Under the radar in Europe

DAVID WHITLEY
Last updated 05:00 11/05/2014
Segovia
Getty Images

SEGOVIA: View of the city surrounded by its medieval defensive wall.

Segovia
Getty Images
WORLD HERITAGE SITE: Segovia aqueduct seen from the street Juan Bravo.

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Europe's capitals tend to get most of the attention, but their overshadowed smaller sibling cities can pack in just as much fun. We've picked the best options to put a different slant on your next Euro jaunt.

1. GHENT, BELGIUM

Pretty to an almost unimaginable degree, and surrounded by waterways, medieval Ghent is ideally suited to a boat trip orientation. Boat in Gent does 90-minute cruises. See boatingent.be.

The Design Museum is a one-stop swoon shop for understanding the major differences between rococo, classicism and more. See designmuseumgent.be.

The Museum Dr Guislain, inside an old monastery, explores the unexpectedly gripping history of psychiatry. It's equal parts gory and barmy. You wouldn't want to be in the hands of the doctor who thought everything was determined by the shape of your face. See museumdrguislain.be

Getting there: Trains from Brussels Airport to Ghent take less than one hour. See belgianrail.be.

Staying there: The waterside Marriott Ghent has king rooms with rollaway beds for kids from €109 ($176). See marriottghent.com.

More information: visitgent.be.

2. CESKY KRUMLOV, CZECH REPUBLIC

Built around a loop in the Vltava River, on a sunny day there's no better way to enjoy the town than on a raft gliding downstream. Malecek rents out rafts and smuggling a bottle of bubbly on board is not unheard of. See en.boat-rental.malecek.cz.

The town is painted with Renaissance flair, but the castle gets the most lavish treatment. Gorgeous from the outside, the OTT rooms and rococo theatre inside take it to another level. See zamek-ceskykrumlov.eu

The Czech Republic is beer heaven and the historic Eggenberg brewery is one of the best small operations in the country, with hearty tasting sessions. See eggenberg.cz.

Getting there: CK Shuttle offers transfers from Prague airport to Cesky Krumlov. See ckshuttle.cz.

Staying there: Junior suites for four at the centrally located Bellevue cost from 3650 koruna ($215). See bellevuehotelkrumlov.cz.

More information: ckrumlov.info/docs/en/kaktualita.xml.

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3. SEGOVIA, SPAIN

There are few more astonishing examples of Roman ingenuity than Segovia's aqueduct. Stretching 894 metres across the city, with 163 arches and not a single drop of mortar to hold it together, the 2000-year-old behemoth doesn't half provoke an inferiority complex.

At the other end of Segovia's narrow warren of lanes is the Alcazar, a Disney-esque castle which is just as lavish inside. See alcazardesegovia.com.

But eating is what Segovia does best - particularly when it comes to pork. The cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig) here is famed throughout Spain. Try it at specialist restaurant Casa Duque. See restauranteduque.es.

Getting there: High speed trains connect Madrid and Segovia. See renfe.com.

Staying there: The Sercotel Infanta Isabel has a babysitting service and family rooms from €77. See hotelinfantaisabel.com. La Casa Mudejar revels in its 15th century heritage looks, with doubles from €85.

More information: turismodesegovia.com.

4. BOLOGNA, ITALY

Other Italian cities have stunning set-piece buildings, but as a whole, Bologna is surely the most beautiful. Handsome red-brick palaces and a series of dreamy squares make just walking around an intense pleasure.

It's also home to the oldest university in Europe. The medieval twin towers are the highlights of the campus, while the Palazzo Poggi is the hub. Inside are a 300-year-old observatory and a gory anatomical museum. See museopalazzopoggi.unibo.it.

Bologna is also home to Italy's richest food, which can be rounded off with high-quality gelato. Should you wish to make it yourself, the Gelato Museum offers workshops. See gelatomuseum.com.

Getting there: Trains from Milan to Bologna take just over an hour. See trenitalia.com.

Staying there: Coolly minimalist and centrally located, the Metropolitan has rooms that sleep four for €159. See hotelmetropolitan.com.

More information: bolognawelcome.com.

5. BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND

For the sweet-toothed, Birmingham should be a pilgrimage site - it's where the Cadbury chocolate empire was born. Tours of the gigantic complex stuff in plenty of tastings among the backstory and production line gawping. See cadburyworld.co.uk.

The Lord of the Rings books were also born in Birmingham. Author J R R Tolkien grew up there and maps with the key sites make a great self-guided tour. See visitbirmingham.com/what-to-do/heritage/tolkiens-birmingham/.

The Jewellery Quarter is where about 40 per cent of Britain's jewellery is made, and is ripe for gold and silver bargains, while the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter allows you to watch craftsmen at work. See jewelleryquarter.net/visit/museums/museum-of-the-jewellery-quarter/.

Getting there: Emirates flies to Birmingham via Dubai; or you can travel by train or plane from London.

Staying there: Away2stay's canal-moored houseboat is a quirky alternative, costing £160 ($315) for a family of four. See away2stay.co.uk.

More information: visitbirmingham.com.

6. ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS

Few cities have a better collection of eye-popping modern architecture, including Piet Blom's skewiff cube-shaped apartments at the Overblaak Development, the Erasmus Bridge and Renzo Piano's KPN Telecom HQ. Rotterdam ByCycle runs two-wheeled architecture tours. See rotterdambycycle.nl.

Some of the skyline is best seen from the water, and Spido runs cruises that also take in the port. Shipping containers get kinda sexy when you see the scale of the operation. See spido.nl.

The works by Flemish and Venetian masters in the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen ensure it's one of the greatest collections in the world. See boijmans.nl.

Getting there: Trains from Amsterdam Airport to Rotterdam take less than an hour. See ns.nl.

Staying there: The Hotel New York offers art nouveau splendour for €51. See hotelnewyork.nl.

More information: rotterdam.info.

7. INNSBRUCK, AUSTRIA

Innsbruck's greatest quality is how close it is to the Alps. A cable car from the city centre will take you all the way up to the Hafelekar station, and a short walk from there leads to the 2334-metre Hafelekarspitze peak. See nordkette.com/en.

Lovers of ridiculously opulent palaces will dig the Hofburg - a baroque masterpiece of stucco and gilding. The neighbouring Hofkirche features Emperor Maximilian's absurdly pompous tomb, lined by 28 gigantic bronze statues. See hofburg-innsbruck.at.

Getting there: From Munich in Germany, a train to Innsbruck takes less than two hours. See bahn.de.

Staying there: Spacious quad rooms at the Weisses Rossl cost from €140. See roessl.at.

More information: innsbruck.info.

8. LYON, FRANCE

To the French, Lyon is the country's premier gourmet city. Localers offers tasting tours of the city's restaurants, but also speciality cheese, chocolate and winemakers. See localers.com.

The Croix-Rousse area is famous for its silk-weavers. At the Atelier de Passementerie and Atelier de Tissage, you can watch vintage looms then see the modern operation, on a joint ticket. See soierie-vivante.asso.fr.

The old city is packed with medieval and Renaissance buildings, but if picking just one, dip inside the 16th century mansion hosting the Musees Gadagne. See gadagne.musees.lyon.fr.

Getting there: Emirates flies via Dubai to Lyon.

Staying there: Kids stay free and have play areas at the Novotel Lyon la Part Dieu, where rooms cost from €99. The dazzlingly white College Hotel is the hip couples option, with rooms from €130. See college-hotel.com.

More information: lyon-france.com.

9. DRESDEN, GERMANY

Before World War II, Dresden was regarded as arguably the most beautiful baroque city on Earth. Carpet bombing changed that, but meticulous rebuilding of key buildings is arguably more astonishing than the initial construction. The awe-provoking Frauenkirche is the most potent symbol of rebirth. See frauenkirche-dresden.de.

The Zwinger complex is the other great baroque treasure, and contains the world's largest porcelain collection. See skd.museum.

More contemporary are Nightwalk Dresden's walking tours. See nightwalk-dresden.de.

Getting there: Trains from Berlin to Dresden take just over two hours. See bahn.de.

Staying there: In the old town and stacked with original art works, the Art'otel has doubles from €80. See artotels.com.

More information: dresden.de.

10. PORTO, PORTUGAL

The Sao Francisco church is 14th-century Gothic on the outside, 18th-century rococo bling inside. But it's the catacombs, stuffed with thousands of bones, that make the experience truly freaky. See ordemsaofrancisco.pt.

For art lovers, the Museu de Arte Contemporanea has a reputation as one of the best spots for contemporary art in the world.

The less culturally inclined will be just as happy in the grand park surrounding it. See serralves.pt.

Theoretically a separate town, but realistically a suburb just over the bridge, Vila Nova de Gaia is where Portugal's main port wine producers trade their wares. About 30 offer tastings, but the terrace at Graham's has the best views. See grahams-port.com.

Getting there: Trains from Lisbon to Porto take two hours and 45 minutes. See cp.pt.

Staying there: The townhouse-style Eurostars das Artes has babysitting services and two connecting rooms from €94. See eurostarsdasartes.com.

More information: portoturismo.pt.

MEET THE A-TEAM 

You'll probably pass through one of Europe's classic capitals on the way to the sibling cities so why not tackle them from a different perspective.

Amsterdam

As flat as a pancake, Amsterdam is ideal for exploring on two wheels. Orange Bike offers rentals and tours, which focus on topics such as snack food and architecture. See orange-bike.nl.

Berlin

Few tours are as edgy as Alternative Berlin's twilight tour. It dips into Berlin's subcultures, including the street art scene, but also visits a computer hacking lair and squat bars. See alternativeberlin.com.

Brussels

The European Quarter has plenty of architecture and parkland to enjoy. Grab a self-guided walking tour leaflet at the tourist office and check out the Royal Museums of Art and History and Museum of Natural Sciences. See visitbrussels.be.

Lisbon

Lisbon's fleet of little yellow GoCars come with tour routes programmed into the GPS. There's also commentary as you drive through the city. See gocartours.com.

London

The Regents Canal passes grungy Camden, Regents Park and London Zoo. London Kayak Tours takes paddlers along the canal for a duck's eye view. See londonkayaktours.co.uk

Madrid

Tapas-crawling is a must-do activity, but Adventurous Appetites will steer you towards spots you might not otherwise discover. See adventurousappetites.com.

Paris

Give in to those sweet cravings for Paris by Mouth's chocolate and pastry tasting tour. It visits top chocolatiers and macaron makers and sinks teeth into creamy pastries. See parisbymouth.com.

Prague

The Czech capital's communist history is brought to life in a Soviet-era tour. It finishes inside a former nuclear bunker, now part-museum, part-bar and part-nightclub. See prague-communism-tour.com.

Rome

Engineering was as much behind the success of ancient Rome as culture and conquest. Understanding Rome runs tours taking in the Appian Way - the key arterial road - plus major baths and aqueducts. See understandingrome.com.

Vienna

The Austrian capital is a classical music fan's paradise, and a series of downloadable walking maps takes in key sites. Mozart, Haydn, Strauss and Beethoven have their own trails. See wien.info.

- Sunday Star Times

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