Did some form of travel make it on your New Year resolutions list? It certainly made it on mine. Even though I’m extremely grateful for the travel I’ve been able to experience during the past few years living abroad, I know I will always pursue more travel.
That’s because travel is powerful. Even if you just cross a state line, or venture into a new town, it comes with a load of lessons. Travel introduces you to something different than your own life, perhaps even a new way of life. You experience new customs, cultures, and norms; new food, new definitions, and new languages. It can be easy to judge from the outside looking in, but once you learn and meet new people, your judgement often morphs into understanding, patience, and, hopefully, tolerance.
The one thing I appreciate the most about my recent years of travel is the places I’ve seen. Some of them are popular; I lived in Budapest, went to big cities like Vienna and Dublin, and traveled down the oh-so coveted Croatian coast. But in between, I was able to peek into little towns and little places that were brand new to me. I’ve been able to see some of Europe’s best hidden gems.
So my resolution certainly involves more travel, but I’d like to see more of the less. I’d like to find places that I haven’t heard of before. So I’ve compiled a list of my favorite hidden gems in Europe. It was a difficult to create because Europe is filled with these types of goodies, and I haven’t even scratched the surface. But hopefully it can inspire a little more adventure in all our travels. I realize some of these are more known than others, but for me they were very new. (If I’ve missed your favorite European hidden gem, please list it in the comments!)
18 European Hidden Gems for 2018
1 | Kranjska Gora, Slovenia
For the past two years, Dan and I spent Christmas in one of my forever favorite places: Slovenia. It’s a small country that is certainly making its way up everyone’s list. That’s due to its magic. Kranjska Gora is a little town in the north of Slovenia, near its triple border with Austria and Italy. It’s great for skiing in the winter, or trekking in the summer. When we were there, it was cold and snowy, but we braved the chill to experience its beauty.
It serves as the northern opening to Triglav National Park, an area that is home to the country’s most stunning scenery – including the Julian Alps. The outdoor adventures are numerous and the scenery will blow your mind. I loved all the little mountain huts where you can spend a cozy a night or a hot bowl of soup after a long hike.
2 | Zebegény, Hungary
I will eventually write about all my favorite towns in Hungary, but for now I’ll focus on teensy-tiny Zebegény. It’s a quaint village located north of Budapest along the famous Danube Bend. It’s tucked in a valley bordered by dense hills filled with trees, creeks, and hiking trails, and it’s easy to reach by train.
We went last summer for my birthday, opting to depart at a nearby town called Nagymaros. We hiked through the hill and found Zebegény on the other side. We slept at a farm stay, had one of the best meals of my life, and watched the sky turn shades of pink and purple as the sun illuminated the river and melted into the hills.
3 | Wolfgansee, Austria
We met some of our closest friends in Salzburg one spring, did the whole mountain tour (including Hallstatt), but opted to stay in Wolfgansee. It’s a large, thin, horizontal lake with different towns and villages dotting its shores. It has jagged peaks on one side and rolling green hills on the other. Definitely a great place to yodel, or trek.
The rain was rather constant the entire time we were there, but it didn’t stop us from enjoying ourselves. Everything, including our accommodation and the restaurant where we had our wiener schnitzel and strudel, felt like scenes straight out of the 70s. But the food was amazing, the scenery spectacular, and it had us dreaming of summer in Austria.
4 | Tatranská Lomnica, Slovakia
It’s no secret how much I adore Slovakia. I’ve been to the country on three separate occasions, and each time it has surprised me. The first time was an escape across the mountain border, which is when I encountered this little village. Bright buildings with timber frames illuminated by glowing autumnal colors, it was a dream.
We returned to Slovakia the next fall with two of our favorite friends and spent an afternoon meandering the streets of this beautiful village. We also took the gondola up into the High Tatra Mountains and completed a hike around a high alpine lake with views that brought tears to my eyes. So not only can you find adorable small town vibes, but you can have some amazing outdoor adventures as well.
5 | Piran, Slovenia
Because Slovenia is such a dream, a second town has to make an appearance on this list, and that’s the small seaport of Piran. When I say Slovenia has a little bit of everything, I truly mean it. You can even get old walls and Mediterranean vibes here. We loved our peaceful rest in Piran, walking through the narrow streets with colorful shutters and laundry hanging above. We enjoyed walking the old town walls hearing holiday music waft from the main square. And we probably ate our weight in seafood.
6 | Bale, Croatia
On a holiday to the Istria region of Croatia, we stopped in little Bale. You know those feelings you get when you see a place you know you’re gonna love instantly? This happened to me in Bale. This town is picture-perfect Croatia, with sun-washed white brick, red rooftops, weathered facades, quirky windows, and flowers sticking out of pots on nearly every corner.
It’s an old medieval town constructed in typical, curved fashioned with a church smack-dab in the middle. It’s surrounded by green shrubbery and the turquoise sea is so near, you get little glimpses through the trees. I would suggest renting a car and using Bale as your hub instead of the bigger towns and cities in Istria.
7 | Cetinje, Montenegro
During our time on Kotor Bay in Montenegro, we learned that the old town of Cetinje was once the country’s royal capital. Now, bustling Podgorica takes that title, but it’s no wonder the current capital lacks character.
Cetinje, on the other hand, has plenty of culture, with cute shops and cafes dotting bumpy stone, tree-lined streets. It’s home to the Old Cetinje Monastery which dates back to the 15th century. It borders the mountainous Lovćen National Park, which gets plenty of snow in the winter, and you can find some of the best cheese in this region. The cheese alone makes it worth it.
8 | Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
Dreaming of Bavaria because of the mountains? Then go to Garmisch-Partenkrichen. You don’t have to pronounce the name, just go. The Bavarian Alps are some of the most beautiful in Europe, and in my opinion, rival those found in famous Switzerland. The valleys are bright green, the peaks snow-capped, and the sunsets make it all glow a little more than expected.
9 | Lyon, France
This is actually a fairly large city, but when I think of France, my mind first goes to Paris, then the French Riviera, followed by, perhaps, the wine region of Bordeaux or even Toulouse. I rarely hear about Lyon despite its size.
I was there with my friend and we were both surprised by the tasty food, the energy of the people – it was chilly and springtime, but everyone was eating outside – and by the city’s beautiful and varied architecture. It even has its own mini version of the Notre Dame which is paired with a beautiful park high on a hill.
10 | Sibiu, Romania
I would go back to the Transylvania region of Romania in a second. It’s like a different world with old farming techniques still in practice, drooping buildings with windows that look like eyes, fairytale castles, and a giant mountain range. Sibiu sits at the base of it all, making it a pretty great hub. Plus, it’s cute with a whole lot of history, Romanian charm, welcoming people, and delicious food and coffee.
11 | Derry, Northern Ireland
I’ve now been to Derry two times (just returned a few days ago) and I’m so glad I went again. The first time was a quick blur of an afternoon, but the second time was over the course of a few days. I’m surprised to say it, but I’d pick Derry over Belfast. Its history is more interesting, highlighting both old walls that suffered battles from the 17th century, to the more recent history with The Troubles. The city is clean, picturesque, has numerous cafes and pubs, and is an excellent place to experience some incredible nature.
In Derry, you are very close to Northern Ireland’s coastal landscape, including Dunluce Castle and the Giant’s Causeway. There are wide, white-sand beaches that beg to be strolled, and you are right on the border with Ireland, so you can easily hang out in both places. Plus, nearby Donegal is a dreamland (check out the beaches of Malin Head).
12 | Zakopane, Poland
If you’re looking for an old, alpine-vibe mountain town… this place could potentially disappoint you. It’s a little kitschy with a few flashy shops and souvenirs. But that’s because it’s for families too, so this is a place where you need to dig a little. But the challenge makes it even more worth it.
That’s because Zakopane is located in the heart of the mountains, practically surrounded by massive, rocky peaks and gorgeous forests. The nature is untouched and quiet, so you kind of get it to yourself. The hiking is so brilliant you won’t even know where to start. Plus you can eat pirogies for every meal if you wish.
13 | The Hague, Netherlands
I visited the Hague because one of my friends was working there. I just saw her again and we were laughing at some of the memories we have of this little city. We agreed that it’s a sleepy town with not much to do, but for some reason we had such a blast. It’s mostly due to its center called Grote Markt, which is so cutesy Dutch hipster with striped awnings and cafes sprawled out into the square, and a lot of great nightlife (think ’90s party with treadmills on stage). And the city is also close to the sea, meaning sandy beaches are within easy reach.
14 | Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Spain is so big and so known, I feel like you really have to get creative to find some of these hidden places. But nothing really beats Spain’s north coast. I know it’s easy to beeline to Madrid, Barcelona, or southern Spain. There are many reasons to visit those places too. But when taking a poll from all my students, the overwhelming vote is the north, specifically Galicia. The food is delicious, the coastline is rocky and beachy and full of islands, and the nearby mountains are spectacular.
And Santiago de Compostela, as Galicia’s capital, is a great starting point. Budget airlines fly into the airport, the tapas are big and cheap, and you’re in close range of some amazing coastline, complete with caves and arches.
15 | Clifden, Ireland
This little village may be more known than I think, but it’s really a must-see for western Ireland. It’s located in Connemara which is also home to some of the country’s most breathtaking scenery. In Clifden, you are close to a little bit of everything: beaches, ports, mountain hikes, fjords, rivers, biking, hiking, pubs, music, and pints. You may be rained, hailed, and snowed upon, all in one afternoon, but the magical, Irish sun will make its appearance throughout the day.
16 | Murten, Switzerland
I took a side trip here when visiting nearby Bern, and I really felt like I was exploring rural Switzerland. Not the famous mountainous rural, but a different side to the country. And Murten is a medieval town nestled on its own little namesake lake with old city walls. All the medieval walls I’ve seen in Europe are open, but these still have their wooden roofs and corner lookout towers. Just romping under the a-frames and gazing out to the lake was worth the trip alone.
17 | San Gimignano, Italy
Italy and wine go hand-in-hand, so any town in wine-stained Tuscany is going to be a beautiful sight. But San Gimignano is one of the best. The town is old, medieval with (you guessed it) walls (maybe I have a thing for old walled towns?). But this time, the city also has old towers that poke up making it appear as skyscrapers. Can you imagine, a town with medieval towers as skyscrapers? Only in Italy.
But you really come here for the wine, the scenery, and the food. It’s, of course, surrounded by rolling green vineyards that glow during sunset. The city is long and narrow and certainly has the distinct Italian feel, with little cafes and shops found in small, secret nooks.
18 | Novi Sad, Serbia
Novi Sad is a smaller version of Serbia’s capital, Belgrade. Belgrade has a very appealing historic old town, but it’s also a large, bustling city. Novi Sad, on the other hand, kind of skips the too-big city feel and settles into its own distinct charm. It has some seriously breathtaking architecture left over from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including the famously patterned Zolnay roof tiles.
The city has an old medieval (no walls this time) fortress that sits high on a hill. You can stroll around for hours, taking in the views of the city below and the Danube River. And it even has a network of tunnels under the fortress, the purpose still debated by historians.
Of all these little not-so-popular hidden gems of Europe, which one would you like to visit? And, most importantly, did I miss your favorite European gem? Please tell me! I need to build my own travel list.