Size doesn’t matter, except when it does. Plenty of tourists and expats prefer smaller cities for a variety of reasons. Visiting a smaller city is often less expensive, not to mention the fact that the environment feels more authentic than a big city street choked with commuters, locals, and visitors. Even if you’re a tourist yourself, you don’t want things to feel too commercial and tacky.
Europe has plenty of sprawling urban centers to see, like Munich or Paris, but if you’ve already got these big-ticket items under your belt, how about venturing a little further afield? Don’t miss out on some of these smaller capital cities that are equally compelling.
The capital of Slovenia since 1991, Ljubljana dates back thousands of years. A Roman city called Emona stood here, and the oldest wooden wheel in the world was discovered in the nearby marshes along with the remains of prehistoric homes. The castle of Ljubljana, which dominates the city skyline, dates from the Medieval period.
Hiking and spelunking are popular among both tourists and locals, with the Southern Alps nearby. Add in the picturesque waterways, rivers, and canals that make up the city and you have a place that takes some amazing photographs.
Granted, Riga is on the big side with over 600,000 inhabitants, but this big little city still retains a lot of charm. It’s an important cultural center and regularly hosts international events like the 2006 NATO Summit, various hockey and curling championships, and the Eurovision Song Contest.
The 800-year-old center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, well-regarded for its 19th-century architecture and Art Nouveau decor. It boasts the largest collection of buildings in the world with this distinctive style. It’s a beautiful, under-appreciated city.
A small nation on a small island, it’s easy to forget about Malta. In the Middle Ages, the royal houses of Europe nicknamed its capital Valletta “The Proud City,” in reference to its imposing skyline. The complex fortifications are the defining feature of the town, which date from the 1550s.
With a population of just under 6,500, Valletta is the second-smallest city on our list. The city is a veritable Medieval time capsule, but dates back much further. Most of the city was built by the Knights Hospitaller in the 16th century. It is dominated by Baroque designs, but also has elements of Neo-Classical and Late Rennaisance architecture.
7LUXEMBOURG CITY, LUXEMBOURG
Another small city that’s a holdover from the times of royal duchies and noble land holdings, today Luxembourg is currently a tax haven and a banking center. It’s highly ranked for personal safety, if you want a trip free of pickpockets or robberies.
The location, almost right in the heart of Europe, also makes it convenient if you’re visiting other places on the continent. Luxembourg Castle is one of the town’s most popular sights. It dates from the early Middle Ages and was built by the Franks.
6SAN MARINO, SAN MARINO
Also known as the Most Serene Republic, the microstate of San Marino is often overlooked because of the popularity of another small capital nearby, Vatican City. Those days are coming to an end, however, as tourists are starting to discover this hidden gem in central Italy.
The capital city that shares its name has a scenic location on a hill, and the majority of the piazza, or city center, is a pedestrian-only area. If you’re a fan of Medieval history and architecture, this city is a must-see, with towers, streets, and churches that reflect that era.
This tiny city is the smallest on the list, housing about 5,500 residents. The city dates from the 12th century but had a turbulent history until the Liechtenstein family came along. They purchased the land that would make up this tiny country form the Holy Roman Emporer, and after the purchase was completed in 1719 Liechtenstein became a sovereign state.
You can still see the legacy of this family throughout the city, such as at Vaduz castle, which overlooks the scenic little town.
It’s small, with a population of less than 150,000, and it’s going to stay that way because that’s what both residents and visitors prefer. The size of Berne is part of why the standard of living in the city is so high. It really has the best of both worlds; all the charm of a small town with all the services and amenities of a much bigger one.
The historic town center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even though the city is on a mountain plateau, the architecture is unique, making the best of uneven ground. Castles, towers, and churches throughout the city have both design and historic signifigance.
The state capital of Rhineland-Palatinate, this is the biggest city in the area but the population is just over 200,000. The Rhine and Main Rivers meet nearby, adding not only to the scenery but also the city’s history.
The Romans saw the strategic and trade value in the location and founded a city here in the 1st century. Many of the city’s main attractions include Roman ruins. Baroque and Rococo designs and architecture line the streets. Mainz is one of many German towns in this area that hosts a colorful Carnival celebration in February.
What started out as a Viking village in the 10th century has grown into one of the most charming capitals in Europe. A well-known city with its share of tourism, Copenhagen has stayed relatively small, with less than a million inhabitants.
Take some time to explore the various city districts that differ in style and architecture depending on their time period. It’s been a national capital since the 15th century and current growth has been quite rapid in recent years, so maybe you should visit soon before it becomes a metropolis.
1ANDORRA LA VELLA, ANDORRA
A small city of about 22,000 people, this capital city is located in the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France. The scenic views are amazing, combining snow-capped mountains with lush trees. At an elevation of more than 3000 feet above sea level, this is the highest state capital in Europe and is home to a popular ski resort.
The area has been inhabited since the Neolithic Period and the Santa Colima Church dates from the 9th century. Most of the city is built in the Romanesque style, dating back to the 11oos.