OK, OK, so the following cities aren’t completely secret, otherwise no-one would live in them, and then they wouldn’t technically be cities, but let’s just say these are magnificent metropoli that either fly under the radar entirely, or don’t feature in the upper echelons of people’s luxury city break wish lists when they really, really should.
Difficult enough to spell, let alone locate on a map, Slovenia’s small but perfectly formed capital sits pretty in the heart of Europe where Slavic, Latin and Teutonic elements meet to create a city of real charm. Ljubljana has been called a pocket Prague thanks to its Baroque skyline and cobbled streets, but those streets then emerge into piazzas more redolent of Rome, and the fine weather and cafe culture in summer is also distinctly Italianate. The city itself is eminently walkable, and make sure you head up to Ljubljana Castle for views across the city and the Ljubljanica River (not everything begins Ljublj-something – promise) below. Slovenia being a small country with a centrally located capital, it means you can base yourself in the city and day trip to the likes of beautiful Lake Bled or even cross the border to Croatia’s wonderful wine, seafood and truffle region of Istria.
Mallorca is an enduring favourite destination but many view the capital, Palma, as a mere gateway to the beaches beyond. So why Palma, why now? Many, many reasons, from superb weather to a spectacular cathedral; a beautiful harbour; the winding alleys of the old Arab Quarter and a long history of art and artists. In particular, this was Joan Miro’s home town for many years, and the museum of his works and studio, left as if he might walk back in at any moment, is enthralling. Those are the longstanding reasons for visiting, but more recently a clutch of superbly chic boutique hotels has emerged, including immaculate Hotel Cort with its tasteful navy and white colour schemed suites. The restaurant scene is also resurgent, including English Michelin man Mark Fosh’s ace Simply Fosh. The message? Go to Mallorca, but next time spend a night or two in Palma.
The Estonian capital can proudly claim to be the best-preserved medieval town in northern Europe, complete with castellated city walls, cobbled streets and guildhalls. That the beautiful ancient centre sits alongside a new town of exquisitely soviet dreariness only enhances the fairytale castle effect and mercifully the epidemic of mankini and morph suit wearing stag parties has died down significantly. This is somewhere just to wander the alleyways and ramparts, stopping often for a drink or bite to eat in a cafe, bar or restaurant in a centuries old building. It’s in winter that Tallinn becomes even more magical, as snow is likely and the city hosts one of Europe’s best Christmas markets, which you can visit from the cosy Three Sisters Hotel, created from a trio of adjoining medieval houses.
So everybody knows Stockholm is special, but consider Sweden’s second city, Gothenburg, for a second. It’s also on the sea, it’s also the gateway to an archipelago of several thousand islands and it’s also a serenely sophisticated place to visit, thanks to a raft of lovely hotels and excellent restaurants serving enough unbelievably good seafood to sate the greediest of gastonauts. There’s also a laid back and fun musical festival in summer called Way Out West, which marks its 10th anniversary in August 2016.
Naples might just be the least European city in Europe, with an atmosphere more akin to the bustle of Marrakech mixed with the faded grandeur of Havana. Despite this, Naples is the birthplace of that most Italian of food: the pizza, which, when correctly made, requires San Marzano tomatoes grown on the volcanic slopes of nearby Mount Vesuvius and mozzarella from Campania’s marshland water buffaloes. Wander around the heart of the city, the Decumani district, which is split in two by the 2,500 year old Spaccanapoli street, so narrow in places it’s almost a tunnel. Stay at the Romeo Hotel, and once you’ve had your fill of this intoxicating city, take day trips to the classy island of Capri or nearby Pompeii.
V is for Valletta, and Malta’s capital is having something of a moment (in a good way) at present. We predict this charming city is going to get very popular in the run up to its coronation as European Capital of Culture 2018, thanks to a winning combination of pretty much unbeatable historical significance in such a small place, a fun nightlife centred around the St Julian area and a clutch of cracking new restaurants, bars and hotels, including Casa Ellul, a tiny townhouse hotel with neo-classical interiors tucked away in one of the city’s side streets.
Tom Barber is Co-Founder of Original Travel.