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The most romantic historical cities in Europe to visit this Valentine's Day
If your Valentine's Day needs more of a magic spark this year then these European cities are steeped in romantic history and well worth a visit.
If we’re being completely honest, a list of the most romantic cities in Europe could have been entirely made up of cities in Italy. However, for this compilation we’ve decided to include just one – but it might not be the one you’re expecting.
Outside of Italy, there are several contenders for Europe’s most romantic city, so take our proverbial arm and come with us for a stroll through some of this continent’s most romantic streets.
Lying in North-West Belgium, the history of modern Bruges begins with the indelible mark made by the Roman Empire before the arrival of the Franks in the 4th century. Its proximity to the North Sea had made it a strategic target for invasion, but it would seem the Vikings were more interested in Bruges as a place to moor their longships.
Bruges gradually established itself as a powerhouse of European trade in the Middle Ages and, by the 15th century, Bruges was one of Europe’s most powerful cities. Culturally, it had established itself as one of the epicentres of the Early Northern Renaissance art scene too, but for a few hundred years Bruges was pretty much persona non gratis, save a few precious strands of lace.
By the time Belgium was granted independence in the 19th century, Bruges was poor. The Industrial Revolution had passed it by, but this was also its saviour. Indeed, the reason we associate Bruges with medieval architecture, towers, cobblestones streets and canals is because of an almost magical connection to its illustrious past unblighted by the scars of industry, which seriously ramps up its romantic appeal.
Prague, Czech Republic
If you were to twin Bruges with another city, you’d be wise to flag up Prague on the eastern side of Europe. Despite being landlocked, Prague is also renowned for its medieval architecture, but its history is very different.
The history of modern Prague begins around the 9th century when it was founded by the House of Přemysl, the epicentre of the kingdom of Bohemia, on the banks of the Vltava River. The Přemyslid dynasty made Prague its proverbial jewel in the crown, and it became wealthy through trade. But in 1306, the House of Přemysl fell following the assassination of King Wenceslas’ grandson.
Prague subsequently became the imperial capital of Emperor Chares IV of the Holy Roman Empire, who bestowed upon his city the Charles Bridge and St. Vitus Cathedral. It became prosperous and culturally significant through its association with the humanities in the 16th century and the city thrived. But from the mid-19th century until the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Prague was a place of unrest. But even dalliances with both the Nazis and the Communists failed to undermine the spirit of the city and it remains as defiantly beautiful now as it ever did and it’s the perfect spot for lovers of all ages.
Until 1146, when some sort of stability emerged during the Bamberg Dynasty, Vienna was pretty much up for grabs. 400 years later the city was flourishing under the supervision of the Hapsburg Dynasty who introduced the peerless baroque architecture that we would recognise today while helping to establish Vienna as the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When the Hapsburgs died out, the daughter of Charles IV, the redoubtable Maria Theresa, initiated a culture of art and music (for which it’s still acclaimed) without constraint from religious zeal.
Following Napoleon’s departure in the early half of the 1800s and the 1858 revolution, Vienna rose once again to focus on its cultural growth. Unfortunately, Vienna suffered immensely following its independence in 1919 after it became appropriated by Nazi Germany, which resulted in 20% of the entire city being bombed to rubble by the Allies.
The fact that it dusted itself off for the umpteenth time to become one of the world’s most culturally significant cities says more about Vienna than mere words. After all, Vienna gave us the greatest composers in history with sublime architecture recognised by UNESCO making it a World Heritage Site. But the city doesn’t appeal to everyone - it's more suited to pensionable romantics than star-crossed lovers - so for this reason it's not an overall winner.
Speaking of star-crossed lovers, Verona is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and suffered serious damage as a result of Allied bombing. But there is something unique about Verona that doesn’t just make it arguably the most romantic city in Italy, but maybe even the whole of Europe and beyond.
For a start, the famous first-century Roman Arena takes us right back to Verona’s origins. That instant affiliation with 2,000 years of history takes some beating, but you may rightly argue that Rome also has a direct lineage with its ancient past. But unlike Rome, Verona became part of the Lombard Kingdom and prospered in the Middle Ages under the stewardship of first the Scaliger family (13th/14th centuries) and, later, as part of the Republic of Venice from the 15th to 18th centuries. The subsequent monuments that cropped up throughout Verona’s history are incredibly well preserved, to the extent we’re almost invited to dreamily reach out and touch the past. And while all of these make Verona a good contender for the most romantic city in Europe, it crosses the line to victory because of one exceptional feature. Verona is the setting of the ultimate love story, Romeo and Juliet.
Despite being entirely fictional (there is no evidence Shakespeare left England let alone visited Italy), a random 13th-century house with its 20th-century balcony and a bronze statue of Juliette has made Verona a focal point for romantics the globe over. The fact that so many people of all ages have sort of willed the story into existence, which now effectively lives and breathes just off the Via Cappello, is probably the most romantic thing we’ve ever heard of.
Before Baron Haussmann effectively rebuilt the city in the mid-1800s (inspired by the grand parks and Neoclassical architecture of London), Paris was anything but romantic. It was, however, lacking in a sewage system among many things, which made it frequently vulnerable to disease. In 1832 alone, the Great Cholera Outbreak wiped out 20,000 of its citizens.
So why is Paris known as the ‘City of Love’? Well, it’s not the amorous notion of catching the lights of the Eiffel Tower twinkling over the Seine, reflected in the eyes of a loved one. Unfortunately, this moniker derives from the proliferation of ‘Maisons Closes’ (aka brothels) that became hugely popular post-Haussmann before being outlawed in 1946. These days, of course, Paris does have its romantic charms, it’s just that other cities in France - like Aix en Provence for example - do it better.