In terms of land area, Europe may be the second-smallest continent but the 50 or so European countries offer an extraordinary diversity, from Russia in the north to Greece in the south, west to the Azores and east to the border of Asia.
The countries of Western Europe are prosperous and stable and first in mind for family holidays, while some of the Central and Eastern European states are luring budget-minded travellers keen to enjoy the sun outside the pricey Eurozone.
Travellers visiting Europe have a wealth of holiday itineraries from which to choose: touring Ireland's Burren limestone plateau, seeing the Northern Lights in Sweden or Norway and exploring the French villages in Provence, skiing in the Swiss Alps or relaxing on a beach in the Greek islands.
Europe's jewel-like capitals have a captivating charm, with unique cultural, architectural and historic characters and sites. Romantic Paris is renowned as the beautiful City of Lights; stately Vienna was the centre of the Habsburg Empire for more than 600 years; stunning spire-dotted Prague is a gem of art and architecture, while medieval Krakow was once Poland's capital and seat of kings.
The Mediterranean enjoys hot summers (May to August) and mild winters (December to February). In central and northern Italy and France, the climate is more temperate, with humid summers and cold, damp winters. Summer in Spain and Portugal can be very hot and dry, followed by cold and wet winters. Central Europe's temperate climate has four distinct seasons, with hot to warm summers and temperatures often dropping below zero in winter. Snow can fall as early as mid-September in the Alps. Ski resorts open from November to April. The climate in Scandinavia, the UK, Ireland and Iceland is kept fairly mild by a continuation of the Gulf Stream (North Atlantic Drift). Most Europeans holiday in August, when many cities close down and locals flee to the beaches and mountains.
Getting around Europe
Europe is very well connected by planes, trains and buses. There are regular flights between major cities, especially from busy airport hubs in the UK, Germany or France, where low-cost airlines offer cheap flights around Europe.
Trains run throughout mainland Europe, with the Eurotunnel connecting the UK to France.
Buses (coaches) are a cheaper alternative, however, they are typically much slower and often less comfortable than trains.
If you’re driving, consider renting a diesel car, which often gets better mileage. They can be a good deal in countries that subsidize diesel. The UK and Ireland operate left-hand traffic but in the rest of Europe they drive on the right.
If you’re travelling independently, it is still worth checking out tours (such as a one-day city or 14-day country tours) that can be combined with your itinerary.
Europe insider information
- Germany is a multi-faceted country, from modern to medieval architecture and world-renowned orchestras to the popular beer guzzler's celebration, Oktoberfest. German cities are leading cultural, financial and educational centres and include two of the greenest cities in Europe.
- Ireland is a land of timeless traditional villages, friendly pubs, vibrant cities, spirited music and people and awe-inspiring landscapes.
- France is renowned for its variety, with more than 400 types of cheese, prehistoric caves, sumptuous beaches, bustling cosmopolitan cities, quaint villages and mountain resorts. French cuisine is as diverse as the country and no-one should miss the magnificent art collection at the Louvre.
- Italy's culture, history, fashion, food, stunning countryside and passionate people have made the boot-shaped country one of the most romantic and popular European destinations. Variety is the spice of life in Italy, whether you are soaking up the arts, visiting the Vatican City, taking a gourmet tour through the villages of Tuscany or soaking up the sun on the Amalfi coast.
- Bullfights, flamenco and beaches aside, Spain's many charms come from its diverse regions, cultures, cuisines and landscapes - from the stunning mountains of Andalucia and lively nightlife in Madrid, to the arts and architecture of cosmopolitan Barcelona and Bilboa's futuristic Guggenheim museum.
- Once the hidden gem of the Iberian Peninsula, Portugal still retains a charm, with traditional villages, historic towns as well as a stunning coastline dotted with popular beach resorts.
- The Netherlands has a rich history as a world power; Tiny Luxembourg has dense forests, medieval castles and a fairytale Heritage-listed capital city with more Michelin-star restaurants per capita than any city in the world; Belgium is a veritable feast for chocolate connoisseurs and gourmands.
- Austria's regal buildings and cultural heritage stem from its heyday as the centre of the Hapsburg Empire. It's a year-round destination, thanks to the country’s hospitality and fine cuisine, historic cities, cultural institutions and popular winter sports.