Everything about Europe is fascinating – the culture, the architecture, the history. If you are a fan of religious and historical sites, European capitals will certainly tick all the boxes. But aside from the obvious (Paris, London, Rome, Amsterdam, Prague), here are 20 off-beat European Capitals you cannot miss.
20 Off-Beat European Capitals you cannot Miss
Vilnius – Lithuania
Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania boasts a beautiful old town with a combination of gothic and neoclassical architecture. Coffee shops, castles and Churches, oh my! Vilnius Castle complex consists of fortifications from the 10th Century through to the 18th. Don’t miss the Gate of Dawn, Vilnius Cathedral, St Annes Church and Gediminas castle tower.
Also make the half day trip to the Trakai Castle. It’s doable on your own, but your can also book a GetYourGuide tour.
Pristina – Kosovo
Enjoy the laid back vibe and coffee shop culture of Pristina, the European capital of Kosovo. Kosovo only gained it’s independence in 2008, and so welcome to Europe’s newest country. The ‘Newborn Monument’ celebrates that and it’s colour scheme and decoration changes frequently. The city is also a popular destination for observing street art.
The National Library of Kosovo receives a fair few put downs – in fact, it’s often referred to as the ugliest building in the world. Don’t miss it interesting and unique ‘brutalist style’. Also take a look at the city’s Mosques and Churches. Christ the saviour cathedral (below) was built in 1992, but left unfinished due to the Kosovo war.
While you are staying in Pristina, take the day trip to Prizren (below) to see the Prizren fortress, Sinan Pasha Mosque, Our Lady of Ljeviš Monastery and Prizren Cathedral (Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour).
Podgorica – Montenegro
Podgorica is the capital city of Montenegro and it’s name literally means ‘little hill’, many of which overlook the city centre. Podgorica was part of the former Yugoslavia and was bombed extremely heavily in WW2 – over 70 times killing more than 4000 people. Today, it’s a dynamic city full of art and history.
It’s most famous attraction, Petrovic Castle (Dvorac Petrovića) was built in 1891 and is the former residence of the Petrović-Njegoš (the family that ruled Montenegro from 1696 to 1916). The castle is located in Kruševac, the largest public park in the city, and one of the most beautiful areas in Podgorica to relax.
Sofia – Bulgaria
Famous for the beautiful Alexander Nevski Orthodox Cathedral, there is a lot more to be discovered in Sofia. It appears that there is no ‘old town’ in Sofia, until you go underneath the city. As they dug down deep for the creation of the underground network, extensive Roman remains were discovered. They were excavated and are now on view at Serdika metro station. Make sure you take an afternoon for lunch or a drink in ‘The Apartment’, a really cool house converted into a coffee shop with themed rooms.
From Sofia, I highly recommend the day trip to the beautiful Rila Monastery and surrounding lakes. I booked with Rila Shuttle. There are also trips with GetYourGuide that you can book online.
Bucharest – Romania
Romania’s capital is becoming more and more popular due to the cheap flight network expanding from UK to Bucharest. The Old Town of Centrul vechi is full of lively restaurants, cafes and bars. Much of this area has been regenerated and restoration of many old town buildings continues.
Bucharest has a diversity of architecture from 15th and 16th Centuries through to the communist and modern eras. Don’t miss the Palace of the Parliament, Ceausescu’s pride and joy which is the second largest government administrative building after the Pentagon.
There are several other architectural points of interest around Revolution Square, which gained it’s name from the overturning the communist government in a Coup d-etat in 1989. The 19th Century Romanian Athenaeum is the city’s most prestigious concert hall. You can also visit the Royal Palace which is now the National Museum of Art. If you still haven’t had your fix of museums, visit the National Museum of Romanian history and the Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museum.
Bucharest is also famous for it’s beautiful parks, the oldest and one of the most beautiful being the Cismigiu Garden (above).
Reykjavik – Iceland
The landscapes of Iceland will astound you, and Rejkjavik is the perfect place to base yourself to travel from. The famous modern Hallgrimskirja Church dominates the Rejkjavik skyline.
Enjoy the coffee culture and street art in a city that has the lowest crime rates in Europe. Take a day trip out to the Blue Lagoon, Golden Circle or waterfalls of the South Coast. And if it takes your fancy, pop into the Penis Museum!
Belgrade – Serbia
The city of Belgrade is a thriving centre known for shopping and nightlife. The floating river clubs or ‘splavs’ are all along the river Sava in the summertime. They’re also known for holding parties and club nights in the centuries old Belgrade fortress! The fortress is positioned at the confluence of the river Sava and the Danube and surrounded by the beautiful Kalemegdan Park. Knez Mihailova street is the main shopping street in Belgrade.
As former capital of Yugoslavia, Belgrade has a turbulent history, but this simply adds to it’s charm and diversity of sight seeing. After all these years, bombed out buildings in Belgrade still remain for all to see. You can also take time to explore underground Belgrade, with it’s meandering tunnels, military bunkers and Roman well.
Lublijana – Slovenia
The beautiful Slovenian capital Lublijana has some famous sites including Dragon bridge and Lublijana castle. Stari trg square continues to the Gornji trg square, which runs to the base of the Castle Hill and you can walk to the castle from there.
In front of the town hall stands the famous Fountain of the Three Carniolan Rivers, by sculptor Francesco Robba. If you are lucky enough to have more than a few days in Lublijana, head out to Lake Bled. It’s only around an hour and a half away, and famous for it’s beautiful scenery. Vsit Bled castle while you are there!
Minsk – Belarus
Victory square is a great place to start exploring the city of Minsk. On the main avenue, you will see the main Belarusian government building with a Lenin statue in front, along with the KGB hedquarters. In order to learn about the history of Belarus through Nazi occupation, you need to spend some time visiting the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Feeling arty? Explore Vul Kastrychnitskaya which has recently developed into the unofficial arts quarter of the city.
From Minsk, you can take an easy day trip to two spectacular 16th Century castles – Nesvizh Castle, a 16th Century Palace with a Baroque chapel and Mir Castle a Belarusian gothic style fortress.
Sarajevo – Bosnia
Sarajevo is an old city that has been pivotal in major historical turning points – the First World War (including the 1914 assassination of Franz Ferdinand), the communist era of Yugoslavia and the civil war in the 1990’s. One such historic location is the Latin bridge near the assassination site.
Sarajevo is a small and compact city on the rivers of the Milijacka river and there are two key fortresses that you can visit by foot – the Yellow Fortress and the White Fortress. Be sure to visit the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, an Ottoman landmark and the largest Mosque in Bosnia. You can also explore the Tunnel of Hope, man-made underground tunnels that connected the city of Sarajevo with the UN ‘safe place’ at the airport.
Chisinau – Moldova
The capital of Moldova, Chisinau was predominantly Eastern bloc high rise flats during the communist period, but amongst the Stalinist buildings, it is easy to find historical architectural gems such as the Nativity Cathedral and the Ciuflea Monastery. The city’s main Moldovan Orthodox church (The Nativity of Christ Metropolitan Church), dating from the 1830s, is in the middle of the beautiful Parcul Catedralei or Cathedral Park. There are plenty of museums to learn from in Chisinau including the Army Museum, the Ethnographic Museum and the Pushkin Museum.
Riga – Latvia
You will probably recognise Riga from the many photos and postcards which predominantly show the House of the Blackheads. Riga’s old town history spans across many centuries. This is exemplified by the ‘three brothers’ three houses next to each other, each displaying architecture from a different period. The gothic spire of St Peter’s Church is the dominant, but not the only gothic spire of the city. You can relax in the numerous parks around the city. I recommend hiring pedlos in Bastejkalna Park.
Zagreb – Croatia
Zagreb has a unique feel, combining 18th and 19th Century Austro-Hungarian architecture with the chilled out coffee culture of Tkalčićeva Street. In terms of temple seeking, the gothic Cathedral of Zagreb and 13th Century St Mark’s Church are a must. The historical centre with it’s winding cobbled streets is known as the ‘Upper Town’ (Gornji Grad–Medveščak) due to it’s hilltop location.
Tallinn – Estonia
The fairytale old town of Tallinn in Estonia is become evermore popular with digital nomads due to it’s cheap cost of living and the recently introduced ‘nomad visa’. Highlights include Tallinn Old Town, the Town Hall and Alexander Nevski Cathedral. There is a good Zoo in Tallinn accessible from the Old Town by tram. Enjoy a medieval style meal in the Old Town before you move on!
Tibilisi – Georgia
Dare I start with this? It’s worth going to Tiblisi just for a Khachapuri – the cheese boat of your dreams! While you are staying in the Georgian capital, explore the old town. Be sure to head to the sulphur baths of Old Tbilisi and the botanical gardens. You can comfortably use Tibilisi as a base for exploring further. Take the trip to the former capital of Mtskheta and the old fortress town of Ananuri.
Valletta – Malta
The beautiful capital of Malta, Valletta is a jewel in the Mediterranean. The astounding Co-Cathedral doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside guilded with gold leaf and is one of the most beautiful Cathedral interiors in the world.
Head to the Upper Barrakka Gardens for the canon fire at noon. You can then explore the wealth of museums and honey coloured historical buildings that the city has to offer. From Valletta, you can explore the 3 fortified cities of Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua.
Skopje – Macedonia
The Macedonian capital and largest city of Skopje has been under Roman, Byzantine and Ottomon rule throughout the years. The 15th Century old bridge connects the Ottoman Old Bazaar (North Bank) with the Macedonian Square (South Bank). Skopje fortress overlooks the river and has defended the city for many centuries.
If you are lucky enough to stay in Skopje for a few days, take the trip to Matka canyon, home to ancient caves and medieval monasteries.
Bratislava – Slovakia
So many digital nomads that I know are falling in love with Bratislava, positioned on the Danube. The capital of Slovakia is not short on castles, coffee shops and churches. Be sure to explore the Old Town and Michael’s Gate. Bratislava castle is located on a hilltop looking down onto the old town. The Devin castle ruins were a restricted military zone prior to 1989, when Slovakia was behind the iron curtain.
St Martin’s Cathedral is a red-roofed gothic style cathedral with an 85m tall spire that dominates the Bratislava skyline. A monument to the synagogue is found next to the Cathedral – this marks the synagogue that was destroyed by the communists in 1970.
Bratislava is also surrounded by the Little Carpathian Mountains and so a perfect base for hikers.
Kiev – Ukraine
Kiev, the capital of Ukraine is my second choice of European capital for Orthodox Churches, after Moscow, of course. One of Kiev’s most famous is the green onion domed Orthodox Church of St Andrew’s. Also check out St Sophia’s Cathedral and The two must-see monasteries of Kiev are St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery and the Kiev Pechersk Lavra Monastery with underground catacombs.
Yerevan – Armenia
Dominated by grand soviet-era architecture, the capital of Armenia is slowly growing as a tourist destination amongst European capitals. A walking tour is the best way to see the city centre. You will see Grand Republic Square, the Opera House, the 18th Century Blue Mosque and the Cascade complex (a giant staircase overlooking the city) all within a day. Make sure that you take a trip out to the medieval mountainside monastery of Geghard – the main chapel was built in 1215.
What are your Favorite European Capitals?
What are your favorite European capitals? Are there any off-beat European capitals that you have visited lately? Please comment on my blog – I’d love to hear about it!