Updated: 12th January 2023
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Exploring the best hidden gems in Europe often means slow-rumbling scenic bus journeys through less-traversed valleys, epic hikes to almost-forgotten hamlets, or heart-thumping sailings to windswept isolated isles.
Some may call that inconvenient. I call it winning.
If you’re happiest pointing to a random place on a map called Počitelj – as I am often inclined – and dutifully heading there on a whim, then this list, my friends, is for you.
Of course, going off the beaten path in Europe will mean something different for everyone. Thus, I’ve aimed to include a decent balance between remote isles, secluded villages, under-the-radar sustainable city breaks, and lesser-visited lofty peaks.
Whether you’re looking for unique places to visit in Europe or just a city break that isn’t one of the usual suspects, I hope you’ll find a favourite amongst my picks of the best places to visit in Europe this year.
In no particular order, enjoy my 23 best Europe hidden gems for 2023 – let the new year of adventures commence!
1. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Remotest Corners
One of the best hidden gems in Europe for adventure activities, Ottoman architecture and remote communities
Can I get away with calling a whole county a hidden gem? Maybe not. Yet, for the most part, Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a relatively off-the-beaten-path – and affordable – destination in Europe.
After two deep dive visits, I’m convinced the country’s greatest asset is the mesmerising near-photoshopped lakes, the lush countryside, and the lofty hiking trails.
While Mostar is rightly famed for its Ottoman architecture and history-defining bridge, ‘doing’ B&H as a day trip from Dubrovnik will never give the nation the justice it deserves.
Some of my favourite lesser-visited spots ripe for adventure activities include the Neretva River and Zavala. Konjic is the place to go for relaxing river rafting – the water is so clear it might as well be Evian. Kravica Waterfall is another epic water-heavy spot, and the cascades are beyond photogenic.
In Zavala – population two – you can spend the night sleeping in a converted railway station. The abandoned tracks have now been reimagined as an epic cycling adventure. Heaven-reaching Bjelašnica mountain is also rich in trails, leading you to Lukomir, the most isolated hamlet in the country. Here, 1,495 meters above sea level, a community of shepherds, ancient tombstones, and timelessness await.
But the real magic for me in Bosnia and Herzegovina is those little moments. Whether it’s being serenaded by guitar as a chatty host pours homemade wine in Zavala, or sipping a sand-boiled Bosnian coffee overlooking the minarets of Ottoman Počitelj, it’s those journey-defining memories that capture the essence of ‘hidden Europe’ at its best.
Reasons to visit B&H
Plan your trip: Don’t rush; 7-14 days allows for a deeper dive into these unique places. Late spring through autumn is most suited for outdoor adventures, while winter brings snow and skiing to the peaks. Off-road jeep tours to the mountains can be good for reaching the remote villages, and Highlander Adventures offer a 5-day hiking tour on the Via Dinarica.
Top tip: If you’re struggling to find Sarajevo flights, check Tuzla or Dubrovnik as an alternative.
2. Graz, Austria
One of the most underrated European cities for a sustainable city break, served with a first-class culinary scene and architectural treasures
Graz, Austria’s second-largest city, is still something of a hidden gem on Europe’s city-break scene. Partly due to the lack of direct flight connections, but also because it doesn’t have the legendary status that Salzburg, Vienna or even the Austrian Alps commandeer. Don’t let that deter you; it’s very much the green city’s appeal.
Not only is Graz an extremely sustainable city break (especially if you arrive flight-free), but its setting, surrounded by the Styrian countryside, promises plenty of farm-to-fork dining. Prepare to reconsider all your ideas about Austrian cuisine, as this city takes fresh produce, creative recipes, and vegetarian plates to another level.
Unsurprisingly for a city which has earned two UNESCO designations, there are plenty of things to do in Graz.
On the one hand, Graz’s historic World Heritage-listed core delivers everything you’d expect from a grand European city. There are Italian-esque courtyards aplenty, medieval cobbled streets, the remains of a hilltop fortress, frescoed facades, grand avenues, and church spires climbing to the heavens.
Then you have the other side, where Graz’s status as a ‘City of Design’ shines through. A floating artificial island doubles as a small gallery, a somewhat out-of-place modern art museum presents like a tentacled alien, and up-and-coming neighbourhoods capture the best of off the beaten path Europe.
Graz is a city best savoured slowly; indeed one of my favourite unusual European destinations for a city-cum-countryside getaway.
Graz travel guide
Plan your trip: Stay at least two nights to soak up the city’s atmosphere; Graz is one of those places where it is just a pleasure to be and explore slowly. Summer and autumn are my suggestions.
Top tip: Trains are the best way to arrive to this Europe hidden gem, either from Vienna (2:30 hours) or Salzburg (4 hours). FlixBus also has long-distance connections.
3. Pico Island, The Azores, Portugal
One of the best places to visit in Europe for lofty hikes, lava tunnel exploration, Atlantic swell and inspiring wines
With a flurry of new flight routes launching in 2023 – from as far afield as Boston and NYC – the Azores are enjoying a moment in the spotlight. While most attention is focused on São Miguel, the largest isle of the nine-strong archipelago, for a more off-the-beaten-path experience venture to Pico.
Literally called ‘peak’, it should be no surprise Portugal’s highest mountain crowns this verdant-cerulean speck in the Atlantic Ocean.
Towering up to the heavens – and often piercing the clouds – Mount Pico’s summit rewards with far-reaching vistas from 2,351 metres. New restrictions have come into force in 2023 to protect the fragile landscape, and a guide is highly recommended, especially on a night hike.
Adventures also continue far below the surface at Gruta das Torres. Here, you can venture inside the dark depths of the largest lava tube in Portugal and explore more of this unique island.
Back at ground zero, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pico’s vineyards provides a delicious curiosity. Weathered vines rise from the black volcanic rock, telling the back-breaking story of creating viniculture in such an adverse setting.
Then, out in the deep blue, marine-biologist-led boat tours will help you spot dolphins and whales in the wild. This hidden gem of Europe isn’t so easy to visit, but it certainly delivers the goods.
Things to do in the Azores
Plan your trip: If you don’t want to DIY-it, Intrepid Travel offers this fast-paced 7-day tour of the Azores, including Pico. Sao Miguel is the primary international airport of the archipelago. Allow at least a week to hop the central three island group of Pico, Faial and São Jorge. Winter can be windy and wet – you’re isolated in the middle of the Atlantic.
Top tip: If you want to travel across the majority of the archipelago by ferry, the long-distance route only runs in summer.
4. Villa Romana del Casale, Italy
One of the the best hidden gems in Europe for Roman mosaics on the grandest scale
At Villa Romana del Casale, you’ll find what UNESCO call “the finest mosaics in situ anywhere in the Roman world”.
While it might seem that such treasures should be in and around Rome, this well-preserved example is actually in the sun-kissed southern island of Sicily.
As you slowly stroll through the vast villa – constructed in the 4th century AD – you’ll have a constant stream of story-depicting tiles to admire which decorate every inch of floor below the raised walkways. It’s an absolutely mind-blowing site, deserving of its UNESCO recognition, and delivers a cultural side to everything else that Sicily, one of the best islands to visit, offers.
If you aren’t that far south but still want mosaic marvels, head to Palestrina, a 70-minute bus ride from Rome. Here, inside the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Palestrina, you can see the Hellenistic Nile Mosaic, which pre-dates christ. It’s a remarkable and detailed artwork depicting mythical scenes of Egypt.
Italy’s best experience
Plan your trip: Most of the site is covered, so good year-round. Allow at least two hours for a visit. Day tours from Palermo, which combine Villa Romana del Casale and the Valley of the Temples, can be worth booking if you’re short on time.
Top tip: On arrival at Piazza Armerina, shared taxis usually wait if you don’t want to walk. The cost is around €5pp.
5. Vipava Valley, Slovenia
Perfect for a mountain-backed eco-escape cycling between vineyards and private cellars
However, as I see from my Slovenian friends on Facebook, their beloved capital is starting to suffer over-tourism and the related property rent issues that always follow.
Thankfully, much of this lush country remains blissfully off the beaten path, and Vipava Valley is undoubtedly one of Europe’s best hidden gems for now.
Slow travel and sustainability aren’t buzzwords in Slovenia; they are a way of life, and nowhere is this truer than in Vipava Valley. A gorgeous canvas of greenery, hills and vineyards, you could easily mistake this for a Tuscan painting at first glance.
The joy of visiting Vipava is found while cycling or hiking between the hamlets, heading into the art-inspiring mountains, Paragliding powered by the valley’s beloved wind – affectionately nicknamed The Burja – or sampling every zero-kilometre food morsel that is put in front of you.
Then, there are the home-grown wines. With an unknown number of wine cellars here – everyone seems to have one under their house – even the most inauspicious homes often double up as a restaurant. Sipping these signature grapes, such as the indigenous Zelen, while hearing stories of times gone by in candle-lit cellars, is a travel memory you’ll treasure.
Exploring Vipava Valley
Plan your trip: Ideal for a long weekend or even one week – this underrated destination in Europe is a slow travel destination. Visit from spring through autumn. Trieste, in Italy, is a good arriving point, given Sloevenia’s limited flights.
Top tip: If you want to side trip from Ljubljana without a designated driver, there are day wine tours available. Or, get in touch with my friend Jani at Wajdusna for an active e-bike trip between the vines.
6. León, Spain
One of the best hidden gems in Europe for architecture-admirers seeking a laid-back city break
Spain is home to many of Europe’s hidden gems, even though they are often significant and famed cities. There are just frankly too many destinations in the country to visit, which makes even places like León something of an unusual Europe destination for many travellers.
But it shouldn’t be. This city has the lot.
There’s a great food scene, with an abundance of mouthwatering free-tapas bars packing out the pedestrianised centre. The nightlife is excellent while staying reasonably laid-back, and the city is compact, with the pumping bar quarter a labyrinth of delicious treats and late-night laughter.
León’s main draw, however, is its architecture – and being home to one of Gaudí’s designs has ensured it’s not an off the beaten path European destination for fans of the flamboyant architect. Casa Botines, one of his only works outside Catalonia, brings a Modernist contrast to the city’s otherwise aged-architectural treasures.
From marvelling at the impeccable 13th-century stained-glass windows in the cathedral – some of the best in Europe – to taking in the Romanesque frescoes of the basilica, grandeur and superb artistry are on full display here.
León might not be the most secret spot in Europe, but it steps up to the challenge of diverting people from the likes of Madrid with glee.
León in a weekend
Plan your trip: León’s architecture makes it one of the best cities in Spain at any time of the year, although winters can be chilly. Using high-speed rail, the journey from Madrid takes around 2 hours by train.
Top tip: Book a night in the Hotel Real Colegiata San Isidoro for an incredible heritage stay.
7. The Georgian Caucasus Mountains
One of the best Europe hidden gems for an affordable mountain retreat of epic hikes
Spanning from Georgia to Azerbaijan and connecting two continents, the Georgian Caucasus Mountains offer incredible hiking trails in the warmer months, while winter brings snowy escapades.
Georgia, especially the capital city of Tbilisi, has been gaining popularity in the digital nomad community for years, thanks to the one-year visa and low nomad tax rates. Still, you’ll find the real community magic of the nation amongst the highest peaks.
Dormant Mount Kazbek, climbing to an elevation of 5,055 metres, is a real sight to behold. The surrounding area around Stepantsminda – a starting-point town – is one of the most popular year-round destinations thanks to its position on the principal Georgia to Russia highway keeping this range (usually) accessible.
Monasteries sit above the clouds, friendly dogs will volunteer to be your trekking ‘guides’, and hospitable homestays will start as a place to crash, before quickly becoming a home with new Chacha (home-brewed brandy) plying friends. The food, from twisted-dough Khinkali dumplings to the cheese-stuffed Khachapuri bread, is the pièce de résistance.
Plan your trip: Outstanding year-round, the snowy peaks can make road access in winter an occasional challenge. Kutaisi airport usually provides more affordable flight connections than Tbilisi. Either come for a couple of days or a more extended hiking escape.
Top tip: Public buses are cheap and relatively frequent from Tbilisi, while group day tours provide an easy, and still affordable, option.
8. The Hague, The Netherlands
One of the best places to visit in Europe for politics and history, beach bars and brews, and plenty of learning
The Hague is one of my favourite underrated European city breaks, and it’s fair to say I was shocked by how cool it is.
For many, Amsterdam is the one-stop go-to in The Netherlands, leaving much of the nation’s other destinations as Europe hidden gem. While that might not be the case here – the city’s world-famous for its international courts – it makes for a great weekend without the often unbearable crowds of the capital.
I was impressed with the fantastic food and bar scene, especially for vegetarians . Then there are the in-depth and fascinating museums such as the refugee-focused Humanity House (currently closed) and the Mauritshuis, home to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Along the golden sand beach, there are plenty of chic beach clubs, and of course, the critical work the city does internationally for Peace and Justice.
It might not have as many canals or the coffee shops of Amsterdam, but it makes up for it with the laid-back vibes, friendly locals, and culture to gorge on. Seriously, if you are looking for a new European city break in 2023, you can’t go wrong with The Hague.
The Hague weekend guide
Plan your trip: The Hague makes a decent year-round visit. The beaches are best in summer, and September is a great time to visit. It’s also a more laid-back base to Amsterdam for day trips.
Top tip: The Peace Palace only opens for general public tours a few days of the year. If you want to visit, plan dates around the Peace and Justice weekend.
9. Berat, Albania
One of the best Europe hidden gems for an enchanting village escape after the beaches
Berat – Albania’s cutest village – is often called the ‘City of a Thousand Windows’. On arrival, it’s obvious why, as you gawk at the whitewashed Ottoman houses hugging the side of the fortress-crowned hill.
Atop it all is Berat Castle, with its more than 2500 years of history. Much of what you see today dates from the 13th century, though Byzantine churches are still visible. We arrived here intending to spend one night in the castle walls, but quickly extended our stay to enjoy two days in Berat.
Albania, in general, has recently gone from a lesser-visited hidden gem in Europe, to an in-the-know paradisiacal beach escape. Still, the country’s interior has plenty more to offer, including Gjirokaster, Lake Komani and Bogovë Nature Park – especially the secluded waterfall.
If you don’t have The Balkans on your radar, take a virtual tour of Muslim Europe in the delightful book Minarets in the Mountains. Written by my fellow LP-writer Tharik Hussain, it provides a look at the Muslim history of Europe that’s often not spoken about.
Albania in photos
Plan your trip: Many people visit Berat as a stop between Tirana and Ksamil’s beaches. But do yourself a favour and stay at least one night – the wide windows under the orange hue make for a magnificent evening setting.
Top tip: Stay in the castle walls. I adored Guesthouse Kris, and the hosts were super friendly – we’re still in touch years later.
10. The Asitz Mountain, Austria
One of the most unique places to visit in Europe for a sustainable summer hike of culture, art and escapism
One of my most recent Europe hidden gem finds is the region of Saalfelden Leogang, set in the Austrian Alps. While many would think of this corner of the world as the ideal winter ski destination, I visited at the start of summer and boy, am I glad I did.
The two towns that make up this region are adorable. Saalfelden is more urban, Leogang is more rural, and the entire valley is absolutely stunning. However, the main reason to venture to this part of Austria is for an unforgettable mountain experience atop the lofty peaks of the Asitz Mountain.
Reaching 655 metres at its highest, this beautiful winter ski destination is also renowned for exhilarating and intense mountain biking routes. Locally known as ‘the mountain of senses’, there is much more to this part of the jagged range than just extreme sports.
Something of a secret European destination still, culture lovers will be well rewarded after riding the gondola to the top. Summer sees art and sculpture trails through the forest for the eyes, water features for paddling, herb gardens for the senses, a ‘nature cinema’, and most magically, outdoor concerts performed against an incredible mountain lake backdrop.
You’ll also find cultured wooden huts – TONspurs – on the mountain. Inside, you can lay back and enjoy the panorama while listening to previous concerts playing through the headrest. Honestly, it’s one of my new favourite European destinations.
Exploring the Asitz Mountain
Plan your trip: A long weekend or even longer – this is a slow travel destination. In summer, it’s all about hikes and the arts, while the winter snow brings skiing and snowboarding. Train travel from the UK is possible by overnighting and then taking the Alpine Express. The nearest airports are Innsbruck and Salzburg.
Top tip: Stay at the Stockinggut Leogang. It’s a great spot with grand views. See my review here.
11. Porto Santo Island, Portugal
One of the hidden gems in Europe for lazy beach days and winter sun
Madeira, one of my favourite islands, is another Portuguese destination enjoying its moment in the spotlight. But the largest isle, renowned for its epic hikes and volcanic coastline, isn’t the only option in the archipelago.
A three-hour ferry away is Porto Santo, the ‘baby-sister’ if you will. Here, it’s a whole other vibe and picture, and the country’s newest biosphere reserve remains one the best off the beaten path Europe beach escapes.
Lauding a nine-kilometre stretch of golden sands – hard to find on the main island where darker shores prevail– this is a perfect place to bury yourself in a book and top-up the tan. For some soft adventure, the rolling hills backing the island make for easy hiking routes.
With a mixture of accommodation options, ranging from upscale resorts to down-to-earth home rentals, Porto Santo is all about easy days relaxing, rounded off with fresh-seafood and spectacular sunsets. Honestly, it’s more of a beach with an island than an island with a beach.
Madeira in photos
Plan your trip: You could enjoy a beach week or make it a short visit combined with Madeira. The climate is fairly decent year-round. In winter, I basically had the whole beach to myself – though it wasn’t quite tanning weather.
Top tip: It’s often easier and cheaper to fly to Madeira and take the ferry than into Porto Santo directly. In summer, a ferry service operates from mainland Portugal to Madeira for a flight-free choice.
12. Castelmezzano, Italy
One of the most unique places to visit in Europe for that dream mountain village getaway
Perched against the backdrop of the Dolomiti Lucane, Castelmezzano is one of Italy’s most beautiful small villages.
We stumbled upon it after a last-minute detour decision during a southern Italy road trip, and my heart leapt the second the cluster of ochre roofs came into view. Set in the lesser-visited European region of Basilicata, head here for a countryside bolthole.
On the opposite mountain, you’ll find Castelmezzano’s ‘twin’ – Pietrapertosa. Linking them both is The Angel’s Flight– a high-speed zip wire that whisks you between these two beguiling peak-snuggled villages.
While the town is mesmerising – especially when viewed from a distance to admire its unique location – the surrounding area is full of epic hikes, forests and a national park. The age-old charm of an overnight stay in Castelmezzaono’s 10th century settlement makes it a firm Europe hidden gem favourite.
Italy’s hidden gems
Plan your trip: This is a real ‘get away from it’ kind of village. You can either stay a while and become part of the furniture or call in on a road trip around southern Italy. The zip-line usually shutters from November until May.
Top tip: Don’t miss the city of Matera, a magical land of caves, ancient underground living, and storied streets.
13. Durham, England
One of the best places to visit in Europe for the quintessential British experience
If you are looking for a slice of English city-life with countryside charm, head to Durham.
Most famed for the UNESCO World Heritage-listed castle and cathedral – the oldest being from the 9th century – you’ll want to allow at least a half-day to tour both. There’s also a large university here, meaning plenty of good bars and decent restaurants – including ample vegetarian options.
Outside the city, you can ramble along the Durham Heritage Coast, a European hidden gem for its sea glass-strewn beach. Raby Castle – a privately owned medieval gem which has starred in Downton Abbey – can also be toured.
Lastly, be sure to visit Beamish Museum, a living museum. I spent a full day here solo; it was that impressive! With an interactive museum-meets-theme-park vibe, you’ll discover the history of England from the 1800s onwards.
From fully staffed old-school sweet shops and dress-up photography studios to vintage trams and buses driving around, the experience is very much ‘lived history’ history. There are even actors in the ‘homes’ and ‘schools’.
Durham travel guide
Plan your trip: I’d suggest at least three days or a packed weekend. Then you can experience the city, a couple of castles and the fantastic Beamish Museum. As with everywhere in the UK, it’s best in the warmer and dryer months.
Top tip: Always book your train tickets in advance in the UK, it will save you a lot of money. Buses in the region are surprisingly decent, making sights easy to explore.
14. Erfurt and Thuringia, Germany
One of the most undiscovered cities in Europe for quaint corners, classical culture, library lovers and adapted accessibility
Historic, charming and relatively compact, Erfurt is the capital of the Germany’s lesser-visited State of Thuringia.
The city dates back to around 700 AD and slowly became an important trading destination in the Middle Ages. Thanks to the Old Town surviving WWII, you can still experience it very much as it once was.
Home to Germany’s oldest university, it’s a classic city with a youthful vibe. In the summer months when I visited, the beer gardens were overflowing, walks along the river were divine, and an energy floated through the warm evening air that I hadn’t felt in other German cities.
The main attractions are the hulking Gothic cathedral and the Petersberg Fortress. Krämerbrücke – a unique arched bridge with a central cobbled street and boutique stores – also deserves a special mention.
You can easily visit more of Europe’s hidden gems nearby, using Erfurt as a base. Weimar is especially worth the journey for the Renaissance-style Anna Amalia Library.
Plan your trip: Spend a weekend in Erfurt, or one week exploring some of Thuringia’s highlights. Spring through autumn is the nicest. Frankfurt is the nearest major gateway (2:30 hours), and discounted train tickets are offered for those with booked hotels in the region. Erfurt is also one of the best barrier-free city breaks in Germany.
Top tip: Bundle up the regions of Thuringia and Saxony into a road trip. Combined, these two states are known as the Cultural Heart of Germany.
15. Bansko & Pirin National Park, Bulgaria
One of the best places to visit in Europe for excellent value skiing by winter and summer hiking
Bansko was meant to be my first skiing trip. Shortly after arrival, I discovered that I was terrible at the winter sport, and quickly resigned myself to being an avid après-skier instead.
Thankfully, a ski trip in Bansko doesn’t break the bank, making it one of the best choices for first-timers who don’t want to commit to expensive options in the Alps – or pros who seek a more off the beaten path Europe experience.
For example, my chalet room, including dinners, breakfasts, transfers and drinks with Snomads, was around £300 for the week. Lessons and lift passes are also decently priced. Then – away from the slope’s inflated yet not too steep prices – the €1.55 G&Ts went down rather well too.
Before the pistes, which begin a 30-minute Gondola ride from the resort town, you’ll find all you need in Bansko Old Town. Some streets are lined with heritage buildings, while house museums and a small but stunning Orthodox church provide the culture.
If you visit outside the ski season, you’ll still be able to enjoy the old town and head into the Pirin National Park for some much more verdant hiking to lakes.
Skiing in Bansko
Plan your trip: Come for the hiking in summer or a skiing week in winter. An overnight stay is enough if you just want to explore the town and take a day hike.
Top tip: If you want to continue to Plovdiv, the slow and scenic narrow-gauge train provides a pleasant meandering journey.
16. The Frosinone Valley, Italy
One of the best non touristy places to visit for a Rome side trip of verdant walks, offbeat villages, and vineyard vistas
Around halfway between Rome and Naples, the idyllic Province of Frosinone is situated in the southern part of the Lazio region.
Perhaps the most famous attraction here is the Abbey of Montecassino, a vast complex atop the hill in Cassino, which, following its destruction in World War Two, has subsequently been rebuilt.
However, I spent most of my time around the Valle di Comino. Some of Europe’s fiercest battles have taken place in these forested heartlands, but it’s now a serene setting of olive groves, mountains, and beautiful small villages.
If you’re seeking that dreamy and verdant Italy-from-the-movies feel, Frosinone will oblige. Sip delicious award-winning Cabernet in the vineyards of Atina. Discover Arpino – the ‘city of Cicero’ – and explore the ancient L’Acropoli di Civitavecchia. Then head to pretty-as-a-postcard San Donato Val di Comino for mountain-backed village views and overflowing tables in an agriturismos’ (rural farm accommodation) farm-to-fork restaurant.
Villages near Rome
Plan your trip: Spring through Autumn are great times to visit – I especially enjoy late September during the wine harvest. You could make this a little post-Rome getaway or a stand-alone extended vacation.
Top tip: Arpino is perhaps the best town to base yourself in for decent restaurants and a bit of life. For a more rural village stay, opt for a farm base in San Donato Val di Comino.
17. Nisyros Island, Greece
One of the best hidden gems in Europe for a whitewashed village escape on an Aegean-enveloped active volcano
The volcanic island of Nisyros was one of my most accidental discoveries. In fact, I didn’t even know I was going to Greece until I got invited there on a second date. Sadly, the romance never blossomed, but I did replace it with a new lover: this European hidden gem in the Aegean Sea.
While the whole place is rather unique – it’s one hulking volcano – it is hugged by idyllic whitewashed villages serving up typical Greek traits. Tavernas dish out the staples, white and blue set the scene, and bright bougainvillaea adds a splash of colour.
But, what makes this hidden gem of Europe particularly impressive is Stefanos – one of the world’s largest hydrothermal craters. It’s not the only one, either; there are a handful of them on the island. Walking into the caldera, and standing on the space-like floor, is something of a surreal – and sulphur-filled – bucket list experience.
If you stay a while, you can explore the island’s coastal villages and lounge on the dark sand and pebble beaches. Nisyros is a solid pick for that laid-back Greek lifestyle without the overwhelming crowds of, say, Santorini.
Visit Nisyros Island
Plan your trip: You can day-trip from Kos, spend a couple of days hiking, or enjoy a week or more escaping it all. While Greece is one of Europe’s warmest winter destinations, I’d suggest avoiding the chillier months.
Top tip: Ferries leave from Kardamena, Kos, or you can book a day tour in advance.
18. Monsanto and Central Portugal’s Schist Villages
One of the most quirky places in europe for mind-boggling boulders, creative retreats, and near-empty trails
In Portugal’s parched interior, Monsanto is a pretty village lauding some unusual features. Boulders call all the shots here, making it a rather unique hidden gem of Europe.
Perched atop a volcanic massif with far-reaching views to the Spanish borders, the hamlet is littered with giant rocks. Not to be deterred from making it their home, previous residents have constructed houses alongside, between and even underneath precarious looking boulders.
Monsanto isn’t a place you come to do much, and that is very much the charm. There are excellent panoramas, the remains of the fortified castle, and a timeless air that sadly is getting lost in Portugal’s ever-growing tourism scene. Side trips include admiring ancient fossils in Penha Garcia, and visiting the remains of a Roman settlement in Idanaha-A-Velha.
Closer to Coimbra, you’ll find more Schist Villages in the Serra da Lousã. Cerdeira, which has been lovingly restored, now provides a bolthole for creativity, with some of hidden Europe’s most tucked-away workshops and retreats.
On my Portugal website
Plan your trip: Monsanto sits in the central sun-bleached heartlands. Intense heat defines summers, and cold snaps the winter. Come in spring or march, and stay at least a night or two to enjoy the magnificent sunsets.
Top tip: Day trips from Lisbon on public transport are almost impossible, so stay a night. You’ll need to book a tour if you just want a flying peek at Monsanto.
19. Annecy, France
One of the best places to visit in Europe for a pretty-as-a-postcard lakeside getaway
Annecy, in southeastern France, was my last ‘Europe off the beaten path’ visit of 2022. On a gloriously sunny day, the Christmas markets I came for felt slightly out of place, but the charm of this small alpine town shined as brightly as the rays from above.
Walking the excellently preserved medieval centre – the Vieille Ville – you’ll cross canals flanked by pastel-coloured facades. On an island in the largest channel, Le Palais de I’Île, a small castle, hosts a mini museum and provides a prominent photo point. Château d’Annecy – a historical monument and castle – sits higher still and serves as a more impressive museum.
But, I found the real joy in simply ambling – both along the canals and cobbled streets and the lakeside Jardins de l’Europe. The town sits on the edge of Lake Annecy, one of the country’s cleanest, lending itself to waterside strolls. Beyond, the nearby mountain trails help you go off the beaten path in the Haute-Savoie surrounds.
Weekend breaks in France
Plan your trip: Annecy is a pretty France weekend break year-round. In December, the Christmas markets added to the charm. It is fairly small, so it could be a day trip, or you can use it as a base to explore the nearby snow-capped peaks.
Top tip: If you’re a fine art enthusiast, take the 80-minute side trip to Grenoble for the Musêe de Grenoble. For a regional museum, it’s incredibly well stacked with masterpieces.
20. Sutherland and Moray, Scotland
One of the best places to visit in Europe for castle touring, coastal walking and clan learning
Without heading to Scotland’s far-flung isles, it’s getting harder to find ‘hidden gems’ in the ever-popular nation. The mountainous country rich in lochs, legends, myths and munros is one of the most scenic escapes in Europe, and unfathomable crowds descend on the likes of Skye and Edinburgh Festivals in peak summer.
Sutherland and Moray are two parts of Scotland I love, and you can base yourself bang in the middle in Inverness if you want to explore by public transport. While Inverness isn’t as grand as Edinburgh, the cathedral and castle make for a stately setting to call home.
In Sutherland, the show’s star is Dunrobin Castle, a grand – if relatively modern – turreted delight, set amongst perfectly manicured gardens. Moray brings the older sights, with the impressive ruins of Elgin Cathedral dating back to 1224.
Along this stretch of coast, you’ll find quaint villages and killer views, and hopefully, avoid the crowds heading to the West Highlands and famous valleys such as Glencoe. That said, the NC500 coastal route has become very popular in recent years, so it might be best to skip the high season.
Scotland road trip
Plan your trip: Either use Inverness as a base to experience the area, or even better, make it a Scotland road trip. Showers can come any time of year in Scotland, but avoiding winter weather and summer crowds is advisable.
Top tip: Dunrobin Castle is closed from November until March.
21. Lake of the Four Cantons, Switzerland
One of the best places to visit in Europe for spectacular backdrops with border-defining history
Switzerland’s lakes, mountains, timepieces, chocolates and banks have long appealed to those with the budget to travel the country. While it’s certainly not a cheap destination, free activities in the great outdoors can make it more palatable for your purse.
Lake Lucerne, or the Lake of the Four Cantons, is one of the country’s prettiest bodies of water. On the edge of the lake, you’ll find some Europe hidden gems such as Tellskapelle, the chapel honouring William Tell, Switzerland’s national hero.
While Tell himself is most likely mythical, the nearby towns provide genuine and important history for this famously neutral nation. In the cantons of Uri and Schwyz, the country established its independence – and two museums share the stories of those crucial days.
Hiking trails along the water’s edge link some smaller towns together. Beyond the settlements, the backdrop of soaring mountains – with their elevations often reachable by cable car – captivate.
Round off your visit in the larger city of Lucerne, where medieval architecture makes the Altstadt (Old Town) a pretty setting. Highlights include the Kapellbrücke – a 12th-century wooden bridge decorated with a series of triangular paintings – and the ‘saddest Lion statue’ in the world, a memorial monument dedicated to the Swiss Guards who died in the French Revolution.
Plan your trip: Spring through autumn is an excellent time to visit – I found October great. Plan a couple of days for village-hopping and at least one day in Lucerne. The public ferry pass could be good value if you want to see a few stops around the lake.
22. The Ore Mountains, Saxony
One of the best places to visit in Europe for Christmas traditions, mountain fare, and festive markets
Look no further than the Ore Mountains for one of the best winter hidden gems in Europe. Located in the eastern state of Saxony, close to the Czech border, a winter wonderland renowned for its festive traditions awaits.
The village of Seiffen is the place to start. Here, carpenters, toy-makers, candle-crafters, Moravian Star-stitchers and Angel-artists work year-round, creating something of a real-life Santa’s grotto. But, when winter – and the inevitable snow – rolls around, it’s at its finest.
Long standing seasonal traditions are very much alive, and mainly come courtesy of the surrounding ex-mining towns. Don a hard hat and heat into a decommissioned underground quarry for a candle-lit carol concert. Settle in at the table for a typical miners’ feast using age-old recipes.Then, get your fill of Glühwein and handicrafts at one of the region’s countless markets with marching band parades. Even just in Dresden, the region’s Baroque-heavy capital, you’ll find eleven themed markets.
The Ore Mountains are one of the most unique places to visit in Europe, and make for a great alternative to the continent’s most famous festive destinations.
Christmas traditions in Saxony
Plan your trip: This is a land best experienced in the lead-up to Christmas. Plan to stay a night or two as part of a longer Germany/Saxony Christmas Market road trip – public transport is more limited around the mountains.
Top tip: If you want to attend some special events – such as parades or miners’ concerts – check for updates on this local website.
23. Kutna Hora, Czech Republic
One of the best places to visit in Europe for a bone-chilling gothic city trip
Whilst Prague may be one of the hottest must-visit cities in Europe, the historic and impressive Bohemia city of Kutna Hora is still a relatively under-the-radar gem.
Discover the cobbled streets and grand Gothic architecture – especially the brawny cathedral – and then pay a respectful visit to the unique ‘Bone Church’, which is, as you might have guessed, adorned with bones.
Sedlec Ossuary shares its nearly 1000 years of history with a no-holding-back approach. Some 40,000 human skeletons form the walls, ceilings and even chandeliers. It’s quite the macabre sight.
Kutna Hora’s chapel
Plan your trip: Decent year-round, but summer is best for exploring the surrounding nature. Make it an overnight visit, or come on a day trip from Prague. Group tours are offered from Prague and cost around €50, though it’s easy and cheap to go DIY – the train takes approximately one hour.
Top tip: The Ostuary closes at 4 pm in winter and 6 pm in summer.
+ For the future: Kyiv, Ukraine
Two days in Kyiv
On my previous European hidden gems list, Kyiv was one of the top entries. Tragically the Russian invasion has caused misery and suffering for those living in Ukraine and, obviously, made tourism impossible. However, I leave this entry as a mention for future travel plans when we can return to Ukraine and help support and rebuild the nation through tourism.
And that’s a wrap for this 2023 edition of list underrated destinations in Europe. Got any suggestions of where I should head next to add to this list or have you visited somewhere above? Let me know in the comments and safe travels!
For my Europe adventures, discover my favourite secret Spain spots, hidden gems in Italy, or these beautiful and lesser visited villages near Rome. Or, find your own favourite amongst all my Europe travel articles.