Undoubtedly, the likes of Dubrovnik, Brugge or Amsterdam have their charm and reason for being so popular. But for those looking for alternative, less touristy city breaks in Europe there are so many wonderful options that I found it hard picking out the very best destinations for this list. They’re usually more affordable, authentic and in most cases still easily accessible from other parts of the continent.

So whether it’s for a short weekend city break or something longer to also explore the region, I’ve picked out my favourite places across Europe that often serve as good bases to explore the region. OK here we go:

 

Perugia, Italy

Perugia Old Town, Italy

An enchanting medieval city in the centre of Italy, Perugia is the Italian capital of chocolate, truffles and jazz. The Umbrian capital is home to the famous Baci chocolates and the Perugina Chocolate House is a must-visit for any chocolate lover. Fans of jazz, meanwhile, will want to plan their trip in July for the annual Umbria Jazz Festival, one of the most famous in the jazz world. 

The rustic Old Town on top of a hill offers stunning views of the region and a fine selection of fantastic restaurants (if you like truffles you’re in luck!). While the Old Town is easy to explore by foot, it’s connected to the lower part of the city by Minimetro, a cute rollercoaster-like funicular thing that just seems quite fun compared to the usual buses.

It’s also a great base to explore the Etruscan region, whether it’s a day trip to the historic Assissi, the wildflower spectacle of Castelluccio Plateau or a truffle hunting trip in the countryside.

How to get to Perugia

The city has its own small but international airport, served by Ryanair. Otherwise it’s ~2 hours from Rome and Florence by train or car.

Kotor, Montenegro

Kotor, Montenegro

Set alongside a picturesque Kotor Bay that resembles a fjord, the ancient town of Kotor is the finest destination in Montenegro and maybe on all of the Adriatic coast. Already open-jawed entering one of its three gates, you’ll be left impressed with the Old Town that was once home to Venetians, French, Austrians, Hungarians and Serbs at different times. But it’s higher up that rewards you best. The views of Kotor, the fjord and the dramatic mountains surrounding it as you climb up the city walls to the fortress are simply incredible. 

As Kotor is becoming a popular day-trip destination from Dubrovnik, it’s really best enjoyed with an overnight stay where you can enjoy the quiet evenings and mornings before the day tourists arrive. 

How to get to Kotor

Fly into one of the nearby Tivat Airport (served by a number of low-costs including EasyJet), or indeed the capital Podgorica or even the over-touristed Dubrovnik.

Ghent, Belgium

Ghent Old Town, Belgium

Ghent is a wonderful hidden gem alternative to the tourist-ridden Brugge that’s also in the Flemish part of the country. Like Bruges, Ghent features picturesque canals, countless cafes and a pretty Old Town with very medieval vibes including the moat-surrounded Gravensteen Castle. But there is something more authentic about it too, unlike the open-air museum that is Brugge. And there’s more to Ghent too – it’s a lively art hub famous for its abundance of street art and the dedicated Graffiti Alley. Being a bigger and more studenty city, there is simply more to do in Ghent beyond seeing the cute old town, including the livelier nightlife. 

Consider staying here instead of Brussels or Brugge – it makes for a great base with easy train access to the rest of the country.

How to get to Ghent

It’s an easy 35-minute train or drive from the capital Brussels. But being in the heart of a small country, it’s not particularly far from anywhere.

Dresden, Germany

Dresden and River Elbe

The East German city is most associated with being bombed flat in WW2. Nowadays, Dresden is an exciting, lively city that combines the old with the new. On one side of the Elbe, the Dresden Old Town has been rebuilt to its original, pre-war beauty and is full of sights. On the other, the newer part of the city has a hip Neustadt quarter with many bars and clubs reminiscent of Berlin. Further our, the vineyard-lined Elbe river bank features some stunning cafe and restaurant venues to enjoy the summer. If you’re interested to get a feel for life in East Germany (DDR), be sure to visit the Die Welt der DDR Museum.

How to get to Dresden

The city has its own airport that serves a handful of European destinations. Further out, you can reach the city from Berlin with a 1 ½ hour direct train. 

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

hidden gem travel destinations

Known as the “city on seven hills”, Plovdiv is Bulgaria’s most characterful and picturesque city. As Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited city, the signs of past cultures are clear, with Thracians, Greek, Romans and Ottomans all leaving their imprint. Beautiful Ottoman-era townhouses line the hilly cobbled streets in the Old Town, while below the streets of Plovdiv reveal well-preserved ruins of a Roman Stadium. Meanwhile, the Roman Amphitheatre is still used for live events today and if you’re coming in summer try to coincide your stay with one. No wonder it’s been chosen European Capital of Culture in 2019.

There is plenty else to enjoy in Plovdiv – walking up some of its 7 hills, each with an impressive view, enjoying the lively nightlife in the trendy Kapana district or shopping on Europe’s longest pedestrian street. For foodies, Bulgarian food is one of Europe’s best and Plovdiv has a strong culinary scene. 

Being centrally placed, there are plenty of day trip options like the rose oil capital Kazanlak, the Rhodope Mountains to the South or the quaint mountain town of Koprivshtitsa.

How to get to Plovdiv

Bulgaria’s 2nd city is served by an international airport offering flights across Europe. For more flight options you’d need to fly into Sofia and take around 2 ½ hours to reach Plovdiv by train.

Strasbourg, France

Strasbourg Petite-France

The Alsatian city in the East of France is an interesting marriage of French and German cultures, having moved between the two countries in various past wars. Full of stunning architecture, a lively atmosphere (having a large student population) and lots going on, it’s a great option both for a weekend city break and something longer to enjoy the wine- and history-rich Alsace region.

A particular highlight for me is the Grande Île (the “Large Island”), the town centre so special that it’s been designated UNESCO status. As well as the historic sights, Strasbourg is also known as the Capital of Europe for its various EU institutions, including the European parliament. The city is very bike-friendly and that’s a great option to get around the city, ride along the Rhine or roll into some of the cute villages nearby.

Strasbourg is a great all-year-round option too, especially in December with the beautiful Christmas market dating back to the Medieval times, another benefit of the city’s German influence.

How to get to Strasbourg

Fly into Strasbourg International Airport or Karlsruhe/Baden-Baden Airport just across the German border. Otherwise Paris is just 2 hours away by the TGV fast-train, Frankfurt not much longer.

 

Girona, Spain

Girona

While Barcelona is undoubtedly a unique and alluring destination, the Catalan metropolis overshadows a hidden gem city that offers a perfect (and more laid-back) alternative to enjoying the region. Within an hour journey North, the walled city of Girona boasts plenty of charming winding streets, and a well-preserved historic Jewish Quarter in its Old Town. Getting around the city is remarkably simple with just about everything within walking distance. I recommend walking the city walls, strolling along the River Onyar and visiting the many historic sights. 

Girona is perfectly situated for day trips to explore the region (ideally by car or bicycle). It’s close to the sea with Costa del Sol to the West, including Lloret de Mar and Figueres with the fantastic Dali Theatre-Museum. Or there’s the quaint Banyoles Lake, the Garrotxa Volcanic Park and the scenic Susqueda Reservoir surrounded by green hills.

How to get to Girona

The city has its own international airport and plenty of low-cost destinations.

Utrecht, the Netherlands

Utrecht Old Town

Imagine a small & compact Amsterdam with equally pretty canals and picturesque Dutch buildings, but just a tiny proportion of the tourists teeming the capital. That’s Utrecht in a nutshell. The charming city is just under 30 mins’ by train from Amsterdam yet with most visitors choosing to stay in the capital, Utrecht has stayed under the radar and feels far more laidback than the metropolis.

Utrecht is perfectly-sized: small enough to be easily walkable to enjoy its sights but still very lively in part thanks to a large student population. It’s ideal for a weekend break – a couple days spent in Utrecht is the right amount of time to really get to know the city. The Dom Tower, the tallest church in the Netherlands, dominates the Utrecht skyline and is a must during your visit. Be sure to enjoy one of the many canal-level cafes or take a boat tour on the Oudegracht Canal. Or even rent your own boat! 

How to get to Utrecht

Fly into Amsterdam then take the 30-minute Intercity train. In fact being right in the country’s centre, it’s about an hour from pretty much any main city in the country.

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius Old Town Courtyard

The well-preserved baroque Old Town of Vilnius is one of Europe’s finest and largest, with what seems like endless pretty cobbled streets to explore. For me the real character of Vilnius and its highlights are the smaller alleys and the inner courtyards usually accessible through archways from the main streets, each with its own stories to tell. As a bonus tip, try and find the city’s narrowest alley called Skapo, at just 2 metres wide.

The Lithuanian capital even has its own mini-republic Uzupis, complete with its own flag, president and constitution. If this sounds like Copenhagen’s Freetown Christiania, you’re not far off. One of the world’s smallest “republics”, Uzupis declared independence from Lithuania in 1997 as an April Fool’s joke. Now it’s essentially an artsy, alternative neighbourhood with a distinct, relaxed character and a plethora of artistic installations that will take you by surprise. Oh and you can get your passport stamped here.

The very distinct neighbourhood of Zverynas is also worth exploring. Just 20 minutes’ walk from the centre, is characterised by tree-lined streets of colourful old wooden houses, giving it a genuine rural feel despite being so close to the capital city centre.

For an easy half-day trip out of Vilnius, I recommend the fairy-tale-like Trakai Castle, set in a beautiful lake. For an extra-special experience, you can arrange an early morning hot air balloon ride over Lithuanian countryside and Trakai. These are some of the cheapest hot air balloon flights available in Europe and you can also book a flight over Vilnius.

How to get to Vilnius

The local airport has plenty of flights across Europe and beyond. Sometimes you’ll find cheaper flights to Kaunas (the 2nd city) which is still just over an hour by car.

Read more: 10 Experiences Not to Be Missed in Lithuania

Lucca, Italy

Lucca, Tuscany, Italy

The walled medieval city of Lucca is within an hour’s drive from the tourist “Meccas” of Florence and Pisa. It’s probably because of this that the city sees a fraction of the tourists, keeping it a relatively well-kept secret destination in Tuscany.

Inevitably you’ll struggle not getting lost in its narrow, medieval streets. But that’s OK, it’s the nice kind of getting lost – there’s no rush here. And besides you’ll eventually pop out in one of the round piazzas inviting you for a coffee. Once you’ve had enough getting lost, rent a bike for an gentle loop right on top of the ancient city walls. Or climb the Guinigi Tower for an even better view, complete with an oak tree growing on top.

Lucca makes for an outstanding base for exploring the region. The city enjoys easy access to Pisa Airport, Mediterranean Sea a short drive to the West, the hilly green Garfagnana region to the North and the rest of Tuscany all well-connected. If you’re out on a car or a bicycle, make your way North to the unusually shaped Ponte della Maddalena, beyond to Bagni di Lucca and perhaps one of the harder-to-reach hilltop villages if your car is small enough to squeeze through the steep narrow streets.

How to get to Lucca

This is very easy, with the nearby Pisa Airport often offering great-value flights from across Europe. From there it’s a short 30-minute train or car journey.

Read more: The 8 Most Beautiful Hidden Gems of Italy

Brașov, Romania

Brasov, Romania Panorama

Best remembered for its Hollywood-like sign overlooking the city from the steep hill above, Brașov was my favourite Romanian city. With its stunning and large old town, lush hilly backdrops and just a very welcoming atmosphere, Brașov will prove a great (and very affordable) city break for a few days.

As you wander through the town, make sure to find one of the narrowest streets in the world, Strada Sforii. Then on a finer day take a cable car up to the green hills above where the big “BRASOV” sign is to get a stunning panoramic view. And you’ll struggle to miss the Black Church (Biserica Neagră), another legacy of the German times and one of the most stunning examples of Gothic architecture you’ll find.

Brașov could serve as a great base for a Transylvania trip, close both to the hiking paradise that are the Fagaraș Mountains and some of the most famous castles in the region like Peles and Bran.

How to get to Brașov

While the city doesn’t yet have its own airport, it’s 2 hours’ away from Bucharest International Airport and a similar distance to Sibiu Airport.

Read more: 1 Week Transylvania Itinerary

Bern, Switzerland

 

Bern Switzerland

Bern is actually the Swiss capital, which is surprising giving how tranquil it is compared to the much bigger Zurich and Geneva. The medieval Old Town, shaped by the twisting Aare river, is as stunning as they get – it’s no wonder it’s been named a UNESCO site. Architecture aside, the Alpine backdrop panorama gives the capital an additional Swiss touch. But probably its most famous landmark is the “Bear Pit” (Bärengraben), a hillside park where bears have been kept since 1840. It’s not a typical zoo – the bears have plenty of space to roam around and seem happy enough.

Don’t expect a lively nightlife in Bern – the city seems to shut down early (and feels timid on Sundays too). It’s far more suited for the relaxing sort of city break. My tip is to visit Bern in December for the special Christmassy atmosphere. With the Christmas markets (and with a little luck, snow), it’s a particularly nice time of the year to visit the capital.

Bern is a good base to explore Northern and Central Switzerland from. It’s an easy trip to Interlaken or Luzern and the mountains beyond.

How to get to Bern

There is a small airport in the city with limited flights, otherwise the intercontinental Zurich Airport is just over an hour away by train.

Porto, Portugal

Porto Riverside, Portugal

I wasn’t sure if Porto and the neighbouring Gaia still count as a hidden gem, but as most people still opt for Lisbon for their Portuguese city break, I’d argue it is. 

It’s hard to think of a more perfect weekend city break than Porto. The city has it all for it. Rustic tile-covered neighbourhoods, scenic riverside, excellent seafood, seaside and of course the famous Port wine. Add to that the fact it’s easy to reach by plane, is quite affordable and compact enough to be walkable and explored within 2-3 days.

For me some of the most memorable places are the Sao Bento Train Station with its impressive tile murals and the metal Dom Luis I Bridge that connects Porto with Gaia. I also recommend a visit to one of the Port houses in Gaia, ideally accompanied by a melancholic fado performance. And don’t forget the dilapidated but picturesque and lively Ribeira neighbourhood right in the city centre.

If you have more time, make your way up the river to the gorgeous Douro Valley, home to the famous wine, pretty towns like Amarante and some of Europe’s most impressive views.

How to get to Porto

The local international airport is very well connected by a cheap train to the city centre. Lisbon takes around 3 hours to reach by train.

 


Happy travelling! Any cities you’d add to this alternative European city break list?

1 Comment

  • Sonja
    Posted February 5, 2024

    Nice selection! You should also check out Gdansk in Poland, it’s an underrated gem.

    I’m not sure Porto still counts as ‘hidden’ though!

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