Travellers can enjoy a myriad of wonderful experiences when visiting Europe's most popular cities – a veritable cornucopia of historic, cultural and gastronomic delights. But for those with the time and inclination to take the road less travelled, here are three lesser-known gems just a short distance away.
Spain: From Barcelona to Vilanova i la Geltrú
Situated just 40km southwest of Barcelona, the peaceful seaside town of Vilanova i la Geltrú is one of Catalonia’s major fishing ports. Yet, despite a wealth of seasonal attractions on par with its more famous neighbour, it has managed to remain comfortably under the international visitor radar.
Its mild Mediterranean climate makes it pleasant to visit year-round, but particularly from June to early September, locals flock to a choice of five beaches along a scenic 6km stretch in the city’s south. Unlike the bustling, often overcrowded beaches in Barcelona, the sand here is golden and the water is clean and clear. Ribes Roges beach is one of the liveliest, with banana boating and volleyball on offer, while sun-worshippers opt for the smaller, more secluded St Gervasi beach.
Fresh seafood is a regional staple, with prawns, mussels, squid, clams and lobster routinely served at restaurants. Head to beachside El Rossegall for an inexpensive selection of seafood and paella in a cosy setting – an excellent way to sample local fare without the tourist prices that often plague larger cities.
When the weather cools, indoor options include the Catalonia Railway Museum, with its interactive journey through the evolution of trains and the largest collection of steam engines in Europe. Alternately, the Victor Balaguer Library-Museum houses an eclectic collection of art, both contemporary and from 17th to 19th Centuries, including pieces by European masters El Greco, Ribera and Rubens. The edifice itself – purpose built as a museum – retains much of its original 1884 detailing.
Vilanova i la Geltrú’s main pedestrian avenue, La Rambla Vilanova i la Geltrú, takes you on a peaceful 1km stroll from the city centre to the lovely maritime port boardwalk, Passeig Maritim. Plenty of boutiques and cafes offer respite along the way – stop at El Fornet for artisan pastries in an early 20th-century setting – while the many public benches reward visitors with something rarely found in the frenzied Catalan capital: a moment to stop and take it all in.
Italy: From Milan to Brescia
Known primarily for industrial manufacturing, the historic city of Brescia does not often entice visitors seeking northern Italy’s wealth of cultural, architectural and gastronomic offerings. Yet, just 97km east of Milan, it shares the Lombardy capital’s rich history and has a compact medieval city centre worth exploring.
The city has enough interesting landmarks to be a museum in its own right. Rare among European cities, Brescia has two cathedrals, the Duomo Vecchio (Old Cathedral) and Duomo Nuovo (New Cathedral), built next to one another. Although the newer cathedral dwarfs its predecessor, the former’s long history captivates travellers. It was built in the 11th Century on a unique circular plan on top of an old church whose earliest foundations were Roman structures. Upon entering, visitors are immediately struck by its serene beauty – highlights include 16th-century Italian artwork depicting important Catholic events, and the elaborate crypt of 4th-century bishop San Filastrio that was constructed using materials found in the Roman and Byzantine ruins of the original church.
A short distance away, the Venetian-inspired 15th-century Piazza della Loggia (Gallery Square) presents more architectural marvels: the Palazzo della Loggia (the Gallery Palace, currently serving as the town hall) dominates the square with a two-level white marble facade featuring both classic Roman and Renaissance decor. Two figurines on the exquisite 16th-century Torre dell'Orologio (clock tower) make an appearance to strike the clock’s bell every hour. Even the square’s tourist office has ancient Roman tombstones and carvings on its walls.
The impressive 16th-century Castello di Brescia (Brescia Castle), nestled atop Cidneo Hill, is a worthy climb from the city’s historic centre. At the summit, visitors are rewarded with stunning panoramic views of the city and its surroundings, while inside a world of secret rooms, museums and unexpected passages awaits. Do not miss the Arms Museum, located in the 14th-century keep. Complete with period arches and frescos, it features an important collection of 13th- to 19th-century armour and weapons.