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Europe's major cities are stacked with world class attractions – Rome, London, Berlin and Paris have several each. But sometimes the most impressive draws aren't found hanging out in the major capitals. Museums that tell extraordinary tales, high tech exhibitions and hugely memorable ruins can be found by heading to the continent's less-heralded cities. Such as…
The Red Star Line Museum
Where? Antwerp, Belgium
Antwerp was once the leaping off point to a new life. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, more than two million people gathered here for the ship to the USA and Canada. The stories of migrants, who often gave up everything on a desperate gamble, are collated. And the conditions they endured – both battling through Europe's conmen on the way and what awaited at the other side – are brought home. See redstarline.be.
The Teatro Olimpico
Where? Vicenza, Italy
Vicenza was the home of Palladio, the Italian architect who turned the architectural principles of classical temples to civic and private buildings. The city is studded with his handiworks, but the Teatro Olimpico is the most breathtaking of all. The set – an intricately detailed streetscape using clever perspective to look far bigger than it is – has been the same since its first production in the 16th century. And all around is a phenomenal mirage – what looks like a marble Roman temple is actually carved wood. See teatroolimpicovicenza.it
Where? Cordoba, Spain
A magnificent cathedral is one thing. But they are 10 a penny in Europe. Cordoba's Mezquita ramps things up considerably, by having said cathedral inside a vast, vast former mosque where hundreds of red and white stone arches create an utterly hypnotic visual effect. It's one of the most staggering Islamic buildings anywhere in the world, let alone in Europe. See catedraldecordoba.es.
Rietveld Schroeder House
Where? Utrecht, Netherlands
Even if you've no particular interest in the De Stijl architecture movement, the Rietveld Schroeder House is such a dazzling piece of design that you'll probably be won over. Form follows function, with interior and exterior designed together. This leads to ever-changeable rooms with sliding doors, unfolding walls and ingenious conversions from open plan to privacy when required. Watching it transform is close to magical. See rietveldschroderhuis.nl.
The Joanina Library
Where? Coimbra, Portugal
High on a hilltop campus, the Coimbra University is Portugal's most prestigious, and has the handsome buildings to match. But the unquestioned highlight is the lavish baroque library, where paintings across the ceilings celebrate the wonders of human knowledge and intricately carved wooden shelves climb towards the heavens. Think a great church, but for books. See uc.pt.
Where? Segovia, Spain
Spanning two hilltops either side of the entrance to the city centre, Segovia's aqueduct rises 28.5 metres high above the ground, with two lines of stone arches balanced precariously on top of each other. Balanced is the right word too – perhaps the most extraordinary thing about it is that no mortar was used to hold the thousands of hewn stones together. It's part of a longer system that sees water flow downhill at tiny, tiny gradients.
The Orto Botanico
Where? Padua, Italy
Arguably the birthplace of modern science, the world's first botanical garden was set up by the University of Padova in 1495 in an attempt to study herbs and their medicinal uses. The original garden is still prettily and meticulously divided into segments, with the plants clearly labelled. Next to it is a giant greenhouse that ramps things up several levels, taking plants from around the world. It doubles as an unexpectedly engrossing museum telling the story of how humans have domesticated and cultivated plants for their own uses throughout the centuries. See ortobotanicopd.it.
See also: A three minute guide to Padua
The Ars Electronica Center
Where? Linz, Austria
Technology meets art meets social discourse at the Ars Electronica Center. It focuses on cutting edge developments, but also on inventive ways to display them, and the repercussions. One exhibit, for example, has a giant jigsaw puzzle of a man made from the terrifyingly large amount of data Facebook has stored on him. See aec.at.
Where? Split, Croatia
Roman ruins hardly get more impressive – although anyone going expecting to see an opulent palace is in for a surprise. Roman Emperor Diocletian had his fortified town built with no expense spared, and now the ruins form the heart of Split's city centre. White stone walls, towers and entrance gates still stand, but there's a living population inside.
See also: Six of the best Roman ruins
Where? Essen, Germany
The Ruhr, Germany's industrial heartland, is hardly plum on the tourist trail, But sometimes industrial can be properly sexy. And that's the case at the Zollverein, a visually staggering former coal mine complex that has now been turned into a warren of artists' studios, museums (including the superb Red Dot Design Museum) and unusual activities – ice skating along the old barge canal or a Ferris wheel inside the coking plant, anyone? See zollverein.de.
Take a look at these 10 amazing attractions in the gallery above.
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