First timers have a hefty European checklist from which to choose before they start mining Europe’s underrated cities. Who can avoid the Louvre? The London Eye? The Coliseum?
But after you’ve ticked off the heavy hitters, where can family travelers go to get an authentic view of the real Europe, captivating sights, and fewer crowds? This list is weighted for families, but some of these spectacular cities deserve a place on any list of underrated European cities. They should be up there on your first-timer lists and should be indulged with longer stays and slower travel for those returning.
10. Valencia, Spain
It’s a stone’s throw away from Ibiza and Palma di Mallorca. Ferries can jet you there, along with Mahon for a more secluded island hop. Ibiza is even kid friendly despite its party reputation. It’s already a spot where car hire is a must, so get away from the partiers and find perfect, azure secluded beaches where you can feel comfortable with kids and without crowds. Shop the hippie market. Ride bikes.
Back in Valencia, enjoy a sleek aquarium and planetarium complex.
The mainland is an astounding place to enjoy world-class beaches on its own. It sports some of the most insanely beautiful, unspoiled beaches. Some are huge stretches that are sub-divided into smaller beaches. Some are natural preserves with dunes. The majority are family friendly, as Valencia seems more popular with locals than tourists. Try El Saler beach for the best compromise of distance (half an hour by bus from the train station) and crowds (keep riding for more secluded beaches withe the same beautiful dunes).
9. Ljubljana, Slovenia
Fairy-tale-land, as I like to call it, or Slovenia as the rest of the world knows it, is getting better and better known all the time. And this is not a bad thing, since charming Ljubljana should rightfully have a place on any tour of Europe’s great cities. That is doesn’t is simply because not enough people have come back to Reddit about it — yet.
There’s a puppet theater, cobblestone walks, and boat rides through the city. The canals are full of people-watching and leisurely strolls just waiting to be had. There are gelato shops and cafes galore if you start to tire. Ljubljana’s imposing castle has a funicular, and even its own puppet museum for those of you who want extra-added double puppet goodness (as if you don’t…).
8. Edinburgh, Scotland
It seems like London’s bustle and Ireland’s greenery get most of the tourists. Yet Edinburgh’s shop-centric new town and ghostly old town lie almost on top of each other, sometimes coexisting in the same buildings. The Christmas market runs through them, just begging you to eat crepes and ice skate. There are ghost tours galore (we enjoyed Mercat tours) and plague history (we liked this more than the ghosts — underground creepiness but far less scary). Need some Harry Potter action? Got you covered there, too. You can take the walking tour or check out the sights on your own. And, like the rest of the UK, public museums have free admission. Go to the National Museum with the kids. Learn. Be haunted.
Edinburgh’s Royal Mile has plenty to keep kids occupied for days. Street performers frequently warrant stops and a few Euro. Bagpipers find a busking home here, too. Come Christmas, street light displays with music beg hot cocoa stops and evening walks (head down the hill to the Christmas market, get your palm read, grab some street food and come back up the steps for the light show). In August, check out the (wildly crowded!) Fringe Festival for the best street acts anywhere.
7. Innsbruck, Austria
Innsbruck is a winter sport paradise, but in the summer, it’s a sleepy mountain town high on tradition and dirndls-wearing hotel help. The Otzal Valley also plays host (over in Bolzano, Italy) to Otzi, the 5,000 year-old ice man found in the Alps and preserved with his copper axe, tattoos, and murderous history.
There’s biking, hiking, climbing, and plenty to do to run off steam in the inviting Alps. Here’s a site that has great destinations around Innsbruck for hiking with a baby. The views here are spectacular, and landing at the airport is itself a sight to see. Get a window seat.
6. Bratislava, Slovakia
It’s a charming old town with a relaxing vibe the bigger players wish they had. Smaller and deserted compared to Prague, you can also see the architectural ties between the two, and between Bratislava and Vienna, for that matter. Yet no one seems to be jumping on the thousands (I might be exaggerating) of palaces you can tour in Bratislava, strolling through empty streets steeped in history without the crowds and lines.
Further you can still find an amazing sit-down dinner for the cost of a London fish and chips from a counter take-away.
5. Helsinki, Finland
For a taste of Russia with Scandinavian style, head to Helsinki and soak in the culture. Perhaps it’s underrated because it’s not only as expensive as the rest of Scandinavia, but is also a little out of the way. You can’t pop over from the rest of Europe, like Copenhagen, and there’s no little mermaid to ogle. Yet its island-hopping geography means plenty of beautiful views and beaches full of sun until late in the evening in the summer. There are also plenty of opportunities for relaxing boat rides between islands.
Perhaps it is underrated because it’s quiet and keeps to itself, like the Finns themselves. Is that a bad thing?
4. Genoa, Italy
Crucify me for saying the Italian Riviera could ever be deemed “underrated.” But compared to Italy’s dream team lineup of Venice-Florence-Rome and even the nearby Cinque Terre, Genoa sees relatively little tourism action. Sure, cruise ships dock at the beautiful marina, but there is still a big-city-down-by-the-docks stigma hanging over this workman’s town.
However, Genoa also comes with plenty to keep you busy. The city’s museum card offers 22 destinations (phew!) if you can take all those Italian art treasures, and an aquarium offers manatees and kid-friendly fun. Dolphins can be spotted in the sea, fishing expeditions fill warm afternoons with relaxing fun, and there’s even a walk through the dark so that kids get a sense of what it’s like to be blind. To appreciate sight, ride the big elevator for panoramic harbor views and see if you can spot a whale!
3. Ghent, Belgium
With its Flemish canals to rival Bruges, Ghent is a smaller alternative. The Castle of the Counts is a dark, torture-filled stone edifice where kids can explore the ramparts and medieval history.
Small boats whisk you down the canals with fabulous views of the traditional architecture. Try it at night when the buildings are illuminated and beautiful (during the high season, there are several companies offering tours and all cost the same — just one, however, is included in the CityCard). Rent a bike if you’re tired of floating and let the kids pedal off some energy. The city center is, like much of Europe, incredibly pedestrian-friendly and full of restaurants, people watching, and the city’s Cathedral, St. Bavo, with its Flemish Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Stop off at the single street where graffiti is legal and encouraged for a colorful distraction.
Eat a waffle. Buy some chocolate. Appreciate that all the tours when to Bruges, and here you are, smarter and better.
2. Kotor, Montenegro
Split, Croatia getting too popular for your offbeat taste? Head south to Montenegro, Europe’s most underrated country. Here the stunning hills dip into the Gulf of Kotor and flow out to the Adriatic. Pirates, Venetian merchants, and slave traders once filled the medieval squares and left a legacy of Adriatic wealth here, and the lagoon-like waterfront is home to luxe boats and waterspouts outfitters today. Fishing, SUP, and cruise through the calm bay. Collect the pictures of a lifetime. Adventure sports tours seem amazing!
It’s medieval, it’s located in a canyon that tourists think is a fjord, and it’s still a secret. Shhhh. The cruise ships are coming.
1. Budapest, Hungary
It’s drop-dead gorgeous, filled to the brim with charming family offerings, and there is a maze of under-castle caves where Count Dracula was once imprisoned. It’s so affordable you’ll want to stay forever, hunkering down in a delightful hotel that costs about as much as its daily wifi surcharge would cost you in New York City.
For kids, City Park sports a circus, zoo, and puppet show. There is a lake in summer for rowing that transforms to a skating rink in the winter, with fountains, playground equipment, and wading pools. Orczy Kalandpark has tree climbing and zip lines. Elizabeth square offers more park-fun and a ferris wheel ride. The green spaces make the city so much more navigable than its more urban cousins like Paris.
Thermal baths (even outdoors in winter) give off steam and look cozy. Szechenyi, the largest, is Europe’s biggest as well, and the architecture is beautiful. There are both indoor and outdoor pools. When you’re done, go to New York Cafe for the world’s most Instagrammable coffee break and be amazed that everything seems to look like a palace.