What better way to kick-start the new year than making some exciting travel plans? If you anything like us then you probably want to avoid somewhere swamped with tourists or over anglicised and head to somewhere to experience another culture… people, language, food and lifestyle. To help you choose we’ve collectively compiled a list of our favourite under the radar destinations to visit, just probably best to make the most of these beautiful European hidden gems before everyone else cottons on…
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Isola la Maddalena, Italy – best alternative to Sardinia
The antithesis of its showy sibling Sardinia, Isola la Maddalena, just a 20 min ferry ride away, is one of about 60 islands located within La Maddalena Archipelago. Until about ten years ago this spectacular Archipelago had no need for tourism, its economy being fuelled instead by a large US Naval Base which closed in 2008. Forced to seek other ways of making an income the islands had to open the doors to tourism and now attract a well-heeled crowd whose main concern is finding genuine peace and tranquillity. Isola la Maddalena is renowned for its turquoise waters, sheltered coves and ideal sailing conditions as well as its impressive Roman Ruins and historical links with Napolean and Garibaldi. Here you will find friendly islanders, breathtaking beaches and mouthwatering food served from traditional trattorias. For all the beauty of Sardinia without the crowds, this is the place to be!
Hotels and Self-Catered Vacation Rentals in Isola la Maddalena
Coverack, Cornwall – best for staycations
Sitting atop the rugged cliffs of the Lizard Penninsula in Cornwall, right on the South West Coast Path is the tiny village of Coverack. Looking like something out of a novel the bleached out nautical cottages wind steeply down towards a quaint and colourful harbour and peaceful beach. The village is unspoilt by tourism compared to its neighbours and so marvellous things occur. For example, you can buy a fresh-baked cornish pasty served straight from the kitchen of a local old lady and enjoy a tasty Cornish cream tea for peanuts in the tiny little coffee shop. Delicious fresh fish and chips are available from the single local chippy and wild ponies strut boldly along the little peninsula that juts out on the edge of town. A beautiful, peaceful and unspoiled place to pass a few days or use as a base for further explorations of southeast Cornwall.
Hotels and Self-Catered Vacation Rentals in Coverack
Le Grau du Roi, France – best alternative to Nice
For all the beauty and sunshine of Nice without the crowds or the prices, we recommend Le Grau du Roi, a gorgeous little seaside resort built around Central Canal in the historic Languedoc region of France. The picturesque town sits close to the edge of The Carmargue…a vast expanse of marshes and wetlands that houses wild white ponies and the largest numbers of wild flamingo’s you will see outside of Africa. Within the town, you will find some beautiful architecture from the early 20th Century as well as a 19th Century Lighthouse and two piers. Take a stroll along the harbourside or head to one of the nearby Blue Flag beaches for a truly relaxing seaside break in totally authentic surroundings.
Hotels and Self-Catered Vacation Rentals in Le Grau du Roi
Trogir, Croatia – best alternative to Dubrovnik
Just 30 miles north of Split, the seaside city of Trogir is one of the best-preserved Romanesque and Renaissance cities in Croatia. From the elaborate St. Lawrence Cathedral to the stone palaces in the city centre, there’s a lot to see. The city has been officially recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage City and it’s evident to see why! The medieval fortifications of the impressive old town sit on an island connected to the mainland by a series of bridges. On balmy summer nights, visitors and locals alike will gravitate to the wide promenade and enjoy al fresco dining and romantic strolls, surrounded by twinkling city lights reflecting off the water. Don’t miss the Trogir Cooking Experience, which lets you take a cooking class with one of Croatia’s most famous chefs and Trogir locals, Tatjana Ciciliani.
Hotels and Self-Catered Vacation Rentals in Trogir
Gdansk, Poland – best alternative to Krakow
This Historical City set on the Baltic coast is a product of its unique maritime and WW2 history. Its position as a strategic port for Prussia and Slavic Poland means that many of the cities buildings were built by wealthy merchants particularly trading in Amber, for which the city is renowned. The scale and grandeur of the buildings reflect these routes and also separates the architecture and the atmosphere from much of the rest of Poland. Although the city was levelled during WW2 its old town has been painstakingly restored to its former glory and visitors can enjoy strolling amongst the tall elegant merchant houses of Long Market or visit one of the many stunning red-brick churches within the city walls. For history lovers, there are several museums and gallery including Gdansk Shipyard, where the original cracks in Eastern Europe’s Communist wall started to show and The Amber Museum. The city is alive with shops, eateries and street markets, everything you need for an excellent city break!
Ria Formosa, Portugal – best for unspoiled Portugal
On arrival in Portugal’s Algarve region, most people head west from Faro airport and remain unaware of the peaceful, estuarine national park – a twitchers’ heaven – on its eastern fringes. The laidback fishing town of Olhão feels a world away from Algarve’s tourist droves; beyond it is the car-free sand island of Culatra and, at the other end, beyond Tavira, the sleepy village of Cabañas with its own island beach. Development is starting, but for now, visitors can enjoy the natural beauty and miles of unspoiled golden beaches in peace. On 10-15 August, Olhão’s food festival (festivaldomarisco.com) draws mainly local crowds for innovative cooking and live music (adults €8, children €3) For more adventurous travellers the conditions are perfect for kitesurfing, and there are plenty of schools in Cabañas and Tavira to get you started (kitesurfeolis.com, half-day session €100). For spacious self- catering accommodation try White Terraces apartments and townhouses in Olhão from €210 a week (+51 962 337 285).
Lake Königssee, Germany – one of Germany’s most beautiful lakes
Down in the Southeast of Bavaria in the stunning Berchtesgaden National Park lies Germany‘s cleanest, deepest and arguably most beautiful Alpine Lake. Visitors wanting a sedate travel experience can take a peaceful electric boat trip around the lake and absorb the wealth of natural beauty and the historical church of St Bartholomew’s on the shore. Hikers can take off up into the hills and enjoy some of the cleanest air on the planet as well as learning a bit more about the area in the visitor’s centre. There are beautiful waterfalls and several amazing viewpoints to take in the unparalleled views of the mountains and nearby some fascinating salt mines, great for a family visit.
Kotor, Montenegro – best up and coming destination
The stunning medieval town of Kotor nestles in the dramatic landscape of mountains and sea on the Gulf of Kotor. Fortified in the middle ages the city has been mentioned as far back as 168 BC and visitors can see evidence of the full history of the town in its excellently preserved architecture reflecting all of its fascinating eras from ancient Rome to WW2. Take time to wander the cobbled streets and admire the breathtaking views from the city walls which are spectacularly illuminated at night. The city has many museums and galleries to visit as well as a vibrant nightlife and easy access to the natural wonders that surround it.
Dinant, Belgium – best undiscovered Belgium gem
The little-known city of Dinant sits on the banks of the river Meuse in Belgium‘s Walloon region. The town is backed by a spectacular sheer cliff face and protected by the ancient fortified citadel. The city’s historic buildings are steeped in legend and as you walk the narrow streets you can sense this is a place with many stories to tell. Perhaps the city’s most famous connection comes from it being the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the man who invented the Saxophone whose house you can now visit. Foodies don’t miss a chance to try the delicious Flamiche (a bit like a Tarte Flambe ) or Couques de Dinant, delicious brittle honey biscuits.
Liepaja, Latvia – best alternative beach holiday
Latvia is still fairly undiscovered by tourists and there are numerous delights to uncover on a visit here. Leipeija is one of them, this small town is situated on the edge of a 15km stretch of white sandy beach dotted with cocktail shacks and privy to some of the most breathtaking sunsets you will ever have the privilege to enjoy. It has a cool alternative vibe in its bars and its wonderfully eclectic boutique hotels and the locals are warm and welcoming to travellers. Within the laid back parameters of the town is Karosta – a stark reminder of the country’s Soviet past. Karosta was a massive military base during the occupation and visitors can still see remnants of extensive gun batteries and the Iron Curtain itself as well as atmospherically crumbling officers barracks and the intact Karosta prison which now houses a museum and hostel in which guests can get an idea of the kind of experience military prisoners would have had not much over 30 years ago. There are not many places you can enjoy a beautiful beach holiday as well as discovering fascinating insights into contemporary history, for this reason, Leipeija is truly unique and an absolute hidden gem for the intrepid traveller!
Lugano, Switzerland – best alternative to Geneva
Nestled peacefully on the northern shore of glacial Lake Lugano in the Ticino region of Southern Switzerland sits the delightful city of Lugano. The vicinity to Italy is reflected here in the architecture and cuisine which is heavily influenced by the Italian neoclassical movement. Amongst pastel buildings and grand piazzas, there is plenty to see and do, strolling the city’s quaint streets visitors are treated to spectacular frescoes inside Chiesa Santa Maria Degli Angeli and breathtaking views of Italy and the French and Italian parts of Switzerland from Monte San Salvatore. The small church at the top of the mount can be reached by the Funicular railway from the centre of town. Food lovers will enjoy the heavy Mediterranean influence of the cuisine and al fresco dining against the spectacular backdrop of lake and mountains.
Nuuksio National Park, Finland – best for outdoor lovers
If you are a fan of the wilderness look no further than Nuuksio National Park. Not far from Helsinki the park covers 53 Km2 with lakes and forests, castles, cabins and ancient burial sites. Perfect for lovers of the great outdoors there are miles of well-marked hiking trails and ample opportunity for discovering cool and unusual natural gems far away from the crowds. A perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, get a bit of tranquility back in your life.