Travel

Mass tourism is back: Our favorite European escapes with minimal crowds and maximum fun

Standing room only for the train to Bruges from Brussels

Last year about this time, we went on a road trip to Lake Como with friends and I was amazed that it was so quiet in the off-season. On the way home, though, it was a different story when we stopped in Strasbourg.

I was in for a shock.

Crowds.

In one of France’s less-visited cities. Big crowds. The first we’d seen since the pandemic began. Packed restaurants. Tour boats full of people on the canals around Grande-île. And it hit me … we’re sliding back into the pre-COVID mass-travel mentality that I thought had passed.

Since then, we’ve been to a number of cities, including Amsterdam and Brussels, and it’s clear, expats – this is going to be a year of crowds everywhere you go. Amsterdam was particularly crowded when we went to the Vermeer show in March. Then, a couple of weeks ago, we went to Bruges/Brugges and it was pure madness. Soooo maaany people. I had to stand all the way on the train to Bruges from Brussels.

And that’s the off season!

This is no surprise. The European Travel Commission projects travel across Europe will return to 2019 pre-pandemic levels this year, if not exceed them. And if you’re going to Italy, Greece or anywhere on the Mediterranean, expect sold out hotels and packed restaurants.

So, yeah, unless you’re going to Albania, you’re going to have a lot of company.

Ghent will make you want to do this.

We’re here for you, with a few suggestions for cities we love but don’t pull in mass tours:

Düsseldorf – This lovely city on the Rhine has two things going for it – it’s really physically big, and it’s not Berlin. We’ve been to Düsseldorf a lot, and we’ve never seen a tour group, even during the big Christmas market. There’s so much to see and do, including fashion-forward Königsallee with its parade of Bugattis and Lamborghinis, all the restaurants and cafés along the river and the MedienHafen and its Richard Gehry buildings. A very cool, very modern city with lots of green space. Stop me if I’m overselling it.

Here’s our Quick Trip about Düsseldorf.

Maastricht – a lovely city on the Maas has lots going for it, including fabulous preserved neighborhoods that have a very a French vibe. The river cuts Maastricht in half, with the more bohemian Wyck and its boutiques on one side and the more commercial Jekerkwartier and its large squares on the other. Lots of great restaurants, a serious international vibe because Maastricht University attracts a lot of foreign students including our daughter. Boutique shopping and great cafés and funky bars. And Aachen, a totally underrated town, is just across the border in Germany.

Read all you’ll ever need to know about Maastricht here.

Basel – Yet another lovely city on the Rhine River. Basel is not Geneva, with its lake and upscale party scene. It’s more sedate but offers access to Thun on a huge lake, the mountains of the Jungfrau Region and a less visited corner of Switzerland. Basel has the best zoo if you have kids. A very arty, sophisticated city.

Read more about Basel here.

Brussels – Brussels has always been underrated as a destination. We were there a few weekends ago and were struck by how lively the Sainte-Catherine area is around where we stayed at the Citadines Hotel off the Grande Place. Another really big city with every amenity – arts, restaurants, shopping and parks. The clubs on our block were packed at 2 a.m. with kids hanging out … good music, good vibe. We can drive to Brussels from our HQ in the Netherlands. But don’t. Brussels has the worst traffic in Europe. Take the train.

Read more about Brussels here.

Rotterdam – The coolest city in Europe. No, really. Lots to do and see, and it also gives you access to all of Randstad, so you don’t have to get stuck in Amsterdam’s crowds. Rotterdam is really big (Europe’s biggest port), so again, you don’t get squeezed into packs of tourists following tour guides with those little flags. Not that we’ve ever seen packs of tourists following tour guides in Rotterdam, but I guess it could happen. Check out our many, many posts about Rotterdam to get an idea of all the attractions.

Read more about Rotterdam here.

Bern – A city most tourists don’t know exists even though it’s Switzerland’s capital. Its setting on the Aare River is wonderful, and you have access to some of the country’s unspoiled sections such as the Oberaargau. A great place to use as a base to explore. Bring lots of money.

Read more about Bern here.

Antwerp – Antwerp is an extremely cool city with a significant restaurant scene, a quaint Old City and easy access to Brugges and Ghent. Another city with a great zoo and lots and lots of shopping. It’s so big that until recently, I didn’t realize there’s a whole premium shopping area tucked away in Bourlashouwberg on a quiet stretch of Jodenstraat with an Hermés, a Paul Smith store, Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton and all the top brands.

Another place we can drive to in an hour. Just don’t. The congestion is almost as bad as Brussels. Take the train.

Read more about Antwerp here.

Ghent – Last year, we visited Ghent for the first time in years and were shocked to see that it’s a lot bigger than we remembered it from the 2000s. Bigger is good because you can get away from the crowds in the many tucked away alleys and quarters. It’s also gorgeous, with ancient buildings lining the Scheldt River. Lots of good restaurants and an okay museum. Of the cities on this list, this is the one that does attract a lot of tourists, though mostly Dutch and Belgian tourists.

Read more about Ghent here.

There are lots more small cities that have their charms, such as Luxembourg City, with access to Vianden Castle and Little Switzerland. Heidelberg and Trier are both amazing small cities. All these are great places to spend at least a weekend and maybe longer before you move on to the next great city.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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