Go here, not there: overlooked European cities you need to visit
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First-time and frequent visitors to urban European tourist hotspots like Barcelona and Amsterdam can find endless options for new restaurants, attractions, exhibits and beyond. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with being a repeat visitor to a specific destination — but there’s also something to be said about visiting some of Europe’s underdog cities.
They aren’t necessarily off-the-beaten-path — you’ve probably heard of them — but they may be less touristy and more affordable than some of the more popular spots.
We’re not telling you to skip the most famous cities, landmarks and attractions. Our take on ‘go here, not there’ isn’t written to discourage you from visiting Europe’s most famous and frequented cities, but rather to flag more affordable, lesser-known or underrated alternatives (in addition to) the more popular spots.
Here are some of the European cities you should consider visiting for your next urban holiday.
Instead of Barcelona, visit Madrid for Spanish culture
Madrid is often overlooked in favour of coastal gems like Marbella or Barcelona, but for those that want to experience authentic Spanish gastronomy and culture in a city environment, Madrid has it all.
When it comes to art, Madrid’s golden triangle features some of the most famous museums in Spain, like the Prado (classical Spanish art), the Reina Sofia (modern Spanish art) and the Thyssen-Bornemisza (an eclectic mix of international and Spanish art). And much of the city centre, known as Madrid de Los Austrias (much of it was built during the Habsburg Dynasty) is ideal for walkers that want to lap the historic centre on foot to admire the beautiful architecture and soak in Madrid’s special vibe: a relaxed, small-town feel mixed with big-city energy.
If you want to sample the best of Spain’s gastronomy, you’ll find it in Madrid, from affordable daily lunch menus at family-owned eateries to Michelin-starred restaurants to Serrano ham and local cheese stands at the city’s many food markets.
And the best part? Madrid is one of western Europe’s sunniest and most affordable capitals, meaning you can enjoy food and attractions from budget to luxury — and almost always beneath sunny skies.
Instead of Dubrovnik, visit seaside paradise Zadar for fewer crowds
Dubrovnik’s walled city is one of Croatia’s most famous attractions, but in recent years, it’s become a bit of a spectacle, with hundreds of thousands of visitors cramming into the city, many of them day-trippers from cruise ships.
While Zadar doesn’t have all the famous Game of Thrones filming locations and the hype that Dubrovnik does, the walled, seafront city is just as idyllic, but in a more tranquil way. Complete with historical attractions that date back hundreds of years, including 12th-century walls and several churches, the city has a similar aesthetic to Dubrovnik, but without the crowds.
Don’t miss checking out the unique Sea Organ, a sound monument that plays music as the sea waves lap over its marble steps (the tubes located under the steps make the sound vibrations as the water crashes against them).
Zadar also has a popular city beach, Kolovare, where locals and travellers alike can enjoy the sun and pebbly sand. For even more exotic beaches, head to the nearby Kornati archipelago by boat. It’s made up of more than 100 islands, 89 of which are protected spaces part of the Kornati National Park.
Instead of Bordeaux, visit Nantes if you love wine
Bordeaux is one of the world’s wine capitals, but for something a little different, consider Nantes, which sits on the edge of the Loire Valley.
The Loire Valley has close to 70 AOC (Appellations d’Origine Contrôlées) and thousands of winegrowers, one of the best places to winetaste in France. But wine isn’t the only thing to discover in the Loire Valley. The area is also home to hundreds of castles — many of which you can tour, overnight or even wine taste in — many wineries have on-ground castles and vice versa. While the Loire Valley region features four different subregions, the closest to Nantes is known as Pays Nantais, known for producing Muscadet, a dry white variety.
And the city of Nantes itself is sorely underrated, often known as the French Venice thanks to the Erde River, the Nantes-Brest Canal, a lengthy waterway that connects Nantes and Brest and the Loire River, which passes through the city, splitting and regrouping to form the Ile de Nantes.
From the city’s historic quarter of Bouffay to the beautiful riverside and whimsical attractions in the shipyard on the Ile de Nantes, including the famed Giant Elephant, Nantes is a city the whole family will love. The city is also the home of Jules Verne — fans of his work can visit the Musée Jules Verne.
Instead of Lisbon, visit Porto, one of Europe’s most underrated cities
Portugal’s capital of Lisbon is a joy to visit — a coastal gem featuring affordable cuisine, gorgeous architecture and a hilly tram system. But if you’re looking for a Portuguese urban adventure that’s a little different, head north to Porto, which also features colourful tiled buildings lining hilly, weaving streets.
Porto has a few attractions that are very different from Lisbon. The Douro River rolls through Porto, separating the city from its neighbour, Vila Nova de Gaia, home to various Port wineries which you can tour and taste on foot or by taking a cable car down the hill.
Getting across the river is an attraction in itself, crossing the iconic Dom Luís I Bridge. Walk across the massive bridge two ways (up top or at the bottom), drive across the bottom or take the metro, which crosses the top.
Book lovers will want to visit Livraria Lello, known as one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world. There’s a small fee to enter, but it’s discounted if you purchase a book. And, fans of Harry Potter should check out the opulent Majestic Cafe, where J.K. Rowling reportedly spent many rainy afternoons writing Harry Potter.
Instead of Venice, visit Milan for canals and fashion
Venice is a gorgeous canal city, but it’s often busy, crowded and expensive. Instead, consider Milan — many people seem to forget about this Italian city, which is well worth visiting.
Milan might surprise you. Its exciting Navigli district features waterways lined with concept shops, restaurants and bars. When the weather is nice, roaming the Navigli’s streets, and stopping for drinks and snacks, is the perfect way to enjoy the city’s local energy. It’s also a romantic place to relax on the edge of the canals with a loved one.
You’ve probably heard of Milan’s famed Duomo, but the towering Cathedral is magnificent, the largest in Italy. Nearby, pop into shops, ranging from small boutiques to big-name designers. Even if you don’t buy anything, take notice of your surroundings. People-watching in this area is incredible, as many of the locals are some of the most stylish in Italy. For a breath of fresh air, head over to Sempione Park and the Sforzesco Castle, both underrated attractions many visitors to the city forget to visit.
And if you need a bigger infusion of nature, Milan is a short way away from Italy’s most famous lakes. We recommend visiting the less-touristy and more affordable Maggiore, Lugano, Orta, Iseo and Garda lakes instead of the popular, but expensive, Lake Como.
Instead of Amsterdam, visit Rotterdam for a contemporary urban break
Rotterdam is often referred to as Europe’s ‘capital of cool,’ thanks to the city’s impressive, contemporary skyline, funky art scene and up-and-coming collection of co-living/co-working spaces, hotels and boutique hostels.
From the historic art in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen the Kunsthal, which features ever-changing temporary exhibitions, there’s plenty of art to admire indoors. But really, the whole city of Rotterdam is a museum, from the street art on the main and sidestreets of West-Kruiskade and the 1e Middellandstraatto to outdoor sculptures by famous artists like Rodin, Henry Moore and Picasso.
For a DIY art tour, download the Rotterdam Routes app and do the art and poetry tour, which guides you past many outdoor artistic monuments and sculptures while reciting a poem to match each art piece.
You’ll almost never hear this from The Points Guy, but Rotterdam is a city where you might not want to use your points. Instead, pay affordable cash rates to stay at unique accommodation spaces like the Stayokay Hostal, where you can stay in famous cube houses, the SS Rotterdam, a former cruise ship now docked for good or the Hotel Not Hotel, where you can sleep in fantasy-like creations such as a giant cuckoo clock or a candy house.
Instead of Prague, visit Bratislava for Bohemian vibes
There once was a time when Prague was considered off-the-beaten-path and affordable. While it’s definitely not the most expensive city in Europe, it is decidedly more costly and crowded these days. Travellers on a budget that want a more underground eastern European feel (what Prague “used to be”) should consider Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia — it’s about 13% cheaper than Prague.
While Prague is larger with more big-name attractions, Bratislava is ideal for visitors that want to kick back and hang out, enjoying a beer and the city’s general ambiance without hoards of tourists. The town sits upon the Danube River, near the edge of the Austria and Hungarian border. It’s also the ideal destination to combine with a visit to Vienna — it’s about an hour away by both train and car from Austria’s capital.
Bratislava’s historic old centre is small, but fun to explore, with beautiful buildings and cobblestone streets. Nearby, the picturesque architecture of Kapitulska Street is worth a visit, too. Landmarks include Michael’s Gate, the medieval entrance to the old city, the gothic St. Marten’s cathedral and the Bratislava Castle.
Similar to Prague, the city also has some famous outdoor sculptures to check out, like ‘The Man at Work’ and Hans Christian Anderson.
(Featured image of the Bratislava Castle by Milos Mildo/500px/Getty Images))
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