You ever forget the plot of something you know you watched? Travel can be like that sometimes. The memory of some places fades over time, and you stop being able to recognize the difference between a square you’ve visited in Spain and one in Poland. My memory is particularly terrible; I live perpetually in the present. But there are some cities I find quite memorable. My experiences there rise above the rest, making a longer-lasting impression. Those are the ones I consider to be the most underrated European cities.
Some cities are underrated because you never hear of them before visiting. Others are generally overshadowed by more important cities in a particular country. In all cases, underrated cities end up being surprisingly awesome to visit, maybe even moreso than their more famous counterparts.
Brussels is a major transportation hub, so people visiting Belgium inevitably spend one or two days there before heading to cities like Antwerp or Bruges. En route there, visitors might make the mistake of skipping Ghent, a medieval port town just an hour outside of Brussels. It’s known primarily for the three medieval towers that form the main walkway of the Old Town center, each built about four centuries apart.
Yet my favorite part about Ghent isn’t how beautiful it is, though that is also true, but how modern and lived in it feels. Being the second most populated city in Belgium but not the most touristy, it has abundant food and nightlife options ranging from jazz bars to upscale lounges. It’s just as picturesque as Bruges, but way less boring. And there’s better food than the 6,000 take-away windows for waffles and fries that you’ll find in Brussels.
Croatia is best known for its scenic seaside towns, so its inland capital is criminally underrated. However, Zagreb is a vibrant and affordable city with a lot to offer. What sets it apart from the average European capital? Just one look at the colorful tiled roof of the Church of St. Mark – like a gingerbread house come to life – and you’ll figure it out. Sure, every European city has its own version of the restaurant-heavy pedestrian Tkalciceva Street (and with an easier name to pronounce), but Zagreb gives these streets its own memorable flavor.
It’s a good city to sightsee, but it’s an even better place to sit in the outdoor cafes enjoying a glass of local wine and cheese while you people watch. (I can’t overstate how good Pag cheese is.) It’s lively without being painfully overcrowded like Split or Dubrovnik. Even the street art in Zagreb is unique – it’s the only time I’ve ever seen it drawn on instead of spray painted.
Macedonia is underrated as a whole, but no place more than the tranquil Lake Ohrid. Ohrid’s stone pathways lined with white lamps snake up and down the hills surrounding the peaceful turquoise lake. Though there are a few notable sights like Samuel’s Fortress and the Church of St. John at Kaneo, which sits on a cliff overlooking the lake, it’s the perfect city to relax and not worry too much about what to do. Any short walk will provide some of the most beautiful views you’ve ever seen. Pork and beef is served up baked in a clay pot with a side of fried cheese and wine at any lakeside restaurant.
You can spend your time in Ohrid admiring the lake from your villa or by boat, or with the cheerful locals getting their caffeine fix in cafes at all hours of the day.
Tallinn is one of those cities that is not only historical and old-fashioned, but also somehow disgustingly cool. In Estonia’s capital, you might find yourself having a bowl of elk soup in a 15th century tavern for lunch and a rack of lamb on a bed of beet puree at a hipster hideaway in Telliskivi for dinner. It’s the perfect blend of quaint and modern.
Though its walled-off Old Town is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe, Tallinn is years ahead of other European cities in creativity, culture, and cuisine. It has something for every kind of traveler, whether you want to climb up the spire of St. Olaf’s Church or spend your afternoon having a few beers on the abandoned and graffitied Linnahall, a former site of the Moscow Olympics.