France, Spain, and Italy have long taken the limelight when it comes to popular travel destinations in Europe, but some of the continent’s most rewarding and best-kept secrets are set off-the-beaten path. From the Balkans to the Baltic Sea, here are our picks for the 10 best (mostly) undiscovered places in Europe.
Often overlooked by its Central European counterparts, Slovenia — a small, welcoming country bordering Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia — is starting to grab Europhiles’ attention. It offers plenty of diversity, from stunning Adriatic beaches and snow-capped mountains to pine-forested countryside and architecturally grand cities. Slovenians also have a reputation for loving the outdoors and the country’s varied landscape offers plenty of opportunities for hiking, skiing, and cycling, as well as extreme sports.
The country joined the eurozone in 2007 and integrated quickly. Today, there are new non-stop flights from other European hubs as well as modern trains and well-maintained highways throughout the picturesque landscape. Lake Bled is Slovenia’s most well-known and touristed spot — best avoided in midsummer. Its castle of the same name is perched atop a steep cliff above the lake, but there’s much more to see. Be forewarned: People who travel to Slovenia often wish they had scheduled more time.
Montenegro shares commonalities with its Adriatic neighbor to the north, Croatia, but manages to stay out of the tourist spotlight. With only 650,000 residents, the main draw of this country is its sparkling coastline set against dramatic mountains. The town of Kotor is steeped in tradition and history with limestone cliffs and winding, cobblestoned streets. Further south is graceful Budva — the country’s hot tourist spot — home to trendy restaurants and nightlife. A few miles further is a fortified island village connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway called Sveti Stefan, now owned by a luxury resort, Aman.
When beaches get busy with Eastern Europeans, there are inland towns and villages where Montenegrins go about their daily lives. Rugged mountains and recreational areas likes Durmitor National Park and the temperate forest of Biogradska Gora provide hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. For history lovers, Montenegro has ornate Catholic churches, elegant mosques, and sturdy fortresses built by the many previous powers who fought over this land. And don’t leave out a visit to the Ostrog Monastery, a stunning site carved in a near-vertical mountain cliff.
On the Baltic Sea between Lithuania and Estonia, Latvia stands out from these two Baltic states thanks to a stronger German influence, despite the fact that 45 percent of the country speaks Russian. Most travelers start in Latvia’s cosmopolitan capital of Riga, home to notable art nouveau architecture and a picturesque medieval Old Town, which is more than 800 years old. For more castles and historical sites, the nearby town of Sigulda has become known as the “Switzerland of Latvia,” with its steep banks and cliffs. But let’s not leave out the vast countryside, which boasts gorgeous white-sand beaches, lakes, and forests. In fact, dense forests cover about half of Latvia’s land, so there are plenty of parks and nature trails for trekking and cycling. Visitors will also find the widest waterfall in Europe here, as well as pine-covered dunes along the unspoiled coastline.
The Greek mainland is often overlooked by travelers in favor of the more popular Greek islands to the south, which is exactly what makes it so special. Not nearly as developed in terms of tourism, the mainland offers the chance to travel off-the-beaten path while enjoying the privacy and freedom of renting a car.
Most trips will start in Athens, the nation’s capital and an important hub for exploring the iconic Acropolis. However, you could also start the trip in lesser-visited Thessaloniki, which is home to the Rotunda of Galerius. The city boasts a relaxed seafront setting, along with great dining and coffee culture. North of Thessaloniki is Vergina, which includes the grand burial mound of Macedonian kings, like Philip II, father of Alexander the Great. From here, create your own itinerary through cypress-studded hills. You’ll be rewarded with ancient archaeological sites like Olympia and the Temple of Apollo, Byzantine churches, unique villages, picturesque seaside towns, and of course, beautiful beaches along the Aegean and Ionian seas. And if an island is still beckoning, there’s Corfu — a 75-minute ferry from Igoumenitsa on the mainland’s northwest side.
5. San Marino
This all-but-unknown micronation might surprise those who thought they knew Western Europe. Set within Italy, San Marino is the third-smallest nation in Europe and holds steady as the world’s oldest surviving sovereign state. Landlocked, it is surrounded by Italy’s stunning Emilia-Romagna and Le Marche regions near the Adriatic Sea, making it an easy day trip from cities like Bologna or Florence. The country has 30,000 people and is home to three defensive fortresses perched on Mount Titano’s slopes. The historic city and Mount Titano have been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 2008, which recognized the area’s significance for both its contribution to European democracy and its beautifully preserved and renewed architecture. San Marino is a must-see destination for picturesque scenery, but also for lovers of history. The country boasts a wide range of museums, historic sites, gorgeous churches. Plus, as an independent state, San Marino has its very own military. Changing of the guard occurs from April to September, every half hour from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Palazzo Pubblico.
6. Bosnia and Herzegovina
Formerly part of Yugoslavia until it gained independence in 1992, Bosnia borders Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro, and is one of the best budget-friendly countries in Europe (hotels, restaurants, and cultural attractions are less expensive than in nearby capital cities). Despite its sad history, parts of the country are rebuilding at an impressive pace, and locals are working hard to make their home more traveler-friendly. Most tourists know it from the small sliver of sandy Adriatic coastline where the town of Neum is located. Further inland, a ruggedly beautiful terrain offers the chance to experience local life with a mix of cultural and religious sites from Serbian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Islamic faiths.
The capital of Sarajevo is a compact city with a well-preserved Old Quarter, along with an emerging cosmopolitan vibe and rural arts scene. Its center offers museums commemorating local history, like the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an event that sparked World War I. The city of Mostar is known for historic Turkish-style houses and a famous 16th-century Ottoman bridge across the gorgeous Neretva River. The expansive countryside is home to medieval villages, rivers, lakes, and the dramatic Dinaric Alps for outdoorsy activities.
Surrounded by turquoise water and limestone cliffs, Malta — not one but three islands — is a hidden gem in the Mediterranean that combines historical sightseeing, beaches, and water sports.
Historians believe that the nation was inhabited since the early Neolithic era. Because of this, Malta has been influenced by many cultural groups over the centuries, including the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Phoenicians, French, and later, the British, from whom the country became independent in 1964. Malta’s main island is home to numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the capital city of Valletta. Other not-to-be-missed attractions include Malta’s historic fortified city of Mdina and the Megalithic Temples of Malta — 11 ruins that collectively are considered the oldest freestanding structures on earth. Also significant are the watchtowers, which have long protected the coast.
Though there are touristy areas on the main island, parts of the country are very rural and quiet. Good news for those who want to explore all three islands: Malta has an effective ferry and bus network.
Made up of 11 villages, this tiny, landlocked principality between Switzerland and Austria is often forgotten. It was created at the end of the 17th century, when a wealthy Austrian prince, Johann Adam von Liechtenstein, bought out two bankrupt counts in the Rhine Valley and combined their lands. What remains today is a beautiful mountainous area that tends to pull in hikers and winter sports enthusiasts looking for a non-touristy alternative to some of the more popular Alpine destinations in the vicinity.
The capital of Vaduz, which features souvenir stores, a ski museum, and a national museum for those who want to learn about Liechtenstein’s unique history, sees the most visitors. But the most noteworthy attraction here is the Vaduz Castle (Schloss Vaduz). Although it provides a good backdrop for photos, the castle is not open to the public since it houses the royal family.
Outside the capital are fewer crowds. The town of Balzers is home to a beautiful church and a spectacular Gothic castle. Malbun, a tiny mountain resort, has a modern all-season chairlift that whisks riders more than 6,000 feet above sea level for magnificent panoramic views.
This landlocked country in the Balkans is one of Europe’s most under-explored gems. History buffs will love learning about the 2,000-plus years of Roman, Byzantine, and Turkish occupation. Indeed, Macedonia is plush with beautiful Orthodox churches, monasteries, and Ottoman mosques. In fact, it is common to hear church bells alongside the Islamic call to prayer several times a day. The thriving capital of Skopje (and birthplace of Mother Teresa) has innumerable fountains and monuments, an impressive fortress, as well as an Old Bazaar tucked into narrow streets.
The countryside around the city offers stunning examples of medieval religious art, and even further outside of the city are mountainous national parks to enjoy the great outdoors. The food in Macedonia is influenced by European, Turkish, and Slavic cuisines, with use of local herbs and spices, while sheep farms, vineyards, and fruit orchards dot the landscape. Modern day Macedonians are peaceful, happy, and welcoming people. And much like Bosnia, it is fairly cheap to travel here compared to other countries in Europe.
Like others on this list, Bulgaria is often cast aside for other more popular Eastern European countries like Hungary or the castle-packed Czech Republic. This Balkan nation should not be missed, as it has a diverse terrain and acts a melting pot with Greek, Slavic, Ottoman, and Persian influences. As such, the country is a gateway for European and Turkish culture (and food), and is one of the best-kept secrets for those who appreciate affordability, amiable locals, mountainous scenery, and a 250-mile stretch of Black Sea coastline (hint: avoid touristy Sunny Beach as it is crowded and expensive).
Many travelers start in Sofia, Bulgaria’s exciting capital city with backpacker hostels, wonderful museums, and beautiful Eastern Orthodox churches. Meanwhile, Plovdiv is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and the second-largest city in Bulgaria. Take the time to explore the expansive countryside. The Seven Rila Lakes is a group of glacial lakes situated in the Rila Mountains, about two hours away from Sofia by car. Then there are the stunning monasteries, hiking and skiing opportunities, and the Marvelous Bridges — natural marble bridges formed by erosion in the Rhodope Mountains. Adventurous types can partake in the Prohodna cave, best known for the two almond-shaped holes in the ceiling, which allow for bungee jumping or venturing along the rock bridge. And let’s not leave out the baked goods — bakeries in Bulgaria have a great range of pastries and snack foods, like banica.
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