Malmo, Sweden, borders the country of Denmark. // © 2016 iStock
Feature image (above): The southernmost city in Portugal, Faro is only a two-hour drive from Seville, Spain. // © 2016 iStock
When planning a European trip, sometimes the hardest part is deciding where to go — all those countries, so little time. France or Spain? Sweden or Denmark?
Well, how about both?
Border towns give travelers the chance to explore two countries quickly and without the hassle and expense of added flights. They also provide cross-cultural vibes that distinguish them from the larger capital cities of Europe.
For the client who seeks multiple countries in a limited time frame, consider proposing one of these border towns.
For History Buffs: Bratislava, Slovakia, Which Borders Hungary and Austria
Bratislava has recently started to pop up on the radar of travelers, so it’s a great time to go while things are still evolving. Its access to nature is excellent — the Little Carpathians mountain range is reachable by train and features hiking, biking and vineyards — but its historical significance might be its best draw.
When you look at a map, you’ll see that Bratislava is literally right on the border of Austria and not far from Hungary. This close proximity has lent itself to lots of historical crossover. In fact, Bratislava was part of the Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I. St Martin’s Cathedral was where 19 Hungarian emperors were crowned between the 16th and 19th centuries, and the Primatial Palace is filled with exhibits and tributes to the House of Austria (House of Habsburg).
Vienna — one of the world’s great cities — is only about one hour away from Bratislava by train or car, which makes for an easy day trip.
For Culture Seekers: Malmo, Sweden, Which Borders Denmark
When we say Malmo is good for experiencing culture, we don’t just mean the local culture represents the Swedish and Danish. Malmo is said to be the country’s most diverse city, and its population of about a half-million is made up of 150-plus nationalities — mostly driven by an assorted, pulsing student population.
Because Malmo is 45 minutes by train from Copenhagen and more than six hours from Stockholm, many people — locals and travelers alike — might argue that Malmo is more of a Danish city than a Swedish one. The arguments aren’t off base. In fact, Skane County, which includes Malmo, was under Denmark’s control for 700 years. Today, the county’s flag resembles the Danish and Swedish flags. The official word is that it’s just a coincidence, but we’re not buying it.
For the Leisurely Lot: Faro, Portugal, Which Borders Spain
Located in a coastal region known as the Algarve, Faro is the southernmost city in Portugal and the main launching pad for the area’s beaches and surf communities. Summertime visits present many options to bounce around to small towns such as Sagres or Ilha de Faro, where beach lounging, cliff dwelling, surfing and boating can take up most of one’s day.
Along with these opportunities to kick back and enjoy the relaxed southern Portuguese culture, travelers can also get a dose of Spain while there with a bit of Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr.Hyde-type travel. Pencil in a two- or three-night stay in Seville, just roughly two hours east by car or bus. A few nights of flamenco dancing and tapas in the heat of summer will prepare visitors well for a return to the coast.
For Beer-Drinking Foodies: Lille, France, Which Borders Belgium
Lille has been appearing in newspapers and magazines as one of France’s most up-and-coming destinations. The very livable, affordable city sits in the underexplored far north of France, just before the border with Belgium, and has long been overlooked by both tourists and nationals. Here two juggernauts have collided: French cooking and Belgian beer.
The Flemish influence is so strong in Lille that moules-frites (mussels and chips) is the city’s flagship meal. Be sure to try them at a place such as Aux Moules. More contemporary restaurants, including Le Bistrot Lillois, blend traditional French cooking with a Belgian beer selection. For a snack, try the cheeses from Philippe Olivier Fromagerie.
Aside from feeling the Belgian influence in France, Lille provides excellent access to three major cities. It is about 36 minutes from Brussels, one hour from Paris and 80 minutes from London by high-speed TGV train.
For Adventurers: Girona, Spain, Which Borders France
Many travelers visit Barcelona each year, but few Americans make the short two-hour journey north from Barcelona to Girona, the province in Catalonia that borders France along the Pyrenees mountains. The city of Girona itself is a great home base, where old castle walls and Gothic churches mingle with a modern Catalonian city. The city’s famous restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca, has been voted the best restaurant in the world two of the last four years, according to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
But this region is really for the adventurer. Roman soldiers once walked the border-crossing mountain trails in the Vall de Nuria, and the little-known Spanish volcanoes await exploration in Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park. Mountain and road biking are also popular in Girona. For example, take a road bike between medieval villages with local operator CicloTurisme. In France, the Pyrenees are on full display in the The Catalan Pyrenees Regional Natural Park, with dramatic landscapes such as the Canigou mountain.
For a few days of relaxation, the charming beachfront town of Cadaques is perhaps Girona’s most scenic coastal town. Its beauty drew writers and artists such as Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso to its shore for holiday and inspiration.