Pack Your Bags: You Don’t Want to Miss the 10 Most Underrated Cities in Europe
We already know about the allure of Dublin and Rome, but what about Rotterdam or Cardiff? If, in the immortal words of Humphrey Bogart, we’ll always have Paris, and, in the equally eternal reassurances of Billy Joel, Vienna waits for you, then what’s the rush to return to a city you already know? For urban travelers looking to experience the road less (well) traveled, there’s no shortage of destinations throughout Europe to satisfy your adventurous spirit. Why not book a trip to a city that’s still under the radar enough to provide a unique cultural experience? From Eastern Europe’s best-kept secret to Amsterdam’s lesser-known (and equally delightful) sister city in the Netherlands, here are the most underrated European cities to visit this year.
1. Zurich, Switzerland: Zurich is a blend between hipster-paradise Budapest and glacially elegant Vienna, with a dash of punk rock Prague thrown in for good measure. There’s no shortage of sophisticated options for the luxury-seeking traveler: With its historic architecture and impeccable collection of modern art, the Widder Hotel perfectly embodies the elegant yet understated aesthetic of the country itself. (Grab a cocktail at the uber-trendy Widder Garage before heading out for a night on the town.) Other five-star options include the Dolder Grand, the iconic hotel that once hosted Winston Churchill and offers guests a selection of BMWs to choose from during their stay, and the and the Park Hyatt Zurich, which boasts a world-class art collection.
2. Reykjavik, Iceland: The Icelandic capital may be the diminutive in size (it would qualify the city as a mere village in Berlin, as one local said), but it packs in some of the world’s best. The Blue Lagoon is a mere 12 miles away from the city, and the Retreat at Blue Lagoon is — without question — the most restorative retreat on the planet. The luxurious lava suites downright encourage lazing in bed all day, but you never feel lazy — the view is right out your balcony, after all. When you do head out for dinner, check out Moss Restaurant, ideal for an elegant evening in. And there’s tremendous countryside all around you in which to escape and explore. Think: ATV rides through the volcanoes and lava fields of ReykJanes Geopark with 4×4 Adventures Iceland, or helicopter tours via HELO Helicopter Service above majestic waterfalls (and yes, quite often rainbows, as well). In Reykjavik proper, there is no shortage of excursions to indulge in, day or night. (Literally: Bars have been known to really pick up around 1 or 2 am.) Thanks in no small part to the presence of the Northern Lights in the winter and the Midnight Sun come summertime, this Nordic city is #lit. Skol!
3. Helsinki, Finland: Enjoy a decadent stay in the Atelijer Suite at the Hotel St. George in the city’s capital and make the most of your transatlantic flight by staying in the country a little bit longer to experience the Finnish Lapland, also known as the real-life North Pole. Head north of the Arctic Circle and book a room at the Arctic Ice Hotel, where you can spend your days snowshoeing, visiting reindeer farms, and embarking on husky safaris. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights — the chances are certainly higher when sleeping in a glass igloo at the Arctic SnowHotel. A few days luxuriating in the country’s urban capital and its much-celebrated Arctic wilderness is surely enough for you to understand why Finland is consistently ranked the happiest country on earth. Since the pursuit of happiness is literally a tenet upon which America was founded, it would be unpatriotic of you not to scope out the overseas competition. Cheers! Or, shall we say: Kippis!
4. Lausanne, Switzerland: Up next, we’re letting you in on a major European secret. Lausanne is a total hidden gem overlooking Lake Geneva. Lacking the name recognition of its immensely international neighboring city of Geneva (more on this destination later) and lesser-known than Italian-speaking city of Lugano or the medieval enchantments of Lucerne, nonetheless, this gorgeous city can’t be beat for Swiss bliss. Surrounded by the majestic Alps, a gorgeous blue lake, and a heavenly wine region, it’s not an exaggeration to say that witnessing Lausanne for the first time feels like walking into a fairy tale — especially when you encounter the flock of swans loitering beside the harbor of Lake Geneva. Whether traveling with friends or almost lovers, there’s no denying the opulent romance of the city’s storied hotels — or should we say “palaces.” Lausanne Palace and the Beau-Rivage Palace offer an Old World hospitality that favors courteous kindness. In fact, this city may look like an aristocratic fever dream, but its energy is decidedly more hip: It’s home to throngs of young people thanks to the universities and the livability of the city. Unsurprisingly, considering we think of this city as the best of the best, Lausanne is also the home of the Olympic Museum. We suggest a visit to the museum en route to a sunset cruise on Lake Geneva. You may not see London across the water, but you will most definitely see France. C’est la vie, indeed.
5. Budapest, Hungary: While our love of Budapest is well-known, our favorite city in Europe has yet to be fully discovered by the rest of the world. This is lucky for travelers visiting, as Budapest is exceedingly affordable, with an even more winning blend of nightlife and culture. Visit soon, however, as it’s only a matter of time until Budapest becomes more well-known (read: expensive). Though the Brits are more than aware of the Hungarian capital’s many charms —Budapest is a popular destination for bachelor and bachelorette parties — most Americans have yet to indulge in a rosé day party at opulent bathhouse the Szechenyi Spa Baths or a night out at a “ruin bar” in the Jewish Quarter. (Ruin bars, for the uninitiated, are indoor/outdoor nightlife institutions housed in the once-dilapidated buildings of the Jewish Quarter, which had been evacuated during the Holocaust and neglected under Communism.) The once-abandoned neighborhood has experienced a renaissance in recent years as young Hungarian entrepreneurs transformed these decimated spaces into a can’t-miss spectacle of the spectacular and the strange. These whimsical spots inspire just the right amount of hedonism in its patrons. Think: Arcades, string lights, leather armchairs from the 1930s. Better yet, just envision the set of a Wes Anderson film. Ruin bars are a living, (drinking), embodiment of that popular hashtag #AccidentallyWesAnderson. Other places that resemble — perhaps not quite so accidentally — The Grand Budapest Hotel? Check out Gresham Palace (Lausanne doesn’t have the exclusive on palaces), or the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus Budapest. For a more affordable option, we recommend Anna Hotel Budapest, which has outposts in and around the city. Speaking of budget-friendly (not to mention grand), the Budapest train station is gorgeous, and we recommend booking a Eurail pass to arrive in style. (Splurge on first class: it’s minimally more expensive and maximally comfortable). Plus, that way you can check out multiple cities on our list. Why settle for one extraordinary European experience when you can make it a Grand Tour? Szia there.
6. Rotterdam, Holland: Visiting Holland and only stopping by Amsterdam is the equivalent of visiting America, but only staying in New York City. This year, head to Rotterdam to experience the colorful architecture, historic museums, and lively culinary scene that make this city a must. Book a room (or at least head to dinner) at Bazar, and pretend you’re in Istanbul: it offers an intoxicating array of Middle Eastern and North African dishes, as well as outdoor lanterns and string lights to rival the best ruin bars. For the ultimate Instagram-worthy cityscape, check out the iconic architecture on display at the Overblaak Development. Explore the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, and pay special attention to one Dutch Master in particular: Rembrandt. 2019 is the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death and there are exhibits nationwide commemorating his legacy. (Did you know he invented the selfie?) In fact, from his subject matter to his lifestyle, we’d argue there’s no artist more thoroughly modern. The painter was infamous for spending all the money he made and promising love interests he would marry them, only to never go through with it. Dutch masters: They’re just like us.
7. Bern, Switzerland: Though Bern is the capital of Switzerland and has a storied history (the Old Town of Bern is a UNESCO World Heritage Site), it remains criminally underrated for tourism. Which is all the better for us, as we’d rather enjoy our sidewalk cafes and schnitzels without the throngs of selfie-taking tourists. Bern is another place that feels a bit like a fairytale — there are bears residing in the middle of the city, at BärenPark. You will find watchtowers and bear motifs and symbols all over the city, the red Swiss flags complementing the endless flowers to create a quintessentially Swiss atmosphere. If you want to live like Audrey Hepburn, book a room at the Schweizerhof Hotel & Spa, a grand institution in walking distance from the train station that once hosted the My Fair Lady star for dances in their legendary ballroom. The Schweizerhof remains popular with contemporary celebs: the hotel’s restaurant, Jack’s Brasserie, is a favorite of homegrown legend Roger Federer.
8. Cardiff, Wales: The medieval city of Cardiff is our next under-the-radar European getaway. In our opinion, Wales is the most underrated country in all of the United Kingdom. Scotland has Outlander and Highland castles, Ireland has James Joyce and Guinness, and England has Meghan Markle. But while the Welsh countryside has the greenery and lushness to rival their neighbors, Wales is decidedly more laid-back. Explore the Secret Garden in Butte Park and walk along the River Taff, or check out a rugby or cricket game at a local pub. Visit Cardiff Castle and head out to the royal port of Caernarfon Caerphilly Castle, which is nearby and boasts a moat and a tower that is precisely how you imagine a castle should be built.
9. Porto, Portugal: Porto may not be at the top of every traveler’s list yet, but we can guarantee this will change in the next few years, or even the next six months. Why is that? Well, aside from the fact that Portugal has become undeniably popular with travel writers and enthusiasts alike, it’s nearly impossible to resist the city of Porto once you stumble upon its riverside charm. With its red-roofed houses and vertical city sidewalks winding down to the Duoro River, Porto is a mixture between Dubrovnik (the color scheme), Monaco (steep roads. Don’t pack heels for this trip, trust us), and Dublin (where, famously, a river also runs through it). The city has an allure all its own, however. From the city’s storied history to its lively culinary scene (which errs on the side of traditional — don’t be surprised if your seafood dinner makes eye contact), there’s no shortage of diverting activities in this Portuguese getaway. Our favorite? Port wine tasting, of course. If you think a day out on the vineyards of the North Fork or Napa Valley is indulgent, then you will be delighted to learn that a day of tasting port wine (AKA dessert wine), is even more, ahem, intoxicating. Be transported into the past as you learn history lessons while you’re busy tasting the wines — we recommend a tour of Sandeman, an iconic Portuguese brand. And we can’t stress enough to visit soon. Travelers to Lisbon have been known to change their itineraries last-minute to spend more time in the city up north. So visit now to earn eternal bragging rights amongst all your friends.
10. Geneva, Switzerland: For our final European city, we’re bringing it back to where it all began: Switzerland. Though this achingly sophisticated Swiss city is known for its financiers, we’ve always preferred its other two major exports: wine and chocolate. The neighboring destination to Lausanne is just as charming as the Olympic City, though far more cosmopolitan. The Beau Rivage Geneva is a spectacular bet for those who want the best in urban elegance. The view of the lake outside your balcony is enough to make the possessor of even the most millennial of millennial bank accounts feel like royalty. The fountains and swans and old-style boats make this body of water a literal candidate for redefining the term Swan Lake. Speaking of Lake Geneva, it also offers a two-for-one deal for country-counters on vacation: Book a cruise on the lake and head to France for dinner, returning to Geneva in time for a nightcap (or three) before the evening’s out. Mais oui, France is just across the lake, and this region is also known for wine. So, round up your friends — or head there alone — Switzerland is also exceedingly safe for solo travel, and everyone (everywhere) in the country speaks English. In fact, there is no singular national language, as the country is comprised of distinct regions which speak either French, Italian, or Swiss German. This national identity speaks to why Switzerland is home to so many unique cultures, despite being a relatively tiny country — it embodies so many elements of the larger continent within its borders. If you’re interested in visiting more than one city, you’re in luck: The Swiss Travel Pass allows you to travel by train, by bus, or by boat, not to mention by cable car or chairlift. We recommend the Glacier Express, however: There’s no better way to travel than with a wine and cheese lunch, looking out the window and up through the glass ceiling as you traverse through Alpine tunnels. Have we triggered your wanderlust yet?
(Photos via Getty)
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