I was disappointed by Paris, let down by Venice, and maddened by Rome.
Blame the hype and the sheer amount of other travellers visiting each of these three tourism hotspots – but mostly blame my high expectations. They were the same three places I most looked forward to visiting when I set out to backpack around Europe.
Indeed, sometimes a place is the victim of its own popularity – and is disappointing as a result.
Equally, sometimes a place is much, much better than you expect it to be. That’s what this blog post is really about. The European cities that are unexpectedly awesome.
They may not be as clichéd as Paris, as wet as Venice or as iconic as Rome – but these five cities are pretty darn good in this traveller’s humble opinion.
The Statue of David’s hometown is a veritable bonanza of culture, art and history – not unlike Rome.
Crucially, though, Florence is much lovelier. The people are nicer, the crowds are less overwhelming and it’s a fun and easy city to navigate.
I was charmed by Florence, by all the gelato shops and the fact that I could go and take a photo of a David replica where the statue used to stand (see above) rather than join the queue to see the real thing.
Marseilles is like an old pair of shoes – sure, they’re slightly out of fashion and they’re a bit rough around the edges but you love them anyway.
France’s oldest and second largest city is gritty, busy and oh so diverse. From rag-tag bars and hostels where you’ll meet all kinds of people to the city’s lovely marina and the rocky inlets and coves that lie outside the city, there’s plenty here to explore.
Marseilles may be a bit of a mongrel travel destination but it has bucket loads of character.
What’s not to love about Lisbon?
The Portuguese capital has gothic cathedrals and majestic monasteries, idyllic parks and attractive waterfront, beautiful architecture and lovely cobbled streets. The only thing it doesn’t have is the same profile as other European capital cities.
Lisbon gives off a better first impression than Athens, is more relaxed than either London or Paris, is less touristy than Rome or Barcelona – and it has everything Madrid can offer and so much more (I’m not a fan because I was robbed in Spain).
Few cities are as fascinating as Istanbul, the only city in the world to have been the capital of both an Islamic and a Christian empire.
Lying on the border between Europe and Asia, Istanbul is rich in cultural and ethnic diversity. Turkish food, of course, is amazing – and the city’s famous Grand Bazaar boasts some of the best shopping in Europe.
Istanbul could well be the perfect place for a European city break; it’s fun and exciting and it feels like nowhere else in Europe.
That’s right; I dare to debunk the “Belgium is boring” stereotype – at least where it concerns Brussels.
There are many reasons to love Brussels, not least because of the delightfully daft Mannequin Pis – the statue of a small boy pissing – and the aptly named Grand Place, the Belgian capital’s ostentatious town square.
And let’s not forget Brussels’ famous beer, chocolate, frites and, err, sprouts.
What European city surprised you most with its immense awesomeness? Of course, I might have been unduly harsh on Paris, Venice and Rome… Also check out the places that give bad first impressions.