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Europe's Hidden Gems: All the Beauty Without the Crowds

Many famous cities and destinations across Europe are at the top of dream travel lists, but are typically filled with other tourists shuffling to snap the same photos.  The crowds combined with the ‘tourist tax’ of everything being more expensive can make some of these gorgeous places a little less appealing.  The good news is there are an abundance of equally charming locations to visit without the mobs of tourists and high prices.  Here are a list of some of the top destinations and their lesser known alternatives that are worth exploring!

Castles

Internationally recognized as the “Disney Castle” Neuschwanstein is one of the most famous castles in the world.  Located in Southern Bavaria, the castle gleams on the side of the hill looming over the village of Hohenschwangau below.  Because of the high traffic flow of the tours, the tickets are usually sold out by lunchtime and even if you order tickets online ahead of time the wait can last several hours. 


Conversely, the castles guarding the edge of Monte Titano in San Marino is often virtually empty allowing guests to freely explore the long connecting pathways that resemble the Great Wall of China. This UNESCO world heritage site overlooks the Italian Apennines, rivaling the beauty of Tuscany. San Marino is also the oldest surviving sovereign state in the world and it's known as the Serene Republic.



Mediterranean Islands


Located near the center of the Mediterranean, Greece is well known for its popular destinations including Zakynthos, Santorini, Mykonos and more.  While each of these islands offer unique and stunning views, they are often overflowing with crowds which can quickly detract from the overall experience. In fact as many as 33 million tourists visit Greece annually! 


The neighboring Mediterranean island of Malta has a fraction of the visitors with just over 1 million tourists per year.  The old city of Valletta looks like a movie set with it's rich Baroque architecture overlooking the narrow cobblestoned streets that are lined by small restaurants offering a variety of cheap delicious cuisine. One of the best attractions may be the stunning azure blue Lagoon in Gozo, which is an easy day trip by boat!

The Balkans


After Game of Thrones became an international sensation, tourism spiked in Dubrovnik (the filming location for King’s Landing) virtually overnight.  The once sleepy town became booked out months in advance for accommodations and tours. Dubrovnik has recently been so overwhelmed by tourists that the mayor has considered placing measures to limit tourists and UNESCO warned that the Old Town, a World Heritage site, can’t handle the number of people who flock to it every day. 


Just a few hours further south down the Balkan coastline is a small seaside city reminiscent of quieter times in Croatia. Budva is a lesser known destination in Montenegro that is also nestled on the coast. Similar to Dubrovnik, it also features massive stone walls in the medieval old town of Stari Grad that were built by the Venetians and overlooks the water. The brightly colored red-tiled roofs provide a bright contrast to the turquoise waters.  Buddha also offers sandy beaches with fun nightlife and has beautiful coastal walks along the cliffs skirting the Adriatic Sea.

Capital Cities


Paris, Rome, and London maintain their dominance in European tourism, consistently filled with people throughout the year.  However even the less popular spots have skyrocketed in tourism over the last decade as more people traveled than ever before in history.  Prague has recently become a hot-spot with an influx of over 8 million crowding through Old Town to cross the Charles Bridge, catch a glimpse of the Astronomical Clock, and explore the Castle Hill. 


The northern Baltics has remained behind this wave with Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Belarus slightly off the beaten path.  While being recognized as the top Christmas Market in Europe in 2018, Estonia's UNESCO world heritage capital city Tallinn surprisingly remains one of the least visited capitals in Europe.  It’s tumultuous history with many world's powers, from the Danes and Swedes to Germans, and tsarist and Soviet Russia, resulted in a mix of influence in architecture and culture that can be seen across the city.  The Old Town is filled with medieval houses and alleys but there are numerous little trendy cafes and restaurants opening around the city.


Wine Region


Several of the world’s greatest wine producing regions are located throughout Europe. From Bordeaux and Champagne regions in France to the rolling hills in Tuscany.  However, wine enthusiasts (or those eager to enjoy some local wine off the beaten path) should also add Moldova to their itinerary. 


Moldova is a fascinating place to visit with centuries old winemaking traditions in producing wine and currently one of the top twenty biggest producers in the world.  There are fascinating venues to explore including Mileștii Mici the biggest wine cellar in the world and the Castle Mimi Wine Resort.  Discover the country during the first week of October to experience the National Wine Festival with many of the vineyards hosting celebrations, wine master classes, and plenty of wine tastings!

Iceland natural spa

Everyone has seen photos of the remarkable cloudy blue water in Iceland’s most famous spa, the Blue Lagoon.  Yet what is typically not shown or is edited out of these photos are the hundreds of other people sharing the facilities.  While this is certainly worth visiting to see what all the fuss is about, also take the time to go to one of the natural spas outside of Reykjavik and relax in the natural hot waters. 


Many are closely located next to inlets which offer guests the chance to take a polar plunge immediately after a soak! If you are driving the Golden Circle, check out Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths for natural pools, steam rooms, Finnish-style saunas and of course, a quick dip in the ice cold Laugarvatn!

Mountains


Some of the most famous mountain ranges in the world, from the Swiss Alps to the Dolomites, and notorious peaks like Mount Blanc draw climbers and tourists from around the world. However, these just begin to scratch the surface of the mountains available to trek. 


One of the most picturesque areas for hiking with numerous trails for every fitness level is in in the Bavarian village of Berchtesgaden.  Mt. Watzmann is the most prominent peak in the area which is also the third highest peak in Germany at 8,901 ft/2,713 meters.  It towers above the clear blue-green waters of Konigsee (King’s Lake) and offers a stunning panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and lakes. The local attractions offer a traditional German beer hall, the Braeustueberl Hofbrauhaus, the Sommerrdelbahn Slide, 12,000 foot slide off the mountain, and Hitler’s Eagles Nest.

Lakes


Despite being such a small continent, Europe is also brimming with postcard perfect lakes including international hotspots like Italy’s Lake Como and Slovenia’s Lake Bled.  There are many more ‘secret’ lakes to discover with numerous high mountain lakes dotting mountain ranges.


Switzerland, home to over 1,500 lakes, offers some of the most impressive scenery and a seemingly endless supply of these little gems.  While Lauterbrunnen is decidedly one of the most popular towns to visit (and one of the most beautiful places in the world in my opinion!), tucked away on the Sulegg mountain is the small alpine lake of Sulsseeli which is most frequently visited by the local cows. This is just a short hike from the summit which offers impressive views of the turquoise Thunersee and Brienzersee Lakes far below!

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