Whether you’re planning a budget-friendly trip to Europe or looking for a crowd-free stop on your next holiday, you’ll want to add these off-the-beaten-path destinations to your itinerary.
Sure, you could plan your European vacation around popular capitals like Paris, London, and Rome, but why not look beyond the tourist mainstays and explore a few of the continent’s lesser-known highlights? Not only will the trip be easier on your wallet, but it’ll also allow you to explore the beauty and culture of countries like Italy, Iceland, and Croatia—without the hassle of pushing through crowds and waiting in never-ending lines!
From the pristine beaches of Cinque Terre to the old-world charm of Sofia, Bulgaria, here are five off-the-radar cities to add to your European bucket list.
Cinque Terre, Italy
Located between Genoa and Pisa, this stretch of five small fishing villages along the rugged cliffs of the Italian Riviera is a little-known favorite of both hiking enthusiasts and beach lovers. Known for calm waters, excellent seafood, and a romantic “Love Walk” trail between the towns, Cinque Terre is a serene escape from the frenzy of Italy’s more popular tourist destinations. And the best part? The entirety of Cinque Terre is classified as a national park, protecting it both from environmental destruction and a plight of souvenir shops. For more information, visit parconazionale5terre.it
Best time to visit: May-June, September-October. You’ll want to avoid the very hot “slow” season during the height of summer.
Iceland may be the least densely populated country in Europe, but it’s filled with some of the continent’s most breathtaking landmarks. From Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe, to the glacial lake of Jökulsárlón, to the country’s 100+ volcanic mountains, Iceland’s natural wonders have remained largely unspoiled and well preserved for future generations. Most notably, the Aurora Borealis offers spectacular displays over the northern part of the country, as the phenomena is largely unobstructed by light pollution from cities. For more information visit visiticeland.com/.
Best Time to Visit: Autumn and winter in northern Iceland can be quite chilly, with temperatures often dipping below freezing, but the best time to see the Northern Lights is from September to April; the colder the temperature, the brighter the show.
While Croatia is quickly becoming a favorite vacation spot of many European travelers, it’s still relatively unknown in American circles. Once part of the Roman Empire, Croatia’s coastal town of Rovinj, and the surrounding area of Istria have the charm and cuisine of an undiscovered Tuscany. Pastel homes line cobblestone streets in this picturesque Mediterranean fishing town, and just-caught seafood, fresh-pressed olive oil, and the region’s native truffles, make it a must-see city for foodies. When you’ve had your fill of local fare, hop a ferry to nearby Creveni Otog and sunbathe on the “red island’s” renowned beaches. For more information, visit rovinj.co.
Best Time to Visit: June-September, when the weather is warm enough for long days at the beach.
A quick 90-minute train ride from Paddington station in London, Bath makes the perfect day-trip for weary tourists looking to get away from the stresses of city life. The former resort town for London’s elite offers something for everyone from Jane Austen’s home, to the Fashion Museum of Britain, to the centuries’ old Roman Baths for which the town is named. And while you can’t swim in the Roman Baths (whose waters are said to have healing powers) you can bathe in naturally warm, mineral-rich waters, at the nearby Thermae Spa.
Best time to visit: November – December. The vast majority of Bath’s cultural attractions are open year-round, but the town kicks it up a notch during the holiday season. Their annual Christmas market is one can’t miss attraction.
East meets West in Bulgaria’s capital city. Known as one of Europe’s most affordable destinations, Sofia offers travelers centuries-old Orthodox Cathedrals and Ottoman mosques right alongside Soviet architecture, upscale international boutiques, relaxing hot springs, and mineral spas. Olympics fans: Don’t miss the National Sports Museum on the coast of Ariana Lake. Bulgaria might be small, but the country has won 220 medals since the 1896 Games. For more information, go to bulgariatravel.org.
Best time to visit: April – June. You’ll appreciate the warm (but not sweltering) weather when you’re out sightseeing).
Which smaller European cities are you most excited to visit? Let us know in the comments below!
Caroline Hallemann is a freelance journalist currently living in New York’s East Village. Follow her on Twitter, @challemann.
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