VACATION IDEAS

6 Charming & Affordable European Cities You Haven't Visited Yet

You'll get a warm welcome, find stylish steals, and enjoy food, wine, fashion, and culture that's second to none in these intimate European metropolises.

Birmingham, U.K., is a foodie paradise—a sixth-century city with decidedly contemporary cuisine and more Michelin-starred restaurants than any British city other than London!

(Angie Smith)

BIRMINGHAM, U.K.

A foodie destination in England's heartland

Anybody visiting a city from which both J.R.R. Tolkien and Ozzy Osbourne sprang should be prepared for a dose of cognitive dissonance, and Birmingham (or "Brum," as it's affectionately known in the U.K.) delivers, with canals (yup, they surprised us, too), more contemporary architecture than you might expect from a sixth-century city, and a foodie scene that has earned more Michelin stars than any U.K. city other than London.

TAKE A TOUR OF EUROPE'S "SECOND CITIES"!

WHY BIRMINGHAM IS SECOND TO NONE. In a word, food. But we don't mean nearby Cadbury World (though we have a fondness for any tour that hands out free chocolate!) or that justifiably popular Birmingham fixture, the Custard Factory. These days, this town is more about innovative cuisine and locally sourced ingredients. The Balti style of cooking Kashmiri curries—in small, artisanal batches rather than in one enormous pot—was developed here in the 1970s, and an entire district, the Balti Triangle, serves up tasty varieties at bargain prices at restaurants such as Al Frash. Celeb chef Jamie Oliver's Jamie's Italian dishes out heaping plates of wild-rabbit tagliolini and crab spaghettini. And for contemporary riffs on classic English dishes, there's a lot to love about, well, Loves; Steve and Claire Love's waterfront restaurant has been wowing U.K. food critics with dishes like (vegetarians, avert your eyes) Warwickshire venison and Gloucestershire pig's head.

MUST-SEE SIGHTS. The Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery offers one of the world's most acclaimed collections of pre-Raphaelite paintings, including the iconic, otherworldly work of 19th-century Birmingham native Edward Burne Jones. Speaking of other worlds, Lord of the Rings fans must spend time at Sarehole Mill, said to have inspired the locale of Tolkien's trilogy. And no trip to Brum is complete without dropping by the Bull Ring Open Market, which is at once a throwback to England's agrarian past and a forward-looking source of local fruits and vegetables at great prices. The nabe is also known for its Rag Market (not as dismal as it sounds—think eye-popping fabrics, vintage clothing, household goods, and treats like mince pie and pickled chile peppers for a song).

WHERE TO EAT. Al Frash  is a great place to try some award-winning Balti-style curries (186 Ladypool Rd., alfrash.com).

WHERE TO STAY. The Bloc Hotel is located near Birmingham's historic Jewellery District (Caroline St., blochotels.com).

GET THERE. Birmingham is 117 miles northwest of London, a two-hour drive or a three-hour bus ride.

ANTWERP, BELGIUM

An inland port with a world-class sense of style

Antwerp's playfulness is evident everywhere you look—whether it's the quirkily dressed local in a public square, a fashion model in the city's historic district, or the mind-blowing design of its Museum Aan de Stroom. Located on the docks that have made Antwerp Europe's second biggest port (after Rotterdam), the museum's exterior mimics giant packing crates stacked on one another.

WHY ANTWERP IS SECOND TO NONE. Stroll down any Antwerp street and you'll see it—style. Whether you're looking for imaginative architecture, the most inspiring new art galleries, or a great selection of vintage and second-hand clothing, Antwerp will pleasantly shake up your expectations and likely send you home with something surprising.

MUST-SEE SIGHTS. The Zuid ("south") district is the place for art lovers; here, you'll find the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (featuring an exquisite collection of paintings by Baroque-era Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, such as "The Adoration of the Magi"), galleries of contemporary art, and a thriving cafe culture. Running north from the square in front of the museum, Kloosterstraat offers a stretch of cool antique shops that often boast mid-century design finds alongside older pieces. (On Sundays, the shops open for business at 2 p.m., so plan to visit after, not before, the museum.) Ready to cleanse your palate of modernism? Het Steen ("old fort") was originally built in the early Middle Ages to defend against—wait for it—marauding Vikings; it has been made over many times since those days and basically looks like a child's fantasy of a castle.

WHERE TO EAT. Fiskebar is an outstanding seafood joint in a port that knows from seafood (Marnixplaats 12, fiskebar.be).

SEE THE CITIES!

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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