Why don’t you like to visit the major European cities? My sister seemed confused when I told her that we prefer to spend our weekends in smaller and lesser-known towns in Europe. It’s not that we don’t like metropolises. Rome, Athens, London… they are all fascinating.
But thanks to globalisation, they are overcrowded too. Honestly, we have a hard time handling hoards of tourists, waiting for hours in lines to get a cup of coffee, or running around the underground to catch the right metro. All that reminds us of the stressful lifestyle we had in Paris. Even if we’ve been back in Luxembourg for five years now, we still try to avoid spending our weekends in large cities, unless there’s a major event or exhibit in a metropolis that we really want to attend.
Besides, visiting a major city in a weekend – or even in a week – is often frustrating. We like to travel both slowly and in depth. It’s hard to do both in a big city. But you can do it in small towns.
During the last couple of years, we’ve explored many lesser-known towns in Europe during weekend getaways. Here are six of our favourites.
Located only 25 km from Brussels, Leuven is rarely on any travelers’ bucket list. To be honest, it was not on ours neither, until we got stuck in traffic jam on a Friday evening when we tried to get to Bruges. Leuven was closer, so we opted for heading to Leuven instead. As soon as we spotted the Grote Markt (or Grand Square) with the late-Gothic style Town Hall, we decided to spend a whole weekend in this charismatic Belgian city, best known for its breweries.
Home to the oldest Catholic University still in existence, Leuven has an exceptional University Library built by an American architect and offered to the city by the American people after WWI. Both the history of the University Library and the panoramic views from its tower made us stay inside the library for a whole afternoon.
The Groot Begijnhoof is another captivating place to visit in Leuven. Dating back to the 13th century, it holds about 100 houses and 300 apartments built in the local traditional brick and sandstone, as well as many squares, parks and gardens. After strolling around for about an hour, we found out that the Beguinage in Leuven is almost 3 hectares, making it one of the largest remaining beguinages! Since 1998, it’s classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is now used as a university campus, where academics are housed.
Leaving the quiet area of the beguinage behind us, we headed to the vibrant Oude Markt (Old Market square), where locals – especially students – hang around in the surrounding bars and restaurants until late in the night. If we had more time, we would have stayed in Leuven much longer, since we didn’t even get to visit the Arensberg Castle nor the City Museum. Therefore, returning to Leuven is now on our bucket list!
Bergamo is around 50 km away from Milan in Northern Italy. Since we’re both not fans of shopping, we never wanted to go to Milan. But the cheapest flight that I found for a weekend getaway from Luxembourg was to Milan. For 13€ per person, I didn’t hesitate long before booking our flights.
When I started looking for a hotel, it occurred to me that there are three airports around Milan, and that our flight would land in Bergamo Airport. I started to google Bergamo, and all the images I saw really convinced me to visit this lesser-known town in the Lombardy region.
The city of Bergamo has two cores: the historic center encircled by a Venetian wall in the Città Alta (or Upper Town), and the modern 19th century city in the Città Bassa (or Lower Town).
Because of the rainy weather that we encountered during the three days in Bergamo, we only stayed in the Città Alta (Upper City), where we took our time to explore the historical center in depth. The Duomo, the Romanesque Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and the 18th century Cappella Colleoni with Tiepolo’s frescoes were simply breathtaking, both from the outside and the inside. Every corner, every ridge and every angle of the historical monuments were replete with elaborate details. One could stay inside each church for hours marvelling at the spectacular paintings proliferating on the ceilings and walls, which we ended up doing too.
The best time in Bergamo turned out to be in the evening. Since most of the tourists visit Bergamo on a day trip from Milan, it was very quiet when they were all gone after 6pm. Strolling through the cobblestone streets after eating a homemade Casoncelli alla bergamasca or a polenta e brasato for dinner was our favourite thing to do in this little Italian town.
Climbing up the narrow stairs to the Campanone Tower was also a singular experience in Bergamo. Firstly, the panoramic views were simply breathtaking, despite the rain. But also because you get to watch (and listen to) the bells chiming. Our eardrums didn’t really like it, and the first time we almost had a heart attack out of sheer surprise, but eventually got used to the sound and volume.
Meersburg lies on the northern shore of Lake Constance in Germany. As its name implies, Meersburg – or “Castle by the Sea” – is home to a castle. But in fact there are two castles: an Old Castle dating back to the 12th century, and a New Castle which is an 18th century Baroque Palace.
During our castle-hopping road trip through Baden-Württemberg, we visited Maulbronn, Tübingen, Hohenzollern Castle, Lichtenstein Castle, Sigmaringen Castle, and slept in the Mindness Castle in Markdorf (which is sadly permanently closed since October 2017). Ending our trip in Meersburg or anywhere else around Lake Constance was not our plan. But there are two castles in Meersburg! Kerstin shouted. And it’s only a 15 minutes’ drive from Markdorf!
As it turned out, Meersburg is a well preserved medieval town. With all its half-timbered houses, colorful tower gates and steep cobbled streets, we really felt like strolling through a fairytale town. If we didn’t have to head home already, we would have visited Meersburg’s museums and castles or even have taken a boat trip on Lake Constance. But that’s hopefully for another long weekend.
Nicknamed the “Venice of the Alps”, Annecy is located in an idyllic setting between lake and mountains in the Haute-Savoie department, in southeastern France.
The Château d’Annecy, once home to the Counts of Geneva, and the 12th century Palais de l’Isle might be the most famous sights of this French town. But what we really love in Annecy is its perialpine lake, known as Europe’s cleanest lake and also the third largest one in France.
Since it was cold and foggy when we arrived in Annecy, we walked to the Old Town where we feasted on typical Savoyard food, based on a staple diet of cheese and potatoes.
When I opened my eyes the next morning, I saw Kerstin standing mezmerised in front of the window. Come quick! she called. I didn’t have time to put on my contact lenses, so she handed me her glasses and there I saw a huge snow-caped mountain in front of us! And on our right, the crystal clear Lake Annecy stretched endlessly to the south. Of course, it was too cold to swim or do any watersport in April. But the sunny weather was perfect to stroll around the lake, and enjoy the sunset at the end of the day.
The highlight of our trip in Annecy was however our trek through the Gorges of the Fier River. Walking through deep and narrow gorges, crossing suspended wooden bridges built in the 19th century, clinging to the sheer rock cliff while looking down into the stream and the labyrinth of fissured rocks and potholes was undoubtetly one of our most awe-inspiring experiences!
Toledo is one of the top destinations for a day trip from Madrid. When we first visited the capital of Spain in 2005, we also spent less than 24 hours in Toledo. But as soon as we left, we had been craving to return to Toledo to explore the “City of the Three Cultures” in depth. Last year we finally made it: upon landing in Madrid, we went straight the Atocha station to catch the first train down to the medieval city of Toledo.
As soon as we disembarked, we met head-on the town’s splendid diversity of artistic styles: the Toledo’s train station, fully embodied in a Neo-Mudejar style, really is a perfect introduction into the town’s rich cultural monuments.
During the next three days, we explored mosques, churches, synagogues, fortresses, castles, palaces, monasteries and stone bridges in Gothic, Mudejar, Baroque, Mozarabic and Renaissance styles.
Behind every street corner, there’s an architectural element which reflects Toledo’s prestigious past, when the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities peacefully coexisted. And whether by day or by night, every little detail in this town is worth marvelling at!
On our last day, we contemplated a crew rock climbing on the hills across River Tajo. Next time we travel to Toledo, we’ll probably stay for a whole week to explore the outskirts of the old town.
Maastricht, The Netherlands
Did you know that Maastricht has the second highest number of national heritage buildings in the Netherlands? Yep, I was surprised too when Kerstin told me that a couple of years ago. On top of that, Maastricht is also a member of the “Most Ancient European Towns Network”. During the archaeological excavations in the Maastricht-Belvédère neighbourhood, remains dating back to the Neanderthals were discovered.
But most of the historic monuments we can see in Maastricht nowadays are from the Middle Ages. To be honest, we haven’t visited many of these sites yet. Every time we wander through Maastricht, we get caught up wandering in the 100% pedestrianised shopping streets in the Binnenstad (inner city). The most fascinating store in Maastricht is undoubtedly the Boekhandel Dominicanen, a modern bookstore set inside a 13th century Dominican Church.
The Magical Maastricht, a winter-themed park (which is much more than a Christmas market) held on the Vrijthof square during the whole month of December is another annual event that draws us to Maastricht…. And of course it always kept us away from visiting the historical monuments too. So let’s hope that next time we get to explore some of the many museums and heritage buildings in Maastricht instead.
Do you also prefer visiting lesser-known towns in Europe ? If so, which are your favourite European small cities for weekend trips ?
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