EU Tour: Visiting all the European Union capitals

I’ve felt European and been in favour of the European Union since I was a kid. I loved that with my UK passport I could visit and even live and work in any of these fabulously diverse 28 countries, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with people from Greece, Spain, Finland, Sweden, Poland and other countries who’ve done just that.

On a trip to Tallinn in October 2012 we conjured up a plan to visit the capital of every country in the European Union. Our project started as a bit of a laugh that we never really expected to finish, but the Brexit vote of June 2016 gave us a deadline – visit all the European Union capital cities before the UK leaves.

Flags of European Union member countries. Photo by James Diewald

Project EU Tour: The rules

The rules of EU Tour were simple:

  1. Both of us needed to be present (so any work trips didn’t count).
  2. We had to actually visit each European Union capital city, not just the country.
  3. Previous trips didn’t count (so school trips to Paris in the 90s couldn’t be added retrospectively).
  4. In each European Union capital city we had to take a picture of ourselves with the flag of that country.
  5. We had to buy a postcard and fridge magnet – to prove we were there!

We started our project to visit all the EU capital cities in Tallinn, Estonia in October 2012, and finished in Brussels, Belgium, on 29 March 2019 – two years to the day after the UK triggered Article 50 and formally requested to leave the EU.

Visiting all the European Union capitals

The revisits: Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Berlin and Lisbon

These five EU capitals are all really popular as city breaks, and we’d visited them all before, either separately or together. I probably wouldn’t have chosen to visit them again instead of going somewhere new, but our EU Tour project gave us a reason to go back. It also gave us an excuse to book tickets to see Fleetwood Mac in Berlin and take an epic four-country railway journey across central Europe, ending in Prague.

Doing our European Union capitals project gave me the chance to revisit Lisbon

Our second visit to Lisbon was much more chilled out than our first. One of the worst things about only having annual leave to travel is that I often feel pressure to visit as many places as possible in as short a time as possible. Getting to visit Lisbon for the second time, Prague, Berlin and Amsterdam for the third and Paris for the fourth gave us the opportunity to go a little deeper without just rushing around all the sights.

The ancient ones: Rome, Athens and Sofia

We’d been to Rome before, so for our EU trip we did our flag-waving duties on our way to Sorrento, Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast.

I’d wanted to visit Athens for years, so the project was a great excuse to go and see all the iconic sights like the Parthenon and the ancient Olympic Stadium. It’s just a shame that our visit to Athens coincided with May 1, a bank holiday in Greece, and all those sights were closed for the day. D’oh. Still, we got to go to places we probably wouldn’t have considered visiting if all the big sights had been open, the weather was beautiful and we still had a great time.

The Roman agora in Athens, empty of visitors on May 1

The one European Union capital I wasn’t expecting to put in this category was Sofia, Bulgaria. Being honest, I wasn’t particularly expecting to enjoy visiting Sofia. I’m not entirely sure what I expected to find there, but it wasn’t a gorgeous, fascinating city, bathed in beautiful autumn light and full of ancient sites. One of my favourite things in Sofia was the preserved remains of Serdica, an ancient Roman site in a modern-day metro station, with a close second being the Roman amphitheatre in the basement of a modern hotel. Everything in Sofia felt like a fantastic secret, and I’d love to go back.

The Christmassy ones: Copenhagen and Riga

Two of our European Union adventures took us to EU capitals at Christmas. I bloomin’ love a festive Christmas trip and these two, although very different, were full of festive cheer.

To be fair, Riga was mostly full of festive cheer thanks to all the Christmassy beverages we drank to try and keep warm. Riga is on the Baltic, but I don’t think either of us were expecting it to be quite so… well… Baltic. Dressed in every thermal item of clothing we owned, we huddled around the signs commemorating Riga as the home of the first Christmas tree, took shelter in the old stock exchange, now an art gallery, and scurried through Riga’s lovely old town and Art Nouveau streets. I’d definitely go back to Riga, just maybe at a warmer time of year.

The fabulous Christmas lights at Tivoli, Copenhagen

Copenhagen wasn’t quite as cold as Riga (although our day trip across the Øresund Bridge to Sweden was a bit chilly), and the Christmas spirit was on a whole new level. Put simply, Copenhagen is the most Christmassy place imaginable. There’s a Christmas market around every corner and there are lots of cosy cafes for festive hygge. Right in the city centre is Tivoli, the amusement park that inspired Walt Disney to create Disneyland, and it’s full of millions of fairy lights, ice sculptures, Christmas trees and cool, Scandi gift stalls. It’s the most festive place on earth and I’d defy even the grinchiest Scrooge not to feel a little bit of the Christmas magic.

The fairytale ones: Luxembourg, Tallinn and Ljubljana

These three are straight out of a fairytale, and so pretty that you won’t quite believe they’re real. Tallinn was where our project to visit all the EU capitals began, in a café in the lovely town hall square, surrounded by some of the best medieval architecture in Europe in a country that’s fully embracing the 21st century.

Luxembourg is one of the prettiest cities I’ve been to, with a super-dramatic setting on top of a rock with deep valleys all around it. Unfortunately, it was also a tiny bit of a disappointment. The Alzette riverside and the pretty streets of the lower town area look like they should be ripe for outdoor cafes, galleries and some interesting shopping, but the place was pretty much deserted. Maybe it was because we went to Luxembourg in October, but a work colleague visited a few months after me and said the same thing. Strange. Still, exploring the Casements du Bock fortified tunnels nearby was really fun.

In contrast to Luxembourg, Ljubljana in Slovenia didn’t disappoint on any level. The city’s as warm and welcoming as it is beautiful, and our day trip to Lake Bled was the icing on the cake. I don’t know about you, but when I come back from some city breaks I feel like I need another holiday to recover from all the walking, looking and history. Maybe it was the lovely weather, magical surroundings or the chilled-out vibe, but Ljubljana didn’t give me that feeling at all, and it’s a close second for my favourite European Union capital.

The view from the bar and viewing platform at the top of Ljubljana’s Skyscraper is absolutely stunning

The ones where I felt history all around me: Warsaw, Bucharest and Nicosia

A big reason why I admire the European Union is that we’re now living through the longest period of peace in Europe. Visiting Warsaw reminded me why that’s so important. When you go to Warsaw and walk around the gorgeous old town, it’s shocking to be told that at the end of the Second World War, 80-90% of the buildings in Warsaw had been destroyed, including virtually everything you can see around you. In a park not far from the Royal Castle (which was completely rebuilt after the war) is the site of the Saxon Palace, where only three columns remain where a huge palace used to stand.

Castle Square in Warsaw. Everything in this picture was rebuilt after the Second World War.

Visiting Bucharest gives a powerful sense of both medieval and modern history. The city has some fascinating medieval buildings, including the ruins of Vlad the Impaler’s court right in the middle of the old town. Just outside the old town you’ll find the faded grandeur of the days in the late 1800s and early 1900s when Bucharest was known as the “Paris of the East”. Then there’s the legacy of the Communist regime, when historic districts of Bucharest were demolished to build enormous regime projects like the Palace of the Parliament. And there’s the buildings that I remember seeing on TV news when the Ceaușescus were finally overthrown.

The Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest, the heaviest building in the world

In Nicosia history is still happening. The capital of Cyprus is the world’s last divided capital city with a great big UN buffer zone down the middle. It’s only been possible to walk between the Republic of Cyprus and Turkish-annexed Northern Cyprus since 2008 and crossing the border in Nicosia is a very strange experience. It was definitely one of the most interesting EU capital cities we visited.

Border control in Nicosia: leaving the Republic of Cyprus to enter Northern Cyprus

The ones I’ll definitely go back to: Budapest and Bratislava

We visited Budapest and Bratislava on the same trip, a railway adventure through four countries and four European Union capital cities. In five days we visited Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and Prague, doing our EU Tour flag-waving duties and not an awful lot else. We had a couple of days in Budapest but barely scratched the surface, and only an afternoon in Bratislava. Slovakia’s capital has a gorgeous old town, a castle (which we didn’t visit), a bridge shaped like a UFO and is somewhere I’d definitely like to spend a bit more time.

The stately ones: Madrid and Vienna

Some of Europe’s capital cities were easier to get to know than others. I tend to prefer higgledy-piggledy old towns to grand ones full of classical palaces and boulevards, so that’s probably why I didn’t really warm to Madrid or Vienna. I did end up loving parts of Madrid – the gardens in the old Atocha station are amazing and the Mercado de Motores was a real find. Vienna on the other hand, I found cold, grey and offputting. Perhaps if I do end up going back to Bratislava then I’ll give it another try, as it’s only an hour away by train.

The Mercado de Motores was my favourite thing about Madrid

The sunny ones: Stockholm and Valletta

Isn’t everything better when it’s sunny? I really didn’t love Valletta (or any of Malta apart from Mdina, to tell the truth), but the beautiful sunny June weather made it a nice break away from the UK.

We got really lucky with the weather when we visited Stockholm. June in Stockholm was perfect for exploring and taking a trip out to the islands in the archipelago, with long, light summer nights. We’d originally planned to take a cruise over to Helsinki to tick Finland’s capital off as well, but there was an outbreak of norovirus on the boat and we opted to stay in Sweden, giving us four nights in lovely Stockholm – the perfect length of time to explore and relax a little in the sunshine.

Traditional wooden houses in the Stockholm archipelago

The really surprising ones: Helsinki and Zagreb

Having to book a separate trip to Helsinki was a real blessing in disguise. Although it meant forking out for the most expensive plane tickets for the entire EU Tour project (Helsinki is weirdly unserved by budget airlines), it was worth it to have a bit more time in Finland.

I don’t know why, but I expected Helsinki to be grey, regimented and characterless – more like a Nordic Vienna than a Stockholm or Copenhagen. But I was totally wrong. It’s a really lovely city, full of interesting things to see and beautiful in an understated way. Weirdly for an atheist, the places I enjoyed most in Helsinki were churches; the church hewn out of solid rock, the peaceful modern chapel in a shopping centre and the city’s two cathedrals. We still only had one day in Helsinki, but it was a day well spent.

Inside the Temppeliaukion “Rock Church” in Helsinki

Another really surprising capital city was Zagreb, the newest European Union capital city (Croatia joined in 2013). We flew into Zagreb on our way down to the Plitvice Lakes and Zadar, but Zagreb’s another city where I wish we’d spent more time. For a capital city, Zagreb has a weirdly village-like vibe, with narrow streets and an unhurried atmosphere. With only 24 hours in Zagreb, we didn’t have time to visit the Museum of Broken Relationships or to properly see the rest of the city, so I’d love to go back.

The home turf one: London

I can’t even count how many times I’ve been to London, so seeing the UK capital wasn’t really a big deal. What was different though, was seeing it in the context of being a European capital. While I dearly wish that Brexit wasn’t happening, it’s still true that while the UK is geographically close to Europe, we’ve always held ourselves a bit apart. We’ve railed against joining the Euro, we didn’t join the Schengen Area (and therefore our flights end up leaving from the furthest-possible gate in European airports, thanks for that), and we constantly insisted on a right of veto in EU decisions. In some ways, maybe we were never compatible with the European dream, and the EU is better off without us, but I still wish it wasn’t happening.

The Sky Garden in London

The least favourite one: Dublin

Sorry Dublin. I know some wonderful people from Dublin, and I know a lot of visitors really rate it, but I just can’t get excited about it as a city. Nothing bad happened on our trip, the city and people were perfectly pleasant, the weather was ok, we saw a really good show at one of the theatres and our hotel was nice, but I can’t see myself going back. Maybe it’s because Dublin feels so familiar – there’s no language barrier, loads of the shops are the same as the ones in the UK and we even get some of the same TV shows. I’m sure Dublin is lovely, but compared to the best European capital cities, it just isn’t one of my favourites.

The favourite one: Vilnius

Every time someone finds out that I’ve visited all the European Union capitals, their first question is, so which one was your favourite? That’s easy – Vilnius, Lithuania.

Vilnius is awesome and you should book a trip there immediately. Preferably in the late spring or summer, and ideally for Street Music Day. I loved everything about the capital of Lithuania – the old town is gorgeous, the cathedral is a bit weird but fascinating, there’s loads of history, and plenty of quirky things to see and do in a compact area. The food’s great, the beer’s cheap, the people are lovely and it’s the perfect weekend city break. Would go back tomorrow. 10 out of 10.

Cathedral Square in Vilnius

The last one: Brussels

Right at the beginning of our project to visit all the European Union capitals, we decided that our last one should be Brussels, capital of Belgium and unofficial capital of the EU as well. The EU Commission is in Brussels, as is one of the two EU Parliaments (the other is in Strasbourg). On March 29, 2019, two years to the day after the UK triggered Article 50, we visited the EU Parliament, waved our flags and hoped that there was still some chance of remaining.

European Union flags outside the Berlaymont Building in Brussels, the unofficial European Union capital

So what now?

Now that we’ve completed our project to visit all the European Union capitals, I have really mixed feelings. On one hand, it means we’re now free to go somewhere we actually, properly choose to go, rather than feeling like we have to go to the next place on the list. For my birthday trip in 2019 we visited Hamburg, but if we hadn’t finished our EU Tour we would probably have been in an EU capital. On the other hand, our project has taught me to be a bit more experimental about which places we visit. Chances are I’d never have chosen to go to Vilnius over somewhere more well-known, but it ended up being one of my favourite trips ever.

And of course there’s Brexit. When we started the project, questions about the UK’s relationship with the EU were mostly just an internal disagreement inside the UK Conservative Party. Now it’s something that’s could affect the lives of everyone who lives in the UK, and many beyond.

For now though, we’re vaguely thinking about carrying on and visiting all the other European capitals – the ones that London is about to join outside the EU. We’ve already been to Oslo and Reykjavik, so why not the rest. I’ve been to Switzerland, but never to Bern, and although we’ve visited Montenegro, we haven’t been to Podgorica. Skopje looks a lot of fun, and I’ve fancied going to Sarajevo for quite a while. So here’s to the next daft travel project, I hope it turns out to be as much fun as EU Tour.

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