5 Underrated European City Trips
Date Published: 17/01/2023
Who doesn’t love a fabulous city trip? Cities have it all: food, culture, art, architecture, and history, rolled into one convenient destination. But with many major European capitals succumbing to overtourism in recent years, overcrowding, noise and pollution have downgraded the quality of life for local residents as well as made authentic travel experiences harder to come by.
As you plan your travels for the coming year, we invite you to consider these underrated alternatives to the most popular capitals on the Continent. So pack your Salties, slip off the beaten track—and let your sense of adventure be your guide.
Instead of Barcelona, try… Girona
With millions of visitors descending upon Barcelona each year, the Catalan capital is one of Europe’s most touristed destinations. With the city at full capacity, squeezing down the length of Las Ramblas with the rest of the tourist crush feels like a less than delightful experience. Luckily another Catalan gem deserves your attention: Girona.
Located in northeastern Catalonia, Girona boasts a compact Old Town that is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a stunning Gothic Cathedral, narrow picturesque alleyways, and charming houses and plazas. A thriving culinary scene at more affordable price points than Barcelona also makes Girona a foodie find that offers more bang for your buck. Beyond the city limits, the Pyrenees Mountains (with many hiking and biking trails) and Mediterranean Sea beckon with their natural beauty. Best of both worlds? We think so.
Instead of Lisbon, try… Porto
The Portuguese capital of Lisbon is stunning, no doubt about it. But there are a few reasons why Porto might be a better choice for some travelers, especially those seeking a more laid-back city trip. For starters, Porto is smaller than Lisbon, making it easier to navigate and explore on foot, while fewer crowds can make for a more relaxed and enjoyable visit.
The birthplace of port wine, Porto is filled with wine cellars that offer tastings and tours, offering a unique experience to those interested in trying this famous Portuguese spirit. From its vibrant riverfront studded with restaurants, bars and shops along the Douro River, to the art-filled green paradise Jardim de Serralves, to suburban beaches with family-friendly local eateries, Porto holds much to discover. Don’t forget to pick up a pastel de nata (traditional egg custard tart) for a sweet taste of the real Portugal.
Instead of Amsterdam, try… Rotterdam
Leave grand old Amsterdam to your parents; Rotterdam, with its distinctive skyline and striking architecture, is where the cool kids go. Just ask the Dutch! From the whimsically tilted Cube Houses to the cavernous glass-fronted Markthal, to the world’s first publicly accessible art depot with over 150,000 artworks, Rotterdam’s innovative buildings are an inspiring showcase of how forward-thinking architecture and design can shape modern city living.
Its strategic location and rich shipping history gives Rotterdam a diverse immigrant population, down-to-earth urban vibe and varied cultural scene. The city is home to a variety of museums such as the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen and Kunsthal Rotterdam, and art galleries and design shops along the hip Witte de Withstraat. For a souvenir, grab a graphic, recycled fabric bum bag made by Susan Bijl, one of the city’s most beloved designers—and the locals will recognize you as one of their very own.
Instead of Brussels, try… Gent
If Brussels is Belgium’s buttoned-up, responsible eldest sibling, and Antwerp is the hip, nonconformist middle child, then Gent is the delightfully charming baby of the brood. With its cobblestoned canalside houses and perfectly preserved ancient center, Gent is a contrast of scale: the grandeur of St Bavo’s Cathedral and Gravensteen Castle juxtaposed alongside tiny, cozy nooks for coffee and brunch.
From medieval to modern, Gent offers art, culture and design buffs treasures such as St Bavo’s Ghent Altarpiece, one of the most important paintings in the world by Flemish masters Jan van Eyck and Hubert van Eyck. Meanwhile, the Design Museum Gent traces the evolution of design, with a focus on Belgian design. Don’t let Gent’s adorably small size fool you—there’s plenty to see here.
Instead of Tuscany, try… Sicily
The city of Florence may be the crown jewel among Tuscany’s rolling hills and expansive vineyards, but further down south is a sparkling island that’s starting to make discerning holidaymakers sit up and take notice. Shown off to perfection as the setting of the hit HBO series The White Lotus, Sicily offers diverse landscapes from volcanic slopes to sun-drenched beaches, whitewashed towns to ancient temples.
As an island at the crossroads of various civilizations—Italian, Arabic, and Greek—Sicily has a rich history and cultural heritage, with a number of ancient ruins and historical sites such as the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento and the Greek amphitheater in Taormina. The capital city of Sicily, Palermo is a vibrant and historic city that is home to a number of cultural jewels, such as the Palermo Cathedral and the Royal Palace. Foodies will love filling up on local Sicilian goodies such as arancini (deep-fried rice balls) and panelle (chickpea fritters).