The thing I love most about traveling is that the more places I visit, the more places I realize there are to visit. I’ve loved all the European capitals, but some of my favorite destinations have been the less obvious ones. From Salzburg to Stavanger, I’ve fallen for the under-the-radar European cities.
Under-the-Radar European Cities
There are 13 destinations in particular that have impressed me. Whether it’s for their beautiful streets or grand squares, waterfront areas or mountain scenery, they’ve proven that Europe’s capitals aren’t the only cities worth visiting.
Mention the Netherlands and most people think of Amsterdam. But there are other great places to explore, including Utrecht. This compact city has everything I love about Amsterdam without the crowds. From scenic canals to impressive towers, Utrecht is overflowing with charm.
Germany is underrated all around, and Hamburg is one of the country’s most overlooked cities. With the shiny new Elbphilharmonie concert hall, two idyllic lakes, and lots of colorful cafes, Hamburg packs a range of highlights into its waterfront territory.
Glasgow, United Kingdom
Not many people come to the UK just to travel to Glasgow. But the Scottish city has reinvented itself in recent years, and its cool style, rich architectural fabric, and independent spirit make it worth a trip.
Despite being an easy day trip from London, Lille isn’t on most people’s list. But I love how this northern French city is full of cobbled streets, delicious shops, and sweet details. It’s main square is awe-inspiring, too.
Spain has so many amazing cities that it’s easy to get distracted by the heavy hitters. But it’s worth getting off the beaten path, and Bilbao is a great place to do it. With the stunning Guggenheim Bilbao museum as its anchor, the city has raised its culinary and cultural games to match.
I fall more in love with Porto every time I visit. Not only does this northern Portuguese city have expansive riverfront views and quiet alleys bursting with color, but also the benefit of being a short trip from the gorgeous Douro Valley wine region.
Like Spain, Italy has enough all-star cities to keep travelers busy for months. But if there’s one place that gets passed over, it’s Ravenna. The former capital of the Western Roman Empire, the city is packed with Roman mosaics and other ancient treasures. I spent my 30th birthday in Ravenna and would go back again in a heartbeat.
Bruges and Brussels take center stage in Belgium, but Ghent offers the best of both in one city. With gorgeous historic buildings and a stunning square, Ghent is one of the loveliest under-the-radar European cities.
Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
I studied abroad in Prague and explored a lot of the Czech Republic while I was there. If one place stood out, it was Cesky Krumlov. A fairytale castle dominates the city, and there’s an air of magic that makes every street feel enchanted.
On the west coast of Norway, Bergen is nestled between mountains and fjords. Its stunning scenery is enhanced by the colorful wooden houses on the Bryggen wharf and delicious seafood around every corner.
Down south in Ireland, Cork is often referred to as the “real capital”. But whether it is or not is less important than the fact that Cork offers an impressive display of everything a capital should offer. With a gorgeous university, bustling market, historic fort, and great pubs, the city is every bit as exciting as Dublin.
Many know Innsbruck for its skiing, but it has far more to offer than just a piste. From an opulent Hapsburg palace to colorful domed towers, there’s a lot to love about Innsbruck itself. And it’s not just the old stuff, either. The funicular was designed by Zaha Hadid.
I spent part of two summers in Romania as a teenager, and fell in love with Cluj-Napoca. The historic architecture is more approachable than some of the imposing structures in Bucharest, and the leafy parks and university vibe give it a great energy.
And perhaps that’s the best thing about these cities. They have an energy that defies their size, and identities that set them apart from their larger neighbors. There are a lot more of them to discover, too, and I’m excited to see what else Europe is hiding.
How about you? What are your favorite under-the-radar European cities?