Alnwick, Zwolle and Hossegor – They don’t conjure up quite the same excitement as London, Amsterdam and Paris, do they? But when planning your interrail route, you should consider throwing a few of the best small cities in Europe and towns into the mix. Not only can they be more budget friendly than the big capitals, they are also less crowded and you’ll have the thrill of discovering a more offbeat side of Europe.
For the purposes of this article we’ve focused on the best smalls cities in Western Europe – in our experience this is where getting an interrail ticket (or Eurail ticket if you’re coming from further afield) makes most sense, particularly if you’re hoping to be spontaneous and see a few places in a relatively short space of time. Anybody who’s tried to buy a ticket from London to Edinburgh on the day of travel will know what we’re talking about!
So here’s our pick of the best European cities to visit for an off-the-beaten-track adventure, featuring quirky bookshops, underground trampolining and a poison garden.
San Sebastian – Spain
This gorgeous coastal city in the north of Spain, not far from the French border, was revelation when we visited earlier this year. If you’re looking for daily foodgasms, amazing surf and stunning coastal hiking ops then you need to add San Sebastian to your Interrail itinerary ASAP. This is one of the most underrated European cities.
Where to stay: A Room In The City Hostel is quite possibly one of our favourite hostels in Europe and features a mahoossive roof terrace, ridiculously friendly staff and cosy pod beds for a good night’s sleep. Not for you? View all hostels in San Sebastian.
Zwolle – Netherlands
Located in the North of the Netherlands, Zwolle is a historic little city that’s home to one of Europe’s most impressive bookshops. The Waanders in de Broeren occupies three floors of a magnificent gothic cathedral, complete with original 15th century organ and stunning stained glass windows. There are plenty of comfy seats dotted around plus a café, so if you’re looking for somewhere inspiring to catch up on your reading/studies, then look no further.
Where to stay: Zwolle isn’t the easiest place to get to, but you can make the trip for the day from a few bigger places in the Netherlands, including Amsterdam and Utrecht. View all hostels in the Netherlands.
Folkestone – England
The revival of Britain’s forgotten coastal resorts through the arts has been going on for a couple of years, with towns such as the now rather posh Margate leading the charge. Folkestone is still a little rough around the edges, but with its own creative quarter, picturesque coastal walks and just 50 minutes by train from London, it looks set to be the next Margate or Brighton.
For the best fish and chips you’ll ever taste, head to The Smokehouse, the budget outpost of Michelin starred Rocksalt restaurant. For great coffee try the Steep Street literary café. And for everything from zine workshops to vintage trinkets, take a walk around the creative quarter down by the harbour. If you’re lucky enough to be in town for the next Trienniale (Sep-Nov 2017), you’ll be treated to amazing contemporary art in unusual locations all around town.
Where to stay: located just 50 minutes by train from King’s Cross Station, you can easily visit Folkestone for the day from the capital. Check out all our amazing hostels in London.
Blaenau Ffestiniog – Wales
Surrounded by the stunning Snowdonia National Park, this tiny former mining town is a must for thrill seekers exploring Europe. The nearby Llechwedd Slate Caverns are home to not one but two unusual attractions: above ground you’ll find the largest zip line network in the world aka Titan, and below ground a psychedelic trampoline-filled wonderland aka Bounce Below. Just don’t ask us how to pronounce Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Hossegor – France
Hossy what?! This tiny French town first came onto our radar when our friends Sunset Sons set up home there. It’s just along the coast and over the border from San Sebastian, and it’s supposedly one of the best places to surf in Europe, if not the world. The fact that it’s such a small place means there’s a lovely community vibe, and you’ll get chatting to other surfers from all over the globe.
Freiburg – Germany
Pretty much every list of the best small cities in Europe includes Freiburg, so it’s no insider tip, but with stunning natural beauty, great coffee and beer, and a cool, studenty vibe we just had to include it. Climb the Schlossberg hill for amazing views of the city, soak up the history in the Freiburg Münster and strike a pose on the Blaue Brücke. Do like the locals, and follow one of the pretty hiking trails out of the city and straight into the Black Forest, or if you’re feeling lazy take the cable car over the forest and up to the Schauisland mountain.
Alnwick – England
Poison garden. Giant treehouse. A bookshop housed in an old railway station. Alnwick is one of the coolest little places we’ve visited in England, and it’s hard to believe that even many Brits haven’t heard of it. The bookshop in question is Barter Books, and aside from being the best second hand bookshop in England, it’s also where the original “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster was discovered in a dusty old box. So now you know who to blame. The poster now hangs on the wall above the till.
The poison garden and giant treehouse are both housed in the nearby Alnwick Garden, and if you have time then Alnwick Castle is also worth a look. When you’re done exploring, head over to the wonderfully named Grannies Tearoom for delicious scones and a proper brew. Alnwick is truly one of the best small towns in Europe, and we can’t wait to go back!
Where to stay: Alnwick Youth Hostel, housed in the town’s former courthouse, or if you’d prefer to stay somewhere a bit more lively, check out our hostels in Newcastle, which is 25 minutes by train and a short bus ride into the centre of Alnwick.
Matera – Italy
Given the popularity of places such as Cappadocia and Santorini, it’s surprising that this quirky little town in Southern Italy made up of thousands of ancient cave dwellings isn’t better known. The historic centre, known as the “Sassi” (lol) was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in the 90s, and the caves are now home to characterful restaurants, cafes and galleries. Make sure you explore the tiny cave churches scattered around, where you’ll find some of the oldest frescoes in Europe.
Roubaix – France
@ Alain Leprince/La Piscine, musée d’art et d’industrie de Roubaix 2016
Roubaix’s museum of art and industry aka “La Piscine” is guaranteed to make your Instagram feed more fabulous. Its impressive collection of sculptures, paintings and ceramics is housed in a former swimming pool, where the exhibits and gorgeous Art Deco design of the building are reflected in the water of the now disused pool. Other original features such as the old changing cubicles have been preserved, making this one of the quirkiest museums we’ve ever visited.
The museum alone is worth making the trip to Roubaix, but the city also boasts some pretty cool architecture from its glory days as an industrial hub. Take a walk around and keep your eyes peeled for buildings such as the Church Saint-Martin, Huchon Water Tower, and the National Archives of the Working World ?
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