Looking to get off the beaten path in Europe? These 25 offbeat and underrated urban destinations make for excellent alternative European city breaks.
Empty plazas, museums without queues, food and wine bars where you never have to worry about getting a seat – sometimes it pays to look beyond the beaten track when searching for a city break in Europe.
Lesser-visited cities offer more space to breathe and oftentimes, a local atmosphere that more popular cities are lacking. Cities that haven’t been touched by mass-tourism often offer great value for money. Not to mention that travelling to underrated cities has benefits for sustainable travel, lightening the pressure on overcrowded destinations and helping to spread the proceeds of tourism to smaller communities.
Each of the alternative destinations on this list is serviced by regular flights and/or trains from elsewhere in Europe. Whether you’re travelling with friends or family, or you’re planning an easy solo getaway, these cities make for an ideal 48 or 72-hour city break – although I bet you’ll be tempted to stay longer!
Please note: This post contains affiliate links, meaning I may earn a commission if you make a purchase by clicking a link (at no extra cost to you). Learn more.
Getting off the beaten path in Europe: 25 alternative European city breaks
In addition to my own suggestions, I invited a small group of travel writers to recommend their top alternative European city breaks for this year. Here’s what we came up with.
Alternative city breaks in Southern Europe
Pursuing an alternative European city break doesn’t necessarily have to mean trading one city for another. In the case of Greece, visiting the northern metropolis of Thessaloniki as a complement to Athens can leave you with a better overall picture of Greek history and culture.
With the Aegean Sea right on its doorstep and most of the main sights sprinkled along the waterfront, Thessaloniki is an outdoors city. A long promenade stretches along the harbour and culminates with the White Tower, the symbol of the city.
Squares, shopping streets and clusters of suburban apartment blocks track back from the waterfront to the raised Upper Town. Here, modern buildings are interspersed with the crumbling ruins of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman monuments. The Rotunda, part of a 4th-century Roman palace, served as both a mosque and a church at various points in Thessaloniki’s history. It’s now used to stage live music.
One of the most interesting parts of the city is the market district, where fish, fruit and sundries markets including the Modiano Market and Kapani Market interweave seamlessly to form one huge maze of stalls, delis and sit-down tavernas. This is the ideal place to sample Thessaloniki’s famous cuisine, which includes the flakiest mpougatsa and the yummiest gyros in all of Greece. At dusk, head up to the ruins of the Byzantine Heptapyrgion Fortress to watch the sun set over the harbour.
Thessaloniki’s international airport is a hub for budget airline Wizz Air, making it easy and affordable to reach from elsewhere in Europe. If you’re travelling overland to Greece from North Macedonia, Thessaloniki will be your first port of call.
Where to stay: Capsis Hotel is positioned between the train/bus station and the waterfront, making it a great place to stay on a short visit.
Take a tour: Discover Greek cuisine and traditional handicrafts on this walking tour of Thessaloniki’s vibrant market district.
Recommended by Ellie, The Wandering Quinn
Zaragoza in northeastern Spain is the country’s fifth largest city. It’s overshadowed by many other cities and towns, which makes it the perfect city break if you want to experience true, authentic Spanish culture.
There are many things to see and do in Zaragoza in 2 or 3 days. The main attraction is the Basilica del Pilar, a truly impressive building from both the inside and the outside. It’s located in Plaza de la Pilar, one of the largest plazas in Europe.
Zaragoza is full of museums and religious sites, including many historical and beautifully preserved cathedrals such as El Salvador Cathedral. You’ll find a Tapestry Museum, a museum dedicated to Goya, one of the most important painters in the world who is from the Aragon region where Zaragoza is located, and a Roman Theatre Museum.
If museums aren’t your thing, there’s plenty more to see in Zaragoza including markets and street art. The food scene in Zaragoza is incredible. ‘Tapas Thursdays’ are a thing and you’ll see lots of locals out on the streets and in the bars.
The best time to visit Zaragoza is during spring and autumn, as this time brings warm weather without the sweltering heat of the summer months. Zaragoza has its own airport with regular flights from other cities in Europe. Because it’s located close to Barcelona, there are plenty of train links connecting Zaragoza with the rest of Spain.
Where to stay: For a fantastic hotel in Zaragoza, try Hotel Alfonso, located in the middle of the historic centre. It has a rooftop pool, beautiful modern rooms, and professional staff.
Take a tour: This Aragonese wine tasting and tapas tour includes a guided walk through Zaragoza’s historical core.
Related: The ultimate Spain road trip itinerary.
Recommended by Molly, Luggage and Life
If you’re looking for an alternative European city break in Italy, consider Padua. Located about 45km west of Venice airport and about 48km from Treviso, Padua is also on the high-speed train line, so it’s easy to reach from other major cities.
Padua often gets skipped over in favour of her more well-known neighbours – even though she boasts Europe’s oldest covered market, Sotto il Salone, its biggest piazza, Prato della Valle, and the first kiss ever depicted in Western art in a fresco by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel.
Other must-sees include the basilica of Saint Anthony, the three squares the make up the heart of the city centre, and the University of Padua’s incredible botanical gardens.
Hungry? In the evening, take your aperitivo like the locals do and sip an Aperol spritz in Piazza dei Signori (it was invented in Padua, after all), and then eat dinner at Osteria dei Fabbri. On a budget? Padua is full of great street food too! Get a hot cup of bigoli al ragù d’anatra (local pasta with duck meat sauce) at Bigoi, or try some seafood at La Folperia.
When it’s time for a nightcap, explore the little bars in the Jewish quarter, which are hopping just about every night of the week thanks to the university students.
Where to stay: If you’re looking for affordable accommodation close to the city centre, stay at Hotel Casa del Pellegrino. For something a bit more luxe, check out Majestic Toscanelli, a boutique hotel in the Jewish quarter.
Take a tour: Rub shoulders with the locals at Padua’s best aperitif bars and local hangouts on this private city tour.
Recommended by Sarah, CosmopoliClan
Despite being the oldest city in France, Marseille has long been overlooked by visitors who stick to the country’s southern coast. Located in the shadow of the iconic French Riviera, this multicultural melting-pot has long suffered from a bad reputation. In recent years, however, no effort has been spared to turn that around.
Marseille is now the perfect destination for a cultural coastal break, with the MuCEM (Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean) as a modern eye-catcher. This striking building incorporates the historic Fort Saint-Jean, one of the watchtowers that once protected the Old Port. Because cruise ships are redirected to another port near the centre of Marseille, the Old Port remains the city’s charming epicentre.
Enjoy a pastis on one of the terraces before diving into the old district, Le Panier, where pastel houses cheerfully contrast with bright street art. The maze of narrow alleyways will lead you to the Vieille Charité, which houses both the Mediterranean Archeology Museum and the Museum of African, Oceanian and Native American Art.
Start your second day at the opposite side of the Vieux Port, with an exploration of the Cours Julien district and a visit to the North-African inspired Noailles market. This is the perfect stop before enjoying a picnic in the gardens of Pharo Palace, overlooking the lesser-known Blue Coast (Côte Blue) and the 16th century Château d’If. This former prison, featured in Alexandre Dumas’s novel The Count of Monte Cristo, can be reached by shuttle boat.
Indulge in a bouillabaisse before taking in the sunset views from the Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica. On your final day, visit the eccentric building La Cité Radieuse by the legendary architect Le Corbusier before discovering Marseille’s natural highlight, the Calanques National Park.
Forget the glamorous and polished cities of the French Riviera and head to hip and quaint Marseille instead. You can reach it by flying to the international airport, Aéroport Marseille Provence, or by train to the Gare St Charles railway station.
Where to stay: The 18th century Hôtel Dieu used to serve as a hospital but has been converted into the city’s most glamorous hotel, the InterContinental Hôtel Dieu.
Take a tour: Learn the ins and outs of Marseille’s charming Le Panier neighbourhood with this 1-hour guided segway tour.
Recommended by Amber, Food And Drink Destinations
Situated on the Douro River, Porto is Portugal’s second-largest city and the jumping-off point for the world-famous Douro wine region. From incredible food and wine to breathtaking architecture and history, Porto has something for every traveller.
Because Porto doesn’t attract as many visitors as its big brother Lisbon, it’s easier to explore the city and immerse yourself in everyday life. If you are going to visit Porto do it soon – word is quickly getting out about this amazing destination in the north of Portugal.
No trip to Porto is complete without walking across the Dom Luis Bridge. This arch bridge spans the Douro River connecting Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia, and offers stunning views along the way. A great way to see the city is to book a Porto wine tasting tour. This will allow you to learn about the unique history of Port wine and its influence on the city that shares its name. Or, hop out to the Douro region for a day trip to taste world-class wine.
It’s easy to reach Porto from elsewhere in Portugal and the rest of Europe. From Lisbon, it’s a 3-hour train. Porto’s airport is only a 15-minute ride from the centre of the city.
Where to stay: The PortoBay Hotel Teatro in the city centre is a unique design hotel built in a historic Portuguese theater.
Take a tour: This Porto wine tasting experience visits the city’s oldest cellar and includes a full demonstration of the port wine-making process.
Recommended by Annabel, Smudged Postcard
If you can only visit one city in Sicily, Syracuse on the south-east coast is a good bet. For a small city, there’s plenty to pack into a visit to Syracuse: Traditional puppet shows, boat trips along the coast, a 13th century castle to explore, and an impressive archaeological park just outside the centre complete with Greek and Roman amphitheaters.
Head straight for the Piazza del Duomo to drink in over 2,000 years of history neatly displayed in the city’s cathedral. Ancient Greek Doric columns merge with the more recent 17th century Baroque while elements of Arabic and Norman details attest to the island’s rich history. Wander away from the main square and you’re never more than a few hundred metres from the glittering Ionian Sea which surrounds Ortigia, the diminutive heart of Syracuse.
Unlike so many other desirable destinations in the southern Mediterranean, Syracuse manages to cling onto a certain level of authenticity. But with Sicily’s popularity increasing, visit now before too many people discover this glorious place.
Syracuse is an hour’s drive from Catania airport and can also be reached by train from Catania or Taormina. Hiring a car is a great option for visits in summertime if you’re keen to enjoy one of the many beaches nearby. Cars cannot be brought into the old town of Ortigia, but there is plenty of good-value parking just outside the centre.
Where to stay: For a true taste of Sicilian hospitality, stay at L’Approdo delle Sirene. Small and beautiful with views over the harbour, here you’ll find stylish but affordable accommodation, friendly staff, and delicious homemade cakes for breakfast.
Take a tour: Step back in time on this history focused walking tour of Syracuse, which incorporates a visit to the Archeological Park and a stroll around Ortigia.
More Sicily inspiration: My guide to the Aeolian Islands.
Recommended by Dominika, Sunday in Wonderland
If 2020 becomes the year of smaller places, one of the top alternative European city breaks will surely be Valletta, the capital of Malta – which is itself one of the tiniest countries in Europe.
Valletta is beautiful in any season. Even visiting Malta in winter is a good idea, so Valletta could potentially be your first 2020 city break destination. The capital offers many activities to enjoy even on a short trip, beginning with fascinating walking tours and ending with colourful festivals.
Visiting Valletta is a fascinating experience. This small city is filled with historical buildings and monuments at every step. It’s a perfect destination for people who love to discover the past-time spirit and hang out on medieval streets. Because of its incredible charm and amazing views, Valletta has featured as a backdrop to many great movies such as Munich, The Count of Monte Cristo, and TV show Game of Thrones.
Valletta is also a great base for interesting day trips. You can easily get to almost any point on the island using public transport, including the wonderful silent city of Mdina, the colourful port of Marsaxlokk, or even the joyful Popeye Village. You can literally see many of the most interesting places in Malta while overnighting in the capital.
Valletta is well connected with the rest of Europe via flights to Malta International Airport, just a short drive from the city.
Where to stay: Luciano Al Porto Boutique is a lovely boutique hotel located right in the city centre. It offers beautiful rooms designed in a unique style that gives traditional Maltese architecture a modern twist. It’s the perfect choice for your city break in Valletta.
Take a tour: This introductory walking tour of downtown Valletta is perfect for first-time visitors.
Recommended by Jeff and Kristen, Our Passion For Travel
In recent years, the popularity of Girona has grown significantly. The renowned culinary scene can be put down to the Roca Brothers and their inventive approach to cuisine. Often voted in the top 10 restaurants in the world, El Celler De Can Roca is a much sought-after reservation for foodies. For those who can’t nail this, you can still sample some of the Roca Brothers work at Rocambolesc, a creative ice creamery. Try toppings of marshmallows roasted fresh in front of you, mint flakes, or honeycomb.
Girona’s profile has also been boosted as a Game of Thrones destination. And whilst GOT may be finished, Girona still has a soft spot in the heart of any fan, no matter how much they may have despised the final series!
Girona played home to a number of GOT locations. Located many thousands of kilometres apart in the show, here King’s Landing, Braavos and the Citadel are all within a 5-minute walk of each other. Game of Thrones tourism has taken off, and exploring the city’s filming locations has become one of the most popular things to do. Even if you aren’t a fan, a tour of the GOT sites includes the city walls, Arab Baths and Girona Cathedral – all of which deserve a visit in their own right.
An hour north of Barcelona by high speed train, Girona is an easy addition to any itinerary that includes the Catalonian capital. Barcelona Airport is well serviced with flights from most major European cities. Alternatively, the Girona-Costa Brava airport sits 20 minutes south of Girona. A smaller airport with fewer connections to a number of European cities, it is predominantly serviced by low-cost and holiday package airlines.
Where to stay: Little Home Torregirona is perfectly located – and your room may even have a glimpse of the famous Girona Cathedral. You won’t be far from anything here, with the key sights of Girona all a stone’s throw away.
Take a tour: This 2.5-hour walking tour covers many of the key GOT filming sites while also incorporating information about the history of Girona.
Recommended by Alex, Swedish Nomad
Parma is one of the most underrated cities in Italy, but it has a lot to offer both in terms of history and architecture – as well as food. It’s located in the Emilia-Romagna region and is perhaps best-famed for its Parma ham and Parmesan cheese, which are both famous all over the world. The historic city also features several Romanesque buildings. The Parma Cathedral stands proudly in the centre, along with the pink marble Baptistery.
It’s bliss to stroll around Parma compared to more frequently visited cities in Italy. There’s a local feeling and atmosphere. You won’t find an abundance of tourists here, which means that you’ll get more of the La Dolce Vita and Bella Italia.
Parma is located halfway between Milano and Bologna, and the closest airports can be found there. No matter what airport you choose to fly into, you can easily take a train to Parma, with frequent departures throughout the day.
Where to stay: Du Parc Hotel is located in a historic building from the 1890s. It’s a 4-star hotel with a very reasonable nightly rate.
Take a tour: Get some hands-on experience with Parma’s local delicacies on this tastings-heavy food tour.
Alternative city breaks in the Balkans
For a city of its size, Prishtina is positively overflowing with cafes, bars and restaurants. If you want a truly offbeat European city break, look no further than Kosovo’s capital, where you’re guaranteed to get your fill of not only coffee and cuisine, but also Balkan history.
The NEWBORN monument was erected to symbolise Kosovo’s independence from neighbouring Serbia. It’s a Prishtina icon, and a powerful symbol of the city’s forward-looking attitude and momentum. The bell tower of the Cathedral of Saint Mother Teresa commands excellent city views and is a good place to start your explorations. From there, visit another building that’s become a Prishtina icon although for very different reasons – The National Library of Kosovo, which has been named the world’s ugliest building.
Trendy cafes and gastropubs including Soma Book Station sit comfortably side by side with historical buildings such as Jashar Pasha’s Mosque. To learn more about the city’s history, visit the petite Ethnographic Museum or the grand Kosovo Museum.
Prishtina is connected to the rest of Europe via direct flights from its nearby international airport. Alternatively, you can reach the city on a short bus ride from either Skopje or southern Serbia.
Recommended by Maggie, The World Was Here First
Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, has been gaining in popularity year on year as an excellent alternative European city break. As the former capital of Yugoslavia and the largest city by population in the Balkan region, Belgrade is packed with history, character and charm, and makes for a fantastic place to visit if you’re looking to get a bit off the beaten path.
Belgrade is home to its own international airport that serves both budget and mainstream airlines and connects the city to most other major hubs in Europe. It is also very easy to reach by bus from neighbouring cities including Zagreb, Budapest and Sarajevo.
Though visitors could easily spend more than a week exploring all the city has to offer, you only need about two or three full days in Belgrade to get a good feel for the city. Spend your first day exploring the old town area of Dorćol and the historic Kalemegdan Fortress overlooking the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. On your second day, explore the city centre and take in sites such as the St. Sava Church and the Nikola Tesla Museum.
If you have 3 days, you could easily head out on a day trip to Novi Sad to the north, or wander around the Novi Beograd or Zemun neighbourhoods in Belgrade. The Serbian capital is also famous for its bustling nightlife and no visit to Belgrade is complete without at least one night out.
Where to stay: If you’re looking for a historic and luxurious place to stay, consider booking a room at the Hotel Moskva. Considered to be one of the nicest hotels in Belgrade, it has traditionally housed foreign leaders visiting the city since it opened in 1908.
Related: My guide to Novi Sad, Serbia’s second city.
Recommended by Lyn, A Hole in My Shoe
On a bend in the picturesque Ljubljana River lies the compact, pedestrianised and pretty ‘jewel box’ city of Ljubljana. Despite its beauty, Slovenia’s capital is still off the beaten track. But it shouldn’t be.
Replete with dragon statues, a funicular, a medieval castle and quiet courtyards and cobble-stoned passageways, this is one city that should be at the top of your must-visit list, and provides a great alternative city break in Europe for 2020. Give Slovenia’s capital 2 to 3 days of your time and you will be rewarded with one of the most liveable cities in the world.
Summer is the ideal time to visit, with a street party feel from the vibrant cafes set up along the leafy banks of the river. With a large university population, the city boasts some of the best restaurants and museums in the country. It’s easy to stroll the compact city to see the main sights, then cross the river via the Triple Bridge to the Central Market.
No visit is complete without a ride on the glass funicular up to Ljubljana Caste. There, you will have the opportunity to learn about Slovenia’s history, culture and architecture, and sample the best of Slovenian cuisine.
The link between the central district and the Old Town is Ljubljana’s Prešeren Square and its architectural centrepiece, the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation. The steps of the 17th century salmon-pink church are a popular meeting point overlooking Prešeren monument. Opposite is the Palača Urbanc, an Art Nouveau building that’s now a department store.
Flights from Europe arrive at Brnik Airport, 20km from the city centre, and trains from neighbouring countries terminate at Ljubljana Railway Station, just 800 metres from downtown.
Where to stay: Directly behind the Franciscan Church, close to all the sights and cafes is the elegant, old fashioned, but very charming Grand Hotel Union. This hotel has the air of a bygone era, with spacious rooms featuring breathtaking views. Everything needed is within walking distance.
Take a tour: Learn more about the Old Town architecture and ride the funicular up to Ljubljana Castle on this 2-hour guided walk.
Related: How to travel from Ljubljana to Lake Bled.
Skopje, North Macedonia
Recommended by Marta and Milosz, Backpackers Wro
Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, is a great weekend-away destination for the spring or summer. As it’s not a big metropolis, it is possible to visit Skopje in a day or over a relaxed weekend. You can fly to Skopje with low-cost airline Wizz Air from many cities in Europe, including London and Rome.
Your first impression of Skopje’s city centre might not be what you expected. Many people say that the heart of Skopje is kitsch, but it’s worth checking out and deciding for yourself. Many new buildings are stylised as heritage properties, and the main square is filled with massive monuments inspired by antiquities.
Across the river from the new city centre, the Old Bazaar contrasts with the modern part of Skopje. Walking through the Ottoman-built Old Bazaar, it can feel as though you’ve stepped back in time. It’s the perfect place to buy souvenirs, drink strong Turkish coffee, have a Balkan-style dinner, and get lost along the narrow paths.
The next interesting attraction in Skopje is Kale Fortress. Entrance is free, and it’s a great place to get a view of the city. For even better vistas, it’s worth going to nearby Vodno Mountain, which you summit by cable car.
Where to stay: One of the best places to stay in Skopje is Hotel Senigallia. With a curious boat-like design, it’s located in the centre of the city and offers comfortable rooms plus a delicious breakfast.
Take a tour: Learn what makes this city of contrasts tick on a full-day walking tour of Skopje.
Related: My guide to shopping in Skopje Old Bazaar.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Recommended by Arzo, Arzo Travels
Sarajevo is an underrated gem and a great place and explore in 2 or 3 days. Walking is the best way to get around, just remember to wear comfy shoes as it’s a hilly city with many cobbled streets.
Given its location in the heart of Bosnia and Herzegovina, surrounded by hills and mountains, it’s a good place to do some easy hiking. For an easy walk, head up to the Yellow or White Fort. For the very best city views, hike up Vidikovac (about a 30-45 minute trek) and watch the sunset while eating your dinner in the (affordable) restaurant on the hill. The vistas are amazing.
Be sure to add Mount Trebević to your Sarajevo to-do list and on your way up there (either hike or via cable car), stop by Sarajevo’s abandoned bobsled track, where the winter Olympic Games were staged in 1984.
Sarajevo is not only about mountain views. Visit the atmospheric old town, with it’s lovely souvenir shops, antique merchants and copper workshops. The old town has some of the cutest cafes and tea houses in the Balkans, so you can enjoy some Bosnian coffee while people watching.
Though there are many beautiful places to visit in Sarajevo, the city suffered a lot in the war. It’s worth going on a walk tours to learn about the history and what the city went through not that long ago.
Sarajevo airport is located roughly 12km from the city centre, with daily flights from the rest of Europe. There is also a train station with international services from Zagreb and elsewhere, while buses connect Sarajevo with neighbouring Serbia.
Where to stay: Hotel Michel is a 4-star hotel located 600 metres uphill from the Old Town, with balconies that face the historic city centre.
Recommended by Lindsey, Abroad Wife
Kotor, Montenegro is a hidden gem in the Balkans and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The medieval walled city is built of white stone and oozes with charm. The perfect place to wander and a photographer’s dream, Kotor is car-free, full of cafes, and inhabited by a friendly population of cats (the city’s mascots).
Notable must-sees within the city walls include Kotor Cathedral and the Maritime Museum. Above Kotor in the hills, you can hike up to St. John’s Fortress. From the old city walls, you will be rewarded with jaw-dropping views over the dramatic landscape of the Bay of Kotor and red-roofed Old City below. The black mountains seem to rise right out of the sea and make for truly stunning scenery.
While many people have been flocking to nearby Dubrovnik of late, Kotor is less inundated with people but is every bit as beautiful and interesting. Kotor is a more affordable alternative to Dubrovnik as well. It won’t be long before Montenegro is the new must-visit country in Europe, so 2020 is a great time to visit before everyone catches on to how wonderful Kotor is!
You can reach Kotor by flying directly into Tivat, which is less than 5km away. You can also fly into Podgorica or Dubrovnik and travel to Kotor by taxi or bus.
Where to stay: Historic Boutique Hotel Cattaro is a luxury property at an affordable price. It’s located in the heart of the Old Town and boasts a rooftop terrace for dining. The rooms are air-conditioned and the hotel can arrange an airport transfer.
Take a tour: Enjoy an active morning kayaking on the Bay and see Kotor Old Town from a different perspective.
Related: My epic Bay of Kotor road trip itinerary.
Alternative city breaks in Eastern Europe & the Caucasus
Recommended by Wendy, The Nomadic Vegan
On a continent plagued by over-tourism, Minsk is one of the least-visited capital cities in Europe and in many ways is the final frontier of European travel. Long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarusian political leaders still cling to the old ways, which has left the country largely closed off to the West. Things are opening up, though, and citizens of many Western countries can now visit without a visa if arriving by air. Now is the time to go, before this unique city gets ‘discovered’!
The old Soviet monuments and buildings certainly make for some interesting sightseeing, particularly when juxtaposed with more modern influences (like the huge Communist sculpture on top of the KFC). But Minsk also has a fresher, hipper side, best exemplified by the hipster area known as Vulica Kastryčnickaja. On this street, you’ll find lots of cool bars and cafes, and some breathtaking street art murals.
In summer, when the temperatures finally rise, the city comes to life with outdoor festivals, street parties and open-air cinemas. Minsk also has a great restaurant scene, with eateries that cater for all kinds of tastes and dietary needs.
Minsk National Airport is about 40km east of the city centre, with regular bus connections taking about one hour. The city also has direct train connections with Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Ukraine.
Where to stay: Europe Hotel is a great place to base yourself right in the heart of the city. Located inside a historic building, it has all the amenities you would expect from a 5-star hotel and very comfortable rooms.
Take a tour: Learn about Minsk’s Jewish history on this half-day tour of the Rakovskoe neighbourhood and Minsk synagogue.
Kutaisi, the largest city in Georgia’s western Imereti region, attracts a fair number of tourists thanks to its international airport that welcomes direct budget flights from Eastern and Western Europe. However, most people skip the city in favour of travelling straight to the capital, Tbilisi. Little do they realise that Kutaisi is a worthy city break destination in its own right.
Central Kutaisi is very small and easily explored on foot. There are a number of historical churches to see, as well as beautiful parks, a vibrant green market, and a cable car you can ride over the river for city views.
The real stand-out is Kutaisi’s food and wine scene. There are a dozen or so fantastic restaurants and cafes in town, with new openings every year. Just outside the city, wineries including the award-winning Baia’s Wine welcome visitors for tastings and sit-down supra feasts. From Kutaisi, you can easily access canyons, waterfalls and caves, or for something more offbeat, visit the old mining town of Chiatura, famous for its network of cable cars.
Where to stay: Kutaisi Hotel California is a comfortable family run guesthouse in the centre of town. Black Tomato is another popular option. It features hostel dorms and private rooms, and there’s an in-house wine bar.
Take a tour: Get acquainted with famous Georgian wine on a wine tour of Imereti region.
Like Kutaisi, Gyumri is well and truly an alternative city break destination. New budget flights to Armenia’s second-largest city have just been announced for 2020, promising to make Gyumri and northern Armenia more accessible for tourists.
Gyumri is still in the process of rebuilding after the devastating Spitak Earthquake lay waste to many of its historic buildings back in 1988. The two main Orthodox cathedrals off the central square still bare the scars of the tragedy. Meanwhile many of the iconic black and gold facades made from volcanic tuff stone that are characteristic of Gyumri have been pieced back together and now house boutique hotels or restaurants.
Seated on a hill above the city, the Russian-built Sev Berd (Black Fortress) is a stone fortification in the shape of a perfect circle. From the top, you get a clear view of the nearby Mother Armenia statue and a grand old Communist monument that harks back to Armenia’s days as a Soviet Republic.
In the city, you can visit house museums dedicated to some of the Gyumri’s most famous residents, including prolific artists the Aslamazyan sisters. Social enterprise cafe Aregak is one of many innovative social projects in the area helping Gyumri get back on its feet. Don’t miss the central market – one of the best in the Caucasus – where vendors trade stonefruit, fresh spices and ground coffee.
Two days is plenty of time to see Gyumri. From there, you can travel overland to Debed Canyon and Lake Sevan, or head straight to the capital, Yerevan. Direct marshrtuky vans connect Gyumri with the rest of the country and with Akhaltsikhe in neighbouring Georgia.
Where to stay: Set in a historic tuff stone building, Villa Kars is exquisitely decorated with period furniture and traditional Armenian textiles.
Alternative city breaks in Central Europe
Recommended by Claudia, My Adventures Across The World
There is little doubt that Brno is one of the best places to visit in the Czech Republic (Czechia). This is the second-largest city in the country, and a very beautiful one, with a great vibe and an incredible local feel that has gone missing in Prague. Despite all that, Brno still receives a limited number of tourists.
Brno is all about large boulevards and well-kept historical buildings. As the centre is closed to traffic, it’s very pleasant to walk around. One of the places you shouldn’t miss is the City Council building, which is the oldest building in Brno. It’s where the City Council used to be from the second half of the 13th century until 1935, when it moved to Dominikanska Square. Make sure to look for the Gothic portal of the City Council, and walk up the tower for a beautiful view of the square below, including Saint Peter and Paul’s Cathedral, a Romantic style basilica re-built in Gothic style.
The best place to visit in Brno is Villa Tugendhat. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001, this villa is not in the centre of town, but worth the effort of getting to. Commissioned by the Tugendhats, a Jewish couple who inherited the land where the villa is located in the 1930s, and designed by famous architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohes, the villa is a great example of Functionalism, with large windows and doors, airy rooms, and state-of-the-art (for that time, for sure!) infrastructure. The villa can only be visited on guided tours that have to be booked in advance.
Not far from the villa you can find Café Era, another Functionalism-style building where you can have a good meal, a slice of cake or a cup of hot tea on a cold winter day.
Where to stay: Best Western is one of the best places to stay in Brno. The facade may seem anonymous, but the rooms are very comfortable and cozy.
Take a tour: This quick 2-hour walking tour of Brno’s historic district is the perfect way to soak up the city’s history in a short period of time.
Recommended by Nadine, Le Long Weekend
The capital city of Slovakia is somewhat of an underdog compared to many other European capitals. But it’s not one to be overlooked!
An interesting and diverse history has left its mark on Bratislava, creating a unique atmosphere that would be hard to replicate elsewhere. The city has undergone many transformations, from serving as the former capital of Hungary, to being re-modelled under communist rule in Socialist Czechoslovakia, to finally reemerging as the vibrant city it is today.
Due to its modest size, it makes for the perfect weekend break destination – or even a side trip from Vienna. Spend time getting to know the old town, with its intriguing buildings and fortifications. Wander around the castle grounds, and treat yourself to dinner in the UFO tower to experience the best sunset views in town.
Work up an appetite exploring the ruins of Devin Castle before returning to town to indulge in the trendy eateries and delicious patisseries that line the streets. This is one alternative European city break destination where you won’t have to break the bank in order to eat out! Prices are still cheaper than most central-European cities, but the quality is definitely on par. Be sure to visit in 2020 before the masses find out about this hidden gem!
To get to Bratislava, fly direct to Bratislava Airport, or alternatively into Vienna Airport, which is only an hour away by train.
Where to stay: Stay at the Park Inn by Radisson Danube Bratislava, which is right in the heart of town and benefits from uninterrupted views of the Danube River.
Take a tour: Discover Bratislava by night. This evening walking tour concludes with drinks at the sky bar atop the famous UFO tower.
Related: Exploring Petrzalka, Bratislava’s most colourful, quirky neighbourhood.
Recommended by Or, My Path in the World
Poznan is a beautiful little city in western Poland. With cities like Warsaw and Gdansk getting more attention, it’s only a matter of time until Poznan will also be in the spotlight. That’s why 2020 is a perfect time to visit this underrated gem.
Poznan offers so many incredible things to do and see, and one of its biggest highlights is the Old Town. Apart from colourful, enchanting streets that you could happily spend hours strolling down, it’s also home to quite a few notable landmarks including the Old Town Hall, the Royal Castle, the unique Merchants’ Houses, and many museums.
Another great spot to visit is the Poznan Cathedral. Dating all the way back to the 10th century, it is the oldest cathedral in Poland.
Those searching for some natural scenery will surely appreciate the fact that Poznan’s parks and gardens cover more than 25 percent of the city. From the botanical gardens to the Citadel Park, there’s no shortage of green spaces to enjoy.
Equally, Poznan is an excellent place to enjoy hearty Polish food such as dumplings called pierogis, potato pancakes, soups and stews, as well as delicious sweet treats including Polish donuts and a local pastry called St. Martin’s croissant.
Poznan Airport is located close to the city and serviced by budget airlines including Wizz Air. You can also reach Poznan by train from other cities in Poland or from Berlin.
Where to stay: Located on a big shopping street only a few minutes’ walk away from the Old Town, Apartments Poznan Pólwiejska offers a spacious, clean and comfortable apartment.
Take a tour: For the best of both worlds, this walking tour combines city sight-seeing and a chance to sample Poznan’s incredible food and beer.
Recommended by Veronika, Travel Geekery
Olomouc may well be the best hidden gem in Czechia. The wonderful Baroque Old Town, the historical churches, the UNESCO-Listed Holy Trinity Column and the city’s own astronomical clock are the main draws for travellers who find their way to the 6th largest Czech city.
You’ll need at least a day for Olomouc, with 2 or 3 days being the sweet spot. The historical city centre is formed by the Upper Square and the Lower Square. The Upper Square Houses the second-most important astronomical clock in Czechia (after Prague’s). A series of baroque fountains built in the 17th and 18th centuries can be found scattered around the area. The city centre is enclosed by large parks. Just strolling around for hours and enjoying the lack of crowds (especially in contrast with Prague) is simply one of the best things to do.
Olomouc is famous for its special fermented cheese called Olomoucké tvarůžky (or Olomoucké syrečky), which you can either buy in a supermarket or taste in any local restaurant. There’s no shortage of stylish cafes in Olomouc either.
Olomouc is well connected by trains and buses from Europe. A train ride from Prague takes a little over 2 hours.
Where to stay: Miss Sophie’s, located just on the edge of Olomouc’s Old Town, is a wonderful boutique accommodation option. The stylish rooms are complemented by a lovely cafe on the ground floor.
Alternative city breaks in Western Europe & the Nordics
Recommended by Susanne, Adventures Around Scotland
Inverness is one of Scotland’s smaller cities, which makes it ideal for exploring if you only have a couple of days. With its own bus and train station, it is easy to reach by public transport from Edinburgh or Glasgow. Those travelling from London, Amsterdam, Dublin and major UK cities can fly direct to Inverness Airport. There is no need to hire a car as the compact city centre is very walkable.
Some of the popular attractions that can easily be visited on a short break include Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre, the Neolithic monuments of Clava Cairns, Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, and the Castle Viewpoint. For those wanting to explore Loch Ness, book a boat trip which includes a cruise on the loch and an excursion to the ruins of Urquhart Castle. Tour buses for the boat trips leave from the city centre, or if you have a car, you can drive to one of the cruise departure points.
Other worthwhile things to do in the city include a visit to Leakey’s Bookshop, which is like something out of Harry Potter. Take a dolphin spotting cruise or walk to the Ness Islands – a group of islands in the River Ness which have handily been connected by a series of pretty Victorian foot bridges. In the evening, head to Hootananny pub for some live music.
In 2020, you can visit one of the many local festivals including the Whisky and Gin Festival in April or the Inverness Highland Games in July.
Where to stay: Culloden House is a historic luxury hotel situated on 40 acres of grounds near to Inverness city centre. It was used by Bonnie Prince Charlie as his battle headquarters prior to the Battle of Culloden.
Take a tour: This full-day trip from Inverness visits Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle.
Recommended by Donna, Hues of Delahaye
Antwerp is one Europe’s best hidden gems – almost literally. This northern city is known as the diamond trade capital of Europe. But diamonds are not all Antwerp has to offer.
If you’re looking for a weekend getaway filled with beautiful architecture, rich history, trendy nightlife and top-notch shopping, then Antwerp should be at the head of the queue for alternative Europe city breaks in 2020.
In comparison to neighbouring cities such as Ghent, Bruges and Brussels, Antwerp is not yet a popular city break destination in Belgium. That means there are fewer crowds and no extortionate prices.
Visit the Grote Market, the square at the heart of the old centre. Get a 360-degree panoramic view of the city from the majestic MAS Museum. Visit the fourth most beautiful train station in the world, Antwerp Central Station (Antwerpen Centraal), and stroll through the tranquil gardens of the Plantin-Moretus Museum, the first museum in the world to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its unique art collection.
There are direct flights from London to Antwerp International Airport, or you can take the Eurostar from Brussels.
Where to stay: To enjoy your visit to Antwerp without hassle, stay at the centrally located Cabosse, Suites & Spa. A boutique hotel originally built in 1864, it features breathtaking decor, a bamboo spa, and a nature pool.
Take a tour: Sample what Antwerp has to offer in the way of beer, cheese, chocolate and frites on this 4-hour tasting tour.
Recommended by Albína, Ginger Around the Globe
Aarhus may be the second biggest city in Denmark, but it sees few international tourists. Without the crowds, Aarhus offers a very nice cultural experience of a traditional Nordic town.
Aarhus has some amazing architecture that is impossible to miss when walking downtown. The city is most famous for two museums – ARoS and Gamble By. Established in 1859, the ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum is a modern art institution and the second most visited museum in Denmark. Even though many people have never heard of it, you’ve surely heard of the famous artists whose canvases and sculptures it houses. What is perhaps most spectacular about this museum is the rainbow panorama on top of the building, a unique installation by Danish-Icelandic artist, Olafur Eliasson.
Another great museum to visit in Aarhus is Gamle By. Gamle By gives you a hint on how the city looked in the old days through historic displays from life in the 1800 until the 1970s.
Two days is the perfect amount of time to spend in Aarhus. The easiest way to get there is by train from Copenhagen, which takes about 3 hours. Aarhus also has its own very small airport, with direct Ryanair and easyJet flights from the UK and southern Europe.
Where to stay: BOOK1 Design Hostel offers accommodation for backpackers and middle-range travellers in ateliers finished in typical Scandinavian style.
Take a tour: Discover central Aarhus through the eyes of a local with this private, customisable city tour.
Which of these alternative European city breaks makes your list? Are you planning a city break for 2020? Let me know where you’re headed in the comments below.