11 of the most beautiful European cities many visitors miss

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We all want to visit beautiful cities and towns, the finest flowering of European culture. To experience rare and lesser-known gems is the true delight of travel. The large and small cities listed below are popular, but outside their own countries are hardly mainstream destinations.

Don’t pass them by like so many others – their monuments, striking natural locations and stories are the essence of adventure. Each is a setting for stunning views to treasure forever.

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Lübeck – this city shaped northern Europe

Lübeck is a shining example of a rich medieval-Renaissance city, famous for its red-brick architecture. It was the centre of the Hanseatic League and northern Europe, and its way of life spread through its trade network for centuries.

When travellers approached the mighty city gate Holstentor, Lübeck’s landmark, they were greeted by the Latin motto “harmony within, peace outside”. It recognised that order and cooperation were necessary for trading prosperity and riches. This was Lübeck’s achievement – a trading empire that made it the biggest power in the north.

Entering Lübeck through the Holstentor today is like entering another world. A world of prosperous merchants, their houses and the proud coats of arms above their portals, and their brick warehouses. They left a heritage of richly endowed churches, of tiny arched laneways where the simple people who served them huddled together.

It’s a world of sett-paved streets where all classes met and gossiped, of sea captains and their hardy merchant crews, and of ornamented chambers where town councils met and debated the issues of the moment. Amid the extraordinary survivals of Lübeck’s past, these pictures are not too hard for the visitor to conjure up today.

Lübeck and its monuments are on the UNESCO world heritage register. Not even heavy bombing in 1942 could not erase its charm and character.

Lübeck’s wealth, customs, architecture and language marked Scandinavia and the Baltic indelibly and challenged the might of nation states. It's a place visitors never forget.

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Graz – the beauty of Habsburg Europe

When we think of the Austro-Hungarian empire, minds turn to Vienna. But Graz’s historic centre is the city world heritage-listed as an expression of that empire under Habsburg rule from the late Middle Ages to the 18th century.

With the palace Schloß Eggenberg, its architecture and art, Graz is cited as “an exemplary model of the living heritage of a central European urban complex”, a blend of continental influences. It has always been a melting pot.

The inner city has about 1,000 buildings of all post-Gothic styles and periods. Highlights are the Landhaus and the Landeszeughaus, with its extraordinary arms and armour collection. The barrel-vaulted church next to the mausoleum of the emperor Ferdinand II has an extensive painted ceiling that shows the rescue of Vienna from Ottoman armies.

The former imperial palace and a suite of old-town buildings, including the university, complete an ensemble from the 16th to 18th centuries.

The pilgrimage church of Mariatrost on the edge of the city is extraordinary. The Schloß Eggenberg interiors and arcaded courtyards even more so. The palace's museum areas include a gallery and lapidarium. In an archaeology museum in the palace park are Roman and Iron Age finds including the Celtic bronze Strettweg cult wagon. These and the contemporary Kunsthaus are among more than 20 Graz museums.

Every beautiful city needs a view. The Schloßberg dominates the old town, strewn with the remains of fortification and ideal locations to enjoy the good life. Beside the city’s clock tower, its landmark, is a panorama across the Mur river valley.

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Ravenna – the city where Italy was reborn

What was the last capital of the Western Roman empire? Ravenna is not as famous as it should be, but is unique in its status as the place where the empire handed over to its successor kingdoms. Its architectural highlights belong to a shadowy age when the Classical world was disintegrating and abandoned the city of Rome for Ravenna to be near its fleet.

In the 5th century, the so-called barbarian culture that pressured Rome into decline inherited its power. New Germanic kings brought Arian Christian beliefs. The Ostrogothic king Theodoric built a palace in Ravenna and his mausoleum, the only survivor of its type. It is one of eight 5th and 6th Christian monuments named in the city’s world heritage listing.

What the kings left show their world was, in fact, cultured. Other monuments include extraordinary churches with elements of the early Byzantine mosaic style, where UNESCO cites the “supreme artistry of the mosaic art”. The breathtaking interiors of the Basilica di San Vitale, the church of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, and the church of Sant'Apollinare in nearby Classe put them among the finest early churches in Christendom.

The Baptistery of Neon, the Arian Baptistery, and the so-called Mausoleum of Galla Placidia are smaller but still striking. The high art of the archiepiscopal chapel in the bishops’ palace reasserts Catholic supremacy.

This heritage alone would be enough for the traveller to absorb. But Ravenna is also the site of a cathedral, a fortress ruin, 18th century palazzi, graceful 16th to 18th century city portals, the tomb of its most famous son Dante Alighieri, remains of mosaics from Theodoric’s palace and churches of all periods.

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Bamberg – an emperor's city vision

This world-heritage city stands apart from the main tourist trail in Bavaria. But Bamberg provides an almost untouched example of the power and style of the bishops who ruled vast areas of Germany for centuries as princes of the Holy Roman empire. 

A magnificent medieval cathedral with rich sculptural treasures, a city plan laid out around a network of churches and a large Benedictine monastery perched above the old town are part of the legacy of the emperor who established Bamberg, Heinrich II. There are also five residences used by the prince-bishops, including a castle and two palaces.

Most peculiar, though, is the town hall constructed on bridges in the middle of the river Regnitz. Its position was a clear gesture to ease tensions between jealous religious and citizen parties. The story survives that the prince-bishops of the 15th century would not give over ground for its construction. Today the curious sight of the Baroque-decorated building propped in mid-stream attracts by far the most photographers in a city dotted with stunning and richly ornamented buildings.

Opulent patrician residences such as the Böttingerhaus and Villa Concordia show how leading citizens were also able to accumulate wealth. But the charming multi-storey residences of the fishers’ riverbank quarter, known as Kleine Venedig (“little Venice”), tell a deeper story of Bamberg.

Also critical to the city’s growth were the market gardens almost in the city centre, which survive for today’s visitor. The historic breweries still stand, too.

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Visby – life goes on in medieval streets

Visby is Scandinavia’s best-preserved historical city and one of the finest examples of a medieval settlement anywhere. It’s astonishing to find such a thing, even on the Baltic Sea’s largest island. But preservation is the theme of Visby and its streetscapes, showing the continuity of life and the determination to embrace its past.

The small city, when we stroll around its outer walls or explore the stone skeletons of its medieval churches, can look like a ruin. The stark environment reflects its builders and its medieval people, who endured a rugged existence in often harsh conditions. But the fact that they prospered is shown in the humanity of the streets inside the walls. And when their prosperity faded, the people and their homes endured largely untouched. This value today is reflected in UNESCO world heritage listing.

In summer, Visby is an electric place. It has pageantry, colour and humour, showing the independent spirit of an island where listeners can still hear a different branch of Scandinavian language. Travellers from everywhere walk its stone streets and wonder at the tiny houses and mighty towers that stand nearby.

In keeping with the theme of history, Visby is a base to explore an island that carries traces of human settlement over thousands of years. Its unique cultural artefact, the picture stone, shows us in an indelible way the life of the seafaring vikings, their beliefs, and the stories that sustained them. But traces of life, death and fortification are all over Gotland, blended with a natural heritage that is equally priceless.

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Passau – a stunning location for culture

The city near the Austrian border where three great rivers meet is one of the big surprises for any visitor. Passau has a rare specimen of a German Baroque cathedral with a magnificent frescoed ceiling.

One of the world’s biggest church organs is inside and travellers are invited to hear free summer recitals. There are plenty of signs of Catholic piety in the architecture of the old town. On the opposite bank of the river Inn, pilgrimage steps lead up the hill the church of Mariahilf. Away from the magnificent church monuments is an old-town labyrinth of archways, stairways and cobbled lanes on the spit where the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers meet.

As princes, the bishops ruled the city only. So they ensured their security with a castle built on high cliffs dominating a spectacular natural setting. But they also kept a Baroque city palace.

Passau’s influence developed due to a rich salt trade, but it was also a strategic base in Roman times and an early centre for Christianity. It has a proud place in German medieval epic, which used it as a setting for momentous events that were later imagined in giant fresco art in the ornamented town hall.

Passau’s position gave it close links with Austria, Italy, Hungary and the Czech lands of Bohemia. Its bishopric reached out into the lands of modern Hungary and the abbess of Kloster Niedernburg, Gisela, was the widow of the Hungarian king St Stephen. Her remains in the abbey church are a pilgrimage destination for Hungarians today.

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Bath – city of style through the ages

Roman Britons beat a path to this city, the only natural spring in the British Isles. Bath became fashionable and stayed that way. In the shadow of Rome, Bath’s prominence endured through medieval times, and late Anglo-Saxon kings were crowned there in a ceremony that was the model for today’s British coronation service.

Bath was eagerly embraced by the Georgians, who visited the place constantly. The emphasis was on wealth and the upper crust of the city’s society. London visitors provided models for the intrigues of Jane Austen novels. This aspect of the city’s culture can be sampled today by taking tea at the Grand Pump Room, in the shadow of the ornate late gothic Bath Abbey.

The Roman baths make an extraordinary tour. But beyond their value as a historical centre, the city is one of the UK’s architectural gems. Georgian architects, chiefly the father and son John Wood, erected some of the UK’s most extraordinary residential buildings, fashioned from the region’s richly coloured stone.

The Woods’ work culminated in The Circus and the Royal Crescent. Crescent terraces on the city’s hilly contours, opening sweeping views, became a design feature. This period of building maintained Bath's links with the Classical period through its style. Today the city is packed with listed buildings and is recognised by UNESCO, both as a city centre and one of the Great Spa Towns of Europe.

There could not be much better natural settings for Bath, which is on the river Avon and the perfect start or end point for exploring the Cotswolds, considered one of the most beautiful parts of Britain.

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Würzburg – heritage etched in stone

Visitors to this city are surprised it is not better known. Having seen it, they don't forget it. Its palace, a mighty castle perched above the city, its ancient stone bridge across the river Main, and its churches of all periods leave a lasting impression.

The staggering brilliance of the Baroque bishops’ residence and its surrounding gardens have earned UNESCO world heritage listing. The decoration of its magnificent chambers and ballroom staggers the senses, which was the aim of all its ornate splendour. Its massive staircase is decorated in a style representing the bishops as famous and revered in all the known continents.

The wealth of the bishops meant there were plenty of commissions for artists. The Würzburg sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider, the fresco painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and builders such as Balthasar Neumann and Antonio Petrini had scope to do their finest work.

The traditions of Christianity go back to Irish missionaries to Franconia martyred in the 7th century near the present cathedral. The Romanesque cathedral today is restored from World War II bombing damage. Piety was renewed in projects such as the building of the 16th century hospital Juliusspital, the city's pilgrimage stairs, and the ornate Rococo church Käppele at their top.

The medieval fortress, extended over centuries, is a brooding presence opposite the old town and a reminder that princes and common folk were not always on friendly terms. The bishops crushed the townsfolk in the 1524 uprising known as the Peasants’ War.

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Bergen – a place for merchants and artists

World heritage-listed Bergen offers a beautiful slice of Norway in a spectacular natural location. Hanseatic merchants raised an extraordinary medieval wooden town in Bergen, an ideal port with shelter from the North Sea. Much of what they shaped, including the quayside wooden trade buildings known as Bryggen, remains.

There are also stone structures including the Renaissance tower Rosenkrantztårnet, the 13th century banqueting house Håkonshallen, and the Bergenhus fortifications.

Today we can also see the first town the merchants built. Bryggens Museum is a rare example of an archaeological site left intact, with hundreds of excavated items displayed in a building raised around it. Every aspect of life is shown in the finds: trade, shipping, writing, religion and magical cults, house utensils, clothing, weapons, even sex. Items from the surrounding region have been added to the collection. It’s an extraordinary glimpse of the lives of the people who built northern Europe.

Several medieval churches remain in the city and the rebuilt Fantoft church is an example of Norway’s unique medieval stave churches.

Bergen’s wooden residential architecture from the 1800s is celebrated by a living open-air museum on the slopes above the city. Quaint wooden houses are a feature of the cobbled or sett-stone streets around the old centre. A remarkable precinct of later upper-class homes surrounds the city’s university on Nygårdshøyden.

Bergen is also a centre of culture. Norway’s great composer Edvard Grieg lived and died in Bergen and his nearby home Troldhaugen is open to visitors. His work is honoured by the modern Grieghallen, a 1,500-seat concert hall with its own orchestra. Another museum covers decorative arts.

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Trier – where Roman and medieval merge

 Trier is generally regarded as the oldest city in Germany because of its importance going back to Roman times. It was once a centre of the empire and Roman and medieval structures are everywhere. Other survivals including monuments and massive mosaics are part of the city’s main museum.

The city on the Moselle became home to Constantine the Great, one of the greatest Roman emperors, who went on to re-establish the empire in the east in a city he named for himself – Constantinople. But his sense of power and grandeur was formed in Trier and it's easy to see why. Magnificent bath complexes, part of the Roman walls and city gateway, Constantine’s rebuilt hall from the 4th century and the city’s amphitheatre remain.

Travellers to the ancient city see Roman and medieval monuments almost side by side. But the relationship is closer than that – sometimes the buildings are both. The present Romanesque cathedral and its neighbour the Liebfrauen-Basilika are built over a 4th century basilica complex. The cathedral claims the Robe of Christ, according to the story redeemed by Constantine’s mother St Helena. The Liebfrauen-Basilika, restored with dazzling inerior colours, could easily be a French Gothic cathedral.

But the Porta Nigra, the former Roman north gate, is the prime example of structural reuse. It was turned into a monastery church in medieval times but partly restored to its Roman appearance after a visit by Napoleon. All these monuments are cited in Trier’s world heritage listing.

Trier was also the home of the young Karl Marx, who grew up in a well-off household, preserved today as a museum.

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Vicenza – Renaissance artistry on show

 Vicenza, a beautiful Renaissance city with Roman origins, lives in the shadow of Venice and is never compared to Florence. But UNESCO lists Vicenza and its surrounding villas for their association with the outstanding architect of the age, Andrea Palladio.

This most walkable place, in essence a city of the 15th and 16th centuries, displays splendour in every street and courtyard and along its rivers and canals.

The name Palladio excites lovers of architecture and beauty. Vicenza and its region is where Palladio launched his career, designed more than 20 buildings and completed commissions for a similar number of country villas. His choice of material was the region’s white stone. His Classical sense of proportion and harmony set him apart and raised Vicenza above most other cities in Italy.

Many of Vicenza's palaces, notably the museum Palazzo Chiericati, are Palladio's designs. These and his reshaping of the city's government hall, now known as Basilica Palladiana, are jewels of Renaissance art. His fame spread through Europe and his influence lasted centuries.

His crowning achievement was the lavish interior design of Vicenza's Teatro Olimpico, a triumph of perspective where he used his mastery of the arch to frame illusions of distance for theatrical purposes. The world’s oldest indoor theatre and Palladio’s last work, it is now the centrepiece of a museum celebrating his artistry.

Vicenza has other highlights. Its remarkable Gothic Chiesa di Santa Corona was built in reverence for a thorn from the crucifixion crown of Christ. Its interior and inlaid marble altar (with a work by Bellini), are striking. The 12th century clock tower Torre Bissara, at more than 80 metres, dominates the Basilica Palladiana and central Piazza dei Signori.


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