Every Country in Europe, Ranked by Two Somewhat-Ignorant Americans
Europe! America's distant relative that it likes to awkwardly visit on occasion! With its myriad misshapen countries, centuries-old feuds, and generally above-average health care, we figured it would be the perfect candidate for a ranking.
To add some quantifiable elements to the task, we tried to rank countries based on a variety of factors: food/drink, natural and man-made aesthetic beauty, contributions to modern society, openness to foreigners, number of eagle owls in their bogs, etc. And though we are both admittedly stupid Americans, and as such, come with our own biases, subjective opinions, and large backpacks, it's worth pointing out that we have been to roughly 75% of these countries.
And though we assume no one will disagree with any of our rankings, if you do take odds with, say, our positioning of San Marino, feel free to use the comments section to have an extremely respectful and not-at-all-crazy debate. That, we’ve been told, is the sole purpose of Internet comment sections.
So, onto the rankings, as we prepare to hear from our grandmothers about the placement of Vatican City.
If you want to go to a country that has 11,000 lakes and isn’t sure it’s totally over the whole Soviet Empire thing, Belarus is your comrade. Ranked worst in Europe in press freedom, and many other freedoms, it is essentially a totalitarian dictatorship that suppresses any non-authorized sentiments. Oh, and they’re pretty into soups made with goose blood.
Come for the stuffed cabbage rolls, stay for the alleged large-scale theft of fraudulent loans to business entities controlled by oligarch Ilan Shor.
Europe’s version of a gated community of well-to-do grandparents who sue the neighbors for building an unsightly gazebo that blocks their view of the fitness center.
Too soon? Too soon. Might be ready for backhanded compliments in the 2035 edition of this article (written from space?!).
The only people who actually live in Monaco are professional tennis players who definitely weren’t born in Monaco. It’s like the newly built luxury apartment complex of Europe, but with much more stylish HOA meetings. Another metaphor we were toying around with: it’s like a country as imagined by Puff Daddy in the director’s cut of a rosé commercial.
The cooler part of Macedonia, you know where Alexander the Great came from and stuff, is actually in Greece. As a result, having another country label itself “Macedonia” really pisses Greece off, so that’s fun! Less fun? Being a landlocked nation with crippling unemployment that has the distinguished honor of being frequently described as “one of the less-desirable former Yugoslav republics.”
If you’re going to rate Europe by best bogs full of wolves, Latvia would win going away. But that’s probably not the most efficient system?
All the dullness of Switzerland, but with worse chocolate!
Clearly had the more “budget-friendly” divorce lawyer when it split with the Czech Republic. But at least it got to keep its decorative folk hatchets and human figurines made from corn stalks.
DRACULA! Was of course a real person, had a real castle on a cliff that still exists, and was not all that nice to his enemies when fighting wars against the Ottomans. But there’s much more to Romania than legendary impalers. For instance, it could give Latvia a serious run for its money in bog wolves.
Snuggled in between Italy and Greece... prime location on the Adriatic... how are you not better, Albania? It’s that neighborhood that some realtor tells you is really up and coming, so you buy a condo there and then five years later nothing up and came and you’re screwed. Did you know blood feuds between Albanian families are still quite common? Because they are.
It really seemed for a few years there like Rocky IV had been prophetic and Russia was gonna start being cool. And then Putin happened. Shirtless. On horseback. All of Russian history is shaped by overreaching despots and misery, which explains all the vodka-drinking and how depressing Chekhov plays are. Man, even writing this is bumming us out. Free Pussy Riot!
36. San Marino
On the one hand, it’s surrounded by Italy, so how bad can it possibly be? On the other hand, have you ever traveled to Italy and had anybody tell you “Oh, you simply MUST see San Marino.” If that happened, it was probably a traveling Floridian imploring you to see DAN Marino. (Note: the year was 1985, in this scenario.)
Who knew that Kramer’s Risk-based musings about the Ukraine being weak and a sitting duck would end up being... semi-true? Also, chicken Kiev isn’t even really from Kiev, which feels kind of like a ripoff.
AKA the place you end up accidentally going when you misbook your ticket to Slovakia, but then realize is better than Slovakia, especially if you find yourself there during the Festival of Roasted Potatoes (actually a thing!).
33. Vatican City
Catholicism: the one true faith or one of history’s greatest moneymaking scams? Who’s to say?! But on the off chance that the pope (as chillaxed as the current one seems to be) communicates directly to God, we’re just going to throw it somewhere discreetly in the middle and keep going (looks out for lightning). PS... more restaurants please? (Gets hit by lightning.)
Just a little too close to Syria for your mom to be comfortable with you heading there for a few weeks of grapefruit agrotourism. But if your mom is cool/ terrible at geography, there are some lovely beaches!
It's a disproportionately fantastic at basketball for a nation of its size. This speaks to both the scrappy determination of the Lithuanian people, and the scope of leisure activities available in Lithuania.
Imagine if Greece and Turkey had a baby that neither of them really ended up wanting so it grew up kinda strange, but in a lovable and endearing way. You have imagined Bulgaria!
Despite a history that includes the frequent invocation of the phrase “war-torn” and, more recently, arguably Europe’s most problematic soccer fans (which is really saying something), Serbia has some legitimate things going for it -- parts of the mountainous countryside are legitimately beautiful and Belgrade is kind of an underrated city. But then, there’s also the other stuff.
On the positive side, Andorra enjoys one of the highest life expectancies on Earth as it basks in 300 days of annual sunshine snuggled in between France and Spain up there in the Pyrenees. On the negative side, it has to deal with ski-happy tax evaders and frequently being mistaken for a less-popular wizard from a Tolkien novel.
The country most often confused with Jermaine Dupri’s home state has had some semi-recent problems with a neighbor we won’t name, which is a shame, because its food is so damn good, and needs to be the next trendy thing all the hipsters eat after a vigorous debate about who makes the best fair-trade cheesecloth. Speaking of cheese, it's got bread bowls shaped like boats filled with the stuff, and uses spices other countries have never seen, because they weren’t on the spice trade’s newspaper route between Asia and Europe.
Remember in the mid-aughts when everyone in Iceland became a hedge fund manager and bought Range Rovers and then they all remembered that none of them were actually hedge fund managers and Iceland’s economy broke? Man, that was crazy. Now, pass the fermented shark as I lounge in this natural hot spring while none of the locals appreciate my hilarious D2 references.
Scandinavia’s Ringo Starr. Rest assured this will all make sense later when you read about Norway. And remember, being Ringo still means you’re in the Beatles!
Germany, if Germans all of a sudden lost that famous sense of humor they're so known for, and spent all their vacation days skiing.
23. Bosnia and Herzegovina
The Hall & Oates of former Yugoslav republics (Bosnia is Hall, clearly). Did they fight about who got to have their name first, or was it just alphabetical? Anyway, if you’re someone who knows the country strictly from watching footage of violence in Sarajevo in the mid-’90s, it might have soured your opinion. But they (mostly!) rebuilt Sarajevo into a sneaky cosmopolitan destination that retains a sense of history, and they (thankfully) haven’t built over some of the most beautifully pristine wilderness left in Europe.
Montenegro is like the European equivalent of that girl who takes off her glasses in the high school rom-com and then gets to tongue kiss Freddie Prinze Jr. (RIP?) Affected by the Yugoslav wars in the '90s, tourists are just now re-remembering how damn aesthetically pleasing the coastline is, and that gives me a proper segue to talk about the fact that I once spent several days in the Montenegro beach town of Kotor eating Njeguška pršuta (essentially prosciutto) and avoiding fish soups.
With an extremely tech-savvy population (Skype started here!) and a rather progressive government (especially in comparison to other Baltic states), this is clearly not your dad’s Estonia (unless, you know, your dad is actually from Estonia). Frankly, we’re pretty damn impressed, be it with its beautiful limestone cliffs and thousands of islands, 245 museums, carefully preserved Old Town in Tallinn, above-average Saku beer, or fourth-place ranking in English proficiency out of 60 countries in a 2013 poll. WE GET NERVOUS TRYING TO SPEAK OTHER LANGUAGES, OKAY?
Despite the breathtaking beauty of the Alps, various shimmering lakes, and Roger Federer’s one-handed backhand, we remain somewhat ambivalent about a country that prides itself on neutrality and making knives you can also use as tweezers.
Hmm let’s see... frequently in the shadow of its more populous and celebrated neighbor... hard-partying resort towns... somehow simultaneously a bit underrated and not as good as you think it could be... dear Lord, Portugal is Spain’s New Jersey!
Once known primarily for being ruled by knights and producing sweet falcon statues sought by Humphrey Bogart, Malta is now known as a stable island nation where wealthy Europeans can go to enjoy pristine beaches and have gallbladder surgery.
If the Scandinavian countries were the Beatles (wait, are we sure they AREN’T?!), Norway is definitely George Harrison -- not necessarily the most heralded, but things just wouldn’t be right without him. Or it. This analogy makes pronouns difficult. Anyway, you’ve got Viking tourism, the Lillehammer Olympics, and fjords! So many fjords! No other natural phenomenon combines majestic beauty and fun-to-sayness the way “fjord” does. You’re all right, Norway.
It’s ironic that this Mediterranean nation shares a name with one of the least-flavorful holiday meats ever, because its spice game is unmatched. Istanbul is an even better city than that They Might Be Giants song (and that was a REALLY good song). Try the kebab!
You know how you get stereotyped for having an alarmingly good-looking population? By being alarmingly good-looking. Luckily, since everyone’s so used to the attractiveness surrounding them, it’s kind of old hat (a handsome one, though!). As a result, the beautiful people tend to be much friendlier on average than your typical conventionally attractive American who is currently berating someone on a reality show for not being there for the right reasons. It’s the kind of thing that can make you overlook quirks like consuming mayonnaise out of toothpaste tubes and occasional cripplingly depressing darkness and decide you might want to stay a while. Is that why they call it Stockholm syndrome? (Looks up Stockholm syndrome...) Nope! But the general point stands.
Poland’s had a rough go caught in the historical crossfire between Germany and Russia, but one benefit of all that misfortune is one of Europe’s more underappreciated cuisines, which in turn has the benefit of giving you the kind of stick-to-your-ribs, calorie-laden payload you’ll need for a long night of drinking. And you WILL be drinking, because Polish people are generally way friendly and happy that you visited, even the artsy types in Krakow, which is way more hipster than you were expecting. Poland will surprise you in ways that will finally make you realize Polish jokes are lame and submarine screen doors don’t even make a shred of logistical sense.
13. The Czech Republic
If you’re looking for a place to get fat, the Czech Republic and its pork knuckle dinners, fried cheese sandwiches with mayo, and 60+ breweries can help you do that rather easily. It's also got those pretty bridges to walk over, a pained history that ended with the beautiful Velvet Revolution, a leader in Vaclav Havel who was also a damn fine poet/playwright/keeper of a small mustache. Also noteworthy: the terrifyingly beautiful/giant Eurasian eagle-owl hybrid, which will definitely steal your small dog from you as you sit eating your mayo-laden fried cheese sandwich on that pretty bridge wearing your “Czech Me Out” T-shirt.
One of the most underrated food destinations in all of Europe, we’ve previously waxed poetic about goulash, chicken paprikash, and that damn delicious turos csusza (aka, cheese noodles with bacon). If you’re looking for thermal water caves (and aren’t we all?), it's got the largest collection of them in the world. Thirteen Hungarian-born scientists have won Nobel Prizes, and on top of all that, Hungary's own Dennis Gabor invented holography, meaning hologram Tupac wouldn’t have been able to play "California Love" at Coachella if not for Hungary. OR IS THAT JUST WHAT HOLOGRAM TUPAC WANTS YOU TO THINK?
Greece is that friend who is TERRIBLE with money and constantly disappearing when the tab is due at the end of the night, but damn if you can’t cut him loose because he’s just too much fun. Reasons for this include, but are not limited to, a seemingly endless supply of island paradises, legitimate artistry with all manner of roasted meats and seafood, and shipping heirs who have sex with Paris Hilton. Also bonus points for sort of starting Western civilization.
France’s culinary contributions alone are too numerous to even begin to list... Champagne, Escoffier... NOPE! Not doing it. We’ll be here all day. And one could play the same game with art. And fashion. And philosophy. France has so enriched the planet that there won’t be any cheap jokes here about a certain propensity for post-Napoleonic military failures. As for the French people, their reputation for being occasionally... politeness-challenged, while generally overstated, is not wholly fabricated, either. Part of this stems from the fact that France has it good. REALLY good. And it knows it. France is basically that guy who was a complete LEGEND in high school and is still doing rather well to this day, but you still get the sense he’s kind of coasting on past achievements. In this case high school was sometime around 1805.
9. The United Kingdom
The parent from which America legally separated, just like the nerdy girl from Modern Family and Macaulay Culkin. Truth be told, the UK brings a lot to the table (the rich pub culture, the free museums, the music stolen from and then imported back to America), but if Scotland’s run at independence had succeeded, it would have ranked even higher (just to spite dad!). But as it stands now the UK still HAS Scotland, so, quite a package when you break it all down. Oh, sorry Wales, didn’t see you down there! You’re...probably OK?
This entry won’t be wholly unbiased since both authors claim Irish heritage, not surprising since Ireland’s two chief exports are Americans who are disproportionately excited about their ties to Ireland and... slightly uncomfortable wool sweaters? But come on, the Irish pub has been adopted worldwide as a symbol for “this is a place full of friendly people who want to drink with you.” And Ireland has TONS of them! Guinness is the most massively popular beer that has fully retained its cred among beer nerds and people trying to quietly diet. Its countryside remains staggeringly beautiful even when it’s raining. Which is kind of often, but you’ll literally never find yourself more than 15 steps from a pub, so it’s all good, really.
Raise your hand if you saw the whole “Denmark is the new hotbed of global cuisine” thing coming? Liar. Has a single restaurant ever done more to elevate a country’s worldwide profile? Prior to Noma's emergence, South Park’s description of the Danish as the Canadians of Europe felt pretty apt. But you know what? That’s high praise. Canada generally has its shit together, and so does Denmark. If you have mixed feelings about Copenhagen because of a bad chewing tobacco experience in your younger days, get over it and go there (“there” being Denmark’s capital and not to the corner store that illegally sold you chewing tobacco). There’s also a wealth of stunning geological features that will not be discussed in detail here because we can’t figure out how to make that “o” with the diagonal slash running through it.
Look, we all know the first half of the 20th century was kind of a rough time for everyone, but modern Germany has coalesced into a hell of a place (like, the good kind). Any culture so thoroughly devoted to beer and sausage has much to offer -- everyone should experience actual Oktoberfest at least once, as it’s far superior to when your local bar offers $4 Hofbrau drafts, blasts some Hasselhoff, and calls it an “Oktoberfest party.” Everyone should also go to Berlin, which for obvious historical reasons is truly unlike any other city on the planet. Everyone should also appreciate the fact that they keep things remarkably clean, generally speak better English than you do, and manage their money responsibly enough to keep some of your other favorite countries financially viable.
Even five or six years ago, Croatia was still relatively light on the tourist train, but that has all changed as everyone discovered its crazily handsome coastlines, outstanding wine regions, and national soccer jerseys that look like pizza parlor tablecloths. Also a great destination if you’ve always wanted to meet the tallest current professional tennis player on tour.
Amazing beers from 180 breweries. All kinds of waffles. Fries in fancy paper. An infuriatingly good national soccer team. Jean-Claude Van Damme. Harmonica player Jean “Toots” Thielemans. Belgium is stacked in so many categories, you almost forget that it’s basically a nation cobbled together from three disparate factions that don’t actually like each other all that much but just coexist like tolerant, but aloof Craigslist roommates.
You could be a broke-ass college student irresponsibly bouncing around Europe and STILL eat gloriously in Italy on pizza and gelato alone. This is not to diminish the sophisticated heights Italian cuisine can reach, but only to say that the Italians have mastered a democratic deliciousness that puts other-worldly eating experiences constantly within the reach of the everyman. Few countries can boast so many singularly exceptional cities -- Milan’s sophistication, Naples’ chaotic charm, Florence’s enduring beauty, Rome’s... everything, and Venice’s generally disappointing, overpriced gondola rides. And that doesn’t even cover the less-metropolitan charms of places like Cinque Terre, the Amalfi Coast, and the Tuscan countryside (if you can avoid all the 30-something women who are a few years late on the whole Eat Pray Love thing). And THAT doesn’t even cover a bunch of other fantastic places we neglected to mention. Like Sicily. Oh God. We forgot Sicily. SICILY IS AMAZING PLEASE DON’T HURT US.
2. The Netherlands
There’s much more to the Netherlands than being so stoned that you don’t care that you’ve just eaten an entire 16oz jar of mayonnaise with your fries. Your country has to be pretty sweet if you’re the world’s leading supplier of flowers and decorative trees, but it also doesn’t hurt that it's got by far the largest port in Europe in Rotterdam, an elected parliament since 1848, historically tolerant and progressive laws (first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage), the International Court of Justice, and what many middle schoolers would envision as the perfect amount of bike lanes. Also favorable to middle schoolers: they LOVE putting chocolate sprinkles on bread here.
When you’re simultaneously known for being at the forefront of modernist cuisine AND centuries of crafting the world’s greatest ham, you have a fairly intimidating culinary resume. What Americans started proudly calling “artisanal small plates” sometime around 2002, the Spanish just call “eating” -- except, you know, in Spanish. They are fiercely devoted to both napping and staying out irresponsibly late (which may have something to do with the recent financial crisis? We are not economists!). Still, Spain has a stunning and topographically varied landscape, two world-class cities, and its citizens only seem mildly amused rather than irritated when you mispronounce “Barcelona.” You’ve done great things, Spain. May we have some ham?
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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist's Executive Editor, and wo-- (silently puts down computer as bog wolf approaches). Quietly follow him to the high ground @KAlexander03.
Deputy Editor Matt Lynch once found out his Irish relatives were originally from France, explaining his fervent enthusiasm for beer and cheese. Invite him on your next vacation @MLynchChi.