When planning a European vacation, sometimes the hardest part is deciding where to go. All those countries, so little time. France or Spain? Germany or Austria? Switzerland or Italy?
But why settle for one when you can have two? All across Europe, border towns give travelers the flexibility to visit more than one country without the hassle of moving your suitcase. Here are a few at the top of our list.
1. Cadaqués, Spain; borders: France
Loads of people visit Barcelona each year, but few make the short two-hour journey up north to the foothills of the Pyrenees, where beaches, mountain lodges, and medieval towns await. The charming waterfront town of Cadaqués sits at the end of a peninsula in the Costa Brava region, at the easternmost point in Spain. Its beauty attracted artists like Hemingway, Dali, and Picasso for inspiration and respite, and you’ll see why after a drink on the Plaça Passeig — the central, beach-edge square — in front of its whitewashed, red-roofed Mediterranean canvas.
Despite its seductive pull to stay put, Cadaqués is well located for a variety of day trips along the border of France and Spain. You can check out Dali’s hometown and museum in Figueres, walk the walls of old castles in medieval Girona, or retrace the border-crossing footsteps of Roman soldiers on the trails in the Vall de Núria.
In France, the Pyrenees are on full display in the Parc Naturel Régional des Pyrénées Catalanes, with dramatic landscapes such as the Pic du Canigou. Up the coast, the historic city of Marseille is a four-hour drive along the sea, with many smaller towns, including Sète, along the way for those that want a shorter day trip.
2. Bratislava, Slovakia; borders: Hungary and Austria
Bratislava has only recently started to pop up on the radar of travelers, so go while things are still evolving. Its best quality is its access to nature — the Little Carpathian Mountains are just thirty minutes from the train station and riddled with hiking, biking, and vineyards.
When you look at a map, you’ll see that Bratislava is literally right on the border of Austria and not too far from Hungary. This close proximity has lent itself to lots of historical crossover over the centuries. In fact, Bratislava was part of the Hungarian Empire until the end of the First World War.
Vienna, one of the world’s great cities, is only an hour away by train or car, opening up easy itineraries for day trips and cross-over stays.
3. Malmö, Sweden; borders: Denmark
Malmö is by far Sweden’s most diverse city; made up of more than 150 nationalities, it is driven by a young, pulsing student population. Because it’s less than an hour by train from Copenhagen and more than six hours from Stockholm, some may argue that Malmö is more of a Danish city than a Swedish one. The arguments aren’t off base. In fact, Malmö has such a split personality that it actually flies its own flag that has aspects of both the Danish and Swedish flags. In this way, a visit to Malmö itself is like a visit to both countries.
In 2000, the opening of the Öresund bridge officially connected Malmö with Copenhagen, offering easy access between the two cities. Day trips are convenient, as are split stays where you spend a few days in each.
4. Faro, Portugal; borders: Spain
Faro is the southernmost city in Portugal, located in a region known as the Algarve. The greater area is known for its beaches and surf communities, and Faro is the main hub and launching pad for adventures in small towns like Sagres and islands like Ilha de Faro and Ilha da Barreta.
Along with all these opportunities to explore laid-back Southern Portuguese culture, you can also get a dose of Spain while you’re there. From Faro, Seville is only two hours by car or bus, a short jaunt to experience the lively flamenco dancing and tapas scene.
5. Geneva, Switzerland; borders: France
As the former home of the United Nations and a hub for governmental organizations, Geneva is as established as an international city can get, despite being only the third largest in its own country. Its beautiful lakeside setting has made it a darling of travelers worldwide, pairing the fresh outdoors with rich history (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example), architecture (Les Schtroumpfs), and neighborhoods ranging from the Old Town Square to the more modern, industrial Pâquis quarter.
Surrounded on three sides by France, Geneva has a strong allure as a border town and offers the opportunity for a variety of day trips. Téléphérique du Salève, for example, is just over the French border and has views of Lake Geneva and miles of walking trails. Nearby villages, like Pas de l’Échelle Village, offer a taste of French food and culture.