Everyone has certain European cities on their bucket list. Rome, Paris, London and Venice are some of the usual suspects. These cities are great, but the problem is that everyone knows about them and wants to visit them.
Navigating the sights in the famous cities of Europe often involves fighting through throngs of other travelers and dodging tacky tourist traps.
This is a shame, because Europe has so many overlooked cities that offer many of the same attractions as the big names.
The cities on this list have all of the old-world fairy tale charm and cultural interest of Europe’s big-name cities without as much of the crowding and hype.
1. Ravenna, Italy
Ravenna gets overlooked as a tourist destination in a country with so many other famous cities, but it is an incredible place to visit, especially for history buffs. Ravenna was the capital of the Roman Empire under Justinian in the sixth century, and the city is filled with well-preserved buildings from that era, including eight UNESCO World Heritage sights.
Especially spectacular are the Arian Baptistry and the Basilica of San Vitale, churches constructed by an ancient and defunct sect of early Christians. The mosaics in both these buildings are some of the finest examples of early Christian art anywhere. Also worth checking out in Ravenna is the tomb of the famous poet Dante Alighieri.
2. Vilnius, Lithuania
Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital and by far its largest city, is a hidden gem. Its centuries-long history in a contested and often-fought-over place in Europe has left it with a unique and eclectic architectural legacy.
The Baroque flourishes of St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church contrast with the onion domes of Orthodox chapels and the regal military flair of the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. The food is also not to be missed, especially the koldunai, pierogie-like dumplings filled with meat or mushrooms and served with bacon or sour cream.
3. Bilbao, Spain
Bilbao is the capital of the autonomous Basque Country in Spain, and provides a great window into this unique culture. Basque people speak their own language and cook a unique style of food that some consider to be the best in Spain. Especially delicious are the pinxtos, or Basque Tapas.
These bar snacks usually consist of freshly caught seafood on bread, and represent simplicity at its most sublime. The other main attraction of Bilbao is its world-famous Guggenheim Museum, which has one of the best collections of 20th-century art in the world. The building itself is a work of art as well, a dramatic collection of silver swoops designed by Frank Gehry.
4. Porto, Portugal
This picturesque city, Portugal’s second-largest, is the namesake and home of port wine. All serious wine enthusiasts should take a pilgrimage to Porto once in their life to sample the luxurious beverage in its natural habitat.
Perhaps the best place in the city to enjoy a tipple is the Majestic Cafe, a historic destination that was a hub for belle epoque intellectuals in the early 20th century. Its art nouveau architecture and placement on the vibrant Santa Catarina street make it the perfect place to while away a lazy afternoon.
5. Rotterdam, the Netherlands
While most tourist trips to the Netherlands begin and end in Amsterdam, its rival Rotterdam has a lot to offer to adventurous travelers. Amsterdammers like to say that “Amsterdam is for parties, Rotterdam is for work,” but that ignores the latter city’s vibrant and unique club culture.
Rotterdam is the originator of Gabber music, a super-fast and hard-driving form of EDM that keeps clubs pounding until the wee small hours of the morning. In the summer, the city is home to many festivals including the Summer Carnival, a caribbean-inspired event featuring a parade, a beach party, dancing, and many brass and drum bands.
For those who like their music a little stranger, the WORM is a center for experimental music and other types of cutting-edge art.