Europe’s Rising Stars: 12 Thrilling Lesser-Known Cities To Visit In the Summer

Tampere, Lucerne, Bologna—places that are witnessing increasing interest from travellers.

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In Split, Croatia, the Riva promenade brings the action to the Adriatic seafront. Photo: Sime/Estock Photo


Munich, Germany

Yes, it’s touristy, but Munich’s Hofbräuhaus piles on the charm—and the litres of beer. Photo: Jens Schwarz/Laif/Redux

Yes, it’s touristy, but Munich’s Hofbräuhaus piles on the charm—and the litres of beer. Photo: Jens Schwarz/Laif/Redux

Playing To The Stereotypes

For all its progressive thinking, Munich tends to look to the past when it comes to lifestyle. The capital of meat-eating, beer-swilling Bavaria is a place where dinner takes the shape of knödel dumplings and pig’s trotters, washed down with local beers by the litre. And although the residents ham it up for Oktoberfest, you’ll catch them breaking out the trachten—as they call their traditional outfits—for special occasions year-round.

It’s all done with such a sense of Gemütlichkeit (neighbourly friendliness) that there’s nothing cloying about Munich—and nothing fake about it, either. Some of the wood-panelled, hangar-like beer halls date back 200 years, and as the days grow warmer, their expansive beer gardens become the meeting places of choice.

BEST FOR Traditions. MAIN EVENT Starkbierzeit, or “strong beer time,” is Munich’s lesser known but more authentic spring beer extravaganza. It runs annually two weeks near Lent. ALSO TRY Salzburg, Austria, possibly the only other city in the world where lederhosen (leather shorts) are considered acceptable formal attire and apple strudel is widely sold.

Tampere, Finland

Hottest When It’s Cold

A fine Finnish figure in Tampere. Photo: Cubo Images/Superstock

A fine Finnish figure in Tampere. Photo: Cubo Images/Superstock

Industrialisation helped Tampere, once nicknamed “the Manchester of Finland,” grow into Finland’s second-largest urban area, now a 90-minute train ride northwest of Helsinki. The cotton mills closed in the 1990s, and offices, restaurants, and cultural attractions, such as the Finnish Labour Museum, moved in. The Spy Museum here displays Cold War curiosities: miniature cameras and several cunningly disguised weapons.

Summer draws out locals for canoeing, swimming, and hiking, but winter may be the time to experience the city at its natural best. Strap on a pair of sawtoothed snowshoes for a walk on frozen Lake Näsijärvi. Try your hand at ice-fishing. Steam yourself at a pinewood sauna on Lake Pyhäjärvi, then dare winter swimming at a section of the lake kept ice free.

BEST FOR Outdoor winter fun. MUST-SEE MUSEUM Tampere Lenin Museum, the building in which Lenin and Stalin first met in 1905. ALSO TRY Oulu, Finland, the self-styled “capital of northern Scandinavia,” ideal for summer canoe tours.

Rotterdam, The Netherlands


Merry-go-round coat rack at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photo: Elian Somers

After being nearly wiped off the map by the German airforce in World War II, Rotterdam bounced back with a creative confidence few European cities can match. You see it in the Erasmus Bridge, which looks like a giant modernist swan, and in Piet Blom’s iconic cube houses—you can visit Number 70, but the rest remain occupied low-cost homes. That innovative spirit also reveals itself in the alien-looking Shipping and Transport College, best seen from a water taxi as you speed along the Nieuwe Maas tributary. Other beloved old buildings enjoy a new lease on life, such as the Hotel New York, once headquarters of the Holland America Line. Its neighbours include Norman Foster’s glistening World Port Center.

In one of the city’s oldest districts, find the new Westelijk Handelsterrein, a glass-roofed arcade with some of the finest galleries, shops, and bars in Rotterdam. The Boijmans Museum here collects a treasure trove of contemporary art and design.

As the sun begins to set, take a walk across the Erasmus Bridge toward Renzo Piano’s KPN Telecom Office Tower and see it spring to life—its facade animated by a grid of 896 24-volt lights dancing in glittering patterns. Like Blom’s skewed houses, this exemplifies Rotterdam design at its best—bold, dazzling, and with a crackling sense of humour.

BEST FOR Cutting-edge contemporary design and architecture. MAIN EVENT International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam opens May 2016 in the Rem Koolhaas-designed Kunsthal. ALSO TRY Copenhagen, Denmark, with its wealth of noteworthy modern buildings.

Lucerne, Switzerland

Bridges with Dancing Skeletons

The triangular arches inside Lucerne’s 13th-century Spreuerbrücke (Spreuer Bridge) has paintings representing the Danse Macabre. The paintings inside this covered wooden bridge feature different aspects of medieval life. What is common to all of them is a grinning skeleton reminding passersby of the inevitability of death. Photo: Van Der Meer Rene/Prisma/Dinodia

The triangular arches inside Lucerne’s 13th-century Spreuerbrücke (Spreuer Bridge) has paintings representing the Danse Macabre. The paintings inside this covered wooden bridge feature different aspects of medieval life. What is common to all of them is a grinning skeleton reminding passersby of the inevitability of death. Photo: Van Der Meer Rene/Prisma/Dinodia

Early travellers to Lucerne, plagued by its heavy rain, regarded the city as Europe’s chamberpot. Locals however, call it a city of iridescent raindrops and have even modelled a delicious kirsch-filled chocolate drop called the Lozärner Rägetröpfli after their weather. A late autumn afternoon in Lucerne is an Impressionist’s canvas. On one side of town, Mount Pilatus emerges from its cloud cover. On the other, a burnt sienna canopy of trees stands guard over the River Reuss and its army of trumpeting swans. The medieval bridge of Spreuerbrücke arches over the water and dappled light falls on its panels painted with gaily costumed skeletons, dancing, singing and even duelling in this strange suspension between death and a manic humour. A little further down the river, travellers wind their way across Kappelbrücke (Chapel Bridge) with bags of roasted chestnuts, towards the canopies and terraces of raucous pubs on the Rathausquai. Lucerne’s chic boutiques and byzantine lanes wrap around squares rich in stories. Paintings on houses record the quirks of drunk patrons of the carnival, and a poetic sculpture of a dying lion pays tribute to Swiss martyrs. An old clock tower boasts the privilege of chiming the passage of time a full minute before the eight others in a city otherwise obsessed with precision. This precision is the cornerstone of every exhibit in the Swiss Museum of Transport, one of Lucerne’s proudest modern structures and an interactive experience through the history of man negotiating land, water, and sky.

BEST FOR Rambling walks. MAIN EVENT The annual Lucerne Carnival before Ash Wednesday where nothing is at it seems. Masked musicians and floats come out into the streets and revellers sing, dance and drink the famous Lucerne Coffee. ALSO TRY Basel, Switzerland, a curious mix of the old and the new with surprising street art installations and a vibrant life on the River Rhine.

Antwerp, Belgium

When Fashion Met Chocolate

At The Chocolate Line shop in Antwerp, chocolate lipstick remains a bestseller. Photo: Christian Kerber/Laif/Redux

At The Chocolate Line shop in Antwerp, chocolate lipstick remains a bestseller. Photo: Christian Kerber/Laif/Redux

A welcome understatement infuses the northern Belgian city of Antwerp, though it has plenty to shout about: its Gothic cathedral; the ornamented guild houses lining the Grote Markt; and the Museum Plantin-Moretus, home to the world’s oldest printing presses.

Even those who don’t enjoy clothes shopping might have a change of heart here, where one-off boutiques such as glove purveyor Huis A. Boon line cobblestoned streets and grand designer stores—including those of local fashion stars Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester—display a refreshing lack of attitude.

In Antwerp, it pays to ditch the sightseeing checklist and just wander. Walk north of the centre to explore the regenerating docklands area of Eilandje; head south to reach Zuid, with its Parisian-style café culture.

Whichever way you go, there will be chocolate. Chocolatier Burie makes palaces out of the sweet stuff for its famously creative window displays. And Del Rey, near the train station, produces a not-as-innocent-as-they-sound line of “chocolate milks” spiked with liqueurs, like Grand Marnier.

BEST FOR Clothes, culture, and confectionery. MUST-SEE MUSEUM The Red Star Line Museum tells the story of the thousands who set sail here for the New World. ALSO TRY Bruges, Belgium, brimming with Belgian culture and chocolate.

Split, Croatia

The Emperor’s New Groove

Sunset in Split, Croatia. Photo: Doug Pearson/Awl Images

Sunset in Split, Croatia. Photo: Doug Pearson/Awl Images

Many European cities claim Roman ruins, but a town that has inhabited, reworked, and centred itself around those ruins as the centuries roll by is—outside Rome itself—something rather special. Perched on a stocky peninsula jutting out from Croatia’s mainland, Split came to prominence thanks to the emperor Diocletian, who built an enormous palace here as his retirement project. Bars, shops, and even hotels now flank the palace’s peristyle, or central courtyard, its tall archways and symmetrical lines forming the old town’s most spectacular square.

Split hasn’t roped off Diocletian’s settlement; rather, it’s built into and around it. The 13th-century cathedral incorporates the emperor’s mausoleum, while the Roman temple of Jupiter is now a baptistery, its carved Romanesque font guarded by a headless sphinx. The Riva seafront promenade begins outside the palace walls. Completed in A.D. 305, the palace took Diocletian ten years to build. But not even the most egomaniacal of Roman emperors could have imagined that, 1,700 years later, it would still occupy centre stage.

BEST FOR Living history. MAIN EVENT Split Summer Festival, with superlative theatre, music, and dance in venues around town, including the palace. ALSO TRY Thessaloniki, Greece, with its historic Byzantine and Ottoman architecture.

Brno, Czech Republic

Cheap Tricks Beyond Prague

It’s almost completely overshadowed by big sibling Prague, but that’s no fault of Brno, the Czech Republic’s captivating second city, which combines Renaissance, baroque, and modern architecture with vibrant nightlife at affordable prices.

Hearty traditional meals hover around $4/₹260, while dinner in a white-tablecloth establishment will rarely take you over $30/₹1,950. The all-important price of beer? About $1.50/₹100.

BEST FOR A budget break. MAIN EVENT The annual spring Jazz Fest, with performers from all over Europe and the U.S. ALSO TRY Krakow, Poland, a second city as enticing as its capital sibling.

When in Rome

In and Around the Pope’s Vatican


Pope Francis greets a crowd assembled for his weekly audience. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/Getty Images

Pope Francis roams the globe, but although Catholics may look forward to his trip to their country, a Roman holiday to the Vatican remains the best way to get close to the pope.

SECRET GARDEN The Vatican’s 800-year-old gardens—filled with classical statues, exotic flowers, and graceful fountains—are now open for tours ( Don’t miss the miniature copy of the Lourdes Basilica and Grotto, given to the pope by French Catholics in 1905.


A sylvan, keyhole view of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Photo: Ian Collins

Michelangelo’s “Delphic Sibyl” at the Sistine chapel, Vatican City. Photo: Sime/Estock Photo

Michelangelo’s “Delphic Sibyl” at the Sistine chapel in Vatican City. Photo: Sime/Estock Photo

YOUR OWN SISTINE CHAPEL The home of the papal enclave is as famed for crowds as it is for Michelangelo’s frescoes. Luckily, some tour companies, like Dark Rome and Walks of Italy, can bump you to the front of the line to enter the chapel, while others, including Italy With Us, offer an intimate evening tour.

PAPAL GELATO During his 26-year papacy, Pope John Paul II couldn’t resist the temptation of gelato from Rome institution Giolitti. The shop regularly delivered his favourite flavour—marron glacé (candied chestnuts)—directly to the Vatican.

Clerical garments at the Gammarelli shop, Rome. Photo: Andrew Medichini/Ap Images

Clerical garments at the Gammarelli shop, Rome. Photo: Andrew Medichini/Ap Images

TAILOR MADE Six generations of the Gammarelli family have outfitted bishops, cardinals, and at least six popes. Even if you don’t need a cassock measured, stop at the 141-year-old shop, near the Pantheon, just to admire its sumptuous vestments—or to scoop up church fashion for the layman: the shop’s famed knee-high socks in cardinal red or bishop purple.

PICTURE PERFECT For the quirkiest photo op of St. Peter’s, leave Vatican City for the Aventine Hill headquarters of the Order of Malta. Peek through the entry door keyhole to see the perfectly framed dome, taking in three sovereign states (the Order, Italy, and Vatican City) in one glance.

SPOT THE POPE You don’t need to be Catholic for a papal audience. Anyone can apply for (free) tickets for his general audience, held Wednesday mornings at St. Peter’s (in summer at Castel Gandolfo), by writing to the Prefecture of the Papal Household. No tickets? Head to St. Peter’s Square on Sunday at noon for a glimpse of the pope instead; he gives a blessing from his residence window.

Pizza in the Prati neighbourhood, Rome. Photo: Ristina Gill

Pizza in the Prati neighbourhood, Rome. Photo: Ristina Gill

PRATI’S NEW EATS The Prati neighbourhood just beyond the Vatican walls has upped its culinary game. Recent arrivals include Romeo (it’s a menu boasting everything from rigatoni carbonara to a hamburger with fontina cheese and apricot chutney), gelateria Fatamorgana, and a bakery from bread master, Gabriele Bonci, which also serves pizza by the slice.

MICHELANGELO WHO? Sixty years before Michelangelo painted the Sistine ceiling, 15th-century genius Fra Angelico decorated Pope Nicholas V’s private chapel with stunning frescoes. A deeply devout friar later beatified by Pope John Paul II, Fra Angelico was also an artist of extraordinary sensitivity and storytelling ability, as shown in his frescoes here from the lives of St. Lawrence and St. Stephen.

VERONICA’S VEIL While walking around the baldachin of St. Peter’s Basilica, pause before the statue of St. Veronica. The chapel above holds the veil believed to be imprinted with Christ’s face; usually under lock and key, Veronica’s veil is displayed to the faithful during evening service on Palm Sunday from the small balcony in front of the chapel.

AN UNCONVENTIONAL STAY Located on Rome’s loveliest square, Piazza Farnese, the 15th-century Casa di Santa Brigida is a convent with simple guest rooms with parqueted floors and antique furniture. You’re even welcome to join the Brigidine sisters for meals and services, which include daily Mass at 7.30 a.m.—or, if you’d rather, you can head up to the rooftop at 4 p.m. to sip wine and listen to the sisters singing vespers below. Make sure to peek at the rooms of the Swedish St. Bridget, who lived here in the 14th century.



Porto, Portugal

A Surprise Of A City? We’ll Drink to That


Dom Luís Bridge, a Porto icon, spans the Douro River in Portugal. Photo: Michele Falzone/Awl Images

It’s the start of a dazzling sunset in Porto, a sequence that will throw the iron arch of Dom Luís Bridge into silhouette, make its river, the Rio Douro look like treacle, and finally turn the riverside town houses the colour of tawny port. Which is appropriate because Portugal’s Douro Valley is renowned for its fortified wines—those unique white, ruby, and tawny ports created by arresting the fermentation process with the addition of brandy (which sweetens the results). You can’t visit Porto without noticing the warehouses, restaurants, and bars emblazoned with names such as Quinta do Noval, Taylor’s, Croft, and Ferreira.

So go ahead and taste the port. It’s good. But that’s just the beginning.

Porto’s real thrill lies in the magnificent mash-up of traditional and modern—for example, those brand-name boutiques next to stores selling wax body parts, which are left in churches as pleas for divine intercession.

At the art nouveau Majestic Café, the endless mirrors are starting to age. The clientele read newspapers, keeping one eye on the tourists ogling this belle époque beauty.

If Lisbon is the meal, Porto is the sweet and storied digestif.

BEST FOR All things port. The drink is produced exclusively in the Douro Valley. MAIN EVENT Fireworks-filled Festa de São João. ALSO TRY Faro, another underrated Portuguese city, with a charming old centre.

Bologna, Italy


Pasta-making at a Bologna cooking class. Photo: Cathrine Stukhard/Laif/Redux

Pass The Tortelloni, Per Favore

Friday night in Bologna, and the central Quadrilatero district is heaving. But it’s not the trendy bars or boutiques that have brought what feels like half the city to these ancient streets; the biggest line, spilling out into Via Drapperie, is at delicatessen Salumeria Simoni, where customers are stocking up on great wedges of Parmesan and piles of prosciutto before the weekend can really begin.

Often overlooked by visitors, Bologna magnifies and mixes the best Italian clichés. Historic architecture? Check—these Renaissance palazzos, terracotta roofs, and winding streets seem barely changed in centuries. An intrinsic sense of style? Of course—from meticulously kept bars serving frothy cappuccinos to shops selling handmade shoes or designer labels. Friendly service? Absolutely—Bologna has yet to develop tourist fatigue, unlike Rome and Venice.

And great food? Well, there’s a reason why Bologna is called la grassa, or “the fat one.” All Italy acknowledges: The food here ranks second to none.

BEST FOR The essence of Italy. MUST-SEE MUSEUM Palazzo Fava, a medieval villa formerly home to one of Bologna’s most prominent families which hosts top-notch temporary art exhibits. ALSO TRY Bergen, Norway, another small-city gem with historic buildings and great views of fjords and mountains.



Liverpool, England

Got To Get This Into My Life


The Fab Four in neon in Liverpool, England. Photo: Hemis/Awl Images

With more than a little dose of nocturnal naughtiness and a waterfront to rival any in Europe, Liverpool has emerged as one of England’s most convivial and cosmopolitan cities.

The Tate Liverpool, in the Albert Dock, allows visitors to ponder art—Jean Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst—without having to do battle with the crowds at the Tates in London. The Merseyside Maritime Museum argues that boats, far more than the Beatles or football, elevated Liverpool to global renown.

The city of about half a million is walkable. The area between the docks and the city centre, known as the Baltic Triangle, used to be where all the dock depots clustered—a few shipping agents remain—but has evolved into a creative hotspot, with industrial buildings housing design studios, Internet start-ups, bistros, and the inevitable bike shop.

Have lunch on Hope Street, one of the city’s preeminent dining strips. The London Carriage Works serves up locally sourced dishes, such as Liverpool Bay sea bass. Then down a postprandial pint of Strongheart ale at the Phil (aka Philharmonic Dining Rooms), one of the most beautiful pubs in Britain. The pub’s two rooms are ideal for cosy chats.

For something more rock-and-roll, check into the centrally located Hard Day’s Night hotel, with a lively cocktail bar and pop art in the rooms, or check out funky Parr Street Studios, in the Ropewalks district. Its Studio2 bar is as glamorous as any in town after dark, and the studios are still fully functioning.

BEST FOR Pop culture and pubs with history—Baltic Fleet, Philharmonic Dining Rooms, Ye Cracke, Ye Hole in Ye Wall.MUST-SEE ART A working Merseyside ferry painted in “dazzle” camouflage by the godfather of British pop art, Peter Blake, at the Tate. ALSO TRY Hull, another great northern English city—too often passed over, but fun and friendly.

Bordeaux, France


Bottles spiral around the staircase at L’Intendant wine shop, in Bordeaux, France. Photo: Gianluca Santoni/Sime/Estock Photo

A New Vantage On Premier Vintages

Visitors once just glanced over this UNESCO-listed city’s stately 18th-century squares and harmonious architecture before heading out of town. The Route des Châteaux, running north from Bordeaux’s centre, winds through the Médoc wine region, past a roster of famed chateaus—Latour, Margaux, Lafite Rothschild.

But Bordeaux now uncorks more reasons to linger in the city. A revitalised riverfront makes it an increasingly popular port of call for international river cruise lines such as Uniworld and Viking. The Musée du Vin et du Négoce gives historical context to Bordeaux’s winemaking industry and includes a wine tasting in the price of admission. Capping it all off, the daringly swirl-shaped Cité des Civilisations du Vin will be a cultural hub— with interactive exhibits, performances, and food and wine experiences—when it opens on the banks of the Garonne in spring 2016.

BEST FOR All things wine. MAIN EVENT The biennial Bordeaux Wine Festival. ALSO TRY Galway, Ireland’s most Irish city, full of fine drinking establishments.

With reporting by Mark Baker, Julia Buckley, Stuart Forster, Suzanne King, Margaret Loftus, Chris Moss, Pol Ó Conghaile, Mark C. O’Flaherty, Amanda Ruggeri, and Diya Kohli.

Appeared in the December 2015 issue as “Europe’s Rising Stars”.

The Guide

Travel By Plane

Zipping around Europe on planes was uncommon for the budget traveller before RYANAIR and EASYJET debuted their no-frills flights in the late 1990s. Today, flying within the Continent can be cheaper than taking the train, thanks to the slew of startups and legacy airlines that have riffed on the low-cost model. Most specialise in regional short hauls, such as the Barcelona-based VUELING, which flies throughout Spain and to major cities like Brussels and Rome, and HOP!, a subsidiary of Air France connecting smaller cities within France, including Nantes and Lille, to the rest of Europe.  

Travel By Train  

With stations in the hearts of cities and routes through some of the most scenic landscapes on the Continent, riding the rails in Europe can be both practical and romantic. Most high-speed international trains, like the EUROSTAR and TGV, subscribe to airline-style ticketing, which guarantees you a seat. Others sell open tickets that are good anytime; seat reservations are optional and cost extra. You can buy them last-minute at any train station, but you’ll find a better deal if you scout the websites of national railways and retailers like Rail Europe ( a few months in advance.






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