The 10 Best Cities for a European Layover
Long flights with even longer layovers may seem less than ideal when you are eager to kick-start your vacation but your stopover doesn’t have to be boring. Whether your layover is a quick break or an entire 24 hours, venturing outside the airport in one of these ten European multi-faceted cities will make your layover just as memorable as your final destination.
Heading into Iceland’s capital in the dead of winter might seem counterintuitive (though the average temperatures aren’t much colder than New York) but the city has much to offer travelers in terms of history, culture and leisure excursions any time of year. And if you fly IcelandAir between the US and Europe, you can stopover in Iceland for up to a week at no extra cost.
From Kjavík International Airport, board the FlyBus for a 45 minute ride, hopping off at the very first stop in the city, called BSÍ, which is an easy walk to the city center. Those pressed for time can take a city tour highlighting the major landmarks and touristic attractions or you can explore on your own on foot. Use Tjörnin, a centrally located lake as your reference point, as many of the city’s museums and landmarks are within walking distance from here. For travelers with a bit more flexibility in their schedule, highlights include Perlan, the National Museum and Church of Hallgrímur not to mention the colorful nightlife scene. If you have an early flight the next morning and want to party, don’t plan on sleeping. Most locals arrive to the clubs after midnight on weekends.
Switzerland has a reputation for being on the expensive side, and compared to how the U.S. Dollar and the European Euro fare against the Swiss Franc, that’s a fair statement. Zurich is Switzerland’s largest city in terms of both geographic size and population so while there is no way to do everything in a few hours, it also means that you have endless possibilities based on your interests. Getting into the city center won’t be difficult. While trams and buses are available, trains from the airport to the central train station only takes 10-15 minutes and purchasing a ZurichCARD will save you money.
For a picturesque and affordable view of the city, climb to the top of Grossmünste that once served as a Roman cathedral. Head to Bahnhofstrasse for some serious shopping or visit Kunsthaus to view Swiss art.
The small size of Switzerland and efficient train system also means that if you have more time and want to venture farther away from the city, you can. Interlaken and Lucerne are each about an hour away from the city by train; you can even get to Geneva on the other side of the country in less than three hours.
Prague, Czech Republic
One of the perks of having a layover in Prague is that the airport has a facility in Terminal 1 where you can leave your luggage for up to 24 hours. There’s a fee of 120 CZK per item but it beats lugging your bags around with you all day. On the flips side, a thirty-minute taxi ride into the city is the only realistic means of transportation and can be costly, but once you are in the city, costs are generally low compared to most destinations in Western Europe.
For a scenic tour, take either a one-hour cruise tide on the Vlatva River or opt for a bike tour if the weather is nice. If walking by foot, make sure to watch the Astronomical Clock chime every hour by Old Town Square and visit Prague Castle for a crash course in Czech history.
There’s hardly anything that can put a damper on a layover in London except maybe the frequent rain clouds. The city has a few different airports and all are accessible from the airport (via the Underground for Heathrow or via express trains and busses for both Gatwick and Stansted). The Underground (the Tube) is the cheapest method at £5 but takes more than an hour to reach the city so plan accordingly. If your next connection leaves a few hours, it’s best to stick around in the airport but if you have more time, as London airports are notoriously crowded.
If time permits, take the Piccadilly Line from Heathrow to the Green Park stop. Exit here and proceed through the park until you reach Buckingham Palace. From here, head north to Mayfair for shopping or west to South Kensington for museums.
A jaunt through Brussels may feel strangely reminiscent to another romantic European capital. The Belgium city was actually modeled after Paris and the similarities and differences are apparent. Conveniently located a mere seven miles from the airport, a quick trip to Brussels can and should be done. For an interactive and speedy tour of the city, join a bike or Segway tour or just explore on foot.
Start at Grand-Place, considered the heart of Brussels and featuring impressive architecture from the Baroque era. Make your way to the EU Headquarters for an audio tour of Parliament or simply stuff your face with sweets in one of the many local chocolate shops after a tour at the Belgium Chocolate Museum.
There are certainly worse places to spend your layover than Lisbon. The city is known for its fascinating architecture and pleasant climate and is only five miles from the airport. If arriving during the day, opt for public transportation to get into the city.
A trip to Lisbon would not be complete without visiting The World Heritage Belem Tower, a landmark that is said to compare to Paris’ Eiffel Tower or London’s Big Ben. Grab a coffee in Baixa along Rua Agusta or view vibrant flowers in Jardim da Estrela. Laid-back by day and lively by night, Bairro Alto is a charming neighborhood lined with local restaurants, cafes and bars.
Spain’s capital city has a population of more than three million, so it’s no surprise that Madrid Barajas Airport is the county’s busiest. Similar to Prague, the Madrid airport offers luggage storage space to travelers in terminals 1, 2 and 4 for €3.85 for the first day. If on a time crunch, take a taxi to reach the city in thirty minutes but if time allows, hop of the metro, which stops in terminals 2 and 4. Consider buying the Madrid Tourist Travel Pass if spending the entire day in the city.
Start your exploration in Plaza Mayor, a plaza located in the heart of Madrid. Browse through the Prado Museum for European art dating back to the 12th Century, see Picasso’s famous Guernica painting at the Reina Sofia or visit the Royal Palace. For a snack, stop into the Mercado de San Miguel, a covered market where you can sample tapas, wine, oysters, pastries and much more.
Truly a unique city, Istanbul is split between two continents. After a short boat ride from the European side, travelers can reach Asia to experience a different side of Istanbul. The airport is about fifteen miles from the city and various transportation options are available including taxis, an express bus and the underground metro. Also worth noting is that most tourists from the U.S. (among other countries) are required to buy a $20 visa before leaving the airport in Istanbul, regardless of how long they are in town.
Once downtown, the famous Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are within close proximity of each other near Sultanahmet Square. The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, Basilica Cistern and the Topkapi Palace are also nearby. For a more leisurely stop, shop at the Grand Bazaar for souvenirs or relax at The Turkish Baths.
Consider yourself lucky if your layover happens to be in Amsterdam. There is hardly a tourist that won’t find this city effortlessly enchanting. Schiphol Airport is less than six miles away from the city and the commute is relatively stress-free. In twenty minutes and for under €4, you can reach Amsterdam Central Station via train (storage lockers are available at the airport for €5-10 per day so there’s no need to lug your bags). Known for its scenic canal system, many tourists sign up for a canal tour to better orient themselves with the city. If navigating by foot, make sure to pick up a map, as many of the street names look similar to the English eye.
The Anne Frank Museum and the Van Gogh Museum are two popular attractions as is the infamous notorious Red Light District just a few steps from the train station and outdoor markets.
While Berlin and Munich would most likely be stops on a trip to Germany, Frankfurt sometimes gets overlooked for no good reason. Eight miles from the airport, the city is reachable via the fast and cheap S-Bahn train. Before leaving the airport, make sure you know which train station you want to get off at, as there are three main stations. Most likely, Hauptbahnhof will be the best starting point.
Ride the elevator to the top of the Main Tower for a ski-high view of the city or grab a traditional “Apfelwein” in Old Town. If the weather is bad or if you are in the mood for museums, Frankfurt makes it easy because most of them are lined next to each other along the river. Römerberg is another central square and is where the Christmas markets take place each winter.
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