Urban Explorers: A Tour of the Largest European Cities

Europe, with its rich and vibrant tapestry of history and culture, has witnessed the evolution of its cities from small settlements to sprawling urban centres. The largest European cities are a defining feature of the continent, shaping society, economic development, and identity. Here are the most populated cities in Europe.

Building Big Engineering
29 February 2024

Around 10,000 BC, the population of Europe (as we know it today) may have been as few as 550,000 people. Two thousand years ago, when the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire, Europe’s population was around thirty million. In the early seventeenth century, when St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City was nearing completion, the population of Europe was close to eighty-five million. Today, that number is around three-quarters of a billion, many of whom live in the biggest cities in Europe.

From Rome’s ancient streets to Frankfurt’s modern skyline, the phenomenon of urbanisation in Europe is not just a tale of growth and expansion but also one of adaptation and innovation. The most populated cities in Europe have faced numerous challenges, from wars and economic downturns to the pressing issues of climate change and urban sprawl. The list below is a snapshot of some of the largest European cities by population. For a full list of the top twenty, scroll to the bottom of the page.

Measuring the Biggest European Cities

A busy city at sunrise. (Credit: Ezra Bailey via Getty Images)

Ranking the largest European cities is a complex endeavour, as various criteria such as population, geographical area, economic output, and even cultural influence come into play. While population remains the most common metric, there are three ways in which the populations of the biggest European cities can be measured –

City Proper

Ranking by city proper involves measuring the population and area within the city’s administrative boundaries, focusing on the core region and excluding suburban and outlying areas.

Urban Agglomeration

Measuring the biggest cities in Europe by urban agglomeration considers the continuous urban region or built-up area, often including the suburbs, not limited by administrative boundaries.

Metropolitan Area

The metropolitan area takes into account the broader economic and social influence of a city, including adjacent towns and suburbs that have important commuting ties to the central urban core.

For this article, the metric used to measure the largest European cities is the population of the urban agglomeration, but it’s also worth noting that the dynamic nature of city growth means that these figures are estimates and can quickly change.

The Istanbul Question

Istanbul at night. (Credit: prmustafa via Getty Images)

When discussing the biggest cities in Europe, a distinction must be made regarding the Turkish city of Istanbul. While it’s undoubtedly one of the largest and most culturally significant cities on the continent, it straddles the border between Europe and Asia, with a portion of its area and population residing on the Asian side.

This unique geographical position makes Istanbul a transcontinental city, and while it plays a pivotal role in the cultural and economic landscape of Europe, its inclusion in a tour of the largest European cities would overlook the complexity of its identity.

Brussels, Belgium | 2,122,000

Aerial view of the City of Brussels with Palace of Justice by twilight. (Credit: narvikk via Getty Images)

Belgium’s capital city is the centre of European politics and home to the headquarters of both the European Commission, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

One of the most populated cities in Europe, Brussels is equally famous for its cuisine, including famous Belgian waffles, and its beer brewing heritage. According to some, it’s the birthplace of French fries, although that claim is understandably disputed!

Athens, Greece | 3,154,000

A night view of Athens. (Credit: Stanley Chen Xi, landscape and architecture photographer via Getty Images)

Often referred to as the cradle of western civilisation and the birthplace of democracy, the Greek capital city is an icon of both the modern and ancient worlds. One of the biggest European cities, Athens was named after Athena, the ancient goddess of wisdom, and has a recorded history dating back around 3,500 years.

The host city of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, Athens is home to some of the world’s greatest and most important cultural monuments including the Acropolis, the Parthenon, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, and the Athenian Roman Agora, built with funds provided by Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor.

Madrid, Spain | 6,571,000

Madrid, Spain at Calle de Alcala and Gran Via. (Credit: SeanPavonePhoto via Getty Images)

Sitting on the River Manzanares, Spain’s capital and one of the largest European cities has been settled since prehistoric times. Home to Real Madrid, one of the world’s most successful football clubs, Madrid is famed for some of the country’s most stunning architectural wonders, including the Royal Palace, the Almudena Cathedral, the world-famous Prado Museum, and the eighteenth century Bridge of Toledo.

After Moscow and London, Madrid has the third-longest metro system in Europe, and the main entrance of the Real Casa de Correos (the Royal House of the Post Office) in the Puerta del Sol public square is the exact geographical centre of Spain. A plaque on the floor marks ‘Kilómetro Cero’, or ‘kilometre zero.’

London, UK | 9,648,000

An elevated view of the London skyline at sunrise. (Credit: Karl Hendon via Getty Images)

Founded by the Romans as Londinium around 47 AD, London is one of the biggest cities in Europe, as well as one of the most vibrant and metropolitan. With almost 20 million visitors each year, London is one of the world’s most popular tourist cities, and home to the iconic London Underground, the oldest rapid transit system in the world.

The city is famous the world over for landmarks such as the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace, as well as cultural centres including Theatreland, Covent Garden, the National Gallery and the Natural History Museum. It’s also one of the largest European cities by area, at 1,738 square kilometres, or 671 square miles.

Paris, France | 11,208,000

An aerial view of Arc de Triomphe in Paris France at sunset. (Credit: Nisian Hughes via Getty Images)

Named after an Iron Age tribe known as the Parisii, the capital of France is one of the most populated cities in Europe and arguably one of its most beautiful. Paris has been described as an open-air museum, and is a global centre of fashion, gastronomy and culture.

Home to the Louvre, the world’s most visited art museum, as well as some truly iconic landmarks including the Eiffel Tower, L’Arc de Triomphe and the Sacré-Cœur, Paris is second only to London on the list of most visited European cities, with around 19 million annual guests.

Moscow, Russia | 12,680,000

The famous Moscow cityscape (Credit: Mordolff via Getty Images)

Home to Red Square, the iconic onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral, and the Bolshoi Ballet, Russia’s capital city is the world’s northernmost megacity and the most populous city entirely within Europe. At 6,154 square kilometres (2,376 square miles) it’s also one of the largest European cities by area.

The area now known as Moscow has been settled since antiquity and the first documented mention is from 1147. The capital city was moved to St. Petersburg (then Petrograd, later Leningrad) by Peter the Great in 1712 and only returned to Moscow in 1918. Moscow also has the biggest subway system in the world outside China, and around 40% is covered by green space, including the 28,664 acre Losiny Ostrov National Park, the largest city park in Europe.

List of The Top 20 Most Populated Cities in Europe

Sagrada Familia and Barcelona skyline at sunrise. (Credit: Pol Albarrán via Getty Images)

City | Country | Estimated Urban Agglomeration

  1. Moscow | Russia | 12,680,000
  2. Paris | France | 11,208,000
  3. London | UK | 9,648,000
  4. Madrid | Spain | 6,571,000
  5. Barcelona | Spain | 5,687,000
  6. St. Petersburg | Russia | 5,561,000
  7. Rome | Italy | 4,316,000
  8. Berlin | Germany | 3,574,000
  9. Milan | Italy | 3,155.,000
  10. Athens | Greece | 3,154,000
  11. Kyiv | Ukraine | 3,017,000
  12. Lisbon | Portugal | 3,001,000
  13. Manchester | UK | 2,792,000
  14. Birmingham | UK | 2,665,000
  15. Naples | Italy | 2,179,000
  16. Brussels | Belgium | 2,122,000
  17. Minsk | Belarus | 2,057,000
  18. Vienna | Austria | 1,975,000
  19. Leeds | UK | 1,929,000
  20. Turin | Italy | 1,802,000

Urban Sprawl: The Biggest Cities in Europe

An aerial view of Lisbon, Portugal (Credit: CHUNYIP WONG via Getty Images)

This journey through the most populated cities in Europe is an exploration of the continent’s heart and soul, weaving through history, culture, and modern innovation that defines these urban landscapes.

From the ancient cobblestone streets echoing the footsteps of the past to the soaring skyscrapers that reach towards the future, each city presents a unique story of resilience, creativity, and transformation.


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