Off-the-Beaten-Path Attractions in Europe's Grandest Cities
Planning a trip to one, or several, of Europe’s grandest cities — but want to avoid the typical tourist attractions and the throngs of visitors they entice? Then it’s time to think outside the box. Or, should we say, off the beaten path.
From a living-room nightclub in Berlin, to flea markets beloved by locals in Madrid and Barcelona, to a South Asian neighborhood in Paris, these are the best underrated haunts in Europe’s biggest and most-visited cities.
Barcelona has become so immensely popular with out-of-towners, it's started imposing limits on tourism. Anything touched by famed architect Antoni Gaudí — most notably the La Sagrada Familia church and Park Guell public park — is guaranteed to be mobbed by tourists, any time of year. But there is so much more to the city's design scene.
Few tourists make it, for example, to Casa Amatller, the work of esteemed architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch. Inside and out, the structure shows off spectacular examples of Catalan modernism.
Want to mingle with Barcelona's friendly locals? Make your way to Encants Vells, one of the largest flea markets in Europe. Some 500 stalls peddle furniture, clothes, books and every other kind of bauble you can imagine. Connect with local makers, and leave with wonderful keepsakes to take home.
For after-hours entertainment, The Palau de la Musica (Musical Palace) is a must-visit. Embrace your inner sophisticate by taking in a choral or classical music concert in this historic space featuring stunning stained glass, mosaics and sculptures.
The Colosseum. The Roman Forum. The Spanish Steps. Trevi Fountain.
Rome may be just the 10th most populous city in Europe, but it's among the most visited on earth, thanks to its collection of truly iconic attractions. Explore its nooks and crannies, and you’ll find even more reasons to love the Eternal City.
At St. Peter’s Basilica, few know that you can look through a very special keyhole to the door of the headquarters of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, also known as the Knights of Malta — an order created during the Crusades to protect the pilgrims making their voyage to the Holy Land. (This website is dedicated to helping you take the perfect picture through that keyhole.)
While many visitors know parks like Villa Borghese, a lesser-known sight is the Parco di Tor Fiscale (Torre Fiscale Park). This diamond in the rough houses a tower dating back to medieval times, a Roman villa and rock quarries.
For a full sensory experience, take in the sights, smells and tastes of Rome in the lightly trafficked Ostiense district. It’s home to excellent street art and fabulous food served at trattorias both classic and contemporary.
More than 20 million visitors annually head to UK's bustling capital, most well-known for its royal trappings (like Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London), modern-meets-historic skyline and world-class museums (including the modern Tate and classic British Museum).
But journey away from the crowds, and you'll find much more to love in this buzzing metropolis. The Hackney City Farm is an urban oasis where you can grab fresh produce and even get your yoga class in for the day. Farm animals available for petting include pigs, donkeys and goats.
Another refuge is Holland Park. Located in the affluent Kensington neighborhood, it’s often overlooked in favor of the more popular Hyde Park, but offers just as much charm, plus an opera house, peacocks and the Japanese-styled Kyoto Garden.
Looking for culture, but don’t want to brave the crowds at London’s famous major museums? Head to Sir John Soane’s Museum. The former residence of the famous architect who designed the Bank of England encompasses over 20,000 antiquities, sculptures, architectural models and drawings, paintings and more. And it’s free to boot.
The City of Lights likely conjures images of the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre Museum, tragically damaged Notre Dame Cathedral and romantic neighborhoods like Montmarte.
For all the romance you’ll find in these locations, minus the crowds, consider the Rue Cremieux in the 12th arrondissement. A cobblestone pathway and brightly colored homes make this street imminently Instagrammable — but you won’t have to worry about rubbing shoulders with other tourists on their smartphones.
Nearby, the Gare de Lyon area showcases a totally different side to the city’s culinary scene: It's home to a wonderful variety of South Asian restaurants beloved by locals.
If you’re still hungry after your South Asian feast, try a slice of a very unique desert: the 18th century wedding cake, croquembouche, at the Boulangerie Jean-Noël Julien in the fourth arrondissement. The bakery’s tower of cream puffs, or profiteroles, is truly one of a kind.
The capital of the Czech Republic is most famously home to the bustling Old Town Square, circa-1357 Charles Bridge and breathtaking Prague Castle.
Try packing all into one whirlwind day, before carving out time to see the city's overlooked gems.
The fancifully named Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord may not be as grand as Prague Castle, but it's wonderfully unique, featuring a giant transparent clock on its facade and — a rarity — no pulpit inside.
Almost everyone who visits Prague makes time to drink its local craft beers. But did you know the city is home to a Beer Spa? Bathe in hops, brewer’s yeast and malt, all known to boast terrific health benefits, and indulge in unlimited consumption of beer and beer bread.
Those in the know remain amazed that the historic fort of Vyšehrad remains under the radar. Enjoy its spectacular views and surrounding attractions, including neo-Gothic churches and a national cemetery, before other tourists (maybe) finally catch on.
A beguiling mix of the old and new, Berlin welcomes visitors to explore its historic attractions, like the Berlin Wall Memorial and Brandenburg Gate, and modern cafes, galleries, bars and nightclubs.
If a taste of the city’s arts scene is what you’re after, head to one of the city’s hidden galleries. The contemporary art at the Boros Collection, housed in a former World War II bunker, is particularly impressive, as is the prestigious but infrequently visited Kewenig gallery.
And then there’s the home of Erika Hoffman, perhaps one of the most interesting art spaces of all. The collector has been opening her home, and its extraordinary collection of contemporary art, to the public every Saturday since 1997.
For a fun night out, there are plenty of under-the-radar bars and clubs to enjoy in the heart of the Paper City. Loophole is a rousing nightclub located in a former brothel; Das Hotel is an uber-cool bar that’s usually packed, but with locals instead of tourists. On the weekends, it opens up a rollicking nightclub in its basement.
When visitors head to Madrid, they often make a beeline to its A-list attractions: the expansive Prado Museum, bustling Plaza Mayor main square and epic (it has 2,000 rooms!) Royal Palace.
These are all very worthy of a visit, but for something a little less touristy, journey to the city’s largest open-air flea market, El Rastro, or “the trace.” On the main street you’ll find excellent bargain clothing, while side streets peddle eclectic knick-knacks and authentic Spanish food like jamon serrano and manchego cheese (you can eat while you browse). The market is open on Sundays and official holidays, so plan accordingly.
Many also overlook the Monastery of the Descalzas Reales, founded in the mid-1500s by Juana of Austria, Princess of Portugal. Royal princesses and young royal females would spend significant time at this royal monastery in its heyday; today, its stunning architecture and historic paintings draw non-royal visitors.
And if you think wine is the way to go here, think again. Yes, Spanish wine is sublime, but Madrid is also home to a fabulous, still-overlooked craft brew scene. Fabrica Maravillas serves beers brewed on site; The Stuyck Company pairs freshly tapped beer with excellent tapas.
The most livable city in the world is also one of the most intriguing to visit, thanks to its architectural wonders (like Schonbrunn Palace and St. Stephen's Cathedral) and cultural offerings (including the Vienna State Opera and Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien).
To find out why people love living here so much, though, you'll need to venture away from the tourist centers. Instead of the Vienna State Opera house, consider Wiener Volksoper, where residents enjoy popular operas and musicals (this year's slate ranges from a Mozart opera to "The Sound of Music").
For a taste of traditional culture paired with 360-degree views of the city, enjoy the Viennese coffee house inside the Danube Tower. Austria's highest landmark is not high on many travelers' lists — but it should be.
A different kind of libation can be enjoyed in the city's Heurige wine taverns, which serve fine Viennese wines from local vineyards alongside hearty fare and, occasionally, live music. Vienna's wine tavern culture dates back to the 16th century.
Yes, you can have a lot fun exploring Amsterdam's illicit Red Light District and coffee shops serving legal weed. But to only experience this side of the city would be a shame. Renowned attractions like the Van Gogh Museum, the canals and the Anne Frank House beckon — as do less well-known delights.
Museum Van Loon, the ancestral home of Dutch East-India Company founder Willem van Loon, houses an impressive collection of paintings, furniture, precious silvery and porcelain inside, and a canal-side garden outside that hosts operas in the summer.
To learn about an icon of Amsterdam, make time for the small but delightful Tulip Museum. Exhibits and films tell the surprisingly fascinating history of the flower, including a period of speculation and overvaluation in the 17th century known as "Tulipmania."
For something (more) quirky, there's De Poezenboot (aka The Cat Boat), an animal sanctuary on a boat that floats in the canal. Up to 50 stray cats make their home here at any given time.
Milan is the unofficial fashion capital of the world, and as such, is a shopper's paradise, especially at its wildly popular Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. The city's millions of tourists also tend to add the Duomo di Milano Cathedral and Teatro alla Scala opera house to their itineraries.
One exceptional sight that doesn't often land on the to-do list is Pirelli HangarBicocca, a first-rate contemporary art museum. Its free, cutting-edge exhibits provoke like only the best modern art can.
Milan's random side is on display at Palazzo Berri-Meregalli, a building from the early 20th century showcasing an eclectic mish-mash of architectural styles, from Gothic to Renaissance to Art Nouveau. Gargoyles, mosaics and animal sculptures all make an appearance.
You also don't want to leave without taking in the city's quirky bar scene; Bar Luce is a traditional Milanese cafe designed by award-winning director Wes Anderson (whimsy abounds), while BackDoor 43, at just 13 square feet, is one of the smallest bars in the world.
The so-called “New Rome” is Europe’s most populous city, and one of the most-visited too, welcoming more than 13 million foreign visitors annually.
Most out-of-towners come to explore the magnificent Hagia Sophia basilica, Blue Mosque and Grand Bazaar. A traditional tour also often includes a stop at Topkapi Palace Museum — but there’s a special exhibit within the palace that’s (literally) a hidden gem.
The Spoonmaker’s Diamond, tucked away inside the museum’s Imperial Treasury exhibit, is the world’s fourth-largest diamond, an 86-carat stunner surrounded by 49 old-mine cut diamonds. The dazzling diamond is, intriguingly, shrouded in mystery; no one knows where it originally came from, or how it ended up in Istanbul.
Want to explore an Istanbul sight that’s not mobbed by crowds? Try Dolmabahce Palace. The former administrative center of the Ottoman Empire showcases the world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier and a first-rate collection of paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
To spend an entire day off the beaten path, venture away from the more popular neighborhoods of Arnavutköy or Karaköy and visit the neighborhood of Kuzguncuk instead. Stop for a coffee, browse artisan goods and take in the sights on the Asian side of the Bosphorus in this oft-overlooked area.
Hamburg, another standout tourist city in Germany, is home to beloved attractions like the canal-lined district of Speicherstadt and neo-Renaissance Town Hall.
Fewer tourists make it to Planetarium Hamburg, even though it’s the largest planetarium in Europe. Make time to watch its dazzling (and educational) laser shows and concerts.
Also overlooked are Hamburg’s, shall we say, quirky museums. The Medical History Museum of the Hamburg University Teaching Hospital delves into the history of disease through a collection of wax models, historical medical instruments and teaching models, while the German Food Additives Museum startles in its exploration of the chemicals in our food.
While in Hamburg you must also, of course, eat a hamburger. Otto’s Burger, near Central Station, has arguably the best burgers in the city, and isn’t overrun by travelers. Don’t let the word get out.
There is much more to see in Europe’s second most-populous city than the Kremlin. (Though, yes, you should absolutely visit the Kremlin.)
Film buffs should stop in at the state Cinema Museum to take in everything from Soviet-era Russian film posters and animated slides to rare books and a photo collection of Russian and international cinema.
Believe it or not, the city also boasts a grocery store well worth visiting. Yeliseev Grocery is housed in a former private mansion dating back to 1901 and shows off exquisite Baroque Revival accents. Groceries are sold there, but it’s worth a look even if you don't need to stock the pantry.
Want to grab a drink during a night on the town? Check out Mendeleev, discreetly tucked away in the basement of the Chinese-food restaurant Lucky Noodles. It’s one of the city’s coolest underground bars, kept out of sight of tourists. During the weekend, it becomes a hot spot for dancing.
Of course, there's only so much you can do to venture off the beaten path in cities that welcome millions upon millions of eager tourists. Another option for some solitude? Ditch the most popular cities altogether, and head to places where visitor counts are relatively low but there's still plenty to do.
Bucharest, Romania; Kyiv, Ukraine; and Minsk, Belarus are among the 15 most-populous cities in Europe. But as of yet, they remain primarily cherished by locals.
In Bucharest, check out the private mansion of Nicolas Ceausescu, the country’s last dictator. Or get a taste of culture at the Romanian Athenaeum concert hall (dating back to 1888) or National Museum of Art of Romania.
In Kyiv, the 11th-century St. Sophia’s Cathedral and bustling Independence Square beckon. A walking tour to admire the city's amazing street art, painted by local and international graffiti artists, comes highly recommended as well.
In Minsk, the massive KGB headquarters in Liberty Square, Russian Orthodox churches and massive national library are the main draws. For a more somber, but important, excursion, visit the Zaslavsky Jewish Monument, which commemorates the 5,000 Jewish men, women and children from Minsk that were killed by Nazis on March 2, 1942. And make sure to pencil in a day trip to Zaslawye, a city founded all the way back in 985. It's located less than a half-hour outside the city.