Europe is absolutely and forever in style. When is it not a good idea to travel to Rome, Paris, or London? The only possible downside to visiting these great European capitals is that you’re doing so with… everyone else. That said, there is plenty of Europe to go around, and many destinations within Europe are still far enough off the radar that they might as well be a world away. While the rest of the world is waiting in line for the Colosseum or fighting for a stretch of sand in Nice, you could be enjoying the cobblestone streets, historic architecture, and handcrafted delicacies of one of these 10 delightful but overlooked European cities.
1. Lyon, France
Paris — Audrey Hepburn said it’s always a good idea. And she’s not wrong — Paris is the quintessential French experience. But believe it or not, France does not live and die by Paris. Not when there’s Lyon.
Lyon is just a quick train ride from France’s capital city, which makes visiting a cinch. Steeped in Roman history (it was founded in 43 B.C. by the Romans), renowned for its rich wine culture (it is the gateway to the Beaujolais wine region), and lauded for its outdoor activities (it’s home to green spaces and plenty of festivals), Lyon is a more laid-back, but equally refined, destination that will add a level of depth to any vacation to France.
2. Nuremberg, Germany
With its European charm, fairy-tale castles, and medieval history that exist right alongside its contemporary cosmopolitan culture, Germany is full of surprises and a popular summer vacation spot. But rather than battle the crowds in Berlin or Munich, head to Bavaria’s Nuremberg, just an hour train ride from Munich, for a stein of dark beer and a side of rich German history.
Nuremberg is one of the most important historic cities in Europe; it was the unofficial capital of the Holy Roman Empire for hundreds of years. Nuremberg also has a dark past: Nazi Germany used it as a rallying center and a capital from which to spread propaganda. In 1945, the Allies bombed Nuremberg and reduced the entire city to rubble. Following the war, the city was the site of the Nuremberg trials, a series of military tribunals held by the Allied forces to indict war criminals.
Today, visitors to Nuremberg can discover all sides of the city’s history and learn more about the role the city played in shaping modern Europe. From the Imperial Castle to the Old Town, complete with red sandstone Gothic buildings, the city’s grandeur is mesmerizing, especially during Christmastime, when the twinkle of thousands of lights and one of the most celebrated and photographed Christmas markets in all of Europe come into full view.
3. Ghent, Belgium
Both historic and modern, with a gastronomic culture known around the world (chocolate, frites, mussels, and more), Belgium should be on every traveler’s bucket list. But while everyone else is scouring the streets of Bruges and Brussels, Ghent remains delightfully off the radar.
This picturesque, cobblestone fairy tale of a city is veined with canals lined with gorgeous historic merchant houses. Medieval architecture coexists with a postindustrial energy that pulses through the city. Ghent Castle, also known as the Gravensteen, is a must-visit attraction located in the heart of the city. The 12th-century stone castle, complete with moat and turrets, is right out of a lyric poem.
Travelers will love the burgeoning food scene in Ghent, from Michelin-star restaurants to delicious sweets like chocolates, waffles, and Ghent’s own neuzekes.
If you plan on visiting Ghent in 2020, be sure to stop by the Museum of Fine Arts, which will be hosting an exhibit dedicated to the painter Jan van Eyck and the optical revolution that he inspired. The exhibit will bring many of his works together in one spot, and the centerpiece will be the outer panels of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, which have never been featured in an exhibit before. Ghent is also home to a Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art for those who want to see the avant-garde side of the city.
4. Ljubljana, Slovenia
Just 2 hours from Zagreb, Croatia, is the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana, one of Eastern Europe’s best-kept secrets. Red tile roofs peek out from a sea of greenery, ringed by the breathtaking Julian Alps. The small city is one of the most walkable in Europe. As in most European capitals, a river (the Ljubljanica, in this case) runs through the center of the city, and the riverfront is always bustling with activity.
The river is lined with colorful houses and shops and criss-crossed by beautiful bridges, while weeping willow trees arch gracefully over the sidewalks. Many of the buildings in the city center are centuries old and showcase Austro-Hungarian architecture, since this region was part of that empire for hundreds of years. At the center of the city is Preseren Square, where you’ll find the powder-pink Franciscan Church of the Annunciation. Look up to see the focal point of the city, the spectacular Ljubljana Castle, which sits perched on a tree-lined hilltop. Most of the castle dates to the early 1500s. You can explore the grounds for free, but for a small fee (7.50 euros), you can access the watchtower and the Chapel of Saint George. Take the funicular up the hill, or get your heart pumping with a moderate-level hike.
This part of the city is also known for its market, the perfect place for experiencing local life (and perhaps taking home a few provisions for yourself). The market is located across the Triple Bridge and is open every day except Sunday. The neighboring Pogacarjev trg square is home to an additional market that offers homemade goodies like cheeses, honey, and jam.
Other well-known destinations are no more than 2 hours away, including the wine region to the northeast, the Italian border to the west, the Adriatic Sea to the southwest, and the limestone karst region in between. There are also natural mineral waters and spas nearby.
5. Tallinn, Estonia
You’d be hard-pressed to find a city more photogenic than Tallinn. As the capital of Estonia, a country bordering the Baltic Sea, Tallinn has been influenced by countries ranging from Denmark and Sweden to Poland, Germany, and Russia. Its unique architecture and culture show all of these influences, and the city pops with spectacular churches, merchant houses, and a cityscape dotted with medieval spires. Its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Drink it all in from Toompea Hill, the best spot in Tallinn to snap photos.
Estonia as a country is fascinating, mostly because of its curious Scandinavian-Baltic-Slavic culture. If you’re looking for that fairy-tale charm, you will find exactly what you’re looking for in Tallinn. Start in the city’s historic center, paved with cobblestones and ringed with buildings that date to the 13th century. Steal away into one of the restaurants to try local fare like hearty rye bread and decadent chocolates. Make sure to stop at Oleviste Church, which was built in the 13th century and is definitely architectural eye candy.
Tallinn is amazingly green as well, especially in Kadrioru Park, one of the biggest parks in Europe. While you’re there, visit Kadrioru Palace, now an art museum, which is an absolute must for art lovers. This is one of the most elaborate castles in the country and allows a glimpse into Estonia’s imperial past.
Speaking of glimpses into the past, the Estonian Open Air Museum recreates the lives of villagers who lived between the 18th century and the 20th century. Visit a traditional tavern and sample more of that unique Estonian cuisine, prepared by local cooks.
6. Mostar, Bosnia And Herzegovina
It wasn’t all that long ago that Mostar was entirely unfit for visitors. It was one of the hardest-hit destinations in the Balkans during the Bosnian War. Though it’s been at peace for more than two decades, from 1992 to 1994 Mostar was the front line of a brutal ethnic conflict. Much of the city was reduced to rubble. But from the ashes of war, the city has risen again to its former glory. Today Mostar is one of the most hauntingly beautiful cities in all of Europe — and an under-the-radar destination worth the journey.
Mostar is just 2 hours from both Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital, Sarajevo, and Dubrovnik, Croatia. While there are no direct flights to Mostar from the United States, it is an easy train connection from Sarajevo and a short drive from Dubrovnik. It is home to one of the most iconic bridges in the Balkans, Stari Most, as well as some of the best examples of Ottoman architecture. Stari Most is the focal point of the city, washed in pale stone and arching over the Neretva River. During the war the bridge was destroyed, but it was lovingly rebuilt following the conflict. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site known for the bridge divers who plunge daily into the fast-moving current below. The less touristy Kriva Cuprija bridge (which is older than Stari Most) is a beautiful alternative.
While visitors might come for the bridge, they stay for the local restaurants, market stalls, mosques, and the surrounding landscape. The terrain is perfect for soft-adventure activities like hiking and cycling. Be sure to take a quick drive south to the village of Blagaj to see the famous monastery founded in the 1500s at the foot of a cliff. Some of the best waterfalls in the area can be seen just outside Mostar in the small village of Kravica.
7. Girona, Spain
Located just over an hour north of Barcelona, Girona is one of the most magical parts of Catalonia. While most people will spend their time in Barcelona, Girona is its laid-back counterpart, with a much more authentically Catalonian pace of life. Picture a kaleidoscope of colorful buildings that reflect in the shimmering Riu Onyar, winding cobblestone streets, and beautifully preserved historic structures that date to the Middle Ages.
Visiting Girona is like stepping back in time. The city is so well preserved that it actually served as a set for the sixth season of Game of Thrones. Your first stop in the city should be the Girona Cathedral, built over time between the 11th and 18th centuries. It is a beautiful mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. Don’t forget to explore the city walls that were built during the Middle Ages and remain intact today.
Girona has a rich history that intersects with Roman, Muslim, and Jewish history. The Arab Baths, for example, were built during the 12th century and have both Roman and Arabic architectural elements. The baths were shuttered in the 14th century but are now open to tourists eager to get a glimpse of Girona’s past. You can visit the Museum of Jewish History to learn more about the Jewish medieval communities who lived in Girona from the 9th century to the 15th century.
Foodies will surely know that Girona is home to El Celler de Can Roca, voted the second best of the world’s restaurants by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. While scoring a reservation might be difficult (you must book months in advance), the delicious home cooking is absolutely worth it. If you’re unable to reserve a table, rest assured that Girona has many other wonderful restaurants. Try Nu Restaurant, a gastropub known for its Asian-inspired dishes like red tuna sashimi and pork jowls with tandoori sauce.
8. Bologna, Italy
Let’s face it: There isn’t much of Italy that’s overlooked. In fact, it’s probably the most looked-at country in Europe. Still, there are destinations that remain off the typical tourist trail — Bologna, for example.
Most visitors to Italy will hit Rome, Florence, and Venice and then declare the country “done.” But without a trip to the Emilia-Romagna region, visitors to Italy can’t claim to have even scratched the surface of what the country has to offer, especially if it’s Italian food they’re after (and who among us isn’t after Italian food?).
Of course, you’ll find the famous Bolognese here — but never order it with spaghetti, since that’s not how Italians do it. Authentic Bolognese is heavy on the meat, lighter on the tomato, and served over a thick noodle like tagliatelle.
After you’ve had your fill of the heart and soul of Italian cuisine, take your time walking it off along the cobblestone streets of one of Europe’s oldest cities. The heart of the city is the Piazza Maggiore, which is as quintessentially Italian as they come. This energetic hub is where the locals spend most of their evenings, but it’s also where visitors will find the top sites, like the Basilica di San Petronio (though arguably the more beautiful church is Santo Stefano). Nearby is the Neptune Fountain, designed in the 1500s, which continues to be one of the symbols of the city.
Are you ready for the ultimate photo op? In Bologna this can be found underneath the iconic portico, with its red terra-cotta arcades that cast brilliant shadows and make for the best photographs.
Foodies will flock to La Piazzola in the Piazza del Mercato, which has held an open-air market for centuries. Another must-visit is the Quadrilatero, the medieval market where you can indulge in all sorts of Bolognese delicacies, from tortellini and Parmigiana-Reggiano to, of course, Bolognese sauce.
9. Funchal, Portugal
While Lisbon and the Algarve have been on travelers’ bucket lists for years, many forget about Funchal, the capital city of Portugal’s Madeira archipelago. Lauded for its warm winters (an average of 68 degrees), its luxury hotels (especially the Royal Savoy Hotel Madeira and The Cliff Bay), and the fact that it is a direct flight away from Miami, Boston, D.C., Newark, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, Funchal won’t be off the radar for long.
This bustling seaside city offers plenty, including forts, an Old Town, churches, museums, and a regional wine culture that rivals that of the Douro Valley. The Old Town is a lively quarter peppered with bars, galleries, shops, and restaurants; when the sun goes down, this is the part of Funchal to explore. During the day, be sure to check out the Mercado dos Lavradores, Funchal’s market that delights the senses with its assortment of fresh fruit and seafood.
Don’t miss Funchal’s famous botanical garden, which teems with exotic flora and explodes with color.
Funchal is the escape you never knew you needed, providing a classic European experience along with warm breezes and the gentle sound of the Atlantic lapping at the shore.
10. Andros, Greece
In Andros, you can get your Greek island fix without committing to weeks at sea. Andros, the largest of the Cyclades, is just a short ferry ride from Athens. A popular holiday destination for Greeks, Andros offers pristine beaches and charming coastal towns.
Andros is a wonderful island for walking, but renting a car is the best way to explore. With its majestic mountains, verdant valleys, and flowing streams, Andros is one of the greenest islands in Greece and a must-visit for hikers.
Visitors will arrive in Gavrio, the island’s main port. This port city is teeming with restaurants, taverns, car rental agencies, and other essentials. It’s a lovely village, but for something even more special, move on to Hora (also called Andros), where whitewashed houses yield to red tile roofs and mansions owned by Greek shipowners. Follow the main marble-paved pedestrian street to Kairi Square, with its impressive marble fountain that dates to the Ottoman period. Along the seaside, you’ll see the remnants of a Venetian castle that dates to the 13th century.
Andros is best known for its beaches, including Agios Petros, Chrissi Ammos, Kipri, and Agios Kyprianos, all between Gavrio and Batsi. Near Hora, make time for Piso Gialia, Neimporio Beach, and Paraporti.
There are roughly 18 trails on Andros, and the hikes range from 30 minutes to 6 hours. For a detailed list of routes, visit Andros Route, but one of the most popular is the Vourkoti — Agios Nikolaos Monastery — Achla Beach, which takes travelers past a lovely monastery and ends along the beach.
Don’t forget to cap off a visit to Andros with a boat trip to the more remote beaches that can’t be accessed by car. Many cruise companies include lunch and beverages in the price.