What are some fun, small and lesser known cities in Europe?
January 22, 2011 6:45 AM   Subscribe

What are some fun, small and lesser known cities in Europe?

I am turning 30 in June and want to take a fun weekend trip to celebrate with my wife and two kids (3 years and 1 year in June).

We live in Madrid and I kind of have in mind a small, lesser known city where we will feel safe and relaxed and will be able to explore pretty thoroughly in 2-3 days.

For instance, I have been looking at ljubljana in Slovenia, which seems pretty cool but is surprisingly expensive to get to from Madrid. Also, I was thinking about some place like Copenhague or Stockholm. Don't know much about the nordic cities.
posted by BigBrownBear to Travel & Transportation (48 answers total) 97 users marked this as a favorite
An easy trip from Madrid is going south to Granada. If you haven't already been to the Alhambra, it's phenomenal.

Stockholm is a really cool city to visit; the kids will probably get a kick out of Skansen, which is kind of a mix between a zoo and a history museum. I loved it, even in the middle of the winter when I was there. If you do go to Stockholm, be sure to take a day trip up to Uppsala and check out the university library and the Linnaeus Museum. Depending on when you go, the botanical gardens are also supposed to be great. You can also visit Gamla Uppsala if you want to see "viking archaeology" and such. Gothenburg/Göteborg is an interesting town but maybe not as "small and lesser known."

Small towns I thought were fascinating were Karlstein and Kutna Hora, either of which are a short train ride from Prague. The castle at Karlstein was one of my favorites, and Kutna Hora has both a gorgeous cathedral (I know, everyone has a gorgeous cathedral in Europe but this one genuinely stands apart architecturally) and the ossuary, though a church made from the bones of the dead is probably not the best place to take impressionable young children.
posted by Lifeson at 7:08 AM on January 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

You could try Trieste. It's like nowhere else in Italy and has a kind of melancholy, almost Viennese end of the Hapsburg Empire feel about it with a dash of James Bond from being such a cold war crossroads. Anyway, a cool place to spend a few days and quite handy for Ljubljana too.
posted by rhymer at 7:13 AM on January 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Nijmegen or Maastricht in the Netherlands.
posted by neushoorn at 7:21 AM on January 22, 2011

Lisdoonvarna - County Clare, West of Irleand.

You would need to fly into Shannon and rent a car. Lisdoonvarna is village that you can explore it in a few hours. There is plenty of great traditional music in the village, and in surrounding villages. But the key is, within easy drive time of are some amazing things, like the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren.
posted by Flood at 7:26 AM on January 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have to recommend some cities in Belgium! The French-speaking cities are often overlooked to the benefit of the Flemish cities (Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges), but Liège is really happening. Lots of good food, "adult drinks" (besides Belgian beer, try peket, the local gin), and museums, especially the Grand Curtius (9€, but it is HUGE).

Also pretty is Namur (like Liège, located on the Meuse/Maas river). Check out the citadel.
posted by dhens at 7:29 AM on January 22, 2011

Bremen in Germany. Bruges in Belgium. Ravenna in Italy.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:30 AM on January 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Because your kids are so small, maybe somewhere the weather won't be super-hot in June? An island in the Baltic Sea, perhaps? Gotland, Bornholm, or Visby might be really fun and easy enough if your whole family speaks English. Lots of cycling!

The further north you go, the more light you'll get, too. Saaremaa, Estonia is right off the beaten track. Some of the zillions of islands off the west coast of Finland are right next to Turku, a European Capital of Culture for 2011.

Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius are each pretty cool, and each has its own flavor. Tallinn's on the sea, Riga's a 20-minute/one-euro train ride from awesome sandy beaches with calm Baltic waves, and Trakai Castle - in the middle of a big lake! - is right outside Vilnius.
posted by mdonley at 7:37 AM on January 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

2nding Ravenna. Consider also Mantova.
posted by volpe at 7:42 AM on January 22, 2011

Oh, the Isle of Wight.
posted by 2bucksplus at 7:49 AM on January 22, 2011

Before we lived in Athens, we lived in Thessaloniki, Greece, and I miss it a lot. Here's someone who likes it, too. The food is great (it's difficult to get a bad meal there), the outdoor market is fabulous and very famous, there are ruins, of course, and it's really fun to just walk around. My favorite thing was just hanging out at the outdoor cafes and people-watching (they don't care how long you hang out — nobody will ever shoo you out to make room for more customers). If we didn't have to be here for my husband's work, I'd move back in a flash. Here are a few of my photos, and here are some from SkyscraperCity. It's not small, but the areas you want to visit are compact — most all the photos you'll view of Thessaloniki are taken within a 10 or 15-block radius of where I used to live (we lived in Aristotle Square). Also, cabs are inexpensive. Of course, this may be more urban/metropolitan than what you have in mind...

*le sigh; homesick now.*
posted by taz at 7:57 AM on January 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd vote for Stockholm ten times over Copenhagen - which is very nice, but not nearly as awesome as Stockholm.
posted by Neekee at 8:01 AM on January 22, 2011

Use Ljubljana as a jumping-off point for Bled. I love that little town.

Also consider the Czech Republic -- lots of really cool small towns there. My favorites: Olomouc and Cesky Krumlov.
posted by nitsuj at 8:03 AM on January 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

3rd Ravenna, cool town. Also, it is close to Bologna, which I think is a fantastic medium size city. You could stay in Ravenna and take a one day trip to Bologna. Its probably not easy to get to from Madrid, however.
posted by pandabearjohnson at 8:17 AM on January 22, 2011

Thanks for mentioning Bremen. This guy from Bremen would however vote for Arles, and don't miss a trip to Montmajour and Les Baux.
posted by Namlit at 8:20 AM on January 22, 2011

I've just come back from one of the best weeks of my life (and believe me, I've travelled).
San Sebastian in the Basque country is a short plane ride from you. It was their annual Saint's day, La Tamborrada de San Sebastian. 24 hours of marches & drumming by people dressed (beautifully) as French soldiers or Cooks.
Firstly, there's EmyRent where the luxury apartment cost us exactly half the price of a 4 star hotel and had a lot more facilities than a hotel room. (dishwasher, washing machine full kitchen, etc.,....)
Then a city that's flat and walkable in every direction. Fantastic beach 20 mtrs from the apartment & a real sense of lots of healthy activities.
But the seriously fantastic Basque food is just something you have to experience. I'm going to be loading some of my pics soon and will link them. the vast majority of bars, especially in the Old Town or Parte Antigua, have a mind-blowing range of Pintxos, or tapas. Food & drink is not only cheap in comparison to France or most other Euro countries but the quality is second to none. My 13 year old was there for the first time and even the burger bar had what he described as the BEST burger he had ever tasted in his life. It cost 4 Euros.
They are applying to be European city of Culture for 2016 and it literally has everything anyone could want, history, art, architecture, amazing night life.
The first thing I did when I got back was book for their Semana Grande, the festival in August.
There's also the Jazz Festival, the International Film Festival, etc., etc.,

There's a Spa on the Concha beach called La Perla that's worth a visit.

Some of the local tiny Basque villages Zizurquil for example, are just 20 mins drive yet you feel you're in a different century. They speak mostly Basque/Euskera, there are three bars a restaurant and a Church and about 12 houses. We had a simple meal that puts the rest of Europe to shame, to be honest. My Lomo al Roquefort cost 8 Euros, but to get that kind of quality food in a small village restaurant.....sigh...I'm still there in my head!

My daughter loved the shopping, small individual shops and boutiques, some streets with 5 shoe shops, she was in heaven. Although I speak Spanish both my kids, 13 and 20 individually went to the shops on their own for various things and had no difficulties. The Basques are a practical hardworking people, they don't have the false "have a nice day" attitude you get in other tourist resorts in Spain but if you ask for help (even in sign language as my daughter did) they will stop everything to help you or direct you to where you want to go. I interrupted a taxi-driver reading Alberti to ask where the ticket shop was for the bus, he actually left his taxi and walked me there.

We flew in RyanAir from London Stansted for 40 Euros each, it was unexpectedly one of the cheapest but most memorable holidays we have had as a family. I can't wait to go back.
posted by Wilder at 8:32 AM on January 22, 2011 [8 favorites]

just re=read your question. One thing stuck with me. My Aspie son commented "the Basques love everything small" I asked "what do you mean?" he said, "pintxos, dogs, kids," I howled laughing but knew exactly what he meant. The ordinary playgrounds for kids around the city were amazing. We were passing one as he said it.
Everywhere you go, even the bars and restaurants (now no-smoking) were kid friendly.
You MUST go to Gambara for traditional pintxos and to A Fuego Negro for the more inspired, radical ones.

Please do your family a favour and speand long weekend in Donostiarra! Feel free to MeMail me for more recommendations. I'm actually putting together an itinerary for my wider family/friends as it's so cheap to get there from Ireland & England.
posted by Wilder at 8:36 AM on January 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

I love Siena in Italy.
posted by ellieBOA at 8:53 AM on January 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I enthusiastically second San Sebastian! I don't know if you're Spanish or not, but some time in the Basque Country will give you a much broader perspective on the country than Madrid alone.
posted by yarly at 9:17 AM on January 22, 2011

You're describing most of Belgium!
posted by proj at 9:25 AM on January 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm charmed by the little villages in the West Country of England, and if I ever got to spend Christmas at The Dog and Fox in Tutbury, I'd be in heaven.

I suppose the same is true for much of the countrysides of Europe: away from the bustle of big cities, and the demands of tourists, folk are sweet and interesting, and the flavor of the country comes out quite naturally.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:29 AM on January 22, 2011

posted by fire&wings at 10:21 AM on January 22, 2011

posted by jindc at 10:35 AM on January 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Evora in Portugal is lovely, an old walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage site for its Roman temple.

I like Trondheim, Norway's old capital, very pleasant, small riverside city, some nice historical bits and nicely located on a fjord.

Bath is one of my favourite UK cities, but seems to be on a lot of 'UK tours' for international tourists so not sure it counts as unknown. York is very historical, plenty to do and good jumping off point for very attractive countryside. Historical, green, well laid out, good shopping.

Freiburg in SW Germany is very nice, and well located.

Bilbao is a bit industrial for me but the old town is very picturesque, with a good market.
posted by biffa at 10:54 AM on January 22, 2011

I came in here to recommend Ljubljana, and nitsuj's idea about from going to there to Bled is fabulous. Also, Dubrovnik is pretty great.
posted by treblemaker at 11:24 AM on January 22, 2011

I can actually hand on heart say I have been to all but 2 of the destinations mentioned above. A few of the smaller Italian ones come a little bit close to what you requested and when you mentioned the word safe (and two smallies of 3 & 1) I would immediately discount a few, including sadly Granada my other favorite Spanish city. A few others are a little dead, or are too expensive/difficult to get to for the period of time you mention.

For a short stay where you can really get a handle on the town/city I emphatically recommend SS. I had been there on business twice and really enjoyed it. I got to know the owner of the business I mentioned above (apartments - declaration of interests:_ but derive no benefit from recommending anything Que Consta! ) while on business but didn't really understand until I took the kids there. It just ticks all your boxes and I couldn't believe there was an AskMe like this so soon after I came back. You will thank me if you go. :)
posted by Wilder at 11:32 AM on January 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've only been to Europe once, a trip to the Netherlands. We spent a couple of weeks traveling around the country, staying in hostels, and visiting all sorts of places.

The one I remember best was a itty bitty town named Dokkum. It was wonderful. For me, as a student of military history, the best part was that the original town was made into a star fortress. We spent an afternoon and walked around the entire perimeter of it, and I think I told my girl friend more than she wanted to know about that kind of military work.

It doesn't seem likely now that I'll ever travel again (I'm too sick) but if I did ever visit Europe again, I think I'd want to make sure Dokkum was part of my itinerary.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:50 AM on January 22, 2011

Bruges, York, Gothenburg, and Aarhus are all smallish and interesting places to go. They are all suitable for english speakers.
posted by SockyMcPuppet at 11:56 AM on January 22, 2011

Hmm, I guess Dubrovnik isn't exactly a hidden treasure or anything, but it's a really neat city. I bet you all would love exploring the old town area and walking on the walls of the city. I was there in early June a few years ago, and the weather was gorgeous.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:21 PM on January 22, 2011

Came to suggest Tallinn, but mdonley is right, Saaremaa is also lovely (though not a city). Or Parnu, an Estonian seaside town - big, flat beach, and the water surprisingly mild considering it's the Baltic - though I suppose you might not think that if you're acclimatised to Spain!
posted by penguin pie at 1:11 PM on January 22, 2011

A lot of great suggestions! Here are a few more:

Salema, Portugal
Certaldo, Italy
Lake District, England
Füssen, Germany
Tours (and the Loire Valley), France

Also, Cardiff, Wales. Although it may not appeal to your needs, as it's well-known and a large city, I thought it had a comfortable, accessible feeling. And definitely had plenty to keep you occupied for 3 days!
posted by bluestocking at 2:58 PM on January 22, 2011

I enjoyed Krakow when mr. hgg and I went there 4 years ago. I would assume it has changed a bit, but at the time it was beautiful, walkable, affordable, and suitable for tourists without being touristy.

my comment from three years ago; alternates to broken links in post: The Grand Square and Auschwitz Memorial and Museum (obviously I wouldn't recommend bringing your kids to this one)

some ideas for things to do with kids in Krakow
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:39 PM on January 22, 2011

Our favorites:

Pécs in Hungary.

Maribor in Slovenia.
posted by Kiscica at 5:37 PM on January 22, 2011

You could go to Legoland in Billund, Denmark (fun for kids and adults alike!) and then head to Copenhagen, which is quite a nice little city.
posted by bethist at 6:19 PM on January 22, 2011

Cadiz is highly underrated. One of the oldest cities in Europe. Walk through the Moorish gardens all hung with purple and blue bougainvillea, see the churches and Roman ruins, marvel at the enormous freighters in the port, eat great seafood.

Gibraltar, just a two-hour bus ride from Cadiz, is also a fun place to spend a few days.

Ieper (better known as Ypres) is part memorial to the British forces who died in the Great War, part rebuilt medieval city. The restoration is breathtaking, given that the city was leveled by four major campaigns. For most visitors it is less a "fun" trip than a pilgrimage, but it is a truly beautiful town in its own right.
posted by tully_monster at 6:52 PM on January 22, 2011

I just visited Luxembourg, which I would never have thought of before (had to go there for a conference.) But it was incredible. Totally different from either Germany or France, both of which I know well. The language was fun. The people were funky and interesting. The landscape was like a fairytale. And it was kind of cute how it's its own little country with regions and cultural differences between regions, and a royal family and everything. (Shh, don't tell them I called it "cute"). It's quite expensive, though, but if you are considering Scandinavia, I guess you're up for expensive.
posted by lollusc at 7:01 PM on January 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lucca in Tuscany.
posted by joeyjoejoejr at 9:16 PM on January 22, 2011

Seconding Krakow! A beautiful and fascinating city.
posted by triggerfinger at 9:18 PM on January 22, 2011

nthing Krakow!
posted by Paris Elk at 2:58 AM on January 23, 2011

In southern germany: The city of Bamberg is worth a visit. It's one of the few bigger german cities that retained the historical city core after the bombings of WW2, so you can spend a few days exploring the sights, cathedrals, museums and cloisters and enjoy a few of the local breweries afterwards, like the smokebeer Schlenkerla.
posted by ts;dr at 4:10 AM on January 23, 2011

Northwest of Madrid (Top - Recommended): Salamanca, Valladolid, Zamora, Ávila, Segovia, Burgos, Santander, Oviedo, Santiago de Compostela.

South of Madrid (Second place): Valencia, Granada, Sevilla, Córdoba, Murcia, Málaga.

West of Madrd (Tied for second place): Portugal! That's a magic country. From Faro to Valenca do Minho, through Lisbon and Oporto, Fatima, Coimbra, Évora, Guimaraes, and Braga.

Around Madrid (Third place): Toledo, Cuenca, Zaragoza, Alcalá de Henares, Cáceres, Mérida, Albacete (La Mancha region)

Northeast of Madrid: Barcelona, Cadaqués, San Sebastián (Donostia, mentioned above), Bilbao, Tarragona.

I've travelled all these places and they are just so worth it. It's much cheaper also than travelling so far up north. Best of luck.
posted by omegar at 8:43 AM on January 23, 2011

Oh, I almost forgot: in Spain and Portugal, take buses, not trains: more schedules and better fares. Double check the departures and arrivals first, though: schedules change on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The AVE is not worth it unless you are in a real hurry.
posted by omegar at 8:46 AM on January 23, 2011

Leuven Belgium, seriously. They have roundabouts for cyclists next to the roundabouts for cars there, and its gorgeous, and you could almost walk there from Bruxelles but you'd never know it
posted by Blasdelb at 10:35 AM on January 23, 2011

I live in Ljubljana, so I'll have to agree with your original choice of destination. :) It's exactly as you say: safe and explorable in 2-3 days. But getting here from Madrid does seem expensive!

If you're open to renting a car, I'd recommend getting a Vueling (or other cheap airline) flight from Madrid to Venice, Italy and then renting a car. It's a 2,5 hour drive to Ljubljana from Venice. Maybe you could make it a week-long trip and add Venice, Trieste and Bled to the itinerary. Mail me if you have more specific questions, I'll try to help. :)

PS. Your 3-year old might like The House of Experiments.
posted by gakiko at 10:48 PM on January 23, 2011

Does it have to be a city, or will a town work?

My wife and I loved Pau, a small town in the Pyrenees of France. We were there in June. The weather was great; not too hot, not too cold. There's a cool castle, a nearby cave with underground boat and train (might be too much for the young kids, though), and excellent, excellent food: le berry had some of the best food we ate in France and it was hella cheap.
posted by Deathalicious at 12:33 AM on January 25, 2011

If you haven't been there yet, I'd heartily recommend Lisbon, which I found unexpectedly delightful.
posted by greytape at 9:50 AM on January 25, 2011

There are many charming and beautiful towns in Switzerland, but they are pretty expensive.

However, beautiful and cheap is right around the corner at Cabo de Gata, accesible by car from Almeria. I stayed in the village of San Jose Nijar and loved it. The beaches are big and beautiful, the terrain rocky and foreboding.

But if that's too small, and too close to home, may I suggest York, England? The pound is down, and flying to England is usually pretty cheap anyway. When I was a kid I loved the Jorvik viking centre, the old town, and the city walls.
posted by molecicco at 4:05 AM on January 28, 2011

I can recommend Beaufort in Luxembourg, at least for the place to "base your headquarters" on while travelling the rest of the area (there's a very nice, affordable hotel there, extremely nice owners). Beaufort itself is a very small town, but it's very beautiful, with a castle and this "naturpad" thing, which is one of the things i enjoyed the most of all my travels in Europe so far.

In any case, the point of going to Luxembourg is that is such a tiny, lesser known country. My friends and i flew to brussels (because of the cheap tickets), rented a car, drove through the Ardennes (awesome) towards Luxembourg and then spent a few days driving around the north of the country (the south is not particularly beautiful in my opinion). Loved it.
posted by palbo at 2:14 PM on January 28, 2011

I said I was going to post photos and still haven't gotten around to it. On January 19th there is a famous Tamborrada in San Sebastian which commemorates a famous event when the cooks of the city drummed out the occupying French forces. The drumming goes on for 24 hours and one of the most amazing things about it is the Children's version the next day at 12. it is the koootness. This year was the 50th anniversary of when they started.

This is a Youtube link to one of the Teen societies who practice and compete every year in their schools to be allowed to participate. Can you imagine teenagers in the UK or Ireland getting involved in these numbers in something as historical as this?
posted by Wilder at 8:05 AM on January 29, 2011

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