There's a reason why seasoned travellers seek out the little-known, the not-quite-as-famous or the hard-to-reach destination: They offer visitors an experience they won't find anywhere else. Alexander Besant shares his favourite underrated European cities.
The administrative capital of Greece's famed Cyclades island chain, Syros has never been a popular island for visitors to the country. That's a shame because the island and particularly its capital, Ermoupoli, are gems of the Mediterranean. Ermoupoli is an unusually large city for a Greek island, making it lively year round. The neoclassical architecture is an oddity among the white-washed cubist villages of the Aegean but speaks to the city's past riches from its shipping and shipbuilding industries. Winding marble streets, few-to-no tourist trap eateries and an epic location between two hills crowned with beautiful churches make the city the most charming urban centre on the Greek islands.
The last capital of the Roman Empire before it moved house to Constantinople, Ravenna was traded among the Ostrogoths, the Byzantines, the Franks and the Lombards, making it one of the most richly layered historical cities in Italy. You'd never know it given the only visitors are a few weary cruise-ship visitors who stop by and wander around the city for the day. Good accommodation exists but is scarce and train connections are surprisingly inconvenient, making the journey to this sleepy but stunning city all the more rewarding. While fifth-century UNESCO World Heritage mosaics painted by early Christians are the main draw for visitors, Ravenna's food will keep you there for days. Locals are most proud of the piadina, a delicious flatbread that can be filled with sweet or savoury ingredients and eaten on-the-go. The best place to sample it is at Ca' de Vèn, a cavernous restaurant serving regional specialities.
Whenever anyone asks me what the most beautiful city in France is, I never hesitate to say it's Strasbourg. Visited mostly by German tourists, the capital of Alsace (and the occasional home of the European parliament) has been fought over by Germany and France for centuries, and maintains a distinctly binational feel with heavily accented French and sausages on every menu. Unlike many European cities that were demolished during brutal wars and urban renewal projects, Strasbourg maintained significant portions of its medieval core. Timber houses line winding alleys reminiscent of the smaller villages just over the border with Germany. Suddenly those streets open up to grand boulevards with bustling farmers' markets showing the influence of the city's current home country. The city's picturesque canals are good for moonlight walks and the Cathédrale Notre Dame might just be the most glorious piece of Gothic architecture on the continent after Cologne's Dom. Alsace's most famous dish, choucroute garnie, with large hunks of boiled meats over sauerkraut, reaches its apex at Chez Yvonne in the old town, while savvy visitors will also remember to eat their share of flammekueches, an Alsatian pizza with bacon and cream.
SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN
There are few cities in the world in which life revolves around a singular dish. In San Sebastian one could say that the much-loved pintxo, a small bite while standing at a bar, is what brings friends, families and strangers together to share, laugh, eat and be merry. Every great night in the stunning Spanish Basques seaside town starts with pintxo, usually made with incredibly fresh seafood. San Sebastian has arguably the densest concentration of ludicrously great restaurants on the planet and a shocking number of Michelin stars for a town of less than 200,000 people. Winter in San Sebastian can be gloomy but summer sees the city's several beaches full and a fiesta-like atmosphere every day of the week.
Naples, not unlike Beirut, Medellin or Detroit, has always been best known for its crime and garbage problems rather than its incredible food, millennia of history and rugged charm. Tourists do visit but primarily to pass through to the nearby Amalfi coast or the island of Capri. Yes the city is dirty, yes it appears foreboding, and yes there is no massive monument that draws people from around the world, but Naples is intense, mysterious and seductive. It's also the capital of pizza. By all means try a slice but there are even more impressive local specialities. Tripperia Fiorenzano serves up fresh tripe and local seafood in a no-frills location with only a handful of tables. The husband and wife fawn over clients, most of whom look like regulars. For a thoughtful traveller in search of another view of Italy, Naples deserves another look.
Lisbon reminds me of nowhere in Europe and that's a good thing. It is an entirely unique city that if often left off the itineraries of travellers in Europe, both for its location on the far Western coast of the continent and because of most people's ignorance of Portuguese history and culture. In Lisbon, I expected the Mediterranean but instead got a strange blend of San Francisco, St. John's, Nfld., and a touch of Palermo's grit. In other words Lisbon is like nowhere else in the world. One of the best aspects of Lisbon is the seafood and there is no place to savour the lobster, shrimp, clams and barnacles better than Cervejaria Ramiro, a modest restaurant loved by locals.