Travel

Europe's 11 Most Underrated Small Cities

Published On 04/24/2015 Published On 04/24/2015

Say "Europe," and informed Americans will think of "The Final Countdown." Because informed Americans love '80s arena rock. Everyone else will likely envision London, Paris, or Rome. But there's a lot more to the continent than its megacities. Specifically, the cities that make up the rest of Europe and are all too often overlooked.

Following the Reno, NV, model, we sought out the biggest little cities Europe has to offer -- namely, ones with populations between 100k and 250k -- that punch well above their weight (or population, as the case may be) when it comes to cultural goings-on. From the tip of the Iberian peninsula to the heart of Scandinavia, these are the absolute coolest small cities on the continent.

Flickr/María Renée Batlle Castillo

Cádiz

Spain
Population: 123,000
As the oldest continuously inhabited city in Spain (founded in 1104 BC), Cádiz is a quintessentially "Old World" Andalusian port city. Every square inch of this place is rich with history, from the narrow streets of Old Town to the scattered parks whose trees were supposedly brought back by Columbus from the New World. Then there's Los Carnavales, a massive annual fiesta held over a period of two weeks in February that sees the streets flooded with revelers and musical performers in colorful costumes; picture Mardi Gras, only with performers who understand the value of a good siesta.

Flickr/Jon Jackson

Cambridge

United Kingdom
Population: 123,900
America's got its own complement of excellent college towns, and while some of the cities on this list are certainly among Europe's best, Cambridge almost takes the brass ring on name recognition alone. If you wanna go behind the scenes, you can get a guided punt (boat) tour of The Backs -- literally a stretch of river faced by the backs of various Cambridge colleges -- or simply rent a punt with friends and strike out on your own, Huck Finn-style. Alternatively, you can go for a stroll past the scenic shops on Kings Parade, where you might just run into Cambridge alum and resident Stephen Hawking. Although hopefully you won't actually run into him, because he's probably quite fragile these days.

Flickr/gabrielcg

Lausanne

Switzerland
Population: 132,000
Lausanne resembles a more expensive, Swiss version of San Francisco, thanks to its position on the hilly northern banks of Lake Geneva. Located in Switzerland's French-speaking Romandie region, the city's neighborhoods sport distinct flavors, from the historic architecture of CitĂ©, to the scenic lakefront views of Ouchy, to the nightclubs in the warehouse-turned-nightclub district of Flon. You can also take a tour through the villages of the nearby Lavaux wine region, whose terraced vineyards stretch along the lakefront from Eastern Lausanne down to the Château de Chillon -- an awesome island castle that's only 30 minutes away.

Flickr/Dennis Jarvis

Aix-en-Provence

France
Population: 142,000
With a total area of 75sqmi, this little French city (with the appropriately short nickname of Aix, pronounced like "Ex") offers visitors a quaint, walkable alternative to Marseille, France's second most populous metropolis. Yes, it's a bit on the expensive side, but that's par for the course in the South of France, and with an average of 300 annual days of sunshine, it's pretty easy to see why CĂ©zanne drew so much inspiration from this town. The residential district of Quartier Mazarin is home to a number of "hĂ´tels particuliers," grand townhouses which, although they aren't actual hotels and you can't stay in them, are still incredible to look at. 

Aix is also known as "the city of a thousand fountains," and that's not hyperbole -- there are seriously a ton of ornate fountains scattered throughout the place. Whether or not that includes bidets is anyone's guess.

Flickr/Patrick Freitag

Salzburg

Austria
Population: 148,000
You might recognize this alpine city as the backdrop for The Sound of Music, and while Salzburg is by no means an undiscovered gem, at roughly 1/10th the size of the Austrian capital (Vienna), it's a safe bet you'll feel a good deal less claustrophobic here. Hohensalzburg Castle looms over the whole city, and in addition to being one of the biggest medieval castles in Europe, it offers some pretty excellent views from its vantage point atop the Festungsberg. If castles are too old-fashioned for you, there's always Hangar-7: a vehicular museum owned by the founder of Red Bull, containing everything from historic aircraft to Formula One cars.

Salzburg was also the hometown of a little Classical composer by the name of Mozart, and tragically young Amadeus is a huge part of what makes this city awesome. You can tour his birthplace, check out his former residences, and even pop his balls in your mouth -- as in Mozartkugel, a specialty confection created right here in town.

Flickr/Ulf Bodin

Uppsala

Sweden
Population: 200,000
This Swedish burg is divided by the Fyris river, with the West side including the historic district and Uppsala University (Scandi's oldest higher education institution), and the East side containing the residential, commercial, and administrative parts of town. In recent years, though, the river's become more of a common area than a dividing line, thanks to renovations such as new jetties, terraced seating, and sun decks that resemble modern art installations. There's also an increasing international presence in the city these days, so chances are you probably won't stick out like a sore thumb too much.

Flickr/Carlos Torres

Porto

Portugal
Population: 207,000
An ancient city on the Iberian peninsula, Porto sits astride the Douro river estuary and has seen time under Moorish, French, and ultimately Portuguese control over the course of the past millennium-and-a-half. As a result, the city center was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996, and the buildings that line the Avenida dos Aliados (and cluster around Liberdade Square) are about as remarkable as anything else you'll find in Europe.

Fun fact: over the years, Porto became one of Portugal's most famous ports, resulting in Port wine actually getting its name because so much of the stuff was originally sold, distributed, and exported through this city. 

Shutterstock

Padua

Italy
Population: 213,000
Sites like the Orto Botanico di Padova (the world's largest botanical garden) and the Prato della Valle (Italy's largest public square) make Padua a welcome alternative to the stinky/sinking tourist trap that is Venice. It's also the setting for Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew (duh!), and home to fresco-adorned buildings like the Palazzo della Ragione, lively piazza marketplaces, and a thriving nightlife fueled by its sizable student population. So whatever you're into, this medieval college town's got something to offer.

Flickr/Nietnagel

Groningen

Netherlands
Population: 216,000
With 1.5 bikes for every resident, and a town center that's essentially off-limits to motorized traffic, this city is unquestionably one of the most bike-friendly on Earth. It also hosts Europe's largest showcase-type festival, Eurosonic, and the highest student population density of any city in the Netherlands, meaning that, just like Padua, it's got a nightlife as vibrant as you'd expect from a city dominated by 20-somethings. There's even a sizable red light district in town -- y'know, if that's the sort of thing that normally sways your vacation planning.

Shutterstock

Freiburg

Germany
Population: 229,000
Freiburg gets some of the best weather in all of Germany, with mild average temperatures and distinct seasons throughout the year -- in fact, Germany's highest temperature ever was recorded here. Thanks to its comfortable climate, as well as its location on the edge of the Black Forest, the city's a magnet for travelers looking to spend time outdoors. When you're not taking in the view from atop the Schlossberg, Freiburg's also got great manmade attractions, including breweries like Feierling and Martinsbräu, or Zum Roten Bären, the oldest hotel in Germany.

Flickr/Stephane Mignon

Ghent

Belgium
Population: 241,700
Sure, the quaint canals of Bruges are some of the best in the world, but that Belgian burg's been getting its due ever since Colin Farrell was banished there for killing an altar boy. Ghent, by comparison, is virtually unknown in the US, and strikes the balance between sleepy, Flemish town, and bustling, modern city, thanks to its trendy shops on Vlaanderenstraat, fantastically well-preserved medieval architecture, and Glass Alley, possibly the world's smallest red light district. And let's not forget the scenic canal rides -- yes, Ghent has canals too. This is Europe, after all.

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Gianni Jaccoma is an editorial assistant for Thrillist Travel, and he needs to visit each of these places ASAP. Follow his bucket list dreams on Twitter @gjaccoma

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