Cities and Towns in Europe
Warsaw might not impress at first sight. Though the tourist-haunted old town is UNESCO enlisted, most buildings needed to be rebuilt after WWII. Outside the Old Town, Warsaw is an odd mix of imposing 19th centuries mansions, Soviet-era 'masterpieces', tired workers' apartment blocks and sparkling new glass'n'steel business towers. Nowhere is this more evident than around the 'Palace of Culture and Science' which was a hard-to-decline present from the USSR. Its 231 m still make it the tallest building in Poland, but the modern skyscrapers around it are getting higher and higher every year. The amount of black luxury SUVs in the streets indicate that many are surfing the capitalism wave, leaving solidarity to the past. But Warsaw is still raw and full of lovely places with cheap beers, vodka and hearty food served through a hole in the wall.
You might wonder how a gem like Wroclaw can go under the radar for so long. Wroclaw is a smaller version of Krakow – smaller in size, but equal in charm and grandeur. There are old townhouses, a market square only second in size to Krakow's, and several islands on the Odra River with beautiful cathedrals. For great views of the old town, follow one of the many trails along the river, which will eventually cross some of the town's many bridges. For a 'uh' experience, visit the monstrous concrete exhibition complex, Centennial Hall, which is an UNESCO site. Just to top it off, the town also has a great young vibe (thanks to the many students) and therefor plenty of cheap bars to choose from.
At the foot of the Tatra Mountains lies Zakopane. During winter it’s ski resort town and during summer a base for mountain activities like hiking and mountain biking. The main stretches are lined with hotel chatels and more are getting build. Even in off season Zakopane is bustling with visitors in colourful lycra. If you don't want to hike too much, you can always take the cable car to the summit of mt. Kasprowy Wierch (1,987 m) and enjoy the views effortless. Or take the funicular up to mt. Gubalowka (1,123 m) on the other side of the valley. At the top you will have a cluster of small shops and bars - besides the amazing views over Zakopane.
Łódź (pronounced "Woodge") is an old industrial city which is under transformation. There are still lots of drap concrete blocks, but artsy murals are shooting up and old industrial buildings are putting into new use. The "OFF Piotrkowska" area is a wonderful example. Here the dilapidated factory buildings with iron framed windows are turned into hipster barber shops, bars, gastro pubs, alternative music venues, and studios. Manufaktura is another old factory complex which has been transformed, in this case to a shopping mall. Many will probably prefer the vibrant OFF Piotrkowska over the polished Manufaktura.
Braga is the third largest city in Portugal (after Lisbon and Porto) and like the other ones, has a lovely historical centre. However, the old town of Braga isn't as compact as some other Portuguese medieval towns, and contemporary concrete buildings and shopping malls have seeped in between the fine churches (there are lots) and the old dilapidated houses. Nevertheless, the city still has its fair share of faded decayed houses with crooked balconies that Portugal is so famous for.
The fine university town of Coimbra is for Portugal what Oxford is for United Kingdom. Coimbra University is one of Europe's oldest, and some of the faculties' grand buildings and libraries can easily match those at Oxford. The lovely medieval old town is a confusing maze of narrow winding lanes running from one square to another while passing monasteries and other impressive buildings which could easily date back to the Middle Ages when Coimbra was the capital of Portugal. Due to the large student population, the city's vibe is arty and unpretentious, though you might catch a glimpse of students wrapped in the traditional black cloak - something you will for sure see during the Queima das Fitas, the rowdy student spree held in May.
The well-preserved historical centre of Evora is considered one of the finest in Portugal - and is, of course, on UNESCO's World Heritage list. The old town, which dates back to Roman times, is still enclosed by 17th century walls and boasts a large amount of exquisite monuments and medieval buildings, including a Roman temple, a fine cathedral, and a chapel decorated with human bones. With cobblestone alleyways and houses kept in a strict white-and-yellow colour scheme, Evora is very picturesque - and popular with visitors. However, the town manages to tone down its status as a tourist magnet and keeps a humble attitude to its fine heritage.
The old part of Guimaraes is not just another charming medieval town in Portugal. The historical centre is UNESCO listed and includes ruins of a cute castle which is considered to be the birthplace of the Portuguese nation. The views from up here stretch beyond the pretty old town with its charming narrow lanes, lovely old houses and picturesque squares with cafes. Luckily, the tourist flow seems to be concentrated on a few sections, leaving other parts to the local people of Guimaraes - and the few curious visitors. Here, life goes on as it has done for decades, even centuries, in such ways that elderly ladies still do their laundry in the public outdoor washing basins.
Cute Lisbon doesn't feel like a western European capital. The pace is slow and there is nothing flashy about the lovely historical downtown. Here, a castle and grand buildings rise among decrepit, though charming, working-class neighbourhoods, where grannies yelling to each other from their windows, and there is a tavern at every other corner. The different quarters all have a different vibe. Some are decayed with lots of graffiti, while others are up-coming areas for the young and creative. Since Lisbon is built on sloping hills, you can find amazing panoramic views over the city's red roofs and blue sea, by ascending winding narrow streets and steep staircases. So, even though downtown Lisbon is very compact and walkable, it's easy to get lost (and out of breath) in the 3-dimensional maze of alleyways. Luckily, you can always jump on a tram and get back to a main square. Take a break here, have a pastry or a glass of port wine, before venturing into another quarter for some more exploration.
Right from the start, when you arrive in Porto, you get the feeling that the city has edge and character. Blue tiled churches and soaring towers rise over ramshackle houses with hanging clotheslines. Hilly streets and narrow alleyways wind their way through the UNESCO-listed historical centre. The fine university attracts a fair share of students, boosting the city with a youthful and arty vibe - and a large range of great cafes and bars. The tourists, however, seem to be spellbound by the picturesque riverfront right next to the iconic metal bridge, Ponte Luis I. A trip across Douro River will bring you to Vila Nova de Gaia, the main location for port wine cellars. A glass or two (or three or...) is of course inevitable.