5 surprisingly great places to visit in Europe

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.

A traveller in front of the (fake) statue of David in Florence, ItalyFlorence, Italy

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.

The view over Marseilles, France

Marseilles, France

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.

The flag of Portugal flies high above Lisbon

Lisbon, Portugal

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).

Istanbul by ferry: the view across the Bosphorus

Istanbul, Turkey

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.

The Mannequin Pis in Brussels, Belgium.Brussels, Belgium

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.

About Simon Petersen 285 Articles
Travel blogger, journalist, sports and movie fiend. Chronicling the life and times of a Kiwi at home and abroad.

29 Comments

  1. I know exactly what you mean by Venice letting you down. It was a major disappointment. I actually ran the Venice Marathon last year – which barely had any of the course in Venice.

    But we went to Florence to see a friend of mine after, and it was an amazing city. I’ve been told by a few Italian friends from Naples and Milan that Florence actually has the best food in all of Italy because of its location. They’re smack in the middle and get fresh ingredients daily from the North and South.

  2. Some beauties there although I prefer Porto to Lisbon. Also, Vilnius in Lithuania makes a great break – dirt cheap, no one around and loads of lovely architecture in such a small, walkable city centre.

  3. You’ve covered some great cities here Simon – all of which have great character and uniqueness. Brussels certainly has a lot to offer – as well as the magnificent food and beer, you will also find a lot of beautiful items made of lace. Lace-making is an art there.

    And don’t forget the Coffin Bar – where you can drink beer out of skulls and be surrounded by coffins and violet lighting – it’s crazy.

    Great post 🙂

  4. I can definitely agree to Lisbon and Istanbul. I feel that much of Portugal is a quieter version of Spain. However, obviously Portuguese. I enjoyed the streets of Lisbon, and I found it not to be too overrun with tourism. Istanbul is just a huge marvel in and of itself.

    • You’re right, Portugal does feel a lot like a quieter version of Spain! Still, I’d expect it to be overrun with tourists any day now – especially thanks to people like me writing blog posts like this!

    • Yeah, it’s a little bit like New Zealand in that way – everyone visits Spain/Australia when they should also visit Portugal/NZ! Or am I talking rubbish right now? Haha

  5. Glad you liked Brussels! But as someone born and raised in Belgium, I think you definitely missed out by not visiting Antwerp or Bruges.
    Something to come back for! 🙂

    • Oh, but I did visit Antwerp and Bruges! Antwerp was great but I have fonder memories of Brussels for some reason; Bruges I didn’t include here because I always knew I was going to love it! Thanks Sofie

    • Come to think of it, Prague could/should have been number six on this list! It’s great – and the beer is so cheap, too.

  6. I’m going to gladly vouch Brussels, I’ve been telling everyone that it’s really worth visiting. Everyone who comes here doesn’t regret it (counting that they have a good guide like me :P)

    Lisbon too is one of my favourite cities, would love to move there when I get a chance!

    • Hey Jerrick, it seems that we’re on the same page with Brussels and Lisbon! I could have sworn they were going to be controversial picks, just because I don’t read a lot of travel blogs that give them much love.

  7. Hi Simon, I agree with your list. I have been to all of those places and they truly are treasures. Istanbul is especially enticing with its Asian and European influences.

    My list would include: St. Maxime, France; the Isle of Jersey; Shieldag, Scotland; Bergen, Norway; Killarney, Ireland; Prague, Czech Republic; Normandy, France; and St. Petersburg, Russia.

    So many treasures, so little time!

    • Those are some great picks! I haven’t been to all of them – yet! But now I’ve ticked the big boys off my list it’s time to explore some more of Europe’s hidden treasures…

  8. Great post. I think this is the key to loving Europe, you have to get past the ‘headlines’ and get to the next level. I’m totally with you on Brussels, really enjoyed it. So many others too, definitely good for another few posts!!

    • I’m so glad that I’m not alone in thinking Brussels is brilliant! It’s exactly the type of place that makes travel in Europe so much fun – you never know how you’re going to feel about a place until you’re there!

  9. I’ve never been to any of those places and I grew up in Europe. Except Brussels, I’ve passed through the station on the way to Brugge. Did you not like Brugge,? We love it, especially at Christmas, big fat snowflakes and twinkly lights. Maybe I should go back and check them out next time. 🙂

  10. Great post and understand the disappointment felt when you realize you’re not enamoured by the “must see” cities. I do agree with you though as I thought Florence was a dream to visit and I’m in love with Istanbul. It’s one of the few cities that continued to deliver pleasant surprise after pleasant surprise. Have you been to Barcelona or Gent? Other possible “surprisingly great places.”

    As for Brussels, I’m glad its on your list. People tend to be indifferent about the Euro-capital, which is a shame because it has so much to offer than just a peeing boy and the Grand Place. The more time I spend in BXL the more I’m charmed. It grows on you if you let it. It’s an easy city to get around on foot and I always find something new by way of architecture, amazing food (forget Swiss chocolate and French steak tartare…some of the best food I’ve had has been in BXL), shopping, art and nightlife. Perhaps it’s also in part because Belgians are quite self-effacing and endearing people on the whole. They keep their culinary/design/art/brewing genius on the down low for the most part.

    • I have been to Gent and Barcelona! Maybe I should have made this a top ten list, huh? There are just so many brilliant places in Europe, above and beyond the most famous cities. I’m glad I’m not alone with the Belgium love; I thought it might have been a controversial pick for anyone who hasn’t been.

  11. Lovely post and I agree sometimes the most famous cities turn out to me the most disappointing. Although I usually find the charm of a big city in them and don’t really mind. Anyhow, is like to add Verona in the list because I actually liked it more than Venice, plus it’s touristy enough due to the whole Romeo Juliet thingy. Germany, where I studied for a few years, is full of small towns/cities that are amazing and Rothenburg was one of my favourites. Cheers!

    • I didn’t visit Verona – but I’d love to some day! I thought Germany is great, too – Berlin and Munich could easily feature in a sequel to this blog post.

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