5 Small Cities in Europe Where You Can Live Large

Apr 17, 2015

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As the dollar edges closer to the Euro and holds strong against other European currencies, it seems like Europe is on every budget-conscious traveler’s mind. But why focus solely on crowded hotspots when there are plenty of charming places scattered throughout the continent that are also worth checking out? TPG France-based Contributor Lane Nieset takes us through five of the most delightful small cities in Europe that should definitely be on your travel bucket list.

St Mark's Church Zagreb
St Mark’s Church in Zagreb, Croatia dates back to the 12th century.  Photo by Lane Nieset

Zagreb, Croatia

Though Zagreb is Croatia’s capital, it’s often overshadowed by the islands or coastal destinations like Split and Dubrovnik. Travelers see the city as a stopover point before heading further south or taking a train to Eastern European hotspots like Budapest, but the capital is a hotspot in its own right, full of hidden gems tucked away on cobblestone streets.

Though Croatia joined the European Union in 2013, it still uses its own form of currency, the Kuna—and despite the country’s reputation as a cheaper destination, you’ll likely spend a lot of Kuna in its jet-set cities. In Zagreb, however, travelers can still indulge in Croatian specialties like pašticada, a stewed beef dish served with gnocchi, at a fraction of the price while dining at local favorites like Kerempuh, a restaurant overlooking the Dolac daily farmer’s market. While visiting Zagreb, stroll past 13th-cenury stone gates and towers and be sure to stop in the more modern attractions, like the quirky Museum of Broken Relationships.

Getting There: The Zagreb International Airport (ZAG) is 25 minutes from the city center and offers service from major carriers like American Airlines, Air France, British Airways, Lufthansa and United Airlines, with connections in Paris, London, Frankfurt, Munich and Rome.

Where to Stay: Zagreb have a few points hotels to choose from, including the 306-room Sheraton Zagreb Hotel, the five-star Westin Zagreb, and the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Zagreb in the business district.

Bryggen Wharf
The old Bryggen Wharf in Bergen. Photo courtesy of Bergen Tourist Board/Girish Chouhan-visitBergen.com

Bergen, Norway

Maintaining its own currency, the Krone, Norway is known for being a pricey European destination—especially in the design-savvy capital, Oslo. However, the country has plenty of beautiful cities and towns along the fjords that won’t break the bank. One of these is so storybook perfect, it became the inspiration for Disney’s hit film Frozen.

Bergen may be Norway’s second largest city, but it still maintains a small-town feel, surrounded by seven mountains and dotted with architecture dating back to the 12th century. The UNESCO World Heritage site of Bryggen, a wharf that once served as a Hanseatic trade center in the 14th to 16th centuries, is lined with 62 charming colorful wooden buildings from the Middle Ages that are now home to artisan shops and restaurants. And just in case that’s not picturesque enough for you, know that its prime location between two fjords—Hardangerfjord, and the world’s longest fjord, Sognefjord— have earned it the tagline “Gateway to the Fjords.” Bergen is an ideal home base for exploring nearby destinations by boat or bike.

Getting There: Bergen Airport, Flesland (BGO) offers over 30 flights from major cities throughout Europe, as well as from New York City (JFK), on carriers like British Airways, Norwegian, SAS, and KLM.

Where to Stay: The 342-room Radisson Blu Royal Hotel is set in one of the best locations in town‚ right next door to the Bryggen wharf. On the opposite side of the wharf next to the fish market lies the 210-room Clarion Hotel Admiral (part of Choice Hotels), a former boat warehouse dating back to 1903 that’s surrounded by the sea on three sides.

Cesky Krumlov
View over Český Krumlov from the castle. Photo by Lane Nieset

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

Prague’s castle is a sight to see, but the lesser known medieval village of Český Krumlov is also home to a castle complex—the second-largest in the Czech Republic—and it’s just a few hours away from this capital city. Forming a border around part of the town, the castle dates back to the 14th century and is comprised of 40 buildings and palaces spanning five courts. The town itself dates back to the 1200s, and the Vltava River flowing through the area was used as a trade route during the Early Middle Ages. These days, the river is used more for recreation, and you’ll find travelers come from around the area to go rafting and kayaking during the summer months.

Getting There: The closest airports are the Blue Danube Airport Linz (LNZ) in Austria, located an hour away, with flights from Austrian Airlines and Lufthansa, and the Václav Havel Airport Prague (PRG), a three-hour drive away, services flights for American Airlines, Air France, Air Canada, and Delta Air Lines. If you’re traveling by train, České Budějovice is the closest station, just 20 minutes from town and a four- to five-hour ride from Prague.

Where to Stay: Not surprisingly, this tiny village lacks big-name chains, but there are a number of small inns, hotels, B&Bs and hostels. Four-star options include the 74-room Hotel Corona and the 59-room, Provence-style Hotel Bellevue. Also consider looking into rental accommodations sites like Airbnb and Wimdu, as well as HomeAway and VRBO.

The triple bridge in Ljubljana. Photo courtesy of Ljubljana Touris/B.Kladnik

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Slovenia’s capital has been deemed the European Green Capital for 2016, and it’s this blend of green spaces, parks and Athens-inspired architecture that make this 5,000-year-old city much more than a stopover point en route to nearby Austria or Croatia. Take a cruise along the river Ljubljana and admire the Triple Bridge and riverside architecture by Jože Plečnik or head up to the Ljubljana Castle for sweeping views of the city from Outlook Tower. The popular Bled Castle and Lake Bled are also an easy day trip from Ljubljana, less than two hours by train.

For more reasons to visit Ljubljana, see why we named it one of the Top 7 Emerging European Travel Spots last year.

Getting There: Fly into the Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport (LJU) on Air France, SWISS or Turkish Airlines, or take the train from Venice, Vienna or Zagreb.

Where to Stay: The 114-room Four Points by Sheraton Ljubljana Mons is set on a hill in the lush outskirts of the city, just 10 minutes from the center, and is considered Slovenia’s first “designer hotel” thanks to its design by Slovenian architect Boris Podrecca. Part of Best Western Rewards, the BEST WESTERN PREMIER Hotel Slon is a four-star spot set right in the center near the Ljubljana castle and old city.

Saint-Émilion is know for its vineyards, as well as underground monuments. Photo by Lane Nieset

Saint-Émilion, France

Of all the charming towns in France, one stands out in particular—the UNESCO site of Saint-Émilion, in the southwestern region of Aquitaine. With its cobblestone roads, nearby vineyards and buildings dating back to the 9th century, the medieval village is perfect for wine and history lovers, and it’s just a short trip from the city of Bordeaux. While cozying up in a wine bar is a great way to spend your time here, another is checking out the town’s series of underground monuments, like the 11th-century Monolithic Church carved out of limestone.

Getting There: The Bordeaux-Mérignac Airport (BOD) is the easiest place to fly into, with flights on British Airways and Air France. From Bordeaux, Saint-Émilion is just a 45-minute drive, or travelers can opt to take a train or the Line 302 bus.

Where to Stay: Serious foodies will enjoy staying at the 21-room Relais & Châteaux property, Hostellerie de Plaisance, with a terrace bar overlooking the town and an ancient vineyard. The perfectly paired Saint-Émilion wine and gourmet fare at the hotel’s restaurant don’t hurt, either. For a more low-key spot, the 56-room ibis Bordeaux Saint Emilion hotel is located just outside of town.

While you have Europe on your mind, be sure to see these related posts:

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Maximizing Choice Hotels Privileges for European Travel
4 Great Sites for Booking Short- and Long-Term Accommodations
Hotel Alternatives: Booking Rental Homes for Travel
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Which small town in Europe is your favorite? Which European city is next on your list of travels?

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