Travel

Europe's Best-Kept Secrets: Amazing Under-the-Radar Travel Experiences 

Here the travel gurus, Rough Guides, reveal the best-kept travel secrets and experiences you're not going to want to miss in Europe.

It’s fair to say that many of us are hoping for something different from 2022. A chance to spread our wings a little wider, try new experiences and enjoy a break from the norm. If your wanderlust has been similarly woken, the good news is you don’t have to fly halfway round the world to do exactly that, as Rough Guides’ experts reveal below with recommendations for amazing under-the-radar destinations in Europe.

From following in the footsteps of Greek gods, to imbibing fine wine in La Rioja, this is European travel, but not quite as you know it. Read on to discover some of Europe's best-kept secrets.

1. Discover the Best of the Balkans

With a bit of planning (or not, if you opt for a Rough Guides tailor-made experience, where all the hard work is done for you), you can enjoy a wealth of history, culture and stunning natural landscapes on a best of the Balkans adventure that covers four fascinating countries in one unforgettable trip.

Starting out in Serbia, Belgrade serves a scintillating blend of socialist-era architecture and old town atmosphere like nowhere else. The cobbled quarter of Skadarlija is a joy to amble, with kafanas (coffee houses) serving local specialties to the tune of traditional music. Talking of hills, hikers won’t want to miss Tara National Park, an oasis of mountains and lakes that are ripe for outdoor adventuring.

Meanwhile, over the border in Bosnia and Herzegovina, medieval Mostar and Trebinje are big on beautiful backdrops and historic interest. Then there are two undeniable jewel-cities of the Adriatic to discover - Montenegro’s beach-fronted Budva and Croatia’s Dubrovnik. With a UNESCO World Heritage Site Old Town to wander, easy-access to island excursions, and a thriving food scene, Dubrovnik will leave you desperate to return before you’ve even left.

2. Retrace the Liberation Route, France

If you’ve a keen interest in history and like to make your travel experiences more meaningful, a trip that traces the steps of the Liberation Route in France comes highly recommended. For an immersive introduction, spend time at the Caen Memorial and Museum, followed by visiting Normandy’s D-Day sites, among them the Normandy American Cemetery and the village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, one of the first places to be liberated by parachutists.

In Paris, the Musée de l’Armée and Musée de l’Ordre de la Libération are must-visits before you take a train to Strasbourg. Annexed by Germany during WWII, this Alsace city is within reach of Natzweiler-Struthof Concentration Camp, the only Nazi-founded concentration camp in French territory. Located in the Vosges Mountains, visiting it is an incredibly moving experience.

Also within reach of Strasbourg, the pretty town of Colmar (think cobblestone streets framed by medieval and early-Renaissance architecture) is home to the Memorial Museum of the Battle of Colmar Pocket. Here you’ll learn about the brutal battles that took place in this area in the two months before liberation. All in all, this is a profoundly poignant, utterly edifying trip.

3. Take a Road Trip Around Classical Greece

If you’re into ancient history and prefer to do things your way, a motorhome road-trip around classical Greece might just be your cup of ambrosia. Happily, this fit-for-the-gods itinerary is also ideal for foodies, with plenty of opportunities to tuck into treats from tavernas, vineyards, olive groves, honey farms and truffle forests along the way.

Before hitting the open road, you’ll want to spend a day or two in Athens. The impossibly pretty Anafiotika district is an atmospheric spot for lunch after you’ve explored Acropolis Hill - its whitewashed houses festooned with fragrant blooms exude the allure of idyllic island villages. Beyond Athens, and beyond the Isthmus of Corinth, the archaeological site of Epidaurus boasts one of the best-preserved ancient theatres in Greece, while Mycenae, Sparta and Ancient Olympia lay bare some of the greatest architecture of the classical world.

Elsewhere on this richly rewarding route across classical Greece, you can hike the ancient footpath from Parnassus to Delphi, and meander the magnificent cliff-perched Meteora monasteries. As befits its theme, this trip is an Olympic-standard experience.

4. Get Back to Nature in Arctic Iceland

For the ultimate under-the-radar, off-the-beaten-track experience in Europe, exploring Iceland’s Arctic Coast Way is pretty hard to beat, with the approach into Egilsstadir setting a suitably epic tone. On landing, this charming town - stunningly sited on the banks of Lake Lagarfljót - serves as a gateway to discovering the Fljótsdalur valley and Hallormstadur forest.

Beyond town, the north east stretch of the Arctic Coast Way displays dramatic ocean vistas and otherworldly geological formations, with sightings of the elusive arctic fox possible across Sletta plain. The diamond circle route from Dettifoss waterfall to the Vesturdalur valley and Asbyrgi canyon is a sparkling stunner, with whale-watching and geothermal sea bath-bathing to enjoy between all those back-to-nature walks.

Iceland’s remote west is home to Europe’s most powerful hot spring (Deildartunguhver) and medieval Reykholt village, while active types won’t want to miss the exhilarating hike into Hvalfjordur fjord. After traversing a canyon and caves, you’ll wind up at towering Glymur waterfall, making this trip 100% epic from start to finish.

5. Feast and Find Peace on Portuguese Islands

If you’re yearning for a laidback sojourn in the loveliest of surroundings, you might want to take a dual-island break to two of Portugal’s autonomous islands – Madeira and São Miguel. This is the kind of trip that invites you to take it easy. To enjoy long lunches, gentle hikes, and serene sailing excursions.

Western Madeira is a place to soak up stunning cliff scenery before soaking yourself in the natural pools of Porto Moniz, while the east of the island offers opportunities to explore a UNESCO World Heritage Site laurel forest (Laurissilva) and amble traditional farming villages and markets.

Meanwhile, over on Sao Miguel, the wonders of Sete Cidades Lagoon await - it’s widely considered to display the most awe-inspiring landscape of the Azores Archipelago. For yet more breath-taking views, visit volcanic Furnas Valley, where local stew specialty cozido das Furnas is served fresh from being cooked in the ground by geothermal heat. No trip to this duo of Portuguese islands would be complete without boarding a boat to appreciate the beauty of the Azores from the ocean between dipping into the crystalline water and watching out for dolphins.

6. Discover Your Inner Sommelier in La Rioja, Spain

Extravagant lunches in 17th-century wine cellars, with rolling hills, sun-drenched vineyards and charming medieval villages to explore when you emerge from your sumptuous subterranean banquet-setting. These are the kinds of pleasures you’ll enjoy many times over during a luxury trip around La Rioja, Spain’s most celebrated wine-producing region.

Such experiences can be had while touring Dinastia Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture, an immersive experience during which you’ll discover the process of Spanish wine production - from ancient viticulture, to modern methods - before lunching on meats that’ve been slow-grilled over vine shoots.

The handsome walled medieval town of Haro is home to two world-class wineries for scenic tasting experiences, while the 13th-century fortified town of Laguardia will have you thinking you’ve stepped back in time as you feast on regional specialties like rich Rioja chorizo and grilled lamb cutlets, all perfectly paired with the best local wine, of course. Salud!

7. Fine Dining in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina

For foodies who fancy adding a dash of history and back-to-nature spice to their culinary experiences, taking a gourmet tour of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina comes heartily recommended. And we mean hearty.

Green and clean, Slovenian capital Ljubljana delivers a delicious amuse-bouche of scenic charm (caressing the Ljubljanica river and overlooked by a castle, cities don’t come much more picturesque), with hands-on cooking classes offered by celebrated local chefs. It’s also within reach of some of Croatia’s most gorgeous hinterlands. You could, for example, venture to forest-shrouded Trakošćan Castle to feel like you’ve fallen into a fairy tale before continuing the enchantment vibe in Varaždin, with villages in the surrounding hills offering plenty of places to quaff and scoff local wine and food.

To combine taking in natural beauty with feasting on authentic local food, you might want to eat in Plitvice Lakes National Park’s traditional restaurant before setting off for the Croatian coast, where the city of Split and the Dalmatian islands serve dishes with a decided (and delicious) Italian influence. Meanwhile, over the border, medieval Mostar is a beautiful spot in which to sample the best of Bosnian food, before slipping south and back to the Croatian coast to discover Dubrovnik. With an abundance of old-world charm, lively bars, and world-class seafood, this UNESCO Site city really is a feast for all the senses, making it the perfect place to round-off your fabulous three-country, food-focussed trip.

If you feel inspired to start planning your own under-the-radar European travel experience, Rough Guides Tailor-Made Trips offer you the chance to choose from existing, fully customisable itineraries (including the destinations recommended above) along with trips to over 60 other destinations. Alternatively, if you fancy creating your own trip from scratch, the Rough Guides team can connect you to a local expert who’ll personally curate an experience that’s perfect for you. Let Rough Guides Tailor-Made Trips take the hassle out of planning your next European adventure so you can focus on what really matters - discovering all those best kept secrets.

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