Everyone loves Paris. After all, no one sings, “I love Lisbon in the springtime!” But maybe they should. Because while Europe’s heavy-hitters (think: Rome, Madrid, Paris) will always have our hearts, they also have massive crowds and the most expensive high-season hotel rates. Plus, there’s something enchanting about setting out to discover a little corner of Europe that isn’t on everyone else’s itinerary. With that in mind, we’ve nominated nine European cities that have big-time appeal but small-time crowds.
1. Brussels, Belgium
As a country, Belgium has brought us incredible chocolate, thick-cut fries, and flavorful beer—so it’s a wonder why we vacation anywhere else. Yet Brussels is often overshadowed by its fun and brassy neighbor Amsterdam, and the city is better known as a business hub for the European Union than a tourist destination. But don’t let its bureaucratic facade fool you: Brussels is business up front, and party in the back. It has a vibrant cafe culture and a heavy dose of whimsy. A detour through the surreal paintings at the Musee Magritte or the exhibits devoted to Tintin or the Smurfs at the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee (Belgian Comic Strip Center) shows you Brussels’ quirky, spirited heart. And Art Nouveau architecture is rampant through the streets. Plus savvy vacationers know that when the business travelers fly home for the weekend, the hotels empty out. Translation? Weekend rates can offer a significant savings over workday ones. All this, and waffles too.
Where to Stay: Pantone Hotel
2. Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
Pop Quiz: Name a Czech city that’s divided by the Vltava River and is chockablock with UNESCO sites. If you guessed Prague, you’d be right. But if you guessed this smaller city in Southern Bohemia, you’d also be right. In some ways, Cesky Krumlov is almost like Prague in miniature, loaded with cobblestone streets and baroque architecture, and topped with its own castle, a massive structure that anchors the city’s Old Town. Some 300 buildings here have protected status, meaning the town has remained largely unchanged for centuries. Artist and former resident Egon Schiele has a museum here displaying his vivid expressionist paintings. And of course, a full spread of Czech pleasures is on offer here, from marionettes to opera performances to hearty meat and dumplings. But let’s not forget the beer, which is practically a religion in the Czech Republic, and the local breweries provide even more reason to linger in town and sample your way from light to dark.
3. Rennes, France
The checklist for France starts with Paris, then hits southern France (Nice, Cannes), possibly followed by the Loire Valley, which leaves Rennes somewhere on page two. And that’s a shame, because this city, the capital of the Brittany region, is every bit as charming as its neighbors to the south. Strolling through the streets, travelers can pick up on the spirit of Brittany, a Celtic land of its own that retains a cultural independence. The city itself is a marvelous mix of timbered houses and palatial parliament buildings. But the best way to experience Rennes is to eat your way through it. First, there’s the region’s butter, aka the reason French food tastes so divine. Then there’s the region’s signature dish embraced worldwide: the crepe. This tissue-y dough wrapping up both savory and sweet fillings can be a meal and dessert. And finally there are the food markets, a revelation showcasing the usual local produce, breads, and cheeses, plus a few surprises—like bins of oysters divided by type and ready for the slurping tout suite!
4. Cardiff, Wales
With their big personalities, London, Dublin, and Edinburgh make people’s bucket lists far before this unassuming capital city. For the longest time, Cardiff didn’t have a singular sweeping monument, that could compare to Big Ben’s clock tower, or a signature dish, like Haggis. (Thank god, some might say.) Instead, its charms were spread across several substantial attractions that drew locals and tourists alike. One is simply its waterfront location, an easy starting point for the Wales Coast Path, a walking trail that circles the country’s coastline and covers 870 miles. Another is Cardiff Castle, a historic hodgepodge starting with its Roman Fort and layered on with fantastical Neo Gothic interiors from the 1800s. But in 2004, Cardiff opened the doors on its landmark building—the Wales Millennium Center. A lavish structure of oxidized copper plates and slate gathered from local quarries, the building is arched toward the sea like the prow of a ship. And in massive lettering across the front, the poetic phrase “In these stones horizons sing” is stamped in Welsh. It’s enough to bring a tear to the toughest Welshman.
Where to Stay: The St. David’s Hotel & Spa
5. Krakow, Poland
It’s easy to get lost in Krakow’s gloomy WWII historic sights—such as concentration camps and Oskar Schindler’s Factory—which are certainly worth a visit. But to focus solely on them would be a huge discredit to this sparkling capital city with a history that stretches back to the Stone Age. And Krakow’s Golden Age in the 1400s and 1500s is widely on display in Wawel castle, complete with its own Leonardo da Vinci painting. The soaring Royal Cathedral and imposing main market square remind travelers of Poland’s regal heritage. But to see the latter in its prime, come during the Christmas market, when the entire square is laced in twinkling lights, and carols and folk dancing are in full effect. And any time of year, Krakow’s restaurants are turning out filling, homey Polish cuisine like kielbasa, pierogis, and donuts heaped with jam.
Where to Stay: Puro Hotel
6. Copenhagen, Denmark
While everyone else races to the sunny points of Western Europe, split from the crowd and head north to this classically cool capital. What Copenhagen lacks in beaches it makes up for with its beautiful Old Town harbor. The city of Hans Christian Andersen does cast a storybook spell, and not just with its winding streets, rococo royal palace, and museums of Old Masters. It’s also a city alive with pleasures that are rooted in the here and now, including buttery pastries sold on every corner (what we call “Danish” but locals term “wienerbrod”) and wooshing amusement-park rides at Tivoli, the fairground that’s smack in the center of the capital. Come in the summer to enjoy extra long days, or in the chillier fall and winter, when the hotel rates are far cheaper and the whole city seems to snuggle down into a corner cafe or pub.
Where to Stay: Andersen Hotel Copenhagen
7. Valencia, Spain
Most trips to Spain take a similar route: Hitting Madrid or Barcelona for a dose of culture (hello, Gaudi!) or circling around the Costa del Sol for a beach getaway. Nothing wrong with that! But travelers willing to step off that well-worn path can be treated to this sunny spot, a coastal city known as the birthplace of paella, that sizzling dish of rice, seafood, and meat that’s Spain’s answer to American barbecue. And Valencia has an equally rich and layered history; just visit Valencia’s Cathedral—once the site of a Roman temple, later a mosque, and finally a looming Romanesque and Baroque structure with an octagonal tower. Another reason to go: The city’s festivals and religious processions—such as the “Virgen de los Desamparados” procession, when a statue of Mary is paraded through the streets as a downpour of flower petals rain overhead—are considered by many to be the most colorful.
Where to Stay: Hospes Palau de la Mar Hotel
8. Reykjavik, Iceland
Iceland’s natural wonders are certainly not under the radar these days—just ask the eight million “Game of Thrones” fans that have watched its frozen lunar landscape serve as the show’s backdrop. But the countryside with its geological wonders tends to be the focus, and this capital city is treated as little more than a rest stop between excursions. While we’re all for epic geysers, glaciers, and waterfalls, it’s worth spending some quality time in civilization where you’ll find architecture that’s a worthy distraction to day trips. Out on the waterfront, the Harpa concert hall looms large. A honeycomb structure with shifting colored lights, it seems to mimic the wavering hues of an iceberg and makes an ideal lens to view the surrounding landscape. Another arresting structure is the Hallgrimskirkja church, a lovely example of 1940s expressionist architecture where the steeple is supported by geometric columns extending in height. But one of Reykjavik’s biggest draws is far less permanent—its always up-to-the-moment music scene. For such a small country, Iceland produces a huge amount of musicians, and their art form is celebrated year round in clubs and festivals throughout the country, but predominately in the capital.
9. Lisbon, Portugal
Some things are simply baffling: Maroon 5 song lyrics, shoulder pads, and Lisbon‘s lack of popularity. Somehow the tourist hordes seem to wash down France, Italy, and Spain, but stop just short of Portugal and this capital city. Could it simply because Portuguese isn’t as widely known? Whatever the reason, lovers of Lisbon are happy to keep this city to themselves. The winding waterways, terra-cotta rooftops, and charming little trams are every bit as scenic as those of rival cities. And it checks all the boxes when it comes to European allure. Cobblestone streets? Check. Major museums? Check. Castles, Roman ruins, and plazas? Check, check, check! This hilly city will work your legs, but it means you’re never far from a jaw-dropping view. Ride Lisbon’s historic 1902 wrought-iron elevator to a panorama of the skyline below and the city’s appeal will be immediate. If limited Portuguese is holding you back, just learn this phrase, “Eu nao falo Portugues , mas eu adoro Lisboa” (“I don’t speak Portuguese, but I love Lisbon”), and you’ll make friends wherever you go.
This article was originally published by Oyster.com under the headline 9 Underrated European Cities You Want to Visit. It is reprinted here with permission.
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(Photo: Copenhagen, Denmark via Shutterstock)