It’s a common conundrum lately: you love Europe, but you don’t love the idea of a crush of people in Paris, London, or other top tourist destinations across the pond. Well, fear not, because you don't need to give up the history, spirit, or flavors of Europe to avoid the masses. Any of these five under-the-radar European towns will put you in the center of the charm -- but not the center of the crowds. (Plus, they all have lower crime rates compared to their big city counterparts -- so that's another perk gained from meandering down the road less traveled.)
Where is it? In the south of France in the region of Provence, Lacoste is 27 miles from Marseille Airport.
The Fun to Be Had: Many visitors take a tour of the Chateau Marquis de Sade, a ruined castle that dates back to the 17th century. You’ll find plenty of local vineyards in the area to tour as well, and the vineyard that was featured in “A Good Year,” starring Russell Crowe, offers wine tastings. For dining with a view, both the Café de Sade and Café de France overlook lavender and sunflower fields. If a vacation isn't a vacation without shopping, as far as you're concerned, you will likely enjoy a stop at ShopSCAD, a unique boutique that sells artwork, clothing, and other creations by local students, faculty, and alumni from the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Where is it? In the Lake District in northeast England, less than a two-hour drive north of Manchester Airport
The Fun to Be Had: Lovers of literature will likely find Sawrey and its surrounding area an inspirational spot to relax and reflect. The town (actually two neighboring villages, often referred to as Near Sawrey and Far Sawrey) dates back to the 14th century. Beatrix Potter’s home, Hill Top, regularly has Peter Rabbit lovers stopping by for a tour of the property, as well as the adjacent museum. The settings of many of her classic children’s books can still be seen today, much as she depicted them in her pages. For instance, the Tower Bank Arms, a cozy pub known for its variety of old-fashioned ales, was seen in The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck. William Wordsworth also hailed from the Lake District. His grammar school, among other sites, is open to the public in Hawkshead, a neighboring village. The largest lake in the region, Windermere, is a trout fishing spot for locals for generations. And because Romans inhabited the Lake District 400 years ago, visits to ruins -- including Hadrian’s Wall and Roman bath houses -- make for easy day trips.
Where is it? About an hour’s drive from Nuremberg Airport, in Bavaria
The Fun to Be Had: Germany’s best-preserved medieval walled city is pretty much what you’d picture the setting of a fairytale to look like: towers, cobblestone streets, ramparts, twisting lanes, and shops with leaded-glass windows can all be found here. One way to get a lay of the land when you arrive is to take the 30-minute walk around the old town walls, starting at the Gatehouse Spitaltor. The Rathaus Town Hall, hosting theatrical performances and concerts, is definitely nothing like your town hall back home so it's worth a visit, too. Rothenburg is also the location of the most popular Christmas market in Germany, a tradition that goes back to medieval times. Not visiting during holiday time? The Deutsches Weihnachts Museum is dedicated to all things German Christmas, all year round. The Medieval Crime Museum, on the other hand, seems at odds with the idyllic backdrop, but it can still be a fascinating stop for some, informing about the accouterments of trials, punishments, and witch hunts of the Middle Ages.
Where is it? It’s about a 90-minute train ride from Brussels to Bruges.
The Fun to Be Had: Cars have a tough time getting around the little streets of Bruges, so hopping on a bike may turn out to be a good idea. On some days, it can seem like everyone in this town is either a bicyclist or backpacker. The Historic Centre of Brugge is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and the area -- dotted with cafes, boutiques, and galleries -- shows off both medieval and gothic architecture, and is encircled by Ring Canal. Just south of De Halve Maan Brewery (a lively place to sample Belgian beer) is Minnewater Lake, dubbed the Lake of Love by locals. It’s easy to see why, what with swans, weeping willows, and canoodling couples nibbling waffles on benches. Foodies may well want to check out Balls of Glory, an eatery dedicated to meatballs -- humongous ones, in all kinds of flavors. Frietmuseum showcases the history of the humble potato, which, past visitors insist, is a lot more interesting than it may sound. The highlight at this museum comes at the end, when everyone gets to chow down on hot, crispy, Belgian fries. More of a chocolate connoisseur? Then Choco-Story, a museum paying homage to Belgian chocolate, may just turn out to be the most memorable moment of your trip. Or consider hitting one of the many chocolate shops in town. It's pretty hard to go wrong with the sweet stuff here. No worries....you can always bike it off!
Where is it? A one-hour flight from Oslo, on the west coast; you can also take a train.
The Fun to Be Had: Centered around a natural harbor and surrounded by the Seven Mountains, Bergen was established in 1070. It has (often unexpected) cultural draws, especially festivals, year-round. Some of the most well-regarded are the Bergen International Festival, Nattjazz Festival, and Bergenfest. Many visitors also grab a performance of one of Europe's oldest orchestras, the Bergen Philharmonic, which was established in 1765.
Like seemingly everything else here, the colorful wooden merchant houses are old....circa 1400-1500. They surround the harbor, forming one of the most iconic symbols of Bergen. That sight itself is Instagram-worthy....but if you decide to explore a bit further, you’ll find potters, jewelers, artist studios, leather crafters, and textile artisans all along the tiny alleys between those historic houses.
If you don’t mind getting up really early (which may be easier than you think if you happen to plan a visit for June, when the sun rises shortly after 4 a.m.), consider heading over to the quays at Bergen’s Market Square. Watching the fisherman haul in their cod, mackerel, or redfish, then sell them at the 700-year-old Torget Fish Market, are sights you won’t see anywhere else.