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May 29

Underrated Cities in Europe That We Love

Gypsy Jazz Band in Brussels, Belgium. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter.

I have a love-hate relationship with travel lists. When they’re inane, generic, lack perspective, and are researched from a desk, I loathe them. When they’re useful, subjective, personal, and written from experience, I find them inspiring. A good list reminds me of passionate conversations over glasses of wine with old friends about our all-time favourite films, songs, books, and places we love.

The other day a friend on Twitter asked if we’d written about Crete. Terence and I crisscrossed the Greek island by car updating a guidebook years ago but unfortunately we don’t have anything on the place here, as that was before we began Grantourismo. I recalled our time there: after the stupendous mountain scenery what we loved most was the island’s lively seafront cities and towns, like Heraklion, Chania and Rethymno – cities and towns that don’t get written about nearly enough.

I began recalling all the other relatively off the radar, underrated cities in Europe that we’ve enjoyed over the years that don’t get covered much in the travel media or don’t get the visitors they could. My mental list went beyond ten so I scribbled down a list that conveniently came close to 26. As like organizing structures, this is my A-Z of underrated cities in Europe that we love that you should try to include on your next European itinerary. (And, yes, sometimes I’ve doubled up to make up for the lack of anything for Q, X and Y.)

They’re not, ahem, ‘hidden gems’, although I think they’re special. Not all are off-the-beaten-track – some are busy commercial cities with a vibrant everyday life that mainly draws local tourists and business travellers. Other see masses of tourists heading to nearby hotspots who overlook the charms of the alluring city that’s right under their noses. So here are our picks of under-appreciated, undervalued and underrated cities in Europe that we love:

Antalya
This seaside city may be on Turkey’s Asia side, but Antalya feels European, and it may soon become a full member of the European Union. Most tourists go for the sun and sand, making a beeline for the colossal resorts a short drive east on the Turkish Riviera. The old town, Kaleiçi, where we rented a centuries-old sandstone house one winter (and raised a litter of kittens), is much more compelling, with handsome Ottoman architecture, a scenic harbour, historic hammams, and waterfront seafood restaurants. There are also a handful of sights outside its Roman walls, including an atmospheric bazaar, stunning ocean-side park, and Antalya Museum, home to Turkey’s largest collection of archaeological treasures.

Antwerp
Belgium’s hippest city is a hotbed of creativity and culture. There’s the idiosyncratic fashion of the young indie designers who followed in the groundbreaking footsteps of the avant-garde Antwerp Six (Momu, the fashion museum is a must), an abundance of Art Nouveau architectural gems, and the home and work of Pieter Paul Rubens at Rubenshuis. Forget the diamond stores and chocolate shops, and hit vintage shops, flea markets, antique cafés, jazz clubs, and atmospheric bars. Jenever (Belgian gin) is the drink to sip at De Vagant.

Brussels
Belgium’s capital is frequently called boring yet when we rented an apartment for a month while writing a guidebook we found it anything but dull. We ambled Art Nouveau-rich neighbourhoods like Ixelles, poked around markets and watched gypsy jazz bands in Marolles (above), and spent nights sipping Belgian beers in dimly lit bars. Like Antwerp, Brussels has an avant garde fashion scene, laidback local cafés, superb restaurants serving up lots more than moules and frites (as tasty as they are), and lively multicultural neighbourhoods with myriad ethnic eateries like the Turkish district on and around Chaussée de Haecht, and Matongé, home to an African community.

Cologne
Its famous gothic Cathedral and Romanesque churches aside, this German city on the Rhine won’t win any beauty prizes – it was one of the most heavily bombed of World War II – but its residents might. My memories of Köln include images of gorgeous blonde people in beautiful clothes shopping on busy Schildergasse. Köln may be a big destination for business travellers, with hundreds of conventions and fairs, but visit for the fashion, art, culture, and nightlife, especially in multicultural, working class Ehrenfeld. There’s a rich arts scene, with hundreds of museums, galleries, music venues, and theatres, and the shopping is interesting on Ehrenstraße and in the Belgian Quarter, which is crammed with boutiques, cafés, bars, and restaurants.

Düsseldorf
I visited riverfront Düsseldorf on Germany’s Rhine river on my way to the Oberhausen Film Festival years ago and I was hooked. A huge centre for theatre, music, film, media, and advertising, it’s the birthplace of Kraftwerk and home to a fine arts academy where Joseph Beuys, Gehard Richter and Gunter Grass studied and painter Paul Keel and video artist Nam June Paik taught. Düsseldorf’s creative edge is on full display in its audacious architecture, such as Frank Gehry’s stunning Neuer Zollhof ‘leaning towers’ at Medienhafen and impressive arts museums like the Kunstsammlung, Grabbeplatz and Ständehaus, where I whiled away a day drooling over works by Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee, and Pollock.

Estoril
Most travellers visit elegant Estoril and adjoining sister-city Cascais, former fishing villages only 15 kilometres along the coast from central Lisbon, on a day trip. Yet it’s worth spending longer at these genteel Portuguese royal retreats with their pretty pastel painted residences, soaking up the history as much as the sun – it’s also a popular surfing and swimming spot. Fascinating museums, a charming albeit compact old town, lovely beaches, alfresco cafés, gastronomic restaurants, and a sunny seaside promenade make it a lazy spot that’s worth lingering at for a while.

Ferrara
Birthplace of one of my favourite Italian filmmakers, the legendary Michelangelo Antonioni, and bursting with Romanesque, Baroque and Renaissance gems, Ferrara must be the most underrated of Northern Italy’s beautiful walled cities. Boasting a majestic castle surrounded by a moat, a monumental marble-clad Duomo, countless elegant palaces, a sprawling old university, and many traffic-free streets, it’s a city made for exploring on food. There’s a youthful energy, a cosmopolitan vibe thanks to a sizeable African community, a fantastic aperitivo scene and gastronomic traditions dating to medieval times. Nearby Bologna gets more attention, but I prefer Ferrara, and not only because it’s often overlooked.

Ghent
Another university city, Belgium’s laidback yet buzzy Ghent doesn’t get anywhere near the visitors more touristy Bruge does yet I think it’s more beautiful and more interesting. A powerhouse in the Middle Ages, it has a well-preserved medieval centre, picturesque canals, and plenty of historic attractions. Yet its Ghent’s everyday life I find alluring: there’s with an abundance of cafés, bars and pubs in the student district of Overpoort, countless restaurants lining the cobblestone streets of Patershol, and endless ethnic eateries en route from Oudburg to Sleepstraat.

Heraklion
Our welcome to the capital of Crete was dramatic. Wild, wet and blowing a gale the evening we arrived, the next morning we woke to clear skies, sunshine and the splendid Venetian castle on the harbour below jutting into a serene cobalt sea. Heraklion (Iraklio) is all at once crazy and chaotic and cultured and refined. Crammed with archaeological and architectural remnants of Minoan, Arabic, Venetian, and Ottoman rule, it has sturdy Arab fortifications, elegant Venetian loggia, pretty Turkish fountains, Byzantine churches, and, just out of town, the stately ruins of Knossos, centre of Minoan civilization, with its vivid murals. Birthplace of the great Nikos Kazantzakis, it’s an arty intellectual city – on any night of the week, you’ll find classical music, theatre, poetry, folk music, and even tango.

Innsbruck
Innsbruck’s student population is what sets this lively Austrian university city apart from other winter resorts. While the splendid medieval streetscapes might trick you into thinking you’re stepped back in time, Zaha Hadid’s space age Hungerburg Funicular and Bergisel Ski Jump will have you thinking you’ve been transported into the future. Its tourism may centre around its winter sports and mountaineering, but its everyday life deserves a look. There’s a wonderful covered market offering local farm-fresh produce, cosy cafés, superb restaurants, and snug wine bars serving outstanding Austrian drops.

Jerez de la Frontera
Best known for its flamenco, fortified wines and Spanish dancing horses, the Andalusian city of Jerez is also a delicious culinary destination. Each morning at the busy Mercado Central de Abastos, locals line up for mouthwatering produce from Cadiz and surrounding provinces, such as glistening fresh fish, flawless fruit and veg, bull’s meat, and local cheeses, olives and pickles. On the square outside, at Cafeteria La Vega, there is piping-hot sugar-coated churros, and in the backstreets and lanes, countless tapas bars, traditional restaurants, white washed bodegas, and snug flamenco clubs. Most tourists visit on day trips from the southern Spanish coast but this is a city you need to settle into to appreciate. Time your visit to coincide with the flamenco festival.

Kotor
Set around the spectacular fjord-like Bay of Kotorska, Montenegro’s walled town of Kotor is a mini-Dubrovnik without the crowds. Colossal ships dock at its port, their tour groups doing a circuit of the labyrinthine old town, Stari Grad, yet strangely enough they don’t stay long nor sleep overnight. You can spend days exploring the skinny marble-paved lanes and sunny squares, admiring the splendid old churches and stone houses, poking your nose into private courtyards with tangled gardens. Late afternoon is for hikes up to the Fortress of San Giovanni and long ambles on the waterfront. After dark, sample local specialties like fish soup and smoky cheeses in cave-like restaurants before mingling with the locals in smoky wine bars and loud rock pubs.

Lausanne
When we lived in Dubai we spent winter holidays in Europe so Terence could get his snowboarding fix and I could settle in front of a fireplace with a good book or two. We’d go to Italy, Germany, Austria, France, and Switzerland, where Zurich was our favourite city. We never really took a liking to Geneva, but we loved Basel, Lucerne and especially Lausanne. I became smitten with Lausanne the first time we stayed – in a grand old hotel on the shore of serene Lake Geneva. I’d love Lausanne if I could do nothing but sit in the winter sunshine and stare at the still water, but fortunately the pretty city is also home to fantastic art museums, alfresco cafés, countless cellar doors and wine bars, and outstanding restaurants.

Mantua
Strikingly situated on peninsula surrounded by manmade lakes built in the 12th century for defensive purposes, compact Mantua or Màntova in Italian is an elegant low key city that sees more local than foreign tourists strolling its pedestrian-friendly streets. It maybe be scorching in summer but the empty piazzas and quiet lanes are a delight to wander when Venice and Verona are uncomfortably crowded. The imposing castle is actually a complex of majestic palaces with secret courtyards and gardens. Cafés overlook the sprawling main square with views of the massive Duomo, while breezy arcades shade elegant shops and fine restaurants. Mantuan cuisine, old and new, is outstanding, and there are several Michelin-starred restaurants in and around the town, including Dal Pescatore, one of the world’s best restaurants, some 40kms away.

Nicosia
The first time we visited Cyprus, the inland capital Nicosia (Lefkosia in Greek) had a modern district hopping with stylish coffee shops and minimalist lounge bars and a quieter ramshackle quarter within the walled town that was the world’s last divided city. Cut in two by barbed wire barricades, a so-called Green Line separated the old town into two sectors, watched over by machine gun-toting soldiers from both sides in guard boxes. On the southern Greek-Cypriot side, pedestrianised Ledra Street, Nicosia’s main commercial thoroughfare, was the busiest part of an otherwise quiet historic centre. The northern half of the city in Turkish Cyprus – accessed through a no-man’s land that was necessary to cross on foot – felt quintessentially Turkish with bustling markets and a splendid stone caravanserai, Buyuk Han. Nicosia felt all at once Ottoman, with its stone hammams and diminutive mosques with slender minarets, and Greek, with its whitewashed houses with blue shutters, especially in the delightful Laïki Geitonia quarter. Nicosia wasn’t the liveliest city on the island yet it was endlessly intriguing with its old-fashioned shops, small museums, bouzouki bars, and traditional tavernas. We haven’t been back since the year before Ledra Street’s barricade came down in 2008 yet it’s a city to which I’ve often wanted to return.

Palma de Mallorca
Palma is often overlooked by tourists, who head straight to the beaches, yet we drove all over Mallorca researching and photographing a guidebook before renting an apartment to do the write-up in a historic stone house in the heart of Palma’s substantial old town. It became our favourite bit of the island. Palma is packed with history and formidable architecture and art including a wonderful cathedral and whimsically decorated 20th-century buildings by Antoni Gaudí and protégés. The Museu Fundación Juan March, a museum of contemporary Spanish art, displays wonderful works by Picasso, Gris, Miró, and Dalí. There are busy traffic-free shopping streets boasting elegant old stores, a bustling fresh produce market, Mercat de L’Olivar, and boisterous traditional tapas bars in La Llotja-Borne.

Perpignan
The southwestern French city of Perpignan, not far from the border with Spanish Catalunya, almost feels like a Gallic version of Palma, only Perpignan’s old town is even more maze-like, boasts fascinating multicultural neighbourhoods you won’t find on Mallorca, and the tapas bars are replaced with characterful brasseries serving bubbly and freshly shucked oysters (in season). The sunny main square, Place de la République, hosts stalls selling fresh local produce, while the backstreets and laneways are lined with gourmet grocery shops, small neighbourhood restaurants, and buzzy organic wine bars. With affordable holiday rentals (like Palma), this is a wonderful city to settle into for a while.

Ravenna
Another one of my favourite Italian cities, Ravenna sees relatively few foreign tourists compared with the other big destinations in the neighbourhood yet for me it offers so much more. Ravenna has an air of refinement, grace and grandeur due to its designation as the capital of the Western Roman Empire, Visigoth Empire, and Byzantine Empire. As a result it also possesses elegant piazzas, an astounding amount of Byzantine mosaics littered about the place, imposing churches, and lively traffic-free streets that these days are dotted with cafes with alfresco tables and bars where patrons spill out onto the lanes after dark.

Sóller
Sóller is a stunner, with a lively promenade that wraps around one of Spain’s most picturesque bays, after the better-known San Sebastian, one of our most favourite cities in the world. But if you can drag yourself away from the waterfront, the backstreets are home to some of Mallorca’s most flamboyant architectural examples of the Catalan Modernismo that I love in Palma, designed by Gaudí’s protégé, Rubió. There’s the breathtaking parish church (no, it’s not a cathedral) with very pretty spires, the handsome Banco de Sóller, with its ornate window-grilles, and the over-the-top Can Prunera on 90 Carrer Sa Lluna, which is now a private home. Add to that, characterful cafés, old-fashioned tapas bars, and nearby beaches, and Sóller is hard to resist.

Thessaloniki
Elegant Saloniki, as the locals call it, is our favourite Greek city. It’s more welcoming than Athens and has a wonderful seaside location, with splendid Byzantine churches and sleek art deco apartment blocks. Add to that fantastic markets, a shopping scene to rival Athens, award-winning museums, and cutting-edge art spaces, and you have a city like no other in Greece. There’s a vibrant café culture, buzzy bars, and noisy tavernas serving fantastic Greek food. Cruise the funky outdoor cafes and bars on Plateia Aristotelous any night of the week, but especially on Sunday afternoons, and you’re mixing it with the same kind of crowd that makes most foreigners feel decidedly outside the in-crowd at a beach bar on Mykonos or Santorini.

Vicenza
Nearby Venice and Verona are included on most Northern Italian itineraries but not enough travellers get to lovely Vicenza, which is a big part of its appeal. The city is most notable for its classical architecture by Palladio – including 23 elegant buildings, which earned the city and surrounding region a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing. Vicenza’s tranquil canals were once linked to those of Venice, but it’s the city’s beautiful churches, many crammed with paintings by the likes of Tiepolo that most visitors are here to see. Don’t miss the Duomo and Pinacoteca Civica, but equally enjoyable are the cafés, bars and restaurants that hum with the chatter of locals. Whatever you eat or drink, make sure to try the sparkling white wine, Durello, made in the hills surrounding Vicenza.

Getting there and around
By far the best way to get between most of these cities is by rail and we like sites such as Railbookers to research journeys and buy train tickets online. For the islands either ferry or low-cost flights are your best bet. We’re yet to find sites that serve as one-stop-shops for either European ferries or no-frills airlines. Tourist office sites are good resources for how to get to their destinations. We’ve travelled between many of these cities by road, picking a car up from one airport and returning it to another. We’re not fans of bus travel in Europe.

 

4 comments

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  1. Bryan

    Love the list! Were you at all hesitant on publishing it fearing the unspoiled might get spoiled? The less traveled might get over traveled. It’s an ethical question I debate but have no answer to.

    1. Lara Dunston

      Thanks, Bryan! I enjoyed doing it actually, as I got to recall the fun times we’ve had at all these great cities we’ve been to over the years.

      Look, I hear you, and if it’s a small village or town that we think doesn’t have the infrastructure to cope with an onslaught and will be overwhelmed and spoilt by huge tourist numbers we won’t write about it – especially if it’s for a guidebook, as they have a tremendous impact; much more significant than a story in a travel magazine or on a website.

      All the cities above can definitely handle more tourists and some would benefit greatly by more visitors. Some already get local tourists but not foreigners. Others get tourists during high season but not off season (like Heraklion for example), when I actually think they’re lovelier.

      I struggle more with restaurants, as Terence and I have seen some get completely spoilt after being included in guidebooks. In Venice, we once discovered a new restaurant that quickly became popular with locals and only had one table of foreigners when we dined. It was fantastic. We wanted to keep it a secret but we thought that wasn’t fair on the owners, so we asked if they minded if we put it in a guidebook. We were pleased when he politely said “no”.

  2. Andy

    I was not able to make it to Kotor when I was near there. I have heard it is really beautiful though!

    1. Lara Dunston

      The location is absolutely breathtaking. We loved the views from where we stayed on the other side of the bay looking onto Kotor, but it was a bit of a drag to walk into town and a hassle taking taxis. If I went again I’d look for something closer to town – although then you miss those views. Tough choice.

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