Europe is crowded — especially its big, famous sights. As you plan your 2020 travels, you may be looking to escape your fellow travelers. Here’s an idea: Consider going easy on Europe’s top-tier destinations, and instead check out some lesser-known places. Last year, I made a swing through what I think of as The Big Three: London, Paris, and Rome. But I also mixed in some smaller towns, including ones few travelers have heard of: Arezzo. Canterbury. Sarlat. And you know something? The experiences I had in Europe’s “third-rate” towns were truly first-rate.
Virtually everyone visiting Italy wants to go to the “first-rate” cities: Rome, Florence, and Venice. With more time, they add some “second-rate” destinations: Pisa, Assisi, Siena, Milan, and so on. But even once you get beyond those top tiers, Italy is rich with rewarding destinations.
I had this revelation when I spent a sleepy, rainy Saturday in the Tuscan town of Arezzo. It’s a midsize town that’s not included in our Rick Steves’ Italy guidebook — even with 1,250 pages of coverage, Arezzo doesn’t make the cut. I was here on the recommendation of an Italian friend, specifically to take a day off from the busy tourist towns I was visiting elsewhere in Italy: Assisi, Rome, and so on. And I got exactly what I was looking for.
I love the endearing way that smaller cities have their own idiosyncratic claims to fame, which swell their residents’ pride. Arezzo has two: It’s home to a thriving weekend antiques market; and its Basilica of San Francesco is slathered with colorful frescoes by Piero della Francesca. I enjoyed those aspects of Arezzo. But mostly, I savored simply being alone in Italy…wandering all by myself through colorful and cobbled back lanes; having a memorable lunch at the town’s foodie splurge restaurant, just dropping in without a reservation; discovering a world-class neighborhood gelato shop; and browsing antiques alongside Tuscans furnishing their homes rather than tourists seeking souvenirs. I left Arezzo re-energized — and ready to plunge into Rome.
In England, everyone wants to go to “first-rate” London. With more time, they add some “second-rate” destinations — Bath, York, the Cotswolds, and so on. But there’s a steep drop-off in traffic when it comes to a town like Canterbury, where I retreated after two exhausting weeks of guidebook research in London. And, much as I love London, this trip reminded me that Canterbury is one of my favorite places in the UK.
Canterbury is best known for two things: First, its cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who leads the Church of England. And second, English majors know the town for its role in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century Canterbury Tales, in which a ragtag assortment of pilgrims swap tall tales and parables on their journey to that famous church.
Of course, Canterbury is not entirely “undiscovered.” The knot of half-timbered streets ringing its cathedral and its bustling High Street are packed with visitors. But many of them are day trippers, and most never leave that compact core of town. I loved simply wandering Canterbury’s back streets, following its idyllic river, discovering lush parks, ogling its tidy brick row houses mixed in with tipsy Tudor black-and-white half-timbered homes. Even just a few steps off High Street took me to areas that have never seen a tourist.
Near Canterbury, I also spent time hiking along Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters (a less famous but drastically more pleasurable stretch of white cliffs than Dover’s); explored the characteristic Sissinghurst Gardens; took a day off in the English beach resort of Brighton; and toured the sprawling and fascinating Hampton Court Palace, infused with vivid memories of Henry VIII. I also visited far-better-known Cambridge, Oxford, and Windsor, where the oppressive crowds left me exasperated. But thinking back on my little swing through southeast England fills me with a happy glow…even though it was socked-in and drizzling the entire time.
In France, Paris is the first-rate, world-class “must.” Second-rate destinations include Provence, Nice and the French Riviera, Mont-St-Michel, and Normandy. But my personal favorite slice of France is third-rate: the Dordogne, huddled deep in the southwest, and its lovely market town of Sarlat.
Built of a lemony sandstone that seems to suck in the warmth and glow of the sun, Sarlat looks like a film set. It’s a town that celebrates geese: A bronze statue of two proud waterfowl honors the importance of foie gras in the local cuisine (and commerce). Twice a week, one of France’s best street markets (and that’s saying something) curls through Sarlat’s interlocking squares. On market day, Sarlat is one of the most engaging places in all of France…a feast for all the senses. On other days, it’s still an utter delight, exuding a “let’s-retire-here” serenity that has tourists checking their 401(k) balances.
Italy is richer with life-alteringly-wonderful “third-rate” towns than perhaps any country in Europe. In addition to Arezzo, many of my favorites are in Tuscany, Umbria, and other parts of Central Italy: Lucca, Volterra, Montepulciano, Orvieto… the list goes on.
And then there’s Sorrento, perched over a serene bay just south of Naples, offering a genteel springboard for exploring the Amalfi Coast. And up north, a short train ride from Venice leads to the thriving university town of Padua, Romeo and Juliet’s hometown of Verona, and alpine Bolzano — so close to Austria you can practically hear the yodeling.
This is a fun game to play. In Germany, I love Berlin, Munich, Rothenburg, and the Rhine Valley — but Dresden, Erfurt, and Freiburg caught me off guard and captured my heart.
In Belgium, Brussels and Bruges are at the top of every traveler’s list, but Ghent and Antwerp are delightful discoveries that feel more authentic.
In Portugal, Lisbon is the undisputed champ, and Porto is the up-and-coming second city, but the sleepy university town of Coimbra is an unheralded joy.
In Hungary, Budapest is top dog, but Eger and Pécs are woefully underrated.
In Spain, it’s hard to resist the pull of Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, Granada, and Toledo. But my favorite Spanish memories take place in Salamanca, Bilbao, Arcos de la Frontera, and Santiago de Compostela.
I’m not (necessarily) saying to skip those world-class destinations entirely. If you’ve never been to Paris…then go to Paris. But consider changing it up by also visiting a smaller city or town that isn’t a household name back home. If nothing else, see Europe’s “third-rate” towns as an antidote to the crowds.
By the way, reviewing these photos, I notice two things: Gorgeous places…with virtually no people. I mean, just look at all of those empty cobbles. If you want Europe to yourself, go third-rate.
What are some of your favorite “third-rate” towns in Europe, and why?
For more details on all of the destinations mentioned here, check out our Rick Steves guidebook series, which includes coverage of the biggies along with the “third-rate” alternatives.