Sunset in Granada, Spain

Europe’s Most Popular Cities, and Where to Go Instead

Central Europe Travel Tips Western Europe

We’re in an age of travel, where jet-setting to a different country is not only common, it’s more affordable and accessible than ever before. With budget airlines popping up all over Europe, it’s easy to be tempted into a weekend away. Additionally, many budget off-spring airlines are beginning to offer long-haul flights to and from the US and Canada, causing the temptation to span continents. It may be easy on the wallet, but what is the true cost of a budget ticket to Europe’s overcrowded hubs? 

Overtourism

Over-tourism is a serious issue, and many of Europe’s most popular destinations are experiencing its negative effects. In Barcelona, for example, vacation rentals are pricing out locals. Nearly entire blocks are converted into Airbnb-like accommodation, either kicking local residents to the curb or making it unbearable to live next to an endless stag do.

Venice, Italy by Gerhard Bögner
Venice image by Gerhard Bögner from Pixabay

In Venice, cruise ship drop-offs clog the narrow streets, turning what should be a pleasant experience in one of Europe’s most historical city centers into a nightmare, with an average of 80,000 people visiting each day. Some of Venice’s oldest houses and villas have been converted into hotels. It’s ironic that the increase of tourism is actually changing the face of the city, altering the thing that tourists go there to experience in the first place: its history.

Spread the Tourism Love

The answer is not to completely abandon these cities, as most of the economies now depend on tourism. Rather, travelers should collectively work to bring authentic, local life back to the places we love. Easing up on tourism is one way – visiting other cities or areas of a country, for example. Another is to have more unique experience in and around these places. If Paris is your dream city, then you should go! But walk your own path through the city, don’t follow the road that Instagram “influencers” have built for you. It will be overcrowded and inauthentic.

For the record, I think it’s wrong for travel bloggers to “shame” readers into not visiting a popular destination, especially when they’ve experienced that place themselves. So in no way am I saying you shouldn’t go somewhere. But I do think it’s a benefit to your trip if you branch out of the tourist zone and experience a city in your own way, even if just for a portion of your holiday. And hey, maybe one of the listed alternatives will end up being your favorite city ever!

Create your own experience

When you do explore these popular destinations, some standard go-to strategies include meandering the side streets, staying in locally-owned pensions, buying fresh food at markets, and having meals at off-the-beaten-path eateries. Trust me, I get it, it’s tempting to head for the best-rated restaurant in the city, an almost-guarantee for some tasty grub (but not always!). I’m guilty of it myself. But if I’m being honest, the best meals I’ve had are those where I’ve taken a chance on the place, where gestures and laughter are a must. My most memorable travel moments include interactions with locals – kind hosts, eager cafe owners, chatty baristas, funny bus drivers… you’re visiting a new country to experience the local culture, after all.

Colorful Buildings in Cudillero, Spain
Spain outside of Barcelona is full of quaint treasures (image from Cudillero, Spain)

In Spain, I had more terrible cups of coffee than I can count. But the burnt taste of my most beloved beverage is nothing compared to the conversations I had with the cafe owner, me trying my best to explain my thoughts in Spanish, she helping me find the right words. I had a year of awful java (sob – seriously, I LOVE coffee). But also a year of language practice, a year of funny conversations, and a very special memory that will stay with me forever.

Again, don’t NOT do something you want to do; but once you’ve experienced it, enjoy the culture in a not so touristy way – along the side streets and/or outside the big cities. Everyone is different, so even small acts (one meal outside the city center, a day trip to an unknown village, etc) will help ease the demand and spread the tourism-love to other well-deserving places.

If you need some inspiration, here are Europe’s top ten most popular cities, and where to go instead. 

Amsterdam, Netherlands by Nenand Maric
Image by Nenad Maric from Pixabay

Overcrowded: Amsterdam, Netherlands
Alternatives: Haarlem, Utrecht or Amersfoort, Netherlands

Amsterdam is an enchanting city, filled with quaint facades set alongside cobblestone canals. It’s hard to say no to that experience, unless you know you’ll be fighting your way through crowds, standing in long lines, and overpaying for most attractions. Plus, locals are almost begging for tourist reform. Where to go instead? There are almost too many options! Haarlem is just outside of Amsterdam and is, in my opinion, far more charming. A fantastic main square? Yup. Canals? You bet. Adorable brick buildings? So many! Cafes and bike culture? Yes and yes. Additionally, Haarlem gives you windmills and easy access to beaches. Win-win-win. And while you’re at it, check out two other just-as-gorgeous canal cities, Utrecht and Amersfoort. Soon you’ll be saying, Amsterdam who?

Overcrowded: Dublin, Ireland
Alternative: Literally anywhere else in Ireland

Walking along the Wild Atlantic Way in Western Ireland
Walking in the West of Ireland near Clifden

I studied in Ireland and have been back to visit more times than I can count. I love this little island so much, it has become like a second home to me. I even love Dublin. But although it’s tempting to spend your entire trip in this energetic, bustling capital city, you will thank yourself for exploring what Ireland is truly all about. Dublin feels like a big European city and lacks the Irish charm you’re probably after. My favorite alternative is Galway (West is Best when it comes to Ireland). You’ll get the city vibes you need, but you have easier access to countryside exploration. You have nearby nature reserves and walking trails, you can hop the choppy ferry and step back in time on the Aran Islands, you have endless B&B choices, and you will eat very, very well. If you’re not brave enough to try renting a car (like me… someday, though!), Galway is an excellent hub with plenty of bus and train connections.

Over-crowded: Vienna, Austria
Alternative: Budapest, Hungary

Budapest Sunset - Parliament
Budapest is all about the details.

My mom’s co-workers (Jon and Cheryl) did a very thorough Europe trip a few summers ago when I was living in Budapest. Like many, they made their way to the Hungarian capital via Vienna. Vienna has a grandiose reputation, filled with extravagant architecture, an elegant opera house, and a delicious cafe culture. What if I told you that Budapest surpasses Vienna in all these categories? If you don’t believe me, ask Jon and Cheryl. They were so impressed with Vienna, they didn’t expect much from Budapest – could it get any better than the Viennese vibe? YES was their answer. Vienna may be beautiful, but Budapest is jaw-dropping. This was a very common opinion of all our visitors. Plus, Budapest is Europe’s true ruler of cafe culture and you’ll pay a quarter of the price to experience its opera house, which was constructed in the same design as Vienna’s, due to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Overcrowded: Prague, Czechia
Alternatives: Kraków and Gdánsk, Poland

Gdańsk, Poland
Gdańsk, Poland

Prague is a beauty, but dang, is it crowded. Do you need some cookie-cutter vibes, some cheap and delicious beer, and some interesting history without the intense crowds? Then head east to Poland. People tend to love Prague for its reasonable prices, but Poland takes the prize here, plus it has just as beautiful city centers – my two favorites are Kraków and Gdańsk. The vibes are super chill so you can actually enjoy the cities at your own pace. Kraków has a remarkable castle and Gdańsk will give you the Prague-like river views. Additionally, both areas are steeped in WWII history.

Overcrowded: Milan, Italy
Alternative: Copenhagen, Denmark

Fashion-forward with a bustling business-centric city center? Easy: go to Copenhagen instead. Milan has its charms, but it’s such an international city that it tends to not feel as Italian as you hope. Copenhagen, on the other hand, gives you those big-city vibes while still maintaining its very authentic Danish culture. Plus, have you ever had a Danish pastry? Reason enough.

Overcrowded: Rome, Italy
Alternative: Other cities in Italy

Listen, nothing beats Rome. It’s a city like no other and a trip to Rome is all about that mindless wander, embracing both the laid-back Italian vibes and the intense history. However, the crowds are increasing, even in the off-season, and a trip to the Colosseum while surrounded by hordes of tourists doesn’t quite scream relaxing Italy. So your best bet is to spend just a couple days in the capital and extend your visit to other Italian cities/regions. Some excellent choices include Bologna for that mindless wandering, Naples for high-energy and delicious pizza, and Florence for the history and wine. To be fair, all of those cities also deal with crowded streets and long-lined historical sights, but spreading yourself across the region will ease the over-tourism that Rome is facing. But Italy is its own beast. You can explore outside of Rome’s surrounding areas and completely chill in super authentic cultural hot-spots that aren’t so crowded. Both Sicily and Puglia are great alternatives to the hustle-and-bustle of the north.

Overcrowded: Barcelona, Spain
Alternative: Andalucía (Spain)

Granada, Spain
Granada, Andalucía

I was lucky to explore Barcelona before its current tourism boom – almost 15 years ago (I’m old). The current stories I hear and read about definitely paint the city in a very different, over-crowded light. It’s a unique gem in many ways (much like Rome), but it’s also the mascot of over-tourism. Where to explore instead? After a day or two in Barcelona, head to the south of Spain. You’ll get some gorgeous architecture and varied history in Spain’s southernmost province of Andalucía. Besides, are you heading to Spain for tapas, Spanish guitar, and flamenco? None of these are actually authentic in Barcelona. You gotta head south for that true Spanish culture. Olé! 

Overcrowded: Istanbul, Turkey
Alternative: Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Sipping Bosnian coffee

I myself want to visit Istanbul. But with its popularity increasing each year, a tourism boom in a very hectic city can be an over-crowded nightmare. A great alternative is Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country that could certainly use some tourism dollars. You’ll see beautiful mosques, eat delicious food (my all-time fav traditional meal was here), sip a version of Turkish coffee (Bosnian coffee), and meander beautiful markets filled with authentic, handmade goods – and not over-filled with tourists like in Istanbul. You can learn more about its recent history with the Bosnian War, see abandoned ruins from the Olympics, and enjoy truly incredible nature. Plus, Sarajevo isn’t too far from Mostar’s famous bridge in one of the most charming old towns in Europe.

Overcrowded: Paris, France
Alternative: Bordeaux, France

Paris is right there with Rome – a place in itself. So really nothing outside of France quite compares. But if you need a city alternative to bustling Paris, head south to Bordeaux. It has a different architectural vibe, but you’ll still be impressed. Plus, there are some similarities: a river runs through its city center, it’s home to a beautiful cathedral, and it hosts numerous parks that will satisfy any French-inspired picnic lunch. Feel free to still wear a beret. Although it doesn’t have the Eiffel Tower, it does have an incredible palace that glistens at night just like the City of Love. 

Overcrowded: London, UK
Alternative: Edinburgh, UK

Cute corners in Edinburgh

London has been overcrowded for quite sometime, and its price tag is enough to deter this traveler. Can you satisfy your historic cravings anywhere else, though? Maybe not completely, but I think Edinburgh comes close. You’ve got cozy pubs, adorable neighborhoods with unique character, royal vibes, an impressive castle, and interesting museums. Plus, Edinburgh isn’t dotted with skyscrapers like London is, so it feels like a small version of a big city. And don’t worry, you can get plenty of Harry Potter in Edinburgh. Additionally, you can hike within the city limits and feel like you’re in the middle of nature. Perfection. 

Side note – I know some of these alternatives still struggle with the crowds, and there are many “local” ways to explore all of these awesome cities – this is just a post to encourage traveling to other places to spread the love. Plus, many of these cities are doing great things to help ease the burden of over-tourism. Yay for them! So, as always, this is a judgement-free zone. It’s more important to just do your research and enjoy your travels.

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Europe's Most Popular Cities and Where to Go Instead www.cairncompass.com

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