Rome, Paris, London — these are among the typical stops for every traveler coming to visit Europe. If you are looking for the big museums and major attractions, these go-to places are indeed your first choice. But if your goal is different, if you strive to get a sniff of true Old World charm away from the masses of tourists and in the company of the locals, then you might try a different approach.
As parts of Europe were destroyed during the wars and the population boomed in the subsequent decades, you can run into ugly towns and neighborhoods that simply consist of nothing more than concrete midrises and grocery stores. However, by getting off the train or bus in just the right town, you might find a quiet, less traveled pearl that is waiting for your attention.
1. Epernay, France
Get away form Paris and go to the Champagne region to indulge in as much bubbly liquid as you can hold. Epernay or Reims would typically be your first choice when it comes to visiting the champagne houses, but when you’re in the neighborhood, do stop by Vitry-Le-Francois. In summer, their food fairs can be in full swing, and you might be able to score bottles of champagne for just two food tickets and blend in with the locals.
2. Aarhus, Denmark
University city Aarhus, the second largest town of Denmark, might not have all the sights and wonders of Copenhagen, but it gives you a good glimpse of the Jutland peninsula (the rest of Denmark consists of islands).
Grab a bike, tour around this lovely city, spend the afternoon in one of the many coffee places while enjoying Danish rolls, and then enjoy a typical dinner while having a Tuborg or Carlsberg. The Danish surely make life look effortless.
3. Girona, Spain
Just an hour outside of Barcelona lies one of the major cities of Catalonia. With its cathedral, fortifications, and the beautiful houses painted in hues of red and ochre along the Onyar river (Cases de l’Onyar), Girona combines Catalan industriousness with Mediterranean charm. Girona makes a perfect day trip from Barcelona or the Costa Brava, but can also be a great location from which you can explore Catalonia and the Costa Brava in their entirety.
4. Lier, Belgium
Only 15 minutes by train from Antwerp and 30 minutes from Brussels, this tiny historical city combines a Unesco world heritage beguinage (which still has inhabitants, unlike the museumized beguinage in Bruges), the wonderful works of watchmaker Zimmer (including the Zimmer tower and the wonder clock), cobblestone streets, delicious cuisine, and independent fashion boutiques.
Explore the sights, walk the green belt around the city (de vesten), enjoy a free concert on a summer evening, discover the banks of the Nete river, and then settle down on the Zimmerplein to drink a Belgian beer and enjoy a steak with fries (at Brasserie Louis, for example) — discover the Burgundian attitude that still lingers in Belgium.
5. Koblenz, Germany
Where the Rhine and the Moselle confluence, this lovely Rhineland city is a gem close to the more frequently visited Aachen and Cologne.
Offering great boat tours on the rivers, a cable car going into lush green hills, historic churches, and a beautiful castle, Koblenz can offer you all the pleasures of traveling the Rhineland, where you can enjoy cooled draft beers or fresh local white wines.
6. Utrecht, The Netherlands
Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague are the largest touristic cities in the Netherlands, but when you go slightly more to the East of the country, you can discover lovely, laid-back Utrecht. This city is again a great place for visiting historical places, sampling great local food and drink, shopping in the many stores, and hanging out along the canals.
7. Diekirch, Luxemburg
With only over 6000 inhabitants, Diekirch really is the smallest city on this list. Luxemburg in itself is too often forgotten by tourists or dismissed as simply a place for getting cheaper gas or doing some fishy banking by their neighboring countries. However, set in luscious hills like the south of Belgium, Luxemburg combines great cuisine with a very friendly atmosphere. Diekirch is mostly known for it’s brewery, so take your hiking boots to explore the hills and then relax with a great beer. How else would you go and explore Europe?
What are your favorite lesser-known cities in Europe?