10 Beautiful European Cities That Fly Below the Radar

April 8, 2016 by

Europe, Places to Go, Travel Advice & Inspiration

Everybody knows the glories of Paris, Rome, London and Barcelona, but there are legions of fabulously cultured and architecturally rich European cities that continue to dodge world attention. These 10 beautiful European cities are often mistakenly overlooked.

Belfast, Ireland

Belfast City Hall and Belfast Wheel

Belfast City Hall and Belfast Wheel

Associated with sectarian violence in the 20th century, Belfast has executed a speedy turnaround to become one of the buzziest cities in Europe. Its Victorian architecture largely restored to pristine condition, it has several museums covering recent history, including the Titanic Belfast on the dazzling regenerated waterfront; notorious Crumlin Road Gaol; and warship HMS Caroline, due to open in June 2016 as a floating museum. Factor into this a burgeoning gourmet scene and taste for late-night partying.

Ghent, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium, by night

The big sister of Bruges has a canal-side medieval core of startling beauty, lined with flamboyant, artfully gabled and stuccoed townhouses and warehouses. Along with its triumvirate of imposing churches – and the fabulous “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Van Eyck in St Bavo’s Cathedral – an austere castle and seriously cool art and design museums, this vibrant university city comes alive after dark, with gourmet restaurants and a hardcore clubbing scene. Ghent also has plenty of hidden corners to explore, from the backstreets of newly bourgeois Patershol to the winding waterways of the Leie river.

Helsinki, Finland

Helsinki, Finland

An aerial view of Helsinki, Finland

Europe’s most northerly capital sits on the Baltic Sea amid a spectacular coastline of myriad inlets scattered with rocky islands. The city’s unusual architecture reflects its time under Swedish rule in the fortress of Suomenlinna and snowy white neoclassical Lutheran cathedral, and later Russian domination ­in the flamboyant Orthodox cathedral and Art Nouveau mansions of waterside Katajanokka. With its raw beauty of sea-carved landscapes and regular ferry links to both Stockholm and Tallinn, Helsinki is a vital stopover on a tour of northern European capitals.

Leeds, England

Leeds Dock

Leeds Dock

Despite its rich industrial heritage, Leeds lost its way in the late 20th century and began to look distinctly down at heel. Thankfully those days are long gone, and today it’s the fastest-growing city in the UK; yes, it’s back with a bang. A raft of art museums and the move of the Royal Armouries from London have aided the Yorkshire city’s renaissance, as have the restoration of its fabulously ornate Victorian arcades and arrival of big-name designer stores to populate them – making it the shopping mecca of Northern England.

Lyon, France

Lyon, France, sitting pretty on the Saône River

Lyon, France, sitting pretty on the Saône

Often considered little more than a quick stop-off on the journey to the snow-clad Alps, Lyon is actually a sophisticated French city with a complex backstory. Bisected by the meanders of the Saône river, it has long been known as a foodie destination of Michelin-starred distinction, but this charming city also reveals Roman amphitheaters, history museums, a cobbled vieux ville, a bizarre Byzantine-style cathedral and wide boulevards dedicated to high-end shopping.

Malmö, Sweden

Malmö Town Hall

Malmö Town Hall

Enjoying its moment of fame as star of Scandinavian TV series The Bridge, cute little Malmö’s medieval old core is a maze of cheerily painted townhouses brimming with buzzing bars and cafés, galleries and boutiques. Its many charms include the 16th-century Malmöhus Castle, cavernous St Peter’s Church and gabled Gothic and Dutch Renaissance town hall. Over in the city’s docklands all is sparkling new, with smart apartments and stylish quayside bars and clubs, and Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s Turning Torso – Sweden’s tallest building at 623 feet (190 meters) – overlooking the scene. At 35 minutes from Copenhagen over the Øresund Bridge, Malmö is an accessible day out from Denmark.

Mantua, Italy

Mantua, Italy

Mantua, Italy

Making a perfect side trip from Venice or Milan, Mantua sits on a meander of the Mincio river and owes its particular beauty to the Gonzaga dynasty, who conquered the city in 1328 and ruled until 1707. As avid art collectors and architects, the family constructed palazzos to exhibit their masterpieces, grand churches and a Renaissance town to house their court. The charm of this mini-city is found in wandering the arcaded shopping streets, exploring its handsome churches and discovering the excessive lifestyle enjoyed by the Gonzagas in their vast winter and summer palaces. As a center of gourmet excellence, Mantua offers top-quality restaurants as well as a sophisticated shopping scene.

Piran, Slovenia

Sunset over the picturesque Old Town of Piran, Slovenia

Sunset over the picturesque Old Town of Piran, Slovenia

Crammed onto a peninsula and simply the prettiest town in Slovenia, Piran is a Venetian city of white townhouses topped with terracotta roofs, a Baroque masterpiece of a cathedral watching over the Adriatic Sea and a labyrinthine tangle of streets leading to the handsome Tartini Square. At 90 minutes from Ljubljana, it makes a great seaside day out; but to miss out on Piran’s nightlife is to miss out on one of its greatest assets –  its famous seafood restaurants – which sprawl around the harborside and come alive after dark.

Valencia, Spain

A view on Valencia's historical center

A view on Valencia’s historical center

Combining a complex of minimalist museums, aquariums and galleries – designed by local architect Santiago Calatrava – with splendid Modernista architecture of the late 19th century and a winsomely pretty medieval center packed with cafés and tapas bars, Valencia is often wrongly overlooked in the headlong rush to the beaches of Spain’s costas. There’s no need – this handsome city has its very own stretches of sand along the Mediterranean coastline, backed by the elegance of Paseo Marítimo and Valencia’s fabled paella restaurants.

Wroclaw, Poland

Wroclaw, Poland, in the morning

Wroclaw, Poland, in the morning

Reveling in its year as European Capital of Culture, Wroclaw sits on the Oder river and is cultured and compact. As with many Polish cities, it was wiped out in World War II but has since bounced back with a restored Market Square that rivals Krakow’s Rynek in grandeur. Its architecture encompasses medieval cathedrals, modern museums, riverside parks, elaborate bridges and the quiet backwaters of Tumski island. Wroclaw is also a happening city, with a banging nightlife and several major cultural festivals.

Contributed by Sasha Heseltine

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