European summer has a particular lure to it – from the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean to the world-famous music festivals like Roskilde and Glastonbury – but there are some cities on the continent that are criminally overlooked when it comes to warm-weather escapes.[realted_articles]61214,62156[/related_articles]
Here are three of Europe’s most underrated cities to add to your next itinerary.
Helsinki is often referred to as the younger brother of the more visited Nordic capitals like Stockholm or Copenhagen, but its small size and relative remoteness is all part of its appeal. Its old school trams and abundance of bike paths make it easy to get around, meaning you can fit a lot into a single day; you can hike through forests in the morning, shop in the design district (that won the city the title of ‘Design Capital of the World’ in 2012) in the afternoon, then round it out by watching the sunset with locals on the city’s cathedral steps.
Helsinki spreads from the mainland of Finland to over 300 archipelago islands, making up over 300 kilometres of coastline. Although Scandinavia isn’t well known for its beaches, they’re a popular place to spend the never-ending summer days when the sun sometimes lingers ’til 10pm. If you don’t want to brave the cold water for a swim, you can still experience Helsinki at its best on a boat. Jump aboard a tour and island hop to Skiffer, a popular pizza restaurant and bar, or take a day trip to one of the larger islands like the fortress Suomenlinna or the popular summer island of Pihlajasaari.
During the warmer months, Helsinki’s parks – which make up 30 percent of the city – come alive with events and festivals, from concerts in parks, to outdoor markets and pop up venues, to Restaurant Day, where anyone can open a restaurant for the day. For good times, head to Hernesaaren Ranta which is an outdoor venue decked out with palm trees, sun lounges, a beach, a range of restaurants in shipping containers and an impressive lineup of international DJs running all summer long.
Tragically, 85 percent of Poland’s capital Warsaw was destroyed by the end of World War II, with countless lives lost. The history of the city plays an important role today; Warsaw has been called ‘The Phoenix City’ because of the many hardships it has suffered, but – more importantly – for the way it has risen from the ashes. The quaint and colourful old down has been rebuilt, and while the city is dotted with significant memorials of its past, it has also reinvented itself as the vibrant city that it is now.
The boxy Soviet-style buildings that make up most of the city might look stark and inhospitable at first glance, but they are anything but. Thanks to the creative communities in hip neighbourhoods like Praga, the streets have become an urban gallery of amazing street art, complete with a thriving bar scene. Stop in at Skład Butelek Bar, which occupies one of the only buildings that survived the war when most of the city was destroyed. Inside the bunker-looking interior is a cluster of alcoves, filled with vintage furniture, which play host to regular art shows, live music and impromptu poetry readings on any given night.
The best place to experience the city in summer is down by the Vistula River; it becomes a second living room for locals when the sun is out. Expect to see people running and riding along the foreshore, fishing off the bridges, catching some rays on the urban beaches or just sitting back and watching the world go by. If you’re thirsty you can hop aboard BarKa, which is an old barge transformed into a cafe during the day and a club in the evenings.
Portugal’s second largest city is the perfect destination for people who can’t decide between a holiday in the city or by the sea. A short drive away from the city centre you can find sun-hungry locals hanging out on the rocky shores of the Atlantic Ocean, but Porto’s real charm and beauty is found in the quieter nooks and crannies of its colourful city streets, which are an Instagrammer’s dream.
Founded in 1123, Porto is full of beautiful old buildings, like the Livraria Lello Bookstore that was frequented by JK Rowling when she lived in the city teaching English. It’s said to have been a source of inspiration for Harry Potter. The historical architecture throughout the city is complemented and contrasted by a new wave of modern design, like the angular Casa da Música, which makes getting lost in the city streets a feast for your eyes.
Speaking of feasts, there’s a thriving food and wine scene in Porto and no shortage of incredible seafood thanks to its setting on the beach. The restaurants that run along the Douro River are the best way to taste local cuisine, like freshly-grilled squid perfectly teamed with local Portuguese wines; try Fish Fixe right beside the famous Ponte Luis I bridge. For an authentic snack on the go, bolinhos de bacalhauares are a traditional dish involving deep fried mashed potato and cod fish and they’re incredibly addictive.
(Lead image: Porto. All images: Hannah Lewis / Tales & Trails)
Hannah is Sydney-based food and travel writer who has contributed to publications including Broadsheet, The Urban List and GRAM Magazine. She travels at every opportunity she gets and is passionate about living like a like local everywhere she goes. Her goal in life is to visit every country in the world and so far she is over 50. You can help her keep count by visiting her blog Tales & Trails or by following her on Instagram and Facebook.