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Europe’s Secret Cities

Look beyond the capitals on your next weekend break and visit one of these under-radar destinations

  • Visit Porto in Portugal for a chic weekend break. Photograph courtesy of Associação de Turismo do Porto

The boulevards of Paris, the canals of Amsterdam, the temples of Rome. Europe’s famous capitals are all too familiar; their streets well-trodden. But what of their deputies? Those under-the-radar second cities that are often bursting with style, culture and fresh adventure?

Across the continent lies a string of these hidden gems: beautiful destinations obscured from the spotlight, Cinderella-style, by larger, louder, more overbearing siblings. Take Aarhus, Denmark’s stylish second city, which has been rapidly been catching up with Copenhagen’s monumental harvest of Michelin stars. Or Brno in the Czech Republic, which, with its unspoilt old town and bargain prices, is everything Prague was 15 years ago. Or the buzzing Aegean port of Thessaloniki, second only to Constantinople in ancient Byzantium and now second only to Athens in modern Greece.

With direct flights now available to many of these destinations – and the retail and hospitality industries following in their wake – now is the time, when plotting a European weekend away, to have second thoughts. Particularly because most of these destinations remain significantly cheaper than their better-known counterparts. And who wants to pay capital gains tax on their holiday?

The joy of peering beyond the obvious when planning a city break is the space it leaves for fresh discoveries, and we’ve scoured Europe for your best opportunities to find them. From the North Sea to the Aegean, these are the cities you’ve probably never thought of visiting, but definitely should.   

AARHUS, DENMARK

  • Photograph courtesy of ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum/Visit Aarhus

New British Airways flights, a trio of recently Michelin-starred restaurants and European Capital Of Culture status for 2017 mean Aarhus is positively leaping out of Copenhagen’s shadow. Attractions include art museum ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum with its impressive rainbow skywalk, a fine city beach – where locals sunbathe, barbecue and play volleyball throughout the summer – and a cobblestoned city centre that was recently voted Scandinavia’s best shopping destination. Highlights for those with spare krone include SAND’s menswear concept boutique and Scandi-cool design store HAY. At the heart of it all you’ll find the lively Latin Quarter, where locals drink at favourite watering holes such as Bar Plata (which serves 100 different types of gin) and S’vinbar (“Pig Bar”), famed for its crispy salted pork rinds and its impressive wine list. There’s a young, vibrant vibe throughout Aarhus; the average age of its 330,000 inhabitants is a mere 38.

  • Photograph by Mr Nicolai Peresi/Visit Denmark

What to pack

  • Orlebar Brown Setter Short-Length Swim Shorts

  • Frescobol Carioca Copacabana Linen-Jacquard Towel

THESSALONIKI, GREECE

  • Photograph courtesy of City of Thessaloniki

Just a three-hour flight from London, Greece’s Queen of the North is a buzzing, cosmopolitan port city that blends breezy beach vibes with a hefty helping of history and the arts. Shopping is strong here, too, with Tsimiski and Egnatia Streets the two conduits for both famous fashion ateliers and hot new designers alike. Within an hour’s drive of the city, you’ll find some of the finest beaches in northern Greece – in particular, Afitos in Halkidiki, with its turquoise waters, white sands and olive trees. It’s nigh-on impossible to find a box that Thessaloniki doesn’t tick. Spend the early evening cycling along Europe’s largest urban waterfront, past parkourists, horse-drawn carriages and the hulking bronze statue of Alexander the Great, while soaking up the breathtaking views of Mount Olympus, legendary home to the 12 gods of Greek mythology. Later, settle in for dinner at friendly, family-run Bazagiazi in the new market, with its outstanding seafood and lengthy ouzo menu. Afterwards, if you’re feeling a little drowsy, wake up with a trip to La Doze. Often hailed as the nation’s best bar outside Athens, it serves excellent cocktails and has an eclectic line-up of DJs every night, with dancing outside on the street into the early hours.

  • Photograph by Hercules Milas/Alamy

What to pack

  • Alex Mill Button-Down Collar Striped Linen And Cotton-Blend Shirt

  • Dries Van Noten Leather-Trimmed Canvas Messenger Bag

DEBRECEN, HUNGARY

  • Photograph courtesy of Association for the Tourism of Debrecen and Hortobágy

Hungary is Europe’s most underrated country, and Debrecen is the diamond at its heart. Previously the country’s capital, Debrecen is awash with art, architecture and culture, not to mention the Unesco-listed spa waters of Hortobágy National Park – an enjoyable way to unwind and soak away the stresses and strains of the real world. Debrecen is a festival city, too, with regular events throughout the year. In particular, look out for the popular Wine And Jazz Festival in August, and the intriguing Double Sausage Festival in September. Stroll around the city’s picturesque Nagyerdo Park before choosing which of its many astonishingly good restaurants to dine in (our money’s on the traditional tasting menu at IKON).

  • Photograph by Mr Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

What to pack

  • Acne Studios Slim-Fit Striped Cotton-Jersey T-Shirt

  • Converse 1970s Chuck Taylor All Star Canvas High-Top Sneakers

MARIBOR, SLOVENIA

  • Photograph by Mr Matej Vranič/slovenia.info

Famed for its vineyards, the fairytale city of Maribor sits close to the Austrian border, beneath the pretty Pohorje Mountains. During the winter months, it’s all about skiing here (Maribor Pohorje is Slovenia’s largest ski resort), while in summer, the riverside Lent Quarter is awash with musicians (playing everything from classical music to jazz), ballet dancers and street performers. With university students accounting for more than 20 per cent of the population, Maribor is a lively young town, full of bars, restaurants and impromptu parties. You might want to rethink that beer, though. Out here in north-eastern Slovenia, the grape is king. You’ll find tasting rooms and wine-themed restaurants all over the city centre, but make a beeline for Vinoteka Maribor, a hip wine bar in a medieval water tower on the banks of the River Drava.

  • Photograph by Mr Boris Pretnar/slovenia.info

What to pack

  • The Elder Statesman Slim-Fit Cotton-Corduroy Trousers

  • A.P.C. 3cm Brown Jeremy Leather Belt

MARSEILLE, FRANCE

  • Photograph courtesy of Marseille Tourisme

Kissed by the Mediterranean, France’s second city has a unique flavour, built on a lively mix of French, Corsican, Italian and North African influences. The rest of France calls it Planète Mars, but it’s gone from strength to strength since gaining European Capital Of Culture status in 2013. Today, Marseille is a rapidly evolving coastal metropolis, with flourishing restaurants, including Chez Fonfon (be sure to order the bouillabaisse) and Une Table, Au Sud, which has just received its first Michelin star. The fashion scene is equally resurgent, especially with the recent addition of Les Docks Village, a funky style and design hub in a converted warehouse. Make a reservation at the ultra-chic Victor Café in the Old Port, then relax with a pastis by its glamorous outside pool. On the Plage De Malmousque, one of its best beaches, life always looks good in the near-permanent sunshine. Perhaps there is life on Mars.

  • Photograph courtesy of Les Docks Village

What to pack

  • Lanvin Dip-Dyed Knitted Merino Wool Polo Shirt

  • TOM FORD Snowdon Square-Frame Tortoiseshell Acetate Sunglasses

PORTO, PORTUGAL

  • Photograph by theculturemap.com

Nicknamed the Portland of Portugal, Porto no longer simply coasts along on the reputation of its famous digestif. These days, it is the go-to destination for chic, clued-up holidaymakers. From its stunning Beaux Arts train station, São Bento – which celebrates its centenary in 2016 and contains some incredible early 20th-century artwork depicting scenes from the history of Portugal – to its new wave of indie bars led by the laid-back Baixa and upmarket Breyner 85, Portugal’s second-largest metropolis combines the best of old and new in the coolest way possible. It’s also fast becoming a foodie hub, with its walkable, cobbled city centre crammed with innovative restaurants such as Camafeu, which serves authentic Portuguese home cooking, and Book, a candlelit, literary-themed restaurant with a predictably novel menu.

  • Photograph by Gallery Stock

What to pack

  • Kingsman Khaki Eggsy Slim-Fit Cotton Suit Jacket

  • Oris Aquis Date Stainless Steel Automatic Watch

PLOVDIV, BULGARIA

  • Photograph by iStock

Founded 8,000 years ago, Plovdiv is probably Europe’s oldest city. A kingpin of the ancient civilisation of Thrace, its 21st-century persona is considerably more placid, with Plovdivians lightheartedly referring to themselves as the ailiatsi or “laid-back ones”. It’s a phenomenon particularly apparent in the city’s many honky-tonk bars, such as Apartment101 and Petnoto, where you’re likely to be welcomed like long-lost family. Must-sees include the impressive Roman amphitheatre, which now stages concerts and live theatre, and the picturesque old town, which nestles on top of, and cascades down, three hills. Today, many of its ancient streets are home to local artists who live, work and create within its tranquil confines. Book into the five-star Hebros Hotel and request a table on its pretty, ivy-fringed patio for dinner; the hotel’s restaurant is among the finest in town.

  • Photograph by Getty Images

What to pack

  • Leica + Leica M240 Camera

  • Club Monaco Maddox Linen Shorts