Been There, Seen That: 7 Compelling Alternatives to Europe’s Biggest Cities

Already explored Rome, Berlin, and Barcelona?

Aerial view of Malaga, with mountains in distance

Malaga is one of Europe’s underrated cities.

Photo by Grisha Bruev/Shutterstock

Look, we’re not discrediting the beauty of the Eiffel Tower at night or the grandeur of Buckingham Palace. But if you’re not keen on weaving through the crowds of Europe’s well-loved cities, other places on the continent offer rich culture and jaw-dropping scenery.

Book a trip to these lesser-frequented spots: You’ll escape large crowds and see the continent through fresh eyes.

If you like Berlin . . .

European city rooftops at sunrise, with white church with tower in center

If you like waterfront walks, you’re in luck—Leipzig boasts more bridges than Venice.

Photo by Jakob Fischer/Shutterstock

Visit Leipzig, Germany

  • Where to stay: Pentahotel has a lavish breakfast and is located within walking distance of the train station.

A breeding ground for young artists, Leipzig, with its warehouse parties and Soviet towers, could be Berlin right after the wall fell.

What to do: Don’t miss Spinnerei, a 25-acre former mill turned studio compound for 100 artists. Wander through provocative photography exhibits at Halle 14 and shop for elegant coral-like sculptures at Claudia Biehne’s studio and shop.

If you like Barcelona . . .

A few people reclining on a beach with mountains in distant background, buildings on left, and sea at right

Malaga is located on southern Spain’s Costa del Sol. The Andalucian city is known for its architectural sites, scenic beaches, and excellent cuisine.

Photo by Shutterstock

Visit Malaga, Spain

Sunny days by the sea, tapas binges, a bounty of trippy architecture—it’s Barcelona without all the hippies and students. Plus, it was named the the best city for expats in 2023, according to the InterNations Expat City Ranking.

What to do: The port city has been occupied by more than five different civilizations in its 2,800 years. Admire the ruins of Phoenician lighthouses and Roman theaters. Back in this century, sip Spanish beer at the El Rincón del Cervecero.

If you like Copenhagen . . .

People sitting on a promenade by a river, with row of historic four-story buildings at left

Aarhus was named a Cultural Capital of Europe for 2017 by the European Union.

Photo by Marc Lechanteur/Shutterstock

Visit Aarhus, Denmark

  • Where to stay: You enter Hotel Oasia via cobblestones, but inside it’s raw plank floors and Scandinavian style.

Like Copenhagen, this second-largest Danish city is home to eye-grabbing modern design and a thriving New Nordic food scene.

What to do: Aarhus is full of forward-thinking minds. Challenge your palate with the pears and wasabi at the contemporary, French-influenced Frederikshøj and admire the spiky Iceberg apartment complex. Get around using the city’s easy-to-use light-rail, or do as the Danish do and hop on two wheels.

If you like Zurich . . .

Historic buildings with brown roofs line a river, with green trees in background at right

Bern is the capital city of Switzerland.

Photo by Mike NG/Shutterstock

Visit Bern, Switzerland

  • Where to stay: The 126 rooms at the Bellevue Palace are large and comfortable. Ask for one with a river view.

Bern has the same sophisticated vibe, Old World architecture, and green spaces as Zurich—with one third of the population.

What to do: It’s all about the good life here. Hike up to Rosengarten, a park with 200 types of roses and sweeping views of the old city. And visit the Zentrum Paul Klee, a museum dedicated to Paul Klee, to see works of the Swiss German artist that were inspired by 20th-century movements like cubism and surrealism.

If you like Rome . . .

Yellow and orange buildings line a wide road, with historic tower in distance

The college city of Parma is in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region.

Photo by Eddy Galeotti/Shutterstock

Visit Parma, Italy

  • Where to stay: Book a room at Hotel Daniel for easy access to its restaurant, Cocchi, a shrine to cured meats.

UNESCO named this Italian metropolis the world’s first Creative City of Gastronomy thanks to its status as the birthplace of Parma ham and Parmesan cheese. Its architecture is worth exploring, too: The Parma Cathedral and its baptistry are considered one of the country’s most important medieval monuments for its inclusion of both Romanesque and Gothic architecture.

What to do: Enjoy langoustines and shrimp beignets at F.I.S.H. Sample salami at the market near Strada Matteo Renato Imbriani. Drink your fill of the local lambrusco. And top it all off with the creamy fior di latte gelato from Cremeria Emilia.

If you like Paris . . .

View of Geneva Ferris Wheel and Rhone Rive; bridge with colorful flags at right

Switzerland’s second-largest city, Geneva sits at the southern tip of Lake Geneva.

Photo by Anna Haines

Visit Geneva, Switzerland

  • Where to stay: The Mandarin Oriental, Geneva is a 178-room property with views of the snow-capped Alps—which guests can enjoy luxuriously from its Royal Penthouse (which comes with a private hammam).

Despite not even being in France (it’s about 10 miles from the border), Geneva has “the same enticing balance of antiquity and cosmopolitanism as European hot spots” according to writer Anna Haines. Medieval, Gothic, and Renaissance architecture fill the streets alongside riverfront international cuisine like omakase spot Sachi—an enticing alternative to the busy avenues of Paris (especially during the 2024 Olympic season).

What to do: Wander through the city’s Old Town, which dates back to Roman times. Climb the 157 steps of St. Pierre’s Cathedral for panoramic views of the city, or visit the International Museum of the Reformation to learn how Geneva came to be known as “Protestant Rome.”

If you like London . . .

A pedestrian-only street in Manchester, with people sitting at outdoor café tables between brick buildings

Manchester is a city of firsts: the first women’s vote in the U.K., the first professional soccer league, the first Rolls-Royce, the first passenger railway; it’s also where Oasis (and countless other bands) played their first gig.

Photo by Wambam Photography

Visit Manchester, England

With plenty of libraries, a thriving music scene, and museums to explore, Manchester offers a big city arts and culture scene just a 2.5-hour train ride north of London. Once a capital of manufacturing cotton textiles, Manchester is now a creative hot spot and one of AFAR’s best places to go in 2024.

What to do: Arts organization Factory International opened Aviva Studios at Factory International at the end of 2023, and it is a permanent home to theater shows and exhibitions. Some of its 2024 commissions include City of Floating Sounds, composer Huang Ruo’s interactive symphony project (June) and a theatrical reimagining of some American history called Dark Noon (March).

This article originally appeared online in 2016; it was most recently updated on February 20, 2024, to include current information.

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