THROW away that cliched European bucket list: we’re here to sing the praises of the continent’s less-celebrated gems.
These nine cities-on-the-verge offer a smorgasbord of charms, from historic bathhouses to white-hot dining scenes, and all with fewer crowds than their more famous neighbours.
When it comes to German hot spots, Berlin may have the cool cred but Munich is fast gaining a reputation as a can’t-miss metropolis.
The city’s newly-hip side is apparent in the sleek architecture and whimsical flourishes at The Flushing Meadows, a just-opened hotel whose fourth-floor bar acts as a kind of living room for the city’s creative set, and the swanky rooftop bar at The Louis, a 72-room hideaway with a top-notch Japanese restaurant and views over the Viktualienmarkt.
Stroll the English Gardens, a miraculous green space at the heart of the city that’s larger than New York’s Central Park: within its leafy confines you can try your hand at urban weir surfing, sunbathe completely naked or imbibe at one of the city’s most beautiful beer gardens.
Admire one of the greatest collections of Expressionist art at the Lenbachhaus Museum, with its spectacular Norman Foster-designed gold facade and acclaimed terrace restaurant Ella.
Then after sundown, hit another gilded institution, the opulent Die Goldene Bar, a 1930s-era cocktail den tucked inside the Haus de Kunst museum.
It’s time to rethink your stereotypes about Switzerland’s largest city. Zürich’s status as a finance capital and its sky-high standard (and cost) of living may have branded it as a bourgeois snoozefest, but these days the city is buzzing with creative energy and hot restaurants, boutiques and bars.
Bed down at the Marktgasse, a 39-room new player set in a historic building in the medieval Old Town featuring midcentury modern-inspired furnishings and whimsical spaces like the game and books-filled library and lobby-turned-living room.
Then head to the up-and-coming Binz District for dinner at Maison Manesse, a 14-seat restaurant where the tasting menus are named after songs by Joy Division, and chef Fabian Spiquel’s menu is experimental and delicious.
Get your art fix at Löwenbräukunst Areal, a historic brewery-turned-gallery space, before making your way to Im Viadukt, an avant garde shopping street set beneath elevated train tracks in the Zurich-West neighbourhood where you can browse everything from locally-made textiles to British cheeses.
As the sun sets, join the well-heeled hipsters at Frau Gerolds Garten, a bar and beer garden decorated with shipping containers.
Renowned as the avant garde fashion capital of Europe, Belgian quiet achiever Antwerp is ready to step into the spotlight as an essential stop on the grand tour.
Stay at the quirky Pantone Hotel by architect Olivier Hannaert and designer Michel Penneman: the hotel features seven signature colours throughout the rooms, and there’s a kitschy roof-deck overlooking the Saint-Gilles skyline.
Join the good cheekbones crowd at Dogma Cocktails, a speak-easy-style boite, which serves inventive cocktails like the “Sharpy Moustache” (served in a mason jar), then snag a table at Graanmarkt 13, a produce-driven restaurant with its own kitchen garden and rooftop beehives.
For a taste of the city’s growing art scene, check out Rubenshuis, dedicated to the Flemish master Rubens, and the contemporary Stieglitz 19, which showcases 21st century photography by local talent.
With its irresistible fusion of youthful optimism and rich history, Hungary’s vibrant capital is having a serious moment.
Get killer views of the Danube at the Intercontinental Budapest, a contempt landmark on the east bank or go all-out at the jaw-dropping Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace, an Art Nouveau showstopper built in 1904.
Wander across the famous suspension Chain Bridge, guarded at each end by stone lions, to reach the Gothic skyline of the Castle District.
Here, you can check out historic treasures like the Matthias Church and UNESCO-listed Buda Castle.
Budapest’s cool kids come out after dark to mingle in the city’s now-famous “ruin bars,” ad-hoc nightspots on the east side of the river — these once-abandoned spaces have been reclaimed by young artists and transformed into moody bars decorated with salvaged furniture, art and fairy lights.
Grab a wine spritzer and meet some locals at favourite spots like Ötkert, Szimpla and Instant, a labyrinthine spot full of wacky art installations. Sweat out the next day’s hangover at one of the city’s famous public baths: both Széchenyi and Gellert are masterpieces of Baroque and Art Nouveau design.
This 2000-year-old port city in the south of France has always had a reputation as a gritty metropolis often bypassed for showier destinations along the Côte d’Azur.
But all that has changed in recent years: Marseille has been reinvented as a sexy, artsy hotspot drawing a cadre of creative types and curious jetsetters.
Lay your head at the slick Mama Shelter, an outpost of the cult Parisian hotel mini-empire, or embrace the charms of the Old Port at Hotel la Residence set right beside the waterfront, with gorgeous views of the Basilique de Notre-Dame de la Garde.
Explore the city’s forward-thinking side at La Friche, a tobacco factory converted into an art and performance space — make sure you leave enough time to check out the bookstore.
Rub shoulders with fishermen and in-the-know locals at La Boîte à Sardine, a seafood joint whose menu changes with each day’s catch, or join the expense account crowd at chef Gerald Passedat’s acclaimed Le Petit Nice, the only three Michelin-starred restaurant in town.
Almost every corner of the Latvian capital could stand in as a postcard: we’re talking atmospheric cobblestone streets; serene parks and rivers; a grand opera house, and some of the world’s most incredible and well-preserved Art Nouveau architecture.
Check in at Hotel Bergs, a sweet townhouse-style hotel whose walls are hung with both Latvian Grand Masters and contemporary art.
Take in a performance at the opulent, circa 1856 Opera House, home to both the Latvian Opera and Ballet, then head to Alberta and Streinieku streets in the city centre to peep the rows of perfectly preserved Art Nouveau buildings, whose intricate facades have to be seen to be believed — there’s even a small museum dedicated to the movement (known as Jugendstil here).
While on Alberta, swing by Madam Bonbon, whose sexy heels and pieces by hard-to-find Latvian designers make this the city’s best fashion destination.
Before you leave town, sweet-talk your way into a table at the city’s most celebrated restaurant, Vincents, where star chef Martins Ritins serves up decadent dishes like foie gras ravioli while also supporting small-scale local organic farmers.
Finland’s ultra-stylish capital also has a slightly oddball, fun-loving side that makes it our favourite Scandinavian destination.
Cool design is everywhere here, from the hotels (we’re partial to the chic-meets-whimsical Klaus K, set in a Neo-Renaissance and Finnish-Romantic building in the heart of town) to art spaces like the Museum of Finnish Architecture, which showcases exhibitions and drawings of Finland’s greatest design stars like Eero Saarinen and Alvar Aalto.
Even the churches here are ridiculously cool, like the striking Kamppi Chapel, a curved wooden masterpiece designed by K2S Architects that has become a tourist attraction in its own right.
Pray you’re in town for “Restaurant Day,” a kind of global pop-up restaurant experience that happens four times a year, in which thousands of the city’s best cooks gather to host al fresco pop-up restaurants selling everything from Finnish-style doughnuts to Thai curries.
Don’t miss the Design District, a walkable route lined with 200 shops, galleries and boutiques showcasing everything fabulous in Finnish design.
This Croatian capital might not have the famed beauty of the dalmatian Coast but it has spirited attitude to spare — plus a cultural sophistication unrivalled in the country.
For a taste of the city’s best whimsy, head to the wonderful Museum of Broken Relationships, a space devoted to, yes, failed relationships, in all their messy, funny, occasionally poignant glory.
If you see something you like painted on the walls — Zagreb is famous for its street art — head to Lapo Lapo, a gallery showcasing the works of local street art impresarios Bare and Modul. The pair even offer workshops for aspiring graffiti artists.
Explore the medieval old town from your lavish perch at The Palace Hotel Zagreb, a grand dame built in the Secession style in 1891, or go a more of-the-moment route at the funky Art Hotel Like, whose art-filled colour-drenched rooms overlook the cathedral.
Join the swell set at Bistro Apetit, an elegant glass-box dining room set among gardens where guests are taken on an adventurous gastronomical journey by chef Tom Gretić, then rub shoulders with the boho late-night crowd at Vinyl, a bar spread across five rooms that hosts DJs, literary readings and live music.
Spain’s third-largest city has always held a romantic Old World allure, but these days it’s making a serious bid to become a centre of innovation as well.
Take the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences, the strikingly bold Santiago Calatrava-designed showpiece on the banks of the River Turia containing an aquarium, opera house and science museum, among other wonders.
Revel in the laid-back Andalusian lifestyle from your room at the lovely Palau de la Mar, a design-forward boutique hotel near the city centre.
Then step out to explore the town, starting at the Mercado Central, Spain’s largest market, where you can nibble classic Spanish snacks like boquerones (anchovies) and tortilla bocadillo, the delicious potato and onion omelet served at every self-respecting tapas bar countrywide.
Speaking of tapas, see how the city’s most innovative chefs are spinning the concept by pulling up a chair at Vuelve Carolina, a hotspot where Quique Dacosta is turning tapas traditions on their head with dishes like wild mushroom croquettes and foie gras served with a rum and cola sauce.
This article originally appeared on Jetsetter.