Tourists love Europe, and for good reason. It is full of ancient history and colorful cultures. It has varied natural landscapes and, alongside its major cities, picturesque hundred-person villages to explore. Oh, and it’s (relatively) easy to get around.
But all that lure brings crowds. Come summer, its hotspots – London, Paris anywhere along the Mediterranean – are packed with people, raise prices, congest the streets and in many cases add far more stress to the holiday than what is should be legally allowed.
If that’s not your cup of tea, read on. We polled five longtime travel writers for their picks for the most underrated gems of Europe’s cities to visit instead. From a town in Austria described as a “retreat for the soul”, to another an island in Italy where you can try arancini as it should be, here’s what they said.
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Renata Gortan, freelance food and travel writer
Don’t be put off by the mafia stories of Sicily. This island is Italy, but not. Ancient Arabian rule is evident in the architecture and food – try the arancini as they are meant to be – the size of cricket balls – eat brioche and granita for breakfast and experience the night markets for amazing street food. Godfather fans will also love snapping a photo on the steps of the Opera House.
Monique Ceccato, freelance writer and travel designer
If you’ve heard of Stavanger, it’s probably one of two reasons: you docked in port overnight on that cruise you once did, or you’re in the oil and gas industry. None of these reasons makes the city particularly sexy, especially when there are towns and villages in the north of the country that boast thick blankets of winter snow and dancing green skies. But trust and believe it, Stavanger is much more than the oil capital of Norway.
In summer, the city’s port is buzzing. The main street is closed and the timber-clad pubs and restaurants that line the seafront spill out onto the road, putting on live music and a party in the 10pm sun. Follow the cobbled streets into the heart of the city and you will find Fargegate, aka ‘Colour Street’. Its brightly painted wooden buildings house everything from craft breweries to book cafes and are the perfect place to while away the afternoon. Have you worked up an appetite? The town is full of high-quality restaurants, including a 10-seat Michelin-starred omakase and a two-Michelin-starred gourmet restaurant.
If nature is your thing, Stavanger and the surrounding region have it in spades. There’s a botanical garden on an island just outside the city, perpetually flowing waterfalls, deep fjords made famous by Impossible mission, and – if you believe it – long stretches of white sand beach. The best part? Everything is less than an hour away.
Sonya Gellert, freelance travel writer and founder of Spaghetti head services
It may not be high on many travellers’ wish lists, but Ljubljana – Slovenia’s leafy capital – is brimming with beautiful old-world architecture, a thriving food scene and all the of a major European city (minus the tourist crowds).
Sit by the Ljubljanica River with Slovenian wine in hand, visit the city’s castle, stroll through a storybook-worthy cityscape, and take a day trip to Ljubljanica’s iconic lake. Bled (a 45-minute drive from the city) to experience Slovenia’s stunning natural beauty.
Why Ljubljana is often overlooked in favor of larger European cities is a mystery to me – but for those who prefer to avoid the crowds or want to dive deep into central Europe, this little destination is a must visit.
Monica Tischler, freelance travel writer
A rare gem in the crown of Upper Austria is idyllic Traunkirchen, nestled on a peninsula along the western shores of Lake Traunsee.
Described as a ‘retreat for the soul’, the mountainous destination with a summer painting academy has long been a calling card for artists and writers, but rarely for tourists. Still, those seeking sanctuary from the crowds of more populated hotspots should include Traunkirchen on the itinerary.
Culture and history abound inside Johannesbergkapelle, the iconic chapel set on a steep rock face overlooking the lake, which comes alive with cruise ships and water sports enthusiasts in the summer. A well-marked network of hiking trails leads to picturesque views of shimmering water and towering mountain ranges, with a light dusting of snow in winter. Reserve a table at a restaurant overlooking the lake and indulge in the local delicacy of fresh fish and a glass of Aperol Spritz. Prost!
Amanda Woods, freelance travel writer and founder of Adventures all around
While most river cruises from Budapest head to Amsterdam, when you take the less traveled river through Eastern Europe, you’ll find yourself in the Romanian capital of Bucharest, a city just as fascinating as your starting point, but much less crowded.
Nothing can quite prepare you for a visit to the Palace of Parliament, where dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had over a million cubic meters of Transylvanian marble, 3,500 tons of crystal for chandeliers, 100 kg of gold and 220,000 square meters of carpet used to build the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon. As for visiting one of their repressive regime’s best-kept secrets, Ceausescu’s mansion, it’s hard to imagine what Romanians felt when they found out their leader was living in such opulence when thousands of people were starving.
In addition to visiting the traces left by a mad dictator, you can explore the streets of a city that is reinventing itself with new shops, cafes, restaurants and bars. And from Bucharest, you can also take day trips to Transylvania to see Bran Castle, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Draculaas well as dipping your toes in the Black Sea.
Tara Harrison, Founder of Adventurer
You know Mykonos, you certainly know Santorini, but have you heard of its neighbour, Folegandros? While other islands tend to be overrun with tourists, this under-the-radar island has retained its charm and tradition, in part because no cruise ships dock here. The main town, Chora, is car-free, with whitewashed houses covered in magenta bougainvillea, cats sitting on the walls and squares full of tables and chairs for outdoor dining. It is the island where the Greeks take their summer holidays.
The sunsets here alone are worth the visit. Golden light touches every part of the island, and Chora has a front seat as the sun sinks into the ocean. At the end of the day, everyone goes on a pilgrimage to the whitewashed church of Panagia, which rises above Chora and offers the best views of the sunset over the Aegean Sea.
A hike along desolate cliffside paths will lead you to deserted beaches, such as Agios Nikolaus. Here you will find a local restaurant, Papalagis Seafood, with some of the freshest fish and best food you will find on the island. Order the catch of the day, tarama and octopus.
Renata Gortan, freelance food and travel writer
Naples is more than just a stopover to Vesuvius and Amalfi. Of course there is pizza, but don’t forget to try the local pastry “sfogliatelle”. It’s loud and chaotic – you definitely don’t want to drive, but it’s full of life.
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