There’s no denying the appeal of Europe’s most famous cities. Yet the popularity of Venice, Barcelona and Dubrovnik, to name just a few, has also been a thorn in their side.
In summer hordes of tourists descend en masse to tick off their must-sees, killing much of the authentic charm in the process. But all is not lost: beyond the crowded capitals you’ll find a host of smaller cities waiting in the wings.
If you’re looking for inspiration, here are our picks for the most charming cities in Europe.
Matera sits just above the heel of Italy. Once the city’s sassi, or cave dwellings, were left to fall into disrepair through decades of neglect. Today it’s a whole other story. This charmer of a city was chosen as one of the 2019 European capitals of culture and is one of the most underrated places in Italy.
An extensive program of restoration and regeneration has breathed new life into the place, with a glut of cafés, boutiques and museums the result.
Tórshavn, Faroe Islands
Iceland’s popularity has grown in leaps and bounds over the past decade, but now it’s the turn of its Nordic neighbour. The Faroese capital is quaint and colourful. Fishing boats land their daily catch in front of a quayside packed with cute cafés.
Nearby it’s easy to locate the distinctive red buildings of Tinganes, which comprise one of the world’s oldest parliaments. Stick around to explore Tórshavn’s charming old town, whose cobbled alleyways unlock a labyrinth of traditional wooden cottages with turf roofs.
To the east in Romania, UNESCO-recognised Sighişoara is a highlight of Transylvania with winding cobbled streets lined with mediaeval merchant houses and a 12th century fortress to explore.
Its most famous resident was none other than Vlad Ţepeş, also known as Vlad the Impaler. He was born in 1431 in Vlad Dracul House, which you’ll find in Citadel Square, a stone’s throw from the Clock Tower.
If you thought a visit to the German city of Köln was all about the Christmas markets, you’d be wrong. The Rhine buzzes with life during the summer, its parks and gardens the host for countless street entertainers.
Take a boat trip, taste the produce at the city’s Chocolate Museum and explore the grand Dom, which is the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe and Germany’s most visited tourist attraction.
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
The world held its breath in the early 1990s as the former Yugoslavia tore itself apart. The ancient city of Mostar was one of the more high-profile casualties and still bears the scars of that conflict. Its most famous landmark, Stari Most, was built by the Ottomans to span the River Neretva.
Now rebuilt, it’s the focal point of a delightful old town which is blessed with many pavement cafés and irresistible boutiques.
The Swedish capital is as beautiful in winter under a dusting of snow as it is when the wildflowers bloom on its islands in the heart of summer.
Explore the Skansen Open Air Museum with its centuries-old wooden architecture or hop on a ferry for a stroll in the tranquil Feather Islands.
The city’s Vasamuseet explores its fascinating maritime history while the interactive ABBA Museum ramps up the fun quotient.
Delft, The Netherlands
You might not be familiar with Delft, but you may well have seen its distinctive blue and white pottery, known as Delftware.
Under an hour from Amsterdam, the city is the birthplace of celebrated Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, best known for his painting “The girl with the Pearl Earring”, on show in the city’s Vermeer Centrum.
This ancient city with its warren of cobbled streets is perfect for wandering or idly drinking coffee in an outdoor cafe. Visit the Palais des Papes, once home to the Pope, which stages a dazzling sound and light show throughout the summer.
Don’t forget the ruined bridge, made famous by the children’s song “Sur le pont d’Avignon”. The bridge to which it refers is the Pont St-Bénezet, completed in 1185.
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Salzburg has it all – a wealth of history and culture, close to pretty lakes and snow-capped mountains. The big money-spinners are Mozart and the Sound of Music, but even if you’re no fan of either, you can’t fail to be enchanted by the place.
Explore on foot, by bicycle or by Segway. Tick off centrally located sights such as the Baroque cathedral, Mozart’s birthplace on the Getreidegasse and the hilltop 11th century fortress, but don’t miss the trick fountains of Hellbrunn in the city’s suburbs before you leave.
You’ll find historic Cáceres halfway between Madrid and Seville but without the crowds of either. Like its neighbours Merida and Trujillo, it has bags of character.
Walk until your muscles scream through the cobbled streets of its UNESCO-listed Ciudad Monumental, which boast countless fortified mansions, palaces and mediaeval churches.
Afterwards, opt for a restorative massage or dip in the thermally heated waters of the atmospheric Baños Arabes El Aljibe.
The Ukrainian capital doesn’t register on most people’s radar when it comes to European city breaks. Travellers to this overlooked gem should make a beeline for the UNESCO-listed St Sophia Cathedral and the Kiev Cave Monastery complex found alongside it.
Rivalling these is the exquisite china blue St Michael’s Monastery whose golden domes glitter in the sunshine and the opulent exteriors of the riverside 18th century Mariyinsky Palace, now home to the country’s president.
Spring is the perfect time to visit the delightful Belgian city of Bruges. Take a cruise along its many canals, climb the steps of the Belfry for views of the city under blue skies or clip clop over the cobbles in one of its horse-drawn carriages.
Foodies are well catered for, and we don’t just mean chocolate: though you’ll have to brave the summer crowds for mussel season, there’s no bad time to eat frites with mayonnaise from a Bruges street cart.
No matter which time of year you plan to visit, there are so many charming cities scattered across Europe that you’ll return again and again. Which will your favorite be?
About the Author: Julia Hammond
Enthusiastic advocate for independent travel and passionate geographer, travel writer Julia considers herself privileged to earn a living doing something she loves. When not roaming the globe, you’ll find her windswept but smiling, chatting away to her two dogs as they wander the Essex marshes.