Europe is a continent of cultures, cuisines and history all wrapped into one small package. As the second smallest continent in the world, Europe crams an astounding amount of culture, natural and man-made beauty into its borders. This is evident from a simple glance at the vastly different countries that make up the European Union, or even within the confines of individual regions such as the Alps or the Balkans. Whether you are looking for a sophisticated, historical trip filled with fine art or a thrill seeking adventure in the form of extreme sports or nature, there is something for everyone in Europe.

What Is Europe?

The word “Europe” first appeared in the language of the ancient Greeks as a name for the lands to their north—landscapes that were culturally backward and scantily settled, in contrast with Asia and Libya. Later, as the concept of Europe developed among traders and travelers, it became associated with the lands beyond Greece, characterized by spacious eastern steppes, soaring mountain ranges, fjords, and primeval forests that seemed to stand in sharp contrast with the cultured Mediterranean borderlands.

It is important to understand the complex debates about what defines Europe—because the answers to these questions are fundamental to the future of the continent. The European Union was created to bring an end to the frequent bloody wars between neighbor states—and it has succeeded. But the EU also seeks to re-cast and realize centuries-old ideas about European liberty, through policies in areas ranging from the protection of human rights to the free movement of people, goods and capital.

While the definition of what is considered to be European culture is still under debate, there is no doubt that the roots of this tradition are deep in the history of European nations and the continent as a whole. For example, the Romans did not consider themselves to be Europeans and thought of their neighbors—the Celts to the west, Germans to the north and Slavs to the east—as barbarians, outsiders. But the influence of Roman law, literature, language and philosophy does remain near the root of modern European culture—however you may define it.

The European Union is a fascinating model of multi-national cooperation and democracy that demonstrates how much we can accomplish when our differences are put aside for the greater good. This model of collaboration makes the EU a role model for other global powers that are interested in improving the lives of their citizens through closer economic and social ties with their fellow members. In a world full of uncertainties, it is important to remember that despite the sometimes bitter political battles in Europe and the United States, we are all part of a larger family. This is a lesson we must continue to teach to our children as well.

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