Travel has gotten weird. First, nobody did it for a couple of years. Then everybody did it at once and airports fell apart. “Revenge travel,” became a thing. Airports mostly figured out how to keep track of luggage, and people kept going places—too often the same ones. Major cities across Europe have enacted anti-tourism policies.
Meanwhile, anyone who’s been to Rome, Amsterdam or Lisbon lately knows that sharing beautiful places with a million other visitors isn’t all that much fun. With even second cities getting busy, it’s time to dig a little deeper. Even though, in today’s hypermobile world, there’s no such thing as a nice place that’s completely free of tourists, here are ten smaller cities worth a look—especially now, as summer winds down and autumn is set to begin.
North of Porto, Braga shares much of the architecture, colorful tiles and grand public squares of other, more famous Portuguese cities. It was historically one of the wealthiest cities in the country, which shows in its lavish architecture and ornate churches. The most notable church is the neoclassical Santuário do Bom Jesus do Monte, which is reached via an elaborate 17-flight stairway. The medieval Braga Cathedral houses a sacred art museum. A university in town gives it a young and vibrant population. Stay: Outside the city, Pousada Mosteiro Amares occupies a restored monastery that dates from the 12th century.
Lucerne is a compact city known for its medieval architecture, views of snowcapped mountains and access to Lake Lucerne. The colorful Altstadt (old town) is hemmed in by a 14-century rampart. Its proximity to Alpine peaks and trails makes it a dream for hikers, and for lazier travelers, local tour operators book helicopter trips to view Mount Pilatus, for pristine views of the Swiss countryside and mountain picnics. Stay: Park Hotel Vitznau offers excellent views, a luxurious spa and gourmet dining options.
The birthplace of Mozart is far more than a museum honoring the composer (though it is that, too). Its location on the border with Germany gives it views of the eastern Alps, while the city itself is divided by the Salzach River: the medieval and baroque buildings of the old city on one side and the 19th-century “new city” on the other. The Hohensalzburg Fortress is one of Europe’s largest medieval castles, full of impressive rooms, museums, and panoramic terraces with lovely views. At times, musicians put on concerts honoring Mozart. Stay: Hotel Sacher Salzburg combines old-world charm with modern comforts and impeccable service.
Apart from the 14th-century house that’s said to be “Juliet’s House”—as in Shakespeare’s most famous play, which was set here—Verona is a calm, wealthy city in Italy’s Veneto region that generally does not revolve around tourism. (“Italy for Italians” being one of my favorite places to seek out.) The medieval old town is largely preserved, as well as the magnificent 1st-century Roman amphitheater, which has fantastic acoustics and continues to host concerts, operas and other large-scale performances. Stay: Due Torri Hotel occupies a 14th-century palazzo that practically oozes Italian elegance.
During the Middle Ages this northern port city was a prominent city-state. Now it’s a university town with a lively cultural life. Its pedestrian center is particularly lovely with its medieval architecture, such as the 12th-century Gravensteen castle—also called the Castle of the Counts, and the only one in Flanders with an intact moat and defense system—and the Graslei, a row of guildhalls beside the river harbor that’s been turned into charming cafés. The panoramic views from the top of the castle are stunning. Stay: Built in a former post office building, 1898 the Post is one of those glorious old European grand hotels that mixes a colorful history with modern luxuries.
Istria, in the far northwest of Croatia, often has more in common with northern Italy to the west than with the Dalmatian Coast to the south. The small port city of Rovinj is a good example, with its strong Venetian influences and narrow, romantic streets. The colorful buildings in a way that feels genuine, not Disneyfied. The huge Venetian Baroque church with its towering steeple on top of the hill—by law, the highest structure in the city—is dedicated to St. Euphemia, whose name refers to “speaking well” in Greek and is where we get the English word euphemism. Stay: Away from the city center, on the eastern shore of the bay, the Grand Park Hotel Rovinj has excellent restaurants and prime views of the old city.
Bath, United Kingdom
This city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is famous for its stately architecture and Roman remains, especially the bathing structures that give it its name. Now the city is home to lovely, honey-colored Georgian architecture, dozens of museums, restaurants, tea shops, traditional pubs, theaters and other cultural attractions. But “taking the waters” remains a popular draw, whether in the renovated, ancient Roman Baths or the modern Thermae Bath Spa, the only natural thermal hot springs for bathing in Britain. Stay: The Gainsborough Bath Spa is a five-star luxury hotel with thermal spa facilities in the heart of the city.
Free from the cruise passengers that can take over other Baltic capitals, Vilnius has remained a bit more undiscovered. But a series of celebrations this year in honor of the city’s 700th birthday—a date determined by a 1323 letter from Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Vilnius, that announced to his European neighbors that the city would welcome newcomers—have been putting the Lithuanian capital on the cultural map. It has a number of quirky draws: a pink (beetroot) soup festival, exuberant door decorations, a former prison turned cultural hub, and a gently anarchist neighborhood with its own constitution that includes things like “the right to make mistakes.” Stay: One of the more eccentric members of Relais & Châteaux, Stikliai is the passion project of three young entrepreneurs who saw beautiful potential amid the Soviet dereliction of Vilnius’s old town.
Another small capital—fewer than 300,000 people—of a small country, Ljubljana is a welcoming, walkable city with baroque architecture, green spaces, pedestrian streets, a university population and lively outdoor cafés beside the Ljubljanica River. The dragon bridge and well-preserved hilltop castle are big draws for their fearsome dragon statues, grand city views, historical exhibitions and dining venues. Stay: The 17th-century home-turned-new-boutique-hotel Zlata Ladijca has 15 rooms that offer glimpses into different periods of Slovenia’s history.
This university city in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region is the epitome of the good life in the south of France—a place of good food, alluring history, extensive art and 17th-century mansions along tree-lined boulevards. As for the food, this is a center of Provençal cuisine, such as bouillabaisse, ratatouille and tapenade. And as for the art, Aix, as it’s known, is the birthplace of post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne and home to his former studio and a museum in his honor, along with many others. Stay: Villa Saint-Ange is a boutique hotel in a 19th-century mansion with lush gardens in the center of the city.
Sixty miles south of the Arctic Circle, Norway’s third-largest city was just getting its start as the country’s “food capital” before the world shut down. It hosted the gala for the Michelin Guide Nordic Countries in early 2020, at which the modern gastronomy restaurant Speilsalen won its first star. Even after everything, it’s home to a group of up-and-coming chefs who are spearheading New Nordic cuisine. Two hours by train, Røros is known as Norway’s leading “local food” region. Apart from food, the city is home to the world’s northernmost cathedral and a prime spot for viewing the northern lights. Stay: The famous Britannia hotel reopened in 2019 after a massive renovation by its owner, the wealthiest man in Norway.