7 Below the Radar Europe Destinations
Updated: Jun 6, 2019
These are the themes that are growing more prevalent with Millennials, Baby Boomers, and adventure travelers of any given age group. They glory in the delight of the unexpected, shy away from mainstream en masse destinations, and want to feel like their getaway isn't just a trip, but an experience. They seek to see things that are unusual, hear new melodies – whether music or language – and make memories that cannot be replicated elsewhere.
We all work in travel, so there's no doubt that most of us are one of these types of travelers. We aim to conquer the world, but at our own pace and away from the crowds. Therefore, we actively seek out the special hidden corners … and share them with our own select few.
1. Cannes, France
You know how Manhattan has the Hamptons for summer socialites? I imagine that Cannes is kind of Paris's similar counterpart, but with much better weather than New York and a much deeper history. It's as famous as the stars that visit for its renowned international film festival, but when I was there, I realized it was so much more than its glittery surface.
Many bypass this port city for its beachier counterpart Nice or the old-age glamor of Monte Carlo, Monaco, but believe you me, this town is worth a stay beyond red carpet season.
There are a few reasons why I loved this city, but those can all be summed up with a one-word activity: ogling.
There's just so much visual splendor to take in here, and I'm talking beyond the beauty of being in the French Riviera.
The pastries and macarons at Jean-Luc Pele, nothing short of sheer artistry. The grand hotels of the Promenade de la Croisette and the 19th century grand villas – awe-inspiring with such a sense of deep-rooted age. The massive, multi-hundred-foot-long yachts that fill the harbor. The beautiful people that fill the beaches. Even the views to and from the haunt of the Man in the Iron Mask, just offshore, make you wonder if he was better or worse off being imprisoned with such beauty beckoning.
2. Naples, Italy
Naples is the rebellious punk cousin of the refined Amalfi Coast. Idyllic and beautiful, quiet and ladylike, the cities of Sorrento, Positano, Capri, Amalfi and the other charming citrus-scented destinations tend to attract well-heeled travelers looking for elegance in Campania. Perhaps it's because of this contrast that Naples has suffered some minor stains upon its honor, but from my personal experience, it's undeserved. To me, this gorgeous, scrappy, old and unique city is one of the most fascinating in Italy.
With an increasing emphasis on authenticity in travel, it's hard to get more immersive than a stay in Italy's third-largest city.
I was beguiled by the nonnas yelling through open Dutch doors and across cobblestoned alleyways to each other. I was intrigued by streets made suddenly un-traversable by scooter or car due to a sudden drop-off into a stairwell that led down to another street. I was delighted by the old-school flapping of laundry on clotheslines that were slung between buildings.
This was the Italy I came to see – a little loud, a little chaotic, but huge in local color. Round off this time-capsule experience with a run along the gorgeous harborfront around the Bay of Naples, a break to watch Mt. Vesuvius belch in the background, and a finish-line authentic Neapolitan pizza greedily ravaged on a crooked sidewalk, and you'll feel, too, that the typified Italy of your imagination is real after all.
3. Budapest, Hungary
Hungary may be a central part of Europe – both geographically and culturally – yet the land of the Magyars is anything but expected.
Divided in two by the Danube River – the flatter, walkable, and cosmopolitan Pest and ancient, hilly, imperial Buda – and reconnected by poetic bridges like the Chain Bridge, where lions roar silently in the shadow of a palace, it's diverse beyond imagination.
Its history has lent Celtic, Roman, Mongolian, Ottoman and Austrian (just to name a few) influence to its food, culture, and design. Architectural gems like Fisherman's Bastion make fairy tales seem more fact than fiction, while the embassies on UNESCO World Heritage Site Andrassy Avenue make something as simple as a walk worth a "wow."
Plus, this city is affordable. Although Hungary is part of the European Union, they don't use the euro. Rather, the Hungarian forint remains their primary method of currency and the exchange rate strongly favors us here in the States. It fluctuates a good deal, but generally, the equivalent of $15 gets you a pretty good meal with wine. Cab fares are usually under $10 converted, and public transit is easy-peasy here.
4. Barcelona, Spain
For the life of me, I don't know why Spain isn't as glorified as Italy, England and France. I have no problem admitting that when I first flew to Barcelona, I had little to no expectations.
I wanted to see the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's 200-year-and-counting work in progress. I knew I needed to visit La Boqueria, one of the very best and most impressive food markets in the world. I was curious to hear Portuguese and see the heart of legendary Catalonia. But beyond that, it was – at first – just a less expensive gateway to the rest of my first whirlwind tour of Europe, which included the French Riviera, Rome, Florence and Naples. So when I went there, I was properly blown away.
There are so many diverse neighborhoods, all with their own sophisticated flair, to attract the well-heeled traveler. Everyone knows to flock to the Gothic Quarter, where La Rambla marks the entrance of the historic medieval neighborhood. But the University area is where you'll find great cheap and international eats, and Eixample is where there's Art Nouveau masterpieces, upscale shopping and fancy townhomes.
Also, did you know there are seven beaches? Including a gorgeous golden beach, right under the sleek sail of the W Hotel in Barceloneta? But if you're a city explorer like me, you'll never get to it – there's too much in this Catalan capital to cover as just a pit stop. I, for one, can't wait to return.
5. Galway, Ireland
Everybody goes to Dublin and the Ring of Kerry, and I can't say I blame them. The capital city of the Republic of Ireland is delightful with the rollicking fun of Temple Bar, stately parks like St. Stephen's Green, amazing works like the Book of Kells and the Trinity College it rests in, and so, so much more.
The Ring of Kerry is lovely beyond words; it's one of the most stunning drives I've ever taken in my entire life, and as magical as it's reputed to be. But because it's easy to lose oneself in these two destinations, going northwest can become just a quick stopover for the rightfully famous Cliffs of Moher, rather than a destination in itself.
However, Galway is so much more than just a place to rest one's head between day trips. A lovely coastal city, it's full of pedestrian charm. Sidewalk cafes on Quay Street, where overhead banners flutter in the sea breeze; small children feeding swans at the docks by the Spanish Arch; people reading, sunning and even stealing kisses on the lawn in Eyre Square … you get a different feel in Galway than in the popular south.
For one of the largest cities in Ireland, it retains a resort town jocularity and small-city friendliness that has always stuck with me. Plus, now is the time to go: once Galway hits the international spotlight in an even bigger way as 2020's European Capital of Culture, it won't be a sleeper destination any longer.
6. Crete, Greece
First things first: the Greek Isles are every bit as enchanting as the pictures make them seem. Mykonos is full of sexy beaches and swanky clubs, straw-topped windmills and white-washed alleys and buildings.
The cheekily colored buildings in Oia and Fira in Santorini do seem to tumble down impossibly steep cliffs over improbably blue seas. But then again, everyone knows this, which is why I was surprised to find myself most enchanted by Chania, Crete.
Of course, it has atmospheric and architectural similarities to the touted islands of the Cyclades, but what struck me was its soul. There is an age, depth and maturity about this port city that is more grounding than the fun-focused vibe in its better-known sisters.
The largest island of them all, it has a history that traces back to the Macedonian Empire, and these long roots are something you can truly feel. In the horseshoe Venetian harbor, there is a lovely mosque that nods gracefully to its Ottoman heritage, while design obviously influenced by the merchant state of Venice fortifies the Old Town's harbor wall.
The White Mountains, capped by snow even in the middle of spring, stand majestically above it all, dwarfing the restaurants, walkways and ancient lighthouse that curve around brilliant turquoise waters. Narrow streets in bright colors and festooned with greenery and balconies lead you to delectable, authentic local food.
Obviously, you should absolutely visit the effervescent and popular Santorini and Mykonos! But while there, you'd be doing yourself a disservice by not stopping by Chania, Crete.
7. Taormina, Sicily
This was another destination that I went into with zero expectations, not knowing much about it. However, this clifftop city blew me away. Tropical palm trees festoon open squares with views that are just as wide, and slate-lined streets give way to checkered tile ones. An aerial tramway just outside the Old Town treats you to views as you head down to the Ionian Sea and a pebbled shoreline, if you seek sun and sand. I have a propensity for heading on high, so even before checking out the stunning coastline, I struck out for the hilltop amphitheater.
One of the most celebrated ruins in the island of Sicily, this Grecian-designed, Roman-era theater is the second-largest of its kind and is in such fantastic condition that it's still frequently used for operatic and theatrical performances, as well as for modern concerts. Unfortunately, neither were available during my short stay, but the panoramic views of smoking Mt. Etna and the curving bay were jaw-dropping enough to earn my applause.
Better yet, this attraction was only a short walk from the city center … not even far enough to justify my gorging on real Sicilian cannolis, stuffed to order with ricotta cream scented oh-so-delicately with a hint of orange flower water or lemon. Have them dipped in local pistachios – Sicilian ones are among the best in the world – or a bit of chocolate ganache if you really want to treat yourself. I'd recommend a fresh, big, filled-on-the-spot, handmade one from Laboratorio Pasticceria Roberto or a couple of minis in different flavor combinations at Pasticceria Minotauro.