The iconic landmarks of Europe. There is a reason that places like Paris, Rome, and London are popular with tourists. Western Europe is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
However, “off the beaten path” destinations allow you to experience a different side of Europe away from all the crowds. These places give you an opportunity to experience the beauty and culture of Europe that many people don’t get to see.
“Great, another list off ‘hidden gems’ or ‘off the beaten path’ places in Europe. What makes this list of places different than all the other ones?”
OK, I admit there are lots of “hidden gems of Europe” or “Europe off the beaten path” lists out there. So it’s time for me to tell the truth – this really isn’t about finding undiscovered places or getting away from the tourists.
Each of these destinations tells a story of people, culture, and personal experiences in Europe that I hope inspire. I don’t want people to read about these places, visit them, and then check them off a list so you can say you’ve been there. These places have a story to tell – my story. And I hope they inspire you to connect with places in new ways.
Whether you’ve already been to these places or find new places on your own, don’t check them or add them to another hidden gems of Europe list. Make your off the beaten path place tell a story that inspires others.
Hidden gems and the inspirational stories of Europe
Some of these European destinations are growing in popularity. Others you may have never heard of them until now. All of them have a culture that is unique. And like each of us, they all have a story to tell.
Lake Bled, Slovenia
I’ve even written a comprehensive travel guide to Slovenia.
This place is growing in popularity but I still love it. The Alpine lake and town outside of Ljubljana is so beautiful and picturesque that I can’t help but mention it here. How much do I love Lake Bled?
This town has everything you could want in a place – a pristine alpine lake, an island church with 99 steps, a walking trail around the lake, summer and winter outdoor activities, and even spas and resorts for those who want to be pampered.
Lake Bled is a perfect representation of Slovenia – nature, outdoors, beauty, culture, history, food, and more. If one photo isn’t enough, you can see more of this place in my photo essay of Lake Bled.
So what’s my story? Riding the luge on the side of a mountain overlooking Lake Bled was fun. Walking around the path that encircles the lake made me slow down. And I even stopped to smell the roses.
Slovenia and Lake Bled have inspired me. I want to come back and get to know the people, the culture, and the places that helped me slow down and reflect. There may not be many countries that you can say changed your life.
However, Slovenia changed mine.
Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
This is another one of those places in Europe that is becoming popular. However, the natural beauty of these 16 lakes with its waterfalls, fauna, vegetation, and turquoise blue waters amaze and awe anyone who visits.
With an upper and lower lakes region, the easiest way to see this place is to go from the top to the bottom. The last stop in the park is the view you see here in the photo. And yet, the photo only gives you a glimpse of the beauty that surrounds you.
However, this place also has an ugly side as well – it’s the birthplace to one of the greatest tragedies in modern Eastern European history.
If you want to see more photos of Plitvice and learn more about the history and tragedy of this place, check out the hidden treasure of Plitvice Lakes National Park.
My thoughts on my time at Plitvice? Yeah, it is beautiful and I took a look of photos. Yet despite the beauty, there was a picture in my mind that saddened me.
How could a place like this be so beautiful and enchanting yet also be a grim reminder of the tragedy that rocked Yugoslavia?
Croatia is home to many, many islands on the Adriatic coast. While many people visit popular places like Dubrovnik, there are no shortage of places where people can island hop and enjoy a bit of Croatia all to themselves.
Many ferries run between the islands to give tourists and locals alike a fun beach island getaway in Croatia. Some of the islands have a reputation for being party islands. Others provide a nice escape where people and relax and do nothing.
However, one island gives you a little bit of everything – Croatian local culture, a relaxing getaway, time on the beach, and even a forest to hike and explore. Welcome to the island of Rab!
The island isn’t too big and is just right for a Croatian escape – 36 square miles and home to less than 10,000 people. The main town of Rab is accessed via ferry from the port of Jablanac and provides a look at every day island life in Croatia.
This historic town center is a place where people can stroll, relax, shop, or eat. On the other side of the town is plenty of quiet spots along the Adriatic coast. And you can’t beat the Mediterranean climate.
How did I find out about Rab? My friend and tour guide Marijan Kriskovic grew up here and still has a home there. I spent my time walking through a forest, getting away from the tourists, and enjoying the view.
As a result of my trip to Rab, this painting by a local artist hangs in my home today.
You can learn more about Marijan, his life, and his experiences growing up in Croatia and Slovenia in this three part interview.
Located just outside of Eger, Recsk is a small town stop on the way to Budapest. This area is in a well known wine region in Hungary and Recsk offers a nice sampling of Hungarian wines in a country setting.
While Eger is the more popular town in the area, Recsk is a small community for wine lovers and those looking to explore the Hungarian countryside. During my stay in Recsk, I visited a school and met some local students who wanted to practice their English with some Americans.
I also had an opportunity to sample some wines while overlooking the Hungary’s rolling hills. Amazing what a little wine can do as I was swept off my feet as I danced with the Hungarian owner.
Recsk also has a darker side. Under Communism, as it served a gruesome reminder of the totalitarian regime in charge. While places like Auschwitz are remembered for the number of people that died there, this Gulag camp in Recsk now serves as a memorial to the suffering, hardship, and lives lost during a brutal period in Hungary.
While Recsk and the countryside are beautiful, this is one of the most haunted places I’ve ever visited.
While quite a few people visit Estonia every year, the main draw for tourists and cruise boats is the capital city of Estonia, Tallinn. This city, with its oranged colored tile roofs and medieval walls, transports you back in time as you walk the streets of Estonian culture and history.
Estonia was my first love. This was the first country I ever visited. My flight to Estonia was my first flight outside of the country and only the second flight I had ever taken. Estonia stole my heart and stirred my passion – and led me on a journey of emotions.
I even fell in love with my Estonian crush.
Beyond the beauty of the people and the country, I discovered a side of Estonia many people don’t get to see. About three hours away from the capital city of Tallinn was the center of Estonian youth and a new age of democracy and freedom – Tartu.
Tartu was the main college town in Estonia and was home to Tartu University. Imagine just a few short years after the iron curtain fell, Estonia was experiencing a freedom (and some growing pains) like never before. Communism was gone and the people were adjusting to a new way of life.
On the streets of Tartu, I met many students who were eager to practice their English and share with me a little about life in Estonia. From religion to pop culture to politics, I learned what life was like then and now from a youth perspective.
While there was still some tension between Russians and Estonians, Estonia was flourishing better than any of the other former republics of the Soviet Union. I loved this college town in Tartu, gazed upon their women, learned a little of the language, and sampled the Estonian delicacies.
For me, the true heart and life beat of Estonia was found outside of its capital and historic walls in the university town of Tartu.
OK I admit that Ronda can get a bit crowded and overrun with tourists during the day. It’s a romantic stop on the “de la Frontera” region of Spain. The big draw for visitors to Ronda is the Puente Nuevo (or “New Bridge”) with it’s view over the gorge.
If you’ve ever passed through Ronda (and a number of tourists have), you know the view and how stunning the drop down to the gorge is. You can have a meal or an espresso in a nice restaurant or hotel cafe overlooking the gorge to cap off your romantic stop in Ronda.
And after walking the main drag through town, you can hop on the train or continue your journey behind the wheel as you head to the next town on the “de la Frontera” route.
So why would a town known for one day excursions by tourisst be on a list of off the beaten path places in Europe? Because Ronda becomes a different town after the sun goes down.
We arrived in Ronda after dark and headed towards our bed and breakfast place in town. During our stay, we spent a few hours talking to our host, Anahid, and a couple of other travelers from Canada. I knew this place would provide some great experiences.
After dark, we wandered into the older part of town looking for a place to eat. The restaurants and streets were full of people as a carnival was offering amusement park rides, food, and an evening stroll for families and locals.
After dinner, we wandered beyond the festive fun and discovered how the locals live – a world away from the tourist shops and busy streets on the main street in Ronda. Locals walked along the streets as we sampled a taste of Spanish life on a cool Fall evening.
We ate at a restaurant packed with locals on a Saturday night. During our stay, we visited this area again to walk around the parks and check out a church and a museum. We toured the famous bull fighting arena (a big draw for the tourists).
We discovered that this wasn’t just Ronda after dark. This was the true heat beat of Ronda, where locals lived and played.
While the Costa del Sol may get most of the tourists for its abundance of sunshine and warm beaches, the Algarve coast in Portugal offers many of the same benefits without the same number of tourists.
While Portugal does see a number of tourists on its beaches and coastal towns, you can still find those places that offer a small slice of the old life and Portuguese culture on the coast. While Lagos is the big city on the Algarve coast, many smaller towns enjoy life at a slower pace – a perfect place to get away and enjoy your own piece of the Portuguese coast pie.
Just a 30 minute bus ride away is the small fishing village of Salema featuring two streets, a stretch of beach, a few restaurants, and some local fishermen.
If you want to see a museum, visit some tourist attractions, or explore the town and shop, set aside 25 minutes. There aren’t any museums, you can walk from one end to the other in 15 minutes, and the only store in town is a local grocery.
In Salema, you come to enjoy the beach or hike along the trails on the cliffs rising above the ocean. For me, hiking was one of the best experiences during my time in Salema. Not only were the views of the crystal blue water from the dizzying heights relaxing and peaceful, they took me to my first nude beach.
You can read about my nude beach experience but remember if you are ever in Salema, eat, hike, and enjoy the sand and sun (if you decide to check out that nude beach though, don’t make the same mistake I did – bring lots of sunscreen).
Places that tell a story in Europe
While these are my off the beaten path destinations of Europe, each of us travel to places that are more than just tourist attractions and landmarks.
Our travels are a journey and the places we go and the people we meet tell a story. You can visit the biggest city in the world or a village with a population of one.
No matter where you go, make your time count. Never leave a place without discovering what made this place special for you. No matter how big or small, popular or undiscovered, every place can be a hidden gem with a story to tell.