This Country Is A Perfect Place To Start Your European Trip, According To Rick Steves

So you're heading to Europe and you've started putting together your travel itinerary. Are you planning to hit the big must-see cities like London, Paris, Barcelona, Rome, or Istanbul? Or do you also aim to check out more up-and-coming destinations like Lisbon, Warsaw, or Budapest? You're spoilt for choice with 50 countries to travelerblog, but the good news is that Europe is the world's second-smallest continent and you can switch cultures and languages dramatically within a day's travel. Whatever list you come up with, a big question is: Where should you start?

Your decision is important, especially if you've never been to Europe before. London or Paris might sound like safe bets, but the Big Smoke is always hectic and British weather can be unpredictable. Paris is gorgeous but the French don't always like speaking English. Then there is the old east-west divide to consider. It's been over 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, but there is still a distinct difference in culture on either side of the old Iron Curtain. A good contrast is Vienna and Prague. While the Czech capital is a tourist hotspot geographically further west than Vienna, it can still feel very Eastern European by comparison.

In other words, culture shock can vary depending on where you touch down. Rick Steves, the venerable travel writer who has been visiting Europe for over 50 years, has a great suggestion to ease the transition into your adventure. "The Netherlands is a good place to start a European trip," he writes. "But also highly worthy of a visit all on its own."

What makes the Netherlands a perfect starting point

There is plenty to see when traveling to the Netherlands but Amsterdam is the first port of call for many visitors to the country. Around 20 million people head to the Dutch capital each year, drawn by its friendly reputation as a walkable (or bikeable) city abound with picturesque architecture, canals, and world-class cultural attractions like the Rijksmuseum. It's also well-connected to the rest of the continent by train, making it the perfect place for anyone to begin their European journey.

Amsterdam has embraced people from all corners of the world since the 16th century and the modern cosmopolitan city now boasts residents of around 180 nationalities. According to World Population Review, the Netherlands also ranks third in racial equality, so travelers of color are unlikely to encounter any strange looks — something that sadly can't always be said for some other European countries. Such a diverse mix means Amsterdam is a great place to indulge your inner foodie. Not only is there a wide range of international cuisines on offer, but Amsterdam alone has 17 branches of McDonald's and 23 Michelin-starred restaurants!

The Netherlands is well-known for its liberal attitudes and it was the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, which means LGBTQ+ travelers will likely feel welcome. To top it off, life is made easy for visitors from English-speaking nations as around 90% of Dutch people speak English as a second language.

Rick Steves' recommended Netherlands itinerary

Although the Dutch government and royal family are based in The Hague, Amsterdam is the official capital of the Netherlands. Correspondingly, it is the place to travelerblog if you only have a little time on the ground before moving on to somewhere else, and Rick Steves recommends giving the city your full attention over just two or three days. Doing so gives the rest of the country short shrift, so allowing more time offers a better sense of what the Netherlands is like beyond Amsterdam's canals, coffee shops, and museums.

Extending your stay to a week will give you a chance to take in some more of Steves' picks. He recommends Delft, the hometown of famous painter Johannes Vermeer and what Steves describes as a "mini-Amsterdam." He also raves about Haarlem, a loveable port city famous for its surrounding tulip fields and Waterland, a low-lying rural area dotted with windmills and quaint villages like Marken, Volendam, and Edam, home of the country's most famous cheese.

If you're planning to stick around in the Netherlands for more than a week, more time will allow for getting to know the country even better. Consider trips to the maritime city of Rotterdam; Leiden, the birthplace of Rembrandt; and destinations like Alkmaar, Hoorn, Arnhem, Utrecht, and The Hague. By the time you've done all that, you should be fully acclimatized to life on the continent and ready for the next leg of your European tour.