While they are all beautiful and historic cities, Paris, Rome and Prague are some of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations.
So, where do you head if you want to visit a hidden gem that’s a little off the beaten track? Here are suggestions for five European capital cities that deserve to be on your travel wish list.
Nestled between Austria to the north and Croatia to the south, Slovenia combines superb landscapes with a laid-back, rustic charm.
Its capital, Ljubljana, is one of the greenest cities in Europe. Car travel is restricted in the city, leaving you free to wander or cycle the banks of the Ljubljanica River or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can take to the water itself on a boat or paddleboard.
Towering over the city is the impressive Ljubljana Castle (a funicular railway will take you up there) where you can explore more than 900 years of history. The famous Triple Bridge is also a must see – it’s particularly impressive at night – while you will often find something going on in the impressive Prešeren Square.
Ljubljana also has a reputation for being a sociable city, where you can easily spend days wandering the streets, buying baked goods at the Central Market or sampling the city’s excellent cuisine.
And, thanks to its central location, it’s also the perfect starting point for exploring more of Slovenia. During your stay, it’s easy to find a local agent to book a day trip to the beautiful Lake Bled or the Postojna Cave.
While visitors to Switzerland often choose Geneva, Lausanne or Zurich as their destination, there’s plenty to like about the country’s medieval capital.
A beautifully preserved city with UNESCO World Heritage status, Bern’s compact size appeals to many travellers. A stroll from one end of the old town to the other takes less than half an hour and, while you are there, you can explore the impressive late Gothic Münster Cathedral.
The influence of Albert Einstein is never far away, and both the Einstein House and Einstein Museum should be on your to-do list. The 16th century Zytglogge clock tower is a marvel to behold (you can also take a tour of the mechanism) and, if you’re an admirer of art, the Fine Art Museum boasts works by Picasso, Matisse and Rothko while the Zentrum Paul Klee is dedicated to the Bernese artist.
If you prefer a stroll outdoors, the Rose Garden is home to 220 different types of roses, 200 types of irises, and moor beds with 28 different types of rhododendrons.
And, if you need a pit stop, you’ll find refreshment on almost every street corner. Bern is known as the ‘city of fountains’ and so you can safely drink the city’s pure spring water from any fountain.
For a generation of Brits, Sarajevo is famous for the sight of Torvill and Dean sweeping to gold medal success in the 1984 Winter Olympics. Now the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is one of the most beautiful cities in the Balkans.
The city is small enough to explore on foot, so take a stroll and visit the Sacred Heart Cathedral, the Orthodox Church, the Jewish Museum and the Latin Bridge. Historically, Sarajevo is also the city where the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand ultimately led to the First World War, and you can find more about this at the Sarajevo Museum which also features exhibits commemorating the Austro-Hungarian rule of the country.
Of course, the city also has a complex recent history, most notably the siege in the mid-1990s. Many buildings still carry scars of the daily shelling that the city endured, and you can find out more at the Tunnel Museum, located in the tunnel under the airport where many fled to freedom during the conflict.
With a reputation for café culture, interesting history and being one of the cheapest capitals in Europe to visit, Vilnius is a popular choice for visitors looking for something different.
Lithuania’s capital boasts the largest medieval old town in central and eastern Europe and one of the best places to take it in is the Gediminas Tower which sits atop a hill in the centre of the city. Part of the city’s defences for more than 1,000 years, you can enjoy superb views of the old town from either this tower, or from the Hill of Three Crosses which is where, legend says, seven Franciscan monks were beheaded.
Just across the Vilnia River is the neighbourhood of Užupis, which declared itself an independent republic on April 1, 1997. It’s a great place to enjoy a drink or a meal – try the local kibinai, a traditional pasty – and is full of interesting and unusual shops as well as the country’s ‘parliament’ where you can view the state’s constitution.
The UNESCO-protected old town is also a delight. Stroll the cobbled streets and take in a range of architectural delights, churches, cafés and restaurants and then visit the Cathedral Basilica of St Stanislaus and St Vladislav; an impressive bell tower and cathedral in the main square.
Dating back to 1566, Malta’s bustling capital is both a thriving administrative centre and a source of historical delights.
A recent European Capital of Culture and a World Heritage City, there’s plenty to explore. Built by the Knights of Malta, the Grand Master’s Palace boasts frescoed chambers and an impressive Armoury full of elegant swords and weaponry. St John’s Co-Cathedral is home to two Caravaggio originals while the National War Museum brings the island’s complex history to life.
Whilst you’re in Valetta it’s also imperative to visit some of the city’s beautiful gardens. The Upper Barrakka Gardens offers superb views over Valletta’s Grand Harbour and sits atop the Lascaris War Rooms which housed Britain’s headquarters during the Second World War. The Hastings Gardens and the Lower Barrakka Gardens are also hugely popular.
And, if you head down to the Grand Harbour, you can also visit Fort St Elmo, which survived both the Turkish invasion in the Great Siege of 1565 and the bombing of the Luftwaffe in the Second World War.