Europe can get pretty crowded in summer, especially that Europe. You know, the Europe that is getting tons of heat because of record-breaking heat waves, and record-breaking tourism. Crowds jamming into Paris and Dubrovnik and Venice and Barcelona leading to hot-topic debates about overtourism and the impact of people travelling the world, ticking off their bucket lists. But not all Europe gets overly crowded. There’s plenty of gems that don’t lie too far off the beaten track. Places that are a lot less crowded, often a lot cheaper, but just as accessible. Take a gander with me to these 10 underrated European cities, and you’ll see what I mean.
A city located in the south of Norway, Bergen has a thriving arts, music and cultural scene. Hosting one of the world’s first symphony orchestras, various galleries and theatres, it is surrounded by seven mountains and some of Norway’s most breathtaking fjords. The old harbour, Bryggen, is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and its Hanseatic buildings are one of Norway’s most recognizable landmarks. Medieval churches and buildings abound, and with its narrow streets and alleyways the city still has a small-town atmosphere. Students and locals fill the cafes, bars and coffee shops, especially in the summer months. There are direct flights from London, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Copenhagen.
This city in southern Spain is one of the oldest in all Europe, with a history stretching back 3000 years. Resting on a peninsular that juts into the Bay of Cadiz, it’s a terrific walking city, with an easygoing atmosphere. The Old Town is located all within blocks of the coastline, and is packed with people and connecting plazas, the most beautiful being the 19th century Plaza de Mina. Besides old churches, watchtowers and even a Roman theatre, Cadiz also has some gorgeous beaches. La Playa de la Caleta is amongst the most popular, located in the Old Town between two old castles. With its prominent boulevard, you might mistake it for the malecon in Havana. In fact, the two cities share much in common, and Cadiz has even doubled for Havana in the movies.
On the west coast of Ireland is one of the country’s fastest growing city, Galway. With a long history stretching back to medieval times, the city is called Ireland’s Cultural Heart and hosts year-round festivals and celebrations. Traditional Irish music bursts from taverns and pubs, and nearly 10% of the city speaks the traditional Irish Gaeltacht language. This is one of the reasons it is known as being the most Irish of all cities. With two large universities, student as well as Irish culture spills onto the streets, parks and markets. There are some striking old churches, most notably the Galway Cathedral and Church of St Nicholas, and several old castles, towers and homesteads in the vicinity.
Cluj Napoca, Romania
The unofficial capital of Transylvania and 4th largest city in Romania, the history of Cluj Napoca dates back to the 2nd century AD. Today, it is a vibrant university and cultural town, centred around the gothic St Michael’s Church built in the 14th century. Cluj, along with Transylvania itself, has historically been caught between Romanian and Hungarian cultures, and both cultures are prevalent. Besides a strong art and performance scene, Cluj has a rocking nightlife and live music scene, enjoyed by the largest student population in the country. One smoky bar I visited had the kind of art and avant-garde music that reminded me of New York. Don’t miss the short walk up Fortress Hill, for a fantastic view over the city, and a cold beer in one of the outdoor cafes.
The Baltic capitals don’t get nearly as much attention as they should, especially in the summer. Latvia’s Riga, Lithuania’s Vilnius and especially Tallinn are the essence of old world European charm. Tallinn’s old town is exceptionally well preserved, its cobblestone alleys and squares a sharp contrast to the Soviet-era new town (indeed, its ferry terminal to nearby Helsinki looks like a concrete bunker). Besides exploring the arts, crafts, bars and shops in the old town, there’s some interesting museums like the Museum of Occupation, recalling life under Soviet rule, and the rather morbid Museum of Medieval Torture. There’s also an open-air museum, various parks and beaches, and excellent traditional restaurants, particularly around Raekoja plats.
The Bulgarian capital is another city that bears evidence of millennia old history mixed with Communist-era functionality. Most of its iconic attractions can be discovered on foot, radiating out from the central traffic hub towards the inner ring road. Sofia’s most famous attractions are the St Alexander Nevski Memorial Church, the 11th century Boyana Church and the early Byzantium Church of St Sofia. Sofianites enjoy their large, forested parklands, the oldest and best known being Tsar Boris’s Garden. The city also is also close to a fully developed ski resort on Vitosha Mountain, which provides a striking backdrop to the city, and is popular with hikers and mountain bikers in the summer months.
Ceský Krumlov, Czech Republic
Much like the more famous Czech capital Prague, Ceský Krumlov boasts a fairy-tale old town, protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With 300 protected medieval buildings, the town is built around its famous 13th century Ceský Krumlov Castle. The castle complex consists of 40 buildings and palaces, with beautiful gardens, courtyards and a moat. Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture line the streets of the town, which feature museums, galleries and bars serving that famous Czech beer. During summer, take a boat or kayak on the adjacent Vltava River, or if you’re feeling adventurous, head further up river for some white river rafting.
The capital of Georgia is much like the country itself: off-the-beaten-track, fascinating, and exceptionally welcoming. The Old City has been restored and is lined with funky bars and restaurants. Georgian cuisine is something to experience – hot cheese breads, eggplant, meats, herb salads, and plenty of homemade wine to wash it down with. Overlooking the city is the medieval Narikala Fortress, which has a great view of the city and adjacent Mtkvari River. There’s a number of striking cathedrals and squares, and a metro system to get around. Don’t miss the Abanotubani Sulfur Baths, which date back hundreds of years, and sit beneath picturesque egg-shell domes.
Little Slovenia is an undiscovered gem in Central Europe, and its capital city of Ljubljana is one of the smallest capital cities on the continent. Ljubljana is quintessentially European – cobblestones, churches, squares, canals, outdoor cafes, parks, bicycle lanes – with a tiny dash of an alternative art scene, and thousands of well dressed students. Parts of the city, pronounced Yoobli-yana, reminded me of St Petersburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Budapest. In summer, outdoor cafés along the Ljubljanica river canal are full, with people crossing over lovely archway bridges. The Old Town is well preserved and a great place to explore local artisans. Check out the Dragon Bridge, and the views from Ljubljana Castle. It’s easy city to get around. Rent a bike and enjoy the ample bike lanes and parks.
Skopje, North Macedonia
Skopje is the capital and heart of the little known (and newly christened) Republic of North Macedonia. Prized for its strategic location by empires throughout the ages, the city was all but destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1963, and feels like it has never stopped rebuilding. There is still a strong legacy of Communist-style concrete buildings, but also medieval fortresses, bridges and churches. The Stone Bridge, built in the 1400’s, connects the busy Macedonia Square to the Old Bazaar. The Old Town is a blend of East and West, featuring churches, mosques, Turkish baths, and a vibrant market that dates back to the 15h century. There are also various statues and museums dedicated to Mother Theresa, who was born in the city.