When we think of traveling to Europe, we often think of the most well known cities like London, Paris, and Rome. If you’ve already been to those, is it time to look beyond Europe for your next vacation? No way! Having traveled to most of the major cities in Europe, I was pleasantly surprised by these less discovered destinations — entire countries worthy of more than a pit-stop. Maybe they are less discovered because it takes a little more effort to get to them (you won’t find these countries easily accessible by Eurorail) or maybe it’s because they are geographically on the “outskirts” of Europe. Either way, these countries reward the traveler willing to make the effort to visit with plenty of sites worthy of “oohs and ahhs” and photo opportunities that any serious photographer would die for. With less tourists visiting these countries, it’s also an ideal way to get in your European fix on a beer budget (well, at least in 5 of 6 of the countries) and a great way to people watch and check out the local life.
Straddling both North America and European geographically, Iceland is the country that inspired me to start blogging. It’s also one of my favorite destinations to recommend to friends and when I do, I usually get a puzzled look in response because people who haven’t traveled to Iceland before picture it as this remote, desolate, icy place. Then, as if on cue, they reply, “Iceland?! What is there to do in Iceland?” Uhh, what isn’t there to do in Iceland? Gorgeous waterfalls, natural hot springs, geysers, glaciers, snowmobiling, dogsledding, hiking through lava tubes, whale watching, sampling exotic foods like puffin, putrified shark, and mink whale, the midnight sun, the aurora borelis, the blue lagoon, glacial lagoons, diving, riding Icelandic horses, Europe’s best tasting hot dog… need I go on?
Inevitably, everyone who goes comes back and tells me how utterly unbelievably amazing their experience was. If you haven’t been to Iceland, you need to go, like, now.
It’s hard to go from oogling Iceland to talking about Slovenia because they are such different countries. That said, Slovenia is a compact country packed with a punch for visitors who make it out there. The capital, Ljubljana, has a picturesque and buzzing old town with the cutest cafes, boutiques, and live music; the only thing that would make the scene more perfect is if the town is next to the water, and guess what? It is! There’s a canal that runs right through town. Everything is walkable and you can even stroll to the castle that sits atop town. Slovenia is more than its capital city, though. When you’re done with Ljubljana, you can take a short drive to sites such as Predjama Castle which is built right into the rock of a mountainside, Lake Bled with a stroll to Bled Island, or visit one of the many caves (there are over 10,000 of them) in Slovenia.
The Slovenians are welcoming, the food is good, the country is safe, and the prices are fair. I can’t think of any reason why it’s not a bigger tourist draw except for the fact that Slovenia knows it’s “too cool for school” — so cool it’s perfectly content going about its business and keeping its beautiful sites to itself.
Okay, Croatia has visitors. Lots of them – especially cruise goers who are cruising the Adriatic. That fact aside, this country just earned its independence a little over 20 years ago, and if you were living in a country that had the kind of prime real estate Croatia does, you’d have fought hard to keep it, too. Croatia dishes its visitors a taste of European life in Zagreb with its churches, cathedrals, museums, and an al fresco dining scene. Venture out to the countryside and you’re rewarded with idyllic villages and towns. Croatia is also home to Plitvice Lakes with turquoise colored travertine waterfalls so pretty you’d have to pinch yourself as a reminder that this is in fact, real life. And that’s just the teaser.
Croatia is blessed to be by the Adriatic, and its coastal towns and islands definitely take advantage of their location. You can visit an ancient Roman castle in Split, hob nob with other well-to-doers on the glamourous island of Hvar (don’t worry, there are plenty of other “normal” islands to explore, too), or enjoy a cafe built into the rocks in Dubrovnik while watching people jump off the cliffs into the ocean, a pastime people seem to do without second thoughts in that part of the world.
Portugal seems oft forgotten on European itineraries because its much more famous neighbor, Spain, gets all the limelight. If you’re picking between the two, however, you’d be making a mistake at dismissing Portugal because of geography — especially if you’re looking for a European vacation with some Latin flair. In fact, I fell so in love with Lisbon that I came home and wrote 10 reasons why I wanted to move there.
Besides the capital city, the country has university towns to explore, wine country, and the sun-drenched Algarve for beach goers. The best part about Portugal, however, is that it’s not trying to be anything it’s not. And what it is is a country that offers its visitors plenty to see and do at a fraction of what it’d cost in other parts of Europe. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that Portuguese cuisine is quite delicious too, especially if you’re into seafood, sweets, espressos, and of course, ports.
Snuggled between Estonia and Lithuania and with no rail access into the country, there’s little fanfare about Latvia. The only reason anyone visits may be because the capital city of Riga is often a port of call on Baltic cruises and even then, those visitors barely leave Riga. If you can get yourself to Latvia and outside of Riga, however, there’s a country with fields so scenic they belong on postcards, cute towns adorned with flowers everywhere (the Lats love their flowers), the tastiest strawberries you’ll ever find, fishing villages, old castles and pretty palaces worthy of exploration, and plenty of hidden parks and rivers perfect for an afternoon picnic.
If that’s not enough, you can test your limits at their adventure parks where you can go bobsledding, zorbing, or swing from trees like Tarzan. Now that’s definitely not something you’ll find in London, Paris, or Rome.
I never gave much thought to Montenegro until I planned a trip to Croatia, but given its proximity to Dubrovnik, I couldn’t resist adding a side trip to this country. Without knowing what to expect, I found myself in a country with ritziness that rivals the French Riviera: big fancy yachts in Kotor surrounded by old world charm and meandering cobbled walkways in Budva, a favorite vacation spot for well-off Russians. I suppose it all makes sense, actually. What do you expect for a country with an island entirely bought out by Aman Resorts, right?
Montenegro is kind of like the last undiscovered place for big shots and celebs to go for some privacy, and fortunately it’s relatively affordable for the rest of us to go, too.
What underrated destinations would you add to this list?