Everyone knows the hotspots in Europe; the go-to countries and frequently visited landmarks. We’ve all seen images online or on telly of Rome and Paris, Barcelona and Venice.
There’s far more to Europe than the popular tourist spots and overpriced cities. If I had stuck to big cities during my travels, I wouldn’t have made some of my fondest memories that I did in these spots. Here, I’m going to share with you my top 10 favourite lesser known destinations that I visited throughout Europe.
1. Ellmau, Austria
Don’t worry if you hadn’t heard of it before, neither had I. This Austrian village in the east of Tyrol is surrounded by picturesque alpine countryside and sits at the foot of the Wilder Kaiser mountains.
While predominantly a ski resort in winter, I’d absolutely recommend visiting in summer. Nothing beats hiking in the Kaiser mountains; surrounded by the most incredible views of snow topped summits shrouded by cloud, watching the highland cows pass by, their cowbells tingling as the sun glistens off the natural springs and lakes.
The village of Ellmau is made up of alpine wood chalets, creating a cosy, unique charm that makes you feel right at home. You’ll find Hintersteiner See lake a mere 15 minute drive away, a must see when visiting Ellmau.
View from my hostel in Ellmau
2. Grünau im Almtal, Austria
When you think of Austria, I’m more than certain this stunning countryside village in the south doesn’t even cross your mind. Truth be told, were it not for Busabout, it would never be on my radar either.
This little town is the epitome of a hidden gem and the main inspiration behind this post. If you’re looking for an escape at the base of the mountains, with valleys winding alongside rivers and hiking routes that can go on for days, then Grünau is your place.
Cycle through the neighbouring villages and come across the phenomenal natural wonder of Lake Almsee. An absolutely stunning landscape with trails bordering the water, showcasing crystal clear reflections of the surrounding mountains.
The Treehouse Backpacker Hotel: the cosiest accommodation I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying in. Wherever possible, I’ll always recommend staying here when in Grünau. The owner, Gherard, is the kindest soul you’ll ever meet; from making home cooked dinners for his guests every night, to sharing his personal recommendations and allowing free use of his own transport. If you visit Grünau, definitely consider staying here – you’ll find it becomes a home away from home and keep you coming back.
Lake Almsee; an hours cycle from The Treehouse Backpacker Hotel,
an incredible scenic drive
3. Ljubljana, Slovenia
Slovenia’s capital city and largest in the country is elegant and extremely underrated. With beguiling bridges and gorgeously green riverbanks, Ljubljana is home to many alluring terrace cafes along the river, attracting locals and tourists alike.
With a rich history and its own castle, this small captivating city has a distinct separation between the cultural Old Town, with its medieval streets, and the more modern, lively centre.
Upon exploring Ljubljana, you’ll find that there are dragons at almost every turn; on bridges, railings, walls and buildings. Delving into the history, the dragon is a symbol of the city, a protector and overseer directly related to the foundation of the land itself.
The Ljubljanica River is the heart of the city, flowing through the Old Town
4. Zakopane, Poland
You’ll find Zakopane nestled in the Tatra Mountains at the south of Poland. Although more popular in winter with skiers, you’ll find hikers there all year round, appreciating the classic wooden style chalets and mountains as far as the eye can see.
If you head into the heart of the town, you’ll find Krupówki Street; full of charm and perfect for soaking up the culture (or shopping). If you ever find yourself heading to Zakopane for a visit, I highly recommend a sunrise hike to Morskie Oko, the largest lake in the Tatra Mountains. Google it, trust me.
Sunrise hiking trail in the Tatra Mountains
5. Český Krumlov, Czechia
Those I met backpacking Europe would probably be laughing right about now if they saw I’d included Český in this post. Whilst I sadly overlooked this miniature quaint Czech town, the friends I made along the way never failed to let me forget it.
Located in Bohemia, the Old Town is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site and chock full of charm. From cobblestone streets in a maze of twisting alleyways to the enchanting medieval Český Krumlov castle, this hidden gem is like something out of a fairytale.
Mentioned practically every day from those I travelled with, I couldn’t not include it in this post.
Overlooking the Old Town on the Vltava River
6. Lake Bled, Slovenia
Possibly a little more well known, Lake Bled in Slovenia is the definition of picture perfect. From its clear blue Alpine lake nestled between snowy mountain peaks of the Julian Alps, to the picturesque church standing proud on an islet, Bled is an unmissable destination.
Whilst a slightly more crowded spot, it’s absolutely worth a visit. Alongside visiting Bled Castle sitting high on the cliffs above the lake, Bled and the surrounding areas offer a myriad of activities, including canyoning, paragliding, white water rafting and zip lining.
A mere two and half miles north-west from Bled you’ll find Vintgar Gorge. Located in Triglav National Park, this natural beauty is enclosed by the vertical walls of Hom and Boršt hills, with boardwalks tracing the paths of waterfalls and rapids for over a mile.
If you’re an adrenaline junkie like me, you’ll be intrigued by the outdoor activities I previously mentioned. The Soča Valley is a paradise for water sports and completely took my breath away when I first laid eyes on it. The 85 mile long Alpine river glistens aquamarine in the sun and is a natural wonder you must see to believe.
Bled Castle overlooking the beauty of Lake Bled
7. Orvieto, Italy
Without a doubt, my favourite little Italian city. If you prefer small quaint towns and the authenticity of a charming destination untouched by tourists (for now), then I’m certain you’ll appreciate Orvieto.
Located on a chunk of volcanic rock, rising high (a thousand feet, to be exact) above the surrounding countryside, Orvieto overlooks striking Umbrian vineyards and fields. The unmissable city is a mere 90 minute train ride from Rome and only accessible to tourists by funicular, leaving the town itself virtually traffic free.
Viewing platform off the side of the cliff-top town
8. Zadar, Croatia
You may be familiar with Zadar, the quirky, historic town full of Roman ruins and cosmopolitan cafes. Home to the famous Sea Organ on Croatia’s Dalmatia coast, this charming Old Town is the perfect alternative to the more touristic areas like Split or Dubrovnik.
Surrounded by the Adriatic Sea, Zadar’s sunsets are a sight to behold, highly commended by Alfred Hitchcock and best viewed above the Monument to the Sun. What is that, you ask? A 22 metre disc powered by UV rays and emitting coloured light patterns on the edge of the waterfront.
Pair this with the aforementioned Sea Organ (a giant harmonica played by the sea through cutouts in the promenade), the charming contrast between the Old and New Town, and the overall eccentric and welcoming vibe; this city is without a doubt a must visit.
The ‘Monument to the Sun’ becomes a spectacle at night, with bright coloured lights becoming a dance-floor beneath magnificent sunsets
9. Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland
The word Lauter Brunnen literally translates to ‘many fountains’, which is exactly what this secluded valley of alpine meadows and charming wooden inns is home to. Boasting over 70 phenomenal waterfalls falling from high rock walls on either side of the valley floor, this magnificent little gem is, in my opinion, the most magical destination in Europe.
While it’s a popular village in the winter with skiers, its surrounding landscape of mountains galore makes it a hiker’s dream. From the village, you can take the railway to Jungfraujoch, The Top of Europe; the highest European train station at 3,454 meters.
Lauterbrunnen is an easy access point to get to many other natural wonders in the Jungfrau region; Grindelwald, Wengen and Mürren. This endearing, picturesque village may take a large chunk out of your budget, but it is more than worth it.
One of many hiking trails in the Swiss Alps
10. Krakow, Poland
Much like Ljubljana, Krakow boasts the classic terracotta roofs and contrasting history of the Old and New Town. With its large market square skirted with budget friendly restaurants and cafes, and colourful streets full of history, this is a must-see destination when travelling through Europe.
Poland was not a country I ever considered visiting, nor did I know much about. Although Krakow may be popular with tourists across the globe, it was not somewhere I had heard of before backpacking with Busabout.
This magnificent city is home to an abundance of cultural festivals, breathtaking architecture and historical landmarks, perfect for those of us who love a history tour and background knowledge.
As soon as I left Krakow, I knew I’d be back one day.
Florianska Street; one of Krakow’s most famous
cobbled streets and chock full of charm
So there we have it – my top ten hidden gems that I discovered whilst travelling around Europe! These were all new destinations for me; I hadn’t heard of any of them before visiting, and if ever given the chance, I’ll absolutely be returning.
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