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Think of ancient Europe. Admit it. You’re thinking of Athens and Rome, aren’t you? No doubt they’re fabulous cities. But if you want to avoid the tourists, selfie sticks and wild prices, they may not be your best bet. So with exploration in mind, here are three ancient alternatives that are less touristy but no less fantastic. Grab your toga and let’s go! 

10.03.2018 - Ottoman bathhouse Bey Hamam on Egnatia street in the centre of Thessaloniki.

Thessaloniki, Greece

Think of Thessaloniki as Athens’ laid back little brother. Lying 189 miles north of Athens, the city’s climate really is more chilled, with milder heat and refreshing sea breezes making the scorching Greek summer a lot easier to handle.

Thessaloniki is a port city that boasts the largest waterfront in Europe. The New Waterfront stretches across the coast and gives walkers a vast space to stroll alongside cyclists and horse-drawn carriages, while taking in views of the sparkling Aegean Sea and Mount Olympus in the distance. The promenade takes you past the White Tower and Aristotelous Square, a bustling hub of cafés and restaurants where locals and tourists alike can unwind.

In Greece you’re never far from a marvel of antiquity and Thessaloniki’s got them by the dozen. UNESCO World Heritage Sites? Check. Byzantine churches? Got that. Ottoman forts? Definitely! Thessaloniki’s White Tower was built in the 12th century and was previously known as ‘The Red Tower’ due to its bloody history as an Ottoman prison known for mass executions. In 1912 the tower was literally whitewashed and is now the symbol of the city’s independent Greek identity. Visit the museum inside to learn about the city’s 2,300 years of history.

If you want to break out of the city there’s lots to explore in the surrounding area. It's only an hour’s drive to some of Europe's best beaches in the Halkidiki Peninsula. Or head north to explore Greek Macedonia. If island hopping takes your fancy, it’s easy to take a boat ride to the nearby islands of Thassos and Limnos. Enjoy!

Aerial view of Bologna Cathedral and towers towering above of the roofs of Old Town in medieval city Bologna in the evening.

Bologna Cathedral and towers above Old Town Bologna.

Bologna, Italy

Foodies will instantly identify Bologna as the birthplace of spaghetti Bolognese. As a culinary mainstay the world over, you could be forgiven for thinking that’s where Bologna’s achievements end. But this wonderful city has far more to offer. Known affectionately by Italians as La Grassa (the fat one) Bologna’s signature dishes also include tortellini and tagliatelle with ragu and it is considered the food capital of Italy. That really is something to boast about!

Bologna is an important centre for education too. The city hosts the world’s oldest university, an institute that can count popes, famous scientists and the poets Dante and Tasso among its alumni. Founded in 1088 the University of Bologna predates Oxford by a decade and its central location gives the core of the city a vibrant and lively character.

The city’s long history stretches back even further than that though. With evidence of settlement since the 10th century BC, the city’s got history by the hatful. Iconic porticoes line the city streets, keeping pedestrians sheltered from the rain and linking pristine medieval and renaissance buildings that’ll take your breath away. If you want to hunt down the best panoramas, climb the 498 steps of the Asinelli Tower and lap up views of the city and surrounding countryside.

There’s a wealth of art and music festivals to keep you entertained through the summer, but a particular favourite for locals is the Cinema Ritrovato Festival, providing the chance to see various Italian favourites in the Piazza Maggiore – one of the city’s vast squares. Thirsty? Peckish? Try Osteria Del Sole. This 15th century bar is the oldest in the city and encourages its customers to bring their own food to enjoy within the bar.

Panoramic view of the centre of Plovdiv.

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Plovdiv is Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited city - and with 8,000 years of history, let’s just say it’s a must for anyone interested in European heritage. The centrepiece of the city is its Roman Amphitheatre. Harking back to the 1st century, this impressive structure is remarkably well preserved. Even better, you can still watch theatrical and musical performances while sitting on the very same seats graced by the Romans all those years ago.

From mosaics to architectural triumphs in the Romantic style, to structures from the country’s Soviet period, the mix of architecture that comprises Plovdiv is fascinating. The Alyosha Monument is a poignant reminder of the city’s past behind the Iron Curtain. Standing at 35-feet tall this imposing statue of a Soviet soldier stands atop a hill and looks out over the city and beyond.

The pedestrianised city centre is packed full of chic bars and cafés where tourists and locals enjoy the warm evenings. If you’re looking for something a little different check out the singing fountains. At 9pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the fountains in Tsar Simeon’s Garden find their dancing shoes and create a stunning display of colour and music that might just get you in the mood for Plovdiv’s dance floors.

Some of Plovdiv’s best attractions lie just outside the city. Hire a car and check out Asen’s Fortress. This structure is a jaw-dropping fortification situated on a rocky ridge half an hour’s drive from Plovdiv and was built by the Byzantines to help secure the strategically important area against Slavic marauders. Just twenty minutes from that is Bachkovo Monastery, a 1,000 year old monastery that combines Byzantine, Georgian and Bulgarian cultures in one beautiful house.

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