Travel can be exhilarating, but exhausting too. Especially in tourist-heavy European capitals where it seems every activity involves crowds of people and long line-ups. Happily, quieter gem-like destinations are tucked away all over Europe. And they're waiting to be discovered by travelers who love fewer people and extraordinary discoveries.
Walk-able and atmospheric, the historic city of Bruges has much to offer in the way of sights and cuisine – without the roving crowds of tourists in Brussels. Moules frites, excellent chocolate, and craft beer taste even better after immersion in the Flemish masters on display at the Groeninge Museum or a history lesson at the Gruuthumuseum. Shop for exquisite hand-made lace, attend a traditional winter market, or wander the canals and ancient neighborhoods dating from medieval times. This is a human-scale UNESCO World Heritage Site made for strolling and getting lost.
Straddling the river Douro and edging up a series of picturesque cliffs, Porto is a cultural capital filled with public art both high and low, cutting edge architecture and hot dining spots featuring globally respected cuisine. A city of modern marvels such as architect Rem Koolhaas's Casa de Musica, Porto is a relaxed blend of old and new. Its secret passages, lookouts, and cobbled streets are best explored by foot. Within striking distance of both the more frenetic tourist scene of Lisbon and the pastoral wineries and rugged landscape of the Douro Valley, the town remains laid back and quietly sophisticated well-kept secret.
With a reputation for celebrity hi-jinks, the town of Hvar is located on the island of the same name and easily reached by ferry from Split on the Dalmatian coast. The distance across water ensures that Hvar is never really crowded. You and the jet setters will have this chic and sunny, lavender-scented location and its Venetian style heritage buildings all to yourselves. The nearby, and mostly deserted Pakleni Islands are also worth checking out.
Located in the Alsace region of northeastern France, Colmar is not only one of the prettiest towns in Europe; it's a quirky culinary center for the region. A robust cuisine that blends influences from nearby Germany and Switzerland with the finest French traditions can be experienced in the countless taverns, patios, and bistros that line the River Lauch as it meanders through the historic center of town.
Seaside Valencia is a hotbed of Spanish culture and cuisine, but with none of the frantic tourist traffic of Madrid or Barcelona. The original home of paella, Spain's national dish of slow-cooked rice and seafood, the city is a foodie paradise with lots of options for burning off calories on foot. Explore Valencia's beaches, as well as the lush parks and heritage sites of the historic old town like the locals, do, on a bicycle.
At one end of the soaring Oresund Bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark, Malmo is a great destination for the urban Swedish experience. It's one that includes shopping for hippest clothing and design, relaxing over fine cuisine, and exploring the harbor and nearby beach areas. Built around a historic cobbled old town, Malmo is the jewel of Skane province, familiar to fans of the Wallender mystery series, which is set in nearby Ystad.
The second-largest city in Denmark after Copenhagen, Aarhus, contains just as many, yet more laid back, pleasures for the traveler. It's the capital of Denmark's Lake District, so it's never far to access nature and rolling landscapes. In town, cultural attractions are front and center. Aarhus hosts countless music festivals, but for those who hate crowds, the massive ARoS Art Museum, contemporary art Moesgaard Museum, or the spectacular waterside Concert Hall invite solo meandering.
Capital of the volcanic Italian island of Sicily, Palermo is a rough and tumble princess in a tattered ballgown. Sitting at crossroads of Mediterranean, Byzantine and Arabic influence, Palermo's palazzos and historical monuments are world-class, but little known. The Capuchin Catacombs especially are a macabre, but fascinating, must-see. And where else can you watch an offshore volcanic island erupt?
Technically, the Caucasus state of Georgia is part of Asia – at least according to geographers that identify Europe's border as the eastern end of the Black Sea. But culturally, many consider Georgia's capital city of Tbilisi part of Europe. A cosmopolitan city in a dramatic valley setting, its heritage is a unique blend of tradition, Soviet influences, and a new hipster outlook. Visit before the crowds discover its trending cultural and gastronomic scenes.
Epicureans will be able to take their time in the famed restaurants of Lyon. As storied as the cuisine of Paris but without the frantic crowds that haunt the City of Lights year-round, Lyonnaise cooking is the gold standard. Lyon was also the birthplace of cinema and has ruins that date back to Roman times, so history is everywhere in this relaxed southern city.