8 Mar,2016 By jagabond
So what makes a ‘hidden gem’? I figure it’s a location off the radar from people’s tourist lists, maybe a city in a country that already has multiple places of more popularized interest. Because of that I’ve also added in the best way to get to these gems…and in all cases there are direct routes from major cities.
1. Annecy, France
It’s hard to believe this lakeside, mountain village is real, with the cleanest lake in Europe and the romantic, panoramic views from the water. The morning outdoor market along the canal is the best I’ve seen, and try the tartiflette for some incredible, but fatty, local cuisine. This is only a two-hour train ride from Lyon, which is easily accessible from Paris. There are also cheap EasyJet flights to Lyon from many major airports in Western Europe.
2. Ghent, Belgium
Often overshadowed by the more-touristy Bruges, Ghent has canals with amazing pubs/restaurants lining the water, an overall personality that makes you feel young again, and one of the most picturesque views in Europe when standing on St. Michael’s bridge. They also have the largest car-free area in Belgium at the city centre, and a mayor who won 2nd place in the 2014 World Mayor competition. Ghent is only a ninety minute direct train ride from Brussels, though take public transport from the train station to the city centre as the walk is pretty long.
3. Ljubljana, Slovenia
With a quaint, underrated downtown area, this city also has a poet for a local hero, a unique triple bridge, and a dragon for the symbol of the city. I love the ‘pink church’ that highlights the main square, and walking along the Ljubljanica river at any time of day or night is surreal. Nightlife is prevalent, and there are great day trip opportunities to Lake Bled and the Istrian Peninsula. Wizz Air, a budget airline, flies here direct from most major European airports.
4. Nimes, France
The ‘French Rome’ due to all the Roman buildings and artifacts…this is not only an amazing city itself but it’s also situated a short train ride from the French Riviera and Provence, which makes it a great base for seeing Southern France. Travel back to gladiator times at the Roman arena, take a leisurely stroll through the stunningly beautiful Jardins de la Fontaine, and do a day trip to admire the Pont du Gard. Nimes has a budget airport that RyanAir serves, and the major international airport in Marseille is only a short train ride away.
5. Monterosso, Italy
The final and most tourist-friendly town located on the Cinque Terre…this hike is a ‘must-do’ to see the beautiful Italian Riviera. The coastal walk from Monterosso to Vernazza offers some amazing and picture-worthy views. Although still a quiet place, Monterosso has the biggest selection of nightlife and restaurant options on the Cinque Terre. Take the direct train from Pisa to La Spezia, which will then have direct connections to all five towns of the Cinque Terre, including Monterosso.
6. St. Julian’s, Malta
I’m not a big island person, but Malta, with its blend of beautiful beaches, bright blue water, mixture of cultures, World War II history, and ancient history, is one of the more different, diverse and interesting places in Europe. St. Julian’s has most of the nightlife, and acts as a great base for public transport to the other major cities. Go to Comino for the bluest water ever, and see the world’s oldest man-made structures on Gozo Island. Air Malta is cheap by U.S. airfare standards, with round trip flights as low as $300 from most major airports in Europe.
7. Thessaloniki, Greece
The home of Alexander the Great and a wonderful example that there’s more to Greece than the islands and the Parthenon. I love the White Tower, I love the food, and I love the feud with their neighbors to the north for daring to name their country Macedonia…the Greeks have a pride that I totally dig. Lovers of ancient history must check out the religious mosaics at the Church of Ayios Dimitrios. The budget airline RyanAir flies here from most major European cities.
8. Graz, Austria
The king of second cities! Overshadowed by the lovely Vienna, Graz hides in the shadows but is secretly amazing. Walk up to the Schlossberg for a day of leisure and beautiful views of the city. The armory museum is pumped full of testosterone…if I’m ever in Europe when Russia invades, I’m stocking up on weapons here! Stop by for a coffee at the Murinsel, a novel bridge over the Mur river that resembles a metal island. The train ride from Vienna is approximately two hours.
9. Maastricht, Netherlands
This eastern city in Limburg province is a perfect example that the Netherlands offers more than Amsterdam. The streets are impeccably clean, there’s a multitude of beautiful bridges on the Meuse river, and the nearby town of Valkenburg hosts their Christmas market in a cave. The Indonesian food is great here, and because of Maastricht University the town is surrounded by a youthful aura. There are many simple travel options as the city is within 60 miles of Brussels, Antwerp, Cologne and Dusseldorf.
10. Lille, France
I call this city ‘The Jewel of Northern France’, and it’s almost like you’re in a nicer version of French-speaking Belgium. The grand place and surrounding streets offer some great cafes (with Belgian beer) and shopping opportunities, and don’t miss the free zoo. Plan ahead and book a trip in early September to see the annual Braderie de Lille, Europe’s largest flea market. Because they have two main train stations, travel to Lille from Paris or London takes only 1-2 hours.