Paris, London, Dublin, Madrid, Venice. These are some big names when it comes to European travel. We’re sure most can be found at the top of your dream-destination bucket list. Plus, there’s good reason travel experts will point you to these cities; they’re all absolutely incredible places. When you step away from the larger cities, though, you can find yourself in small villages, learning of forgotten traditions, and on your own journey of personal discovery.
Okay, so perhaps you’ve already seen the big cities and you’re ready for something new. Or maybe your style of travel is a little more “off the beaten path” than “must-see bucket list destinations.” We know you’re looking for something a little different from your European travels. So, here are our top ten destinations for exploring another side of Europe, what we like to think of as its “best-kept secrets”.
One look at the welcoming façade of Porto and you’ll be awed. A respected spot for foodies, this Portuguese city offers exquisite food and wine, and more than a couple restaurants with Michelin star ratings. Between meals, make sure you seek out water. The city offers inspiring views of both the Atlantic Ocean and of the Duoro River. Architecturally, the city is a gem. It’s been around since the medieval ages and showcases baroque churches, fountain spotted gardens, and the more modern Museu de Arte Contemporanea. You’ll likely spot hand painted tiles, reworked old telephone booths, and a series of ten works along Rua Sao Pedro de Miragania. We invite you to discover this city, as its charms are quickly gaining attention. It was named “Best European Destination in 2017” by independent travelers from close to 200 nations.
Slovenia’s capital is absolutely worth visiting. It rates as one of Europe’s greenest and most livable cities annually, yet hasn’t lost that romantic old-world charm that many associate with European living. The city, which follows the path of the Ljubjlanica River, even has a storybook castle. You’ll also find a pair of ancient bridges, rich dark chocolate ice cream, and Roman ruins in the city, ensuring you’ll not be at a loss for historical or cultural experiences here. When you’ve finished exploring the sleepy city, venture just a bit outside of the city limits to find the Skocjan Caves, a UNCESCO World Heritage Site. Here you’ll find underwater rivers, waterfalls, and rock formations that are not to be missed. You’re also very near to Lake Bled—a famous picturesque European spot featuring a castle on a hill and a church on an island.
With her charming orange roofline and proximity to the Adriatic Sea, it’s hard to understand how Dubrovnik has stayed off the radar of the travel savvy for so long. Perhaps the best reason to plan a trip to this Croatian town is a love of all things beachy. With perfect summer temperatures hovering around 80 degrees you’re promised sunshine nearly every day. The old town part of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The cobblestone streets are incredibly welcoming, and vendors peddle everything from natural rose hand lotion to locally made red coral jewelry. Renowned for pastry sweets and rich wines, the food scene is also notable here. Perhaps the best time to visit is during the summer festival, held in July and August. You’ll be treated to folk dancers, music, outdoor films, and all sorts of local artists. Celebrity jet-setters have been known to frequent the sun-drenched beaches, so if you want to check this place out before its popularity really takes off—don’t wait!
Helsinki is a destination you’ve probably heard of, but it may not be on your travel radar just yet. The second most northern capital city in the world is a great place to experience maritime traditions. Visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Suomenlinna, a fortress built on a cluster of islands and connected only by a series of bridges. Or, step into the cold to view Northern Lights before warming yourself in a public wood-fired sauna dating to 1928! Do not leave before checking out the design scene. With boutiques, woodworking shops, and galleries galore, the art and design scene here is probably what the city is best known for. The perfect spot for an adventure with kids, the museums here offer something for every member of your family.
Hidden in a rich forest about 60 miles south of Frankfurt, Heidelberg has so much to offer. While it is true that Germany’s oldest college is found here, you’ll also find an iconic castle and the place of inspiration for several notable names across art and literary history. Poet Goethe and writer Mark Twain adored Heidelberg, as did British painter William Turner. These famed past guests are part of the reason the city is recognized by UNESCO as a City of Literature. The city, originally dating to at least the 1600s, was destroyed by French troops in 1690 and rebuilt—going on to be one of the only German cities to escape World War II without significant damage. Meaning, some original architecture still stands and is a great representation of 15th century Germany. While you’re in town check out the arched Bridge of Heidelberg that spans the Neckar River, follow the walking trail around Heidelberg Castle, experience the world’s largest wine vault, and be sure to check out the sculptures, shops, and museums.
Most people don’t need a reason to visit the Sicily region of Italy, but deciding which quaint town to stop in can present a bit of a challenge. We’re big fans of Palermo, and for good reason. Food and drink reign supreme here. Wine bars are upscale, diverse, and sophisticated. The street food is varied and among the best in all of Italy, and the white sand beaches are dotted with seafood restaurants and gelato stands. The modern art found in Palermo features 20th-century Italian masters, the perfect complement to historic artists found in other Italian hot spots. Make no mistake though, Palermo is rich in history as well. With baroque style churches and Gothic palaces dotting the city, Palermo is the perfect blend of ancient Italian architecture blended with sophisticated and modern flair.
Bergen is an incredible gateway to explore Norway. The city is known for embracing diversity and incredible street art. When you’re here, everything from the sidewalks to the sides of buildings are considered a blank canvas, leaving artists free to create art at every turn. The city is incredibly walkable, meaning you can experience art and scenery at the same time, and in under an hour. There’s also the troll forest, where troll faces are adhered to trees in honor of Scandinavian folklore! The scenery outside of the city is simply breathtaking. Norway is known for its spectacular glacial fjords, and you’ll see some stunning ones in Bergen. There’s also the UNESCO World Heritage site at Bryggen Wharf, where you’ll find the iconic street façade that often pops to mind when you think of Norway. The city itself is married to ancient maritime tradition that is modernized in culture by a thriving college student population. The result is one city with a classic feel that really gets active and modern when the sun goes down.
We’d be remiss to leave this roaring French destination off the list. Lyon is a brief two-hour trip outside of Paris and has much to offer the wayward Parisian. Historically, you’ll find ties to Roman history, and the birthplace of the first ever motion picture camera. Dig a little deeper and you’ll start to understand why the French are thrilled to keep Lyon a secret. A large draw to the city is the food scene. Often called the center of gastronomy for all of France, Lyon offers a multitude of highly rated restaurants including the three Michelin Star rated l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges. Lyon has two major rivers, the Rhone and the Saone, making it a key route for commerce, ensuring great access to authentic mementos from all of Europe. France’s third most populous city, Lyon also has a thriving nightlife and arts scene. In between all the fine dining, be sure to check out the many museums the city has to offer.
Jagged, snow-peaked crags welcome you to this hidden Austrian gem. The peaks are so near to town, in fact, that you can go from the heart of the city to the top of the world in less than an hour. It’s for this reason that the city appeals to alpine sports fans and summer hikers alike. Before you head for the hills of Innsbruck, though, make sure you take a look around at all the city has to offer. You’ll find enchanting architecture in the form of baroque cathedrals and palaces in town. A former Olympic host city, the historical significance is noted in buildings remaining from the 1500s! The Schloss Ambras is a former fortress turned palace that still sits perched on a hillside among gardens fit for a king. Here you’ll find a breathtaking hall filled with fine examples of traditional Armor suits. You’ll also want to make time to see the impressive white-walled palace at Hofburg. Another 15th-century palace, this location features capped cupolas and fine art inside.
This one is probably a bit surprising to see on our list. Well known and often visited, this Denmark city is only gaining in popularity as the years speed by. We’re mentioning it here specifically as a spring destination. While most will seek out Denmark in the summer months, spring still offers a thriving scene just warm enough to venture outside before the streets are flooded by tourists. The city is a blend of things. It’s artistic, yet free form. It’s sophisticated, yet laid back. It’s old world meets modern. Before you leave, make sure you look into design shops and enjoy the canals, too.