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Sintra in Portugal is a lively university town that boasts a number of spectacular castles. (Mike Corder/AP)
Sintra in Portugal is a lively university town that boasts a number of spectacular castles. (Mike Corder/AP)

15 European cities you haven’t thought of visiting (and really should) Add to ...

I often prefer Europe’s secondary towns and cities. Farther from the madding crowds, they frequently feel more authentic, as if the locals have created a place for themselves beyond the open-topped tour bus routes. But “secondary” doesn’t always mean small: it just means places we don’t immediately think to visit.

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Topping my list is Ghent, Belgium’s coolest “other city.” Striped with great museums, antique buildings and tempting chocolate shops, it’s an easy hop from Brussels. Local bloggers Fien Drieghe and Siel Vandamme (theghentchronicles.blogspot.ca) have several tips for newbies.

“Patershol is the nicest old neighbourhood to get lost in,” Drieghe says. “There’s the Gravensteen [Ghent’s 12th-century castle] and good restaurants like Avalon and In Bocca Lupo.” There’s also Huis Temmerman, a tempting old-school candy shop.

After hitting the Design Museum and the psychiatry-focused Museum Dr. Guislain, consider a big night out. “Join the students at the bars and clubs on the Vlasmarkt,” Vandamme says. “Charlatan is the most important one, but also try Pink Flamingo’s – a lovely vintage café.”

Less than an hour away, you can add train trips to Flemish faves such as Antwerp and medieval Bruges. Alternatively, stay on with a Eurail pass for secondary city action across the continent in recommended spots such as Bergen, Belgrade and Budapest.

And to prove they don’t all start with the letter B, continue to one of Italy’s finest smaller cities. Piccola Roma – a.k.a. Verona – is dripping with less-frenetic Old World charm. It’s easy to see why Shakespeare set his leading romance here.

Travel blogging Verona native Davide Cioffi (travelling-dave.com) is living in London, but thinks everyone should visit his hometown. “Where else can you see Juliet’s balcony and watch an opera staged in a Roman amphitheatre?” he asks.

Cioffi suggests starting at the huge, café-lined Piazza Bra, home to a first-century arena that rivals Rome’s Colosseum. From here, prime your camera for some architectural ogling. “Verona has plenty of amazing churches, but my favourite is San Zeno – it’s beautiful inside and outside. Also, visit Castelvecchio Museum. It’s in a medieval castle and has many sculptures and paintings.”

And for that romantic dinner, where you can pop the question to your own Juliet? “If money isn’t an issue, TeodoricoRe is a great restaurant situated on a hill overlooking the city.”

If the answer is “yes,” plan your honeymoon in Lecce, a baroque masterpiece often regarded as the Florence of southern Italy. Like many of Europe’s coolest secondary spots – from Belfast in Northern Ireland to Sintra in Portugal and Bristol in England – it’s also a lively university town.

That’s also the case further north, where one of the highlights among intriguing Baltic cities such as Tallinn (in Estonia) and Riga (in Latvia) is Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital with a UNESCO-listed Old Town and a university founded in 1579.

Local blogger Radvile Bieliauskiene (spottedbylocals.com/vilnius) says “everything is accessible on foot or by bike here and the transit system is easy.” If you fancy a little culture, late-September’s Sirenos theatre festival and October’s Vilnius Jazz Festival are coming up.

There’s also plenty to do beyond the fests, from making wishes at the Miracle Tile outside the cathedral to frequenting watering holes with the locals: Bieliauskiene suggests Tie Kepejai café for coffee and desserts; Bar Sarkozy for a cozy evening with a glass of cider; and Notre Vie wine bar “for a noisy night with a bohemian crowd.”

When it’s time for exploration, visit Trakai – the older Lithuanian capital. Just don’t wait too long . “Vilnius is a charming city, but it’s challenging in winter when temperatures drop to minus-30,” says Bieliauskiene.

Follow John @johnleewriter.

READER ADVICE

  • Asti in Italy. Pretty countryside and amazing food where Italians go on holiday. @chowandchatter
  • Recommend Avalon River Cruise Budapest to Bucharest. Friendly unfussy boats, and how else are you going to going to visit Pecs, Novi Sad, Arbanassi and Varna (four different countries!) in 10 days? Carol Bradley
  • Can I suggest Turku in Finland? It’s a beautiful place – I’ve been three times, as it’s near Moomin World! @AboutLondon
  • Zagreb is the perfect-sized city. Plenty of culture and street life, good food and drink, lots to see, friendly people. @kattancock
  • Leiden in the Netherlands. A great little university town just outside Amsterdam. @mikelroy
  • Melancholy, hospitable Cordoba is easily accessible by high-speed train from Madrid and offers superb tapas. Also, the white, cliff-hugging towns called pueblos blancos, including Ronda, are spectacular and affordable. Buen viajes! Cheryl Sutherland
  • Koln has an amazing cathedral and loads of culture around it. Plus the kuchen tradition – cake! Can’t do better than that! @GuyFoxLondon
  • Ghent, Belgium could qualify. Still one of my favourite cities in all of Europe. @spencerspellman
  • Ghent is a fab lesser-known city. Great energy there. @travelling_mom
  • Ljubljana in Slovenia. As European fairy tale-like city as it gets. @jasonkibbs
  • Definitely Belgrade. I’ve just been and it’s got great restaurants, a lot of buzz and the old classic Hotel Moskva. @edentravels
  • Varese, Italy: style, Fascist architecture and superb contemporary art. I also rather like Lugano in Switzerland. @matthewteller
  • Does Lille count as lesser-known for Canadians? I took Eurostar there last year and was pleasantly surprised: lovely old town and shops. @susiehenderson
  • Utrecht is a lovely canal city in [Amsterdam’s] heart with a gorgeous tower (Dom Toren), the tallest in Holland. Utrecht has a university vibe and is filled with restaurants, cafés, museums and great walks. Another advantage is that it doesn’t get nearly the amount of tourists as Amsterdam does, and it’s on an intercity train line, easily reachable from Schiphol Airport. @Vancouverscape

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