Tired of the usual rigmarole? Done and dusted with the regular jaunt to the Costa del Sol and the sunny Algarve? Want to skip out on that trip to the Canaries for something a little different this year? Woohoo! This guide to the most underrated European travel destinations is precisely what you need.
Here, we’ll focus in on seven of what we think are the places that have escaped the limelight but really shouldn’t have. They are spots that have oodles in the way of culture and adventure but rarely get the plaudits to match. We think you’ll be surprised at the sheer range of options:
Mhmm…our array of the most underrated European travel destinations hops from the soaring heights of the Albanian Alps all the way to the gleaming beaches of northern Spain. It’s got cities, small mountain towns with ski slopes, and even regions known for their Balkan olive oils and truffles. Let’s get going off the beaten track…
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Albania has always been a bit of an outlier in Europe. After WWII, the whole place was cut off from the rest of the planet by the paranoid Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. There are still over 150,000 ruined bunkers dotting the landscapes here as a testimony to his aversion to the outside world!
Fast forward to 2022 and Albania is a totally different sort of country. It’s 12 years into a long EU member state application. It’s got a nifty new airport. And it’s facing up to its past – some of the concrete bunkers left over from Hoxha have now been converted into art galleries and art installations!
We think Albania has bags of potential. On the coast, the beaches continue on the Montenegrin vibe, with shimmering waters and pebble coves. Inland, there are wild Dinaric Alps that blow the horizon to pieces, from the Valbona Valley all the way to Mt Korab.
If you’re looking for an alternative ski destination to the Alps, then perhaps Poland has the answer. Cue Zakopane, the de facto Winter Capital of Poland. It sits in the middle of the jagged Tatra Mountains in the far south of the country, in a snowy bend of the Carpathians. Come December, the whole place fills with skiers on the hunt for bargain pistes. They’re not as high or long as in the Alps, but they won’t break the bank – we’re talking $20 to get on the slopes!
Zakopane is about more than just winter sports, though. It’s a charming town of timber-built cottages and smoking chimney stacks that also offers a gateway into endless hiking trails, which weave through the nearby Tatra National Park and up to the top of Poland’s highest mountain, Rysy. The town is also now known for its fantastic spa hotels, many of which have al fresco hot tubs. Plus, it’s only two hours’ drive down the road from Krakow!
The westernmost cut-out of the UK is a mystical land that’s steeped in tales of ancient Celtic tribes and proud clan kings. It’s infamous for its heavy rains and poor weather, but if you can look past that then there’s a real land of adventure on the menu.
In the north, the national park of Snowdonia is the jewel. It’s the home of the country’s highest peak, Yr Wyddfa, which scores above the lakes and forests to 1,085 meters. From there, it’s easy to explore the valleys and beaches that abound, from the Fairy Glen to the resort favorite of Colwyn Bay.
Head south and you can hit Pembrokeshire, the home of the sole coastal national park in Britain. It’s linked up by 186 miles of walking paths and has surf breaks and white-sand beaches that would look right at home in the Caribbean on a good day.
The problem with Athens is that it’s surrounded by such gorgeousness that most people head in and then head right out again. But, if you can resist the pull of the sun-kissed Greek islands and the beaches of the Aegean Sea for just a day or two, we think there’s plenty to warrant a couple of nights in the big city…
Naturally, the Acropolis takes center stage. By morning, head up to check off the wonders of the mighty Parthenon and see the whole city unfold around that ancient fortress come temple complex. Later on, when it gets hotter, descend to walk the Agora and the Roman Forum areas, and delve into the all-new Acropolis Museum (it’s amazing).
We also love the new and upcoming hipster quarters of Athens. Koukaki is the leader – it’s a dash of boutique hotels, quirky vintage stores, and brunch spots that do avo on toast. Mix that with a jaunt through the Plaka, where you can see old Athens and dine in authentic Greek tavernas.
Think Croatia, think the walled city of Dubrovnik and the gleaming pebble beaches of the Makarska Riviera; think the hip bars of Hvar and the aquamarine waterfalls of Krk. Truth is, very few people cast their gaze north in this west Balkan nation. But there’s a region up there that we think has the power to steal the heart, and it goes by the name of Istria.
Shaped like an upside down triangle, Istria goes from the border with Slovenia to the town of Pula. As it unfolds it offers an inland that’s famed for its truffles and olive oil (the town of Motovun is considered the Balkan capital of both those), along with umpteen rocky jump-offs into the Adriatic Sea.
The aforementioned town of Pula is, simply, not to be missed. That ancient city was created by the Romans and still has a colossal amphitheater to show for it, not to mention 2,000-year-old temples and a forum space that bustles with nightlife to this day.
Lake Iseo, Italy
The north of Italy is a land that’s often in the spotlight. It flaunts the fantastical Dolomites – one of the most-visited hiking meccas and ski areas on the continent – and the gleaming waters of Lake Garda and Como. But there’s another escape tucked away inside: Lake Iseo.
An S-bend of water that carves into the Bergamasche Pre-Alps just north of Bergamo itself, the lake is nowhere near as famous as its compadres to the east and west. You can tell that because it’s where the Italians themselves go to visit.
But it’s got all the joys of a true Alpine getaway. There are mountains like Colombina at its north end to conquer. There are wild swimming spots along the eastern shoreline. There are charming, cobbled towns like Lovere with ice-cream parlors and piazzas.
Most sun seekers will look south in Spain, to the Costa del Sol and the beaches of the Costa Brava. But there’s a whole other coast in the land of flamenco and paella, running along the edges of the wild Bay of Biscay from the French border. Cue Asturias…
Officially called the Principality of Asturias, this long, thin cut-out of Spain rolls down from soaring mountain peaks to meet the ocean in grand style. It’s got surf-washed beaches that will take the breath away – just check out Playa de Barayo, Playa De Tauran, and Playas de Ballota.
Up above, hikers cannot dodge the allure of the Picos de Europa. They look like the Alps but they aren’t the Alps. They are wild plateaus dotted with cattle and spiked by gnarled summits of limestone. Oh, and then there are the cultural highlights of Asturias, like the colorful regional capital of Oviedo and the dino-filled Jurassic Museum.
Underrated European travel destinations – a conclusion
There are stacks of underrated European travel destinations out there, that’s for sure. Our list selects just seven places that we think are among the most enticing for 2023. It’s a varied bunch, with options for skiers and hikers, but also culture-filled spots for the city slickers and the art buffs. You might find them a touch harder to get to than more tried-and-tested destinations on the continent – some don’t even have their own airport! On the flip side, they should be a whole load less busy and way easier on the wallet, since there’s not such demand for hotels and tours.