci endure, as do Italy's culinary specialities, from pizza and pasta to gelato.
The famously flat Dutch landscape has a nationwide bike infrastructure and a glorious backdrop of canals, windmills, tulip fields and gabled Golden Age buildings containing works by home-grown artists including Rembrandt and Vermeer.
Beyond the atmospheric capital, Lisbon, charming urban centres include Unesco World Heritage–listed Porto and medieval Coimbra. Listen out for Portugal's soulful fado music. Along the Atlantic coast, some of Europe's best surf pounds Portugal's beaches.
Seville's orange-blossom-scented public squares, Granada's mighty Alhambra, buzzing Barcelona and art-filled Madrid…Spain's cities are cultural magnets, while its lesser-known beaches make blissful retreats. Tapas, ham, olives and paella head up the country's gastronomic treats.
Switzerland's soaring Alpine peaks offer panoramic hiking in summer and fantastic skiing and snowboarding come winter. Glittering lakes frame picturesque Swiss cities such as Geneva, Lausanne and Lucerne. Country-wide, foodie favourites include chocolate, melted-cheese-and-potato raclette and fondue.
Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com/europe) Destination info, hotel bookings, traveller forums and more.
The Man in Seat 61 (www.seat61.com) Comprehensive information about travelling Europe by train.
Ferrylines (www.ferrylines.com) Excellent portal for researching ferry routes and operators throughout Europe.
Michelin (www.viamichelin.com) Calculates the best driving routes and estimates toll and fuel costs.
BBC News (www.bbc.co.uk/news) Find out what's happening before you arrive.
Europa (http://europa.eu) Official website of the EU.
- A lifetime isn't long enough to experience all Western Europe has to offer: prioritise what you most want to see, plan realistically and have back-up options in case of unforeseen circumstances such as adverse weather.
- Western Europe gets very crowded in the warmer months; reduce time spent in queues by booking tickets to top attractions in advance wherever possible.
- Check whether festivals and events are taking place before you arrive; these can be a great way to experience local culture but accommodation can be impossible to find or astronomically priced, and shops and services may be closed.
- Lingering at a cafe terrace, pub, park, market and other places locals hang out is as much a part of experiencing Western Europe as ticking off the major sights.
- Keep your electrical charger (and adapter if needed) in your day pack.
- City of Wine, Bordeaux, France
Shaped like a golden decanter on the banks of the Garonne River, Bordeaux's sparking new Cité du Vin evokes the history, culture and savoir faire of French viticulture.
- FICO Eataly World, Bologna, Italy
Italian cuisine 'from field to fork' is the focus of this 80,000-sq-metre complex comprising farms, cultivation areas, markets and restaurants, which is set to open in late 2017. (http://eatalyworld.it)
- Shakespeare's School Room, Stratford-upon-Avon, England
The Stratford school room where the world's most famous playwright was taught the three Rs from 1571 to 1578 was opened to the public in 2016.
- Cutting-Edge Design, Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon's most eye-catching new structure is the seemingly shape-shifting Museu de Arte, Arquitetura e Tecnologia (Art, Architecture & Technology Museum; MAAT), located along Belém's waterfront.
- Titanic-themed Hotel, Belfast, Northern Ireland
The former Harland & Wolff Headquarters in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, where the plans for the ill-fated liner were drawn up, is being transformed into an 84-room Titanic-themed hotel launching in 2017. (http://visitbelfast.com)
- Arlberg's Slopes, Tyrol, Austria
New cable cars whisk skiers between Lech and St Anton am Arlberg, creating Austria's largest interconnected area, with 305km of slopes to pound and 87 ski lifts.
- North Coast 500, Scotland
This 500-mile circuit of northern Scotland's jaw-dropping coastline is proving an overnight hit with cars, campervans, motorbikes and bicycles. (www.northcoast500.com)
- Fast-Train Expansion, Spain
Spain's freshly expanded fast-train network has cut travel time significantly from Madrid to numerous regional towns, among them León, Palencia, Zamora and Salamanca, while Galicia is also now a whole lot closer. (www.renfe.com)
- Thrill Walk, Schilthorn, Switzerland
If you have a head for heights, take the aptly named Thrill Walk, an impossibly sheer cliff pathway that leads down the vertical rock massif, ending below the cable-car station. (http://schilthorn.ch)
- Teeling Distillery, Dublin, Ireland
It will be a few years yet before Dublin's first new distillery to open in 125 years actually produces whiskey; in the meantime, its fascinating visitor centre explains how it's made.
- Direct Eurostar to Amsterdam, the Netherlands
From late 2017, a direct London–Amsterdam route, with stops including Rotterdam and Schiphol Airport, will cut travel time to around four hours. (www.eurostar.com)
When to Go
High Season (Jun–Aug)
- Visitors arrive and Europeans hit the road; prices peak.
- Beautiful weather means that everybody is outside at cafes.
- Businesses in major cities often have seasonal closures around August.
Shoulder (Apr, May, Sep & Oct)
- Moderate weather with frequent bright, clear days.
- Almost everything is open.
- Considered high season in some places such as Italy's big art cites (Rome, Florence, Venice).
Low Season (Nov–Mar)
- Apart from ski resorts and Christmas markets, much is closed in regional areas.
- Perfect for enjoying major cities where indoor attractions and venues stay open.
- Prices often plummet.