If you’re looking for some of the best cities to visit in Europe, you can’t go wrong with a southern adventure. From the sparkling seaside settlements of Greece to historic Italian metropolises, there’s plenty to discover here.

However, with so many options, it can be tricky to decide on the best location for you. While some offer absorbing history and captivating culture, others might be better for a low-key retreat by the coast.

So, for some inspiration, here are 12 of the best cities to visit in Southern Europe.

1. Rome, Italy

Rome, Italy

Often touted as one of the best cities in Europe for an urban retreat, the Italian capital is by no means a hidden gem – but there are many reasons why millions flock to this city every year! Few places can compete with Rome’s 3,000-year history, which can be felt simply by walking down its ancient streets.

Must-visit historical attractions include the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, and the Pantheon, and you can learn about the city’s compelling yet turbulent past in the many excellent museums. Architecture buffs will be awed by the Renaissance palaces and Baroque churches too.

Rome is also a paradise for foodies. Here, you can spend lazy mornings sipping espresso and people-watching, tuck into Roman-style, thin-crust pizza for lunch, and feast on fresh pasta in a cosy trattoria for dinner. And that’s without even mentioning the gelato and the wine!

2. Porto, Portugal

Porto, Portugal

If you want a city break that’s a little less crowded, Porto might be the perfect choice. Located at the mouth of the River Douro, Portugal’s second-largest city is smaller and more relaxed than the capital Lisbon, but it has just as much going for it. Plus, the vineyards of the Douro Valley are within easy reach too!

This hilly locale is perfect for exploring on foot, and wandering along the steep cobblestone lanes and towering cast-iron bridges is part of the experience. The sunsets here are spectacular, and in the evenings, you can find a spot above the rooftops and enjoy a glass of the region’s famous port.

For lovers of architecture, there are hundreds of impressive monuments, baroque churches and neoclassical buildings, and the ceramic-tiled São Bento station is especially striking. The buzzing riverside is perfect for strolls, and in the city’s excellent restaurants, you can sample delicious local food and wine.

3. Ohrid, North Macedonia

Ohrid, North Macedonia

Of all the Southern European countries, North Macedonia is one of the most underrated. With a Mediterranean and Balkan culture, mixed with a Greek, Roman, and Ottoman heritage, it’s perfect for a sun-soaked cultural escape – without the crowds.

The small city of Ohrid (pronounced Ock-rid) is easily North Macedonia’s most dazzling destination. It sits on the shores of the tranquil Lake Ohrid, which just happens to be Europe’s oldest lake. It’s so huge it can seem as though it must be the sea. However, these waters are fresh, clear, and perfect for swimming.

On land, things are just as lovely. The atmospheric old town cascades down steep streets, and you can explore medieval castles and fortresses, admire ornate churches and vine-covered houses, and enjoy long, lazy dinners in the family-run taverns – some of which are built right over the water.

4. Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik, Croatia

If you’re after a beach break with lots of culture and history, Dubrovnik is a top choice. Sprawled beneath a rugged mountain, right in front of the shimmering turquoise sea, this unique destination offers visitors the best of both worlds: a city break with plenty of sun, sea, and sand!

Lord Byron famously described Dubrovnik as “the pearl of the Adriatic”, and it’s no exaggeration. These historic city walls hide beautiful baroque buildings, sleek limestone streets, and terracotta rooftops, and strolling around the cobbled alleys of the old town is always a joy.

The stretch of coastline here is incredibly scenic too, and the pine-blanketed hillsides seem to tumble into beaches and bays. If you want to do some island-hopping, then Brac and Hvar are within easy reach, and there are also spectacular semi-wild oases nearby, like Šipan, Koločep, and Lopud.

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5. Athens, Greece

Athens, Greece

Another city that’s an absolute must-visit for history buffs is Athens, which isn’t just the Greek capital, but Europe’s oldest capital city. It’s also the birthplace of democracy and this now-thoroughly modern city still feels pervaded with history, myth, and legend.

Some of the world’s most important historical attractions can be found beneath these blazing blue skies, including the awe-inspiring Acropolis, which sits upon a rocky hilltop, and the panoramic Parthenon and Erechtheion Temple. There are also Byzantine-era churches from the fourth century, with domed terracotta roofs and mosaic-like stonework.

You can soak up the local culture by savouring some deliciously flaky pastries and sipping intense Greek coffee. Or settle down to watch the changing of the guard at The Presidential Mansion or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Plus, if you fancy hitting Greece’s famous beaches, there are some truly stunning stretches of sand less than half an hour from the city.

6. Venice, Italy

Venice, Italy

Widely considered one of the most beautiful and romantic cities in the world, Venice has been drawing crowds for centuries. Its reputation is such that on some days, there are twice as many tourists as locals…but, despite the crowds, Venice never loses its wow factor.

You’ll be awed from the moment you arrive and first catch a glimpse of the San Simeon Piccolo dome – and the more you explore, the deeper in love you’ll fall. Landmarks like St. Mark’s Square and the Bridge of Sighs are always impressive, but losing yourself in the narrow passages is where you get a real feel for this city.

Venice is a city that hides treasures around every corner, whether it’s magnificent Madonnas in unassuming churches or elegant piazzas that you stumble upon. After a day of exploring, find a cosy canalside bistro, sip an Aperol Spritz, and tuck into cicheti, traditional Venetian tapas.

7. Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona, Spain

Another city that seamlessly blends beach bliss with the joys of urban living is Barcelona. This sunny Spanish city showcases Catalan culture at its best – from innovative architecture to historic streets and tantalisingly tasty tapas. Plus, all the delights of coastal Catalan are on your doorstep.

Barcelona’s atmospheric streets and Gothic façades are striking, but it’s most known for Antoni Gaudí’s architecture – and while famously unfinished, the detail of the Sagrada Familia is breathtaking. There are also dozens of excellent museums and galleries here, so art lovers and history buffs will be in their element.

Barcelona’s different districts – or barrios – are wonderfully distinct, and you can wander around for days, stopping off for tapas and sangria along the way. To relax, head to La Barceloneta, which isn’t just home to the city’s most popular beach, but some of its best restaurants too.

8. Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

The Portuguese capital has long been one of Southern Europe’s most popular city break destinations – and for good reason. Located on the banks of the River Tagus, surrounded by seven dramatic hillsides, Lisbon’s cityscape is about as beautiful as it gets.

The winding cobbled alleys and colourful mosaic walkways are a dream to explore, and getting lost is all part of the fun; who knows whether you’ll emerge on to a buzzing riverfront or elegant square? There are also lots of historic sites to explore, including Castelo de São Jorge and the grand Belém Tower.

But wandering around without an itinerary is a great way to see the city – and emulate the laidback lifestyle of the locals. Sample traditional delicacies like golden custard tarts and dried salted cod, sip a Sagres beer in the ancient Alfama district, and listen to Fado music in the buzzing bars.

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9. Valletta, Malta

Valletta, Malta

Valletta might be the smallest capital city in Europe, but it’s arguably one of the most remarkable. The Maltese capital manages to pack an extraordinary punch for a city that covers just one square kilometre, and its history and culture are one of the most unique and compelling on the continent.

Valletta’s winding lanes are packed with Phoenician, Roman, Napoleanic, and British history, as well as grand baroque buildings and imposing medieval churches. It’s no wonder the whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The sleek waterfront reveals the city’s modern side and is a wonderful setting for evening walks, drinks, and people-watching.

Because Malta is so small – just 16 miles long and nine miles wide – it’s incredibly easy to explore. The beaches here are some of the best in the world too – think snow-white sand, crystalline blue waters, historic wrecks, and secret sea caves.

10. Split, Croatia

Split, Croatia

Though it’s Croatia’s second-largest city, Split is often overshadowed by its glamorous neighbour, Dubrovnik. But Split has its own appeal – and after you’ve visited, you may well agree with the locals who believe it’s the most beautiful city in the world.

Split is both modern and traditional, and because it’s less touristy than Dubrovnik, it’s the perfect place to see what authentic Dalmatian life really looks like. Walking through its historic heart is like stepping back in time, and there are Roman buildings, Middle-Aged ruins, and grand palaces to admire and explore.

There are also several beaches along Split’s coast, and the water is spotlessly clean and astonishingly blue. The sunny waterside promenade is an idyllic spot for a leisurely coffee or chilled glass of local wine, and the seafood dishes here are some of the freshest and most delicious on the continent.

11. Seville, Spain

Seville, Spain

Barcelona might be the most popular choice for a Spanish city break, but sun-soaked Seville is a city that’s impossible not to fall in love with. As the capital of Andalucia in Southern Spain, Seville enjoys year-round sunshine, and its small centre makes it a joy to explore on foot.

Located on both sides of the River Guadalquivir, the medieval heart of this city is bursting with Gothic cathedrals, Mudéjar palaces, and baroque churches – three of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. If you’re intrigued by Spanish culture and traditions, then Seville is for you, because this city doesn’t do things by halves.

For example, if you like tapas, there are over 3,000 restaurants to choose from serving authentic Spanish cuisine – and a dizzying array of small plates to salivate over. Or, if you want to see a flamenco show, Seville is home to the very best (it’s the birthplace of flamenco after all!), and you can catch a stunning show right on the streets of Triana .

12. Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy

If you’re interested in history, art, and architecture, the city of Florence is unmissable. Known as the Cradle of the Renaissance, this compact metropolis is jam-packed with an overwhelming number of artistic wonders and cultural gems – so much so that the whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The old, cobbled streets and candle-lit chapels seem to hum with history, and the heart of the city has scarcely changed since the Renaissance. Must-see attractions include Michelangelo’s David sculpture, Botticelli’s paintings, and the awe-inspiring Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.

When you’ve got your fill of art and architecture, there’s lots to keep you busy. The city’s philosophy is la dolce vita – ‘the sweet life’ – and there’s no better place to discover just how sweet life can be. Sip fine Tuscan wine, feast on Florentine steak, and treat yourself to sticky, indulgent pastries.

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Final thoughts…

As Brits, we’re lucky enough to have Southern Europe pretty much on our doorstep, and all the destinations on this list are less than four hours away by plane.

Whether you’re drawn to the history of Rome or Athens, the beaches of Barcelona or Dubrovnik, or the stunning surroundings of Ochrid or Lisbon, these 12 destinations are as charismatic and unique as they are beautiful.

Wherever you decide to go in Southern Europe, most places are so full of history and charm that you rarely need to draw up fixed itineraries. Instead, you can often get a better feel for the city by simply going with the flow and walking wherever the urge takes you.

If you’re looking for more travel inspiration, why not head over to the travel section of our website? Or browse holiday deals using the button below. 

Are you tempted by any of these destinations? Or do you have your own ideas for where to go in Southern Europe? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!