Top 10 Alluring Smaller Cities in Europe

14 September 2017
Read Time: 9.5 mins

Europe’s capitals get all the attention but these little siblings are just as rewarding to visit.

Old centre of Bergen The lovely old centre of Bergen.

1. Norway

If you love… Oslo

The most laidback of the Scandinavian capitals, Oslo is known for its park-studded neighbourhoods, accessible forests and a lively cultural scene.

Then try… Bergen

Bergen doesn’t just charm tourists; it knocks their socks off. Surrounded by seven fjords and seven wooded hills, this compact town punches well above its weight as a tourist attraction.

Start in the old quarter of Bryggen, where the colourful merchants’ houses have scored a World Heritage listing. Feast on the day’s catch at the seafood market, then take yourself out to explore the spectacular surrounds. If you’re not feeling that energetic, take the funicular to the top of Mt Fløyen and walk back down.

Bergen’s cultural scene is also dynamic. As the hometown of composer Edvard Grieg, Bergen has a packed calendar of concerts: the lunchtime concerts at Grieg’s home are a must. Also worth checking out are the city’s KODE art museums and acclaimed local restaurants such as Hanne På Høyden and Lysverkert. 

Glasgow by night. The Clyde Arc Bridge in Glasgow by night.

2. Scotland

If you love… Edinburgh

A hilltop castle, a Georgian New Town, a medieval Old Town, even an underground city  – no wonder Edinburgh is considered one of  the loveliest cities of the British Isles.

Then try… Glasgow

Goldilocks would love Glasgow. Not too big, not too small, the city is large enough to have a thriving cultural scene but small enough that you’ll never get lost. You might start your explorations in the chic Merchant City, where boutiques and bars now inhabit the homes  once built by the city’s richest traders. Feel like some fresh air instead? Glasgow’s verdant green spaces include the lovely Kelvingrove Park, particularly seductive when the spring blossoms are in full bloom.

Also worth checking out are Glasgow’s art scene – considered one of the most cutting-edge in the UK – and excellent museums. All Glasgow’s publicly owned museums offer free entry.

Or you could hike up to the Necropolis, the Victorian memorial to the dead placed high on the hill behind Glasgow Cathedral. There’s something surprisingly romantic about this ornate cemetery with its overblown tributes  to lost loved ones.

Overlooking the incredible Park Guell in Barcelona.

3. Spain

If you love… Madrid

Madrid is famous for its trio of magnificent museums – the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza – but wandering its elegant squares and parks is just  as much of a highlight.

Then try… Barcelona

Where to start with this Catalonian gem? Few cities have been as blessed as Barcelona. Start by getting to grips with its cultural giants, Picasso, Miro and of course the mighty Gaudí, whose idiosyncratic buildings – from the Sagrada Familia to the Casa Batllo – are among the city’s most distinctive landmarks..

Mind you, they certainly have  plenty of competition. From the  grand boulevard of Las Ramblas to  the ancient alleyways of the Barri Gotic, the elegant modernista architecture of Eixample and the winding streets of El Born, each of Barcelona’s neighbourhoods has its own distinct character.

Arguably Barcelona’s greatest attraction, however, is its buzzing nightlife. From basement jazz joints to tapas bars, and late-night clubs to some of the world’s most acclaimed fine-dining destinations, Barcelona offers an excellent variation of delightful nights out for the open-minded visitor.

Turin. Looking out over the rooftops of Turin.

4. Italy

If you love… Rome

La dolce vita is alive and  well in the Eternal City,  where every stroll takes  you past fountain-studded piazzas, elegant palazzi, archaeological wonders  and ancient masterpieces.

Then try… Turin

Sitting in the shadow of the Alps, Turin may have a colder climate than Rome but it more than holds its own when it comes to cultural clout. The original capital of Italy when it was first unified was once the seat of the powerful House of Savoy, which left many of Turin’s elegant boulevards well supplied with monuments, such as the elegant Palace of Venaria and the Museo Egizio, the most important ancient Egypt collection outside Cairo.

More recently, the Agnelli family, of Fiat car manufacturers fame, gifted the city the marvellous Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli. The gallery’s collection features an assortment of works by Matisse, Picasso and Renoir and is housed in the former Fiat factory. A visit to the rooftop racetrack is a must.

Turin is also heaven for foodies. The area’s mist-draped forests and rolling hills produce not just the much-sought-after truffle but rich red wines such as barolo and nebbiolo. Turin’s grand cafés include some of the best in Europe; don’t miss the sumptuous Caffe Torino, and Baratti and Milano.

Basel Switzerland. The Mediaeval Mittlere Brucke (Middle Bridge) over the River Rhine in Basel.

5. Switzerland

If you love… Zurich

The city that defies Switzerland’s quiet and reserved reputation, Zurich is beautifully positioned by a lake and has an ancient city centre, a vibrant hipster district and gorgeous river baths.

Then try… Basel

Its picturesque location, on a bend in the Rhine River, is just one of the reasons that Basel natives love their home town. Wandering through the historic Old Town is a delight, from the rust-red Town Hall through the boutiques and galleries of the Spalenberg district, all the way up to the 600-year-old city gate. During the sun-drenched summers, join the locals cooling off with a dip in the river or enjoy an  al fresco drink on the shore.

Don’t be led astray by the balmy summer days, however; Basel is an all-weather city, thanks to world-class museums such as the Fondation Beyeler and the Kunstmuseum Basel, where masterpieces by the likes of Picasso and Rothko, Monet and Van Gogh are displayed. Nearby, just over the German border, the Vitra Design Museum is a must for fans  of architecture and design.

Marseille Marseille is as interesting from above as down on the ground.

6. France

If you love… Paris

Long walks along the river, boulevards lined with historic buildings, lively cafés and superb museums... No wonder everyone loves Paris.

Then try… Marseille

Marseille may lack picture-book vistas like the capital but its lively neighbourhoods still offer plenty of other delights. The bustling Vieux Port harbour of Marseille is a lovely place to  go exploring, as is the boho  Le Panier district, with its alleys and sun-drenched squares. There are grand cathedrals, world-class museums such as MuCEM (the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations) and the city’s famous floating prison, the Chateau d’If.

Marseille’s other attraction is its dining scene. Whether you’re after ocean-fresh seafood (including Marseille’s signature dish, bouillabaisse), a Michelin-starred feast or freshly grilled merguez (spicy North African sausage) amid the souk-like stalls of the Capucin district,  it’s easy to sate your appetite.

Porto Portugal. Beautiful Porto City Hall in the distance over the city.

7. Portugal

If you love… Lisbon

From Moorish castles and baroque monasteries to the elegant avenues of Baixa and the red-tiled roofs of the bustling Alfama district, Europe’s sunniest capital city  is a delight to explore.

Then try… Porto

Porto looks terrific from above. Peer down from the terrace of the Sé do Porto (cathedral) or the Jardim do Morro (garden) and a beautiful cityscape unfolds, complete with extravagant churches, stately townhouses and streets that slope at vertiginous angles.

Take yourself on a discovery tour; follow an alley  or staircase and see where it leads you. You might find yourself in a quiet plaza or bustling market where everything from roast chestnuts to live roosters is for sale.

The neighbourhoods of Miragaia, Ribeira and Massarelos are popular with visitors but make sure not to neglect the new parts of town. The contrast between contemporary buildings such as the minimalist Museu de Arte Contemporânea and the daring Casa da Música and the striking traditional azulejo tiles that appear everywhere is a key element of Porto’s boho beauty.

Krakow The historic centre of Krakow is beautiful and enchanting to explore.

8. Poland

If you love… Warsaw

Lively bars and cafés, pretty parks, an elegant Old Town and a generous serve of Soviet-style architecture: Warsaw is a peculiar yet beguiling destination.

Then try… Krakow

There is no other way to describe it – Poland’s former royal capital is simply enchanting. Townhouses with ornate, brightly coloured facades; cathedrals and castles: a stroll through Krakow’s Old Town feels like a walk through a fairytale. Start your explorations at the imposing hilltop castle, then make your way slowly to the monumental – and beautiful – main square. There is much to discover here, from the ornate St Mary’s Church to the gorgeous Renaissance Cloth Hall, but make the  time to settle in at an outdoor café and watch life eddying around you.

It pays to explore a bit further afield, too. One of  the city’s most atmospheric quarters is the former Jewish district of Kazimierz. Its historic streets once provided dramatic backdrops for the film Schindler’s List; today they are home to some of the city’s liveliest bars and restaurants.

Thessaloniki Greece. The Arch of Galerius is an early 4th century monument in Thessaloniki.

9. Greece

If you love… Athens

From the ancient Parthenon high on its hill to the lively bars and boutiques in Plaka’s warren of winding streets, Athens’ vibrant mash-up of ancient and modern  is a winning combination.

Then try… Thessaloniki

In Thessaloniki, they don’t bother trying to compete with Athens; they figure they already have the capital beaten hands down. Certainly, history is on their side. While Athens spent centuries as a quiet backwater, Salonika (as it was then known) was the second city of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, and it is so packed with monuments that it’s hard to know where you should start looking.

Highlights include the stunning fourth-century Arch of Galerius, overlooking one of the city’s main shopping drags, and a wealth of gorgeous Byzantine churches, including the mighty Rotunda of St George. There are Ottoman markets and bathhouses and an ancient forum, but the city’s favourite landmark is the White Tower, which provides a spectacular outlook across the buzzing waterfront bars and restaurants.

Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad fly  to Athens via a stopover. Thessaloniki is a one-hour flight further from Athens.

Brabo Fountain, Antwerp Brabo Fountain in front of the town hall on the Great Market Square of Antwerp.

10. Belgium

If you love… Brussels

From its aptly named Grand Square to the funky boutiques of the Dansaert district, not to mention an exciting restaurant scene, buzzing Brussels is a feast for the senses.

Then try… Antwerp

The rest of the world may have forgotten that Antwerp was once one of Europe’s most important cities but the locals certainly haven’t. How could they, with reminders on every corner, from elegant mansions to one of Europe’s most ornate railway stations?

Art fans who come especially to visit the Rubens House find plenty of other enticing museums at hand, including the Rockox House, the Museum Mayer van den Bergh and the strikingly silhouetted Museum aan de Stroom.

The city’s contemporary creative scene is just as vibrant. Talented local designers, including big names such as Ann Demeulemeester and Walter van Beirendonck, have won Antwerp recognition as one of the world’s fashion capitals. As you wander the city’s medieval centre, keep an eye out for their stylish boutiques. Also worth a visit are the city’s most talented chefs: top spots for a memorable meal include The Jane, Graanmarket 13 and Fiskebar.

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Ute Junker

There’s no such thing as a typical day for Ute Junker: it might begin with a snorkel through Tahiti’s translucent waters, or finish with a samba session in one of Rio’s best clubs. From hiking the Norwegian fjords to dining in Lima’s best restaurants, she travels the world in search of inspiring, informative stories.