So, you’ve visited all the major capital cities in Europe, now what? Capital cities always seem to get all the attention, but bigger isn’t always better! London, Paris and Berlin are all great, but often to get a real sense of a country it’s best to visit some of the lesser known towns and cities without the inevitable stress of a visit to the nation’s capital. Check out our picks for the essential non-capital cities to visit in Europe!
Brighton is a coastal city located an hour’s train journey outside of London. The city has a tradition of liberalism and this is reflected in its huge LGBT community and dedication to the arts. Huge amounts of gentrification at the beginning of the 20th century changed the landscape of Brighton dramatically and its cheaper prices in comparison to the capital has always been a massive draw. Interestingly, Brighton is also home to the largest number of people who consider themselves Jedi knights in the UK.
- Best Time to Visit: Seeing as Brighton is located on the coast, summer is most definitely the best time to visit. However, to avoid the inevitable crowds try to visit in April, May or September. In May you will be treated to the Brighton Festival and Brighton Fringe which are some of the biggest arts and cultural festivals in England. One of the Highlights on the Brighton Calendar is Brighton Pride, a huge Event celebrating the LGBT community. Despite taking place in the busy August month, it’s more than worth battling the summer crowds for.
- What to Do in the Morning: Though the UK is famous for its greasy full English breakfasts, Brighton is swamped with veggie and vegan cafes, such as iydea, that will present you with a healthier alternative to start your day. Follow this with a refreshing walk along the Brighton Pier.
- What to Do in the Afternoon: Twice a year, local artists will open their houses to art enthusiasts across the country during the Brighton festival in May and just preceding Christmas. This gives art lovers a unique insight into the context of the pieces and allows the artist to reach a wider audience. This could then be followed by classic fish and chips at Bankers.
- What to Do at Night: There is something for everyone in Brighton; Kemptown is a well-known gay area and at West Street you’ll find more commercial bars like Vodka Revolution for example.
Insider Tip: Head to North Laine to pick up some unique vintage pieces and some real bargains in one of the many boutiques and second-hand shops around the area!
Colloquially labelled as ‘Hypezig’, Leipzig is an east German city with a lot of buzz surrounding it. Word on the street is that it has all the dynamic and creative energy that Berlin offers but at much cheaper prices. Additionally, Leipzig is the “city of books”: it’s the home of several publishing houses as well as the “Leipziger Buchmesse” (the largest book fair in Germany) .
- Best Time to Visit: Summer
- What to do in the Morning: Starting your day with a lazy walk around the historical centre of Leipzig is a great way to peruse the city at your own pace with the advantage of dwindled crowds!
- What to do in the Afternoon: Take advantage of Leipzig’s close proximity to the water and organise a relaxed boat trip or a day filled with water sports!
- What to do in the Night: The dark and smoky bars usually associated with Berlin have migrated over to Leipzig and have not scrimped on character and charm. The district of Lindenau is a good place to begin.
Insider Tip: The two main rivers flowing through Leipzig are connected with several canals and there are canoe tours organised which afford you the opportunity to visit areas in the city that are away from the main streets or otherwise hidden.
Namur is located in the Walloon Region at the confluence of the river Sambre and the Meuse. The city is home to the parliamentary buildings of Wallonia and has therefore developed into a popular destination for tourists; however, it is still significantly less popular than many other large cities. Additionally, the city also hosts big festivals such as the Festival des arts forains and the Fêtes de Wallonie.
- Best time to visit: In the summer time.
- What to do in the morning: The Citadel of Namur is an imposing fortress overlooking the entire city, it was originally constructed during the Roman empire as a means of defense but has since been demilitarised and is open to the public. From the top there is great panoramic view of the river and inside are many secret pathways to discover.
- What to do in the Afternoon: The Old Town of Namur is one of the city’s highlights, particularly in the case of the Belfry of Namur – one of the city’s few UNESCO listed buildings. Unfortunately this is a spectating only activity as access into the tower has been off limits for some time. Other noteworthy buildings to look out for during your tour of the old town include the Halle al’Chair and St Aubin’s Cathedral.
- What to do at night: Check out what shows are on offer at the Théâtre Royal de Namur, the beautifully renovated theatre in the heart of the old town. Follow this by a drink at some of the neighbouring bars like VinoVino or enjoy some live music and Belgian Beer at the Piano Bar.
Insider tip: If you’re planning to walk around the city, you can download an mp3-tour straight to your smart phone or tablet which narrates a self-guided tour around the city.
Valencia’s friendly people, warm climate and beautiful beaches make it one of the most popular destinations to visit in Spain. Valencia is also the home of Paella, which is served in the traditional way and is still very much a part of the culture; it is therefore safe to assume that some of the tastiest Paella in Spain can found here!
- Best Time to Visit: In March, The Felles, which is an annual celebration of the life St Joseph, takes place. During the celebrations the streets are full with fireworks and music. Attendees of the celebration build Ninots (Valencian Puppets or Dolls) that reflect aspects of contemporary society and the celebration culminates in their burning.
- What to Do in the Morning: Many of the city’s key attractions can be found in the old town – it is therefore a very good place to start. Some of the highlights include Valencia Cathedral, which was constructed in the 13th century and is an excellent representation of the Gothic architecture of the time, the Quart Towers and the Lonja de la Seda, which has been declared a heritage site by UNESCO.
- What to Do in the Afternoon: Valencia has a substantial selection of Museums which are ideal to fill an empty afternoon. Some of the highlights include one of the oldest fine arts museums in Spain, the Museo de Bellas Artes or the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (the City of Arts and Sciences) which has everything from an IMAX cinema, botanic garden and sculptures of contemporary artists to an oceanarium (the biggest in Europe) and an opera house.
- What to Do at Night: Valencia has a great nightlife, with Benimaclet and El Carmen being some of the more popular districts to attend. These areas are full to the brim with young people and cool bars and clubs open until the early hours; some of the best examples of these include Swan Club or Calcatta which is located in an old palace from the 17th century.
Insider Tip: If you want to avoid the swarms of tourists, you should visit the small villages around the peripheries of Valencia, such as Alboraia, a charming village that preserves the typical essence of Valencia.
The city colloquially known as Den Bosch – translating as ‘The Forest’ in Dutch and officially called ‘s-Hertogenbosch – is soaked in history! As such, there is never a shortage of things to do – from seeing the tunnel canals, to visiting the iconic church and the namesake museum.
- Best time to Visit: The weather will just start to pick up in Spring
- What to do in the morning: Visit ‘Uilenburg’, one of the nicest neigbourhoods in Den Bosch. In the 60s and 70s this area was somewhat neglected, but in recent years bars and restaurant have been popping up, making this formerly disregarded district one of the best spots in the city! The cobbled streets are entirely pedestrianised and have the canal running through them, making this an ideal area for an indulgent brunch.
- What to do in the afternoon: Den Bosch is famous for their Bossche Bols, which are effectively just massive profiteroles doused in an enormous amount of chocolate! You will find these local delicacies in most of the bakeries littered around the city.
- What to Do at Night: The area with the best selection of bars is Karrenstraat or parade, follow this by going for a dance in P79!
Insider Tip: Head to Bar m’n Tante, normally frequented by the locals of Den Bosch and serves more than 10 beers on tap, including seasonal pink beers.
Palermo is the capital of Sicily. This ancient city has more than 2700 years of culture, art, and delectable gastronomy. Other than the gorgeous Mediterranean weather, Palermo has an extremely active night life and music scene, with great architecture and landmarks to discover!
- Best Time to Visit: Spring and Autumn are the ideal time to visit Palermo, when the days are not stiflingly warm and the city isn’t full of tourists. However, during the middle of July, Saint Rosalia is celebrated, and the city will be full of life, giving visitors a better insight into the culture and tradition of the area other than the perpetuated stereotypes offered by the Godfather films (filmed in Palermo).
- What to Do in the Morning: Have breakfast the Sicilian way, with Granita and Brioche or ice cream. Continue the foodie theme with a visit to the traditional La Vucciria-fish market where you can sample everything from cheese, vegetables, meat and of course fish. More over, it becomes a flea market on Sundays!
- What to Do in the Afternoon: Palermo is overloaded with small beaches and bays and this is undoubtedly one of the main reasons for the city’s popularity. The beaches are not only gorgeous to look at, but the crystal-clear water and the seaweed-lined seafloor make for the perfect environment for snorkeling and other water activities. Mondello is the most famous beach in Palermo, however this is made even more impressive still when you consider it was a swampland in the early 1900!
- What to Do at Night: The city-centre comes alive at night, so sights you may have seen during the day will have a whole new appearance when lit up. In typical Italian tradition, dinners are served late. You can enjoy them with a spot of experimental jazz at Cocoa Jazz restaurant.
Insider Tip: In keeping with the gastronomic theme, get great value-for-money street food at Antica Focacceria S. Francesco!
With a rich and varied history, Marseille is perhaps France’s most original city. Located on the Mediterranean sea, with a wonderfully warm climate all year round, Marseille is extremely cosmopolitan with a strong identity and beautiful countryside!
- Best Time to visit: Hordes of tourists tend to flock to Marseille during the height of summer in July and August. Therefore, for a better appreciation of the city, arrive between April and June or between September and October.
- What to do in the morning: The districts of Vieux-Port (old Harbour) and La Cannebiere combined make up Old Marseille and are located directly by the sea where you will find an abundance of cafes and restaurants, with terraces to relax in under the sun.
- What to do in the afternoon: A short trip outside of Marseille you can find the Calanques, which is a truly spectacular natural lagoon in which you can swim, climb and hike around. The Calanques is only a short boat journey away, alternatively you can walk.
- What to do at night: There is no shortage of places to eat and drink in Marseille, and one must-have while in the city is the Bouillabaisse: a fish based delicacy that originates from the area. This is perfectly complemented by a visit to some of the more unique bars in the area; La Dame Noir is a great place to begin!
Insider Tip: Go for a walk around the Cours Julien District, where you will be treated to the amazing diversity of the Marseille street art scene. Other artwork can be seen at the Atelier Juxtapoz gallery!
Lugano may only have a population of just over 60,000, however, this banking centre not only benefits from the famous Swiss efficiency, but credits its beautiful landscape to its border with the Italian mountains!
- Best time to Visit: Spring, when the Camellias are in bloom.
- What to Do in the Morning: Discover the city center where most of the main sites are which include San Lorenzo Cathedral, a walk along Santa Maria degli Angeli by Botta and Santo Stefano Church.
- What to Do in the Afternoon: for an insight into the manufacturing of delicious Swiss chocolate of the area, and a chance to sample it of course, head to the Alprose Chocolate Factory. Lugano is also perfect for those with a love of the great outdoors, with various open air activities such as trekking, mountain biking and hiking through the stunning landscape.
- What to do at Night: Lugano is home to one of the best Casinos in Europe, Casino Lugano; even if you don’t enjoy gambling, attending the casino is great excuse to get dressed up and indulge in the decadent restaurants and fully stocked bars. And for those that do enjoy a good gamble, Casino Lugano has over 400 slot machines and 18 tables for blackjack or poker. Admiring the city lit up at night is also a real treat when you can see the lake and and the vast mountain range!
Insider Tip: Ticino is only a short drive outside of Lugano and is the perfect spot for a traditional Swiss Lunch. A visit to Grotti, a restaurant built in the caves, ensures you sample the best of the Swiss cuisine of the area!
Braga is Portugal’s oldest city, since it was founded by the Roman Empire in 279 BC (it is known as the Portuguese Rome). The city is therefore rich in culture and history, something further acknowledged by the accolade of being named the European Capital of Culture in 2012. The entire city could almost be seen as a museum in its own right: you can almost see the passing of time thanks to its varied architecture which includes buildings from Ancient Rome to those from the Gothic and Baroque period.
- Best Time to Visit: In the beginning of April it is Holy Week; the celebrations in Braga are some of the most spectacular in all of Portugal and combine elements of traditional liturgy with more contemporary innovations. Every year this attracts over 100,000 visitors!
- What to Do in the Morning: The sanctuary Bom Jesus do Monte is both one of the oldest, and most impressive landmarks in Braga. It is located 6 km outside of the city itself, therefore in order to fully appreciate it, allowing the whole morning is advised.
- What to Do in the Afternoon: A great afternoon can be spent checking out the main attractions of the Old Town which include the Sé Cathedral, which is the oldest in Portugal, built in the 11th century, as well as the stunning Antigo Paco Episopal, an imposing palace where visitors can have full access to the impressive gardens. End the afternoon with a coffee at Vianna cafe among the quaint cobblestones in the heart of Braga.
- What to Do at Night: Braga is a university town, and you can be sure that where students reside, an abundance of bars and clubs will be near by. To ensure a traditional Portuguese experience, head to Deslize where you can sample a traditional Portuguese Vinho Verde.
Insider Tip: Peneda-Gerês is the only area in the whole of Portugal where wolves and eagles roam in their natural habitat!
Legend has it that Krakow was founded after the defeat of a dragon. You would think that it’d be hard to top a foundation like that, but Krakow manages it with a real unpretentious charm! From its cheaper than cheap beers to its great historical attractions, Krakow is a non-capital city to watch out for!
- Best time to visit: Krakow is great in the Spring and Autumn seasons
- What to Do in The Morning: The morning is an ideal time to explore the old town of the city while the streets are desolate. Do this, after indulging in a traditional polish breakfast of Obwarzanek.
- What to Do in the Afternoon: Zakrzowek Lake, a former mining quarry and now a hidden lagoon that you’re free to swim and frolic in, is just a 20 minute walk from central Krakow. There’s also a wide range of museums documenting Krakow’s interesting history; two of the best are the National Museum and the Medieval Torture Museum.
- What to Do at Night: Take advantage of the €2 beers at the copious bars and clubs littered around Krakows old town, or for a more authentic experience head to one of the city’s many milk bars; these are some of the left over remnants of the communist era in Poland and can offer you a new experience without breaking the bank.
Insider Tip: The Tatra Mountain range is located on the border between Poland and Slovakia and is home to some for the highest and most beautiful mountains in the Carpathians. Also, just a short journey outside Krakow is Auschwitz, the most prolific concentration camp during the Nazi occupation of Poland during WW2 – visiting is a harrowing, but important experience.