Travel is all about discovering new things and embracing the unexpected. So instead of ticking off the classic tourist spots – magnificent as they are – why not sample some of Europe’s oft-overlooked, but nonetheless fabulous, cities? Here’s our pick of the most banging alternative breaks…
Instead of Paris, try Nice
Sure, the City of Lights is consistently rated among the most cultured and romantic destinations on earth. But does it have a beach? Non, mes amis. Nice's blessed setting on the Côte d'Azur means you’re never far from the twinkling Med, and a truly world-class people-watching sitch on the more boujee stretches of Promenade des Anglais. Paris has history, alright, but Nice has been a tourist hotspot since the 1700s. You like galleries? No fewer than three bobby dazzlers – Musées Matisse, Chagall and d’Art Moderne – are on hand for all your chin scratching needs, a legacy of the uncannily pretty light that’s long attracted the likes of Renoir to set up their easels here. All that plus a strong street food scene – get your lips around some tourte de blettes (chard, raisin and pine nut pie) – and sexy Italianate flavours to the architecture… well, the clue is basically in the name.
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Instead of Barcelona, try Malaga
For starters, Malaga is loads smaller than Barcelona. This means it’s really very walkable, so you needn’t rely on public transport. Just as well, as it’s balmier than Barca. Also, as the proud home of one P. Picasso, it’s got art in spades, not least around its nascent edgy bohemian enclave of Soho, and the easy-on-the-eye multicolour cube of the Pompidou Centre right there on the Costa del Sol waterfront. Really though it’s about the food – Michelin-starred splendour to uncannily tasty beach BBQs, via noisy elbow-jostling tapas joints like the Mercado Central de Atarazanas. History is etched into the very skyline in the shape of the Alcazaba and Gilfarbaro citadels – which is a roundabout way of saying Malaga is really quite Moorish.
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Instead of Rome, try Naples
All roads lead to Rome, as the old saying goes. So why not take the one less travelled and check out Italy’s sultry southern side? The main ace up Naples’ exquisitely-tailored sleeve is of course the blue Tyrrhenian sea, and lush beaches like Spiaggia della Gaiola –also, as it happens, a nature reserve. Into pizza? Naples is literally where it all started, ever since chef Raffaele Esposito created a tricolour baked dish of red tomato, white mozzarella and green basil to celebrate the 1889 visit of (wait for it) Queen Margherita. The lively, demonstrative Neapolitan character makes for a memorable night out on the tiles around Spaccanapoli. The Archaeological Museum is world-class. And you’re a short hop from Pompeii. Basically, it’s all popping off.
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Instead of Dubrovnik, try Pula
There’s no denying Dubrovnik is top-tier gorgeous. But if you’d prefer to give those hordes of Game of Thrones nerds the slip, do yourself a favour and check out the lesser-visited sunny Croatian beauty spot that is Pula. A Mediterranean port of vast military and commercial significance since ancient times, Pula’s rich culture is astonishingly well preserved. Most particularly in its Roman amphitheatre, smack bang in the middle of town, which dominates the skyline and still serves as a venue for summer concerts and festivals. So intact is this beauty, you can mooch along the old Gladiator corridors. Proper history, without a nyphoney dragons or tour guides in cheesy polyester cloaks.
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Instead of Athens, try Thessaloniki
Greece’s capital naturally makes a lot of noise, but quieter Thessaloniki still has plenty to say for itself. Waves of immigration over the centuries – Turkish, Roman, Byzantine, Jewish, and French – have left behind a richly diverse food scene, from simple street fare like bougatsa (flaky filo pastry, warm custard filling, topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar) to smart contemporary fine dining spots around revitalised Valaoritou Street. Where, incidentally, you’re never far from a prime cocktail spot. Culture-wise you’ll also be sated, from high culture at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, to mind-blowing ancient mosaics at The Museum of Byzantine culture. There’s even wildlife, just outside, at Axios Delta National Park with flamingos, wild horses and water buffalo. Or if you’d rather stay put, a knockout Aegean promenade.
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Instead of Lisbon, try Porto
The sheer walkability of Porto – give or take the odd strenuous hill climb – is a huge plus over sprawling Lisbon. The very layout of Portugal’s second city also has plenty to recommend it, perched prettily in a valley bisected by the handsome Douro and traversed by the totes photogenic Dom Luis I Bridge, designed by 19th-century metal-wrangler Gustave Eiffel (yep, same guy). It’s a student town too, which means great bars – shout out to fun, alternative Plano B – and brilliant bookshops for that matter, not least Livraria Lello which supposedly inspired JK Rowling to write Harry Potter when she lived here back in the day. You’re also at the gateway to wine country, and the proud historic port lodges like Taylor's and Graham’s. Well worth a cheeky snifter.
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Instead of Berlin, try Munich
Berlin is cool as hell, no sense disputing that point. Munich is definitely better-looking though, and cleaner, with loads more in the way of historic buildings – thanks to the fact it wasn’t basically flattened in the mid-20th century. Alright, Berlin has lovely Museum Island. But Munich’s museum quarter is loads bigger with 18 museums and over 40 galleries. And while Berlin is a happy, young, affordable mishmash of international youth culture, Munich is perhaps closer in vibe to ‘real’ Germany, with its beer halls, fairytale castles like Neuschwanstein in the surrounding bucolic countryside, and obviously the annual Oktoberfest party. Not that Munich is wholly devoid of eccentrics – check out the mad surfers hanging ten on artificial waves at the concreted stretch of the Eisbach river, just by the English gardens. Talk about a quirky break.
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