Top Ten Mid-Sized European Cities

For a blog that is largely about travel, I have written surprisingly little about Europe. And yet, with the exception of a few Baltic and Balkan states, and such tiny, hard-to-reach republics as Andorra and San Marino, I’ve been almost everywhere on the continent. I have decided to share more stories from that corner of the globe.

In many ways, my favorite European cities are those places that are large enough to have decent nightlife and restaurants, a good network of hostels, and a few days’ worth of sightseeing…but not so big as to be overwhelming. Fewer than one million residents, let’s say. Not every city on the list below fits all of the aforementioned categories; Venice, for one, had just two hostels at the time of my visit, and the city went to bed early. Nuremberg, for that matter, had just one hostel. Of course, both cities had – have – restaurants and museums aplenty, and atmosphere to spare.

I look forward to continuing the series. Meanwhile, here are my Top Ten Mid-Sized European Cities:

1) Venice, Italy: Timeworn, slowly sinking Venice, that northern Adriatic tourism mainstay with its S-shaped Grand Canal, receives more hateful comments from first-time travelers to Europe than perhaps any other city on the continent. “I got lost there,” someone writes. “It stinks,” another person adds. “It is sooo expensive,” a third person notes. Okay. In all fairness, Venice is expensive…but so are Rome, Milan, and other much-visited places in Italy. For me, though, I simply can’t imagine what there isn’t to like about an island city that is devoid of cars and McDonald’s franchises, and filled instead with red brick bell towers, with courtyards in which laundry hangs from overhead balconies while kids kick around soccer balls, with pigeon-filled squares, with striped shirt-wearing gondoliers, and with intimate bridges and tranquil side canals where the water gently laps against steps that lead up to an alleyway that appears to go nowhere in particular. Just bring a fat wallet. If you like Venice, check out Hvar, Croatia.

2) Nuremberg, Germany: I have written about Nuremberg before, most recently in December, 2016, when I featured the Old City as my Photo Locale of the Month. Nuremberg, which recently celebrated its 950th birthday (!), is one of the most immediately-enticing cities in Europe. The walls, turrets, moat, churches, platzes (squares), and cobblestones of its Old City – much of which was immaculately reconstructed following devastating WWII bombing – greet you the second you exit the train station. And it isn’t long after that the savory aroma of the city’s finger-sized sausages wafts your way as well. (The mere act of writing this makes me hungry.) Nuremberg is lovely at any time of year, but it especially beckons during the weeks before Christmas, when it hosts Europe’s best Christkindlesmarkt (Christmas market). If you like Nuremberg, check out Heidelberg, Germany.

3) Ljubljana, Slovenia: The smallest city on this list, tiny Ljubljana reminded me of numerous other cities that I loved as well. Salzburg, Austria, (further down this list) to name just one…but with better food and a more magical riverfront. Summer festival season was in full swing during my September, 2010 visit; a marathon, kayak regatta, and puppet show were among the events taking place simultaneously. I spent several days here, photographing the city’s Triple Bridge, visiting its hilltop castle, watching graffiti artists work out their issues in Metelkova, seeking out Roman walls, dining on horse meat sandwiches (delicious!), and sunbathing in Tivoli Park.  I hope to one day go back…during winter! If you like Ljubljana, check out Basel, Switzerland.

4) Lviv, Ukraine: Backpackers, many of whom are always looking for the next up-and-coming destination, can be a competitive sort.  “______ is the new Prague,” is an expression I have heard many times. In 2000, at the time of my first Eurotrip, it was Krakow that was the new Prague. A few years later, it was Sarajevo.  And while both of those cities did indeed make this list, it was Lviv, in western Ukraine, that was said to be the new Prague when I was traveling through Slovenia, above, in 2010. The next year I found out first-hand what the fuss was about. Lviv (originally called Lwów, when it was part of Poland), with its Catholic, Orthodox, and Byzantine churches and its classical Theatre of Opera and Ballet, earned its accolades and then some; the streets leading from the Old City towards the open-air Folk Architecture Museum, Lychakiv Cemetery, and other points of interest, were still being torn up and presumably restored to their original, cobblestone form. I can’t wait to see them post-construction. If you like Lviv, check out Granada, Spain.

5) Salzburg, Austria: How do you solve a problem like Maria? The answer is to make her exploits – and songs – the focus of tourism to Austria’s most enchanting destination. Visiting Salzburg, perched in Alpine foothills just across the mountains from Germany, it is almost impossible not to grin with delight, especially if you’ve seen “The Sound of Music.” Stift Nonnberg, the convent where the too-happy, too-hyper Maria once worshiped, nestles peacefully beneath the magnificent Festung Hohensalzburg, a fortress complete with torture chambers. The fortress, which commands views over the entire city and halfway to Innsbruck, is perfectly framed by your camera from the gardens of Schloss Mirabell, the palace in front of which Maria and the von Trapp children frolicked while singing “Do Re Mi.” (All kidding aside, Salzburg is gorgeous, and merits a visit even if you haven’t seen, or (heaven forbid) if you cannot stand “The Sound of Music.” Go. If you like Salzburg, check out Innsbruck, Austria.

6) Florence, Italy: Visiting Florence for seven days in 2009 was like living in an open-air art museum for a week. The immersion began almost the moment I stepped out of the train station; I entered the nearby Basilica di Santa Maria Novella, just one block away, and practically injured my neck craning at the dazzling ceiling frescoes and stained glass. And that was just the beginning; the closer I walked to the main square, Piazza del Duomo, with its stunning cathedral, Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, or to the shop-lined Ponte Vecchio, beneath which rowers plied the Arno River, the more enchanting Florence became. If you like Florence, check out Augsburg, Germany.

7) Krakow, Poland: Warsaw may be the political capital of Poland, but the cultural capital is undeniably Krakow, that lively university city and one-time home of Oskar Schindler’s Jewish factory workers. The horrors of Auschwitz and Birkenau, the infamous death camps at which many workers that Schindler was unable to save met their sad demise, are all too close, but for most people, to visit Krakow today is to celebrate life, by strolling the banks of the swan-filled Vistula River, attending a wedding at hilltop Wawel Castle, marveling at the salt mine sculptures in nearby Wieliczka, or drinking pivo at one of the restaurants lining the city’s Old Town Square. If you like Krakow, check out Regensburg, Germany.

8) Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina: I had first become familiar with Sarajevo when I was nine and the 1984 Winter Olympics were being broadcast from there. My sister was enamored of Vuchko, a man in a wolf costume and the games’ official mascot. At the time, Sarajevo was in Yugoslavia, and it wasn’t until 18 years after Communism fell in Europe that I visited the city, by then part of Bosnia & Herzegovina, a city recovering from several years of ethnic cleansing and related atrocities. Hard to believe; the Sarajevo that I fell in love with is a low-rise, almost medieval capital in which a Muslim temple, Jewish synagogue, Orthodox church, and Catholic cathedral share the same square city block, while the mouth-watering aroma of ćevapčići (minced Balkan sausage) entices wanderers such as myself to linger just a little bit longer. If you like Sarajevo, check out Rhodes, Greece.

9) Strasbourg, France: Alsace-Lorraine, roughly two hours southeast of Paris and a territory once annexed by Germany, is as much as part of France as Paris itself, but parts of it, including the canal city of Strasbourg, feels as if you’ve crossed the border into Germany. Here, half-timbered houses more commonplace in Bavaria, and clean-air trams more frequently sighted in Hamburg, are the architectural and transport norms. The majestic Cathedral of Our Lady, possibly the third-finest church in France after Chartres and Notre-Dame of Paris, will humble even the most jaded traveler. Finally, the European Parliament complex on the city’s outskirts clashes with the more classical feel of central Strasbourg, but it also keeps the city firmly on the map of political relevance in today’s rapidly-changing Europe. If you like Strasbourg, check out Bruges, Belgium.

10) Würzburg, Germany: The Romantic Road, which begins in Füssen, near Neuschwanstein Castle, winds through several small and mid-sized German towns en route to Würzburg. This provincial capital of Lower Franconia, south of Frankfurt, is the highlight of the journey and one of the northernmost wine-producing Stadts (cities) in Europe. Strolling the paths around Würzburg’s hilltop Festung Marienburg fortress, passing lush vineyards as you walk, is one of the better ways to while away an afternoon in this enchanting city. History buffs may also enjoy touring the Residenz, a sizable palace compound that features the largest fresco in the world, or visiting any of the numerous churches, many of which date back over 500 years. Me? I found Würzburg as a whole to be every bit as great as the sum of its parts. If you like Würzburg, check out Córdoba, Spain.

What do you think, Loyal Reader?  Between this list and the previous, have I omitted any top ten-caliber European cities?  Let us know!

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food and culture all while weathering the challenges of life in a city with over 20 million people. Life's unpredictable journey has since brought him to Tennessee, where he is close to family and to the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, top ten lists, and travel in general.

5 thoughts on “Top Ten Mid-Sized European Cities”

  1. Sadly, I have not been to any of the cities on your list. One place that might be added (I’m not certain if its population is less than 1 million) is Valencia, Spain. I think of Valencia as a smaller, less crowded version of Barcelona. The commercial center is filled with ornate 19th century buildings. The medieval center contains lovely plazas, an impressive cathedral and the old merchants’ exchange (La Lonja) which, I believe, is a UNESCO site. The City of Arts and Sciences is a complex of amazing, futuristic buildings which house museums and cultural institutions. Although I didn’t visitm the museums (from what I have read they are 2nd rate, but in 1st rate architecture), the complex is definitely worth a visit just to see the structures. The city also has a vast Mediterranean beachfront which was much less crowded than Barcelona’s. I also ate very well in Valencia. It is the home of paella. I had the vegetarian paella there since I don’t care for shellfish… and it was scrumptious!

  2. Very architecture-based list. 🙂 Great list. Venice, I’d say, can be classified as a big city, when you contextualize it within the Venice-Treviso-Padova metro area of about 2.6 million people. But…hard to keep it off an architecture/historic preservation-based best list.

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