Often viewed as the world’s cultural heartland, Europe packs a great deal of sophistication and history into a relatively small area. Sophisticated art, gastronomical delights and a rich literary tradition draw millions of visitors to this continent whose history is peppered with epic showdowns between cultures and ideologies.

Despite a troubled recent past, Europeans today look to the future with optimism and hope. It is a continent where economic growth continues, with a standard of living that ranks among the highest in the world. The EU has also created a common currency, the Euro, and a system of trains that allows people to travel between countries with ease and efficiency.

The word “Europe” derives from the Greek term Europa, first used in ancient times to describe an idea of a lands beyond the sea that were both forbidding and civilized, a sort of antithesis to Asia and Libya. Later, when the Romans conquered their lands, the name took on more of a geographical sense: of a land mass that stretches from the North Atlantic to the Adriatic Sea, and from the rugged mountains of the west to the forbidding steppes of Russia and Kazakhstan.

In modern times, Europe’s borders have shifted to reflect political realities. The Iron Curtain dissolved, and in 2004 ten more countries joined the European Union in its largest expansion to date. The new members brought with them new energy and ideas that have helped Europe achieve a higher standard of living and become one of the world’s most advanced technological regions.

As part of the European Union, member states must maintain a democratic form of government and a free-market economy. They must also support European ideals of freedom and human rights. These principles are embodied in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, which all EU member states have signed and ratified. The Charter is a foundational document that all member nations are required to uphold and defend.

While most of the population in the EU lives in urban areas, the vast majority of the continent’s landscape is rural. Approximately half of Europe is covered by forests, while another quarter is swathed in green fields and blue lakes. These natural features make Europe a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts.

The most visited European countries include France, Spain, Italy and the UK. Several other nations that receive less traffic, however, offer just as much to see and do. These destinations range from a neoclassical capital in Finland to legendary Iceland’s raw wilderness.

Many of the same characteristics that attract tourists to Europe make it an enticing place for business travelers and expatriates. The language barrier is a major impediment to global trade, but the EU has developed a series of programs designed to make it easier for companies to recruit from abroad and hire people with the right skills. The European Union has also established a unique free-movement area, where citizens of the 27 member states and of Iceland, Lichtenstein and Norway may live and work without restrictions across the continent.

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