From Bruges to Venice, from Amsterdam to Barcelona, Europe’s most popular destinations have become overrun with tourists – so if you fancy a city break in 2020 where should you go to escape the crowds? Of course there are few cities worth visiting that don’t have a smattering of foreign visitors, but it’s still far nicer to go somewhere where big tour groups are relatively rare. And although Europe’s bigger cities are getting busier and busier, there are loads of smaller cities with just as much to see. Here are some of my favourites – all perfect for a long weekend. They’re all easy to get to and easy to get around, yet they’re still relatively neglected by the insatiable tourist trade.
Between the wars Biarritz was the height of fashion, the Monte Carlo of the Atlantic Coast, but then the posher visitors lost interest and drifted off to warmer places where good weather was guaranteed. This exodus preserved its character. Today Bizarritz is shabby chic, with lots of grand old belle époque and fin de siècle architecture and a down-to-earth, no-nonsense air. You can eat great seafood in the harbour and the beaches are fantastic – brilliant for surfers (or, if you’re feeling lazy, you can just sit and watch them while you stuff your face). It’s an ideal base for exploring the Basque Coast, down to St-Jean-de-Luz and on to Hendaye, on the Spanish border. Take the Eurostar to Paris. From there it’s four hours direct by TGV.
A Germanic city with a Polish hinterland, a sort of Belfast on the Baltic, Gdansk (or Danzig, as the Germans called it) was a geopolitical powderkeg, an accident waiting to happen, and it took a world war to work out whose side it should be on. By 1945 there wasn’t much of it left to fight over, but since then this rugged Hanseatic Port has been meticulously restored. When I first went there in 1994 it was still recovering from half a century of Communism, but now the place is buzzing, full of bustling bars and cafes. Gdansk has a rich international heritage, and 30 years since it shook off the Soviet yoke it feels cosmopolitan again, a crossroads of European history. Take a boat trip to Westerplatte, where the Second World War began, and visit the dockyards where Lech Walesa’s trade union movement, Solidarnosc, was born.
A medieval city as beautiful as Bruges but with a fraction of the tourist traffic, Ghent tends to get forgotten by the coach parties, and it’s all the better for it. Its cosy bars and restaurants are geared towards locals rather than sightseers, and you can walk along its cobbled streets without tripping over backpackers with selfie sticks. An era of heavy industry has left it with some grit beneath its fingernails, and its thriving university gives it a youthful, energetic air. The must-see sight is The Adoration of The Mystic Lamb, Van Eyck’s amazing altarpiece in St Bavo’s Cathedral (there are lots more Flemish Primitives in Ghent’s splendid Museum of Fine Arts). Getting here couldn’t be simpler: two hours by Eurostar to Brussels and then half an hour on a local train.
Ask anyone in Romandy (the French-speaking part of Switzerland) to name their favourite city, and chances are they’ll say Lausanne. It’s smaller than Geneva but a lot livelier, and its position is spectacular, perched above the widest part of Lake Geneva, aka Lac Léman. The old warehouse quarter, Le Flon, is full of grungy bars and cafés, and the waterfront district of Ouchy is a wonderful place to unwind. There are some super galleries, including Jean Debuffet’s Collection de l’Art Brut – a haunting display of ‘outsider art’ by misfits of every sort. You can fly to Geneva (an hour away by train) or catch the Eurostar to Paris and then a TGV (four hours, direct) to Lausanne’s central station, right beside the city’s smart new arts complex, Plateforme 10.
Rembrandt made his name in Amsterdam but he was born and raised in Leiden, and the handsome city where he learnt his trade is a lovely place to spend a few days. The Oxbridge of the Netherlands, it has more buildings from the Dutch Golden Age than any city outside Amsterdam, and the cityscape still looks much the same as it did in Rembrandt’s day. His old school is still here, as is the studio where he was apprenticed, but to get a true sense of the world he lived in you simply need to stroll around. Leiden’s Lakenhal Museum has some fine examples of his early work, and once you’ve had enough of Rembrandt you can visit one of the world’s oldest botanical gardens (a good spot for lunch) or take a cruise along the canal – the best way to see the city. Travelling here is easy. From Schipol airport, it’s as quick to get here by train (about half an hour) as it is to get into Amsterdam.
When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, nobody paid much attention to Leipzig, where the Peaceful Revolution began. The most polluted city in East Germany, blighted by filthy factories, few outsiders thought it had much future as a cultural destination. They couldn’t have been more wrong. The city has had a spring clean and its old factories have found new uses – the Spinnerei, formerly Europe’s biggest cotton mill, is now a leading arts centre, full of artists’ studios. Leipzig’s Gewandhaus orchestra is one of Europe’s finest – after forty years behind the Iron Curtain, the city of Bach, Schumann and Mendelssohn is a world centre for classical music once again. Another big plus for British visitors is its proximity to Colditz, about an hour’s drive away. The town is quaint and pleasant and the imposing Schloss where Britain’s finest POWs were incarcerated now houses a fine museum.
Since Latvia escaped the clutches of the USSR and became a sovereign state again, its lively capital has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance. The scars of Soviet occupation are still there but its older buildings have been rejuvenated, and visitors now come to marvel at one of the most attractive cities in Eastern Europe – a compact metropolis whose diverse architecture reflects its complex past. Colonised by Germans, Russians, Swedes and Poles, Riga is a bizarre, beguiling mix of Hanseatic, Tsarist and Stalinist styles (the extensive Art Nouveau district, one of the biggest in the world, is a legacy of Latvia’s last brief bout of independence, between the wars). Winters are bitterly cold but summertime, though fleeting, is surprisingly warm and sunny. Don’t miss the jolly beach resort of Jurmala, just a short train ride away.
OK, so Toledo is hardly an unknown tourist destination, but most visitors are day trippers from Madrid so if you take the trouble to stay overnight then in the mornings and the evenings you’ll have the city to yourself. And what a city! Crowded onto a steep hill that towers over the surrounding plain, Toledo was once the capital of Spain and it still feels like a capital today. An island in a sea of fields, the gateway to La Mancha, its greatest treasures are the paintings of El Greco, who made his home here. His pictures are scattered around the city, not only in museums but in churches, convents and mansions. A trek around these atmospheric sites is the best way to discover this ancient citadel, as you wander its winding alleys, and get hopelessly lost along the way. A new high speed shuttle puts it within an hour of Madrid.