Written by: Stephen Bugno. Revised by: Theo Stell.
The major European cities have their obvious draws, but if you are after something a bit different, then you should check out the smaller cities of Europe. This side of Europe gives travelers a more intimate look at local life and culture without the big-city stress. You can chill out in the sunshine at a riverside park, sip a glass of wine at a sidewalk café or walk through centuries-old cobbled streets. This is what Europe is all about.
What’s more, it is easy to reach these hidden gems by train! Not only does a high-speed railway network connect Europe’s big cities, but a vast grid of regional lines takes you out to the provinces. With a Eurail Global Pass you’re good to hop on and ride out to any one of the following 10 small cities in Europe.
1. Olomouc, Czech Republic
Czechs refer to Olomouc as “better Prague” and travelers in the know agree. It’s a gorgeous, historic city that will impress you with its authenticity and virtual lack of tourists. Its restaurants and micro-breweries are a great place to sample famous Czech food and freshly brewed beer, with a local flavor.
The journey from Prague’s main railway station to Olomouc is 2 hours on an InterCity, SuperCity or Express train.
2. Lugano, Switzerland
Switzerland has some of the most picturesque small cities in Europe. Lugano is one of the most unique – not just because of its tranquil lakeside location, attractive old buildings, or excellent nearby hiking options, but to get a taste of Ticino, the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland. After exploring town, hikers will want to head to the villages along the adjacent peninsula to the south
Trains from Zurich leave at least once per hour for the direct scenic 2-hour journey to Lugano.
3. Bath, England
Found at the edge of the Cotswolds, in England’s south-west, Bath is named after its Roman baths built on a mineral-rich spring. Nowadays, you can bathe on a rooftop at the modern Thermae Bath Spa or enjoy the city’s Georgian houses from the era of Pride and Prejudice. You can rent a narrowboat on the Kennet and Avon Canal to see Bath’s gardens and bridges from a different angle.
Bath is easily accessible on a 1 hour 30 mins Great Western train from London Paddington.
4. Pula, Croatia
Pula lies on Croatia’s Istrian peninsula and its Arena is the world’s most complete Roman amphitheater. Centuries later it still plays host to major cultural events, such as Outlook Festival. Head south to Cape Kamenjak nature park to find a piece of isolated Adriatic coastline away from the flashy resorts.
The Istrian peninsula is somewhat isolated from the rest of Croatia, so best accessed by rail from Slovenia or Italy. A 4 hour 30 mins train from Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, will get you there.
5. Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Famous as a pilgrimage destination, Santiago de Compostela lies in the remote north-west corner of Spain. Catholic devotees come to pay homage to the bones of St. James. You can admire their commitment after walking across the entire country on the Camino de Santiago. The city also gives you a peek into life in Galicia — a region of Spain with its own language, culture, and customs. Don’t forget to try some classic regional cuisine: pulpo (octopus), pimientos de padrón (fried peppers) and the local cloudy white wine.
The high-speed Alvia train shuttles you from Madrid in less than six hours. Make sure to get a reservation!
6. La Rochelle, France
This once great French coastal city is, well, still great. But instead of serving as a home to trading vessels leaving for the New World, La Rochelle now houses one of Europe’s biggest fleets of pleasure boats. Before leaving the limestone facades of the well-preserved Vieux Port, cycle around the nearby Île de Ré. This island houses relaxed villages and long sandy beaches.
The high-speed TGV from Paris Montparnasse station departs about every 2-3 hours, cruising to La Rochelle in about 3 hours. Reservations are compulsory.
7. Turku, Finland
Turku is Finland’s ancient capital on the south-west coast, dating from the 13th-century. It is home to the well-preserved Turku Castle, the largest surviving medieval building in Finland. A day trip from Helsinki offers you a glance at the endless evergreen forests and placid lakes of the Finnish countryside along the way.
Turku is only 2 hours away by InterCity train from Helsinki’s central station.
8. Varna, Bulgaria
Where has Varna been all your life? A historic, slow-paced city on a stunning strip of Black Sea coast, Varna is known as Bulgaria’s summer capital and a great way to join the locals and get away from the overcrowded Sunny Beach. In Varna, you’ll bump into ancient Roman foundations, rather than tourists, while walking down the street.
Trains leave Sofia throughout the day and take about 7-9 hours. There is also a daily night train.
9. Orvieto, Italy
This medieval town in Italy’s Umbria region has to be reached by funicular from the train station because it is perched above a valley on a large butte of volcanic rock! The city is known for its exceptional cathedral, which along with a tour of the underground city is manageable in a day trip from Rome. Take a wonder through its winding cobbled streets, then finish your day with a glass of celebrated Orvieto white wine on an outdoor terrace of one of the town’s many bars.
The city is served by 1 hour Intercity and regional trains from Rome Tiburtina.
10. Luxembourg City, Luxembourg
Our final small city is a capital, but it also has the charm of a village, with quaint houses lining its UNESCO-listed Old Town. The city is built around the gorges of the Alzette and Pétrusse rivers, creating a city-scape with streets, walkways and bridges over multiple levels, great for exploring. The waterside Grund district is a highlight and perfect for café-hopping.
Luxembourg City is 2-3 hours by rail from Paris Est, taking either the TGV or regional trains.
This article was published in cooperation with our partner Interrail / Eurail