Planning a trip to Europe but hate crowds? There are multiple cities in Europe that are just as beautiful and have just as much to offer as more popular destinations but there aren’t hordes of tourists roaming the streets…
Read on to see the best places to visit in Europe, if you’re wanting to avoid a crowd.
In October 2022, the rumour mill went into overdrive, saying that Elon Musk had hired the entire Bran Castle, the home of the mythical Count Dracula, for a Halloween party and that Angelina Jolie was one of the guests. But it turned out to be false – it was PayPal co-founder billionaire Peter Thiel who hosted the party (and Angelina wasn’t there). Still, it just goes to show that Romania’s a must-see destination in Europe.
Transylvania is the country’s biggest drawcard. Here, where the forest-clad splendour of the Carpathian Mountains mixes with gorgeous valleys, charming hamlets and seven UNESCO World Heritage “Villages with Fortified Churches” compete for attention.
Each of the region’s three main historic cities – Brasov, Sibiu and Sighisoara – boast old Hapsburg Empire charm and warrant a six-night triangular road trip. Sighisoara’s old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but if you’re pressed for time, make Brasov your base. It’s closer than the other two to the Carpathians (ski resorts are not far away), and more in the thick of the forests. A scenic 35 kilometre mountain drive south-west from Brasov will take you to Bran Castle, where you can see for yourself what the fuss is all about. The views from its commanding post are stunning.
Sibiu has an international airport and the finishing touches are being put to Brasov’s new one too – the first international airport built in the country since the fall of the communist regime in 1989.
The English Riviera
Gorgeous scenery abounds on this 35 kilometre coastal stretch of South Devon facing the English Channel. The cheerful resort towns Torquay, Paignton and Brixham make great bases for exploring the surrounding countryside, boasting prehistoric caves, official areas of “Outstanding Natural Beauty” and the Dartmoor National Park.
Torquay, Agatha Christie’s birth place, stages a lively annual festival dedicated to her in the week of her birth (September 15, 1890). The 2023 festival runs from September 11-17. All year round, though, you can visit Greenway House, Agatha’s former holiday home overlooking the River Dart. This Georgian mansion is now a National Trust home dedicated to all things Agatha. Devote a half day at least to Torre Abbey, a museum/art gallery in a well-preserved medieval abbey near Torquay, with beautiful gardens and splendid tearooms.
A great way to go further afield is to take the Dartmouth Steam Railway and River Boat Company’s ‘Steam and Cruise’ all-day return excursion. It comprises the scenic train ride from Paignton to Kingswear, a short ferry crossing over to Dartmouth, and a one-hour cruise up and down the magnificent River Dart.
Belgium tends to be overshadowed by its neighbour, France, which is a pity. Brussels, the capital, has a lot to offer and so does the Flanders region in the north. Its trio of charming, compact medieval cities – Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent – have all the makings of a great base for a classic European holiday. Think castles, serene canals and great cuisine.
Art lovers, take note: Late September in 2021, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA) reopened after an €100 million, 11-year renovation (yes, 11 years!). It now has 40 per cent more exhibition space to showcase its fine collection, including by Flemish masters such as Jan van Eyck and Peter Paul Rubens. And “Europe’s most stolen art”, the 15th-century polyptch Ghent Altarpiece in St Bavo’s Cathedral – which featured in George Clooney’s 2014 film The Monuments Men – had restoration work done between 2012 and 2020.
Venice has gondolas, Aveiro has colourful “moliceiros” which ply its three canals and venture out onto the enormous Ria de Aveiro saltwater lagoon. This relaxed, compact city (population about 90,000) is easy to explore on foot and has enough sights and curiosities to keep you amused, not to mention fabulous seafood and pastries at local-friendly prices! Set aside a couple of days to chill out in the Costa Nova district, eight kilometres from the city centre, where cute candy-striped houses adjoin some of central Portugal’s best beaches.
Don’t miss: The Museum of Aveiro, housed in a former Dominican convent. It has a sumptuously decorated baroque church and the 17th-century marble mosaic tomb of Princesa Santa Joana, daughter of King Afonso V.
Big day out: Take the 45-minute train ride north to Porto and you’ll see two of the most beautifully tiled railway stations in the world. From Porto station it’s an easy walk to the top deck (pedestrians and trams only) of the Dom Luís I Bridge over the Douro River for fabulous views of the city and river valley.
Cork & Cobh, Ireland
Cork, Ireland’s second-largest city, is soothingly sedate compared to Dublin and its natural harbour is one of the biggest in the world – about 180 square kilometres. Half an hour away by train is Cobh, a picturesque seaport on Great Island where a towering hilltop cathedral keeps watch over rows of brightly painted Victorian houses. Cobh (or Queenstown as it was called then) was the last port of call for the Titanic, on April 11, 1912 – she struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic four days later. Learn all about it at the Titanic Experience, in the historic White Star Line Building, where the Titanic’s last passengers departed – then enjoy a meal on the museum’s outdoor deck.
Don’t miss: Cork’s historic English Market, “the stomach and soul of the city”. And the famous Blarney Castle is just 10 kilometres away.
Big day out: It’s only a scenic 26 kilometre drive south of Cork but you’ll want to spend all day in the pretty village of Kinsale, regarded as the gourmet capital of Ireland. In between meals, browse around its classy craft shops or take a scenic cruise on the Bandon River.
This beautiful university city – Germany’s equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge – has everything: a mammoth castle, excellent museums, historic churches and scenic walks on bridges over and banks alongside the tranquil Neckar River. Its baroque old town is the kind of place where you happily ditch your map, and poke your nose into whatever takes your fancy. Historic grandeur blended with the exuberance of uni youth makes it a thoroughly stimulating destination.
Don’t miss: The funicular railway that takes you from the castle up to the Königstuhl (King’s Seat) mountain peak, for 360 degree views of the Neckar Valley and the Rhine Plain.
Big day out: Head 12 kilometres west to Schloss Schwetzingen, a 17th-century palace with beautiful gardens, then 20 kilometres on to Speyer, on the banks of the Rhine. Its UNESCO World Heritage cathedral is the biggest Romanesque church in the world and the burial place for eight German emperors.
Český Krumlov, Czech Republic
If there’s a prettier little town anywhere else in the world, do let us know! The UNESCO World Heritage little town (population about 13,000) hugs the banks of the Vltava River. Above it on a rock promontory is a huge castle complex comprising 40 buildings and palaces, most dating from the 14th to the 17th centuries in a mix of Gothic, renaissance, and baroque styles. Several guided tours are available, but you’ll still be in awe of the place even if you just stick to the external areas. Away from the castle, there are cute cobblestone alleyways to explore, and seductive cafes and restaurants alongside the river.
Don’t miss: If you’re game to climb 162 steps, a ticket to the Castle Museum and Tower will lead you to the best vantage point in the vicinity.
Big day out: Just 26 kilometres from Český Krumlov is České Budějovice, the capital of South Bohemia. Its Old Town, around one of the largest squares in Europe, is a treat to ‘get lost’ in.
Fans of The Weekly’s royals content will be familiar with Amalienborg, home of the Danish royal family, so why not book a tour with the Amalienborg Museum – you might bump into Princess Mary! The Danish capital has as much colour and vibrancy as its Dutch counterpart, Amsterdam, but seems to slip below the radar. Rosenborg Castle is a must-visit royal attraction; museum buffs should head to the Statens Museum for Kunst (the country’s national gallery, and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, which houses brewing magnate Carl Jacobsen’s art collection; and you can’t ‘do’ Copenhagen without visiting the famous Tivoli Gardens.
Don’t miss: Nyhavn, the lively and oh-so-colourful waterfront, canal and entertainment district.
Big day out: Some 40 kilometres away, accessible by road and rail across the scenic Øresund Strait, is Malmö, Sweden, where top sights include the cobblestone Lilla Torg square and Malmö Castle.
Spain’s sparsely populated interior has a seductive aura. Away from the crowds of Madrid and Barcelona, overlooking the Tormes River, is the lovely city of Salamanca. Its UNESCO World Heritage Old Town boasts the oldest university in Spain (founded in 1218), a monumental “new” (16th century) cathedral that adjoins its equally impressive “old” (12th century) cathedral, historic palaces and convents, interesting museums and a mouth-watering array of cafes and restaurants. The Plaza Mayor, lined with arcaded three-story buildings in uniform architectural style, is the most striking square in the country and has been the location for many film scenes.
Don’t miss: The walks across the 176 metre-long Puente Romano (Roman bridge) which dates back to the 1st century, and back over the Puente Nuevo (new bridge) for the most photogenic shots of the river and city.
Big days out: You’re spoilt for choice. Zamora (66 kilometres north), the walled city of Avila (107 kilometres south-east) and Cáceres (well worth the 203 kilometre drive south) will make you want to live in this region forever!
Slovenia’s a little bit Italy, a little bit Croatia (it’s wedged between them) but, as you’ll find, it’s unique in itself, with its own tantalising blend of Germanic, Latin, and Slavic cultures. Ljubljana, the capital, is cosmopolitan, cool (as in trendy), and calm (its population is about 280,000), and you’ll soon feel very much at ease here. For sightseeing, Ljubljana Castle’s a good place to start, followed by Prešernov trg Square (easily recognisable by the pink facade of its Franciscan Church). The embankments and 17 bridges over the River Ljubljanica give the city a Venetian feel but the crowds are thinner and the coffee’s much cheaper!
Don’t miss: Tivoli Park, five square kilometres of gorgeous green space, tree-lined walks, fountains and garden beds.
Big day out: A mere 56 kilometres to the north is Lake Bled: the church on tiny Bled Island is one of the most photogenic spots in Europe.