When it comes to backpacking, there’s one destination that is clearly head and shoulders above the rest in terms of popularity and tradition: Europe. After graduating high school or college, many American students will take a summer, semester, or year off to meander their way across the continent and experience new cities, cultures and pretensions they can proudly carry with them for the rest of their lives. As we all know, going to Europe even once automatically makes you more cultured than your neighbor (and probably a better appreciator of wine and tapas too), and there are no places that quite hammer in this kind of worldliness like the classic destinations of Paris, Rome, Madrid, London, Barcelona and Florence. While these sorority girl study abroad classics are all sure-fire hits, there are many smaller cities in Europe equally fun to traipse around that simply get a lot less press. Here are five of my favorite underappreciated European cities.
The second largest city in Portugal was built on the manufacture and trade of the eponymous Port wine, consumed in tons by the British starting in the 18th century. Porto is a small city, centered around a historical downtown district straddling the banks of the beautiful Douro River. The majestic Eifel-engineered Dom Luís I soars over traditional Portuguese boats ferrying passengers up and down the river as the city rises up in hills on either side. The Portuguese people are incredibly friendly (and attractive) and Porto’s party scene is great with the University there the second largest in the country. For a quick daytrip, you can take a boat or a drive down the river into the hinterland, where the mountainous river vallies have been tailored to grape cultivation for centuries, resulting in one of the most stunning terraced landscapes in the world, not to mention plenty of opportunities to tour Port cellars.
Antwerp is a city that’s often overlooked in northern Belgium, a country that’s often overlooked. But don’t write off the city just yet, this place is a giant slayer in terms of cultural appeal, literally. The city’s name comes from a story of a hero who slew an oppressive giant, cut off his hand, and threw it into the river (Antwerp comes from the Dutch word for ‘hand). Antwerp is also known as the center of the international diamond trade, and is an up and coming fashion city with a lot to offer in terms of young talent, being home to the internationally renowned Royal Academy of Fine Arts, alongside the collections of some Dutch Masters. There’s also always the ever present attraction of Belgian cuisine (think hands down the best fries and beers in the world) and chocolate to rival the Swiss.
In my opinion the most underappreciated city in Europe in terms of tourist attention, Hamburg is the second biggest city in Germany, has the second biggest red light district in Europe, and is the second busiest port on the continent as well. Right on the Northern Sea, interlaced with canals, and centered around two large lakes, Hamburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and there are few more pleasant places to take a stroll on this earth. Everything about the city has all the things you’ve come to know and love about the Germans (friendly people, great beer, good infrastructure) with some fun seaside pluses (great fish and fish market, all kinds of water sports, beach bars, cosmopolitan flair). It’s a very young city, home to 11 universities, and the neighborhood of St. Pauli, where the Beatles got their start, is always sure to be popping off no matter what day of the week or time of night it may be.
Those who think the delights of the UK have been exhausted with a trip to London should take a second look. Although that is true of England, there’s Scotland just to the north, and its delightful and historic capital at Edinburgh. Edinburgh is a massively historic city, and was home to the Scottish Enlightenment, which although you may not know, shaped Western knowledge systems in more ways than you’ll suspect. It’s not rare to find ancient buildings in Edinburgh side by side with cutting edge architecture. The pub culture is ever present but the real cultural take home from Edinburgh is the entertainment. Most pubs will have live music, and in the summer Edinburgh hosts a number of famous festivals that draw hundreds of thousands to the city. Prime among them is the Fringe Festival in August, the worlds largest arts festival, which allows performance space to hundreds of amateurs and has been the birthplace of more than a few international celebrities.
Spain is loaded with many middle-sized cities of decent fame, but even among its peers San Sebastian is often brushed aside in favor of Seville, Malaga, or Grenada. The city lies in the Basque region of Northern Spain, a traditional hotbed of anti-nationalist sentiment and home to a strange local language that has no known relatives. San Sebastian actually has a lot to offer despite its smaller size (the population is only just over 100,000). Firstly, it has one of the best in city beaches in Europe, with long strips of sandy shore overlooking a gorgeous bay of lush islands rising out of the sea. Secondly, and maybe more importantly, depending on your priorities, San Sebastian is world famous for its stellar seafood, and has the highest concentration of Michelen starred restaurants in the world.