Unlike 2013, when I spent the first half of the year living a life that fit society’s definition of success (well-paying job straight out of college, a decent girlfriend, my own apartment) but left me feeling dissatisfied and at times completely depressed, 2014 was a year to be celebrated. It still had its ups and downs–no matter how much I love what I do now, it will never be perfect, and that’s fine–but there is no question that this past year will probably be one of the best I ever live. Not long after I began traveling I realized that the people you meet are more important than the places you visit. But I have met too many wonderful and inspiring souls to narrow them down to a top-ten list, let alone rank them to begin with. So instead, here are my 10 favorite cities in Europe that I visited this past year–let me know what you think!
Stockholm is as expensive as it is beautiful, which is a big reason why it’s #10 on this list. As much as I loved wandering along the cobblestoned streets of Gamla Stan or getting lost in hipster Södermalm I didn’t really connect with anyone. Despite that, I still enjoyed myself at a local football match and I ate arguably the best vegetarian meal of my life at Herman’s. And my timing couldn’t have been better; Stockholm is stunning in autumn.
Oh, Barcelona. I love her wide boulevards, her iconic architectural landmarks by Gaudi, her rich collection of artwork, her resistance to Franco and the fascists, her proximity to the Mediterranean and the perfect combination of sun and sea breeze, no matter what time of year. Gracia is my favorite neighborhood in Barcelona–and pretty much anywhere in Europe. The closest thing to authentic Mexican food (the thing I miss most about home) in Europe is also in Gracia (another reason why I love the place). So why is Barcelona only at #9? Because of all the motherf#$%!*g tourists! Damn them all!
Last February I sought refuge from the cold grasp of winter, and I found it in sun-drenched Sevilla. It’s a big city with enough rustic charm to still feel small, especially if you go out at night in the old part of town along the Rio Guadalqivir. There are enough friendly faces around to buy you a beer or two, especially if you’re at a Real Betis supporters bar–then they’ll buy you five! Between the great nightlife and some beautiful civic architecture–the Alcazar, the Cathedral and La Giralda, the Palacio de Espana, the many verdant parks, and the world’s largest mushrooms–Sevilla is definitely a top-ten city on any list, and i would happily go back.
Waay back in 2013 I spent my first weekend in Europe in London–and then I left to walk the Camino and didn’t come back until this past summer. I’d like to think I got a much better taste of England’s capital this time around. I spent more than a week exploring the city on a Boris bike. Shoreditch, Hackney, Peckham Rye, Bricklane, a trip up north to Arsenal to see the saddest luxury apartment block ever, plus a brief trip into the Zone 4 ‘hood of Sidcup, where I stayed a couple days with a lovely Italian-Latvian family and took their kids’ portraits–they’re adorable.
My memory of Paris will forever be linked to Lizzie, the beautiful English girl I met at a hostel almost a year ago. At some point every solo traveler makes a connection with someone else, and it happened to me here. I fell hard for her–too hard if I’m being honest–but falling in love in Paris is different and basically unavoidable with the right person. This city makes you want to fall in love–and really, how can you not? The tree-lined quays along the Seine, the smell of freshly baked bread everywhere, the lock bridge, the mansard rooftops, sidewalk cafes, balconies with white curtains fluttering in the air–I was inspired not just by the girl by my side, but by the city itself.
Lisbon reminded me a lot of San Francisco, at least aesthetically. It has a near-identical bridge spanning the river, tons of steep hills, cable cars, and mild weather. Unlike San Francisco, Lisbon is actually affordable–you can eat a full meal here for around 5 Euro or less, and accommodation is cheap–I know a great hostel if you’re interested. Most of all, it is a great city of culture: For bookworms like me, the Fundação José Saramago is a happy oasis of the late-blooming Nobel Prizewinner’s oeuvre. There’s great music to be had in Lisbon as well, and I befriended a folk singer who goes by the name Hello Atlantic at a concert on my first night in the city. It kicked off my memorable stay in the city and was a big reason why I loved Lisbon.
I was warned by my English expat host in Budapest that I wouldn’t be able to live the city, and he was almost right. It’s hard to say what I loved most about Budapest. It’s the only city where I could afford to eat out in a sit-down restaurant every night of the week. Beautiful women and booze flow in equally generous quantities. The thermal baths are perfect for detoxing and getting over a late night bender. Grandiose museums, regal apartment buildings, and monumental boulevards add a sense of grandeur to the city.
Ghent was my first stop in 2014 after I spent my NYE with the legendary Mr. X of Antwerp. For being such a small city–there are less than 300,000 people in Ghent proper–there’s more to enjoy here than in cities twice its size. During the summer, Gentse Feesten features 10 consecutive days of drinking, parties at every hour of the night, and free concerts by world-class musicians. Socializing happens in one of Ghent’s many parks, bars, cafes, or pubs. The cathedral has world-class pieces by Rubens and Van Eyck, and the numerous churches, canals, typical Flemish architecture, and even a castle add to its charm.
Out of all the cities I visited this year, Berlin is the closest I came to actually living in. I was there for three weeks this summer and felt like I could have stayed another month. I was lucky to arrive there with a few friends (two of whom I met while exploring Morocco) able to give me a place to stay and show me this incredibly vibrant city. Berlin is the youngest place I have been to. Like the chicken and the egg, I’m not sure if its legendary nightclubs are responsible for injecting so much energy into people or if its the other way around. When I wasn’t dancing away the weekend in Berlin I was biking along one of its many paths, reading a book in a cafe or collective, looking for my next doner kebab or baklava, and just generally having a really good time.
1. San Sebastian/Donostia
No, it’s not a joke: San Sebastian, the Basque gem situated beneath fertile green mountains near the French border, is my favorite city that I visited in 2014. No other city has made me feel at home the way I did when I came to Donostia over the summer. It’s the perfect size to explore by bike, it has two excellent beaches (one for surfing, one for bathing topless), super friendly natives, imperial Napoleonic architecture, breath taking sunsets, a steady ocean breeze, and what has to be one of the best restaurants in Europe. I really did leave a piece of my heart in San Sebastian.
So, that’s my list for you. If you drew up your own list, what would it look like? I would love to know–leave me a comment below!