Living abroad has allowed me to see some breathtaking places. Looking back on some of my favourites, I noticed that they all had one thing in common: obscurity. Nope, not London, Paris, or Rome; these are little towns hidden deep in your Lonely Planet (or Instagram feed). Here are some of the most underrated gems I stumbled upon.
1. Delft, the Netherlands
Alright, I might be a bit biased here. During my studies at Delft, I ended up opting to ride my bike instead of taking the train, just for the scenery! A 10 minute train away from the Hague, Delft is world-famous for its pottery. If you’re interested, there’s a collection of museums, factories, and workshops dedicated to the art and history of Delftware. If not, the town is stunning on its own — lined with serene canals, rustic shops, and historical monuments. On Thursdays in the summer, a farmer’s market assembles in the town square, offering every Dutch delicacy you can imagine (and are adventurous enough to try..) — fried seafood, stroopwafel, raw herring, and assortments of leather goods, souvenirs, etc. As a bonus, Delft is very close to Rotterdam and the Hague, making it a great candidate for day trips from either city.
2. Girona, Spain
I stumbled upon Girona when I was looking for something to fill my last day in Barcelona. To my surprise, this little town became one of my favourites of Europe. Just an hour outside of Barcelona, Girona is a maze of narrow, entangled cobblestone streets, lined with endless stairs and rounded corners. The architecture immersed me in a medieval city. Girona Cathedral and its Jewish Quarters were also the site of Braavos in Game of Thrones. The most unbelievable part? Girona had almost no tourists. The town has impeccably preserved medieval city walls, which you can walk on from watchtower to watchtower, taking in sweeping views of the historic city. Also hidden in little nooks around its ancient city are tiny gardens: beautiful edens of greenery, benches, and gates that lead seemingly nowhere.
On a side note, I had the best duck confit of my life here, at a little restaurant called Cafe Le Bistrot, with a stunning terrace amidst a sprawling staircase. For €10. (Can I move here now?)
3. Ronda, Spain
Ronda started as a pit stop on my Portugal-Spain-Morocco road trip, but ended up being one of the highlights of the journey (there’s a re-occurring theme here). The highlight of Ronda are the bundles of white houses atop its jaw dropping cliffs. As someone deathly afraid of heights, I wasn’t sure if I should be terrified or enthralled.
If, like me, you’re not a fan of the gym, then visiting Ronda is a great way to trick yourself into a leg day. Its little alleys and paths will take you up and down every groove of its landmark, and the stunning view at every corner definitely makes the hard work worth it. The uniformity of every Andalusian house paints a sea of white from afar, highlighting every dip and turn of the lush green mountainous terrain. Again, I’ve got no other adjective for Ronda aside from unequivocally breathtaking.
4. Blois, France
Blois is the epitome of a picturesque French countryside town. Serene and humble, this little town was witness to many major events in French history (Joan of Arc’s blessing, residence of Henry III/IV). As a result, Blois is also at the centre of a collection of sprawling French château in Loire Valley. Staying in Blois, the Château of Chambord, Château of Chenonceau, Château of Cheverny, and Château de Blois (obviously) were within easy access. Despite this, the town has so little visitors the locals spoke almost zero English. Hence, during our week-long trip we resorted to a combination of broken French and elaborate hand gestures. If French is not your strong suit, a little Duolingo is highly recommended.
5. Lucerne, Switzerland
If hiking is your thing, Lucerne is a must-see (although this also applies to most of Switzerland). We took a gondola up the first segments of Mount Rigi, and began navigating through the maze of paths and gondolas connecting various mountains and trails. On portions of our hike, we were accompanied by the distant ringing of cowbells and eventually the sight of the herd’s slow migration across the mountain. My friend (wisely) suggested getting prosciutto, cider, and bread from a local deli before heading up the mountain. At the end of our hike, we sat atop the beautiful Swiss alps, with drinks in hand and the sun beaming down. It. Was. The. Life.
On the last leg of our way down, we took a wooden tram down the steep slopes of Rigi, which had a rustic charm of its own with its exposed wood and leather seats. The exposed windows and winding tracks brought just enough wind to cool us off from our exhausting hike.
6. Como, Italy
Como is another town I stumbled upon trying to fill up my itinerary for a major city. Just an hour outside of Milan, little Como again surprised me with its stunning beauty and lack of tourists. The highlight of my visit was the walk along the cobblestone waterfront, where you are surrounded by sprawling Italian villas and dense mountainside apartments across the lake, interrupted periodically by the drone of seaplanes taking off. Most of these villas were also impeccably adorned (and later preserved), and open to the public for free. Taking a stroll through their staterooms and gardens, it felt as if I was transported back to the 17th century.
A little outside of city center, the Basilica di Sant’Abbondio sits atop a hill overlooking the city and Lake Como. The city wall and watchtowers close by give a sprawling view of the stunning city. It was a trek, but one well worth it.
I visited in November, when some Christmas themes began to pop up around town. Little wooden Christmas stands were set up in the town square, along with a miniature ice rink. There were endless options of mulled wine, Italian baked goods, roasts, and even ornaments and sculptures.
Needless to say, the Italian food was absolutely on point.
7. York, United Kingdom
York somehow strikes the perfect balance between quiet English countryside and majestic historical wonder. Just a few minutes walk from the narrow winding streets lined with shops are the medieval city gates of York, regal cathedrals, and architecture ruins.
The Shambles was the highlight of York for me — a winding street of food, shopping, art galleries, chocolate tours (?), all preserved in its medieval glory. The street cut through the city center of York, giving us a comprehensive tour to the city with only a few detours. If you had northbound from the Shambles, you’ll also get a beautiful view of York Cathedral in the back to complete the mental postcard. In the Shambles, we also discovered an amazing chocolate shop called the Monk Bar Chocolatiers (allegedly the oldest shop in York, with the looks to match). Highly recommend!
There it is. 7 of my favourite cities in Europe. Stunning, serene, and underrated like hell. The thing I love the most about them is that far away from the commotion of tour groups and urban developments, I was able to see and experience the local culture. As much as I love Paris, or Barcelona, these places are the gems I really miss from Europe, and reflect on the most.
What are your favourite towns under the radar? Where will you travel next?