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Updated: 4th August 2023
There’s no denying that Europe’s most famed and visited spots became so for good reason. Venice, Paris, Barcelona and London all laud over some of the continent’s best attractions, cuisine and culture. Sadly, this can often lead us to overlook some of the more underrated cities in Europe. Instead, we return to old favourites or plump for a crowd-stamped pleaser.
Luckily, the days when reaching lesser-visited cities in Europe was a chore are (mostly) long gone. High-speed rail connections, FlixBus, and regional airports have brought us closer to many smaller cities and underrated destinations. Each of these spots shares its own story, personality – and perhaps even some secrets still.
Whether you’re seeking a sustainable city break, a history-steeped weekend, or a cultural deep-dive, these are some of the most underrated European cities.
Byzantine mosaics, UNESCO monuments aplenty, and Romagna’s exceptional cuisine
Let’s face it; if you’re an Italian city, it’s hard to become the cream of the crop. Venice, Rome, Florence, Milan and Naples all lure travellers in, and that’s before you consider the provincial capitals and Italy’s hidden gems.
But Ravenna, situated in Emilia-Romagna, is one of the country’s true unsung stars and somehow remains one of Europe’s underrated cities. Once the capital of the Western Roman Empire, the city brags some of the best preserved Byzantine mosaics in the world – and these aren’t your everyday earthy pastel-toned tiled art that you would typically associate with the Roman era; rather colourful blue, greens and golds have been used to decorate anything from Basillica ceilings to church walls.
When I first visited Ravenna, I made the mistake of coming on a day trip from Bologna, but having returned a handful of times since, I can promise you there’s much more to appreciate here than an afternoon will offer.
With a clutch of eight monuments forming the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, history and art buffs will be blown away by the highlights: the Basilica di San Vitale’s incredible tiled ceiling; the 5th-century chapel next door, which shines just as bright; and the various churches adorned with detailed mosaics. In the Basilica of San Francesco, historic mosaics can even be seen in the crypt, now underwater, complete with fish.
How to spend a weekend in Ravenna
It’s not all old-world, though, with the modern Mosaic museum hosting the most extensive collection of contemporary designs worldwide. Foodies are equally spoilt with all the delicious dishes Emilia-Romagna is known for. On a hot summer’s day, you’ve also got easy access to the Adriatic coast – ideal for enjoying some lazy days on the Emilia Romagna Riviera.
An architectural medley, cuisine you need to know about, and an eclectic underground energy
Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, remains one of the most underrated European cities. Yet, a growing appetite for the county’s best-of-the-best cuisine is starting to draw in the crowds.
As one of Europe’s oldest capitals, the city’s history is both fascinating and, at times, challenging. Dating back to the 5th century AD, various conquerors, religions and civilisations have passed through the valley. The Persians and Russian Empire, in particular, left their mark, leading to an intriguing mix of architectural styles.
But, nowadays, Georgia is forging its own path. With a strong will to join the EU, and a growing focus on a more progressive society, the city is a hubbub of activity. Whether you’re admiring the tile work – and bathing – in the aged sulphur baths, marvelling at Eastern Orthodox cathedrals, gawking at hulking Soviet-era monuments, or strolling over futuristic river-crossing bridges, the various styles and time periods draw you in.
Then there’s the nightlife, some of the best and underrated in the world. Wine bars start in the evening. Tucked-away speakeasies serving up cocktails get you going. Then, in the depths of night, thumping and progressive underground electronic clubs lure you in. So much so, if you ask a hardcore electronic music fan, they would scoff at calling this one of the most underrated cities in Europe.
Europe hidden gems
Of course, you can’t mention Tbilisi without including the food and wine in the same breath. Home to the oldest winemaking region in the world, Georgia’s vines have been crafting the good stuff for around 8,000 years. The food, from twisted-dough Khinkali dumplings to the cheese-stuffed Khachapuri bread, are laden high on the table, contributing to dining being a social affair. Beyond the country’s capital, more underrated places await. In particular, the magnificent mountain ranges, rich wine history, and all that delicious food.
Scorching summers, a trio of World Heritage Sites, and the Andalusian table of delights
As the city with the highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the continent – at least until recently – can Cordoba really be considered one of the underrated cities in Europe?
I’d argue yes. The evidence is the sheer number of best cities to visit in Spain. This leads Cordoba to be far down most travellers lists, often trailing below the likes of Barcelona, Seville, Granada and even Madrid.
But, for those that do head here, you’ll be rewarded with a time capsule or cross-religious architecture that’s hard to rival. With three UNESCO designations – it was four until two got folded together – a journey of imaginative design awaits.
Firstly, there is the Mosque-Cathedral. Constructed in the mid-8th century as a mosque, it was spared the fate of many Islamic buildings in Spain. Instead, the mosque was converted into a cathedral in the 13th century. This has created one of the world’s most unique houses of worship. Secondly, on the city limits is the Caliphate City of Medina Azahara. An impressive archaeological site, here you’ll find the remains of a nearly-forgotten city dating back to the Umayyad times.
Best cities in Spain
Lastly, there is the Festival of the Patios, a spring event which sees families open their private courtyards. These flower-filled gardens are a heritage of the city, proudly shared by their owners. Throw in the perfect spring and autumn sunny days (skip the height of summer, it’s unrelenting), the delicious salmorejo (a cold soup) and the fiery passion that’s present across Andalusia, and you’re already falling in love with this underrated European city, even if it’s not quite a Spain hidden gem.
Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Old Bazaar, sand-heated coffee, a dark history, and an array of Religious architecture
Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of my favourite hidden gems in Europe and one of the most underrated European countries. And, while it may seem strange to describe a whole nation that way, it does remain one of the least visited destinations on the continent.
This might be hard to believe, given how much attention Mostar – and in particular, the Ottoman bridge receives. However, much of this comes from cruise passengers and day trippers from Dubrovnik.
In the country’s capital, Sarajevo, visitor numbers are much lower. To me, it’s criminal, given the city is one of Europe’s most fascinating. Sure, it might not have the instant photogenic appeal that Mostar has – although the mountainous backdrop stands its own – but, instead, it’s a city with a considerable soul.
Founded by the Ottoman Empire and now furnished with a medley of Austro-European architecture, this is one of the few places in the world where you’ll see mosques, synagogues and churches standing so close together. That’s not to say the city has always been in harmony, though – critical historic moments have taken place here. The assassination that triggered World War I and the formation of Yugoslavia, and the Siege of Sarajevo, are two of the most famed.
While this is, in some instances, relatively recent history, I’m still often asked if it’s safe to travel to Sarajevo. Nowadays, with its candidate membership for the EU firmly on the table in 2023 and religious divides mellowing, if not disappearing, I find it as safe a place as any and one of the most rewarding underrated cities in Europe to visit.
It’s also just fascinating, intriguing and inviting. Whether you’re sipping a sand-heated Bosnian coffee in small tea houses, sinking beers in a wooden-clad bar hall, shopping at the Old Bazaar, admiring the incredible Town Hall, or studying those history-defining bullet holes embedded in the wall, Sarajevo is a city that will take you on a journey of senses.
Why visit Bosnia & Herzegovina
I’d highly recommend spending a few days here to take it all in. A visit to the Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide Museum alone will need time before to visit and process. For the city as a whole, a guide for the history can be handy, and I’d highly recommend Nedzmina, who you can connect with on Instagram.
Baroque and Rococo architecture, riverfront strolls, and creative gastronomy
Dresden, the capital city of Germany’s Saxony region, is a surprisingly underrated European city, given its importance in history.
Compact enough to explore on foot, the Baroque and Rococo architectural gems that dot the historic core are easy to explore. Highlights include the Dresden Frauenkirche, a soaring Lutheran church topped with a magnificent dome, and Zwinger, an opulent palace complex.
While much of the city was extensively damaged in WWII, extensive restoration efforts have restored Dresden to its former glory. Saxony is known as the ‘State of the Arts’, so museums, galleries, and creative restaurants are in no supply.
While it’s a great city break any time of year, a visit during late November or December is a chilly but festive treat. Thanks to the 11 different Dresden Christmas markets across the city, this is also one of the best winter destinations in Europe.
Dresden city guide
Beyond the city limits, there are plenty of spots ripe for day trips. The Bastei rock formations in the Saxon Switzerland National Park (close to the Czech Republic’s border) are jaw-dropping. Vineyards along the Elbe river provide a calm outing. Further still, the industrial-turned-funky city of Leipzig will keep you entertained. In fact, many of the best places to visit in Saxony, Germany are underrated destinations.
One of Europe’s largest – and prettiest – historical centres, WWII and Solidarity history, and decent-priced nightlife
Given Gdansk’s crucial historic role, it’s a surprise it remains one of the more underrated European cities. Moments from the Baltic Sea, Gdansk can easily be combined with beachside Sopot for a city-cum-beach getaway. Though, the waters never get too warm this far north.
In the city itself – extensively damaged in the last years of WWII – you’ll find one of Europe’s largest historical centres. Restored with detail aplenty, the Dutch-influenced architecture gives it an air of Amsterdam.
From one of the largest brick churches in the world – it has space for 25,000 people – to a series of eye-catching entrance gates built into what would have been the Old Town walls, cobbled streets, and pretty corners will guide you into a medieval fairytale.
For affordable traditional dishes, you can visit a Milk Bar. In communist times, these subsidised low-cost cafes came around. Now, they continue in a privately-owned capacity. After dinner, there’s some great nightlife too. Thankfully, it feels more trendy and sophisticated than other stag party Polish destinations.
Lastly, don’t miss the views from St. Mary’s Church tower. After looking out over the stacked pastel-hued houses from above, you’ll leave wondering how Gdansk can still be one of the most underrated cities in Europe.
Renaissance palaces, a show-stopping opera theatre, and top-notch food
Mantua (also known as Mantova) is one of Italy’s finest city breaks. In the south of Lombardy, close to the Emilia-Romagna regional border, this city of some 50,000 wears its historical importance with understated pride. Why this remains one of the most underrated cities in Europe, I’ll never know; it ticks all those essential Italian boxes: culture, cuisine, architecture and history.
Steeped in art, culture and music, the city has played a sizable contribution to the opera scene. This is perfectly captured in Teatro Bibiena, a small but perfectly-formed theatre and one of the most beautiful in Europe.
The city also doesn’t sleep on architecture either, and for that, we can thank the Gonzaga Dynasty, who ruled Mantua from the 14th to the early 18th century. Their estate, The Palazzo Ducale di Mantova, is a vast stately complex which combined forms one of Europe’s largest residential buildings, with some 600 rooms. Only some are open to the public, but it’s a whirlwind tour of opulence, masterpieces and frescoed ceilings. This is an absolute spectacle in Renaissance art.
Places to visit in Lombardy
Mantua also holds a plethora of other jewels within her limits. There are three artificial lakes, spectacular during a sunset cruise over the lilies. The Te Palace is an opulent grand hall affair. Of course, you have the cuisine, influenced both by Lombardy’s risottos and Emilia Romagna’s best dishes. With easy train connections from Verona, Venice and Milan, it makes for a good side trip from one of the showstoppers. Though, this underrated destination deserves much more than a one-day visit.
Sustainable city break, classic and contemporary design, and a first-class culinary scene,
Somehow, Austria’s second-largest city has remained slightly under the radar. Perhaps it’s the lack of direct flights, but either way, Graz is one of the most underrated European cities for a sustainable city break.
Set in farmland-heavy southeastern Austria, the fresh produce of the Styrian countryside also ensures it’s a foodies’ paradise. Farm-to-fork isn’t a concept here; it’s a way of life, and delicious traditional dishes, alongside excellently crafted global cuisines, are served up in trendy and eco-focused spots. Like nearby Innsbruck in summer, it’s remained deliciously off the radar of many.
Unsurprisingly for a city which has earned two UNESCO designations, there are plenty of things to do in Graz, especially if you are visiting Austria in summer. On the one hand, Graz’s historic World Heritage-listed core delivers everything you’d expect from a grand European city. There are Italian-esque courtyards aplenty. Quaint medieval cobbled streets. The remains of a hilltop fortress. Then, the usual European favourites: frescoed facades, grand avenues, and church spires climbing to the heavens.
Graz city guide
Beyond the Old Town, you have the other side, where Graz’s status as a ‘City of Design’ shines through. A floating artificial island doubles as a small gallery. A somewhat out-of-place modern art museum presents like a tentacled alien. And up-and-coming neighbourhoods capture the best of off-the-beaten-path Europe.
Heartland getaway, Roman ruins, and delicious wines direct from vineyards
Évora, the capital of Portugal’s Alentejo region, is enveloped by sun-drench plains, farmlands, vineyards, and tiny whitewashed villages.
While Lisbon and Porto have shot to the top of many travellers’ bucket lists, this sleepy regional city has remained one of the more underrated cities in Europe. Thankfully, without many must-visit attractions and a slower way of life, it’s likely to remain undisturbed.
That’s not to say it’s lacking in things to see and do, though. The Romans had a strong presence here up until the 3rd century AD, and the evidence remains. Most of the Roman Temple of Évora’s columns are still standing proud, as well as an aqueduct and the remains of the Roman Baths. The ‘Chapel of Bones’ – exactly as it sounds – is a more macabre affair.
Inscribed onto the UNESCO world heritage list in 1986, the city is often celebrated as an open-air museum of sorts by in-the-know travellers. Gothic, Baroque, Moorish and Portuguese Manueline influences make up the rest of the city’s architecture. For a unique stay, pick a heritage hotel – such as the Pousada Convento de Évora.
One of the main reasons to venture to Evora, though, is the wine. Alentejo is one of the most celebrated regions for vinhos in Portugal, and you don’t have to travel far from the urban fringes to sample it straight from the cellar’s barrels.
There are even luxury wine hotels and lodges (L’AND Alentejo is regarded as one of the finest) a short drive from Évora. Spend a long weekend in the Alentejo, and you’ll fall under its spell, being returned home a more relaxed, refreshed, and wine-filled you.
Postcard-perfect pedestrianised centre, canals and coffee culture, quirky boutiques and bars
For many years, Ljubljana was considered an underrated destination in Europe. As travellers have discovered Slovenia’s green lungs, blissful lakes, and delicious vineyards, though, that’s all changed.
At the heart of it is the country’s perfectly-formed capital, Ljubljana. An early adopter of removing cars in favour of a pedestrianised centre, the bar-lined canal banks, castle-topped hill, and colourful-facade buildings are a delight to explore on foot.
With a substantial university population and some very trendy coffee and wine bars in the centre, a night out here is also a great laugh. You’ll likely make new friends, find your inner zen, and take it all in at a slower pace. One of Ljubljana’s greatest charms is its slower pace which comes from a less attraction-heavy city break.
Reasons to visit Ljubljana
While Ljubljana is one of the more underrated cities in Europe compared to the big hitters, that has changed in recent years. With tourism numbers growing and accommodation numbers not accompanying it, Airbnb is causing a considerable housing problem here, so I suggest focusing on hotel stays outside of the high season or day-tripping in from other spots such as the Vipava Valley or Lake Bled in peak summer. Spring is an ideal time to visit, making Ljubljana one of the best places to visit in April in Europe
A two-level city break, cobbled streets and castle, and museums galore
Is it the high prices? Or the assumption that a financial hub is a sterile city? Either way, in my view, Luxembourg’s capital is one of Europe’s underrated cities.
Far from being all about businesses and banking, though, Luxembourg City is instead a multi-level delight dating back to the Middle Ages. Initially, the city was tiny. In 963, the City of Luxembourg began on a rocky ledge, as a castle, before growing outwards over the centuries that followed.
That expansion is pretty, although the most striking views and the quaint atmosphere is found around the lower part of the city – the Grund – which wraps around the Alzette River.
By day, bring your camera, but after dark, bring your dancing shoes and a thirsty nature. Above, the Bock Casemates, a fortress with underground tunnels, is the city’s most impressive site and should reopen in 2023 after repairs for water damage.
Visit underrated Luxembourg
While Luxembourg is one of the smallest countries in Europe, you’ll be surprised with how many museums it lauds, though here I’ll mention just a few. The National Museum of History and Art stands out for its collection of Luxembourgish paintings, some of which could be rivals to the Flemish. Casino Luxembourg is an excellent spot for viewing contemporary art. Then, of course, there is The Bank Museum – I mean, would you expect anything less?
Canal wanderings, museum visits, medieval architecture and an art-gallery metro
Stockholm, by far my favourite capital city in Scandinavia, is particularly dreamy in the summer months. While Copenhagen seems to have taken the centre-Nordic stage for a city break (the museums alone make it worth it), and Tallinn is securing the up-and-coming Baltic spot, I feel that Stockholm doesn’t get as much attention these days as it should.
For this reason, I’d say it’s still one of the more underrated European cities, especially given how much there is on offer. Winter, of course, usually brings a blanket of snow and cosy-fireplace vibes, but for me, when the sun is shining, Stockholm shines brightest.
Whether you’re walking – or kayaking – the city’s canals, cycling between bar terraces in the sun-kissed centre, or walking through the medieval Old Town (Gamla Stan) to marvel at the vibrant facades, everything looks brighter and more saturated under the glare of the sun.
Stockholm in summer
Tour the Royal Palace. Visit the excellent photography museum. Enter the maritime-focused Vasa Museum to gawk at the world’s best-preserved 17th-century ship. Get your boogie on at the ABBA museum. Then, if it’s a rainy day – or even if it’s not – head into the underground Metro system, which is essentially an art gallery. Here, below ground, artists have worked their magic to turn the stations into colourful canvases. You’ll soon give up on going from A to B and detouring to other stations instead, and it’s a great Stockholm budget activity.
World-class music and nightlife, an awe-inspiring library, and a passionate industrial past
Often overshadowed as an England weekend getaway by the likes of London, Manchester is actually an excellent alternative. You’ll never see all of London in a few days, but Manchester is more compact. With its well-connected airport, trams and free city centre buses, it makes a viable standalone city break in England.
For many from abroad, though, it remains one of Europe’s underrated cities. Many might think of Manchester and imagine booze, shopping and Oasis singing ‘Wonderwall’, but there’s plenty more to the city than that.
Of course, the music heritage is enormous. Artists such as The Smiths, The Stone Roses, and the aforementioned Gallagher brothers hail from here, but for a younger crowd, these names may no longer be the reason to visit.
Instead, focus on the many free museums, theatre options, capital-rivalling cafes, and the ever-evolving art scene. Then, of course, there are first-class traditional pubs and trendy dining spots, such as Mackie Mayor, and parties into the early hours.
Why visit Manchester?
For attractions, don’t miss the John Rylands Library, one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the canvas-rich Manchester Art Gallery – all with free entrance. To dive deeper into Manchester’s inspiring social-justice fighting past, head to the People’s History Museum or The Pankhurst Centre. The latter, focused on the Suffragette movement for women’s votes, is particularly personal.
Alpine city break, frescoed facades, a medieval castle and sparkling wine
Shrouded by verdant mountains, jagged snow-clad peaks, and pristine lakes, Trento is a city break with an Alpine soul. The capital of the northern Trentino region, it’s genuinely the perfect-sized weekend getaway and one of the most underrated cities in Europe.
The cobbled streets are spotless. The restaurants and bars are refined. The mix of Italian-Austrian dishes is intriguing. And the frescoed facades complement the mountainous backdrop perfectly. Historically, highlights include the Buonconsiglio Castle, a grand 13th-century castle open to the public, and the medieval cathedral.
There are also a few decent museums.MUSE, a surprisingly captivating science space, and The Piedicastello Tunnel gallery, set inside a disused under-mountain pass, are particularly worth a visit. Don’t miss the Orrido di Ponte Alto, a canyon carved into the rock on the city’s fringe. From the viewing platform underneath, you’ll have a heart-thumping experience as the water crashes in front of you.
Trento Doc, the region’s perfectly-fizzed sparkling wine, deserves a special mention. This classic-method sparkling wine hails from the area, and it is renowned as one of Italy’s finest.
A weekend in Trento
The rest of the region is magnificent and perhaps most famous for the Dolomites. Still, there are plenty more places to visit in Trentino. From the lakes of Valsugana, where you can SUP over sparkling wine bottles ageing deep below, to the castles and apple-lined valleys of Val di Non, this is a true green getaway.
Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited city, Roman ruins, and quirky street art
Rounding off my picks of underrated cities in Europe is the oldest continuously inhabited city on the continent, Plovdiv. Recent studies have concluded this settlement started between 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, although many of the highlights are Roman-focused.
Roman attractions include the 1st century AD amphitheatre and the Ancient Stadium of Philippopolis. In the Old Town, wood-carved houses sparkle, often in shades of blue, salmon and yellow. Inside the various Ethnographic and House Museums, you’ll find insight into the city’s history.
But it’s not all about the old. Plenty of street art has illuminated the more modern side of the city, and the trendy and creative district of Kapana continues to grow. Built around seven hills, it’s also a mighty verdant city and a great base to explore nearby monasteries and national parks.
While Plovdiv enjoyed attention during its stint as the European Capital of Culture 2019, it’s fair to say it didn’t rocket onto every must-see list. This left Plovdiv still one of the most underrated cities in Europe.
If you want to get beyond the most underrated European cities, consider diving a little deeper into the continent’s more underrated places. Discover my favourite Europe hidden gems for some more offbeat exploring.