EUROPE’S OTHER CITIES
BARGAIN hunters on your marks, it’s early-bird season.
It’s the time of the year when airlines zooming to Europe offer cheap seats which can save travellers looking to get away between March and October hundreds of dollars.
But instead of buying a ticket to an old favourite, like London or Paris, take advantage of the new destinations that airlines flying from Australia are serving and start a holiday in a location away from the busiest tourist haunts.
Etihad, Emirates, British Airways, Qatar, Korean Airlines and Cathay Pacific are expanding their networks by offering flights to destinations considered to be some of Europe’s “secondary cities’’.
Escape has pinpointed 10 locations worth considering and asked people who know the cities best – the hotel staffers, chefs, travel agents and tour guides helping Aussie travellers experience each address – as to why they’re worth a stop.
CRACOW – POLAND
“Cracow is unique because it’s the only Polish city untouched by war, it has a preserved medieval Old Town, Jagiellonian University dates back to the 14th century, it’s the city where Pope John Paul II was archbishop, and it has the best outdoor cafes in the country,” Trafalgar Tours travel director Kate Poloczanska-Komar says.
“When the weather is warm have a beer in one of the Old Town’s 2000 bars and cafes, sunbathe along the embankment of the Vistula River, or stand in the 1km-long line on Starowislna St for Crakow’s best ice-cream.
“But every traveller should visit Wawel Castle, where most Polish rulers and national heroes are buried, and the Sigismund Chapel, which is regarded as the most beautiful example of Renaissance north of the Alps.”
SOFIA – BULGARIA
“Sofia is Europe’s second-oldest city, founded 7000 years ago, and construction frequently uncovers Roman ruins so it’s normal to walk past Roman brickwork incorporated into a new pedestrian underpass,” Intrepid Travel destination manager Stefan Hellmuth says.
“The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral stands out but I find the unassuming and often overlooked Church of St George quite impressive because it dates back to the 4th century, is hard to find, hidden in a courtyard, and is dwarfed by 19th-century structures.
“Locals hit the parks and beer gardens when the weather is warm to absorb the sun, school holidays see a mass exodus from Sofia when locals go to the Black Sea coast, and travellers looking for a memorable day trip from the city should visit the Rila Monastery and hike in the Rila Mountains.”
PORTO – PORTUGAL
“It’s the hills upon which the city balances, with each street giving way to small alleys that wind to the Douro River, and the genuine warmth of the locals that sets Porto apart,” says Scenic’s European journey designer Tiffany Watters, who shapes the 11-day cruise Unforgettable Douro that starts and finishes in Porto.
“Every visitor to the city should see the Vila Nova de Gaia – it’s where the historic port wine cellars are located on the opposite shore of the Douro to Porto’s fabulous city centre – and Afurada fishing village on the shores of the river where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean.
“Escape the heat of summer by retreating to the shade of the local tabernas, the local cafes-cum-bars where locals congregate to cook freshly-caught fish on open fires and rehydrate with a port tonic, which is a mix of white port wine and soda served over ice.”
MILAN – ITALY
“Milan isn’t just a vibrant destination boasting an expanding cultural scene but it’s the perfect jumping-off point to other parts of northern Italy including stunning lakes, quiet country towns, and seaside retreats, says the new Mandarin Oriental Milan head concierge Mario Picozzi.
“As well as Milan’s historic symbols, the Duomo and La Scala, every traveller should visit the ‘new Milan’ whose heart is represented by the fascinating Piazza Gae Aulenti that’s surrounded by the most recent works of architecture shaping the city skyline.
“Guests wanting to experience typical Milan dining should head to Rovello or historic Ristorante Solferino, while 2015 marks a new beginning for the Navigli District – the historic port closed since 1979 – where locals now can walk along canals or sit at the many restaurants and bars sipping a typical Milanese aperitivo.”
EDINBURGH – SPAIN
“If art’s your thing head to the National Portrait Gallery, try Stockbridge for unusual boutiques if you like shopping, and head to a traditional pub for Scottish ale or whisky and a plate of haggis with neeps and tatties.
“Ride one of the world’s incredible railways – the West Highland Line between Glasgow and Ballachulish – on a day trip from the city or spend two nights in the capital on Travelmarvel’s Edinburgh, the Highlands and Islands Great Rail Journey, which is a nine-day tour including the West Highland to Oban, the Jacobite, and Kyle Line to Eilean Donan Castle.”
MADRID – SPAIN
“Madrid sits in the heart of the country with people from every corner of the nation congregating in this big city that combines cutting-edge buildings with architecture from Spain’s golden era and has boundless energy,’’ says Frank Camorra, the MoVida chef preparing to lead Captain’s Choice A Taste of Spain to the city in 2016.
“Pop into San Miguel Market for a snack, try some of the city’s best seafood tapas at Casa Rafa, book for the wood-fired pig at Casa Botin, which is the world’s oldest restaurant, and find Los Caracoles which is a tapas bar specialising in offal.
“The paseo – walking the streets well into the evening – is a local favourite when the weather is warm and whole families promenade, stopping to chat and taking in the occasional tapas, with the city glowing with residual heat trapped in the cobblestones.”
BOLOGNA – ITALY
“Bologna isn’t as popular as neighbouring Florence or Pisa but there’s real authenticity, with a traditional medieval feel to the historic centre, and discovering this city feels like you’re uncovering a hidden gem because it’s not swamped with tourists,” TravelManagers’ personal travel manager Melanie Carter says.
“Do what the locals do when it’s warm and visit seaside Rimini or eat gelato – Bologna is home to Carpigiani Gelato University which teaches people the flavours of genuine Italian gelato – and head to nearby Modena for legendary balsamic vinegar or Parma for parmesan cheese.
“To preview the true taste of Bologna visit a local market, with Quadrilatero Piazza Maggiore filled with local specialties, and aperitivo is another fantastic experience with many bars likely to serve a free snack to enjoy if you order a drink after 6pm.”
AMSTERDAM – THE NETHERLANDS
“Amsterdam has may curiosities for travellers and it can take a little adjusting to the openness towards things people only take part in on the sly in other countries,” STA Travel marketing manager Tara Sena-Becker says.
“For something a little wacky beyond the smoke-filled cafes, head to Electric Ladyland which is the world’s only museum devoted to fluorescent art and, unlike the traditional gallery where you stand back to ponder van Gogh’s Starry Night, visitors are invited to get among the art.
“For laid-back dining head to traditional Dutch pubs known as ‘bruin cafes’ – meals are usually cheap and simple – and to immerse yourself in a time long ago check out cafes tracing their history back to the 1600s including Cafe De Druif, Cafe Papeneiland, De Drie Fleschjes and Cafe Kalkhoven.”
DUSSELDORF – GERMANY
“Dusseldorf offers a unique variety of attractions to international travellers and while it’s a fashion-forward district, it maintains cultural integrity,” general manager of the destination’s hip Hotel Indigo Katja Schnabel notes.
“Don’t miss the Rhine Embankment – it’s a beautiful esplanade that symbolised Dusseldorf’s joie-de-vivre and is an incredible expression of the city’s Mediterranean lifestyle – and have a traditional Altbier on a local brewery’s terrace.
“Dusseldorf is a fashion metropolis, so stroll the famous shopping boulevard Konigsallee, but venture down the side streets to narrow lanes filled with independent shops, and walk through the Hofgarten to the new Koe-Bogen where luxury brands and hip designers showcase collections.”
VALENCIA – SPAIN
“Valencia’s atmosphere is unique, it’s a place full of life and colour, and while it’s Spain’s third-largest city you still feel like you’re in a small town,” G Adventures chief experience officer Carlos Verdu says.
“Valencia is home to Spain’s finest oranges and mandarins, it’s also the birthplace of paella, and I recommend travellers looking for a typical dining experience go to El Carmen close to the cathedral in the heart of the old town to find affordable restaurants.
“When it’s hot everyone runs to the beach to enjoy the fresh Mediterranean water – walk around Malvarrosa Beach or El Saler, and eat in restaurants that look to the sea and serve the most authentic paella – and every visitor should go to the City of Arts and Sciences.”