8 great lesser known European cities

Bored by Berlin? Tired of Tuscany? And Paris? Try these cities instead

Travel

Reykjavik, Iceland
It may boast a remarkable history – it’s the site of the world’s first parliament, thought to have been established in 930 AD – but the city today holds its past and future in even balance. Its modernism is striking, from the clean lines of its buildings to its experimental music scene to its status as one of the most environmentally conscious cities in the world.

Reykjavik’s compact size (it has just 120,000 inhabitants – positively titchy for a European capital) makes it ideal for a casual wander. If you want to get your bearings, start by taking a trip in the elevator to the top of Hallgrimskirkja, a building that resembles the helm of a Viking ship. Culture vultures should then flock to the cultural hub of Harpa, while nature lovers can opt for whale-watching at the harbour or hikes along the coastline. And whatever your predilections, a dip in one of the city’s famous hot pools makes for a perfect cap to a day of ambling.

Gozo, Malta
The Maltese archipelago has more to offer than just the island from which it takes its name. A mere 25 minutes by ferry from Malta, tiny Gozo is a destination in its own right, boasting a distinct history, culture and character. The Maltese flock here to enjoy the verdant scenery, superior food and relaxed pace of life. And it isn’t just the locals who love it: none other than Brangelina chose it as their honeymoon destination.

Most roads in Gozo lead to the capital, Victoria, an attractive jumble of markets, restaurants, quaint British gardens and diverting museums. Its high point – quite literally – is the ancient fortified Cittadella, with its magnificent 360-degree view of the island. Spread out below you are the island’s chief sights: the scenic beach resort of Marsalforn, the world-famous Neolithic buildings of Ggantija and the legendary Calypso’s Cave, where Odysseus may or may not have taken a break during his travels.

Riga, Latvia
The capital of Latvia and the largest city in the Baltic States, Riga is rich in history and heritage. The medieval wonders of the old town of Vecriga and its beautiful early-20th-century art nouveau districts to the north point to the city’s importance and prosperity over the centuries. But Riga is much more than a beautiful relic. The city is booming – its selection as the European Capital of Culture for 2014 attests to its meteoric rise in the last few decades – and the years of suffocating Soviet rule are rapidly becoming a distant memory.

The economic regeneration is matched by a burgeoning tourist trade and a vibrant (some would say riotous) nightlife, which often carries on until dawn; Riga is understandably popular with stag and hen parties at the weekends. If it all gets too much, then beyond the city lies the beautiful Baltic coast. The resort town of Jurmala is 30 minutes by train west of Riga and was once a popular retreat for the Russian royal family. It still draws the crowds in summer with its outstanding natural beauty and excellent health spas.

Split, Croatia
No longer a mere hop-off point on the way to the nearby destination islands of Brac, Hvar and Vis, Split is today the de facto capital of Dalmatia, built around a living Roman ruin. It has everything you could want from a holiday and then some. A rash of new four- and five-star hotels, galleries filled with works by Ivan Mestrovic, Croatia’s most celebrated sculptor, and the best bar crawl on the Adriatic coast – not to mention beach parties and a major music festival – all make for a perfect summer getaway.

But Split also provides a great year-round city break, not least due to the recent phenomenon of quality bistro openings. Venues such as Uje, NoStress and Bokeria form a part of this new culinary wave, making the best use of fresh, organic regional produce and the bounty of the Adriatic. And, unlike the more glamorous Dubrovnik, Split is also eminently affordable.

Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmö, Sweden
Copenhagen’s visitor appeal has exploded over the past few years, with people from all around the world flocking to Scandinavia’s most avant-garde city to enjoy its innovative restaurants, enviable bike culture and strong arts scene. The city exudes a fairytale charm through its royal palaces, Tivoli theme park and colourful historic buildings. Meanwhile, its much-hyped New Nordic restaurants continue to draw the foodies, with a whole host of internationally acclaimed chefs following in the footsteps of Noma’s René Redzepi in their quest to reinterpret traditional Scandinavian cooking.

Anyone who’s ever tuned into another successful local export, TV crime drama The Bridge, will know that a no less scintillating city awaits a half hour’s drive away. It happens to be in another country and across a sea, but Malmö – Sweden’s third-largest city – is worth the short trip via the Øresund Bridge. Its unusually cosmopolitan population includes some 15,000 university students, who give the city a vibrant energy. The place is particularly appealing during the summer, when its long sandy beach and beautiful parks really come into their own, and when its historic heart, centred around the lovely cobbled square of Lilla Torg, comes alive – especially at night.

Tbilisi, Georgia
Straddling the border between historical empires, Georgia’s capital is an alluring hybrid of architecture, customs and traditions, whose enduring anonymity on the tourism scene makes it all the more special for those who do visit.

Georgia may not technically be in Europe (though that doesn’t stop it from competing in Eurovision, as Australians are well aware) – but you wouldn’t know it from a stroll through Tbilisi’s Old Town. On its fringes, on-trend bars and cafés sprout like hairs in a hipster’s beard, drawing in the city’s burgeoning student population. Then you turn a corner, and another world intrudes: a complex of sulphuric baths framed by minarets.

As Tbilisi sloughs off its Soviet veneer and reopens itself to the West, its cultural riches are once again becoming accessible to the adventurous traveller. There’s never been a better time to go.

Kraków, Poland
By now many of you will know Kraków, the former Polish capital and seat of learning with the pristine Old Town. Few, though, will have made it across to Podgórze, the grey area immediately over the river. But on your next visit, make sure you go – for Podgórze is where the scene is heading.

At the foot of the crisscross cast-iron bridge stands the Drukarnia, perhaps the best bar in the city. Regular live jazz acts and DJs provide entertainment amid the lively banter. Nearby, Peruvian, Hawaiian and Indian coffees are purveyed at the bohemian Rekawka Café.

After doing the street-level stroll, you can observe this compact quarter from the comfort of the rooftop pool atop the Qubus spa and business hotel. Seven storeys high, with a quality restaurant, jazz club and piano bar, it’s the most impressive of its genre in Poland’s most dynamic and affluent city.

Lisbon, Portugal
There’s always been an infinite number of reasons to visit Europe’s most westerly capital. But as of 2015, there is a new reason to discover it, thanks to a new gastronomic venture spearheaded by Time Out – if we do say so ourselves. Mercado da Ribeira has had many guises: its roots can be traced back to the 13th century, and it was once one of the most famous fish markets in Europe.

Many of its traders have been selling fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and flowers there for decades. When we learned that the city council was seeking bids for the chance to manage a large part of the iconic attraction, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity. The Time Out Mercado da Ribeira now brings together some of the
city’s most loved names in food and drink.

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