Europe’s most fascinating border towns

Story highlights

Too rushed, poor or lazy to tour the continent? Here are places to cut corners

The Slovakian capital of Bratislava was for 300 years the capital of the Hungarian Kingdom

French influence is prominent in San Sebastian, Spain

Russian revolutions, czars and Finnish migrants have left their mark on small Kirkenes in Norway

CNN  — 

Empires, wars and various ethnic groups have rendered the map of Europe a patchwork upon which dozens of countries and languages vie for space.

A trip to every one of these nations is possible if you have endless weeks stretching ahead of you, but if you’re short on time, cash or motivation, you need to think smarter.

That’s where border towns come in.

Where Europe’s frontiers rub against one another lie cities in which diverse cultures clash and blend, creating places that showcase the best of all worlds.

Here are a few of our favorites.

In Lille, the confluence of French and Belgian cultures is a beautiful thing.

Lille, France

Border: Belgium

The food-loving French have long held the cuisine of their northern neighbors in contempt.

Some French expats even consider Belgium a hardship posting, presumably because of their disdain for unpretentious menus of moules, fries and waffles.

In return, beer-chugging Belgians could be forgiven for mocking the wanting concoctions of water, yeast, hops and barley consumed to the south. (Though, to be fair, French microbreweries are starting to make up for lost time).

No such concerns in the northern French city of Lille.

Here traditional local restaurants combine the intricacies of Gallic dining culture – making extensive use of the region’s tasty maroilles cheese – with the bold beer selections favored further to the north.

At Estaminet Chez la Vieille (60 rue de Gand; +33 328 364006; website in French only) the beef in beer, and roast chicken in cheese, are worth the trip.

The city also blends Flemish with classical Parisian architecture – the art deco Coilliot House (14 Rue de Fleurus) is a prime example.

And its Palais des Beaux Artes de Lille (18 Rue de Valmy; +33 3 20 06 78 00) has one of the best collections of classic art outside the capital.

Bratislava, Slovakia

Borders: Austria, Hungary

Close to the border of both Austria and Hungary, the proud capital of Slovakia has only recently emerged from a centuries-long identity crisis that still resonates around fairy tale streets that once charmed Hans Christian Andersen.

Bratislava – or as it has variously been known, Istropolis, Bresburg, Pressburg and, briefly, Wilson City – was for 300 years the capital of the Hungarian Kingdom.

Meanwhile, its close ties with nearby Vienna once saw the two cities share a tram line.

It was also, until the “velvet divorce” of 1993, part of the old Czechoslovakia.

The reconstructed Bratislava Castle (+421 2 544 114 44) has been witness to most of this and is a good place to savor a city that’s enjoyed a unique place at the crossroads of central Europe, as well as the imperious views it commands over the nearby borders.

Traditional local cuisine is a hearty melange of dishes influenced by Austria and Hungary.

Presburg (Michalska 382/4; +421 2 544 384 55) or Leberfinger (Viedenska cesta 257; +421 2 623 175 90) are both good options for food.

In Malmo, Danish, Muslim and other cultural influences are readily apparent.

Malmo, Sweden

Border: Denmark

Another country-hopping city that continues to bear the imprint of its former occupants, Malmo lies on the southern coast of what’s now Sweden but was, until the 17th century, Danish.

The two nations are now umbilically connected by the majestic eight-kilometer Oresund Bridge, which plugs Malmo almost directly into the Danish capital of Copenhagen and serves as a potent symbol of their close ties (not least in the gripping Danish-Swedish TV drama “The Bridge”).

You can still hunt for Danish influence in the buildings of Malmo’s Gamla Stan (Old Town), although it’s more fun these days to contemplate modern architecture, including the twisty Turning Torso skyscraper (Lilla Varvsgatan; +46 40 17 45 00; website in Swedish) or the offshoot of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet art collection, housed in an old electric plant (Gasverksgatan 22; +46 40 6857 937).

Denmark still has something to offer though, as can be seen at the sublime Malmo public library extension, designed by Danish architect Henning Larsen (Kung Oscars vag; +46 40 660 85 00).

San Sebastian, Spain

Border: France

The sheer size of France, and its numerous borders, mean an inevitable reappearance in this list – this time pushing its influence into Spain.

In San Sebastian, just 20 kilometers south of the border, France’s contribution can be seen in the city’s neat urban layout and the Belle Epoque architecture of its grand casino-turned-city hall and Victoria Eugenia theater (Republica Argentina 2, +34 943 48 11 60).

Also, as more than one grumbling tourist has pointed out, in the prices that are typically higher than the rest of provincial Spain.

The French would also no doubt like to take credit for San Sebastian’s disproportionately large number of internationally rated restaurants.

And although the surrounding Basque region does have its own strong culinary traditions, French fine dining has clearly made its mark at places such as Arzak (Av. del Alcalde Jose Elosegi; 273, +34 943 27 84 65), among a trio of restaurants in the city to earn three Michelin stars.

Trieste, Italy

Border: Slovenia

While this Italian port lies close to the border of Slovenia and within striking distance of Croatia, its heritage lies firmly within the same middle European empires that once laid claim to Prague, Vienna and Budapest.

And so from Italy we have operetta, piazzas (the monumental Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia is one of Europe’s largest) and gelato, the latter being unsurpassed at Chocolat (via Cavana 15/b; +39 040 30 05 24).

From Vienna we get literary salons of the kind that drew “Ulysses” author James Joyce to Trieste.

Most have now fallen by the wayside, but a recent campaign appears to have saved Joyce’s mahogany-lined favorite, Caffe San Marco (Via Cesare Battisti, 18).

And from Hungary we get places like Buffet da Pepi, small eateries where pretty much everything on the menu contains pig, beer or pickled cabbage (via della Cassa di Risparmio 3; +39 040 366 858).

Ships carry iron ore and other goods from Kirkenes to China via the Northeast Passage through the Arctic Ocean.

Kirkenes, Norway

Borders: Finland, Russia

A chilly 400 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle lies Kirkenes, a small Norwegian town located between the borders of Finland and Russia.

Admittedly, there isn’t much in Kirkenes to influence – for a lot of the year it’s too shrouded in gloom and snow to distinguish from other settlements in region.

But as a visit to the Sor-Varanger museum (Hvistendalsgate 31; +47 789 428 90) confirms, Russian revolutions, czars and Finnish migrants have all left their mark.

Kirkenes isn’t without its attractions.

During the literally endless days of summer, the fjords and forests are worth exploring.

Winter brings spectacular displays of northern lights and the almost obligatory Snow Hotel (Sandnesdalen 14; +47 789 705 40).

There’s also a Russian market (Barents Spektakel) on the last Thursday of every month, where you can buy matryoshka nesting dolls as well as porcelain and, because apparently nothing says Russia like a pair of knitted toe warmers, socks.