Second place isn’t always a bad thing — especially when it comes to European cities. Without the crowds, price tags and urban sprawl found in many of the continent’s capitals, less known cities can offer plenty of hassle-free fun, allowing you to explore historic sites in peace, savor authentic regional flavors and connect with locals who might be more open to chatting with visitors. Here are four wallet-friendly favorites.
Roman roots and historic châteaux, elegant pedestrian boulevards and famous vineyards — Bordeaux has them all. Set in the Gironde region of southwest France, at the point where two rivers converge, this thriving port town is best known as one of the world’s winemaking capitals. But beyond the booze, Bordeaux also features a wealth of well-preserved historic buildings (second only to Paris), excellent museums, charming gardens, designer shops and more — making it an ideal place to soak up plenty of French culture, along with those great red wines.
Photo Credit: Vincent Bengold
See & Do: Bordeaux is home to one of Europe’s largest concentrations of 18th-century architecture, making it a favorite with history buffs. You’ll get a feel for its majesty at sites like the Esplanade des Quinconces (the largest square in Europe), the 18th-century neoclassic Grand Theatre, the Saint-Andre Cathedral and the two remaining gates from the original medieval walls. Rue Sainte-Catherine, the longest pedestrian street in France and the city’s main shopping thoroughfare, will take you straight through the old town. Art fans should stop by the Musée des Beaux Arts, where the collection includes works by Rubens, Renoir, Matisse, and Picasso; the Musée d’Aquitaine offers a great overview of the history of the region.
Photo Credit: Thomas Sanson
Eat & Drink: Despite Bordeaux’s importance on the wine scene, the city has never really been a place for foodies — until recently. Enticed by the city’s charm — and affordability — notable chefs from around the world have set up shop in town, while a new crop of wine bars serving small plates are making it easier to sample all kinds of local products. Get a good overview of Bordeaux wines at the La Cité du Vin multi-media museum/info center, then put your new knowledge to use navigating the lists at spots like the cozy, friendly Le Bouchon Bordelais bistro and Parisian Chef Tanguy Laviale’s Garopapilles, which has a wine shop up front.
Photo Credit: Q. Salinier
Stay: Opened in December 2015, the 130-room InterContinental Bordeaux–Le Grand Hotel enjoys a prime spot on the old town’s Place de la Comédie. The stunning interiors mix gilded touches and rich fabrics with bursts of contemporary whimsy. Enjoy perks like a rooftop “beach,” Nuxe spa, a restaurant helmed by Gordon Ramsay and a wine concierge, who can unlock doors to some of the area’s top private wine estates (room rates start at about $329 a night).