Woody Allen, like so many Americans, finally succumbed to Europe’s charms, directing tributes to London, Barcelona, Paris, and now, To Rome with Love.
But maybe Allen should have looked elsewhere—Europe’s most-visited attraction won’t be found among those storied cities. It’s in Istanbul, where 15 million people swarm the Grand Bazaar annually.
“The bazaar is an adventure and an experience, not only with the products but with the people—shopkeepers interact with you, and that’s exciting,” says Ceylan Zere, director of Context Travel’s Istanbul office. “It’s a place where you can still see bits and pieces of historic Istanbul.”
More travelers than ever are seeking out Turkey’s East-meets-West history, making it the seventh-ranked country for international arrivals, with 27 million in 2010 and more than 30 million in 2011, according to the World Tourism Organization. (Six of the 10 most-visited countries are European.) It helps that the dollar has strengthened against the Turkish lira—and against the euro—and that an increase in flights to Istanbul has brought down airfares and made it an easy stopover on the way to Africa or Asia.
The most-visited attractions are naturally concentrated in major European hubs, yet a few sights were compelling enough to lure travelers beyond those capital-city limits, notably Cologne Cathedral in Germany and the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, tied with 6 million visitors each.
France and Italy claim the largest number of attractions among the top 25, and they reflect the spectrum of travelers’ interests. While Disneyland Park, not far from Paris, certainly wasn’t on a stop on the traditional Grand Tour, 13.6 million annual visitors now make a vacation out of it.
Blockbuster events are also an influence, and London has been working overtime to prepare for a surge in 2012 around the Olympics and Queen’s Jubilee. Tate Modern, already Europe’s most popular modern art museum, is unveiling its first phase of expansion, one of many cool new London attractions altering the skyline.
That’s part of the allure of these much-loved European destinations—that while their essential character may be comfortingly the same, there’s room for change and new discoveries, too. As Zere put it about the Grand Bazaar: “I always give my clients directions, but I also like them to get lost because that’s the fun part of it.”
Consider this list of Europe’s most-visited tourist attractions your starting point, and let the fun begin.
The Methodology: We defined tourist attractions as cultural, historical, and sacred sights, natural landmarks, and officially designated public spaces. We gathered the most recent data supplied by the attractions themselves or from government agencies, industry reports, and reputable media outlets. Venues that don’t sell tickets gave us estimates as best they could, and there was typically no distinction made between domestic and international tourists.