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Europe’s top 10 hidden gems

Hidden Gems

For anyone well-travelled around the capitals of Europe, it’s not unusual to seek something a little bit off the beaten track for a getaway. While the major cities of Western Europe offer some of the most incredible sights and culturally significant locations in the world, there are so many lesser-known destinations which offer a totally different holidaying experience.

A visit to any one of these hidden European gems will reveal a side of the continent even the most seasoned traveller may not have experienced. They can give a much more intimate view of the lives of the locals than you’ll find in one of the continent’s most popular tourist destinations. Here are our top 10 hidden European gems for inspiration for your next adventure.

Belgrade, Serbia
The Serbian capital of Belgrade is often overlooked as a tourist destination. However, it is a city on the rise, and while it’s not known as the most picturesque place on earth, it’s a fascinating city which offers something totally different to the usual European getaway.

In its long and turbulent history, the city has seen more than 40 invasions, and its eclectic architecture reflects this — concrete socialist blocks sit between art nouveau masterpieces, as well as buildings from the city’s Roman, Habsburg, and Ottoman eras.

While here, make sure not to miss the Museum of Yugoslav History to learn more about the country’s fascinating past. Beside the museum is the House of Flowers, a marble mausoleum of Josef Broz Tito. Tito is a much-loved Yugoslav revolutionary and former president who led what is often regarded as the most effective resistance movement in occupied Europe during the Second World War. The mausoleum is situated in a beautiful winter garden, and also features a fascinating collection of gifts from Yugoslavians to the former president.

Another must-see is the Kalemegdan, the fortress of Belgrade that now serves as the city’s central park. Time your trip to the fortress for sunset, when the views of the meeting point of the Sava and Danube rivers on one side and the whole city on the other will look their absolute best.

See Belgrade on our Danube to the Black Sea cruise.

Bratislava, Slovakia
Bratislava is a city defined by contrast — a sprawling metropolis which stands at odds to the luscious greenery of the flood plain which surrounds it; a tiny Old Town full of pastel-coloured, 18th century buildings at the centre of a modern city that almost 415,000 people call home; socialist-era architecture overlooked by a medieval castle; and some of Europe’s finest modern sculptures sharing postcodes with medieval churches.

To get the full flavour of the Slovakian capital, start in the Old Town. Enjoy a stroll along the winding cobbled streets and a break in one of its many quaint cafés before heading out of the centre to explore the architecture of the city’s Soviet-era expansion, including the SNP Bridge, with its flying saucer-shaped tower that houses a viewing point and restaurant.

While you’re here, make sure to visit St Martin's Cathedral in the Old Town, the largest and one of the oldest churches in Bratislava, dating from 1204. You should also check out the imposing Bratislava Castle, with its curious four-towered design — while you’re there, make sure to take the short trip to the Slavín monument, which gives the best views of the city.

Experience Bratislava on our Danube to the Black Sea, Danube Discovery cruise, and cruise the Danube to Vienna and Budapest trips.

Porto, Portugal
Porto is Portugal’s second-largest city and the home of port wine. Located on the Douro, it’s a city with a rich history spanning back to the 4th century, when it was a Roman settlement known as Portus Calle. Today, the city is seeing a resurgence as a tourist destination as it enjoys significant urban redevelopment, while still staying true to its roots and retaining its colourful charm.

Porto is extremely hilly, and many of its colourful residential buildings are built straight into the cliff face which overlooks the river. There are stairs carved directly into these cliffs, which offer an excellent walking tour of the city the like of which you won’t experience anywhere else.

Any visit to Porto should begin in the Ribeira, the Unesco-listed Old Town that features extravagant, gold-laced churches and baroque architecture. After you’ve explored this stunning area and its charming, winding streets, make your way over the Douro river to Vila Nova de Gaia, where you’ll find scores of cellars offering tastings of port, the city’s most famous export.

While you’re here, make sure not to miss the world-renowned Serralves Museum, which displays some of most cutting-edge contemporary art in the world. The building itself, a minimalist masterpiece designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Alvaro Siza Vieira, and its surrounding sculpture-filled gardens are worth a visit in their own right.

See Porto on our River Douro cruise, which explores the very best this beautiful wine region has to offer.

Kizhi, Russia
Stepping off a ship onto the enchanting island of Kizhi is like entering another world. The Unesco world heritage site, which is located on one of Lake Onega’s 1,600 islands, contains two 18th-century wooden churches and an octagonal clock tower, all constructed entirely of wood. The most famous of these structures is the iconic Transfiguration Church, which features over 30 silver-painted domes in the distinctive Russian ‘onion’ shape, creating an almost otherworldly effect.

The reserve is also home to several more 18th- and 19th-century wooden buildings that were moved here from the surrounding areas during the Soviet era. The workmanship required to create these magnificent buildings is breath-taking, making this an absolute must-see for anyone visiting Russia. While here, you can enjoy demonstrations by locals showing the traditional construction techniques of the era which made these exceptional buildings possible.

See Kizhi, as well many more of Russia’s highlights, on our Moscow to St Petersburg cruise.

Melk, Austria
Melk is sure to be a highlight of any trip along the Danube. Dominated by the magnificent Benedictine Abbey for which it is famous, this quaint city is one of Austria’s hidden gems.

Of course, no trip to Melk is complete without a visit to Stift Melk, the city’s colossal abbey which has over 500 rooms, most of which are still used as a school and monk’s quarters. Originally a castle built to defend Melk’s strategic position on the Danube, in 1089 it was donated to the Benedictine monks by Leopold II and converted into a fortified abbey. Much of the abbey was damaged in the 18th century, when it was transformed into a baroque masterpiece by Jakob Prandtauer and his apprentice, Josef Munggenast. This is how it stands today, with a plethora of cherubs, marble, and gilded ornaments.

The Wachau, the beautiful stretch of the Danube from Melk to Krems, is a Unesco world heritage site. If you’re looking for something active to do on your trip, hire a bike and enjoy a ride along this magnificent stretch of land. The north bank bike trail is paved from beginning to end and winds through the picturesque villages that dot the river, while the south bank rail merges with the road at some points but gives better views of the Danube itself.

See Melk on our Danube to the Black Sea, Danube Discovery, and Delights of the Danube cruises.

Stralsund, Germany
Stralsund was founded in 1234 and saw its most prosperous period during medieval times. Today, it stands as one of the best-preserved examples of red-brick gothic architecture in the Baltic region, and in 2002 was honoured as a Unesco world heritage site.

Start your visit to this stunning German town in the Old Market Square, where you’ll find the Town Hall, which dates from the 13th century. The square is surrounded by the region’s distinctive brick buildings, which feature vaulted arches and the intricate detailing that the medium allowed. A stroll along the cobbled streets of the Old Town will reveal several beautiful buildings, including Saint Mary's Church, the largest church in Stralsund and the world’s tallest structure from 1625 to 1647. Its 104-metre octagonal tower offers a sensational panorama of Stralsund and the neighbouring islands of Rügen and Hiddensee that isn’t to be missed.

The Monastery of Saint Catherine is another must-see, as the magnificent medieval building now houses two museums: the Museum of Cultural History and the German Maritime Museum, which is home to Germany's largest maritime collection. While you’re there, be sure to check out the monastery’s original gothic refectory, which is one of the most spectacular in Germany.

Another great place to visit, especially with kids, is the Ozeaneum. The huge aquarium, which is housed in a breath-taking modern building beside the river, was voted European Museum of the Year in 2010 and makes for an excellent day of entertainment.

Take in Stralsund’s beautiful Old Town and brilliant museums as part of our Baltic Isles, Berlin, and Poland cruise.

Breisach, Germany
Situated along the Rhine Valley where the Black Forest meets the Alsace, Breisach is a German town with both a geographical and cultural proximity to France. Visiting today, it’s hard to believe that the town, which rises above the vineyards that line the river, was almost totally destroyed during WWII. 85% of its buildings were flattened by artillery fire as allied forces crossed the Rhine in the last days of the war. Breisach has since been painstakingly restored, and the cobbled streets and pastel-coloured buildings retain much of their original charm.

Over its long and turbulent history, Breisach has changed hands several times and seen many conquests. Initially the seat of a Celtic prince, it has since been part of France, the Holy Roman Empire, and Germany. Through most of these changes, the town has been dominated by the impressive St Stephansmünster, the Romanesque cathedral overlooking the whole area and a must-see for tourists.

Breisach lies just 5km away from Neuf-Brisach, the spectacular star-shaped fortified town built to defend the French border after Breisach was lost to the Holy Roman Empire in 1697. Now a Unesco world heritage site, the fortifications are a must-see for any history buff. Experience Breisach on our Rhine cruise and Swiss delights, Cruise the Rhine to Switzerland, and Medieval towns of Bavaria and the Rhine Valley trips.

Antwerp, Belgium
While Brussels and Bruges continue to become more and more popular destinations for those looking for a European getaway, Antwerp remains one of Belgium’s hidden gems. The country’s second-largest city, Antwerp is home to a beautiful medieval centre, an incredibly impressive cathedral, and a magnificent train station — an architectural wonder of the late 19th century.

In the mid-16th century, Antwerp was one of the largest trade hubs in Europe, and its port is still one of Europe’s busiest today. It is now the diamond capital of the world, and high-end jewellery stores sit alongside designer shops like Cartier and Armani on the main shopping street, the Meir. Visit the Museum aan de Stroom to learn more about Antwerp’s history as an international hub of diamonds and see the excellent collection of precious stones.

One of the baroque era’s most celebrated artists, Pieter Paul Rubens, was a resident of Antwerp his whole life. You can learn all about his works and life in the Rubenshuis, which includes a collection of his most famous work displayed alongside the original furniture from his home and many of the tools and equipment he used to create his art.

Discover Antwerp on our Amsterdam, Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent, New year cruise to Bruges, Brussels, Ghent, and Antwerp, and Belgium Christmas markets trips.

Kalocsa, Hungary
Kalocsa is one of the oldest towns in Hungary, having been founded in 1AD by King Stephen the Saint. The seat of the Hungarian archbishop since 1135, the town is the religious capital of the country and home to an imposing cathedral, the archiepiscopal palace, and a seminary for priests. The city was destroyed by the Ottomans in the 16th century, and has since been rebuilt in an incredibly picturesque baroque style.

Kalocsa is most famous as the paprika capital of Hungary, and sweet, mild, and hot varieties of the spice are grown in the fertile farmland surrounding the town. The Paprika Museum explores the history of the spice the locals call ‘red gold’, and a visit will reveal how the paprika pods are processed among the aroma of the garlands of paprika hanging from the museum’s beams.

The town is also well known for its horse shows, which date back 200 years. See a traditional Hungarian horse show at Bakod Puszta, where riders in traditional costume will perform tricks and acrobatics on the horses, always riding bareback as their ancestors did. See Kalocsa on our Danube to the Black Sea cruise.

Lucerne, Switzerland
Lucerne is a stunning city in the centre of Switzerland, complete with panoramic views, tranquil lakes, and a perfectly preserved old town. The city reached its pomp in the 19th century, when it was host to such distinguished visitors as Queen Victoria, Mark Twain, and Wagner.

The must-see sights of Lucerne include the Chapel Bridge, said to be the oldest wooden bridge in Europe and dating back to the 14th century; the old city wall; and the Lion of Lucerne, a moving statue of a wounded lion which commemorates the Swiss Guard who were killed as revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace during the French Revolution.

If you’re looking to soak up some culture on your trip, make sure to visit the Rosengart Collection, an excellent modern art gallery featuring pieces by Cézanne, Chagall, Miró, and Pissarro. The museum is also home to around 50 paintings by Pablo Picasso, as well as photographs taken by David Duncan Douglas, who spent years with the Picasso and his family and created an intimate portrait of the great artist’s day-to-day life. Music lovers should try to catch a performance at the Kultur und Kongresszentrum (KKL), a breath-taking and multi-award-winning postmodern concert hall famous for its near-perfect acoustics. If you’re lucky enough to experience one of your favourite pieces of classical music here, it’s unlikely to sound better anywhere else.

See beautiful Lucerne as part of our Cruise the Rhine to Switzerland and Rhine cruise and Swiss delights cruises. Any of these hidden European gems will be a great destination for your next holiday.

If you’d like more information about any of them, or have any questions about our European river cruises, get in touch with a member of our team today.

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