In the age of the cheap long haul flight, it’s easier than ever to escape to far flung corners of the world and forget about what we have right here on our doorstop. Step forward Europe. It’s got culture, diversity, history, pavement cafés and a rail system that connects the whole damn continent. In a nutshell, it’s every traveller’s dream.
But what if you’ve already drunk steins with the best of them in Munich, sailed down the canals on a gondola in Venice and posed for those photos in Paris where it looks like you’re holding the Eiffel Tower in the palm of your hand?
Don’t fret. Europe, like a caped crusader that just can’t be defeated, is swooping in and coming to the rescue. It’s bursting with unique, charismatic cities that have managed to remain slightly below the tourist radar and just begging to be the star of your next long weekend.
The cobbled street - a European city staple | Image courtesy of Kevin George
Five of our favourite up and coming European cities
I’m giving the up and coming cities of Europe a massive High Five and counting down five of the best cutting edge destinations on the continent.
1. Poland’s hidden secret
Forget Krakow and Warsaw, Poland’s 3rd largest city, Łódź, is the country’s new cool kid. It’s a bit of an outsider, which may explain why surreal film director David Lynch is a big fan. Get to grips with how to pronounce its name (‘woodge’ not ‘loodz’) and head to ul. Pietrkowska, one of Europe’s longest pedestrian streets.
Here, you’ll find a buzzing bar and club scene, but don’t stick to the main street – meander down a side alley and see what surprises the city throws up for you. Don’t miss a visit to Manufaktura, an old textile factory that’s been turned into a super mall, boasting shops, cinemas and even a beach, all without losing the striking original architecture.
2. Belgium’s creative capital
Belgium has the (undeserved) reputation as being the slightly boring relative in the family. You know, the one no one really wants to talk to at family reunions. Luckily for Belgium, Ghent could change all that. The medieval canal city is Flander’s biggest university town, and boasts a bar scene to support several thousand thirsty students. The large student population has fostered a great art scene, and the city has some pretty awesome street art.
Check out the street art in Ghent | Image by FaceMePLS
Head to Werregarenstraat, home to one of Europe’s longest legal graffiti walls, to witness some incredibly cool artists at work. Happily, Ghent is just a hop, skip and a Eurostar away from the UK, lying just 30 minutes from Brussels.
3. Travellin’ in Tallinn
As capital cities go, Tallinn has done a pretty good job of keeping quiet about its charms. Until now. With an old town listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tallinn is now ranked as a global city (kind of a big deal) and has been named as one of the top ten most tech-savvy cities in the world. Economy-wise, it seems to be the very definition of an up and coming city.
Happily, it’s firmly on the up in traveller terms, too. Narrow, medieval streets meet modern restaurants, nightclubs and some of the best café culture that Europe has to offer. The city’s wild nightlife has attracted many a stag do in recent years, but you can escape them by stepping just outside the city and into woodland, hiking trails and Baltic seaside towns.
4. When in Porto, drink Port
So you’ve been to Portugal for the beaches of the Algarve and Lisbon’s culture, but there’s another reason to go. Its name is Porto, otherwise known as the City of Wine. I know, its name alone is enough to make you want to book a flight there, right?
Porto - it's pretty, and full of Port | Image courtesy of Benedikt Saxler
More specifically, the city is – as the name suggests – the birthplace of port, and you’ll be met with ample opportunities for tasting some of its finest creations (though you may be hard pressed to find a Cheeky Vimto). Throw in a beautiful hilly location, winding cobbled lanes, baroque architecture and quaint little plazas, and Porto might just be the European escape you’ve been looking for.
Slovenia’s capital is proof that a capital city doesn’t have to be big or sprawling to pack a punch. Ljubljana has a population of only 300,000, so you might feel as though you’re in a small town, rather than slap bang in the middle of Eastern Europe. It’s is a great city to visit to just ‘be’. There aren’t many famous monuments or tourist hot spots, though it has its fair share of museums and galleries, if you’re that way inclined.
But it’s an infinitely walkable place; the pretty streets built around the Ljubljanica river are perfect to stroll along, an ancient castle looms above. If I were the kind of person to use the word ‘charming’, I would reserve it for Ljubljana. There, I said it. Ljubljana is charming – spread the word. Want to combine your visit with a bigger trip? Our 27-day European Adventurer tour stops there.