8 Underrated Europe Destinations Beyond Paris and London

written by LAUREN BLUE
Source: Unsplash | Spencer Davis
Source: Unsplash | Spencer Davis

It’s almost that time of year again for your Instagram feed to be flooded with stunning snaps of people sipping spritzes and living their absolute best lives galivanting around Europe. In the past, you might have enviously scrolled by these posts from your couch, wishing you could recreate your European summer Pinterest board IRL. The fact is that trips to major hotspots like Paris or London are just not in the summer budget for many of us. However, if you look beyond these busy tourist centers toward lesser-known destinations, it is possible to plan a fabulous European vacation that is budget-friendly. Below, we’ve rounded up the best underrated European destinations for an affordable trip that feels just as picture-perfect.

1. Budapest, Hungary

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Source: Unsplash | Keszthelyi Timi

I don’t know about you, but a place that’s nicknamed “the City of Spas” is an absolute yes for me. Budapest has also been called “the Paris of the East,” so if you want a cheaper alternative to the French capital, start looking at flights to Hungary. One essential stop in the city is Buda Castle. Not only is the outside stunning—complete with gardens and views of the city—but for an entry fee, you can also visit the National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum, both housed inside. Other highlights for your itinerary include the Hungarian Parliament, the Great Synagogue, and the Hungarian State Opera House.

For a night out in the town, head to the ruin bars, a collection of bars set up in abandoned buildings decorated with graffiti and plants. It’s guaranteed to be a one-of-a-kind experience. Of course, you can’t leave Budapest without experiencing its famous baths. The most popular bath for visitors is the Széchenyi Thermal Bath, which has 15 pools indoors and three outside. For a more low-key feel, head to Rudas Baths to take a dip with the locals.

2. Edinburgh, Scotland

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Source: Unsplash | Julia Solonina

If you want an alternative to London, Edinburgh is a great way to experience some of the same vibes at a cheaper price. The Scottish capital has all the dark academic energy of London, complete with castles, charming architecture, and even the signature red phone booths for your photo ops. Start your day at Edinburgh Castle to admire the royal chambers, crown jewels, and dungeons. To see the site from another perspective, head to Princes Street Gardens for an unmatched view of the entire castle. Bring some snacks, kick back on the grass, and take it all in.

If one castle isn’t enough for you, you’re in luck because Edinburgh is also home to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. It is the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland, and when royals aren’t in town, it’s open to the public. If you have a bit of castle fatigue, find a pub where you can sip some whisky (Scotland’s national drink) before doing some shopping along Victoria Street or strolling down the Royal Mile.

3. Porto, Portugal

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Source: Unsplash | Nick Karvounis

Porto is one of the oldest cities in Europe, with thousands of years of history to explore. Take a guided tour through Porto’s historic center along the Duoro River so you don’t miss out on any of the fascinating stories. Along the way, you’ll see famous buildings like Se de Porto Cathedral and the Casa do Infante Museum. Next, amble around the Ribeira district to take in all of Porto’s personality and admire the colorful riverfront buildings. While you’re out and about, make sure to stop into a café to try Portugal’s famous pastries like the pastel de nata and pastel de feijão.

Another great perk of Porto is its proximity to wineries. If you love port wine, why not visit the region where the magic happens? Take a quick day trip to the Douro Valley, where you can sip your way through some fantastic wineries and learn all about how port wine is created.

4. Dubrovnik, Croatia

european destinations
Source: Unsplash | Spencer Davis

This coastal Croatian city has it all: spectacular medieval architecture, incredible beaches, and plenty of history to explore. Walk around Dubrovnik’s Old Town to admire the Baroque-style architecture and feel transported to the past. While wandering the limestone-paved streets, Game of Thrones fans may recognize moments from the show, like the “Walk of Shame” steps and the Red Keep Gate, while wandering around Old Town, as many of the King’s Landing scenes were filmed in Dubrovnik. Another spot you won’t want to miss is the fantastic views from the city walls. Along the mile-long path atop the massive stone walls, you’ll stumble across towers, fortresses, moats, and drawbridges—not your typical stroll sights.

And since we all know the best trips balance sightseeing and rest, you’ll also want to spend plenty of time at Dubrovnik’s beautiful beaches along the Adriatic Sea. Copacabana and Banje Beach are popular spots to take a dip but remember that most of Dubrovnik’s beaches are pebble, so plan your footwear accordingly.

5. Granada, Spain

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Source: Unsplash | Jorge Fernández Salas

Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Granada offers more of a laid-back alternative to popular Spanish destinations like Barcelona and Madrid. So, if you’re looking for a slower-paced European vacation, this could be the city to visit. The La Alhambra is one of the city’s most famous monuments; you won’t want to miss touring its sprawling grounds and multiple palaces when you visit. Just be sure to book your tickets far in advance, as it is a top-rated destination. Just a short walk from La Alhambra is the Mirador de San Nicolás, a lookout point with panoramic city views. Afterward, walk along the Paseo de los Tristes by the river and pop into one of the many restaurants serving amazing tapas.

Another area to explore is Sacromonte, a hilly neighborhood where most houses are burrowed into the wall of a cliff. For an unforgettable night of Spanish culture, venture into one of the cave-bars along Camino del Sacromonte to see a flamenco show. Or, if you’re looking to escape the city, the nearby Sierra Nevada National Park is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in nature.

6. Valletta, Malta

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Source: Pexels | Consuelo Borroni

Located on the small Mediterranean island nation of Malta, Valletta is known as one of the most concentrated historic cities in the world, meaning there is an enormous amount to see without having to travel far. According to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, there are over 320 monuments in less than half a mile. Talk about bang for your buck (and your legs). Just wandering the streets of Valletta, you’ll stumble upon countless unique sites, such as St John’s Co-Cathedral, a gilded Baroque-style cathedral, and one of the most famous places in the city. Duck inside to see the intricately carved stone walls and painted ceilings.

Another beautiful area to walk through is The Upper and Lower Barrakka Gardens, where you’ll find an unparalleled view of the Grand Harbour. For a dose of culture, visit Malta’s national theater—called Teatru Manoel—which is one of Europe’s oldest theaters and still offers performances today. Once you’ve gotten your cultural fix, see the city from a different POV by taking a relaxing sunset sail on the water.

7. Lyon, France

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Source: Pexels | Mihai Vlasceanu

The third biggest city in France, Lyon is known for its history, culture, and world-famous cuisine, so foodies, this is the destination for you. You could easily base your entire itinerary around exploring all of Lyon’s food markets and restaurants. But don’t worry, Lyon’s appeal goes beyond its tasty food. The historic city features stunning medieval and Renaissance architecture highlighted in buildings like St. George’s Church, which sits right on the banks of the Saône. Wandering through the passageways of Old Lyon, you’ll be surrounded by photo-worthy buildings no matter where you look. It’s also worth walking up the city’s tallest hill to see the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière and take in a panoramic view of the city. Back in the city center, head to Place Bellecour to indulge in some retail therapy, grab a drink, or even ride the Ferris wheel.

The city of Lyon is also famous for being one of the world’s biggest producers of silk. Today, you can see silk weavers at work in the La Croix-Rousse neighborhood or learn about the history of Lyon silk at the Maison des Canuts. With so much fashion history, food, and architecture to explore, who needs Paris?

8. Bologna, Italy

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Source: Unsplash | Bianca Ackermann

If a trip to Rome or Milan isn’t in the budget, Bologna is the perfect place to experience Italy’s rich culture at a fraction of the price. The heart of the city is Piazza Maggiore, a historic square that houses some of Bologna’s most important buildings and dates back to the 13th century. You also can’t miss the city’s two medieval leaning towers, which dominate the skyline. If you want to get your steps in, walk along the Portico di San Luca from the center of Bologna up to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. The longest covered walkway in the world, the portico features 666 arches and stretches more than two miles long. Bring your walking shoes because navigating the basilica also includes hundreds of stairs.

When you’re done sightseeing, pull up a seat at a café and indulge in some delicious pasta, wine, or gelato. Considered one of Italy’s best cities for food, Bologna is the ideal destination to sample local specialties like tagliatelle al ragù and lasagna verde.