As the project of European integration looks like it may be hitting the skids after all, it’s a good time to revel in the diversity of the continent that thinks it’s a currency – a collision of cultures that comprises two dozen working languages and twice as many sovereign states. Now here’s a tectonic mass where you can start your day in the glinting foothills of the 4,800m-high Mont Blanc and end it by the glittering waters of the Med; where you can blitz through a handful of former imperial capitals in a day; where you can find Byzantine ruins, a Zoroastrian temple, a world-beating museum and a cutting-edge nightclub – all in a single square mile.
Visitors to Europe hop across borders with impunity and make use of the cheapest international flights in the world. And for all this, the most well-travelled continent in the world retains its overlooked nooks and fringes. Paris and Barcelona are all well and good, but for a sense of ‘deep Europe’ (as we’re calling it), we suggest heading for the destinations that blend beauty, charisma and room to breathe in exactly the right quantities. And, as well as being amazing holiday spots in their own right, each of these cities offers an experience that is distinctly European. Proper, authentic, locally-sourced Europe: sample it in 2015 – while you still can…
1. Reykjavik, Iceland
Reykjavik may boast a remarkable history – it is the site of the world’s first parliament, thought to have been established in 930 AD – but the city today holds its past and future in even balance. Its modernism is striking, from the clean lines of its buildings to its experimental music scene to its status as one of the most environmentally conscious cities in the world.
Reykjavik’s compact size (it has only 120,000 inhabitants – positively titchy for a European capital) makes it ideal for a casual wander. If you want to get your bearings, start by taking a trip in the elevator to the top of Hallgrimskirkja, Iceland’s largest church, which resembles the helm of a Viking ship. Culture vultures should then flock to the cultural hub of Harpa, while nature lovers can opt for whale-watching at the harbour or hikes along the coastline. And whatever your predilections, a dip in one of the city’s famous hot pools makes for a perfect cap to a day of ambling. You won’t want to leave.
By Flo Wales Bonner, Time Out International Producer
Appetite whetted? Find out more in our Reykjavik city guide.
2. Gozo, Malta
The Maltese archipelago has more to offer than just the island from which it takes its name. A mere 25 minutes by ferry from Malta, tiny Gozo is a destination in its own right, boasting a distinct history, culture and character. The Maltese flock here to enjoy the verdant scenery, superior food and relaxed pace of life. And it isn’t just the locals that love it: none other than Brangelina chose it as their honeymoon destination.
Most roads in Gozo lead to the capital, Victoria, an attractive jumble of markets, restaurants, quaint British gardens and diverting museums. Its high point – quite literally – is the ancient fortified Cittadella, with its magnificent 360-degree view of the island. Spread out below you are the island’s chief sights: the scenic beach resort of Marsalforn, the world-famous Neolithic temples of Ggantija, and the legendary Calypso’s Cave, where Odysseus may or may not have taken a break during his travels. Believe us: come to Gozo, and you’ll want to stay for more than just a pit stop.
By Time Out Malta & Gozo
3. Riga, Latvia
The capital of Latvia and the largest city in the Baltic States, Riga is rich in history and heritage. The medieval wonders of the old town of Vecriga and its beautiful early-20th-century art nouveau districts to the north point to the city’s importance and prosperity over the centuries. But Riga is much more than a beautiful relic. The city is booming – its selection as the European Capital of Culture for 2014 attests to its meteoric rise in the last few decades – and the years of suffocating Soviet rule are rapidly becoming a distant memory.
The economic regeneration is matched by a burgeoning tourist trade and a vibrant (some would say riotous) nightlife, which often carries on until dawn; Riga is understandably popular with stag and hen parties at the weekends. If it all gets too much, then beyond the city lies the beautiful Baltic coast. The resort town of Jurmala is 30 minutes by train west of Riga and was once a popular retreat for the Russian royal family and Communist Party bigwigs. It still draws the crowds in summer with its outstanding natural beauty and excellent health spas.
By Time Out editors
4. Split, Croatia
Split is no longer a mere hop-off point on the way to the nearby destination islands of Brač, Hvar and Vis. Today the de facto capital of Dalmatia, built around a living Roman ruin, has everything you could want from a holiday and then some. A rash of new four- and five-star hotels, galleries filled with works by Ivan Meštrović, Croatia’s most celebrated sculptor, and the best bar crawl on the Adriatic coast – not to mention beach parties and a major music festival – all make for a perfect summer getaway.
But Split also provides a great year-round city break, not least due to the recent phenomenon of quality bistro openings. Venues such as Uje, NoStress and Bokeria form a part of this new culinary wave, making the best use of fresh, organic regional produce and the bounty of the Adriatic. And, unlike the more glamorous Dubrovnik, Split is also eminently affordable.
By David Plant, Time Out Croatia director
Discover Split’s best bars, restaurant, clubs, galleries and more with Time Out Croatia.
5. Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmö, Sweden
Copenhagen’s visitor appeal has exploded over the past few years, with people from all around the world flocking to Scandinavia’s most avant-garde city to enjoy its innovative restaurants, enviable bike culture and strong arts scene. The city exudes a fairytale charm through its royal palaces, Tivoli theme park and colourful historic buildings. Meanwhile, its much-hyped New Nordic restaurants continue to draw the foodies, with a whole host of internationally acclaimed chefs following in the footsteps of Noma’s René Redzepi in their quest to reinterpret traditional Scandinavian cooking.
Anyone who’s ever tuned into another successful local export, TV crime drama ‘The Bridge’, will know that a no less scintillating city awaits a half hour’s drive away. It happens to be in another country and across a sea, but Malmö – Sweden’s third-largest city – is worth the short trip via the Øresund Bridge. Its unusually cosmopolitan population includes some 15,000 university students, who give the city a vibrant energy. The place is particularly appealing during the summer, when its long sandy beach and beautiful parks really come into their own, and when its historic heart, centred around the lovely cobbled square of Lilla Torg, comes alive – especially at night.
By Anna Norman, Time Out Copenhagen guidebook editor
Before you pack your bags, stock up on tips with our Copenhagen city guide.
6. Tbilisi, Georgia
Straddling the border between historical empires, Georgia’s capital is an alluring hybrid of architecture, customs and traditions, whose enduring anonymity on the tourism scene makes it all the more special for those who do visit.
Georgia may not technically be in Europe (though that doesn’t stop it from competing in Eurovision, as Australians are well aware) – but you wouldn’t know it from a stroll through Tbilisi’s Old Town, whose quaint Orthodox churches and dusty Art Deco edifices speak to the city’s Christian heritage and Western orientation. On its fringes, on-trend bars and cafés sprout like hairs in a hipster’s beard, drawing in the city’s burgeoning student population. Then you turn a corner, and another world intrudes: a Zoroastrian temple founded millennia ago by Persians, or a complex of sulphuric baths framed by minarets.
As Tbilisi sloughs off its Soviet veneer and reopens itself to the West, its cultural riches are once again becoming accessible to the adventurous traveller. There’s never been a better time to go.
By Alex Dudok de Wit, Time Out writer
7. Kraków, Poland
By now many of you will know Kraków, the former Polish capital and seat of learning with the pristine Old Town. Those on a return visit may have spent more time exploring the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz – its empty synagogues and crumbling cemeteries, where Spielberg filmed ‘Schindler’s List’. Few, though, will have made it across to Podgórze, the grey area immediately over the river. But on your next visit, make sure you go – for Podgórze is where the scene is heading.
At the foot of the crisscross cast-iron bridge stands the Drukarnia, perhaps the best bar in the city. Regular live jazz acts and DJs provide entertainment amid the lively banter. Nearby, Peruvian, Hawaiian and Indian coffees are purveyed at the bohemian Rekawka Café.
After doing the street-level stroll, you can observe this compact quarter from the comfort of the rooftop pool atop the Qubus spa and business hotel. Seven storeys high, with a quality restaurant, jazz club and piano bar, it’s the most impressive of its genre in Poland’s most dynamic and affluent city.
By Peterjon Cresswell, Time Out guidebook editor
8. Costa Brava, Spain
This region is the apple of Catalonia’s eye, and not only because of its gorgeous beaches, its peaceful coves and fishing villages, or its festivals and trendy clubs. It’s the friendly locals, the beauty of the landscape and the cultural traditions – everything comes together to create a marvellous whole. And since you can’t really get to know an area without tasting its food and drinking its wine, the region’s restaurants are another big draw, serving feasts of fresh seafood, perfectly cooked meats and fantastic local vintages to diners sitting outdoors – or even inside a castle.
If somehow you’re still not convinced, perhaps some celebrity endorsements will do the trick. Salvador Dalí was greatly inspired by the views from his Cadaqués home (now a public museum), Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra spent time in Tossa del Mar (she was filming, he was racing to her side in a fit of jealousy), and Truman Capote wrote part of his masterpiece ‘In Cold Blood’ while staying in Palamós. All this and more, a mere jaunt from Barcelona.
By Jan Fleischer, Time Out Barcelona English-website editor
9. Stuttgart, Germany
Germany’s sixth-largest city is best known for being the home of the automobile. Porsche and Mercedes-Benz continue to be made there today, with both legendary marques offering factory tours and museums devoted to the history of their iconic jalopies over the years.
Yet there’s much more to discover here than merely a petrolhead’s paradise. The city is ringed by walkable hills, valleys, woodlands, lakes, acres of rolling parkland and vineyards – yep, there’s a rich and lustily celebrated ancient winemaking history here which can be enjoyed on the picturesque ‘Weinwanderweg’ wine-walking (staggering?) trail. And after all that walking (and indeed, wine-tasting) you’ll be relieved to discover you’re in one of the most mineral-rich areas in Europe, which means lots of healthy spas, springs and inviting natural pools throughout the area.
There’s no shortage of cultural pursuits here either – the State Gallery is duly magnificent, whilst the conveniently compact cultural quarter at Palace Square houses the New and Old Palaces, the Königsbau Arcade and the Museum of Art. Despite its low-key reputation, there’s enough to see and do here to get a feel for this likeable and friendly little city in the green – you’ll be enchanted by it.
By Arsalan Mohammad, Time Out Berlin contributor
10. Lisbon, Portugal
There’s always been an infinite number of reasons to visit Europe’s most westerly capital. Boasting word-class restaurants (which excel in seafood), a reputation for style and a long artistic pedigree, Portugal’s first city continues to draw in punters with its cultural and culinary charms. But as of 2015 there are infinite plus one reasons, thanks to a new gastronomic venture spearheaded by Time Out – if we do say so ourselves.
Mercado da Ribeira has had many guises: its roots can be traced back to the 13th century, and it was once one of the most famous fish markets in Europe. Many of its traders have been selling fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and flowers there for decades. When we learned that the city council was seeking bids for the chance to manage a large part of the iconic attraction, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
The Time Out Mercado da Ribeira now brings together some of the city’s most loved names in food and drink; for full details, check out our insiders’ guide. Alternatively, brush up on local knowledge with our Lisbon city guide.
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