Being an Australian overseas leaves you target for long open-ended conversation with two types of people – those who love Australia and haven’t been, and those who love Australia and have been. However, when I hear someone say they’ve been to Oz, and then proceed to tell me they saw Sydney and Melbourne – for five days a piece no less – the same thought always crosses my mind. That’s not the real Australia. Immediately town names are flying through my head of places to recommend should they ever get back to the land down under, so they can see the ‘real’ Australia.
Similarly, there’s Europe, and then there’s Europe. Sure, London, Paris and Berlin are some of the well-known and favourited tourist destinations around (although for two of these I’m uncertain as to why) but it’s not the real Europe. When I think of Europe, I think small villages with quaint laneways and friendly people trying to sell me cheese and local meals. I think of pretty and tranquil countryside, flitting past the window of my car. And the small towns which populate these areas are the target of this very article.
So, without any further adieu, I present to you the top five towns to visit in Europe – that you’ve probably never heard of.
5 – Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland.
A small port town housing only just above 2,200 residents makes the bottom of this list. Sure, in the summer months the population explodes when tourists come for the yachting, food and drink, as well as soaking up the warm(ish) weather. There’s a significant military history here as well, and a jazz festival in the last week of October to say goodbye to the summer months with a swing.
4 – Hvar Island, Croatia
Most tourists of travel lovers will know of the tiny port town of Split, which lies on the Dalmatian Coast. Less, however, would know of the Hvar Island town of Hvar, about an hours speedboat ride away from the main port of Split. It is quiet – even in the tourist months – and the perfect place to slow down, go for a swim, and have a Mai Tai by the beach. It is also home to a lot of Venetian history being the key military port for the Venetian navy for 300 years, recognized by the UNESCO World Heritage Organization. Well worth a visit – but be prepared to just relax for a week.
3 – Bruges, Belgium
Situated in the north of the tiny nation of Belgium is Bruges, a small canal-based town famous now for the same thing Belgium always has been – beer and chocolates. However, the main square is a world UNESCO heritage site, and has some of the prettiest canals you have ever seen. It is extremely small (measuring only about 0.9km2) and the so-called “Venice of the North” is well deserving of it’s name. Make sure you get some frites from the warring frits shop, and sample the local beer at one of the many bars around the town centre. One has over 400 different bottles – I’ll let you find that one on your own.
Bear in mind, however, that Belgium isn’t the cheapest place to find yourself in. Bruges is no exception. A meal can be a little pricey – however it is a small price to pay to see one of the most picturesque towns in all of Europe. And for some reason MasterCard isnt a thing – so cash is king. A bike ride around the town is well worth it, especially if you can do a guided tour. But if you’re easily offended fair warning – the local humour is dark and completely politically incorrect. But when you see the main square all will be forgotten – I guarantee it.
2 – Dresden, Saxony, Germany
A former USSR-occupied manufacturing base town, Dresden is home to a few odd museums including one dedicated to Hygiene, and one dedicated to Volkswagen. And whilst the buildings look old, they were actually rebuilt after the collapse of the Soviet Regime. They had to be rebuilt as the allies levelled the town in the final months of the second world war. Not only is it a beautiful town, but the townsfolk are lovely, helpful, and kind, and the food is great and cheap.
It is also an interesting town as it seems to spell out, at least for me, the resilience and spirit of the German people in a nutshell. Despite the destruction of the town, the people rebuilt and in just 25 years it has once again become a major cultural, educational, political and economic centre of Europe. It is well worth a look – and you could easily spend a few days if not a good week here roaming the streets, seeing the sights and drinking in all that the town has to offer – especially the Bastei National Park just outside of town.
1 – Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
Hands down the prettiest and most ‘european’ town on the list – and well deserved of it’s number one place. Cesky is home to a large brewery which does the best Czech beer in existence, a castle with bears in the moat (yes, real ones) and a town design complete with a pale aqua river running all the way through it. It is the epitome of a stereotypical European town, cobblestone streets and tight alleyways accent the archery and crossbow target range.
There’s a rafting experience you can do here as well, well worth the money, and the meals are cheap if you know where to go. Don’t miss the medieval diner built into the walls of the old town, and the fantastic shisha and tea bar near the red gate. And trust me, when you’re sitting by the water with a local beer in hand, watching the clear river run past you really will finally believe you’re seeing Europe.