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5 of Europe’s Coolest Small Cities

Usually, when new visitors travel to Europe, it’s to the big capital cities — those cities that make it into all the movies and TV dramas. We travel to Paris, London, Madrid, and to Barcelona, Amsterdam, Brussels. But, in a continent of vastly diverse cultures, it’s often the small cities where local culture really shines. And, while big European cities will always hold a special place in our collective global history, it’s the smaller cities which retain the old-world charm with new-world culture. Here are five Europe’s coolest small cities.

Nice, France

On the Mediterranean coast of southern France, Nice is the capital of the iconic French Riviera. For a long time, the city was a luxury escape for French and European aristocrats; but today, it’s a surprisingly hip beach destination with a friendly and welcoming attitude not often seen in other areas of France.

The city’s picturesque beaches and the old-world promenade are a reflection of the Nice’s dynamic history; but it’s the city’s commitment today to the arts that make it such a fascinating destination. (The crystal blue waters of the Mediterranean don’t hurt, either!) While there are museums dedicated to the works of Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse, the contemporary art museum (Musée d’art moderne et d’art contemporain) is a real gem, featuring modern and contemporary works by both French and international artists. There’s a rooftop terrace as well, with a great panoramic view over Nice.

Besides the art, the local cuisine of Nice is a real treat. Because of the city’s comfortably warm weather year-round, a lot of the local foods are quite fresh and cool, from the city’s namesake salad, niçoise salad, to rosé wine — both popular for a leisurely lunch on the beach.

Photo by kristoffer-trolle / CC by 2.0

Naples, Italy

Okay, Naples isn’t exactly a small city — it’s actually quite large. But, the real charm of Naples is the fact that, even though it’s a large city, it’s got that small-town feeling. That sense when you’re walking around that everyone knows everyone, and they’re all there to greet you with a smile or a wave. Like Nice, Naples is a big foodie destination famous for more Italian foods than you can point a breadstick at. The classic margherita pizza is available throughout Naples, and usually for under €4 for an entire pie. And and trust me when I say it’ll be the best pizza you ever try.

Besides pizza, Naples has a fascinating history. Everyone’s heard stories of the city’s loud and chaotic culture, of the mob, or the dirty streets full of trash. But in reality, Naples is a fun and friendly city with a culture for creativity. The city’s metro has won design awards. And, of course, there’s the nearby Pompeii — an important archaeological site, preserved thanks to a volcanic eruption.

Naples, Italy by Adam Groffman for Smash Transit

Freiburg, Germany

Germany is famous for its small towns and old-world cities. In the southwestern region of Baden-Württemburg, Freiburg is a bit of an oasis inside Germany’s famous Black Forest. Known for its relative good weather and its large universities, Freiburg is a medieval town turned into a young and vibrant city. While the city has significantly less metropolitan culture than other German cities, there’s more than enough to see and do in the region. Whether it’s a day trip hiking the Black Forest (head up to the Schlossberg mountain!), or visiting the nearby wineries of the low-lying hill towns of the Kaiserstuhl.

In Freiburg itself, you’ll find lots of cafés, pubs, and small clubs catering to the city’s many students. Food in the region is typical of the cuisine you expect to find in Germany: Think hearty dishes like spätzle, Black Forest cake, or schnitzel.

Lausanne, Switzerland

Set amongst the mountains in the French-speaking side of Switzerland, Lausanne is a lovely little town on the shores of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman in French). From the shores of the lake to the top of the three hills that make up the city, it’s a picturesque city with a lot of life on its sleepy streets. From the hillside markets to the impressive museums, culture is as important as the local cuisine. Home to the International Olympic Committee, Lausanne sees an influx of special events and exhibitions — many of which you’ll find at the impressive Olympic Museum, detailing the history of the global sport competition.

From Lausanne, the surrounding area is great for those interested in nature. On the outskirts of the city, you’ll find the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Lavaux vineyards, built along steep hillsides on the edge of the lake. Easily accessible via train from the city center, a day trip of exploring the neighboring small towns is a great way to get some fresh air in the always impressive Swiss countryside. Lausanne’s city center is populated with a number of cool and hip establishments — from the trendy restaurants (try Le Nomade) in the hipster neighborhood of Quartier du Flon, to the artsy shops and museums around the city’s Gothic Lausanne Cathedral. Head to the Mudac for unique and interesting contemporary art exhibitions (I was there for one about Swiss watch designs).

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Slovenia’s capital city is known for its young population and its many open, green spaces (the city has been named the European Green Capital 2016). Ljubljana has a culture of creativity, best represented by its disproportionately high number of museums and galleries. The city center is a bustling district of small, independent shops, bars, and cafés centered around the sleepy Ljubljanica River. The laid-back charm of this small city makes it a comfortable destination for any type of tourist, from those seeking a romantic holiday, to those looking for a solo adventure.

Again, the city is near a number of natural beauties,  from the iconic Lake Bled (the jewel of Slovenia), to nearby vineyards and olive oil producers. On the fringes of Ljubljana’s city center, the Metelkova district and old Tovarna Rog are hot spots for alternative culture, with underground parties and street art aplenty.

Photo by 54081800@N07 / CC by 2.0

Have you ever been to any of these cities? What’d you think? Do you have any other city recommendations for Europe? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

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