Home to some of the oldest cities, most famous landmarks and the smallest country in the world (Vatican City), there’s no denying that Europe is one of the most attractive places on earth to travellers.
But as hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers flock to Paris, Rome, Berlin and Athens every year, so much more of the continent goes relatively unexplored. If you’re tired of the well-worn path or you’re looking for a European holiday with a twist, these eight alternative cities could be the perfect place to free your adventure.
1. Piran, Slovenia
Why go: Colourful charm on the Adriatic Coast
Mesmerising architecture? Check. Quaint town squares? Check. Seafood galore? You bet. Piran has just about everything you could hope for in a small European coastal town - food, atmosphere, and scenery included.
Piran is regarded as a mecca of Gothic architecture, and has grown into one of the country’s premier tourist attractions.
Planning tip: For one of Piran’s best vantage points, hike to the top of the bell tower at the Church of St. George. Don’t forget to pack your €1 entry fee!
2. Krakow, Poland
Why go: Historic weight and old-world beauty
Poland isn’t traditionally high on the list of must-see European countries, but that’s steadily changing thanks to blossoming tourism in cities like Krakow. A renowned restaurant scene, architectural splendour and sprawling parklands are drawing curious travellers looking for a European destination with a twist.
As one of the oldest regions in Poland, Krakow is also a history-buff’s playground. With sites like the UNESCO-listed Old Town, Wieliczka Salt Mine and nearby Auschwitz, you can’t help but be awe-struck by the historic significance of Krakow.
Planning tip: Many of the museums in Krakow have a free admissions day each week, which is perfect for travellers on a budget. Check out the museum website and plan your visit around these days.
3. Hvar, Croatia
Why go: Celebrity spotting on crystalline seas
Hvar is to Croatia what Phuket is to Thailand - a mecca for sun-kissed travellers looking for natural beauty by day and thumping parties by night. The island city is undeniably one of the most picturesque places in Europe, and blessed with some of the best weather to boot. So it’s no surprise that Hvar has grown into one of the country’s busiest tourist destinations.
Whether it’s a hike to the hilltop fortress, a kayaking tour through the Paklinski Islands, or a meandering walk through cathedrals and monasteries, Hvar is a true adventure traveller’s paradise.
Planning tip: Hvar is home to some of Europe’s best beaches, but many shoreline areas are also rocky. Add a pair of thongs to your holiday packing list to protect you when hitting the beach, and be cautious in shallow water where sea urchins often lie on rocky outcrops.
4. Inverness, Scotland
Why go: Rolling hills, winding lakes and towering castles
The historic town of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands boasts some of the most picturesque landscapes in the country, including the famous lake Loch Ness, home to the legendary Loch Ness Monster.
If you’re a history buff or medieval enthusiast, you’ll find spectacular sites like Inverness Castle, Urquhart Castle and Cawdor Castle, which was actually mentioned in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Planning tip: The height of summer might sound like the ideal time to visit the Scottish Highlands, however this also happens to be peak midge season. The biting insects are notoriously active from June to September, so pack your insect repellant if visiting in summer.
5. Frankfurt, Germany
Why go: Countless museums and magical markets
Frankfurt is an eclectic collision of old and new, with gothic cathedrals and medieval homes nestled among towering skyscrapers and modern offices. Throughout the city, countless museums, galleries, taverns, restaurants and markets keep travellers entertained.
The Frankfurt Christmas Market is one of the largest and most dazzling markets in Europe, and attracts hundreds of thousands of revellers every year from late November to late December. The annual celebration is believed to date as far back as 1393, when it was a festival of food, toys and theatre.
Planning tip: If you’re planning to peruse Frankfurt’s many world-class museums, consider picking up a MuseumsuferTicket, which grants you entry into over 30 of the city’s best attractions for a two-day period. Be sure to check which museums are open during your travel dates, as many undergo regular renovations.
6. Kalambaka, Greece
Why go: Spectacular monasteries and wondrous landscapes
Kalabaka, Kalambaka, Kalampaka - whatever you call it, there’s no denying the breathtaking grandeur of this Greek town. Its nearby Meteora monasteries are perched on dramatic sheer cliff tops, in a scene that truly has to be seen to be believed.
The actual town of Kalambaka was almost entirely rebuilt after World War II, and is literally and figuratively overshadowed by the nearby monasteries. However, there are a few attractions worth visiting, like the Natural History Museum and Theopetra Cave.
Planning tip: A guided tour is a great way to appreciate the history of the Meteora monasteries, especially if you have limited time to explore on your own. If you do choose to go it alone, take note that many of the monasteries are closed on certain days of the week, but all are open on weekends.
7. Lecce, Italy
Why go: A taste of authentic Italy, pasta and pastries included
It may not have a leaning tower, a colosseum or winding canals, but Lecce offers an authentic Italian experience to rival anywhere in the country. Quaint sandstone streets are dotted with cosy eateries, and ornate buildings overlook lazy piazzas.
If you’re looking for somewhere to escape the hustle and bustle of Rome, or the flocks of tourists in Venice, then Lecce could be the perfect place to unwind. After a bowl of fresh pasta, a glass of rosé and a stroll on the beach, you may never want to leave.
Planning tip: Even though visitor numbers are a shadow of Italy’s other cities, Lecce becomes hot and crowded in the peak of summer. If you’re hoping for a slower pace with more room to move, the shoulder seasons of Spring and Autumn could be a better choice.
8. Budapest, Hungary
Why go: A city with the lot - nature, cuisine, architecture and fascinating history
Whether you’re a travelling family, a keen foodie, a history buff or a nature lover, you’ll find something up your alley in Budapest. The Hungarian capital is home to natural wonders like its sprawling underground caves, architectural marvels like the Hungarian Parliament Building, and countless restaurants and bars in the Seventh District.
Planning tip: In 1848, Austria defeated a Hungarian revolt and clinked their beer glasses to celebrate. This upset the Hungarian people so deeply that they vowed never to clink glasses again, and many residents still observe this custom today. So if you’re unwinding with a beer, keep the cheers to yourself!
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