If you ask random people to name their favorite European city, chances are that most of them will come up with Paris, London or Rome. Maybe some will go for Barcelona, Berlin or Vienna. These well-known European cities have been on top of traveler’s destinations for decades. Especially travelers from outside Europe (Asia, the Americas) will associate Europe with these obvious tourist magnets. These are the stops they will make on a “Europe in one week” tour.
But, one might ask, are the most popular places also the best? I’m not so sure. Of course, the fact that a place is “well-known” and on the top of many traveler’s bucket lists, says something about its appeal. Favorite destinations are favorite for a reason. And so tourists come in droves from other continents to see Paris’ iconic Eiffel Tower, London’s Tower Bridge and Rome’s ancient Colosseum.
And don’t get me wrong, Paris, London and Rome are great cities to visit. But if you ask me, the real jewels of Europe are not Paris, London or Rome. When I think of my favorite Europesn cities, I think of Porto instead of Paris, of Krakow instead of Berlin, of Tallinn instead of Rome. If you want to do a tour of European cities, visit these somewhat less obvious gems. Here are seven European jewels worth visiting:
Stroll the scenic streets and alleys of the Ribeira district, built on the steep banks of the Douro river. Enjoy the view from the square in front of the cathedral and admire the historic buildings with cast iron balconies and tiled facades. Check out the facades with blue and white ‘azulejos’ which you can see everywhere in this atmospheric Portugese city. Stop at the Cadeia da Relação photo museum, housed in an old prison and be impressed by the huge steel arch bridge Ponte Dom Luis I. Cross the river to Vila Nova de Gaia to visit the port houses where you can do tours and tastings, and visit the Douro Valley wine region, an easy day trip from Porto.
Equally beautiful: the Portuguese capital of Lisbon.
Read more about my visit to Porto here.
Walk or cycle to discover the compact city center of the Danish capital of Copenhagen (København in Danish). Visit the Statens Museum for Kunst and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum, stroll down the Slotsholmen district, Denmark’s political heart, and admire the striking, ultra-modern Den Sorte Diamant (the black diamond), overlooking the Inderhavnen harbour. Relax in Kongens Have park and stop by the Rosenborg Slot and enjoy the photogenic (if not slightly touristy) Nyhavn district with its colored facades and old ships. Consider combining Copenhagen with a visit to the equally worthwhile city of Aarhus.
Read more about my visit to Copenhagen here.
The old walled city of Tallinn will come as a suprise. Stroll through the Toompea citadel with its centryries old wall and towers, narrow cobbled streets dating back to the fifteenth century, and restored buildings whose facades are painted in pastel colours. Then visit the lower part of the old town, with its atmospheric town hall square and the many picturesque streets with old houses dating from the time Tallinn was an important Hanseatic city. Relax in Kadriorg Parkand visit the sleek KUMU, short for Kunstimuuseum, the art museum. Nearby Laheema National Park, an hour’s drive from Tallinn is well worth a day trip.
Read more about my visit to Tallinn here.
The heart of the Polish city of Krakow is Stare Miasto, the old town. It was once completely surrounded by a city wall. After the city wall was demolished a city park, the Planty, was laid out where the wall stood, forming a green belt that surrounds the entire old town. Explore the eye-catching Rynek Glówny, the largest medieval square in Europe, and surrounded by stately facades and many terraces. Admire the striking Sukiennice market hall and the Town Hall Tower. Visit historic buildings like the 15th century Collegium Maius university building and the Brama Florianska, the fourteenth-century city gate. Stop at the tourist-overrun Wawel Castle and stroll along the Vistula River. Combine Krakow with the equally worthwhile Warsaw, a two-hour train ride away.
Read more about my visit to Krakow here.
Stroll down the old cobblestone streets of this old Hanseatic city in the region of Flanders, Belgium, and admire the many beautiful old facades at the Hanze quarter, once the commercial heart of Bruges. Don’t skip the Old Toll House and the old Poortersloge, where prominent businessmen gathered to trade, and make sure to stop at the Burg square, where in the ninth century a fortress was built, which later grew into what is now the city of Bruges. Here you will find the midieval Bruges Town Hall and the imposing Brugse Vrije building. Take a look at (or climb) the Belfry at the Market, walk by the Fish Market and visit the picturesque Rozenhoedkaai, perhaps the most photographed place in Bruges and the centuries-old houses at the Arentshof, undoubtedly one of the most picturesque spots in Bruges. Don’t forget to sample some delicious Belgian beers along the way!
Equally beautiful: the Belgian city of Ghent.
Read more about my visit to Bruge here.
The third largest city in Spain (after Madrid and Barcelona), Valencia is my favorite Spanish city. In the old town, la Cuidad Vieja, don’t miss the magnificent Mercado Central and La Lonja, with its breathtakingly beautiful Sala de Contratación. Visit the impressive city gates Torres de Quart and Torres de Serranos, and expore the countless atmospheric backstreets of the old town. Admire the Plaza de la Virgen, with its medieval cathedral and a large fountain, and stop by at the Plaza de Ayuntamiento, admire the impressive dome of the old post office and the beautiful mosaics of the Estación del Norte. Stroll down the Jardines del Turia to the Cuidad de las Artes y las Ciencias, with its futuristic buildings which reflect beautifully in surrounding water.
Read more about my visit to Valencia here.
The Czech capital Prague (or Praha in Czech) is divided in an ‘old town’ and a ‘new town’. In Nové Městó, the ‘new town’, walk along the Vltava river promenade with its stately facades. Visit Václavské Námeští square and the beautiful art nouveau style hall of the Hlavní Nádraží train station. Admire the famous Karlovo Most, or Charles Bridge, with its gates and statues and don’t miss Pražsky Hrad, the largest ancient castle in the world, with beautiful views over the city. Relax at theValdštejnská Zahrada or Wallenstein Gardens, and stroll down the atmospheric streets of the Malá Strana neighborhood. In Staré Městó, the old town, admire the Klementium complex, and visit Staroměstské Náměstí square, with the Old Town Hall and the famous astronomical clock. Explore the old streets of Staré Městó, and sit down at one of the many cafés for a tasting of Czech beers.
Read more about my visit to Prague here.