10 of Europe’s best small cities to visit
The major European cities have their obvious draws, but what about the underrated smaller cities of Europe? This side of Europe gives the traveler a more intimate look at local life and culture without the big-city stress. Chill out in the sunshine at a riverside park, grab a glass of wine at sidewalk café, walk through centuries-old cobbled streets — this is what Europe is all about. The European train network is even more extensive than you might have thought. Not only does a high-speed rail network connect the big cities, but a vast grid of regional lines gets you out to the provinces. With a Eurail Global pass, valid across 24 countries, you’re good to hop on and ride out to visit any one of the following 10 extraordinary small cities!
1. Olomouc, Czech Republic
Czechs refer to Olomouc as “better Prague” and travelers-in-the-know agree. It’s a gorgeous, historic city that will impress you with its authenticity and virtual lack of tourists. Its restaurants and micro-breweries are a great place to sample local food and freshly brewed beer that has made this country famous. Granted, Prague is beautiful, but take a breather and enjoy the stress-free atmosphere of Olomouc. The journey from Prague’s main railway Station to Olomouc is slightly over two hours on the SuperCity train. Reservations for the SuperCity are compulsory for Eurail pass holders; Regional and Express trains take slightly longer and do not require a reservation.
2. La Rochelle, France
This once great French coastal city is, well, still great. But instead of serving as a home to fishing fleets and trading vessels to the new world, La Rochelle now houses one of Europe’s biggest fleets of pleasure boats. Before leaving the luminous limestone facades of the well-preserved Vieux Port (Old Harbor), cycle around the nearby Ile de Re (Island), with its relaxed villages and long sandy beaches. The high-speed TGV from Paris Montparnasse station departs about every 2-3 hours, cruising to La Rochelle in a cool 3 hours 15 minutes. Reservations are compulsory (9 euro).
3. Bern, Switzerland
Bern was the home of Albert Einstein, has bears living in its downtown, and is the capital of Switzerland — all nifty facts — but not even the best reason to visit Bern. What makes Bern so wonderful is its sleepy arrangement on the hilly ground above a graceful bend in the River Aare. Its assembly of twelve 16th century fountains, the tallest cathedral in Switzerland, and its medieval covered shopping arcades, contribute to making the historic center of Bern a World Heritage site. Bern makes a nice day outing from Geneva or Zurich with several daily trains taking less than two hours. The IR, ICN, RE, and IC trains conveniently do not require a reservation or fee. Bern’s train station is located right in the old city and left luggage is available (8:00-20:00).
4. Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Famous as a pilgrimage destination, Santiago de Compostela lies in the remote northwest corner of Spain. Don’t worry, the rail network reaches here. Catholic devotees come to pay homage to the bones of St. James, and you can admire their commitment after walking across the entire country on the Camino de Santiago. The city also gives you a peek into life in Galicia — a region of Spain with its own language, culture, and customs. Don’t forget to try some classic regional cuisine: pulpo (octopus), pimientos de padron (fried peppers), and the local cloudy white wine. Nearly all trains in Spain require reservations and their associated fees. The Alvia train plows the route from Madrid in less than six hours.
5. Turku, Finland
Turku is the ancient capital and easygoing hip city on Finland’s southwest coast. Dating from the end of the 13th century, Turku is the oldest city in the country and home to the well-preserved Turku Castle. Open to visitors, it’s the largest surviving medieval building in Finland and serves as a national monument. The rail system in Finland is renowned: it’s modern, efficient, and the trains are spotless. A day trip from Helsinki offers you a glance at the endless evergreen forests and placid lakes of the Finnish countryside along the way. Turku is only 2 hours away by InterCity train from Helsinki’s central station (Rautatieasema). No reservation is required.
6. Porto, Portugal
Porto is often overshadowed by its rival to the south, the bigger city, and capital of Portugal, Lisbon. They are both worthy of a visit, but I like Porto because of its authentic grittiness and work-hard, play-hard mentality. But it’s not just a city to look at; go visit one of the Port wine cellars or take a ride on the scenic rail line up to Pocinho and the Douro wine region. Trains cover the route from Lisbon’s Santa Apolina or Oriente station at least once per hour and take about 3 hours in total. IC and AP trains have a compulsory 5 euros fee. Best to stay a night or two in Porto to really get a feel for the city.
7. Varna, Bulgaria
Where has Varna been all your life? A historic, slow-paced city on a stunning strip of Black Sea coast, Varna is known as Bulgaria’s summer capital. In Varna, you’ll literally bump into ancient Roman foundations while walking down the street. The world’s oldest find of gold artifacts was discovered in Varna — dating from 4,750 BCE! Most Eurail pass holders won’t make it as far east as Bulgaria, but it’s worth the trip to experience the diversity Europe has to offer. Here, you’ll trade your Euros for Lev and the standard alphabet for Cyrillic. Trains leave Sofia throughout the day and take about 7-9 hours. Also lookout for the night train which pulls into Varna at 6:05am.
8. Orvieto, Italy
A wander through the winding cobbled streets of a medieval hill town is reason to enough to visit Umbria. The train ride through the bucolic landscape of vineyards and farms is an added bonus. There are few other cities with such a dramatic setting. Perched high above the valley floor, on a flat summit of a large butte of volcanic rock, Orvieto is reached by funicular from the train station. The city is known for its exceptional cathedral, which along with a tour of the underground city is manageable in a day trip from Rome. Finish your day with a glass of celebrated Orvieto white wine on the outdoor terrace of one of the town’s many bars. Alternatively, make Orvieto a stop-off between Rome and Florence. Note there is no bag storage at Orvieto station. Only Intercity and Regionale trains service the city, both of which do not require reservations.
9. Lugano, Switzerland
I could fill a book with pleasant, small cities in Switzerland. Lugano would be one of my favorites; not just because of its tranquil lake-side location, attractive old buildings, or excellent nearby hiking options, but to get a glimpse of Ticino, the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland. After exploring town, hikers will want to head to the villages along the adjacent peninsula to the south and literature geeks should check out the nearby Herman Hesse Museum. Trains from Zurich leave at least twice per hour for the direct scenic three-hour journey to Lugano. IR, ICN, RE, and IC trains do not require reservations—just get on and ride!
10. San Sebastian, Spain
You’ll not only remember San Sebastian’s picture-perfect stretch of crescent beach and elegant old city long after you leave, but the delicious food you’ve eaten there. Situated in Spain’s Basque country, Donostiarra, as residents of the city are known, munch on pinxos (rather than tapas) as they nurse their small beers and glasses of wine. San Sebastian is set to become the European Capital of Culture in 2016, so get there now. AVE and Alvia trains make the journey in about 5.5 hours from Madrid, but require reservations and a 10 euro/6.50 euro fee accordingly. Intercity trains take about two hours longer and do not necessitate reservations.