There are so many amazing European cities to visit, but some don’t get the recognition they deserve.
Everyone knows the top European destinations – London, Paris, Venice, Barcelona, to name a few. These may be among the best European cities to visit. But with so many visitors descending on the main cities so many places also get overlooked.
We’ve compiled a selection of some of the best underrated cities in Europe. We’ve found that they are up there with the best places to visit in Europe.
They are all relatively undiscovered destinations, and there are various reasons for this. Some remain secret destinations because they’re just too far off the beaten path for the time-poor traveller. Others are overshadowed by better-known neighbours, so you never get to hear much about them.
So here’s our list of the most underrated European cities. Please feel free to make your own suggestions in the comments box below.
Albi in south-west France is one of the hidden gems of Europe. It’s a little off the beaten track, an hour or so from Toulouse and closer to two hours from Carcassonne.
It’s known as ‘la ville rouge’, the red city, after the red brick from which most of it is built. It has a beautiful medieval centre, the focal point of which is the Cathédrale Ste-Cécile.
From the outside, this imposing building could easily pass for a vast fortress or castle. It was indeed built with defence in mind. It was a powerful rebuff by the Catholic church to the Cathars – or Albigensians – whose beliefs differed from Catholic doctrine.
The former bishop’s palace next door houses the Musée de Toulouse-Lautrec. This contains the world’s most extensive collection of work by the artist, who was born in Albi.
Getting there: The nearest airports are at Rodez – which has Ryanair flights from London, Dublin and several destinations, and Toulouse. The latter has better onward connections to the city and station – in Rodez you have to take a taxi to the station, there’s no shuttle service. If you’re looking to travel from Paris, it’s around a six-hour journey from Gare Montparnasse to Albi, with a change at Montauban.
Geography probably plays a part in this, but the city of Bremen also deserve far more recognition than it gets. It’s in north-western Germany, an hour from Hamburg in one direction and the North Sea coast in the other.
Bremen is one of the most beautiful cities in Germany, with a historic centre (Altstadt) to rival most others. During the Middle Ages Bremen was a prominent member of the Hanseatic League, and you can see plenty of signs of its prosperity.
The Marktplatz – Market Square – is as impressive as any in Germany, and amazed me the first time I saw it. The early 15th-century Rathaus (Town Hall) is a stunning Renaissance building. It’s recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, along with the Roland statue in the square. This dates from the same time as the town hall, and symbolises freedom of the city.
The Marktplatz is also home to the fine Gothic St Petri Cathedral, a beautiful Guildhall and the famous sculpture of the Bremen Town Musicians. It’s also well worth exploring the Schnoorviertel, the former fishermen’s quarter. It’s a labyrinth of lanes full of picturesque old cottages, many of which have now become boutique shops.
Nearby, Böttcherstrasse is an intriguing street with a concentration of brick Expressionist buildings built between 1922 and 1931.
Getting there: It’s around an hour from Hamburg Hauptbahnhof to Bremen Hbf, with frequent trains between the two.
OLOMOUC, CZECH REPUBLIC
Olomouc is one of the true hidden gems of Europe. This small Czech city is in Moravia, in the east of the country, an area relatively few visitors reach. It’s underrated, of course, but ‘unknown’ is an equally appropriate word in this instance.
Olomouc has a wondrous Old Town, full of Baroque churches and old fountains. It also has a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Holy Trinity Column, a riot of 18th century Baroque sculpture that took almost 40 years to complete. In the same square, the Town Hall clock is one of the quirkiest sights in Europe – an astronomical clock with added socialist realist figures.
Down the years, several cities across central and eastern Europe have been called ‘the new Prague’ – including Olomouc. It’s impossible to compare them – Prague is the capital, a truly international destination. Olomouc is a small provincial city, albeit a very beautiful one. If you enjoy Prague but want to discover more of the Czech Republic, without the tourist crowds, Olomouc is a great place to start. You can also expect to find some of the best beer in the world, just as in Prague.
Getting there: The nearest airports are Brno (70 km) and Ostrava (80 km. However, both have limited connections, with Ryanair to London Stansted the most useful. Prague is a better option, with flights from all over Europe and direct services from New York, Philadelphia and Tampa in the US. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour onward journey from Prague to Olomouc.
Padua – Padova in Italian – doesn’t get the attention it deserves because it’s so close to Venice. It makes one of the best day trips from Venice, but there are enough art treasures to keep you there at least a couple of days.
I discovered Padua as I needed accommodation near Venice during festival time, when the city was booked out. It’s a city I’ve revisited several times since, and each time I’ve returned I’ve discovered new things to do in Padua.
The reason most visitors come to Padua is to see the Cappella degli Scrovegni. The entire interior of this chapel was painted by Giotto da Bondone between 1303 and 1305. It’s one of the most remarkable works of art of the Middle Ages, some of the portraits pre-dating Renaissance techniques by over a century.
Far less people make it to see Giusto de’ Menabuoi’s ceiling frescoes in the cathedral’s baptistery, but it’s an equally outstanding work. The Basilica of St Anthony of Padua is the burial place of the saint, and is one of the most beautiful churches in Italy.
This is only scratching the surface. Add in the world’s oldest botanical garden, one of the oldest universities in Europe and some evocative medieval squares and streets, and you have one of the best cities in Italy.
Getting there: Padua doesn’t have its own airport but it’s very easy to reach. It’s on the main train lines between Venice and Rome and Venice and Milan. So there are direct connections with Venice, Vicenza, Verona, Milan on one line and Bologna, Florence and Rome on the other.
It has the feel of a small country town, but don’t be deceived. This was a Roman provincial capital, a major city under the Moors and later a residence for kings of Portugal.
All of the occupants left their mark. The Romans left the exquisite Templo de Diana, the best preserved Roman ruin in Portugal and Spain. The Moors left the medina-like street layout, the narrow twisting lanes a mini-version of Toledo or Fes. And the Portuguese left a wealth of churches including the stunning Sé, or Cathedral, which dominates the city.
For us, one of the best things to do in Évora was exploring the tight warren of streets and alleyways below the Cathedral. It’s a wonderfully evocative city that feels largely untouched. Some make it there on day trips from Lisbon, but it’s one of those hidden travel gems that deserves to be savoured for two nights or so.
Getting there: Évora is within easy reach of Lisbon, either by bus from Sete Rios or by train from Oriente station. If you’re travelling by car as we did, you can reach it via the A6 motorway from Lisbon, or the IP2 from the Algarve.
The Hungarian city of Eger (pronounced ‘eggairr’) is one of the best places to visit in Eastern Europe. It’s in the north-east of Hungary, around two hours from the capital, Budapest.
Eger probably hasn’t been ‘discovered’ because of its distance from anywhere else. This is way off the beaten path Europe. If I hadn’t had friends from there, I may not have discovered it either. It’s one of many day trips from Budapest that you can do, but that won’t really do it justice.
Much of the city is Baroque, as it was rebuilt after Turkish occupation from the early 18th century onwards. Eger Castle is one of a few older buildings in the town, along with the northernmost Turkish minaret in Europe. There are many beautiful Baroque churches, including the lovely Minorite church on Dobo Istvan tér, the main square.
Eger is also well-known for its wine, Bull’s Blood (Egri bikavér in Hungarian). The vineyards are just outside the city, in Szépasszony-völgy, the Valley of the Beautiful Women. This is where you’ll find the Eger wine cellars and restaurants, and enjoy some great wine at incredibly inexpensive prices – a great evening out.
Getting there: Eger is an hour and a half away from Budapest by train, which leaves from Keleti station.
Troyes, in the south of France’s Champagne region, is one of the best small cities in Europe. It’s one of those underrated travel destinations you probably wouldn’t hear about unless someone told you. Luckily our French assistant in school was from there, and a few of us dropped by to see her on our first France road trip.
Troyes is one of the best places to go in Europe if you love medieval architecture. Much of what you see dates from the 16th century, after the city was rebuilt following a devastating fire. Streets like Rue Klebert are lined with rows of superb half-timbered houses. The city centre is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen.
There are also some marvellous Gothic churches around the city, including the Cathedral and the Basilique St-Urbain.
There are also a few Champagne wineries within a short drive of Troyes, including Champagne Tassin, in Loches-sur-Ource, and Champagne Albert Beerens in Arrantieres.
Getting there: Troyes is an easy day trip from Paris, with direct trains from Gare de l’Est averaging less than 90 minutes.
Rouen is the capital of Upper Normandy, a remarkable medieval city on the banks of the river Seine barely an hour from Paris.
Rouen is one of the most underrated cities in Europe. It has some wondrous architecture from the Middle Ages, including streets lined with fine half-timbered houses. One of the most beautiful streets is the Rue du Gros Horloge, dominated by the city’s Great Clock on an archway above the street.
Many go straight for the Cathedral, whose spire is the highest in France at 151 metres. It’s best known as the subject for a series of paintings by the Impressionist artist Claude Monet. One of the best things to do in Rouen is to photograph it as the light changes through the afternoon and evening.
Rouen is also widely known as the place where French heroine Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc) was burned to death. A modern church stands on the site of her execution, and the windows are filled with medieval stained glass.
Getting there: Rouen is one of the best day trips from Paris, and direct trains from Gare St-Lazare. The average train time is 1 hour and 20 minutes.
Salamanca has long been one of my favourite cities to visit in Europe. It’s a little off the beaten track in European terms: it’s two hours from Madrid but there’s not much else close by.
Much of the city is built from a rich old gold-coloured stone which is easy to carve, and this makes for some astonishing architecture. The main square, the Plaza Mayor, is a grand, traditional Castilian square, one of the most beautiful in Spain. You can get really close to some amazing carvings at the quiet Convento de las Dueñas. The cloister is decorated by a fantastic gallery of gargoyles and grotesques – not to be missed.
Salamanca is home to the oldest university in Spain, founded in 1134. The main university entrance is the best example of the Plateresque architectural style, with some incredibly elaborate carving.
The city also has two cathedrals, the Old and the New. They’re joined together, the Old Cathedral is Gothic while the New one is Baroque. The Old Cathedral is more atmospheric, and has a fine cycle of over 50 paintings behind the high altar by Italian artist Dello Delli.
Getting there: Salamanca is between two and two-and-a-half hours from Madrid. It makes for one of the longer day trips from Madrid – it would be a real whistle-stop effort if you do try. Trains depart from Madrid Chamartin, while buses leave from Mendez Alvaro bus station.
SYRACUSE, SICILY, ITALY
Syracuse, or Siracusa, is one of the most beautiful destinations in Europe. It’s a small city in the south-east of Sicily on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
This was once the most powerful Greek city in the Mediterranean – and therefore the greatest power in the ancient world. Over 400 years before Rome held sway, Syracuse was the greatest regional power.
You can still see some of the remains of the ancient Greek city in the Neapolis Archaeological Park.
However the best place to spend most of your time in Syracuse is on the stunning island of Ortigia, the city’s ancient core. You can explore the warren of medieval streets or relax in the Piazza del Duomo, one of the most beautiful squares in Europe.
Getting there: The nearest airport is Catania, an hour to the north. Direct buses link the airport with Siracusa.
Croatia has some of the best holiday destinations in Europe, with so many islands and resorts along its coastline. Rovinj is one of the most beautiful cities in Croatia, situated on its northern peninsula of Istria.
Its stunning fishing harbour makes it one of the prettiest cities in Europe. Its houses and streets look like they’ve been borrowed from across the Adriatic in Italy. So does the soaring belltower of the Basilica of St Euphemia, which dominates the city. It was built by the Venetians, and the campanile wouldn’t look out of place in that amazing city.
The old town is on a small peninsula that was once an island, and it doesn’t take long to explore. It’s one of the most photogenic in the Mediterranean, with churches, alleyways, backstreet restaurants. There are also a few spots around the city where you can climb down onto the rocks to soak in the sun by the sea shore for a while.
Aim to visit in shoulder season if you can – ideally April-May or September – when it’s far less crowded than during summer.
Rovinj is also one of the best bases for exploring Istria, with Pula and Porec both close by. There are also several offshore islands very close to Rovinj, some of which have some lovely rock and pebble beaches.
Getting there: The nearest airport to Rovinj is Pula, 25 miles (40 km) away. Rijeka is also on the Istrian peninsula, and its airport is 1 hour 45 minutes away. Both of these tend to have seasonal flights only. Trieste Airport in Italy is a similar distance away, while Zagreb airport is 3 hours away.
Gdańsk really deserves to be recognised as one of the top European cities to visit. A Hanseatic League member like Bremen, this Polish city on the Baltic coast is a bit off the beaten track. But if you’re looking for something different, Gdańsk is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. And with a fraction of the visitors you get elsewhere.
This is a city with a very rich and eventful history. It has been a Polish, German (when it was known as Danzig) and Free City. and The restored historic centre is testament to its medieval wealth – it’s extraordinary, one of the best old towns in Europe. Długi Targ is as beautiful a street as you’ll see anywhere in Europe. But the best view of the Old Town is from the tower of the Gdańsk Historical Museum. Here the huge brick Mariacki church towers over the toytown-like gabled houses below.
Gdańsk’s 20th century history is just as compelling. The first shots of World War II were fired at the Westerplatte fort on September 1st 1939. After the country was forced into Communism, the Solidarity trade union was formed at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. Their challenge greatly unnerved the ruling regime, who declared martial law in 1981. If you’ve seen all the Cold War sights in Berlin, this is a fascinating place to go to learn more. The European Solidarity Centre, which opened in 2014, tells the story of the fall of Communism across the continent.
Getting there: Gdańsk Lech Wałęsa Airport has a good range of connections across Europe. There are flights from over ten UK airports and three in Ireland, with Ryanair and Wizzair providing the bulk of these services. Otherwise, regular direct trains from Warsaw to Gdańsk take less than three hours.
Wells is the smallest city in England. It has this status because of its stunning cathedral, one of the most impressive in the UK. One of the most beautiful historical places in Europe, it’s set in the beautiful Somerset countryside.
Wells Cathedral is the place to begin. Its west front is one of the finest you’ll see anywhere, decorated with an array of medieval statues. The Cathedral Green is a wonderful place to sit and admire it for a while. Inside, the scissor arches supporting the central tower are magnificent. It’s also worth exploring the chapter house – the stairs leading to it are the subject of an all-time great photograph by Frederick H Evans.
There are more things to see in Wells close to the Cathedral. The moated Bishop’s Palace and Gardens are lovely – the latter have some great viewpoints of the Cathedral. You can also see the most complete medieval street in Britain in Wells. The Vicars Close is the other side of the Cathedral. There are two complete rows of medieval cottages and the houses are all lived in. Some are occupied by Cathedral clergy and choir members, as originally intended.
The rest of Wells is lovely too. There are some old pubs, including the City Arms, which was once the city jail. Try to catch the farmers’ market in the Market Place on Wednesdays or Saturdays.
Getting there: The nearest airport to Wells is Bristol Airport, 18 miles (30 km) to the west. There is no direct service between the airport and Wells. The Airport Flyer bus stops at Temple Meads station, and it’s a short walk down the concourse to the stop for the 376 bus to Wells. The journey on the 376 takes an hour.
If you’re travelling down from London, the journey from London Paddington station takes an hour and a half. Wells is too far away to be a viable day trip from London, but it makes a beautiful base to explore the Somerset countryside.
The only place I know whose name begins with an apostrophe, the Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch is a fascinating place.
It’s in North Brabant province, and more commonly called Den Bosch (meaning ‘the forest’). It’s home to the most impressive cathedral in the Netherlands and one of the country’s most famous artists.
Top of most people’s list of things to do in Den Bosch is St John’s Cathedral, an amazingly exuberant Gothic building mainly dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. During a recent restoration a new statue of an angel was added – with a mobile phone.
The city’s most famous son is Hieronymus Bosch, whose outlandish, fantastical, macabre paintings grace some of the finest art museums in the world. He spent nearly all of his life (1450-1516) in the city. The Jheronimus Bosch Art Center has reproductions of all his works, together with insights, explanations and art inspired by Bosch.
Getting there: Forget driving: ‘s-Hertogenbosch has excellent connections, with frequent direct trains from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport and Amsterdam Centraal. Once you’re in the city, a free shuttle bus does a circuit around all the main sights.
The western Ukrainian city of Lviv has a rich, complex history. It was part of the historic Kingdom of Galicia, the Habsburg Empire and eventually Poland until the end of World War II. It was taken by the Red Army in 1944 and largely re-populated. Many of the city’s Poles headed west, especially to Wrocław, which had just been ceded to Poland. In turn, Lviv took in many migrating from the east. It remained part of the USSR until Ukraine became independent in 1991.
Lviv is one of the best places to visit in eastern Europe. It reminds me a little of Prague when I first visited the Czech capital in 1991. You can see Italian influence in the architecture, especially some of the domed churches, and the mix with the eastern European style of townhouse is wonderful.
The whole centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ploshcha Rynok is a magnificent square, and the best place to start at ground level. It’s also the place to get a bird’s eye view of Lviv from the town hall tower, and appreciate its beautiful skyline. There are many churches to explore, including three cathedrals.
Lviv is also one of the best coffee cities in Europe, with many outstanding cafes, including one full of cats. I was also taken by the incredible Under the Black Eagle Pharmacy Museum. The shop was founded in 1735 and has been operating the museum since 1966. Here you can learn about healthcare down the centuries and buy a bottle of ‘iron wine’ which boosts your haemoglobin levels and appetite. I’d go so far as to say that this is one of the best museums in Europe that I’ve visited, a complete one-off.
Getting there: The easiest way to reach Lviv is by air, though there are few flights from western Europe. However it’s only a short flight from Vienna, Berlin, Munich or Warsaw, all of which have direct flights. This is also a lot quicker than the 8-hour overnight train I took from Kraków.