Beyond Paris and Rome: the lesser-known European cities you must visit

English life on the canal.
English life on the canal. 

Europe's lesser-visited cities are just as eye-catching, fascinating and fun as their more well-trodden counterparts, writes David Whitley.

Europe's capitals tend to get most of the attention, but prepare to venture a little bit further and their overshadowed smaller sibling cities can pack in just as much fun. We've picked 10 of the best B-team options that can put a different, slightly under the radar spin on your Euro jaunt.

GHENT, BELGIUM

Temptation in the gourmet heaven of Lyon.
Temptation in the gourmet heaven of Lyon. Photo: Corbis

Pretty to an almost unimaginable degree, and surrounded by waterways, mediaeval Ghent is ideally suited to a boat trip orientation. Boat in Gent does story-packed 90-minute cruises. See boatingent.be.

Continue the swooning at the Design Museum, which switches between "want one!"-inducing art nouveau glassware and period rooms that take in design trends throughout the ages. It's a one-stop shop for understanding the major differences between rococo, classicism and more.

See designmuseum.be.

Stunning Innsbruck.
Stunning Innsbruck. Photo: Getty Images

The Museum Dr Guislain, inside a swoony old monastery complex, goes into the unexpectedly gripping history of psychiatry. It's equal parts gory - trepanned skulls to straitjackets - and terrifyingly barmy. You'd not want to be in the hands of the doctor who thought everything was determined by the shape of your face.

See museumdrguislain.be.

Getting there: Etihad flies to Brussels from Sydney and Melbourne via Abu Dhabi. See etihad.com or phone 1300 532 215. Trains from Brussels Airport to Ghent take less than one hour.

Don't miss: the Pfund Molkerai dairy shop in Dresden.
Don't miss: the Pfund Molkerai dairy shop in Dresden. 

See belgianrail.be.

Staying there: The waterside Marriott Ghent has king rooms with rollaway beds for kids for from €109 ($164).

See marriottghent.com. The arty Grand Hotel Reylof has doubles from €125.

The Piazza Maggiore in Bologna.
The Piazza Maggiore in Bologna. Photo: Getty Images

See sandton.eu/gent.

More information: visitgent.be.

SEGOVIA, SPAIN

Join the queue: one of the many bike parking stations in Amsterdam.
Join the queue: one of the many bike parking stations in Amsterdam. Photo: Penny Bradfield

There are few more astonishing examples of Roman ingenuity than Segovia's enormous - and hugely photogenic aqueduct. Stretching 894 metres across the city, with 163 arches and not a single drop of mortar to hold it together, the 2000-year-old behemoth doesn't half provoke an inferiority complex.

At the other end of Segovia's narrow warren of lanes is the Alcazar, a Disney-esque castle with tremendous views out over the surrounding plains. It's just as lavish inside - especially the portrait-lined Hall of Kings.

See alcazardesegovia.com.

Porto in Portugal is one of the oldest European centres.
Porto in Portugal is one of the oldest European centres. Photo: Getty Images

But eating is what Segovia does best - particular when it comes to pork. The cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig) here is famed throughout Spain. Try it at obsessive specialist Casa Duque. See restauranteduque.es.

Getting there: Flying via Bangkok, Thai Airways has one-stop flights to Madrid from Sydney and Melbourne. See thaiairways.com.au, 1300 651 960. High speed trains connect Madrid and Segovia. See renfe.com.

Staying there: The Sercotel Infanta Isabel has a babysitting service and family rooms for from €77. See hotelinfantaisabel.com. La Casa Mudejar revels in its 15th century heritage looks and small spa, with doubles from €85.

Sunset in Dresden, on the Elbe river.
Sunset in Dresden, on the Elbe river. Photo: Getty Images

See lacasamudejar.com.

More information: turismodesegovia.com.

CESKY KRUMLOV, CZECH REPUBLIC

Under the radar: the rebuilt magnificence of Dresden.
Under the radar: the rebuilt magnificence of Dresden. Photo: Alamy

Cesky Krumlov is built scenically around a loop in the Vltava River, and on a sunny day there's no better way to enjoy the water than on a raft gently gliding downstream and bobbling over the odd light rapid. Malecek rents out rafts for the lazy float-a-thon and smuggling a bottle of bubbly on board is not unheard of.

See boat-rental.malecek.cz.

The whole town is painted with Renaissance flair, but the castle gets the most lavish treatment. Gorgeous from the outside, the OTT rooms and one-of-a-kind rococo theatre inside take it to another level.

See zamek-ceskykrumlov.eu.

The Czech Republic is beer heaven and the historic Eggenberg brewery is one of the best small operations in the country. The brewery tours, of course, include a hearty tasting session.

See eggenberg.cz.

Getting there: Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Prague via Dubai. See emirates.com or phone 1300 303 777. CK Shuttle offers transfers from Prague airport to Cesky Krumlov. See ckshuttle.cz.

Staying there: Junior suites sleeping four at the centrally located Bellevue cost from 3650 koruna.

See bellevuehotelkrumlov.cz. The Ruze has full-on 16th century atmospherics shtick, with doubles from €171. See janhotels.cz.

More information: ckrumlov.info.

BOLOGNA, ITALY

Other Italian cities have stunning set-piece buildings, but as a combined whole, Bologna is surely the most beautiful city in the country. Thirty eight kilometres of porticos, handsome red-brick palaces and churches and a series of dreamy squares make just walking around an intense pleasure.

It's also home to the oldest university in Europe (and arguably in the world, depending on definitions). The mediaeval twin towers - the Torre degli Asinelli and Torre Garisenda - are the highlights of the campus, while the Palazzo Poggi is the hub. Inside are a 300-year-old observatory and a gory anatomical museum.

See museopalazzopoggi.unibo.it.

Bologna is also home to Italy's richest food, which can be rounded off with high-quality gelato. And should you wish to make it yourself, the Gelato Museum offers have-a-go workshops as well as 14,000 years of cold treat history.

See gelatomuseum.com.

Getting there: Air China offers one-stop flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Milan via Shanghai. See airchina.com.au or phone 1800 860 999. Trains from Milan to Bologna take just over an hour.

See trenitalia.com.

Staying there: Coolly minimalist and centrally located, the Metropolitan has rooms that sleep four for €159. See hotelmetropolitan.com. The Grand Hotel Majestic veers more towards opulence, with doubles from €260. See grandhotelmajestic.duetorrihotels.com.

More information: bolognawelcome.com.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND

For the sweet-toothed, Birmingham should be a pilgrimage site - it's where the Cadbury chocolate empire was born. Tours of the gigantic Cadbury World complex stuff in plenty of tastings among the history, family backstory and production line gawping sessions. See cadburyworld.co.uk.

The Lord of the Rings books were also born in Birmingham. Author J.R.R. Tolkien grew up there, with the area around Sarehole Mill and Moseley Bog providing the inspiration for Hobbiton and the Shire. Maps pointing out the key Tolkien sites make a great self-guided tour. See bmag.org.uk/sarehole-mill/Tolkien.

Want your precious? Well, the Jewellery Quarter is where about 40 per cent of Britain's jewellery is made, and is ripe for bargains on gold and silver. The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter allows you to watch craftsmen at work.

See bmag.org.uk/museum-of-the-jewellery-quarter.

Getting there: Emirates flies to Birmingham via Dubai from Sydney and Melbourne.

Staying there: Away2stay's canal-moored houseboat is a quirky alternative, costing £160 ($290) for a family of four. See away2stay.co.uk. The pop art-inspired apartments at Staying Cool have fabulous city views for from £100. See stayingcool.com.

More information: visitbirmingham.com.

ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS

Few cities have a better collection of eye-popping modern architecture. Highlights include Piet Blom's skewiff cube-shaped apartments at the Overblaak Development, the Swan-esque Erasmus Bridge and Renzo Piano's KPN Telecom HQ. Rotterdam ByCycle runs two-wheeled architecture tours.

See rotterdambycycle.nl.

Some of the skyline is best seen from the water, and Spido runs cruises that also take in the gigantic port area. Shipping containers suddenly get kinda sexy when you see the scale of the operation. See spido.nl.

The works by the Flemish and Venetian masters in the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen ensure it's one of the greatest art collections in the world. Van Eyck, Hieronymus Bosch, Titian and Rembrandt contribute to the culture fix. See boijmans.nl.

Getting there: Malaysia Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Amsterdam, changing planes in Kuala Lumpur.

See malaysiaairlines.com. Trains from Amsterdam Airport to Rotterdam take less than an hour. See ns.nl.

Staying there: The Hotel New York in a former shipping line HQ offers art nouveau splendour for €151. See hotelnewyork.nl. MyCityLofts offers kitchen-equipped apartments sleeping four, from €106. See mycitylofts.com.

More information: rotterdam.info.

INNSBRUCK, AUSTRIA

Innsbruck's greatest quality is how close it is to the Alps. A cable car from the city centre will take you all the way up to the Hafelekar station, and a short walk from there leads to the 2334-metre Hafelekarspitze peak.

See Nordkette.com.

The cable car stations have been designed by star architect Zaha Hadid, and she's also responsible for the Bergisel ski jump. The photo exhibition on winter sports history at the bottom is great, but the views from the top are something special. It's worth noting that the first thing jumpers see as they prepare to set off is a graveyard at the end of the slope. See bergisel.com.

Lovers of ridiculously opulent palaces will dig the Hofburg - a baroque masterpiece of stucco and gilding overload. The neighbouring Hofkirche features Emperor Maximilian's absurdly pompous tomb, lined by 28 gigantic bronze statues. See hofburg-innsbruck.at.

Getting there: Fly to Munich in Germany from Sydney or Melbourne via with Singapore Airlines. See singaporeair.com or phone 13 10 11. From Munich, a train to Innsbruck takes less than two hours. See bahn.de.

Staying there: Spacious quad rooms at the Weisses Rossl cost from €140. See roessl.at. The Grand Hotel Europa hits that sweet spot between classic romance and modernity, with doubles from €156. See grandhoteleuropa.at.

More information: innsbruck.info.

LYON, FRANCE

For the French - who know a thing or two about food - Lyon is regarded as the country's premier gourmet city. Localers offers tasting tours that take in some of the city's most interesting restaurants, but also speciality cheese, chocolate and winemakers. See localers.com.

The Croix-Rousse area is famous for its silk-weavers and many of the small workshops can be visited. The Atelier de Passementerie and Atelier de Tissage, where you can watch the vintage looms in action then see the modern operation respectively, can be lumped together in a joint ticket. See soierie-vivante.asso.fr.

The old city is jam-packed with gorgeous mediaeval and Renaissance buildings, but if picking just one, dip inside the 16th century mansion hosting the Musees Gadagne. The museums cover an odd mix of local history and puppetry.

See gadagne.musees.lyon.fr.

Getting there: From Sydney and Melbourne, Emirates flies via Dubai to Lyon.

Staying there: Kids stay free and have play areas at the Novotel Lyon la Part Dieu, where rooms cost from €99. See novotel.com. The dazzlingly white, minimalist College Hotel is the hip couples option, with rooms from €130. See college-hotel.com.

More information: lyon-france.com.

DRESDEN, GERMANY

Before World War II, Dresden was regarded as arguably the most beautiful baroque city on Earth. Carpet bombing changed that, but the meticulous rebuilding of the key buildings is arguably more astonishing than the initial construction. The awe-provoking Frauenkirche, finally rebuilt in 2005, is the most potent symbol of rebirth. See frauenkirche-dresden.de.

The Zwinger complex is the other great baroque treasure, and contains the Porzellansammlung, the world's largest porcelain collection. It's a pretty spectacular nod to Dresden's historic role as Europe's key porcelain-making centre. See skd.museum.

For a more contemporary edge, Nightwalk Dresden runs walking tours around the best murals and stencil art of the city's burgeoning street art scene.

See nightwalk-dresden.de.

Getting there: Virgin Australia offers flights to Berlin from Sydney and Melbourne via Abu Dhabi, using codeshares with Etihad and Air Berlin. See virginaustralia.com or phone 13 67 89. Trains from Berlin to Dresden take just over two hours. See bahn.de.

Staying there: Two bedroom apartments, kitted out with washing machines, are available through Aparthotels Frauenkirche for from €130. See aparthotels-frauenkirche.de. In the old town and stacked with original art works, the Art'otel has doubles from €80. See artotels.com.

More information: dresden.de.

PORTO, PORTUGAL

The Sao Francisco church is 14th-century Gothic on the outside, 18th-century Rococo bling inside. But it's the catacombs, containing thousands of human bones, that make the experience truly freaky. See ordemsaofrancisco.pt.

For art lovers, the Museu de Arte Contemporanea has developed a reputation as being one of the best spots for contemporary art in the world.

The less culturally inclined will be just as happy frolicking in the grand park surrounding it. See serralves.pt.

Theoretically a separate town, but realistically a suburb just over the bridge, Vila Nova de Gaia is where Portugal's main port wine producers trade their wares. About 30 offer tastings, but the terrace at Graham's has the best views and Calem goes into depth about the production process and historical background. See grahams-port.com and calem.pt.

Getting there: Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Lisbon via Dubai. Trains from Lisbon to Porto take two hours and 45 minutes. See cp.pt.

Staying there: The townhouse-style Eurostars das Artes has babysitting services and two connecting rooms for from €94. See eurostarsdasartes.com. The five-star Infante Sagres is all about the spa. Doubles from €120. See hotelinfantesagres.pt.

More information: portoturismo.pt

ABOUT THE WRITER

Based in Britain, our writer David Whitley says the continent's charms truly only unveil themselves once you start delving beyond the obvious.

Meet the A-team

You'll probably pass through one of Europe's classic capitals on the way to the sibling cities so why not tackle them from a different perspective.

AMSTERDAM

Laced with cycle paths and as flat as a pancake, Amsterdam is ideal for exploring on two wheels. Orange Bike offers rentals and tours, which focus on topics such as snack food and architecture.

See orange-bike.nl.

BERLIN

Few tours are as edgy as Alternative Berlin's twilight tour. It dips into Berlin's subcultures, including the street art scene, but also visits a computer hacking lair and squat bars. The freakiest bit is exploring an abandoned tower block by torchlight.

See alternativeberlin.com.

BRUSSELS

The European Quarter is where Brussels' tedious political bureaucracy goes down - but it has plenty of architecture and parkland to enjoy. Pick up a self-guided walking tour leaflet at the tourist office and check out the Royal Museums of Art and History and Museum of Natural Sciences.

See visitbrussels.be.

LISBON

Crossing that bridge between a bus tour and self-driving, Lisbon's fleet of little yellow GoCars come with tour routes programmed into the GPS system. There's also commentary which rattles off facts, figures and stories as you drive through the city.

See gocartours.com.

LONDON

The Regents Canal is a much underrated thoroughfare through London, passing grungy Camden, Regents Park and London Zoo. London Kayak Tours takes paddlers along the canal to see the city from a duck's eye view.

See londonkayaktours.co.uk.

MADRID

Tapas-crawling around Madrid is very much the city's must-do activity, but the experts at Adventurous Appetites will steer you towards spots you might not otherwise discover. The emphasis is on sampling regional cuisines from across Spain - whether that's Asturian cheese and cider or Galician octopus.

See adventurousappetites.com.

PARIS

Give in to those sweet-toothed cravings for Paris by Mouth's chocolate and pastry tasting tour. It visits top chocolatiers, sinks teeth into creamy pastries and encourages guests to pick the city's best macaron maker after extensive sampling.

See parisbymouth.com.

PRAGUE

The Czech capital's communist history is brought to life in a Soviet-era tour. It finishes inside a nuclear bunker complex, which is now part-museum, part-bar and part-nightclub.

See prague-communism-tour.com.

ROME

Engineering was as much behind the success of ancient Rome as culture and conquest. Understanding Rome runs tours that look at how the Eternal City was put together, taking in the Appian Way - the key arterial road - plus major baths and aqueducts.

See understandingrome.com.

VIENNA

The Austrian capital is a classical music fan's paradise, and the tourist board has created a series of downloadable walking maps taking in key sites. Mozart, Haydn, Strauss and Beethoven all have their own trails.

See wien.info.

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