. 7 off the beaten path places in Europe that tell a story : Budget Travel Adventures

7 off the beaten path places in Europe that tell a story

town square Rab CroatiaThe Eiffel Tower.  The Colosseum.  Big Ben.

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

Lake Bled SloveniaSlovenia is one of my favorite European countries.  I’ve written about Slovenia so much that I’ve become an unofficial tourism board employee (OK, not really but I do write a lot about 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?

Lake Bled town view from the island churchMy website’s logo is an image of 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

Plitvice Lakes National Park CroatiaThis 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.

waterfall Plitvice Lakes National Park CroatiaMany people may visit here and take photos of the water, waterfalls, and plants.  At times, this place looks like a scene right out of Jurassic Park.

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?

Rab, Croatia

island of Rab CroatiaCroatia 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.

Rab Croatia paintingMany boats and ferries access the town and dock along the main drag.  However, there are local shops, a school, and even an oak forest for people to explore.

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.

Recsk, Hungary

Recsk wine tasting HungaryLocated 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.

Tartu, Estonia

Tartu Estonia

Tartu, Estonia circa 1995

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.

Ronda, Spain

Ronda Spain Puente Nuevo New BridgeOK 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.

Ronda Spain view of the gorgeAfter 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.

Salema, Portugal

beach town of Salema Portugal Algarve coastWhile 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.

beach town Salema Portugal Algarve coastWhen entering Salema by bus, it made numerous stops along the way as school kids got on and off.  Upon arrival, walking just a couple of blocks brought us to this small town.

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.

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  1. Interesting list.. I’m living in Europe right now (the Netherlands) and have never been to any of these places. I’ve visited the hotspots (Paris, London, Madrid, Florence, Rome.. and of course my old ‘hometown’ Barcelona) but have yet to make it to the Eastern region. Thanks for the tips!

    • Jeremy B says:

      I think most people who travel to Europe go see the big places as it is a once in a lifetime trip for most. However, people can always find neighborhoods or interesting places even in these big cities where they can tell their own story.

      I’ve been able to go to Europe many times and love the smaller towns and out of the way places. For me, this is the Europe I want to see and experience. I love all of the big cities too but these places have had a huge impact on me.

      • perla says:

        I’ve been to some of the places mentioned here like slovenia. we travelled there by a tourist bus and we passed by the dolomitian alps (over Triest, Italy). It was like travelling in the sky. you could see the beautiful mountain range. you could almost touch them. Slovenia is very beautiful, clean and there was an abundant of seafoods and the sea water was clean. the city looks progressive. we went to Krk Island in Croatia and we also travelled to Rab island while we were in Krk. The city is also clean and has beautiful sea shores. Slovenia was more progressive, though.

        • That sounds awesome! I don’t know many people that have visited Rab. And what an interesting way to get to Slovenia. I would love to go back to both of those places and explore some more.

          How do you see Slovenia as more progressive than Croatia?

  2. Adding these all to the Bucket List!

  3. Barbara says:

    I love these suggestions, particularly because each of these gems are off the beaten path. The small towns of Europe are truly endless and are FAR more worth the trouble than the big cities. Thanks for the beautiful pictures too!

    • Some of these places are familiar to people but others may be new. I don’t think it matters if you go to these same places or find some of your own. Just get outside of the big cities and find your own places and stories. That’s the important part.

  4. Susana says:

    I’m Portuguese and I’d never heard of Salema (as many Portuguese haven’t) until I got a job in a resort near there and ended up living there for just over one year (if you see the house closest to the edge of the cliff, we rented our house just a few steps behind). Some nights we could not sleep because of the waves crashing so close.
    Now I’m in Alvor, which is very nice as well, and it’s no isolated.

    I definitely want to go to Slovenia. Since I saw a documentary on TV I was amazed by the landscapes.

    I’d like to do the hotspots of Europe as I still have a lot to see. I’m hoping for Paris this year – but I need a job first.

    • I am surprised that people in Portugal had never heard of Salema. I know it is a small fishing village but I thought it was a secret the locals knew about anyways. As for the waves crashing, not sure I would have a problem sleeping through that (as long as it wasn’t too scary).

      I would love to go back to Portugal and explore more of that area as well as the rest of the country.

      As for Slovenia, you really need to go. I need to see more of Slovenia as well.

  5. Christy says:

    I haven’t been to any of these places! I had no idea about the Plitvice Lakes’ history. I’ve always wanted to go there, so maybe it’s better if I stay ignorant? :) I was secretly hoping one of the places on your list would be in Italy, so we could include it on our upcoming trip.

    • Nah, you can read about the history of Plitvice Lakes in my photo essay. It’s sad and tragic more than anything. However, the beauty of the place is worth seeing.

      As for Italy, the only small place I can recommend is the Cinque Terre. But everyone knows about that area now so now really off the beaten path. I do have a few stories to tell from there! :)

  6. I’m really keen to start exploring Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I really like lists – nothing wrong with putting one together for your self! Especially ones like this which aren’t just seeing things for the sake of checking them off.

    • I love Eastern Europe – the history, the culture, the people, even the food. Eastern Europe in general is off the beaten path for many people. I’ve done a lot of the big places in Europe (still have a few more) but there’s something that intrigues and fascinates me about this area. Maybe it has something to do with my first ever trip outside the US was to Estonia. So if you get the change, go. I haven’t written nearly enough about this area but I want to go back soon.

      As for the list part, I know they are popular but as I said in my post, I hope people don’t look at my list and just check off places or put them on their bucket list. I hope they enjoy the stories more and are inspired to find their own stories to tell.

  7. Amanda says:

    Very cool list! I admit that I’d only heard about half of these places… they all look/sound great, though!

    I feel like I’m really going to love Eastern Europe. A lot of people seem slightly confused when I tell them that I’m exploring Eastern Europe on my first “real” trip to Europe instead of the popular Western European cities… but it just makes sense to me – THIS is the Europe I want to see the most!

  8. Hi Jeremy.

    How come your first trip outside the US was to Estonia?

    I’ve been to Croatia & Bosnia and while beautiful, I found the food a real bore. I was a vegetarian at the time which didn’t help. I also HATE cabbage with a passion.

    One of the things I really want to do is investigate my son (and husband’s) Eastern European heritage. My husband’s grandmother was from Russia (though I’m not sure where she was from is actually Russia today). Allegedly she was a Baroness and had a castle. I’d love to find it!

    Bethaney

    • When I was in college, my college group at church went on a mission trip to Estonia. I was new to the church but went along. When I was there, I discovered I had a passion for culture, language, and traveling that I never knew I had. I was sitting on a bus learning Estonian phrases I would never use again. I tried talking to people. I tried ordering in Estonian. I did all I could to engage, learn, and soak up everything I could. I was hooked. That is where it all started for me.

      To be honest, I am not a food connoisseur. I don’t care that much for food when I travel. So when I went to those places, the food was different than what I was used to eating so I liked trying different things. Food choices are going to be different for each person so my tastes may not be the same as yours. Then again, food isn’t all that important to me anyways so I can get by on basic food choices and be OK with that.

      As for your family history, that sounds really exciting. My dad researched mine and it went back as far as the 1750s. Apparently my family has lived in the same area of South Carolina for over 350 years. Beyond that, I think my roots go back to England and Ireland. Your husband’s side is definitely a bit more interesting. Maybe your family be be an heir to a vacation home that is a castle! :)

      • That’s a great story. Getting hooked on travelling without really intending too.

        I always dreamt of travelling. I used to get Lonely Planet books out from the library when I was a teenager and read them from cover to cover. I always wanted to do a backpacking trip around Europe with a rail pass but that never really eventuated. I got to visit Europe a fair bit when I lived in London for a few years but got addicted to Italy and couldn’t help going back there again and again so missed a lot of other interesting places.

  9. Great list, Jeremy! I’ve not been to any of these places but have read about a few from your previous posts. Slovenia and Croatia sound delightful. Heck, they all do! Thanks for sharing. Now my list just got a little longer. Happy trails!

  10. Good list of off the beaten path destinations in Europe. I have never even heard of the last five, so it was definitely eye opening.

  11. Andrea says:

    These are great – and I’ve only heard of about half of them! So much beauty in Europe – I’m kind of glad we’ve hit most of the ‘big sights’ already now so we can start exploring these lesser known locations.

    • Now that you are over there, you should have a lot of fun exploring places. I am sure you will be able to write your own post about off the beaten path places. I hesitated to even do this list because people are focused on seeing that destination rather than creating their own story. However, these are great places to visit as well.

  12. Interestingly enough, a couple of these are on my list for the summer: Lake Bled and Plitvice Lakes.

  13. I’m annoyed at myself that I haven’t been to any of those places! I’ve only heard good things about Lake Bled actually. Hmm, maybe a visit this summer….

  14. Laurel says:

    I love off-the-beaten path places but I haven’t been to any of these. I’ll be in Spain a couple more times this year so will have to try and make it to Ronda.

    • I am sure there are many places in Europe that are off the beaten path to you. The key is to discover these places, find your own stories, and connect. I am sure there are a lot of great places beyond the few that I mentioned. I hope you have the chance to share some of your own.

      Do you have a favorite one from your time in Germany?

  15. Very nice list. I’m really trying to focus on smaller places for my upcoming trip and I like that you incorporated the “story” aspect as I think too many of these kinds of lists just include some bare facts that you can get in any guidebook.

    I’ll be including this in my weekly roundup published on August 22.

    • Thanks Mandy. I know it made the list really long but I wanted to include a personal side to these stories rather than just creating a list. I know lists like this are popular but I wanted people to feel connected to the place rather than just be interested.

      So glad you liked the post. I love going behind the scenes or getting away from the tourist areas when I travel. Hopefully, this brought a little taste of that for people that love Europe! Thanks for including me in your next round up!

  16. 30Traveler says:

    I’m keen to try Eastern Europe and some smaller cities in more popular countries. I lived in the UK for awhile and intended to live in London but ended up in Brighton instead and it was awesome. I didn’t like London as much as I thought I would but enjoyed Brighton much more, and it was only an hour away from London on the train.

  17. I agree, as a traveler you must also visit not so famous attractions! you can share something unique with fellow vacationer!

    Rose

    • One of my favorite things is to get off the beaten path. This is where you can discover new places, get away from the tourists, and meet people. The best travel memories are stories come from places off the beaten path!

      Ironically, this isn’t always easy for me to do. To connect with people I don’t know isn’t always easy. However, it’s always worth it in the end!

  18. Shara says:

    My dad went to Estonia on business a couple times while it was part of USSR. Lovely photos, but creepy tales of having his every movement monitored. :-)

    • Thankfully, I didn’t have that when I visited Estonia. That first trip in 1995 was eye opening though. A bit of a culture shock but I really loved it. I can’t imagine living there when it was part of the Soviet Union. I bet your dad’s tales are quite interesting :)

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