We all know about the big European city breaks like Paris, Barcelona and Amsterdam, but what about Maribor in Slovenia, Osijek in Croatia and Cadiz in Spain? If you've already been to all the big boys, or just want to venture off the well-beaten tourist track, it's time to discover some seriously unsung cities. Here, we've picked seven cities across Europe that we think deserve some time in the limelight.
While the Croatian coast gets all the plaudits, the Slavonia region inland lies largely ignored. Visitors are missing out. The elegant city of Osijek in the east took a battering during the 1990s Homeland War, but today is back to something approaching its best; in its heyday during the Austro-Habsburg years a massive military fortress stood here and trams eased around the belle époque streets. The oldest part of town, Tvrđa, has undergone a massive revamp since the 1990s war ended with a flurry of cafes, restaurants and bars brightening up the area. In the rejuvenated centre, meanwhile, you can enjoy relaxed walks along the River Drava and try the local delicacy, fis paprikas, a spicy fish soup, in the riverside restaurants.
Just next door to Croatia, bijou Slovenia boasts more than just its glittering city-break star Ljubljana. In the country’s east, Maribor is no longer content to play second fiddle to the capital. Its large student population is putting serious life back into the grand historic streets of its chocolate-box pretty old town. River strolls along the Drava, as well as one of Europe’s oldest synagogues and what is reputed to be the world’s oldest vine await. The best time to visit is during the two-week Lent Festival in summer. And if you want to get out of town, nearby Maribor Pohorje offers skiing in winter and superb hiking in summer.
These days the Estonian capital attracts a swathe of stag and hen parties, but mercifully the second city of Tartu is not similarly blighted. This vibrant student town – considered by many Estonians outside Tallinn to be the country’s true intellectual and cultural heart – offers superb nightlife without a stag night in sight. Tartu’s picturesque old town is home to all sorts of theatre, film and art happenings, as well as fittingly the country’s oldest university.
Utrecht, The Netherlands
If you love The Netherlands and you love canals, make a beeline for Utrecht. In this inland Dutch charmer you will find a web of canals lined with cafes, bars and restaurants – in parts the country's fourth largest city is almost a dead ringer for the Dutch capital. Explore further and you'll come across a rich volley of churches, the country’s largest university and a delightful network of cobbled lanes to get lost in.
Madrid and Barcelona are mere upstarts compared to Cádiz, said to be the oldest city in Europe. This Spanish city, the country's most densely populated, has a treasure trove of history and dramatic architecture hidden in its tight warren of streets. No wonder, given that it has been visited by everyone from the Greeks and Romans, through to the Carthaginians. Yet you'll need to wait until night time for this balmy Andalusian charmer to really come alive. In summer you can take a bus right along to the end of the city’s main beach and lose hours wandering back popping into the myriad bars that line the sands.
Edinburgh and increasingly Glasgow attract the lion’s share of city breakers to Scotland, but what about the country’s newest city, Perth? Although Perth was only granted city status in 2012, it served as the ancient capital of Scotland, the place where monarchs were crowned on the semi-mythical Stone of Destiny. Today there are relaxed parks and walks along the River Tay, plus the sparkling Perth Concert Hall, a millennium project. Then there's a thriving food and drink scene, which has mushroomed in recent years with Perth becoming the first place in Scotland to be awarded Cittaslow status.
Forget the obvious charms of Kraków. This is the year to delve deeper into Poland's north to discover Toruń. Handily located between Kraków and Gdańsk, Toruń is a real looker with a riot of red brick architecture dominating its distinctive medieval old core. There are churches galore to explore, seriously cheap bars and cruises on the Vistula River. Stargazers are in good company too: Toruń was the birthplace of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. In short, the city offers a slice of Kraków without the crowds.