It started when I was fifteen.
My aunt and I were embarking on a tour of Spain, two weeks of glorious sunshine to meander our way from Madrid, down along the Costa del Sol, up to Barcelona (because even when you’re on an organized tour you can’t go faster than a meander in Spain). We started our trip in the capital, a handful of days touring museums, checking in on the royal palace, and cruising the boulevards. But when it came time to leave, I was ready.
To me, Madrid had felt like any other big cosmopolitan city. As we continued traveling through Spain, I was much more smitten with cities like Toledo and Seville. There I felt like I was being immersed in the local culture. With less neo-classical architecture, fewer tourists, and a happy lack of McDonald’s, these places felt so much more Spanish.
Being from New York City, I am a self proclaimed city girl. And so, while I continued to travel the world, I gravitated towards big cities. However, I was left feeling unsatisfied. Dublin is cool but it was Galway that swept me away. Mexico City? No thanks, I prefer Oaxaca. Bucharest is hot but Cluj is chill.
It took me fifteen years to realize that, while I definitely am a city girl, when I go on vacation I want a far smaller, more local experience. My recommendations to others tended to spin towards alternative European city breaks, destinations I felt captured the spirit of a country in a more vivid way. And my travel decisions have started to reflect that. When I had a chance to spend a month living in Serbia, I chose Novi Sad instead of Belgrade. Staying in a smaller city gave me the chance to really delve into the city and to make local friends — and now Serbia is one of my favorite off-the-beaten-path European destinations to recommend to people.
A lot of travelers want an alternative experience, but they just don’t know where to go. Since I haven’t been everywhere, I asked other travel bloggers to share their favorite alternative European city breaks. I had hoped for four or five, but I was rewarded with a deluge of off-beat European destinations. Get your your travel wish list, because it’s about to get a little bit longer…
Visit Granada in Spain
This alternative European destination comes from Sonja over at Migrating Miss. Sonja is a Kiwi expat who lives in Almeria, teaching English, exploring the country, and making me infinitely jealous with her Snapchats of chill Spanish life.
Visitors to Spain are forever comparing Madrid and Barcelona, but instead, I’d recommend a visit to Granada in the south of Spain. Nestled in the Sierra Nevada, it has all the history and vitality of the other cities, plus a little more. The stunning Alhambra, a Moorish fortress and palace complex, sprawls across a hilltop overlooking the city. At its feet is the Albycin, a historical neighbourhood full of white walls and charm, linking Granada to its Moorish past.
Things we think of as inherently Spanish like tapas and Flamenco are abundant in Granada and authentic too. What better place to watch Flamenco than in a cave in the city many consider the birthplace of the art? If you run out of things to do (you won’t) then you can take a trip to the Sierra Nevada for hiking or winter sports, or it’s less than an hour to the nearest beach in the south.
Visit Stirling in Scotland
Amy and Nathan are the newlywed duo behind Two Drifters. Scotland holds a special place in their hearts as that’s where they first met — and where they returned when they kicked off their lives as digital nomads. You can plan your city break with their guide to Stirling.
Stirling is a great alternative destination to Scotland’s most well known city of Edinburgh. Though we love Edinburgh (and would definitely recommend you pay it a visit), Stirling is a fantastic gem of Scotland that deserves a day or two on your itinerary.
Stirling is smaller than Edinburgh, but far less overrun by tourists. Its location midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow means it’s easy to get to and in a beautiful scenic region. Stirling is sometimes called Scotland’s Heart! With its quaint Old Town, it gives you an Edinburgh style experience, and at the top of the city, you’ll find a towering castle as well. Bonus: admission to Stirling Castle is roughly half as expensive as that of Edinburgh Castle.
Stirling is filled with history, from William Wallace to Robert the Bruce. Pay a visit to the iconic Wallace Monument looming over the misty hills and experience warm Scottish hospitality at any number of idyllic pubs and cafes.
Visit Brno in Czech Republic
Kami is a Polish travel blogger who ventures to some of the more mysterious and underrated destinations in Central and Eastern Europe. Interested in what was hidden behind the Iron Curtain? Kami delves into it over at Kami and the Rest of the World.
While most people travelling to Czech Republic focus only on the stunning capital city, Prague, the second biggest city – Brno – is worth visiting too! In a way it is similar to Prague with a beautiful Central European architecture and vibe, but it’s definitely less crowded and much more authentic! Brno is a city of students and you can see them everywhere. They make the place alive and vibrant. The numerous cafes and pubs are amazing and most of all very affordable, so you’ll want to spend hours sitting there! Brno is also a home to a unique UNESCO World Heritage Site – Tugenhadt Villa – a perfect example of the modern movement in architecture.
If you would like to see more of Czech Republic, Brno can be a perfect base – the picturesque Moravia region with its cute little towns and vineyards is just a stone’s throw away. No matter what you decided to do when you visit Brno you will have a great time for sure as this is one of the most pleasant cities in Central Europe!
Visit Menton in France
Caroline spent two months living in the south of France, making her a valuable resource when it comes to alternative French city breaks. You can check out her adventures on Love Live Travel, where she documents her expat life in Copenhagen and shares tips from her travels in over 60 countries.
When most people think of the South of France, they instantly picture the azure beaches of Nice, the red carpet of Cannes, and the glamour of St Tropez. But this gorgeous section of the coast is full of lesser-known but equally lovely towns where you can experience the beautiful Côte d’Azur, without the throngs of tourists around every corner. Exploring these hidden gems, I found some beauties, like Eze, Haute de Cagnes, and Villefranche-Sur-Mer, but nowhere surprised and charmed me more than Menton.
Nicknamed ‘the pearl of France’, this seaside town is perfectly positioned between the mountains and the sea, and is only a short distance from the French-Italian border. Like its more famous neighbours, Menton offers attractive beaches, both sandy and stony, and the weather is almost perpetually sunny. Menton has a temperate microclimate, which means its lush gardens thrive, and it’s especially known for its citrus trees. The medieval old town is incredibly charming, with colourful pastel buildings, cobblestone streets, and steep winding passageways just begging to be explored. The small pedestrian shopping streets are lined with shops selling local wares, many made from those famous lemons, like jams, oils, soaps, and liqueurs. You can treat yourself at one of the patisseries offering up macarons in a rainbow of colours and flavours, as well as huge meringues dusted with cocoa. It’s the perfect place to soak up the beauty and culture of the French Riviera in an authentic atmosphere.
Visit Brasov in Romania
I met Ruth in Bucharest, where we spent long afternoons staring at our computers in cafes. Her website, Pride Chaser, is under redevelopment, but expect to see it rebranded soon with tons of information for travelers who want to work and travel through Europe. Until then, check out her European pics on Instagram!
Nestled at the foot of Mount Tampa lies the fairy-tale town of Brasov. Complete with cobbled streets, historic walls, and enormous gothic churches, Brasov sits in the Transylvania belt, made famous by Bram Stoker and Dracula. After spending a month in the bustle of Bucharest, the capital of Romania, I was ready (desperate) for the smaller, well known historical town. To be honest, what had made Bucharest enjoyable was the people I met. Travel bloggers who had shown me the ropes, and the other travellers who had indulged in ‘travel chat’.
Brasov is a unique place that seems frozen in time. The Old Town is influenced by its historical German and Hungarian occupations. These influences are now obvious in the architecture of The Old Town. They contribute not only to the ‘fairy-tale’ look of the town, but also to the culture of Brasov.
While I was there I got to experience the ‘Hungarian Festival’ that the town holds each year, to celebrate the minority Hungarian group in Brasov. The Old Town was bubbling with people. Wooden stalls sold traditional Hungarian foods and goods, while different acts performed traditional Hungarian music. This was something that would not have been on display in the middle of The Old Town in Bucharest.
Visit Nis in Serbia
I fell in love with Serbia and the Serbian people this summer, so I was thrilled when Anwar offered to share his impressions of Nis. He recently visited Serbia on his travels throughout the Balkans, which you can read about on his blog, Beyond My Front Door.
Nestled among the mountains, Nis is overlooked by many even when they visit Serbia. The city is one the third largest city in Serbia and one of the oldest cities in the Balkans and famous as the birthplace of the emperor Constantine who is noted for converting the empire to Christianity. Nis was an important city up to and including during the Ottoman period.
As a city, Nis is beautiful and easily walkable for most sites and activities downtown. The city has a few notable sites including an ottoman era fortress, a Nazi concentration camp and execution site, a tower of skulls (from the Ottoman period) and several museums. For those with a car there are a few quick nearby excursions from the city such as hiking in Jelasnica Gorge or a soak in the thermal springs of Soko Banja.
The pedestrian friendly center has quite a few good restaurants for local and international cuisine. If you are looking for a bite try checking out Pleasure Café for some tasty food. Also as a hidden gem on our walks around the city we stumbled on Biro Cafeteria for excellent coffee and desserts (especially the cheesecake!). Nis is also a great jumping off point to explore more of the mountains in the south of the country.
Visit Lviv in Ukraine
Y’all know how much I adore Ukraine, and I’m excited/jealous to see so many other bloggers discovering this European hidden gem as well. Nathan from Foodie Flashpacker also found himself crushing on Lviv, in western Ukraine, and offers some suggestions of places I didn’t get to during my Lviv weekend.
As I traveled throughout Ukraine I kept hearing about Lviv. I was told it was the arts and culture capital of the country. Many said it was the most beautiful city in Ukraine. More than once I was told how similar it was to Prague. Even though it was on the opposite side of the country I knew I had to check it out.
Cobblestone streets? ✔
Delicious food? ✔
Amazing beer? ✔
All of this without the huge crowds found in Prague and at some of the best prices in all of Eastern Europe.
Lviv also has some of the most unique restaurants I’ve ever visited. Secret, hidden places and even BDSM eateries. If you’re not into such interesting dining options there is also a chocolate factory you can tour. That’s something everyone can agree on!
When you’re in Lviv make sure to tour the cemetery. It may sound odd but it’s one of the top things to do when visiting. You can spend an afternoon wandering through the gorgeous burial grounds trying to find the oldest headstones.
Visit Bristol in England
I spent a drab two hours totally lost in Bristol, so when Cory from You Could Travel suggested adding it to the alternative European city breaks list, I was dubious. However, locals always know best, and her description has me convinced I should reacquaint myself with Bristol.
Bristol is a truly multicultural city located in the South West of England. It has a prosperous maritime history and a great industrial heritage. But the Bristol today is very different than any other British city, being ranked as fourth most inspiration city, beating capitals such as Paris, Amsterdam and London. This city of only 428,100 inhabitants, has a tremendous amount of galleries, museums and art institutions.
Many visit London, but few actually know about the hidden secrets waiting to be discovered in Bristol. From Brunel’s suspension bridge, through independent boutiques, to some of the coolest music and art festivals, Bristol has something for every type of traveller interested in discovering a British city past any tourist attractions. Although biased, as I live in Bristol, one of the things I love most about this city, is the sheer amount of independent shops and boutiques, which are the lifeblood of our society. Beyond this, young professionals have a serious chance to establish themselves as successful business people, because Bristol has a modern economy built around creative media, IT, electronic and aerospace. According to Sunday Times 2015, Bristol is the best city in Britain to live in and has been voted the best city for entrepreneurs (Startup Cities Index 2015).
If colourful fishing houses, an explosive nightlife or an infusion of international cuisine is not your thing, Bristol still has another card up its sleeve: several large green spaces where locals and tourists alike can enjoy an afternoon stroll deep in the ancient forests.
Visit Thessaloniki in Greece
If anyone’s going to know the best alternative hotspot in Greece, it’s Chrissy. Her blog, Travel Passionate, makes it easy for travelers to explore Greece like a local. I’m afraid to read her posts about the Greek Islands in fear I’ll run away there and never come back!
Most people coming to Greece visit mostly its capital Athens and then head to the islands, overlooking the second largest city in the country, Thessaloniki. Located in northern Greece, Thessaloniki is a vibrant coastal town with fascinating history, fine cuisine and great nightlife.
Although it is a large city, it has more personality than its bigger sister Athens. The heart of the city can be found in buzzing Aristotelous square, with the luxurious hotels, old cinemas and cafes. From there you can take the coastal road filled with cafes and bars and head towards the emblem of the town, the White Tower, erected during the Turkish occupation in the late 15th century. Other popular attractions include the Triumphal Arch of Galerius known as the Kamara, a meeting point for the locals standing there since the 4th C;and the Rotunda a big building that has been used both as a mosque and as a Christian church during the years.
Don’t forget to walk up the hill towards the Ano Poli (Upper Town) with a plethora of Muslim and Christian monuments, winding cobbled streets and cute restaurants. From there you can admire the view over the Thermaic Gulf.Thessaloniki is a melting pot of civilisations, the Greek, the Ottoman and the Hebrew and that is evident in the architecture and gastronomy. They say that Thessaloniki is a miniature of Athens but with a more laid-back atmosphere. So next time you visit Greece don’t skip Thessaloniki.
Visit Killarney in Ireland
Now that I’m in my 30s, I’m all about affordable but comfortable travel. Heather over at Wanderlust Wayfarer shares this passion, packing her blog full of helpful budgeting tips and inspirational itineraries. I was thrilled she offered Killarney as an alternative destination in Ireland — I love Dublin, but I feel the real culture of the Emerald Isle shines in its smaller cities and towns.
No matter what part of the world you’re from, you’ll always feel like you’re coming home to family in Killarney, Ireland. With a population of only 14,000 people, Killarney is wee compared to Dublin’s half million residents. But Killarney has everything you need for an exciting city break nonetheless. This charming town is chock-full of friendly people, cultural heritage, and lively pubs. You’re even likely to witness a donnybrook or two once the sun goes down. But fear not–you’re in Ireland, and everyone always walks away friends at the end of a good row.
Located amid picturesque lakes and the majestic Mcgillycuddy’s Reeks, Killarney is the ideal base for anyone interested in taking in both urban and rural activities. Spend the morning driving the infamous Ring of Kerry, hiking nearby trails, or even taking in a sheepdog demonstration from a local farmer.
In the afternoon, Killarney’s quaint, narrow streets are alive with the hustle and bustle of daily life. While away the hours strolling through the unique boutiques in the center of town. And if you’re looking for something a little more low key, you can get a lesson in local history with a visit to Muckross House. In the evening, head over to the Killarney Grand, and have a few pints while dancing the night away to the music of a live Irish band.
Visit Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina
As the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo is well-known — though not as a glitzy European getaway. But Gemma and Craig found it rich in history, hospitality, and good food, easily ranking it high on the list of alternative European city breaks. Gemma and Craig are always flitting off to some of the most colorful destinations in the world, which you can read all about on their blog Two Scots Abroad.
Many tourists can tell you about the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina but what they might not know is that the capital, Sarajevo, is a captivating city. Sarajevo is a city in a valley surrounded by mountains and at the top of Mount Trebević is a pretty surreal abandoned Olympic bobsled track! A hangover from the 1984 Winter Olympics, the structure is now an open museum graffitied by local street artists.
Back on ground level, the city is home to the place where WWI kicked off, Latin Bridge – a historically important city, past and present. Baščaršija / Old Town is cool, bustling with locals, pounding the cobbled streets on their way to a religious service or to smoke (a lot) and eat sausages (cevapi).
The more popular tourist spot in Bosnia and Herzegovina is Mostar. You may not know the name but you have most likely seen the famous Old Bridge, the Stari Most. Still a stunning place to visit but Sarajevo is far more low key and there is not a tour bus in site!
Visit Piran in Slovenia
Ljubljana and Lake Bled get all the love in Slovenia and to me it seems just a bit unfair. So when Karolina offered to showcase Slovenia, I asked her if there was a place outside the capital she could recommend. She came back with three cities! You can check out the rest of her Slovenia suggestions on the blog she and her partner run, Karolina Patryck.
Piran is the most beautiful city at Slovenian coast. It’s a true hidden gem of this country! Most people are visiting the capital Ljubljana, Julian Alps with the lake Bled, or the famous Postojna cave. Only few are curious enough to go to the South. Slovenia has very short coastline (less than 50 kilometres). Piran is our absolute favourite place to visit there. It has beautiful Old Town, crystal clear sea and monumental city walls from which you can see the amazing view on the Adriatic.
Due to the very small size of Piran, cars are not allowed to enter the town centre. You can either walk around or rent a motorbike to see all the important places of this city. Piran is great to visit all year round. In the summer you can swim in the sea or sunbathing. Other seasons are less crowded and perfect for the relaxing walks around the Old Town.
Visit Lublin in Poland
This Poland alternative comes from Claire over at Curious Claire. Based in London, she spend her time digging deep into Europe, finding destinations and attractions that range from overlooked to straight out bizarre.
When most people think of Poland they automatically think of Warsaw, Krakow, and maybe Gdansk but that’s usually it — which is a shame as Poland is such a large country with so much to offer. My favourite place in Poland is its ninth largest city, Lublin.
Lublin is full of history and has so much to offer visitors, yet very few people outside of Poland and its surrounding countries have even heard of it. The historic Old Town has been preserved and has a similar feel to Krakow but to me has more charm.
The old castle is now a museum which offers some spectacular views of the city and the chapel has the most stunning artwork. You can even take a tour of the trails that run underneath Lublin. It really is a place that should not be missed when visiting Poland.
Visit Padova in Italy
I was in awe of the canals, gondolas, and masks during my first nine hours in Venice. It was an impulsive trip on Valentine’s Day 2015 during Carnival weekend. A little over a year later, during a three week interrailing trip throughout Spain, France, and Italy, a friend desperately wanted to add Venice to our itinerary. However, when she broke her foot in Florence and got the next flight back to London, I ended up in Venice alone. I spent the first day wandering around in the July heat through the crowded streets. Suddenly the canals and back streets didn’t seem so charming. I didn’t even want to visit Venice this trip and it was especially dull now that I was solo. I realized I had become bored of Venice! Acknowledging that this was a great problem to have, I headed to Padova.
Padova is less than half an hour by train and was a center of medieval flourishing. It is home to the Scrovegni Chapel, featuring Giotto’s 14th century fresco cycle. To enter the chapel, I had to go through a series of air conditioned rooms to get “dehumidified” to protect the frescoes. Padova is also famous for its cathedrals, especially the Basilica of St. Anthony. I walked to what I thought was St. Anthony’s basilica, but was actually the Abbey of Santa Guistina. St. Anthony is the Catholic patron saint of lost things, so I was amused that I got lost trying to find his basilica! The Abbey of Santa Guistina has its own claim to history, as the tomb of St. Luke is there. Only in Italy can you accidentally wander into cathedrals with so much history! I did eventually find St. Anthony’s basilica and it was beautiful. Padova is also home to Europe’s oldest university botanical gardens and one of the Europe’s oldest cafes, Cafe Pedrocchi. So if you tire of the tourists in Venice, go to the far less crowded but most historically significant town of Padova.
Visit Heidelberg in Germany
Heidelberg is the perfect hidden gem in Germany that most tourists don’t even know about. Situated less than an hour from Frankfurt Airport, where most international flights land anyway, Heidelberg sports some of the best German culture with amazing food, gorgeous architecture, lively nightlife, delicious beer (of course), and a few outdoor experiences you’ll love!
Be sure to check out the Heidelberg Schloss aka Heidelberg Castle and try some of the local brews. A funicular, or cable car, will bring you to a gorgeous viewpoint where you can see the whole city! Most houses in town are built in traditional German fashion with telltale orange roofs. The brickwork on the castle is mimicked throughout the city and on some stunning bridges too.
Heidelberg has a beautiful river running through it with a grassy park on either bank. College coeds picnic and sunbathe here in the warm weather and it’s perfect for tourists to relax in too! Most travelers skip Heidelberg and head to Munich, but unless it’s Oktoberfest you’re after, I assure you that you’ll enjoy the small town feel of Heidelberg even more. The culture is incredibly rich and the food even more delicious, so make sure you add Heidelberg to your next trip through Germany.
If you’re flying into Frankfurt do yourself a favor and head straight to Heidelberg. Frankfurt is only worth stopping in for its airport or if you’re doing business in the city.
Visit Maastricht in the Netherlands
Karen is also a former New Yorker turned expat, blending full-time work and travel as she lives in Amsterdam. She’s checking off some serious travel goals, everything from hunting for German castles to chilling with Bedouins in Wadi Rum. Check out all her adventures and expat tips on Wanderlustingk.
Located in the south of the Netherlands close to the German border is a beautiful city called Maastricht that most tourists visiting the Netherlands miss. In this city, you’ll find endless alleyways to get lost in, a 12th century church with a bookstore inside of it, historic caves, an architecture style that is a blend of European styles, and arguably the best food in the Netherlands. It’s the kind of city that you can spend days lost in and you’ll want to keep returning to.
Although Amsterdam may have the canals, Maastricht has the architecture and old European flavor that can be harder to find in the touristic parts of Amsterdam. This region of the Netherlands is famous for its sweets, so be sure to try vlaai, which is the local specialty cake. Once a year, the city holds a Carnaval where the entire city is filled with people in costume. Even better, it’s only a short hop from Aachen (Germany), which has an incredible cathedral and lively Christmas market in December. The caves close to the city played a large part in the city’s founding as well as its role in surviving WWII. If you feel like you’ve seen Amsterdam or other dutch cities, be prepared to be charmed by Maastricht.
Visit Varna in Bulgaria
This one is by me, y’all. I visited Varna back in 2013, and even back then it was hard at work on its bid for 2019 European Capital of Culture. Buildings that were a bit run down were getting face lifts, and pedestrian streets were getting repaved. If anyone has been to Varna more recently, I’d love to hear your impressions!
I will admit, when we first rolled into Varna I wasn’t too sure about it. Our hotel was near the Black Sea, sure, but we seemed to be staying in the commercial port district. However, like Sofia before it, Varna surprised me with its character and charm.
Our guide took us on a walk from our hotel to the beach, and suddenly Varna’s reputation as a resort beach town was unveiled. We strolled through an art nouveau city center, down a boulevard where promoters were handing out free samples (pink grapefruit beer? Why not?), through the hip beach clubs onto the sand. It was a gray October afternoon, so the beach was quiet, but I could imagine the easy-going vacation debauchery that happened during the summer evenings. It started to sprinkle so we just stuck our toes into the water before heading back to the hotel.
If beach days aren’t your thing, Varna is in an excellent base from which to explore other Black Sea destinations. From the cliff side ruins of Cape Kaliakra to royal summer residence, the Black Sea adds a dramatic flair to it all.