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The allure of major cities like Paris, Madrid and London is timeless, but if you want to wander less bustling (but just as fascinating) paths, Europe has plenty to offer. Here, three travel experts share the more chilled-out destinations they love.
Abigail King, travel journalist and founder of Inside the Travel Lab
Where to go: When British travel journalist Abigail King first travelled to Graz, the capital of Austria’s southeastern Styria state, it was in the middle of a Euro Cup tournament. She could hear cheers throughout the city as people gathered to watch matches, the fanfare creating a “lovely atmosphere” that has stuck with King since. Lying along the Mur River, the city’s historic centre — which dates back to the Middle Ages — and the Baroque-style palace, Schloss Eggenberg, are a UNESCO World Heritage site. But the cobbled old town is also rife with rooftop bars and cosy cafes that rival the coffee culture in Vienna. “The vibe in Graz is just living a good life, and that’s soaked through everything,” she says. “There’s a great mix of stunning European tradition and design, while still flying under the radar.”
Where to stay: King is a fan of the Grand Hôtel Wiesler, which opened in 1909 right by the river. While the art nouveau facade remains, the interior now feels “quite hipster,” in a good way. Find 102 contemporary rooms with vintage furniture, Mexican hand-painted Talavera sinks and free-standing tubs.
What to do: Take in the modern art scene at Kunsthaus Graz, a major museum nicknamed “the Friendly Alien” for its organic bloblike design. For farm-fresh fare with a view, King suggests grabbing the Schlossberg lift to the expansive hillside patio at Aiola Upstairs, then stopping at the Uhrturm, a medieval clock tower nearby. Don’t skip the Murinsel, a glass-and-steel “island” in the middle of the Mur River designed by American artist Vito Acconci, which functions as an amphitheatre, café and play space.
Where to go: Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, is undeniably beautiful, but Porto offers a completely different (and worthwhile) experience, says American travel expert Rick Steves. Located on the Douro River in the country’s north, the city was an outpost for the Roman Empire, and its historic centre is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Famous for its namesake port wine, Porto’s deep history is palpable, but it also has a lively energy. “When you go to Porto, it’s like you’ve caught Portuguese culture by surprise,” he says. “You become part of the party. You find a lot of mom-and-pop restaurants, [and] edgy and creative restaurants, then you come home with a lot more memories.”
Where to stay: Book into Guest House Douro, Steves suggests. The charming hotel in the Ribeira district has just eight rooms, each with a distinct design and views of the river; ask the owners, Luísa and Hugo, for tips on the local sights, too. The Hotel Pão de Açúcar is also worth checking out for its fun retro vibes (including vintage bumper cars repurposed as decor) and its central location, near the city hall.
What to do: Shop like a local at the historic Bolhão Market, full of independent eateries, fresh produce and Portuguese breads. (The original location is currently under renovation, but a temporary site is running just across the street.) Head to the trendy Tascö for family-style plates with traditional flavours, like grilled octopus with olive oil and garlic, Steves suggests, or stop by the elegant Guarany Café, a hot spot for musicians and artists that first opened in 1933.
Nadine Sykora, travel vlogger at Hey Nadine
Where to go: Kelowna, B.C.-based travel vlogger Nadine Sykora discovered Oviedo, Spain, somewhat serendipitously: when she and her husband had a few days to spare before a trip to Switzerland, they looked up flight options close-by and soon found themselves in the picturesque city. Dating back to the eighth century, Oviedo was the capital of the Kingdom of the Asturias (remaining monuments are now UNESCO World Heritage sites) and features plenty of pre-Romanesque architecture. For Sykora, it was a great “jumping-off point” for exploring northern Spain: wonderful in its own right but also close to small, idyllic seaside villages, so rent a car for chill day trips. “We were amazed at how beautiful it was,” Sykora says. “It’s like a mini Barcelona or Madrid with the older buildings, but it’s much more relaxed.”
Where to stay: The Asturias region is home to numerous quaint bed-and-breakfasts. Sykora’s favourite was Los Sombredales, in Soto Del Barco (about a 40-minute drive from Oviedo), a winsome country house with six rooms and a sun terrace.
What to do: There are many notable old churches in and around town, including the Oviedo Cathedral, a stunning example of Gothic architecture that houses a collection of relics. To learn about the region’s history, Sykora recommends visiting the Asturias Museum of Fine Arts, which holds more than 8,000 pieces of art from the Middle Ages to 20th century, and the Asturias Archaeological Museum, partially located in the San Vicente Monastery. Also in Asturias (and across the provinces of Cantabria and Castile-León) is Picos de Europa National Park (the country’s first), a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the Cantabrian Mountains.
Travellers are reminded to check on public health restrictions that could affect their plans.
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