Europe's Secret Unsung Cities

Posted on: 20 May 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

If you prefer not to feel part of the herd, shepherded from tacky souvenir shop to jam-packed monument in Paris or Rome, it’s time to try a European city you may not have heard of but will be glad to discover.

There are still plenty of European treasures that the cold war left out of bounds for decades or that the happy-snappy hordes have for other reasons left alone.

These under-the-radar destinations are, what's more, typically cheap. The lowest-cost flights are often to the least frequented airports, and you'll find city prices there aren’t inflated for tourists – all the more reason to visit in these credit crunch times.

You heard about them here first: get the first taste of 10 unsung European beauties.

Birmingham, England

Statistics show overseas tourists are flocking to Birmingham, yet many Brits still turn their noses up at the city. Perhaps they picture this one-time workshop of the world as still full of dark satanic mills and overflowing with polluted canals.

Avoid Britain's second largest city, however, and you're missing out on a rough-and-ready treasure on your doorstep. In the heart of Brum your nose might lead you not to factories belching smoke but to the so-called Balti triangle – an array of inexpensive eating houses serving famously delicious curry recipes invented by Birmingham Pakistanis.

Grand old buildings and cutting-edge architecture vie for your attention in the city centre’s spacious squares. The mirrorball-shaped Selfridge colossus in the Bullring shopping centre, a former brutalist concrete blot, is worth the trip alone.

More information: see the Visit Birmingham website.

Klagenfurt, Austria

Surely Alpine towns have been fully tapped for tourism? Not so. Klagenfurt, the capital of the Austrian state of Carinthia, may have been overshadowed by Salzburg and Vienna but it lays plausible claim to being the country’s most scenic city.

For what Klagenfurt lacks in Viennese-style architectural splendour (although it does boast grand Italian Renaissance buildings) the southern city makes up for in its setting. It sits beside the warm turquoise water of Wörthersee lake, with the Karawanken mountains bordering Italy and Slovenia looming behind it.

The city is also surrounded by 24 fairytale medieval castles. Don’t leave without trying the local barley broth or cheesy pastries called kasnudle.

More information: visit the Rose of the Wörthersee website.

Maastricht, Holland

Limburg province is quite different from the rest of the Netherlands: for a start, it’s hilly. The tongue-shaped peninsular in the south of the country is flanked by Belgium and Germany but has its own distinct (Catholic) flavour.

In contrast with some of the other cities here, many people will have heard of Limburg's capital, Maastricht, but for reasons that are likely to provoke a yawn. Far more compelling than its association with the EU treaty, however, are the city's medieval ramparts, Notre Dame-like twin-towered cathedral, jazz and blues bars and a convivial café atmosphere bolstered by university students.

Arguably the most fascinating sight is the chalk labyrinth inside Sint Pietersberg hill. The former marlstone works are where the first dinosaur fossils were identified, in the 18th century. The walls are studded with the remains of prehistoric sea creatures and branch off with shelters used during the second world war and by refugees from the French revolution.

More information: see the Maastricht city website.

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

This less famous city of seven hills was humming before Rome and Constantinople were twinkles in the gods’ eyes. Bulgaria’s second city, founded by the Thracians five millennia ago, has hung on to its ancient treasures as well – Soviet vandalism didn’t destroy its 200 historic sights.

Jostling for attention with the Roman stadium and amphitheatres is the old town with its local Baroque-style architecture, lavishly decorative on the outside and inside.

The atmospheric city is oppressively hot in summer and covered in snow most winters; autumn is the mellow season. Any of the hills are good for sunset views; the old town, which covers three hills, is full of art galleries and painters’ stalls.

Charter flights have recently become available from most UK airports, a sign Plovdiv could be the next big destination.

More information: visit the Plovdiv Guide website.

Stavanger, Norway

Since a ferry from Newcastle stopped running to Stavanger in September 2008, Brits have had a harder time getting to this picturesque Norwegian port city (although there are flights from Heathrow). The withdrawal of the service was a bit of a blow for Stavanger during its tenure as European Capital of Culture, alongside Liverpool, but for the intrepid visitor it means you can enjoy the city without the crowds.

While Liverpool has the Fab Four, Stavanger has a fab fjord. Base-jumpers and paragliders head for a 1,000m sheer drop nearby the city, while Pulpit Rock is the safest place for more sedate visitors to enjoy the dramatic views.

Stavanger itself has the oldest cathedral in Norway, the Anglo-Norman and Gothic St Swithin’s, surrounded by 200-year-old wooden buildings.

More information: visit the Stavanger region website.

Tirana, Albania

Welcome to Europe’s most anarchic city. In two decades, the population of Albania’s capital has swelled more than fourfold, to 800,000 residents (at last count) as the impoverished rural population migrates en masse.

In the past few years, in an attempt to cheer up the populace, the concrete high-rises have been painted in all the colours of the rainbow so the cityscape looks like an out-of-control version of the island of Balamory from the BBC children's TV series.

But Tirana’s most splendid sights have to be the mosque and huge mosaic in Skanderberg Square. They are perhaps the only constants within this city in full flux.

More information: visit the Albania Tourism website.

Tiraspol, Moldova

In the capital of the unrecognised breakaway republic of Pridnestrovie, also known as Transnistria – a narrow, 250-mile-long strip between the Dniester river in Moldova and the Ukrainian border – looks can deceive. The city appears stuck in an immaculate Soviet time warp, with statues of Lenin and red stars galore – yet the government is firmly anti-Communist.

The slim official tourist guide boasts about how green Tiraspol is and recommends a "tree garden" in the centre and, 10km out, the Butylka wine and cognac museum in "the world’s largest bottle-shaped building", at 28m high.

Tiraspol is worth a look not for any grandeur or beauty – unless you find ultra-functionalist concrete complexes alluring – but for the curiously kitsch thrill of being inside this living USSR museum, complete with a tank parked in the centre.

More information:visit the PMR website.

Tours, France

This hub of the Loire Valley is ideal for French-language students, as locals are said to speak the purest, most eloquent and unaccented French in the world.
But even if you only parlez Franglais, Tours is worthy of a tour, particularly as it’s less than an hour’s flying time from London Stansted.

The best way to get around this city known as le jardin de la France is on two wheels. Pedal through the narrow streets to see the half-timbered restored rustic houses in the old quarter, marvel at the cathedral in "flamboyant Gothic" style and follow riverside cycle tracks to some of the 300 lavish royal chateaux situated along the Loire and Cher, which both flow through Tours.

The restaurants in medieval Place Plumereau serve Touraine wines with rillettes, rillons and controversial foie gras.

More information: visit the Loire Valley Tourism website

Uglich, Russia

Seemingly untouched by the ravages of Russian history, the mellow Volga city of Uglich, 130 miles downstream from Moscow, is most famous for being the site of the mysterious unsolved murder of Ivan the Terrible’s young son. The crimson Church of St Dmitri on the Blood ensures no one will forget the gory events of 1591.

The city's traders are prepared for cruise day-trippers, with souvenir stalls set up close to the ships and brass bands playing on the quay, but Uglich deserves a more lingering look to soak up its rich architectural relics.

Be sure to visit the triple-tower Marvellous Assumption church and the medieval Alekseevsky monastery – or simply get wedged in at the Vodka Museum, where samples are included in the admission price.

More information: visit the Yaroslavl region website.

Wroclaw, Poland

Poland’s answer to Venice (pronounced – if you can – vrotswahf) perches on an archipelago on the River Oder in Lower Silesia.

Now a buzzing student centre, the city of 100-plus bridges rose like a phoenix from its bombed-out shell to become a post-war cosmopolitan and cultural hotpot, thanks to its assimilation of high-cultured Poles from Lwow (Lviv, in Ukrainian) when that city was transferred from Poland to Ukraine in 1945.

The pride of Wroclaw is the Raclawice panorama, a 140m-long canvas depicting a 1794 battle in which the Poles beat the Russian Hussars.

More information: visit the StayPoland page on Wroclaw.

Have you been to any of the cities mentioned? Have you found a secret unsung city to share?

Let us know by leaving a comment in the box below or share your thoughts with other readers in the 50connect forums.

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