Lesser-Known Towns in Europe for Weekend Getaways

Lesser-Known Towns in Europe for Weekend Getaways

with 26 Comments

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.

 

Leuven, Belgium

 

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, Italy

 

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, Germany

 

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.

 

Annecy, France

 

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, Spain 

 

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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Mei is a 30-something Archaeologist, born and raised in Luxembourg. Besides traveling, she loves eating sushi and stinky cheese (although not at the same time), as well as listening to Kerstin's funny stories while driving on long road trips. She's afraid of heights, but adores panoramic views. Her favorite places are those she chose to live in: Paris, Greece, San Francisco.

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26 Responses

  1. a mindful traveler
    | Reply

    Bergamo was a real delight. I loved the local feel and less touristy vibe. The combination of the new city and the old city gives a real variety to Bergamo. Great post guys. 🙂

  2. Mel Butler
    | Reply

    What a lovely list of places in Europe that you have there. I definitely like the sound of Leuven, Belgium and Maastricht, The Netherlands they both sounds and look pretty. I have been to Bergamo, Italy years ago and loved it so much. I went to Annecy last year and even though it was beautiful it was very very busy. I would definitely go back though

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thanks Mel! Both Leuven and Maastricht are unexpected gems, you should definitely visit if you get a chance! Annecy was not crowded at all when we went, probably because it was during low season. We’d love to return in summer, but it will definitely be busier, especially around the lake.

  3. Nic
    | Reply

    This is a great list. We love visiting smaller towns and cities. The ones on Germany and France are in regions we really want to visit

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thanks Nic! The Haute-Savoie in France and the Lake Constance in Germany are definitely great regions with lots of interesting towns and wonderful landscapes. 🙂

  4. Jitendra
    | Reply

    Deauville in France is first im my list.

  5. Chris Behrsin
    | Reply

    This is why I love Europe — so many hidden haunts to explore. Whenever I’m in a capital in the summer months, after a few days I want to get out to somewhere a little less full of tourists. Annecy looks amazing, in particular, I love the look of that lake and I never knew it was Europe’s cleanest. Two places I recommend are Sankt Goar in Germany (I went to a wedding there once) and Malbork in Poland (featured in Dan Snow’s TV series about famous castles).

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      We’ve never heard of Sankt Goar in Germany ! But it looks like a cute little town, plus it’s in the Hunsrück area, so close to our home! So we’re putting it on our bucket list now. 🙂 And if you get a chance, do go to Annecy! You’ll see how clean the lake is.

  6. pinkcaddytraveloguegmailcom
    | Reply

    I totally agree, small towns like this are often so much more interesting than big cities, and definitely less crowded! Annecy was already on my list, but I need to add the others as well. And I love the sound of that bookstore inside of an old church!

  7. liolesen
    | Reply

    We are going to Belgium in two weeks – l guess we have to make a stop at Leuven. Small towns are often very charming, and people always have time for a chat – I like that.

  8. This is my kind of list! We love smaller towns and getting away from the crowds. And we haven’t been to any of these places yet!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      You should come to Europe next year and visit some small towns! 😉

  9. Jitendra
    | Reply

    I liked Montpellier and Arles in France and Bath in Engalnd.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Haven’t been to these cities, but Arles is on our bucket list! Montpellier is rather big, isn’t it?

  10. GlutenFreeHorizons
    | Reply

    These all look stunning. My favourite small town in Europe was Kotor in Montenegro – I visited as part of a cruise years ago having never heard of it!

    Francesca x | glutenfreehorizons.com

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Oh we haven’t been to Montenegro yet, let alone Kotor. But it’s on our bucket list! 🙂

  11. Lydia
    | Reply

    These are some real hidden gems and I haven’t heard of most of them. I will have o add each one of these towns to my bucket list, especially Annecy. Is one weekend enough to explore Annecy?

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Annecy can be visited in a weekend. But if you have more time you should definitely stay a bit longer to bike or walk around the lake and in the surrounding area. In the winter you can do winter sports in nearby Chamonix and other villages in the Alps.

  12. Jenia
    | Reply

    Heard great things about both Leuven and Bergamo before, hoping to hit Toledo this winter 🙂

  13. Yukti
    | Reply

    All lesser known towns of Europe are really very beautiful. I love such quirky places which are not very touristy types. Meersburg in Germany and Toledo in Spain are looking very beautiful.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      If you plan to visit Germany, make sure to stop at Lake Constance and visit Meersburg too! 🙂

  14. Ryan K Biddulph
    | Reply

    All look beautiful Mei. I so agree with the off the beaten path take on traveling too. Especially in a place like Europe where cities get overrun during summer months. If we visit major cities it is 1- 2 weeks. Tops. Lesser known spots offer peace, tranquility, and a genuine change up.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      You got it Ryan! To explore major cities one needs more time. It‘s more relaxing to go to small towns during weekend trips! So where are you heading to next?

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