If you want to explore Europe but you want to avoid throngs of tourists, then pick one of these underrated cities in Europe to enjoy some of Europe off-the-beaten-path.
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The Most Underrated Cities in Europe
Here are my favorite European underrated cities. For an in-depth overview of what makes an underrated city, check out this podcast episode of Rick Steves Over Brunch:
25. Santiago de Compostela, Spain
This Spanish city in Galicia is at the end of the Camino de Santiago, but most Camino pilgrims spend only a day or two here resting before moving on or heading home. However, the city is beautiful and interesting enough to give at least two-three days on its own, whether you come as part of a Camino or even just spending a few days in the city on its own.
You can visit the tomb of St. James in the city’s cathedral. If you have extra time, sit in the square in front of the cathedral and do some people-watching as the pilgrims pour into the city after completing their journeys. This is one of the most spiritual cities in Europe, and a must-see for anyone interested in religious tourism.
24. Heraklion, Crete, Greece
While Chania is gorgeous and Rethymnon is historic, I just adore Heraklion, Crete’s gritty capital. You can see a bit more of the real Crete, especially if you come in the off-season.
Most people who visit come just to visit the Palace of Knossos and then bounce to see other parts of the island. However, if you stay for a few days you can spend some time enjoying Crean cuisine, seeing the Venetian harbor, and exploring Lakkos, the city’s former red-light district turned modern street art paradise.
23. Pristina, Kosovo
The capital of Europe’s newest country, Pristina is underrated because, honestly, so many people don’t know it exists. Full of quirky architecture, beautiful mosques, and unexpected landmarks, Pristina is a great place to explore for three or four days.
Make sure to visit nearby Gracanica, a Serbian Orthodox monastery that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
22. Galway, Ireland
A great place to start a west coast Irish road trip, too many people fly into Shannon airport and then head straight out on their journey. However, you can easily enjoy two days in Galway soaking up the city before moving on to quieter villages and beautiful scenic drives.
Soak up some seventeenth-century architecture in Eyre Square, visit Galway Cathedral, and see the Gargoyles at Lync’sh Castle.
21. Odesa, Ukraine
This beautiful Black Sea city has gorgeous churches, fabulous nineteenth-century architecture, and a delightful waterfront. It’s also home to one of the most beautiful opera houses in Europe. Odesa gets overlooked too often by people who just want to see Kyiv and move on. Yet this city is a great place to relax on the sea for a few days. It also makes a great place from which to visit Transnistria in Moldova.
Some of my favorite things to do here include wandering through Prizov Market, walking Prymorskyi Boulevard, and seeing the Odesa Passage.
20. Krakow, Poland
While Krakow is definitely on the path for tourists coming to Poland, not enough people come to visit Poland! Krakow, the country’s medieval capital, is full of beautiful churches, a hilltop castle, and lovely city squares. Come for the pierogies, stay for the lovely cityscapes.
It’s also the place to stay to plan a somber day trip to Auschwitz, something that should be on more people’s agendas for cultural tourism and learning while traveling. You can also learn about Krakow during the war, including visiting Oscar Schindler’s factory and touring the Jewish neighborhood.
19. Nicosia, Cyprus
While Europeans flock to Cyprus for a fly-and-flop to enjoy the country’s fabulous beaches, the country’s capital of Nicosia often gets completely overlooked. Yet this city protected by its Venetian Walls deserves at least two days, though I stayed and explored for an entire month.
One of the world’s divided capitals, Nicosia is split into the Greek side and the Turkish side, which is locally referred to as Lefkosia. Simply the act of going from the south side fo the city to the north requires a passport and a currency exchange.
While some tourists might find this “exotic,” the UN buffer zone and divided nature of the country causes serious problems for locals, especially those living on the Turkish side of the border whose economic prospects are throttled, and who encounter racism when looking for jobs across the border.
While here, check out the gorgeous mosques on both sides fo the buffer, the beautiful Orthodox churches, and the beautiful Venetian architecture.
18. Zagreb, Croatia
Yes, everyone planning a trip to Croatia knows to see Dubrovnik and even Split, but the country’s inland capital should not be overlooked! Here you’ll find fantastic historic places to visit, gorgeous Instagram-worthy views, and a thriving museum scene.
The city is easy to reach from both Belgrade and Ljubljana, so if you plan on doing a larger trip make sure it’s on your Balkan itinerary.
17. Valletta, Malta
Most tourists in Malta know to hit up the Blue Lagoon and cross over on the ferry to Gozo, but don’t skip the fabulous city of Valletta. This island capital is home to the likely first set of Maltese balconies.
It also has beautiful viewing spots with double lighthouses, gorgeous Roman Catholic churches, and luscious gardens, making it a great place to come to take stunning Malta Instagram pics.
16. Bratislava, Slovakia
Often overlooked by tourists in favor of nearby Vienna and Budapest, this city on the Danube has gorgeous architecture, a lovely little Christmas market, and opportunities to explore Red tourism. The city’s past as both an Austro-Hungarian Outpost and a part of the Communist Block is evident in its skyline, which is an eclectic mix of eras ranging from its medieval castle above the city to its UFO-looking socialist bridge.
15. Sofia, Bulgaria
The city I’ve called home for the past three years, Sofia is a great city for anyone who wants to learn about ancient Roman history and twentieth-century Socialist history in one place. Standing in the largo, you can see the remains of ancient Roman houses, a Turkish mosque, a Bulgarian Orthodox church, and a Social Classicist complex all in one view.
14. Salzburg, Austria
Another city that gets overlooked too often for it’s older sister Vienna, Salzburg is more than just a dreamscape for Sound of Music enthusiasts. There are castles, cathedrals, and classical music history to explore here, along with a visit to the convent where Maria von Trapp served as a nun. If you come in winter, make sure to visit the charming Christmas market held in a few spots around the city.
While you can visit Salzburg from Vienna on a day trip, you can also come and enjoy the city for two or three days as well as exploring the surrounding Salzkammergut.
13. Brussels, Belgium
More than just the Grand Place or a stop for delicious chocolate on your way to Normandy, Brussels is a great destination in its own right. While beer lovers already know that it’s a must-see and breakfast enthusiasts have it on their bucket list for the decadent waffles, there truly is something here for everyone.
I was blown away by the caliber of the art museums. The Magritte Museum alone is worth at least three or four hours to contemplate the insanity and beauty of his artwork.
While many who do come here choose to spend just a day or two on their way to somewhere else, Brussels is a worthy destination in its own right.
12. Copenhagen, Denmark
It’s not that Copenhagen isn’t touristy, it’s that I don’t get how it can be so far down on people’s European bucket lists. More than the Little Mermaid and Nyhavn, Copenhagen is full of fabulous neighborhoods to explore, like Nørrebro which is full of great shopping and funky art galleries.
Christiania, the anarchist neighborhood where every day is Woodstock, might be one of the most interesting and singular places anywhere in Europe. And if you feel like you’ve seen everything Copenhagen has to offer (which, no, you haven’t) you can plan a day trip to Roskilde or Malmo in Sweden.
11. Novi Sad, Serbia
The capital of Serbia’s Vojvodina region, Novi Sad is the country’s second-largest city. Preparing to be the European Capital of Culture in 2021, the city has been completely revitalized, which colorful buildings receiving a bright coat of paint and worn down buildings being renovated.
You can visit as a day trip from Belgrade, or you can spend a weekend here exploring the city in-depth. The city also makes for a great year-round destination since there’s a lot here to do in winter or you can enjoy all there is to do in Novi Sad in the summer, including the popular Exit Festival in August.
10. Valencia, Spain
One of Spain’s magnificent coastal cities, it gets overlooked for Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, and Grenada. And while, I understand that, the truth is that Spain has way too many gorgeous cities to visit. You simply can’t just see Barcelona and call it a day.
Valencia is a great place to experience both historic and modern Spain. You can enjoy the city’s historic architecture at the Valencia Cathedral, the city’s old markets, and the La Lonja de la Seda, the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can also appreciate modern architecture at the City of Arts and Sciences and the L’Oceanogràfic.
9. Belfast, Northern Ireland
So many tourists overlook Northern Ireland for Ireland or come in just to see the Antrim Coast, the Dark Hedges, and Game of Thrones sites before moving on south. Yet Belfast is a really fun city with a young, hip vibe.
The capital of Northern Ireland, Belfast is a bit of a conundrum. You can see the tension in its dual heritage as an Irish and UK city everywhere, from its architecture to its cuisine to its street art.
You can learn all about it on a Black Cab Tour or city bus tour, learning about the period known as the Troubles and how they ended up being resolved. Modern politics have again brought out the tensions between the UK and Ireland, and the peace that was reached seems more tenuous than it has for the past two decades.
While here, go beyond history and explore what makes modern Belfast special, from the Titanic Museum to St. Georges Market.
8. Kyiv (Kiev), Ukraine
Kyiv is the charming capital of Ukraine, and it has had more than its fair share of tragedy to contend with over the past few decades. From what happened at Chernobyl to Maidan Square, you can come here and spend days just learning the history of the past thirty years, let alone go back to learn about the Kievan Rus.
The church architecture here is stunning. Saint-Sophia Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but there are at least five major churches that deserve to be visited while you’re in town.
You can come here and stay in Kyiv as a base for touring Chernobyl, but try to stay for at least three or four days to see more of the city.
7. Ljubljana, Slovenia
Slovenia gets a little left out. It’s often overlooked by tourists choosing to visit Croatia, Italy, or even Austria instead. Yet, the country does seem like it’s right out of a fairy tale. And if you’re planning a trip to Slovenia, you simply must spend some time in the city’s charming capital.
Part of why the city is such a dreamscape is because of the architectural works of Jože Plečnik, so make sure to visit as many of his buildings and projects as you can while you’re here.
6. Milan, Italy
Milan is one of the ten most visited cities in Europe, so how can it be one of Europe’s most underrated cities? Well, since it’s in the same country as Rome and Venice, Milan often gets overlooked in favor of other cities in Italy. The country simply has too many fabulous places to visit to pay them all the appropriate amount of respect due.
I prefer the businesslike and fashionable Milan to some of Italy’s more chaotic destinations to the south, and I like Milan a lot more than I like Venice.
5. Porto, Portugal
Portugal often gets overlooked by tourists heading to Spain, and for those who do select Portugal, Lisbon gets more attention than Porto. Yet it is Porto, with its colorful architecture splayed out across the Duoro River, which made me fall in love with the country.
Here you’ll find delicious Portuguese cuisine, cellars full of port wine, and beautiful tilework. You’ll also escape some of Lisbon’s crowds (and their accompanying pickpockets) since Porto is an easier and safer city to visit. It’s the perfect introduction to Portugal for anyone wanting to travel alone for the first time.
4. Reykjavik, Iceland
People love to visit Iceland, but way too many people come in and head straight into the country. Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, is a wonderful place to enjoy two or three days before heading out on the Ring Road. There are amazing museums, gorgeous photo spots, and a fabulous whale watching opportunities.
The city is also a great place to base yourself and explore the Golden Circle and South Coast from here. This is especially important if you’re visiting Iceland in the off-season. Starting in October, there will be closures and hazardous conditions that make Reykjavik the safest base.
3. Bordeaux, France
This amazing French wine city, Bordeaux was not considered the fabulously sophisticated city we know it as today. Rundown and smog-covered, the city was completely revitalized to turn it into the gorgeous European hidden gem we see today.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, tourists come here to learn all about the history of viticulture at the world-class Cité du Vin, the museum of wine that even includes a wine tasting at the end of your visit!
2. Dresden, Germany
Nicknamed the “Florence of the North” for its beauty, Dresden played a heartbreaking and pivotal role in World War II. As a result of the Allied campaign here, the city was nearly destroyed and almost all the buildings you see in the Altstadt were completely rebuilt starting in the 1990s. You can enjoy the city’s beauty across both sides of the Elbe River, with dozens of amazing Dresden photo spots to enjoy, and you can learn about its history on a Kurt Vonnegut Dresden tour.
You can learn about what life was like in Dresden Neustadt, where you can also enjoy original Baroque architecture since this part of the city escaped much of the war’s devastation.
While Dresden is popular with German tourists, not enough Americans, Brits, and Canadians come out to enjoy this fabulous city.
1. Belgrade, Serbia
One of the top cities in the Balkans, Belgrade is fun, fabulous, and surprisingly sophisticated. I’ve documented over a hundred amazing things to do in Belgrade, yet I know I could go back and discover even more great Belgrade activities.
Sitting on the border of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, Belgrade is an exciting mix of Turkish and Baroque architecture. Sitting at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, there are also dozens of great outdoor adventures to be had, as well as miles of river-front promenades to take advantage of. If there’s one city in Europe that gets short shrift, it’s this nearly-perfect urban escape.
While I’ve spent weeks here, start with this one-day Belgrade itinerary if you have a short time to see the city.
5 Things to Pack for Your Trip to Europe
A Lonely Planet guidebook for your trip. It can be hard to find big, international guidebooks once you land (or they’ll be way overpriced). Get yours ahead of time, either a hard copy or on a Kindle.
An Unlocked Cell Phone so that you can use local sim cards while here to help navigate public transportation and when you’re on the road.
Backup Charging Bank for your cell phone since you’ll be using it as a camera, GPS, and general travel genie.
A Great Day Bag so you can carry what you need with you (like your camera, snacks, water, sunscreen, cash, etc). My current favorite is the Pacsafe Citysafe, which is especially great for cities because it has many anti-theft features designed to deter pickpockets. It also transitions to a night bag more easily and won’t embarrass you if you go to dinner directly after sightseeing all day.
More European Travel Resources
If you’re headed to Europe, check out my podcast, Rick Steves Over Brunch. We review episodes of the Rick Steves’ Europe tv show and throw in our own travel tips. We’ve covered quite a bit of Europe!
For country-specific information, check out my country pages. You can find them here.
Don’t Forget About Travel Insurance!
Before you leave for Europe make sure you have a valid Travel Insurance Policy because accidents happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’ll be hanging enjoying time in big cities where travelers can attract pickpockets.
I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for three years, and I happily recommend them. If you get sick, injured, or have your stuff stolen, you’ll be happy to have the ability to pay for your medical bills or replace what’s stolen or broken.