For every overcrowded Venice, Dubrovnik or Barcelona there’s a lesser-heralded sibling with just as much charm – here are 10 of the best
A European city break can be a trying experience. So oversubscribed are the likes of Florence and Rome that simply strolling the streets can become an arduous task. When I visited Venice a few years ago, it took half an hour to walk the 500 metres between St Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge – not because I was pausing to admire the architecture, but because I kept getting stuck behind shuffling tour groups. 
When you do finally reach that star attraction or famous view, the scene is one of bedlam. Queues of preening Instagrammers jostle to take the same photo, selfie sticks threaten to put out the eyes of the unwary. You escape the crush to search for sustenance, but the decent restaurants are all fully booked and the only option is a tired tourist trap where a bowl of limp pasta costs 25 euros. 
But it doesn’t have to be like this. For every overcrowded Venice, Dubrovnik or Barcelona there’s an underrated sibling: that lesser-heralded city with just as much charm but a wondrous absence of self-obsessed posers and overpriced cafes.  
With the autumn city break season upon us, when cooler temperatures make sightseeing a pleasure rather than a chore, our experts suggest 10 of the best to discover. 
Some cities are lucky. An idyllic setting, perhaps, or a dazzling cathedral and a world-class art gallery. Vicenza, in northeast Italy, is luckier than most, thanks to the arrival in 1524 of Padua-born Andrea Palladio, one of most influential architects in history.
Palladio left 23 buildings in the city, helping create one of Italy’s most elegant old centres, along with a further 24 villas in the surrounding countryside, a legacy that has earned Vicenza and its hinterland World Heritage status.
But the city has a problem, or rather two problems – Venice and Verona – both less than 45 minutes distant by train, popular places whose siren call leaves Vicenza all but unvisited.
So much the better for those who do come, for this is a perfect destination, even by Italian standards, and even without Palladio. Wonderful food, fine churches, art galleries, a surfeit of shopping – Vicenza has all the ingredients for a short break – along with an affluent air and an easy-going charm that make it a pleasure to explore for its own sake.
By Tim Jepson
If you want to overnight in a Palladian masterpiece, Palazzo Valmarana Braga has seven spacious double apartments for rent from £73 nightly (palazzovalmaranabraga.it). Read the full hotel review here.
Fly to Venice or Verona (Ryanair and easyJet serve both), which are 45 and 25 minutes respectively by train (trenitalia.com) from Vicenza. 
Central to the series of cities that dot Emilia Romagna’s Food Valley like a string of pearls, Reggio Emilia is regularly squeezed out of visits to the area by its more celebrated neighbours: Parma to the west, Modena to the east, and Bologna just beyond. And, while the name of such a prized product as Parmigiano Reggiano is regularly abbreviated, slicing the city out of the picture, and Modena takes all the credit for traditional balsamic vinegar, Reggio Emilia actually makes some of the best of both, along with a series of specialities that include the stuffed pasta and charcuterie that the region does so well. Perfect partners for the local cuisine, the area’s wines range from impressive contemporary Lambruscos to fresh dry whites and well-structured reds.
The city of Reggio Emilia itself, cool and collected, displays all the dignity you might expect from the home of the Tricolore, Italy’s national flag, with a poise and integrity reminiscent of its strong-minded and red-headed 11th-century ruler, Matilde di Canossa. Her legacy to the area includes a series of castles studding the dramatic landscapes of the Apennines, just south of the city. Several of them are open to the public and linked by footpaths threading through the hills – the perfect addition to a long weekend in the city.
By Sarah Lane
One of the area’s many striking castles is Carpinete, located at over 800m above sea level (castellodellecarpinete.it). Rooms can be booked from around £60 per night and the on-site restaurant is an atmospheric spot for traditional dishes like home-made pumpkin pasta. 
Fly non-stop to Bologna from Heathrow with British Airways, Gatwick with easyJet and Stansted or Luton with Ryanair. Reggio-Emilia is a one-hour drive from Bologna. 
A century ago, Trieste was one of the great seaports of the world – an animated Riviera town, and a Mitteleuropean trading hub as easily accessible by rail from the Baltic as it was from Egypt by boat. The city’s home-grown shipping company, Lloyd Austriaco, pioneered the first leisure cruises, and helped bankroll the Suez Canal in order to ensure Trieste’s pivotal role between Europe and the rest of the world. 
So, how is it these days that so few people are familiar with the city? While Venice hogs the headlines, Trieste, barely two hours away, is forgotten. It’s surely time for tourists to discover its charms. There are pretty public gardens, avant-garde boutiques, craft beer and wine bars that tumble out onto every cobbled piazza, as well as a deep mingling of cultures, which places the Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox and Catholic cathedrals all within a few steps of one of Europe’s largest synagogues. 
There is also a wealth of outdoor pleasures: pleasant hikes on the Carso Plateau, where the Strada Napoleonica weaves between vineyards offering osmize (pop-up cantinas); long cycle trails up the Val Rosandra or along the disused coastal railway line – the Parenzana – to Poreč in Istria; ferries to pretty Muggia, where you can scoff barbecued fish straight off the boat, or to Sistiana, where you can walk the coastal cliff-tops that inspired Rainer Maria Rilke. Or, you can simply while away the day in vintage city lidos or splashing off the beach at Barcola. 
By Paula Hardy
L’Albero Nascosto is an outstanding little family-run hotel in the centre of Trieste, in a beautifully renovated old building overflowing with art and antiques. Rooms from £99 per night (alberonascosto.it). Read the full hotel review here.
Fly from Stansted with Ryanair.
If the region of Aragon is Spain’s last great unknown, then Zaragoza, its grand and festive capital, is the big Spanish town that somehow escaped our notice – the one that got away. 
This is the fifth largest city in the country and a vibrant, lively place that nevertheless retains something of its intimate provincial character. Important elements of a Zaragoza tour might include the 11th-century Aljafería Palace, a Moorish marvel, and the imposing Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, whose resident Virgin is the patroness of Spain and the whole Hispanic world. 
There are reminiscences of Goya, Gargallo and Luis Buñuel (all Aragonese creators) in a slew of museums and monuments around the city, and the local cuisine is fascinatingly idiosyncratic – try chicken al chilindrón, borage with potatoes, and local ternasco lamb. 
When night falls, join the Zaragozanos of all ages and conditions in El Tubo, an old-town district heaving with taverns and tapas bars. 
By Paul Richardson
Gran Hotel, the city’s go-to posh digs since 1929 and enjoying a new lease of life under the utterly reliable NH chain. Rooms from £83 per night (nh-collection.com). 
Fly from Stansted with Ryanair. You can also reach Zaragoza by train in under 12 hours from London, with changes in Paris and Barcelona.
The starting point of the lesser-known Camino Primitivo (the oldest Camino de Santiago) and long the host of unparalleled holy riches, Oviedo has attracted religious pilgrims for centuries. But the compact, elegant, meticulously dressed capital of the northwestern Spanish region of Asturias also has a fresh, forward-thinking spring in its step.
The past few years have seen Oviedo’s fine arts museum expanded and ambitious arrivals burst on to its gastronomic scene, with avant-garde cookery from treasured local chef Nacho Manzano, a sprinkling of new crafted-cocktail bars and the odd vegan Asturian menu now complementing the city’s lively student buzz and delightfully traditional sidrerías (cider bars). 
Swing by in September for the Fiestas de San Mateo, when theatre and live music take over, or in October when the Asturias cider-apple harvest is in full swing. 
By Isabella Noble
Stay in historic splendour at the five-star Eurostars La Reconquista, with doubles from around £100 (eurostarshotels.co.uk). 
Direct flights are available from Gatwick with Vueling.
Perpignan may overwhelm the faint-hearted. It is so much France’s Deep South that it’s almost in Spain. When the rest of the country is hot, in Perpignan they’re grilling snails – for the Catalan cargolade dish – without necessarily needing a barbecue. The city comes out fighting from a heavyweight history. Capital of the 13th-century kingdom of Majorca (long story), it remained under Spanish influence until 1659. Then it was ceded to France – though locals will tell you that they’re not so much French (or Spanish) as Catalan.
Subsequently it simmers with colour and more cultures from around the Mediterranean than a lesser city could handle. It is ferocious of festivity, conviviality coursing through conspiratorial old streets on any pretext, or none at all. The fact that it is Tuesday night suffices. Food and wine come in high definition, and don’t invariably involve snails. Unusually, the city responds to the rhythms of both codes of rugby. It is, thus, one of the few places in France where one might talk of Saracens or St Helens and be understood. 
And, in the unlikely event that you should tire of a tireless city, both Mediterranean sea and Pyrenean mountains are to hand. You might rock-climb in the morning, swim off Canet-en-Roussillon in the afternoon and then, crucially, be back in Perpignan for dinner and drinks, night-time strolling and maybe dancing among people more devoted to having a good time than almost any others I know.
By Anthony Peregrine
The four-star Dali Hotel has hanging gardens, a gym, a good restaurant, a rooftop terrace overlooking the nearby park – and the swish of contemporary style. Rooms from £77 (dalihotel.fr). 
Ryanair flies from Birmingham and Stansted direct to Perpignan until the end of October.
This Riviera city is an elegant riot of colour, from its ochre and terracotta townhouses to its lemon groves – framed by the Alpes Maritimes behind and the Mediterranean in front. Then there are the impossibly beautiful gardens created by Menton lovers who made the most of this nearly constantly sunny city, including Lord Percy Radcliffe’s Val Rahmeh Botanical Garden and the Spanish writer Blasco Ibanez’s Fontana Rosa. 
Wander along the Promenade du Soleil past the beaches to reach the Jean Cocteau Museum before stopping at the cafés in Rue Saint-Michel. And if you want to pop into Italy, it’s only a 10-minute walk away. 
By Mary Novakovich
Villa Genesis has doubles from around £115 a night (villagenesis.com). 
Fly to Nice with BA or easyJet – the train to Menton takes around 35 minutes.
The Rhine has always been a favourite destination for British cruise travellers. Having been lucky enough to sail along it many times, I find it easy to see why. This mighty river passes through some spectacular scenery, and there are lots of attractive historic towns along the way.
However there’s one place travellers tend to bypass, and I think they’re mad to miss it. Yes, Cologne is imposing, and Koblenz is charming, but for me the most interesting place to stop off on the Rhine is Bonn.
During the Cold War Bonn was a bizarre place, the capital of West Germany, one of the key countries in the western alliance, incongruously located in a quaint provincial town. For the West German government, this incongruity was no accident. It was a signal to their allies that they were no longer interested in world domination. On the west bank of the Rhine, surrounded by sunny vineyards, it was a deliberate contrast to bombastic Berlin.
For 40 years as Europe’s most unlikely capital, Bonn presided over a discreet renaissance. In 1949, when Bonn became the capital of the new German Bundesrepublik, Germany was disgraced, devastated and divided. By 1989, when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, the Bundesrepublik had become one of the most prosperous and respected nations in the world.
During those Cold War years, Bonn was an intriguing place to visit – surreal and slightly sinister, like the setting for a film noir. No wonder John Le Carré set one of his spy novels, A Small Town in Germany, here. When Germany was reunited, and the capital returned to Berlin, I wasn’t the only one who thought that Bonn would now become a quiet backwater. Instead, during the last 30 years, something strange and surprising has happened. No longer the state capital, it’s become a cultural capital instead.
By William Cook
A space-age hotel in one of Germany’s oldest cities, five-star Kameha Grand Bonn makes a big impact on the tranquil banks of the Rhine. Rooms from £131 per night (kamehabonn.de). Read the full hotel review here.
By train. The journey from London takes as little as 4 hours and 50 minutes.
Squeezed between Amsterdam and The Hague, Leiden has it all: canals, gabled houses, world-class museums, and a profusion of intriguing shops – with a few windmills thrown in for good measure.
It is Holland’s most prestigious university town, dating back to 1581. Bookshops abound, frescoes of poems adorn whitewashed walls, and canal-house windows reveal glimpses of chaotic student kitchens.
Leiden was also once home to the Pilgrim Fathers, and is the site of the first tulips ever grown in Holland. Last but not least, it is Rembrandt’s birthplace and arguably the crucible of Dutch Golden Age art – the Museum De Lakenhal focuses not only on the great painter but on Leiden as the forging furnace of such artists as Jan Steen and Gerard Dou. 
By Rodney Bolt
Amid the understated luxury of Ex Libris, in the heart of the old university district. Rooms from £121 per night (hotelexlibris.com).
The train takes around four hours 20 mins, with a change in Rotterdam.
It has the chocolate-box architecture of Bruges, the cool café culture of Copenhagen, canals to rival Venice, a graffiti scene like Berlin in miniature. It even has bicycles propped up against lamp posts – a la Amsterdam. 
It’s easy to pick apart Ghent’s charms and to draw comparisons with the continent’s tourism powerhouses, but put all these qualities together and you have what is one of Europe’s most complete and underrated city breaks.
To make things even better, Ghent is supremely convenient to get to. As the crow flies it is a mere 169 miles (203 km) from London to Ghent, which is closer than the capital to Liverpool. It’s speedy by rail, too. The train takes just two hours 41 minutes, which is quicker than the train from London to Newcastle, albeit only by a minute or two.
With its cosy candle-lit bars, pastel-washed buildings and abundance of markets, Ghent is a city that ticks the boxes for a weekend away year-round – including the depths of winter. It also has an unlikely burgeoning alternative scene, with cocktail bars, third-wave coffee shops and design-focused boutique hotels opening up across the city.
By Greg Dickinson
It doesn’t get much better for location than the modern, four-star Hotel Harmony, which overlooks the canal in the Patershol district – the oldest quarter of town. Rooms from £138 per night (hotel-harmony.be).
Hop aboard a Eurostar train at St Pancras International and you’ll roll into Ghent two hours and 49 minutes later. There’s a change at Brussels; your ticket covers your journey there and then on the local train to Ghent – no booking is required for the second leg. 
Explore hotels that have been tried, tested and rated by our experts
Explore hotels that have been tried, tested and rated by our experts
Explore hotels that have been tried, tested and rated by our experts
Explore hotels that have been tried, tested and rated by our experts
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