Europe's Top 10 Alternative City Escapes

6 March 2015
Read Time: 6.3 mins

Will Coldwell breaks down the ten best alternative city breaks in Europe, because sometimes the best sights and experiences are found by ditching the capital cities for local towns. From the Gothic styles of Segovia in Spain, to the flourish of modern art in Rotterdam, there's a chance uncovering your favourite Europe destination is one trip away.

Ghent, Belgium

 Saint Michael's Bridge in Ghent. Photograph: Getty

Why go?

While Bruges can sometimes feel a little like a tourist toy-town, Ghent keeps it real. The city still offers picturesque Flemish architecture and historical sites - St Bavo Cathedral is the obvious one - but you’ll also find a buzzing contemporary creative scene too, with trendy hang outs such as bar/cafe/co-working space Bar Buro, cycle cafe Bidon and cutting edge restaurants such as JEF. Evenings are far livelier too, with a big student population revelling in the city that spawned electro legends Soulwax.

When to go?

During the summer, Ghent hosts a wide range of festivals, including the 10-day multi-arts extravaganza Gentse Feesten. However, the city is just as beautiful during the winter, and in November is the location of the notoriously bonkers Six-days cycle race.

Lyon, France

Musee des Confluences, Lyon. Musee des Confluences, Lyon. Photograph: Prochasson Frederic/Alamy

Why go?

Lyon is packed with more than enough to compete with Paris for weekends away, but without having to exhaust yourself trekking from one arrondissement to the other. From May 2015, Eurostar will be running direct trains to Lyon meaning you can reach the city from London in less than five hours.

It’s renowned for its food scene, but recently it’s the regenerated dock area on the banks of the Rhône and the Saône that’s got a buzz to it. That’s where you’ll find the recently opened Musée de Confluence – a futuristic-looking science and anthropology museum – as well as La Sucrière, a new arts and music venue in an old sugar warehouse, as well as a host of other chic restaurants and art spaces.

When to go?

Being 250 miles further south than Paris, Lyon gets lovely hot weather during the summer. But it’s got plenty to offer all year round. In May, it hosts Nuits Sonores, a five-day (and night) festival of electronic music and art, which sees hundreds of locations across the city transformed into creative stages (13-17 May). In September, 2015, the city will launch four months of contemporary art with the Lyon Biennale.

Leipzig, Germany

The Spinnerei Galerien complex inhabits one of Leipzig’s old cotton mills. The Spinnerei Galerien complex inhabits one of Leipzig’s old cotton mills. Photograph: Alamy

Why go?

Where else can you find a vegan kebab shop? A refuge for disenchanted Berliners, Leipzig has risen from its industrial past thanks to a new generation of young creatives looking for a cheap, fun and urban place to pitch up in.

This May, the Spinnerei Galerien celebrates 10 years since this vast former cotton mill was converted into an art studio complex – it’s just one of many contemporary art spaces in the city that now includes the likes of Kaufhaus Held, a department store repurposed into a creative venue in 2013. Meanwhile, the nightlife scene spans from hip, cheap pubs and bars to the legendary Distillery – one of Germany’s oldest techno clubs.

When to go?

As usual, summer is the time for festivals – and winter in Leipzig, as in Berlin, can be pretty cold. But even in October there are big events to build a trip around, including the Leipzig Jazz Festival and DOK, one of the world’s oldest documentary film festivals.

Segovia, Spain

The cathedral at Segovia. Segovia has a large gothic cathedral and several beautiful churches. Photograph: Alamy

Why go?

If you’ve been to Barcelona, Madrid and Bilbao and are curious to explore another, smaller city in Spain, then Segovia, with its beautiful churches and slower pace is a good option for a peaceful mini-break. The huge gothic cathedral and Disney-esque castle are two of the city’s main attractions, as is the old town itself, a Unesco world heritage site. Thirty minutes’ train ride from Madrid, it’s also easy to explore as a day trip as part of a longer holiday in the capital.

When to go?

While the summer can be pretty hot, this is a great city to visit during spring and autumn when you’ll find pleasant temperatures, perfect for exploring on foot.

Porto, Portugal

A gallery in Rua de Miguel Bombarda, Porto Portugal. A gallery in Rua de Miguel Bombarda, Porto Portugal. Photograph: Alamy

Why go?

Portugal’s second city may not have quite the same party vibe as Lisbon, but it shares the faded charm and buzzing creative scene. There’s much more to do than sip on port. Rua de Miguel Bombarda is the centre of the city’s art district, an area where you’ll find well over a dozen contemporary galleries to check out.

The Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art – as well as being a modernist masterpiece (by architect Álvaro Siza) – is one of the country’s most important museums. And even run down parts of Porto are worth exploring, thanks to clever, alternative tours run by a group of young architects.

When to go?

Porto’s traditional summer highlight is the St John’s Feast festival on 23 June, which involves street parties, fireworks and hitting each other on the head with plastic hammers. Those up for some more contemporary fun will want to check in for the Optimo Primavera Sound Festival, 4-6 June, an offshoot of the Barcelona music festival first run in Porto in 2012.

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Linz, Austria

Ars Electronica Center and Postlingberg Church, Linz. Ars Electronica Center and Postlingberg Church, Linz. Photograph: WestEnd61/Rex

Why go?

Linz combines old town charm with a burgeoning creative scene that might surprise one or two who aren’t up to speed with developments. Last December it was accepted into Unesco’s network of Creative Cities – and in 2009 it was a European capital of culture, in each instance helping raise the profile of the city as an arts and music destination.

The recently upgraded Ars Electronica Center – a museum for the future – is a place to explore the interraction between people and the world around them, and encapsulates Linz’s reputation as an experimental, forward-looking city.

When to go?

Two of Linz’s biggest long-running annual events are the Ars Electronica festival in September, a series of exhibitions, performances and events focused on arts and science, and Pflasterspektakel Linz in July, one of Europe’s biggest street artist festivals – a celebration of buskers, human statues, clowns and dancers.

Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Swing low … Showroom Mama is a hub for the modern arts scene in Rotterdam Swing low … Showroom Mama is a hub for the modern arts scene in Rotterdam

Why go?

Amsterdam may be pretty, but Rotterdam is a design-led Dutch city that’s brimming with iconic architecture. The Het Nieuwe Instituut of architecture, design and e-culture is the obvious place to delve into the subject, while Tent and Showroom Mama are highlights of Rotterdam’s cutting edge contemporary arts scene. The nightlife is excellent too; Bird is a top live music venue while clubs like Perron consistently draw top underground DJs to the city.

When to go?

One of the highlights of Rotterdam’s cultural calender is the North Sea Jazz festival, which takes place in July and this year celebrates its 40th anniversary with a star-studded line up including D’Angelo, Tony Bennett duetting with Lady Gaga, Joshua Redman, and Herbie Hancock duo with Chick Corea.

Turin, Italy

Turin's Egyptian Museum has one of the largest collections of artefacts in Europe. Turin’s Egyptian Museum has one of the largest collections of artefacts in Europe. Photograph: Alamy

Why go?

Don’t be put off by Turin’s location in Italy’s industrial north; the city is more attractive than nearby Milan and has a cafe and food scene that showcases the best that Piedmont (and Italy) has to offer. The historic Caffe Torino – known as “the living room” is a classic hangout, one of many richly furnished art nouveu and art deco cafes and restaurants to be found beneath the shaded pedestrian arcades.

Newer restaurants worth checking out for an expert take on traditional ingredients include Ristorante Consorzio, while cultural attractions range from the Museo Egizio – for one of the biggest collection of Egyptian artefacts in Europe – to the converted Lingotto Fiat Factory, which featured in the Italian Job.

When to go?

Spring is the best time to visit, when the weather is most favourable for exploring by foot, but there’s always a wide range of events going on. In October there’s the Movement music festival – the Italian offshoot of the cult Detroit electronic music event and at the end of March England will take on Italy in a friendly game at the Juventus stadium.

Gothenburg, Sweden

Gothenburg’s Haga area is a warren of old buildings, cafes and small shops. Gothenburg’s Haga area is a warren of old buildings, cafes and small shops. Photograph: Alamy

Why go?

As is often the way with second cities, Gothenburg is less glam than the capital, Stockholm, but its more industrial environment provides the perfect backdrop for a lively creative scene. A prime example of this is Roda Sten - an old boiler house on the concrete riverside that’s now a huge arts and cultural space.

The cobbled streets of the historically run down Haga neighbourhood is a place to explore indie cafes, shops and restaurants. Nearby, on Andra Långgatan, you’ll find hang outs such as Dirty Records/Cafe Santo Domingo – where you can combine crate-digging with organic, homemade grub and coffee. When night falls there’s countless drinking spots to choose from; Ölhallen 7:an is a historic beer hall, while Bar Kino, next to Hagabions Cafe, is a popular alt hang out.

When to go?

Go in summer and it’ll be be light till around 10pm. In August, Gothenburg hosts the three-day rock festival, Way Out West, this year including Patti Smith, Beck and Belle & Sebastian, as well as the annual culture festival, which provides six days of free entertainment - from comedy to film - in the downtown area.

Belgrade, Serbia

KC Grad, a popular hangout for young travellers and local creatives in Savamala, Belgrade. KC Grad, a popular hangout for young travellers and local creatives in Savamala, Belgrade. Photograph: Photographer: Nemanja Stojanovic/

Why go?

Belgrade’s cultural scene has snowballed in the past five years. The combination of this with the gritty urbanism of the city sees it frequently (perhaps lazily) compared with Berlin - Belgrade is intriguing in its own unique way.

Savamala, the neighbourhood on the river below the old town, is the current focal point for the city’s creatives. Here you’ll find KC Grad and Mikser House, two arts and performance spaces as well as lots of bars and restaurants. The city’s clubbing scene is vibrant, and feaures legendary floating club 20/44 and brand new “techno cathedral” Drugstore, in a former slaughterhouse.

When to go?

Summer is super hot in Belgrade, but it’s also when the string of nightclubs on boats on the riverside are in full swing (most of these, apart from 20/44, close during winter). The best times to visit, according to locals, is spring or autumn, avoiding the particularly dreary spell winter can cast over the place.

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This article was written by Will Coldwell from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

Will Coldwell

I am a junior reporter on The Guardian travel desk. Previously I wrote extensively for The Guardian, The Independent and other national publications as a freelance feature writer and reporter. I have a radio show on London Fields Radio called The Soul Report and DJ funk, soul and hip hop under the name Royale.