Most everyone who goes to Europe wants to see London and the Louvre. Not to mention Rome. But there are so many great places to go that aren’t quite as obvious. So here are five of my favourite cities and countries you should check out on your next European trip.
VALENCIA A very under-rated city, I think. You’ll find a huge beach fronted by lovely cafés serving all kinds of great seafood, including paella; a favourite in this part of Spain. I love the beach, but I think the city centre is even nice. Here you’ll find one of architect Santiago Calatrava’s best works; the City of Arts and Sciences. It’s a gleaming, airy, modern piece of work surrounded by fountains. The city centre also has old military fortifications that the kids (or you) can climb and explore. You’ll also find a great market and colourful, small streets with buildings that feature beautiful tile work and mosaics. It’s only a couple hours south of Barcelona, which is almost overrun with tourists these days. You should find cheaper hotel rooms than Barcelona, as well.
BELFAST Dublin gets a lot of attention, and with good reason. But I’m not sure I don’t prefer Belfast. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have a preconceived notion, but I thoroughly loved my visit a few years back. The architecture is wonderful; with many strong, powerful buildings left over from the city’s industrial heyday. The Merchant Hotel, located in the popular Cathedral Quarter, is carved from an old bank. The main restaurant is in the former vault; a gorgeous room that features arched ceilings and brilliant white cherubs nestled among acres of gold. The Crown Bar is one of the most famous in Ireland, with tin ceilings and cozy, semi-private booths called “snugs.” It’s such an institution it was purchased by The National Trust. I also loved The Spaniard, a cool bar near the Merchant Hotel. The city’s religious troubles seem pretty much behind it but you can take cool tours to learn about the history of the Protestant-Catholic struggles. There’s also the very fine Titanic museum, this being where the mighty ship was built. The food scene has a come long way, too, and you’ll find excellent restaurants.
SARDINIA I fell in love with this island on a visit last year. An old friend of mind lives here and showed me some wonderful hikes just outside of the main town of Cagliari near the Hotel Calamosca. The town won’t ever be compared to Florence or Rome, but there’s a lovely fortress and church on top of a large hill in the centre of the city, as well as quiet, romantic squares and a fine market called San Benedetto. We also rented mopeds and checked out fantastic beaches east of Cagliari. And we spent a couple days tasting wine and hiking and swimming at wonderful beaches up around Porto Cervo, where we stayed at a great Sheraton property and almost got kicked out when we went back to our room in a dirty, disheveled state carrying a box of pizza we hadn’t finished at dinner. The resorts around Porto Cervo on the Smeralda coast are expensive, but other parts of the country can be quite reasonable.
ZURICH The Swiss have something of a reputation, as you probably know. But I find them to be quite amusing and outgoing, especially in Zurich. It’s a fine city with beautiful old churches (check out the view from the top of the Grossmunster Cathedral and be sure to stop in to admire the Chagall windows at the Fraumunster). You’ll also find narrow alleyways and romantic streets with lively (if expensive) cafes. West Zurich is a pulsing, former industrial area with a ton of cool nightclubs and galleries. They do a nice Gay Pride parade here. I was in Zurich a few years ago and spotted a guy (not during Gay Pride weekend) riding his bike and wearing nothing but a red thong. A fellow I saw outside the streetcar when I was during the Pride activities was dressed in sheer, white panties and a bra. With matching shoes, of course. Not only is Zurich a cool city, but for my money a good Swiss hotel offers the best breakfast buffet on the planet; with fruits and perfect bread and fresh butter and oodles of jam and wonderfully rich birchermuesli.
BRUSSELS This is another city that I had almost no knowledge of prior to my first visit. Most of what I knew came from the stories travel writers sent to me when I was the Toronto Star Travel Editor, and they all seemed to concentrate on mussels, pommes frites, chocolate, Belgian beer and Belgian comic books. I love mussels and fries and a good beer as much as the next guy but all the stories seemed the same. So, naturally, I was hugely surprised by my initial exposure to the city last year. I found perhaps the most beautiful central square of any city in Europe (the Grand Place) with gorgeous, gilded buildings and incredible detail and powerful architecture. I also found small streets with quiet cafes, lively neighborhoods, great food, good shopping and fabulous museums, including the Musee Magritte. The Welcome Hotel sits on a fine square within walking distance of most attractions and has travel-themed rooms. Mine was the Kenya room, complete with African masks and, wait for it, a leopard-skin toilet seat.