I wanted to put together a post about alternative European city breaks because so often when people say ‘city break’, it’s just a byword for going off to the classic Paris/Rome/Barcelona/Berlin/Amsterdam options. But there are so many other alternative, more off-the-beaten-track cities that can still give you all the culture, sightseeing, shopping and (of course) eating that you want from a city break.
So I asked around a load of fellow travel bloggers and they obliged me with loads of unusual European city break ideas. I added another few of my own. And voila – here you have this huge list of 36 alternative European city breaks to give you some food for thought for your next holiday…
Put the kettle on. It might take you a while to get though.
1. Funchal, Madeira island, Portugal
Wildly underrated, Madeira’s capital has all the ingredients you need for an excellent city break: cobbled streets, a cable car, culture, coastal views and custard tarts. And probably more things not beginning with ‘C’.
But surely no one goes to Madeira for a city break, I (pretend to) hear you cry. Actually, yes they do. Or at least I do. And it works very well thanks. You can use Funchal as a base too, taking public transport for days out around the island when you’ve had enough of shopping and sightseeing. The city centre itself is typically Portuguese. It’s more akin to the laid-back air of Porto than the bigger capital of Lisbon. It’s also a university city, so although the stereotypes of old British tourists loving Madeira are rooted in some truth, Funchal has plenty of younger locals and is really vibrant. The oldies tend to stay just outside the centre in the resort area, so if you’re in the old town you’ll be among mixed age groups.
I won’t bang on too much about everything you can do in Funchal on a city break because I have it all in great detail around the blog. You can read my posts about:
- 40 things to do in Funchal
- a Funchal city guide
- where to eat in Funchal
- and the best bars in Funchal.
Yes, I’ve written absolutely loads about this city, and I bloody love it. That’s why it’s first on this epic list.
Looking for where to stay in Funchal? I massively recommend my favourite B&B, Quinta São Gonçalo. It’s pink.
2. Ljubljana, Slovenia
I had a brilliant few days in Ljubljana, Slovenia. That’s Lub-liana, by the way. But Loob-lana to the locals. So now you know.
I’m not sure if it was the amazing food, the riverside café culture or the fairytale beauty of the whole city swathed in autumn light that made me fall in love with Ljubljana, but I’ll definitely be back. On the way home, I declared it was my new favourite European capital city. Which is high praise indeed, because I have been to a LOT.
Ljubljana city is really charming. I hate that word but it is. The old town sees to that. This gorgeous, cobbled part of the city is sandwiched between the imposing hill-top castle and the Ljubljanica river. It’s like someone decided it’d look nice as a backdrop to a city and so just went ahead and built it. There are loads of restaurants, cafés and bars along the riverbanks, where you can sit and do some people watching. There’s nothing better than sitting with a beer doing nothing on a sunny day, is there. There’s also a castle, where I took this photo, which is well worth dragging yourself up the hill for. Another good bit to visit is Metelkova, which is reminiscent of Christiania in Copenhagen: an autonomous, alternative area. And ALSO, Ljubljana has some of the best shopping I’ve ever experienced on a city break.
Right, I actually give up trying to fit in how much I love Ljubljana here. You’ll have to go to my posts about it. Otherwise, this is going to become War and Peace.
Looking for where to stay in Ljubljana? I loved Apartment House Trta, on the banks of the river.
3. Sofia, Bulgaria
Sofia is one of Europe’s oldest cities, with sweeping boulevards, cobbled streets and a surprising amount of Roman ruins. Gritty, concrete Soviet architecture sits side-by-side with ornate golden cathedrals. There are plenty of trendy places to eat and drink. And by drink, I mean do your insides some damage from the local tipple, rakia. Be warned: it burns and the Cyrillic alphabet will be even harder to read as you’re trying to find your route back on the metro after a few glasses.
Sofia has a wonderfully laid-back atmosphere as a city, with lots of quirks of Bulgarian culture to discover while you’re there. When communicating with locals, nodding your head means ‘no’ and shaking it means ‘yes’ – this is something that’s always stuck in my mind. I loved it!
Sofia is truly underrated for some reason, but is a brilliant, affordable and interesting first experience of Eastern Europe.
You can read my full post on things to do in Sofia here.
Looking for where to stay in Sofia? I really enjoyed the incredibly cheap but massive room I got at Hotel Favorit.
4. Zagreb, Croatia
As you’ll know, Croatia isn’t somewhere people associate with city breaks because it’s usually all about the coastline. I know plenty of people who’ve been to Dubrovnik, Hvar and Split, but I booked a city break to the capital of Zagreb and was met with blank looks when I mentioned it to people. I don’t know why it’s so massively overshadowed because it made for a really interesting, hip and easy city break.
As well as being full of really interesting fairly recent history and having absolutely amazing food and local craft beer, Zagreb also has some of the most unusual museums I’ve ever been to. The Museum of Broken Relationships and the Croatian Museum of Naive Art are both not to be missed. The former was particularly memorable. Basically, the concept is that when a relationship breaks down, people from all over the world can send in an item in to the museum from that broken relationship. They provide an anonymous caption to go with it, explaining its significance. It’s all SO well done. A unique and quirky museum that’ll make you wee yourself laughing and have to pretend not to be crying in public, all within the first few exhibits. Take tissues.
You can read my full post on three days in Zagreb here.
Looking for where to stay in Zagreb? I liked Praska 8 Apartments, which couldn’t get more central on a side road off the main square.
5. Douglas, Isle of Man, the British Isles
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (pretty much word for word because of copy+paste): the Isle of Man is a totally underrated island. It’s like a mini version of Britain, with all of its different landscapes on a small scale. The scenery rivals that of the Lake District and Highlands but it doesn’t have the volume of tourists.
You can stay in the capital, Douglas, as a base to explore different towns, villages, beaches and countryside all over the island. The very walkable centre has all the usual shops and whatnot, as well as the Manx Museum, Gaiety Theatre and a Camera Obscura. One of the most famous attractions in Douglas is the horse tram. As a horsey person, I’m always wary of any tourist stuff involving horses, but these are exceptionally well looked after. It’s only £3 a go and takes you along the full length of the waterfront.
With Douglas being the capital, it’s where most of the island’s best places to eat and drink are. My absolute favourite is The Little Fish Café on the North Quay. Manx queenies (scallops) are a big deal in the Isle of Man, and you can get some amazing ones there. It’s also really pretty inside. For a drink in the evening (bear in mind, Douglas is only a small capital so you’re probs not going to have a mad one), I like Bath & Bottle. They do craft beers, including local ones from breweries on the island, and amazing cocktails.
Oh and don’t miss a mooch through the seafront gardens in Douglas. It only takes a few minutes but is really nice in summer. Probably best to do it before the cocktails.
You can read my full guide to the Isle of Man here.
Looking for where to stay in Douglas? I found Raymonds B&B last time, which is beautiful and perfect if you’re doing the trip on public transport as it’s nice and central.
6. Gothenburg, Sweden
Scandinavia is full of quirky I-want-to-live-there cities. Gothenburg is quite possibly my favourite of them. It’s smaller and calmer than Stockholm, but still has all the cleanliness, beauty and chic vibes you know to expect from Sweden. I adored Haga, the oldest district in Gothenburg. Full of gorgeous old timber buildings, like most bohemian areas (the Northern Quarter in Manchester and Bold Street in Liverpool, for example), it was once a run-down part of the city and now it has become the cool ‘in’ place to be (surprised they let me in, ha). The main road is Haga Nygata. This is pedestrianised, cobbled and lined with independent shops and cafes. The infamous Cafe Hursaren is home to super-sized cinnamon buns. As a self-confessed cinnamon hater, I avoided, but it is well known so if you’re into cinnamon buns, you’re in for a treat.
Gothenburg is also a city break that offers THE BEST DAY TRIP I HAVE EVER DONE. Dun, dun, dun… (dramatic pause).
You have to get out of the city for a day to visit the beautiful island of Brännö, in Gothenburg’s Southern Archipelago. Take the local tram and then a ferry. The island is magical – like going back in time. Cars are banned and there are only around 800 inhabitants. The dream. When you’re on Brännö, explore the beautiful winding lanes lined with blossom trees and typical Swedish houses, sit and enjoy sea views from the harbours, and of course eat all the local seafood. If you’re anything like me, you’ll fall in love with the place. I still think about it all the time, years later.
Looking for where to stay in Gothenburg? Sadly the apartment I stayed in last time has closed down, but I’ve spied this very central hotel for my next trip, which also has great reviews.
7. Bergen, Norway
While Oslo is the obvious Norwegian city to head to, I’d absolutely go to beautiful Bergen again and again. The waterfront is gorgeous against the mountainous backdrop and it was one of the prettiest places we’ve ever explored. And most importantly, it’s the gateway to the fjords and the perfect little city to base yourself in for getting all that fjord action.
Fjords are the absolute must-see spectacle in Norway. They look like calm lakes, but they’re actually saltwater arms of the sea shaped from glaciation below sea level. The depth of the water in them means that you can get very close to the side of their towering cliffs by boat. Like, really close. I stood on the deck of a boat and filled a glass from the waterfalls. Surreal.
Bergen is halfway between Western Norway’s two largest fjords, Sognefjord and Hardangerfjord, so really well located for them. And once you’ve had your fill of fjord-based fun, the city is really good to explore and eat your way round. Like all little Scandi cities, it’s got the cobbled streets and pastel houses of Instagram dreams. Bryggen, the old wharf, is full of very old wooden houses and winding alleyways. You can also go up the funicular railway to view Bergen from Mount Floyen, which is gorgeous on a clear day. There are loads of good places to eat and drink around Bergen but the most memorable meal we had was a tasting menu at 1877. It’s not cheap, but when in Scandinavia…
You can read my full post about three days in Bergen here.
Looking for where to stay in Bergen? I loved the gorgeous Thon Hotel Rosenkranz, and I don’t normally go for chain hotels but it was perfect.
Fellow travel bloggers’ ideas for unusual and alternative European city breaks
Right, that’s the end of my bit.
Onto the alternative European city break suggestions from other travel bloggers…
8. Kutna Hora, Czech Republic
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Michelle from Maps and Muses: you can read her full post on Kutna Hora as a day trip from Prague here.
One of the most unusual cities I’ve ever visited is Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic. It’s only an hour by train from Prague which makes it a quick, inexpensive, and memorable day trip.
Kutna Hora is an old trading hub that is filled with haunting beauty from the Middle Ages. The reason we decided to visit this unique city was to check out the famous church that is actually decorated with human bones. The bones of 40,000 to 70,000 people are located in the underground chapel of the Church of All Saints called the Sedlec Ossuary. The bones are from people who died of the plague in the 14th century and during the Hussite wars in the 15th century.
During the 1500s, a half-blind monk was hired to exhume the bones and stack them within the church. Then in the 1800s, the bones were arranged into decorations, the most famous being a magnificently creepy chandelier. There are still bones being exhumed to this day and you can actually watch the archaeologists while you’re there. It’s a truly haunting experience and an incredible city to visit.
9. Innsbruck, Austria
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Linda from Travel Tyrol: you can see her full post about things to do and Innsbruck old town sights here.
There aren’t many cities in the world where you can marvel at an imperial palace one minute and stand on an Alpine peak the next. Innsbruck, Austria is that city in the heart of Europe.
A city break to Innsbruck is an escape to the mountains, even if you never leave the historic old town on the banks of the Inn River. From the famous Golden Roof (a balcony roof adorned with 2,657 fire-gilded copper tiles) from where Emperor Maximilian I watched his underlings to the row of colourful houses across the river from the market square – everything comes with a magnificent mountain backdrop.
Learn about the once mighty Habsburgs by exploring Innsbruck old town. Sights include the imperial palace, court church and triumphal arch. Or simply experience the street cafés on Maria Theresa Street, where you will also get your shopping fix.
Explore more by taking the cable car up the Nordkette Mountain or the shuttle bus to Swarovski Crystal Worlds in Wattens, the home of the world-famous crystals. Or get your fix of history and Olympic glory by visiting the Bergisel ski jump and adjacent Tyrol Panorama museum. Whether summer or winter, there’s more than enough to see and do even if you don’t ski, hike or do adventure sports.
10. Perugia, Italy
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Natasha from The World Pursuit: you can see her full post about visiting Italy here.
We were pleasantly surprised when we arrived to Perugia, the capital of Umbria in Italy, on a cold winter day a few years ago. The beautiful Italian city is located on a hilltop overlooking the countryside. The city is loaded with historic sites, cafes, and buildings. The city centre is a collection of steps, cobbled alleys and arched stairways surrounded by churches and beautiful architecture.
However, it isn’t well worn on the traditional Italy tourist path. So everything feels completely authentic – like it should.
There is plenty to do and see in this small city with many museums, a university, and many festivals. It’s also possible to venture next door to Assisi when here for a fun day trip. I would highly recommend stopping in Perugia for just a few days. It’s very close to both Rome and Florence, too.
11. Tallinn, Estonia
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Sarah from TripGourmets: you can see her full post about a city break in Tallinn here.
Tallinn, Estonia is located on the topmost tip of Eastern Europe and is an underrated gem of a city. The old town of Tallinn is one of the most beautifully preserved medieval cities in Europe, reflected in its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Walking around the historic old town is like stepping back in time.
It is small, so you can easily walk around the historic town hall square, along the city walls and between the fortified towers to learn how they got their humorous names like Fat Margaret and Kiek in de Koek (not as rude as it sounds!). A short walk uphill and you can reach the upper town of Toompea. This was once a separate town but has always been the seat of power in Estonia. Today, the castle houses the Estonian government. You can also visit the Russian orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and get the most amazing photos from the viewpoints out over the old city.
If all this isn’t enough, you can easily take the two-hour ferry journey to Helsinki, meaning you get two countries for the price of one! There is a lot to love about Tallinn.
12. Yerevan, Armenia
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Emily from Wander-Lush: you can see her full post about things to do in Yerevan here.
Located on the cusp of Europe and Asia, Armenia is an alluring mix of east and west. Its capital city, Yerevan, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
Yerevan is an outdoor city, with attractive green spaces, sculpture parks and a cafe culture that rivals Paris (according to our walking tour guide, there are more than 500 outdoor eateries!). The city is particularly pretty in spring, when the tulip gardens around the city’s beating heart, Republic Square, come into full bloom. Hundreds of flower vendors hit the streets.
While in Yerevan, split your time between museums, galleries and fresh produce markets. Navigate the city on its Soviet-era metro. The world’s first Christian state among mostly Muslim neighbours, Armenia’s capital is home to mosques, ancient cathedrals and synagogues.
A highlight of any visit to Yerevan is the Vernissage Market (pictured). This is a massive flea market and artisan bazaar where vendors sell everything from antique Caucasian carpets, to local honey, to Stalin memorabilia.
13. Strasbourg, France
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Kate from Our Escape Clause: you can see her full post about a day in Strasbourg here.
Nestled against the border of Germany in the northeast corner of France, Strasbourg is a city of French and German combinations. You will find a mixture of French and German in the food, architecture and language (an independent language called ‘Alsatian’). This makes the capital of the Alsace region intriguing to visit. And that’s even before you realise how beautiful it is.
Set along a series of canals, Strasbourg boasts endless half-timber houses and pretty bridges, making it incredibly picturesque. Stroll along its canals, eat delicious Alsatian food in a winstub (think of a German pub with a French twist), to take boat ride through the canals, visit the European Parliament, and climb the steps of the Strasbourg Cathedral to stare out over the city.
Above all, enjoy the food. After all, how could any food lover in the world resist a place where fresh pretzels are sold right alongside fresh croissants?
14. Annecy, France
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Leyla from Women on the Road: you can see her full post about things to do in Annecy here. I’d also like to add that I adored Leyla’s use of the term ‘convivial fondue pot’ in the below piece!
The problem with Annecy is that you don’t know where to look. At the ancient archways and winding cobbled streets? The romantic canals lined with bursts of red, pink and white flowers? The glorious snowy peaks that ring its lake? It’s for good reason. Annecy is often called France’s prettiest town.
But don’t think it’s just eye candy. Not at all. It’s a delectable eating town, set right in mountain cheese country. After a day’s skiing less than an hour away, there’s nothing better than gathering around a convivial fondue pot for an evening of fun. Despite its popularity – with French tourists from across the country and with day-trippers from Geneva – its eateries have kept up their quality. So eating well (and reasonably) is as simple as picking up a menu.
You can stroll along the waterways – or you can be as active as you want. Cycle around the lake, hike and ski in the mountains (or throw yourself off them because Annecy is a major paragliding centre). If you come in June, enjoy the world-class animation festival or in August, you’ll be treated to Europe’s largest fireworks, glistening across the lake. It doesn’t really matter what you like. You’ll find it here.
15. Aarhus, Denmark
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Mary from Move to Vietnam.
If we talk about Denmark, everyone will surely say ‘Copenhagen!’, but Denmark has so much more than Copenhagen.
If you want to go to an unusual city for your weekend or summer break, why not check out Denmark’s ‘other city’? Aarhus is the second largest city in Denmark. I personally lived here for two years and I cannot recommend it enough. Aarhus is a city with everything you need. It is by the ocean, has forest and parks, and is filled with historical architecture that you can only see in Scandinavian countries.
Denmark in general is known for its massive use of the bicycle. Aarhus is a small city, so you can easily hop on your bike and explore the city. Nightlife is amazing too. The locals are very open-minded and the city itself is LGBTQIA friendly. It’s no question that Aarhus is a great city break that is not mainstream.
16. Antwerp, Belgium
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Jurga from Full Suitcase: you can see her full post about the best things to do in Antwerp here.
While most people visiting Belgium go to Brussels, Ghent or Bruges, the real gem – Antwerp – is still often overlooked. Nominated as one of the top 10 cities to visit in 2018 by the Lonely Planet, Antwerp is actually my top choice if you are planning a city break in Belgium.
Antwerp has it all: history, traditional as well as modern architecture, lots of museums, unusual street art, quirky bars and fancy restaurants, and some of the best boutique shopping in Belgium. Whether you come for a day or a weekend, alone or with family and friends, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by a great variety of places to see and things to do. Walk through the old town, take a harbour boat tour, or rent a bike and explore many parks in and around the city.
Here are some of my favourite spots not to be missed in Antwerp: the magnificent old town with some of the finest 16th century guild houses at the city’s main square; Grote Markt; the Cathedral; the 10th century castle; and the newest additions to the city’s skyline: MAS museum, the New Port House, and the futuristic pedestrian Park Bridge.
17. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Kami from My Wanderlust: you can see her full post about the things to do in Sarajevo here.
The capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina might not be the most popular city break destination in Europe but it surely is among the most interesting ones. East meets West and cultures and religions collide. Within a few minutes’ walk, you can visit the Orthodox church, the Catholic cathedral, the synagogue and the mosque. When walking the main pedestrian street, with one step you move from the grand architecture of Austria-Hungary times to cute little Ottoman houses.
Sarajevo played an important role in different aspects of 20th century history. World War 1 started here in 1914. This is where Winter Olympic Games took place in 1984. The longest siege in modern history happened here in 1992-96. You can feel the recent history all over the city and that’s also what makes Sarajevo special and unique.
The city is also known for its delicious cuisine, especially cevapi and thick coffee. For me, however, this is also a city of some of the most amazing sunsets I’ve ever seen. Since Sarajevo is located on the hills, after each tiring walk up you can get some stunning views.
18. Bremen, Germany
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Arzo from Arzo Travels: you can see her full post about the best things to do in Bremen here.
While Bremen is not a real hidden gem, it is still an underrated destination. If you are looking for a beautiful city to visit in Europe that isn’t overrun with tourists, then book a trip to Bremen and I’m sure you won’t regret it.
Bremen lies in the northern part of Germany and is one of the biggest cities (with about 500,000 inhabitants). While you stumble on some other visitors, you will mostly share the city with proud locals (and I am one of them) who might not look extremely friendly but actually are.
And here are some of the things you should do in Bremen:
- The old town, the Schnoor, is one of the main attractions and it is easy to see why. The old, cobbled narrow streets (narrow means that some streets are so small that you cannot even fit in a pram) and colourful houses are very charming and should be high on your itinerary.
- The market square with the town hall and Roland Statue (both UNESCO world heritage sites).
- See some other areas: the Schlachte (a water promenade with many restaurants and cafes); the Viertel (a hip quarter with many bars, shops and cafes); the Wallanlagen (a lot of greenery and such a lovely place for strolls. In summer, you’ll find the old mill with a lovely flower setting); and the Osterdeich (especially on a sunny day, this place is great for a nice picnic).
So, while it is not the most famous destination in Europe, you’ll have many fun places to visit.
19. Cordoba, Spain
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Dhara from Not About The Miles: you can read her post on things to do in Cordoba here.
With its acclaimed Mezquita (mosque-cathedral), trendy tapas bars and walkable historic centre, the Andalusian city of Córdoba is a fun city break destination for those seeking the unique. It’s not as well-known as Seville or Granada, and that’s unfortunate, because Córdoba is every bit as magnificent.
Explore the Mezquita with its ornate interior that will leave you speechless. Walk across the Roman Bridge over the Guadalquivir River to the Calahorra Tower. Stroll the gardens of the Alcazar by day, then return at night to watch the magical sound and light show. Catch a flamenco performance. Wander the labyrinthine streets, pausing to admire the bright flower pots that adorn every wall.
Super comfy high-speed trains connect to Córdoba from Madrid, Malaga and Seville, so getting here is quick and painless. Córdoba has a range of accommodations to suit every budget and fun places to discover if you are a foodie. A tapas crawl is a must! The best time to visit? Spring in Andalusia is wonderful, with pleasant daytime temperatures. And May brings the famous Festival of the Patios, when Córdoba’s pretty patios, overflowing with colourful pots and plants, are open to the public.
20. Constanta, Romania
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Jeanne from Pure Wander: you can see her full post about Constanta, Romania here.
If you are looking for a fantastic beach-city getaway, skip the Mediterranean and give the Black Sea a whirl. Constanta, Romania is a charming port just a short train ride away from the hustle and bustle of Bucharest. If the idea of having sand between your toes gives you goosebumps, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy this charming little city.
Constanta dates back over 2,000 years, with a rich culture and history to discover. There are a handful of museums ranging from natural history, to folk art and the Romanian Navy. Also, no trip to Constanta can be complete without taking a proper selfie in from of the Casino! Known as Romania’s Monte Carlo, the casino is one of the most beautiful abandoned buildings in the world. To close out a beautiful sunny day, enjoy local shellfish and wine at Tomis Harbour while watching the sun set.
21. Brno, Czech Republic
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Nicholas from Rambling Feet.
In Brno, you’ll find a delightful Moravian city that isn’t overrun with tourists. A visit to Brno can form part of an extended trip that includes Vienna or Bratislava; a train whisks you to those cities in 100 minutes or less.
For much of the year, a large student population fills its streets. Every August, race fans attend the Czech Motorcycle Grand Prix at the nearby Masaryk circuit. Besides petrolheads, Brno is of considerable interest to wine enthusiasts. After all, it’s in the heart of the Czech Republic’s wine-growing region, so tours to vineyards are easy to arrange. Architecture buffs should not miss Villa Tugendhat, which was designed by the pioneering modern architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, booking a tour in advance is essential.
While the Spilberk castle and the Cathedral tower over the skyline, there are even more unusual sights underground. The bones of 50,000 epidemic and war victims line the walls of an ossuary below St James’ Church, accompanied by contemporary sculptures. Somewhat less macabre is the Labyrinth under the Cabbage Market, a network of chambers that was once used to store food and wine. The tour is not for the claustrophobic, but it’s a great way to learn about life in the mediaeval city.
22. Tirana, Albania
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Allison from Eternal Arrival: you can see her full post about things to do in Albania here.
Tirana is probably not the first place your mind goes to when you think of a European city break. But it’s actually jam-packed with fun things to do. Tirana is great for anyone fascinated by post-Communist countries. It used to be one of the most isolated Communist capitals in the world. Now, it’s a bustling city filled with cool restaurants, trendy bars and interesting street art.
You can’t miss the Tirana Free Walking Tour. It’s a great way to start to wrap your mind around Tirana’s mind-boggling recent history, from a local who lived through the isolated Communist years. To learn more about the history, you can visit a hybrid history/art museum, Bunk’ART. It’s in a multi-story underground bunker that was the hideaway of former dictator Enver Hoxha. Be sure to visit the PostBlloku memorial, where you’l find one of Albania’s hundreds of thousands of nuclear concrete bunkers, concrete pillars from a labour camp and a piece of the Berlin Wall forming a triangle. Visit the Pyramid of Tirana, also called Piramida. This was built as a memorial to Enver Hoxha by his daughter and now sits abandoned.
But Tirana is so much more than just post-Communist oddities and memorials. It’s vibrant and full of life. The former heart of the Communist party was located in the neighbourhood of Blloku, which was where important party figures lived. Now, Blloku is the trendiest neighbourhood in Tirana. It’s full of rainbow-coloured building facades to take photos of by day and cool bars to frequent by night. So don’t discount Tirana if you see a cheap flight during your next Skyscanner search! It’s a great, unusual city break.
23. Ohrid, Macedonia
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Kirstin from The Tinberry Travels: you can see her full post about things to do in Ohrid here.
For those looking for a European break, the country of Macedonia probably isn’t top of your list. But it’s a destination with plenty to offer. Lake Ohird is one of the most beautiful spots in the Balkans and its biggest settlement, Ohrid City in Macedonia, is a great option for those looking for somewhere different from the typical European city break.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Ohrid has a wealth of historic sites. As the legend goes, it once had so many churches that there was one for every day of the year! As well as an ancient Roman amphitheatre and a fortress dating back to the Bulgarian empire, Ohrid is the ideal location to enjoy the spectacular natural surroundings of the lake and nearby mountains. There are also plenty of things to do in Ohrid for the more active visitors with boat trips, wild swimming, hiking and even paragliding on offer for those brave enough.
The city has the added benefit of its own local airport, which has attracted low-cost airlines from a number of different destinations, making it perfect for a budget break.
24. Podgorica, Montenegro
With thanks to fellow travel bloggers Lisa and Eric from Penguin and Pia: you can see their full post about some of the things to do and why Podgorica is a great city to explore here.
If you’re looking for an unusual city to cross off your travel list, then Podgorica, Montenegro might be for you. Located in the middle of the country (but not too far from the Adriatic Coast), the capital city has just enough things to do for a weekend trip. In Podgorica, there is lots of history and architecture to be enjoyed. From Ottoman and Communist-era buildings to newer modern architecture like the famous Millennium Bridge, the diverse city is growing and developing constantly.
In the centre, there are dozens of shops, bars, and restaurants. You can try traditional Balkan-style foods like cevapi. If grilled sausages aren’t your thing, the surrounding area makes it perfect for nature lovers. From hills for hiking to waterfalls and crystal blue rivers, Podgorica is a great city to explore if you’ve got a couple days or are passing through to the Balkan coastline.
25. Gdansk, Poland
With thanks to fellow travel bloggers Maria and Rui from Two Find a Way.
Gdansk is a city in the North of Poland, right in the Baltic coast, making it the country’s main seaport. The city is compact, but bustling with things to do and breathtaking places to see. It is perfect for an alternative European city break! It’s unusual, because many people still don’t realise Poland’s tourism potential. The country is filled with history, welcoming people and delicious food!
Gdansk is a great introduction if you’ve never visited Poland, but also a wonderful follow-up if you already know Warsaw and Krakow. Due to its history, Gdansk has its own unique identity. This is a melting pot of influences. Be sure to explore the breathtakingly beautiful old town and climb the tower of Saint Mary’s Church for a view of the city. Visit the European Solidarity Centre to learn more about Poland’s recent history, or the recently open Museum of the Second World War. Also, do take your time to get out of the centre to relax at the peaceful Oliwa Park.
The Lech Walesa airport is around 12km from the city, with connections to other European cities. You can also easily get to the city by bus, train, and even ferry boat.
26. Nicosia, Cyprus
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Stephanie from History Fangirl: you can see her full post about the best things to do in Cyprus here.
When people think about taking a quick trip to Cyprus, they’re usually thinking of Paphos, Agia Napa or Larnaca. Synonymous with beach vacations, Cyprus has earned a reputation as a place for tranquility and seaside cocktails. However, if you head to (landlocked) Nicosia, Cyprus’s capital, you’ll get to see how Cypriots do cities.
Enveloped within ancient Venetian walls and split in two between Cyprus and the Turkish Federation of North Cyprus, it’s the world’s only officially divided capital. You’ll have to cross a UN Buffer zone (take your passport!) to see the northern half of the city on the side controlled by North Cyprus. Nicosia is a great place for city lovers and it poses many complex questions about what makes a city and how to live a modern life surrounded by so much history.
I spent a month there, and I can’t recommend the city highly enough! If you’re looking for things to do in Cyprus, and specifically Nicosia, head to the tourism office at the Larnaca airport on arrival. They’ll give you a map plus a giant list of activities, many of which are free.
27. Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Cate from International Desserts: you can see her full post about the best cities to visit in Germany here.
If you’re looking for an unusual city break in Europe, I highly recommend charming and relaxed Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany. This medieval university city deep in the Black Forest offers plenty to keep you busy. It’s also one of the sunniest and warmest cities in Germany!
Here are a few things to do in the central pedestrian area: see Martinstor and Schwabentor, two old city gates; climb the Münster cathedral tower; visit the historic university; go shopping at the daily outdoor market in Münsterplatz; enjoy kaffee und kuchen (coffee and cake) in a cute little cafe; or tour the local Ganter brewery.
You can go for a walk or bike ride along the Dreisam river (and if it’s hot, join the locals in the Dreisam!). Hike up Schlossberg for beautiful views of the city. You can also take the cable car if you’re tired of being on your feet.
Warning: if you fall into one of Freiburg’s cute little Bächle (the old water filled gutter system that runs through the streets), local legend says you’ll marry a Freiberger!
28. Bolsward, the Netherlands
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Stuart from Go Eat Do.
Amsterdam, of course, is the city that draws most travellers to the Netherlands. Few of those have even heard of the tiny but picturesque city of Bolsward.
Bolsward is the home to around 10,000 people and one of the 11 cities in the province of Friesland that lie on the 200-kilometre route of the infrequently held Elfstedentocht ice-skating race. The last race was in 1997 because the ice on Dutch canals must be at least 15 centimetres thick.
To coincide with Leeuwarden-Friesland being a 2018 European Capital of Culture, each of those Frisian cities unveiled a fountain. Bolsward’s is De Vleermuis, meaning ‘The Bat’, by the artist Johan Creten. It stands outside the shell of the Broerekerk, a Gothic style church. This dates from the Middle Ages, when Bolsward was a member of Europe’s Hanseatic League of trading cities.
The attractive city hall conveys a sense of Bolsward’s long history. The city is a great place to soak up Frisian culture and well placed for day trips to the nearby coast.
29. Tbilisi, Georgia
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Sarah from A Social Nomad: you can see her full post about a weekend in Tbilisi here.
The capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, is an unusual city break to take. It sits at the confluence of Europe and Asia. It was a key staging post on the infamous Silk Road, which traders of yesteryear used to travel between the Asian and European continents. As such it’s a fabulous blend of cultural, architectural and culinary influences that somehow work incredibly well.
Here in Tbilisi, you’ll find the Narikala Fortress from the 5th century. You get to it by crossing the stunning Peace Bridge built in the 21st century and then riding in an aerial tramway. Tbilisi’s history includes decades of Soviet rule and a wide mix of religious influences. There’s plenty of history, some great museums and fabulous nightlife to enjoy. Georgia also claims to be the birthplace of wine!
The oldest part of the city is perhaps the best restored. The Abanotubani area was once home to more than 60 bathhouses. Today, there are just five but you can end your city break in Tbilisi with a private spa room and a massage for around £15. Tbilisi offers great food, incredible wine and an easily walkable city for a low price.
30. Rotterdam, The Netherlands
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Lisanne from Chapter Travel: you can see her full post about day trips in The Netherlands here.
A lot of tourists who visit the Netherlands only consider Amsterdam, the beautiful capital city. In recent years, more and more tourists realise that there are more cool towns and cities in this small country that are worth a visit. One of them Rotterdam, a booming city with futuristic architecture and a lot of great restaurants, cafes and buzzing nightlife. As a local myself, it’s hard to keep up with all the new trendy hotspots that appear out of nowhere.
Rotterdam is completely different from Amsterdam and any other Dutch city. Because Rotterdam was bombed during the Second World War, it had to be build from scratch. Now, Rotterdam has a lot of unique buildings, such as the Cube Houses pictured above, and a beautiful skyline that actually resembles New York a bit. That’s why we also call Rotterdam ‘Manhattan aan de Maas’ or ‘Manhattan at the Maas’.
31. Minsk, Belarus
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Roman from Roman Roams: you can see his full post about unusual things to do in Minsk here.
The capital of Belarus, Minsk, is a perfect place for an unusual, alternative city break. First, being one of the most underrated cities in Europe, it is not a typical place to visit. Second, you can find a wide variety of unusual things to do in Minsk, making your trip to Belarus an unforgettable experience.
Have you ever had an opportunity to ride a tank? Have you ever been to a cat museum? Maybe you’ve always wanted to test your drawing skills with a help of professional painters? In Minsk, you can try all of it!
Some attractions that you want to include in your itinerary are: the National Library built in the shape of diamond with an observation deck on the top; the WW2 museum made up of a series of historical events and battles with lots of military equipment; and a huge apartment building next to the tiny and cosy Trinity suburb.
A good way to explore the city is to attend a tour organised by IgraRoom project. See the open-air Museum of Stones. Visit Oktyabrskaya (October) Street which is full of abandoned factories and recently revived thanks to nice street art and numerous hipster bars. Go to Ў Gallery, which has a library, souvenir shop and a bar and was previously used as a glass recycling centre. There’s also a Botanical Garden (the third largest in the world!).
32. Lucerne, Switzerland
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Michael from MSC Gerber: you can see his full post about visiting Lucerne in winter here.
Why should you consider a city break in Lucerne? The answer is quite simple: The city is just extremely beautiful. With under 100,000 inhabitants, some people wouldn’t even call Lucerne a city. Yet, it has so much to offer. It has a beautiful and historic old town, including the oldest wooden bridge of Europe (the Chapel Bridge, which almost completely burnt down in 1993) and the famous Lion monument.
Lucerne is located in between the Swiss Alps and next to Lake Lucerne. This makes it a perfect starting point to explore the Swiss nature. And there are plenty of options. You can either go to one of the many tourist hotspots like Mount Pilatus, Rigi or Titilis, just to mention a few – breathtaking views included. Or choose a lesser-known place like the Glattalp. From Lucerne, you can reach dozens of other beautiful places in under two hours. A dream for every nature lover.
33. Debrecen, Hungary
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Alex from Swedish Nomad.
Debrecen is the second largest city in Hungary, but it’s often overlooked by the capital of Budapest. This is something that I hope to change because Debrecen can also be a nice city break. Especially if you want to see some beautiful architecture, eat delicious Hungarian food, make a day trip to the Hungarian Puszta and of course enjoy yourself and relax at one of the biggest Spa centres in Europe.
It’s about three hours away from Budapest by train, so it’s easy to get here and the trains run frequently. One of the major attractions is the majestic cathedral in the main city square. In recent years, prices have increased in Budapest, but Debrecen offers cheaper accommodation and lower prices at the restaurants. And at the same time, you get a real city experience. From Debrecen, it’s also easy to visit the famous wine region of Tokaj, where you can try the sweet Tokaji Aszu wine.
34. Utrecht, The Netherlands
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Allison from Allison Fay.
Utrecht is full of history with its UNESCO heritage sights and beautiful canals, mixed in with modern architecture. This city is the perfect alternative to Amsterdam.
Make sure to visit the historical Dom Square, where you can climb up The Dom Tower. Go underneath Utrecht at DOMunder. Why not stroll along the beautiful canals at Oudegracht and Nieuwegracht? Eat at one of the restaurants located in the water-level cellars alongside the canal, or at the Oudaen castle.
Next, head on over to Janskerkhof, a square famous for it’s Saturday flower market and it’s church, Janskerk. Janskerk was founded in 1040 and is open to the public on weekday mornings. A statue of Anne Frank is located in front of Janskerk, which stands as a memorial those in the Netherlands that were persecuted during World War 2.
If you’re feeling hungry, then make sure to grab some traditional Belgian fries from Frietwinkle, the best-rated snack bar in Utrecht. If you’re looking for somewhere to drink, then head to Neude Square. It’s one of the main drinking hubs in Utrecht where you can sit outside and enjoy drinks surrounded by some famous architecture, such as a Dutch art deco style Post Office.
35. Kotor, Montenegro
With thanks to fellow travel blogger Bec from Wyld Family Travel: you can read her full post on visiting Our Lady of the Rocks in Kotor here.
There are just some places that you instantly take a liking to. As we looked out of the bus windows as we drove through Kotor, we all knew we were going to love it. With high mountains on one side and the Bay of Kotor on the other, you just didn’t know where to look first!
We stayed within the walls of Kotor. Our apartment had a little terrace so we could look out over the Bay in the mornings. It was very quiet when we were there because it was winter, so there were no huge cruise shops in port. At times, it felt like we had the whole city to ourselves. We did a day trip to Our Lady of the Rocks in Perast and after one boat left, we were the only ones left on the tiny island.
We also decided that we could not visit Kotor without getting the best views in the land. So we did biggest and longest hike we have ever done to reach Kotor Fortress! It took nearly three hours. But the views were simply stunning. When we wanted to have some down time, we just wandered the narrow little streets within the walls and had a look at the shops.
36. Genoa, Italy
With thanks to Noel from Travel Photo Discovery: you can see his full post on visiting Genoa here.
Genoa is not typically on people’s must-visit list for Italy, but for those who love beautiful palaces, stunning streets and UNESCO sites, this historic and once powerful Italian city is worthy of a visit.
A little rough on the outside, the historic centre is filled with gems like the main cathedral, gorgeous piazzas, the waterfront areas and the main historic street. The latter is home to a fabulous palazzo, museums and other venues open for the public to visit.
Save and share: 36 unusual and alternative European city breaks
If you found this huge post about alternative European city breaks for your next holiday useful for a wee bit of inspiration, why not hover over one of the below images and pin to your Pinterest board? (Desktop only).
If you’d like an email alert when I publish a new post, subscribe using the box at the side (if you’re on a laptop) or at the bottom (if you’re on a mobile or tablet).