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It seems that almost everyone who is planning a trip to Europe is going to Paris, London, Rome, Dublin, or one of the other popular cities found at the top of any given European itinerary. But frequent travelers soon realize that the greatest rewards can come from discovering more off-the-beaten-path spots, including these fabulous less-traveled European destinations.
The beautiful country of Montenegro only became an independent nation in 2006, and the city of Kotor, situated in a secluded tip of Boka Kotorsky Bay, offers extraordinary beauty few travelers get to experience. In fact, many people aren’t even aware Montenegro exists. This coastal town on the Adriatic offers a true untouched retreat from the chaos of the modern world, with the entire old town area declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Floating through the sunlight-drenched fjords with mountains soaring overhead, this is a place you’ll not soon forget. Dining on delectable Mediterranean cuisine and exploring the medieval walled city with its many ancient structures, churches, cathedrals, palaces and museums, is just icing on the cake.
Salina is one of seven small Aeolian Islands, a volcanic archipelago in the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Sicily. Salina is accessible by plane from the Catania International Airport or by ferry from Messina, Sicily, and is renowned for its picturesque villages where time seems to stand still. In stark contrast to the exposed volcanic terrain of the other Aeolian Islands, you’ll find a lush landscape with wildflowers and woodlands as well as grape vines that drape its hillsides with brilliant color and soaring coastal cliffs that plunge down to glistening cerulean waters. The island is home to scenic hiking trails as well as beautiful beaches like Pollara Beach, a picturesque cove where scenes from 1994’s “Il Postino: The Postman,” was filmed. Take the steps down to the crystal clear water, past old stone houses, where you can enjoy a lovely afternoon swim.
Kvarner Riviera, Croatia
If anyone ever tells you not to visit the Kvarner Riviera, that’s probably because they’re hoping to keep this region all to themselves. This mostly undiscovered region on the North Adriatic coast is protected by towering, forest-covered mountains, lined with magnificent beaches and dotted with islands, including some of the country’s largest. Enjoy beach hopping, hiking in the wild Gorski Kotar Mountains or exploring Krk Island on two wheels. The southern end of the island is home to one of the most beautiful beaches in Croatia, a more than one-mile stretch of sand set below a dramatic, barren range of mountains.
Bonn, set along the Rhine River south of Cologne, is becoming an increasingly popular cultural destination, with its rich history that dates back over 2,000 years as well as being the birthplace of the world famous composer, Ludwig van Beethoven. Some refer to Bonn as “Italy’s most northern city” due to its street culture with many cafes and beer gardens in the summer. You’ll find practically an endless number of museums worth visiting, including the “Beethoven-Haus,” the late composer’s birthplace turned museum, which even has a lock of Beethoven’s hair on display.
The northern town of Hamburg is another great German city to visit. You’ll find everything from an abundance of galleries and museums, funky boutiques and Portuguese eateries as well as more canals than Venice and Amsterdam combined. It’s home to one of the biggest red-light districts in Europe, St. Pauli, where you can enjoy dancing the night away at trendy nightclubs and listening to live music at an array of great venues. On Sunday morning, get up early to enjoy the Fischmarkt, a massive outdoor market turned party, with fresh fish from the North Sea sold alongside steins of beer and sizzling sausages on the banks of the River Elbe.
The majority of visitors to Ireland head to Dublin, making a few side trips to popular sites like the Cliffs of Moher or the scenic Ring of Kerry drive. But Galway is worth going out of your way to see. This eclectic university city with a bohemian spirit is a foodie’s paradise as well as a haven for those who enjoy good music, with live music to be heard on just about any night of the week all year long. For the best of the best, visit during the annual Galway Arts Festival, held every summer, when music and dance as well as comedy, literature and more, fills the streets and the pubs. Quay Street is home of the many of Galway’s pubs, restaurants and cafes in addition to having the best selection of live traditional music in bars where you can sit in on a seisiún and enjoy the sounds of the bodhránsand banjos.
Parisians who want to escape the city often head to Toulouse, a sunny town in the South of France that’s often referred to as the Ville Rose, or Pink City, due to its abundance of red brick buildings. Set within a region known for its culinary delicacies, visitors can try tasty local dishes at one of five Michelin-starred eateries as well as the city’s outdoor cafes. Some of the dishes you might get to sample include a thick stew known as cassoulet, as well as foie gras, Toulouse sausages and Roquefort cheese with Armagnac brandy, Fronton or Gaillac wines to drink. The city is also home to art galleries and major museums in addition to the Canal du Midi, which is listed by UNESCO.
Just south of the border with the Czech Republic, tucked within grapevine-laced hills, lies this peaceful Austrian town. The quintessential “real Austria” provides the chance to spend your days exploring the vineyards and wine caves, sipping everything from succulent fresh juices to wines that have been aged in casks in the dark to robust local liqueurs. While you’re here, you can also visit Vino Versum Poysdorf, a museum dedicated to the wine and cultural history of the town, and take a picture in front of the monument in the town center: Joshua and Caleb carrying a pole laden with huge grapes.
This little-known country on Europe’s eastern frontier is usually visited out of necessity rather than intent since it’s generally used as a transit point between Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Romania, but it’s well-worth spending some time in, with its diverse mix of friendly people and wide range of cultural activities. For anyone interested in the former USSR, Moldova’s capital city of Chisinau, which was formerly part of the Soviet Union, has the look and feel of a Soviet city and is a good place to practice or learn Russian without the visa problems that you’d encounter going to Russia. Just outside the city, you can experience unspoiled village life as well as picturesque landscapes.
Appearing as if it stepped out of the pages of a fairy tale, Cappadocia is known for its unique mix of naturally formed rounded and jagged rock, hill, valley and chimney formations in shades ranging from pinks to clays that are dotted throughout the region. History buffs will appreciate its storied past, relevant to the origins of Christianity, while outdoor enthusiasts are drawn here because of the extensive network of trails and multitude of activities. One of the most popular ways to see this surrealistic landscape is from a hot air balloon, with hundreds of hot air balloons firing up across Cappadocia every morning before sunset, soaring above and around the rock formations.
Luxemburg is a country in the heart of Europe that is often forgotten by tourists, but it offers countless natural treasures, from the Ardennes forests to the valleys of southern Gutland, as well as the city of Diekirch. Nestled within lush hills, it’s famous for its brewery, offering the chance to take a scenic hike followed by relaxing with a great beer. While you’re here, you can also visit Vianden Castle, framed by forests and perched on a commanding hill, this impeccably restored castle built between the 11th and 14th centuries is just a 10-minute drive away. In the nation’s capital, Luxembourg City, visitors can take the Wenzel Walk, a signposted two-hour stroll along its historic ramparts, and through cobbled streets that pass churches, towers and palaces.
This bustling university town offers a laid-back atmosphere, stunning canal-lined streets and a great craft and Belgian brew scene, along with fantastic shopping and extraordinary wharf cellars that house cafes and terraces along the water. The city center is small enough to explore on foot, but you’ll find more than enough to entertain you for days when it comes to art and culture, including Centraal Museum, Museum Speelklok, Dick Bruna Huis, Rietveld Schroder Huis and Catharijneconvent. Brew fans won’t want to miss Olivier, a Belgian beer bar and eatery housed inside an old hidden church with original vaults, an organ and altar. The menu features 70 different brews, including local Utrecht brews, and suggested dishes for pairing.
The capital city of Lithuania is often overshadowed by places like Budapest and Prague in the central region of Europe, but the European Capital of Culture in 2009, offers many reasons to visit. Old Town Vilnius is a mix of many different architectural styles, including Baroque, Classicism, Gothic and Renaissance. It’s filled with parks, cobbled alleys and monuments as well as cafes, shops, museums, galleries, theaters and squares. Europe’s largest baroque old town, it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Climb the hill to reach what used to be a castle, Gediminas Tower, where you’ll find magnificent views of the city.
Brno, Czech Republic
Many travelers can say they’ve been there and done that when it comes to Prague, but the country’s second largest city, Brno, is often passed by. It offers a slower moving, small town feel with its own cultural quirks and plenty of history too. Explore the Brno Underground, a labyrinth of cellars including the second largest ossuary in Europe as well as Spilberk Castle, formerly the major royal castle in Moravia, the seat of the Margraves of Moravia and once the seat of the King of the Holy Roman Empire, part of the national cultural heritage of the Czech Republic. Take the time to wander down side streets and be sure to enjoy a plate of svickova (beef sirloin in cream sauce) with knedliky (dumplings), along with a cheap Czech beer.
Just off the main route between Amsterdam and Delft, the town of Leiden is largely overlooked by the mass of tourists, but particularly in the spring and fall, it looks like a colorful fantasy land, with its smooth, glassy canals dotted with swans and lined with historic buildings. It’s also home to many windmills, and if you visit on a Wednesday or Saturday, you can enjoy shopping the street market for fish, flowers and cheese, or just doing some great people watching. Tucked away on a side street off of the main canal, you’ll find the American Pilgrim’s Museum, which, as the name belays, tells the story of the Pilgrim settlers in America.
Tallinn is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe, sometimes referred to as a “diamond in the rough.” Looking as if it’s been taken from the pages of a children’s fairy tale, you’ll gaze in awe at its picturesque cobblestone streets, castles and cathedrals. Estonia’s Nordic and medieval history, contrasted with the folklore traditions of its ethnic minorities, provides the entire country with an especially colorful and rich cultural diversity. You’re sure to be enamored with its charms, which preserves tradition at nearly every turn, from its medieval town fair and surrounding fortress wall to restaurant staff donning traditional garb and serving traditional fare like wild boar, bear and elk paired with tasty honey beer.
Andorra is a tiny country with a population of less than 100,000, situated in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. Its mega ski resorts with family-friendly slopes are the main reason most tourists arrive, but in the spring, summer and early autumn, this region is a hiker’s paradise. Andorra is also a tax-free shopping mecca, making it a popular day trip for saving cash on souvenirs when visiting France or Spain. While here, you’ll be exposed to three different cultures: French, Spanish and Andorran, hearing multiple languages spoken wherever you go as well as the chance to try a diverse array of cuisine.
Some say Bulgaria is Europe’s best kept secret. This Balkan beauty with snow-capped mountain peaks and lush green fields is dark, fascinating and mostly forgotten by travelers, though it’s been slowly increasing in popularity among young and adventurous tourists. It’s not a large country, but it packs a punch when it comes to beautiful scenery and natural wonders, including unique rock formations and picturesque villages. Heading away from major city centers and into the mountains will bring some of the most spectacular views. Don’t miss the wineries in Melnik, the mineral baths in Hissar known for their multitude of healing properties, or the Rose Valley, one of the biggest producers of aromatic rose oil in the world.
Finland’s capital city is a beautiful destination, filled with history, natural beauty and welcoming people. It’s also a designer shopper’s delight, home to everything from high-end fashion to innovative home décor and design, including large department stores like Stockmann as well as smaller, luxury boutiques. If you don’t mind long nights and chilly temperatures, fall and winter is prime time for design fans, a time when everything moves indoors to the Modernist spaces that have made Finland famous. Of course, everyone can appreciate fine cuisine, and Finnish fare is both healthy and delicious. Dishes are frequently made with locally grown produce like cloudberries, lingonberries and blueberries, and fresh fish is commonly on the menu too, including smoked options like salmon, Baltic herring, pike and perch. Meat lovers can sample unique choices like reindeer and moose.
Puglia, located in the “heel of Italy’s boot” in the sunny southern section of the country, offers unique character and charm that hasn’t been spoiled by hordes of tourists. The bright turquoise seas, golden sands and olive groves make up this breathtaking region that is as of yet mostly undiscovered by outsiders. Fill your days enjoying all sorts of activities, including taking winery tours and cooking classes, discovering how olive oil is made or even learning to make fresh pasta. You can also explore charming villages, stroll the food market and visit the practically endless number of artisans. Be sure to make time to interact with the locals, as Puglians are known to be some of the kindest people in all of Italy.
Frequently referred to as the “Paris of the North,” Riga offers some of the largest and most impressive art nouveau architecture in all of Europe, including goddesses and gargoyles that adorn hundreds buildings along stately boulevards. Intriguing cobbled lanes, medieval squares and gingerbread trim are found throughout its Old Town, while its many parks are bisected by a canal. This city stands out as one the best – so much so that it was named the European Capital of Culture for 2014. It’s also the Baltic gastronomy capital with restaurants serving up fusion cuisine that includes both Latvian traditional dishes as well as modern, creative meals with an astounding combination of flavors. While you’re here, be sure to climb the spire of St Peter‘s church for a view of the city.
La Coruna, Spain
If you want to venture outside of Spain’s most popular destinations like Barcelona and Madrid, La Coruna is ideal. Though largely overlooked, it offers a wealth of history, gorgeous beaches and exciting nightlife. Visit Torre de Hercules, a lighthouse with Roman era origins and lovely views from its top, as well as Maria Pita square with its javelin-wielding statue of the old city’s heroine defender. Strolling the Paseo Marítimo, a wonderful eight-mile walking and bike path, running all the way from port, around the peninsula, along the ocean beaches and on out to the west, is a perfect way to spend an afternoon. After dark, be sure to sample tasty tapas in the Panaderas.
Few travelers have heard of Sighisoara, let alone visited, but you’ll find a lot to see and do here. Situated on the Tarnava Mare River, the city dates back to the 12th century and was home to many German merchants and craftsman, most notably those who were part of the Transylvanian Saxons. During the 16th and the 17th centuries, Sighisoara is said to have been the location of 20 handicraft branches and 15 guilds. With cobbled streets, colorful buildings and a pedestrian-friendly Old Town, it’s difficult not to fall in love with this city. Along with being an old Saxon city, it has another claim to fame: being the birthplace of Vlad III (also known as Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler and Vlad Dracula). Vlad’s father was ruler of nearby Wallachia, but was in exile in Transylvania when Vlad was born. His birthplace is marked with a placard and now home to a very kitschy restaurant called “Casa Dracula.”