Forget big cities like Amsterdam and London, we find 16 smaller but stunning cities in Europe that can light up your Instagram and rack up likes
1. Aalborg, Denmark
Some 308km (191 miles) northwest of Copenhagen is Aalborg (also spelt Ålborg), a compact city seated on a peninsula overlooking the North Sea. Top attractions include the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art and Utzon Center, a vibrant cultural centre on the waterfront. Make time for the 14-century Cathedral of St Budolfi, which is said to be the smallest cathedral in Denmark.
2. Canterbury, England
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Canterbury is famously associated with Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, a collection of 24 stories written between 1387 and 1400. Today there is an interactive tour taking you through the tales, should you fancy meeting costumed characters and pilgrims. Another excellent way to see the city is to hire a punt with a boatman acting as your guide.
3. Dinant, Belgium
101km (63 miles) southeast of Brussels is Dinant, a city in the French-speaking region of Wallonia. The Citadel of Dinant, accessible by 408 steps and cable car, is the most famous landmark. Renting a bike and cycling along the Meuse River also offers a delightful experience.
4. Innsbruck, Austriain
Set against the magnificent Nordkette Alps, Innsbruck is a popular winter sports destination but the city also boasts medieval churches and stately monuments that are open year-round. If you’re after a sparkly present for a loved one, visit the Swarovski store in town.
5. Lappeenranta, Finland
Lappeenranta lies just 30km (19 miles) from the Finnish-Russian border and was a strategic trading hub in the Middle Ages. Today this picturesque city is all about promoting sustainable living and cutting carbon emissions, and has 12% of its workforce employed in the environment and cleantech sectors. The star attraction here is Lake Saimaa, Finland’s largest lake, and you can explore it by hiring a kayak or hopping on a steamer.
6. Liberec, Czech Republic
If you travel 122km (76 miles) northeast of Prague along Route 65, you will find Liberec, the only place in the Czech Republic where you can see white tigers. Liberec is also a great starting point for day trips to the rugged Jizera Mountain.
7. Lucerne, Switzerland
Lucerne, the gateway to central Switzerland, mixes nature and culture effortlessly. Take a boat cruise on Lake Lucerne, hike up Mount Pilatus, check out the Swiss Museum of Transport, and pause at the Lion Monument – a stone sculpture of a dying lion which Mark Twain described as “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world”.
8. Nijmegen, Netherlands
Said to be the oldest city in the Netherlands, Nijmegen “makes you think you’ve gone back to Roman times”, proclaimed the local tourist office and they aren’t wrong. If you want to dive deep into the region’s history, stop at Museum De Bastei. And if you are a keen walker, consider taking part in the glorious De Nijmeegse Vierdaagse (Nijmegen Four Days Marches). Held on the third Tuesday of every July, it is the biggest walking event in the world.
9. Nîmes, France
118km (73 miles) northwest of Marseille is Nîmes, a city with numerous Roman gems, including the amphitheatre and the ancient temple Maison Carrée. Being in France, you’ll eat well too – petits pâtés Nîmois (small pies) and brandade de morue (salted cod) are absolutely delicious.
10. Norwich, England
The spire of the majestic Norman Cathedral, cobbled streets and ancient half-timbered buildings are the clues that tell you why Norwich is an exceptionally fine medieval city in the UK. Beyond historical sites, the city has a thriving gastronomy scene with great pubs to match.
11. Malmö, Sweden
Malmö is Sweden’s most bike-friendly city and also one of the greenest destinations – the ultra-modern Västra hamnen is a carbon-neutral neighbourhood that uses a thermal energy storage system (pumped by wind energy) to heat homes in winters. During the summer months, the 2.5km (1.5 miles) long Ribersborg beach is where the laid-back Swedish enjoy swimming and soaking up the sun. And if you’re after something quirky, check out the Disgusting Food Museum.
12. Maribor, Slovenia
Near the Austrian-Slovenian border, Maribor is a beautiful city on the Drava River known for lush vineyards producing fantastic but immensely underrated wines. In front of the Old Vine House, in the heart of the city centre, you’ll find the world’s oldest vine according to the Guinness Book of Records. Pop in for a wine tasting session at the Old Vine House – it’s well worth it.
13. Poznań, Poland
Once a major trade centre in the 15th and 16th centuries, Poznań’s rich history and cultural landmarks appeal to highbrow tourists. The handsome Old Market Square is where most visitors congregate, particularly at noon when the mechanical billy goats in the Town Hall appear – the two little goats butt heads 12 times as the clock strikes noon. The locals here also love their St Martin croissants filled with white poppy seeds, so much so that there is even a Poznań Croissant Museum.
14. Schwerin, Germany
The smallest state capital in Germany, Schwerin enjoys a picturesque lakeside location. The fairy-tale Schwerin Castle and its gorgeous gardens are certainly the crown jewel. The Schwerin Castle Museum, showcasing mainly 19th-century paintings, sculptures and crafts, is also worth a visit.
15. Strasbourg, France
Located by the Rhine River on the Franco-German border, Strasbourg mixes medieval charm with a dynamic, contemporary feel. At its heart is Grande Île, a UNESCO Heritage-listed island packed with half-timbered townhouses. For wine enthusiasts, one of the best things to do in Strasbourg is to spend a full day exploring the beautiful Alsace wine region.
16. Zaragoza, Spain
Modern chic meets a curious mix of four cultures in Zaragoza, one of Spain’s best-kept secrets. Located about halfway between Madrid and Barcelona, Zaragoza is the capital of Aragon, a rugged region with long views of mountains and valleys. Iberians, Romans, Arabs and Christians all left their mark as they lived and influenced the surrounding area. Must-sees include the splendid Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar, Aljafería Palace and La Seo Cathedral.
This article was updated in July 2022.
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