You've climbed the Eiffel Tower, explored the Sagrada Familia and stepped back in time at the Colosseum, but now you're looking for something a bit different. Not sure where to look? Fear not. Away from the well-known capitals of western Europe lies a whole continent rife with cities worth exploring, home to imposing castles, colourful museums and spectacular churches.
Grand'Place – the beating heart of Lille © Nord Tourism
Just 90 minutes from London by Eurostar, this northern French city is one of the country’s shining stars, both architecturally and gastronomically. Wander its 16th-century cobbled streets and find Renaissance cloisters, Art-Deco shopfronts and Gothic churches – not to mention a gilded crystal jewel box of an opera house. Dinner is always the hardest decision of the day here, and as a city where France’s top chefs come to play, you’ll have to choose between Michelin-starred bistros, moody jazz cafés and cute chequered-tablecloth estaminets, serving up heaps of heady carbonnade or the classic moules-frîtes.
The Guggenheim – Bilbao's poster child © nito, Shutterstock
The undisputed urban giant of the Basque Country, Bilbao is a smart, innovative and lively city, and just under a 2-hour flight from the UK, it makes for a fantastic weekend break. Its pièce de résistance is undoubtedly the Guggenheim, the unique, space-age museum home that single-handedly put the city on the map. But Bilbao is no one-trick pony – the compact Casco Viejo (Old Town) should not be missed, with bar after bar packed with locals trying (not too hard) to resist the mouth-watering pintxos (Basque tapas). Nor should a trip along the Nervión River, which allows you to get a feel for the incredible reinvention of a city that was once no more than an industrial wasteland.
St Olaf's Church towers above the city © Shahid Ali Khan, Shutterstock
Don’t be fooled by the ‘former Soviet’ label that is often bestowed upon Estonia’s capital – this is a city that looks West rather than East. Forget grey, crumbling tower blocks, Tallinn is a pretty mix of pastel-hued shopfronts, towering church spires and café-lined squares, with an impressive medieval walled Old Town at its heart. Long-popular as a weekend destination for Russians, its ever-growing mix of first-rate restaurants, inviting hotels and chic nightlife is beginning to attract the eye of the rest of Europe.
© Shchipkova Elena, Shutterstock
Small, but perfectly formed, the Slovakian capital might just be the ideal weekend-break destination. Known as the ‘Little Big City’, it is compact and easily negotiated, and you have the sense that you can discover everything in a few days, see all the important sights and get a real feel for the place. With its spectacular 'upside-down bedstead' castle perched high above the banks of the Danube, little Blue Church that looks to be covered in fondant icing and giant UFO tower, Bratislava might have the most eclectic architectural mix on the continent.
© Migel, Shutterstock
Rising in narrow, winding Moorish streets to a central praça, crowned with a magnificent ruined Roman temple, ringing with the peal of bells from an array of Portuguese Golden Age churches and littered with stately mansions and monuments, the capital of Alentejo has been protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986. Just two hours from Lisbon, it boasts medieval and Renaissance buildings and a cavernous cathedral, plus countless cafés serving local cakes, pastries and thick coffee, and fine restaurants dishing up traditional cooking from the area. The shopping here is the best in the region – not just for souvenirs, but for everyday items like shoes, clothes and hats, which are so much better value in Portugal than back home, and for fine food and drink, including wonderful Alentejo wine, aromatic cheeses, pastries and cakes.
© Kasto80, Dreamstime
Recent years have seen Ljubljana increasingly hailed as the ‘new Prague’, but comparisons like these do not do the Slovenian capital justice. Perhaps the tendency to compare the city comes from the fact that it is not as widely known as big city-break players like Prague, Paris and London, but it may also be because it does take some of the most attractive features from other cities and weaves them into a truly unique mix. At times walking around Ljubljana does feel a bit like Prague or Vienna, but also Amsterdam, Riga or Salzburg, making Ljubljana a sort of ‘greatest hits’ of European architecture and city planning. For all its myriad influences Ljubljana is also very Slovenian – a neat, tidy and organised city, with green spaces never far away. One-off cultural performances and various ‘happenings’ are all the rage and you are as likely to hear local students talking through the latest experimental theatre as you are their favourite cutting-edge DJs.
© weinum, Shutterstock
The Maltese capital must be the easiest city in the world to explore and is probably the most charming. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and due to be European Capital of Culture in 2018, it sits on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the sea and on the fourth by the suburb of Floriana. On all sides it is enclosed by massive 16th- and 17th-century bastion walls. The warm limestone of the old buildings is set off by painted wooden gallariji (closed balconies) that overhang the narrow streets, not to mention lines of people's washing. Highlights include the magnificent St John's Co-Cathedral, the exquisite Manoel Theatre and the Church of Paul's Shipwreck.
Zemun, one of the 17 municipalities that make up Belgrade © jose, Shutterstock
First appearances of Serbia's capital aren’t always great – its skyline is mostly a utilitarian grey, the colour of concrete. But this stereotypical Eastern-bloc greyness is deceptive, because although the grim monoliths of New Belgrade’s high-rises and the Roma shanty town that clings haphazardly alongside the railway tracks do their best to dispirit the first-time visitor, the city has far more to offer than these initial impressions might suggest. For a start, there is Belgrade Fortress perched high above the town, overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. The 18th-century fortress is impressive enough but it is Kalemegdan Park, the ample green space of parkland and gardens, that surrounds the fortress, which holds most year-round appeal for Belgrade’s citizens. To the south is Stari Grad, the Old City, with its cathedral, secessionist buildings and a few Ottoman remnants. Indeed, those expecting to find a bomb-damaged, war-ravaged city may be disappointed. To those in the know, Belgrade is party city; a calm, dignified party that shows style, finesse and an undeniable joie de vivre.
Prizren has some of the best-preserved Ottoman architecture in Kosovo © Ivan S Adams
This is the jewel in the crown of Kosovo and a ‘must-see’ for any visitor. It has the highest number of preserved Ottoman buildings with their upper storeys jutting out into the narrow cobbled streets. Prizren has not only retained the architecture from the Ottoman era but also many other flavours of Turkey, with the language being widely used, and delicious Turkish food.
Inspired to book your next break? Don't forget to take our guides with you: