A to Z Guide to Europe
There are so many things to love about Europe. With 44 unique countries spread across a landmass similar in size to the United States, Europe is home to a variety of landscapes, attractions and historic sights to explore. No wonder it welcomes more than 670 million tourists each year.
Although it is impossible to explain everything that makes Europe amazing, we're taking a stab at condensing some of the reasons to visit in this handy A to Z guide.
A is for Alps
When the Eurasian and African tectonic plates collided millions of years ago, the land that caught between the two created the Alps. This expanse of mountains and valleys spans more than 750 miles, crossing through France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Italy, as well as Monaco, Liechtenstein and Slovenia.
The Alps' snow-covered peaks are perfectly suited to downhill skiing and snowboarding, cross-country skiing, ice hiking and more. In the warmer months, the snow melts away and the Alps become a green forest- and flower-filled setting ideal for hiking, camping, mountain biking, and some serious peace and quiet.
B is for Beer
It would be ridiculous and wrong to discuss Europe without mentioning its beloved brews.
Thousands of years ago, before technology allowed us to clean our drinking water, beer was often the drink of choice for Europeans, and to this day it remains a major part of day-to-day life here. In fact, the countries of Europe brew nearly 10 million gallons of beer every year!
Germany, the United Kingdom, Poland, Spain, The Netherlands, France and Belgium produce the most beer, but brewhouses can be found all over Europe. In Britain and Ireland, pubs are part of the culture and serve as meeting places for locals. In Germany, millions arrive every fall to partake in the annual Oktoberfest, a tradition dating back more than two centuries.
C is for Castles
People around the world are fascinated by castles. Americans in particular, who come from a new country with no royal families, love accessing this thrilling part of history.
Medieval castles are spread throughout the continent, but Germany is where you'll find the most; it is estimated that there are about 25,000 castles still in existence in the country. (The European Castle Institute has set upon a 10-year study to have them all accounted for.)
One of the most popular castles is Neuschwanstein Castle (shown). Sitting high on a hill in Bavaria, this Romanesque Revival beauty is said to be the castle upon which Walt Disney modeled Sleeping Beauty's castle. The former home of King Ludwig II, it dates back to 1869.
D is for Danube
The mighty Danube stretches 1,771 miles and is Europe's second-longest river (after The Volga). It flows through an incredible array of nations — Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Slovakia, Moldova, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine — from the Black Forest to the Black Sea.
Riding the Danube on a river cruise is a great way to visit multiple countries and to enjoy both rural and city scenery, especially when reaching Hungary's capital of Budapest. The river bisects the city, and separated Buda from Pest before they merged.
Here, travelers can take in the Gothic Revival Parliament building, turreted Fisherman's Bastion, Buda Castle and the Szechenyi Chain Bridge, which are all illuminated every evening for an extra bit of magic.
E is for European Union
In 1993, many of the continent's nations agreed to unite, forming the European Union (EU) in a plan that transformed borders, eliminated border checkpoints when traveling by car between two countries, and created a common currency. The Maastricht Treaty truly opened up Europe, making travel easier while promoting peace and democracy. In 2012, the EU earned the Nobel Peace Prize.
There are currently 28 nations that are members of the EU: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. (The latter is embroiled in Brexit, arguing for an exit from the union.)
F is for Fjords
Thank the Disney smash-hit "Frozen" for creating a mad rush to the fjords of Norway. These waterways nestled between large snow-covered cliffs are found in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Chile and New Zealand, as well as the European countries of Iceland and Ireland. But it's Norway that is by far Europe's best spot to see them.
Western Norway is made up of some of the deepest, narrowest and longest fjords in the world and two of the country's natural wonders, Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord, are World Heritage sites.
G is for Greek Isles
In an effort to keep homes cooler during grueling summer heatwaves, houses built into the cliffs of the Cyclades in the Aegean Sea were painted white. Painting domed rooftops blue in an effort to represent the colors of the Greek flag, the people of Greece created a setting so charming and beautiful that visitors started arriving in droves. (All told, some 30 million tourists visit Greece every year.)
The Cyclades are made up of 24 inhabited islands, the most popular of which is Santorini. It is rumored that the lost city of Atlantis is somewhere beneath these waters and that Poseidon, the God of the Sea, created the islands in anger. (Each is said to be a nymph, transformed.)
H is for Highlands
The rugged hills of northwestern Scotland are iconic for a reason. Moss-covered boulders, purple thorny thistles, deep blue lakes, rolling Munros (hills) and towering Bens (mountains) make this northern United Kingdom area one of the most beautiful in the world.
The Highlands span nearly 1,000 square miles and climb to their tallest height of 4,413 feet at Ben Nevis, the UK's highest peak. You can walk a 96-mile length of the highlands following the West Highland Way, experiencing the untouched landscape as tartan-wearing clans did in past centuries.
I is for Ice Hotel
Sweden's northern Scandinavian location made it the perfect setting for the world's first ice hotel. When it opened about 25 years ago, ICEHOTEL in Jukkasjarvi transformed travel by creating accommodations we never knew we wanted to sleep in. Every December through April, people travel to this remote area to literally sleep in a room where the floor, walls, ceiling and bed are made of ice!
The sculpted ice is a work of art with a new theme every winter. A warm hotel is also available for visitors seeking more comfort.
Other extremely cold countries have joined in capitalizing on their winter climes, including Finland, Norway, Switzerland, Romania and Austria.
J is for Jewish Cemetery
It's a tragic fact that Europe was home to one of the greatest massacres in world history: the Holocaust. Millions of Jews were forced into ghettos and concentration camps and were eventually murdered under Adolph Hitler's leadership; ultimately, 6 million Jews were killed under the Nazi regime. Across Europe, you'll find reminders of that dark period, from abandoned camps to Holocaust museums and surviving Jewish Quarters.
Prague's Jewish Quarter is home to the Old Jewish Cemetery, one of the largest in Europe. This cemetery predates the Holocaust and has served as a burial ground since medieval days. It is said that there are 100,000 bodies beneath the dirt and tombstones stacked upon each other here.
The cemetery is connected to the Jewish Museum, which tells the story of 92,000 Jews who lived in Prague when World War II broke out. Nearly two-thirds of them died during the Holocaust, along with nearly 100,000 other Czechs outside the city. By time the war ended, only 15,000 Czech Jews remained.
K is for Kremlin
Russia is so large that in its far-western portion, it is considered part of Europe. This is where Russia's capital, Moscow, houses the most famous of its Kremlins. Although in political speak, the Kremlin is the executive branch of the Russian government, it is technically a citadel.
Moscow's Kremlin was once home to the tsars and features five palaces and four cathedrals within its walls. Tourists come to explore its sights, like Assumption Cathedral, a historically important church where former tsars were crowned.
The original Kremlin was constructed in 1156, and the modern Grand Kremlin Palace continues to house the leader of Russia (one Vladimir Putin today).
L is for Lakes
Europe's lakes provide a chance to sail, fish and while away a summer afternoon. Much hubbub is paid to Italy's upscale resort area on Lake Como (shown), the poetic Lake District in England and the diplomatic hub of Lake Geneva, where generations have taken to the waters.
Although these are the most famous European lakes, there are plenty more across the continent. Find fabulous lakes as well in Scotland, Austria, Slovenia, Scandinavia and Germany, featuring glacial-blue water surrounded by tree-covered hills.
M is for Mosques
Istanbul is unique in that it resides half in Asia and half in Europe; in fact, it is the largest city in the Middle East. The capital of the Ottoman Empire since the 1400s, the capital of Turkey has more than 3,000 mosques, including the Suleymaniye Mosque, Hagia Sophie and the Blue Mosque (shown).
Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the official name of the Blue Mosque, was built in the 1600s and remains an active mosque today, although it welcomes tourists. The interior of the mosque is adorned with hand-painted blue tiles, and blue lights illuminate 13 domes and six minarets each evening.
N is for Northern Lights
The northern lights are best viewed the farther north you go, which means Scandinavia offers some of the best vantage points for witnessing this colorful phenomenon. During the cold months between September and March, you may be able to catch the show in Norway, Finland and Sweden.
One of the most popular places to see the Aurora Borealis is Norway's North Cape, where the lights dance around a 1,000-foot cliff. More than 400,000 tourists visit this area every winter, as it is Europe's northernmost point.
O is for Opulence
The royal families of European history attempted to one-up their competitors as they showcased their power and wealth. This resulted in opulent palaces spread across hundreds of acres, which today are popular tourist attractions.
In Vienna, the Schloss Schönbrunn was the winter palace of the Hapsburg dynasty, while in St. Petersburg the Winter Palace served the Romanov dynasty. Both are lavishly appointed structures that will surprise you with sumptuous architecture and decor.
Perhaps the most well-known of the luxury family homes is Versailles (shown), where Louis XIV, the Sun King, served as the longest-reigning monarch in Europe.
P is for Pageantry
Beyond witnessing the opulent palaces of the monarchs, travelers may also still see the pageantry that has existed for hundreds of years.
In England, tourists begin waiting at the gates of Buckingham Palace in the early hours just to witness the changing of the guard, complete with bands and horses. The elite soldiers outfitted in uniforms of bright red and black have been guarding the king and queen as the Royal Body Guard for more than 520 years.
At the Vatican, the Papal Swiss Guards have been protecting the Pope since 1506 and also perform a changing-of-the-guards ceremony. More ceremonies still may be seen in Luxembourg, Monaco and Sweden.
Q is for Quaint
Fairytale villages with stone cottages, flower-filled window boxes and winding cobblestoned streets all add to the charm of Europe.
Thatched roofs are a staple of European countrysides, especially in England. Half-timbered houses and charming canals like those found in Strasbourg, France's Petite Venice (above) draw thousands of visitors who cannot resist the romantic architecture. And alpine villages filled with wooden chalets with gingerbread trim in Bavaria harken back to yesteryear.
All of which is to say: Nowhere else on earth is as quaint as Europe.
R is for Ruins
Europe's ancient civilizations shaped the modern world. Ancient Greece and Italy led the colonization of European lands, and the remains of early civilization are still visible, especially along the Mediterranean coastal areas.
Find remains from the Greeks and Romans in Spain, France and, of course, Greece and Italy, where touring archaeological sites such as Pompeii (shown) provides a fascinating glimpse into the past.
Medieval remains of fortified cities, such as those found in Croatia and Estonia, also make it easy to imagine yourself in days of old.
S is for Squares
During Europe's medieval days, people were spread out across the countryside. In order to shop for food, clothing and other needs, towns developed squares for people to gather for goods, announce important news and come together as a community. Major European cities were built around these squares and in modern days, they are still gathering places with restaurants and shops surrounding them.
The largest medieval square in Europe is in Krakow, Poland's Old Town (9.4 acres), with Brussels, Belgium's large square (Grand-Place, above) a World Heritage site surrounded by guild houses.
T is for Thames
England's longest river at 215 miles, the Thames flows past the city of London, where it serves as the backdrop to such iconic sights as the Tower Bridge, Parliament, London Eye and London Bridge. Climb aboard a tour boat and sail to Greenwich or Oxford, to see either the Old Royal Navy College or one of the word's best universities.
The river is deeply steeped in London's history, as it once served as a trading route and the main artery of the British Empire.
U is for UNESCO
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) protects world culture and natural heritage, and the majority of the 1,121 places on its World Heritage List are found in Europe.
Many entire Old Towns are protected and honored, including the historic center of Salzburg, Austria (pictured); Vienna; Bruges, Belgium; Tallinn, Estonia; Avignon, France; Rome, Florence and Naples, Italy; and Krakow and Warsaw, Poland.
V is for Vineyards
Europe's beer production may lead the way, but wine in Europe is equally renowned. In 2017, more than 3 million gallons of wine were made in Europe, with Spain, Italy, France, Portugal, Germany and Hungary producing the most.
Bordeaux in France, Porto in Portugal, Chianti in Tuscany...these are just a few of Europe's wine regions that pair sublime varietals with equally spectacular vistas.
W is for Windmills
Many a screensaver has been devoted to the bucolic image of a field where windmills and colorful tulips meet — and this image is quintessentially Europe.
During the 14th century, windmills were erected in Europe to power gristmills. As the industry grew, so did the presence of the mills. By the 19th century, it is estimated that there were nearly 200,000 windmills across Europe.
The Dutch windmill is a symbol of the Netherlands, where there are still nearly 1,000 windmills. There is even a National Mill Day in May, when most of the windmills are opened to the public for touring. In Kinderdijk, a collection of 18 grouped windmills make up a UNESCO World Heritage site that is a popular stop for visitors to Holland.
X is for Exhibits
The Renaissance began in Europe, and ever since European artists have led the most important artistic movements, including Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and Dadaism. Along the way, museums have been erected to exhibit prized pieces from these and other seminal periods.
The Louvre in Paris is the largest art museum in the world at 782,910 square feet and features notable items such as the "Mona Lisa" and the "Venus de Milo." The runner-up in size is the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
Other massive museums can be found in Vatican City (Vatican Museums), London (Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum), Venice (Arsenal) and Madrid (Museo Nacional del Prado, shown).
Y is for Yuletide
When the holiday season descends upon Europe, the combination of opulence and charm with yuletide spirit is nothing short of magical. Town squares transform into Christmas markets, where revelers gather to purchase gifts and foods as they have for centuries.
Some of the largest and festive markets can be found in Prague's Wenceslas Square; Vienna's Maria-Theresien Platz; Brussels' Grand Place; Zagreb, Croatia's Ban Jelacic Square; and Munich's Marienplatz.
Z is for Zoos
The world's very first zoo was established in Europe in 1752, when Maria Theresa of Austria's Hapsburg family opened her collection of exotic animals to the public at Schönbrunn Palace. This imperial menagerie may have been the first zoo, but it was certainly not the last.
In less than a year, other European destinations presented animals from other continents for people to see, including Berlin (shown), which opened its zoo in 1844. The Berlin Zoological Garden is one of the most famous in Europe and stands 86.5 acres in size within Berlin's Tiergarten.