Europe is rife with towns that overflow with continental character and history -- but not necessarily with tourists. According to this list from Euromonitor, London raked in over 15 million tourists in 2007, with Paris clocking in at 10 million and contemporaries like Rome, Barcelona and Amsterdam not far behind. The numbers speak to each city's splendor; but then, there are cities that sit on the periphery of many Europe itineraries that quietly woo their choice few visitors. We've narrowed down a few of these more overlooked cities and why they may woo you too, whether you're seeking a respite from the bustle of the bigger cities or explicitly seeking a slower, more quaint trip to Europe. And believe us: It's but a bizarre coincidence these beloved boroughs all happen to begin with "B."
Bordeaux, France (I've been here / I want to go here)
Total tourist traffic, 2007: 195,000
Bordeaux has been synonymous with vin for centuries, and why not? It ships 850 million bottles a year from 13,000 grape farmers, with some of its treasured vintage reds easily reaching the pricetag of your average compact car. As a culinary destination, Bordeaux remains top shelf.
received an overdue facelift in the past decade. Classic eighteenth-century architecture, such as the lovely riverside monument Esplanade des Quinconces (image left), rests comfortably among the avant-garde, like Le Garage Moderne, a massive multi-purpose building and nifty co-op that houses vehicles refashioned into modern art pieces, while hosting car and bike mechanics who not only can fix your machine but teach you how to do it yourself.
With news that low tourism turnout has restauranteurs in a heated low-price battle, there may not be a better time to experience Bordeaux.
Bologna, Italy (I've been here / I want to go here)
Total tourist traffic, 2007: 279,000
Critical reception doesn't always translate into traffic. Such is the case with Bologna, who took the lofty reins as the 2000 European Capital of Culture, but whose tourism numbers still don't necessarily reflect its quality. Are North Americans subliminally associating the city with low-quality sandwich meat? Let's hope not.
Like Bordeaux, Bologna has been a college town for centuries (since 1088, to be exact), and its learned, youthful demographic ensures things stay fresh amongst the typically staunch Italian traditions (despite the students, the average resident's age is 51). Its medieval spirit is remarkably preserved; the Sanctuary of Madonna di San Luca has remained atop Monte della Guardia in some form since 1194, its current Baroque style hoisting 666 arches, and the city's trademark Two Towers (right) still lean proudly despite the shadow of Pisa. And the food -- good gracious, the food. The famous spaghetti bolognese usually features hearty beef and pancetta in light red sauce. Tortellini was also invented here, and you're best served to try the native version, as well as the city's specialty sausages and cheeses. In a country rife with cultural centers, Bologna remains one of its finest -- no matter how you slice it.
Bilbao, Spain (I've been here / I want to go here)
Total tourist traffic, 2007: 230,000
The Guggenheim Museum (entrance pictured below), built in 1997 by Frank Gehry, is a jarring piece of modern architecture and is a must-see in any trip to Bilbao, Spain. It's symbolic of the hilly-green city's recent re-invention from industrial capital to modern attraction.
"Basque Country" is an apt title for the Spanish region, as it essentially functions as its own nation. Tapas becomes "pintxos," a local blend of seafood like cod and shrimp. Its beaches may not be as scenic as Barcelona's, but its nightlife, especially in the Indautxu area, bumps and grinds in equal fervor. Speaking of fervor: The Basque people have roused nationalist tension in the past, but Bilbao is pretty much as safe as you can get. All its idiosyncrasies make Bilbao a lovable underdog and an excellent alternative to its big neighbors.
Bern, Switzerland (I've been here / I want to go here)
Total tourist traffic, 2007: 203,000
Few towns are lucky enough to boast a true mascot, and even fewer can boast one that doesn't involve a giant head made out of foam. Since the 12th century, Bern, the capital of Switzerland, has championed the bear as its emblem, and a pen of bears has been maintained at the city's expense for hundreds of years and, like any zoo with potentially dangerous creatures, through a few bouts of man vs. beast (warning: slightly unsettling photos). Bear maulings be damned: Tradition holds sway.
Like much in Switzerland, tradition remains a defining characteristic of Bern. Couple that with characteristic Swiss efficiency and you have the expertly-arranged (and gorgeous) downtown Bern, easily walkable and awash with old-world red-brick architecture and great museums. After taking in the newly-renovated Bear Park, find your way to Einstein's old flat, now acting as a museum chronicling his early discoveries, and then to the town centerpiece, the Zytglogge clock tower, which essentially acts as a freakishly large cuckoo clock complete with mechanical dancers and jesters performing on the hour. Bern may not have the size of the typical capital city, but it certainly has the heart of one.
Bucharest, Romania (I've been here / I want to go here)
Total tourist traffic, 2007: 1.07 m
History hasn't been too kind to Bucharest, but its resilience is proof of its greatness. And travelers have responded in growing numbers.
Since losing old buildings to natural disasters and Allied bombings in World War II, Bucharest has re-emerged to lay claim to its old moniker "The Paris of the East." They even have a massive Arch of Triumph (Arcun de Triumf) in the northern part of the city, which sits at the foot of a boulevard of shops and attractions wider than the Champs Elysees, despite the Arcun standing a bit smaller than its Parisian counterpart. The infamous Revolution Square marked an important turning point as the site where Communism began to crumble, and its landmark value is accented by its proximity to the National Art Museum. And with the uptick in bloodthirsty vampire fanaticism, Bucharest might head to the top of many dream itineraries as the former home to Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Dracula. More incentive -- get there before the Twilight masses!