Santorini…Venice…Tuscany…the French Riviera. These are among the most exciting European destinations—which is why they’re overrun with visitors in peak season. The most popular cities and sites of Europe often are jammed full of tourists in warm weather months …and jousting with throngs of fellow travelers for scenic views and seats in cafés wrecks the romance of a getaway vacation.
But there are lesser known options that can provide similarly enjoyable vacations—without the massive crowds. Here are eight great alternatives to overcrowded European travel destinations…
Sifnos instead of Santorini. The Greek island of Santorini—said to be the site of the legendary lost city of Atlantis—is one of the most beautiful islands in the Aegean Sea. But it’s tough to enjoy that beauty when you’re surrounded by the island’s summer flood of cruise ship passengers. The small Cycladic island of Sifnos, about 80 miles northwest of Santorini and accessible only by ferry, is a great choice if you’re looking for Santorini sans tourist overload and tumult. Small, sedate, picturesque villages full of whitewashed houses and connected by scenic paths dot this uncrowded Greek island. There also are dramatic ocean views, pristine beaches, historic architecture, excellent yet unpretentious seafood restaurants and pleasant cafés. One highlight is a monastery on a 2,200-foot summit near the center of the island, parts of which date to the 12th century. Its spectacular views are well worth the two-hour uphill walk from Apollonia, the island’s capital. Warning: Even sedate Sifnos can get a bit crowded in August—not with tourists, but with residents of Athens fleeing that city’s summer heat.
Treviso instead of Venice. Venice is famous for its myriad canals, its magnificent Gothic architecture…and its crushing throngs of tourists. The compact island city attracts more than 10 million visitors each year, overwhelming its considerable charms. The small walled city of Treviso, 20 miles north of Venice, has canals and impressive medieval architecture, too, but not the same crowds of tourists. Its canals aren’t as numerous or grand as Venice’s, but that’s a trade-off worth making. In Treviso, you can feel that you’re truly experiencing Italy as you stroll the streets and linger in a canal-side wine bar.
Le Langhe instead of Tuscany. Masses of tourists flock to Tuscany to experience its bucolic Chianti vineyards, gorgeous rolling hills, historic hill towns, lively markets and incredible food and wine. You could get all of that without Tuscany’s crowds if you instead visit Le Langhe in Piedmont, a wine region in northwest Italy near the French border, just south of Turin. Visitors can stay in the Hotel Castello di Sinio, a restored medieval castle located on the Barolo vineyards (from 189 euros/night, equal to about $210 US, HotelCastellodiSinio.com), hike on peaceful trails that cross the region’s vineyards, explore ancient castles and villages, visit the Saturday morning food market in Alba, drink Barolo wine and eat spectacular food—the area is especially known for its truffles when in season.
Île de Ré instead of the French Riviera. The Riviera, on France’s southern Mediterranean coast, is among the most popular and glamorous getaways in the world. Far less crowded is Île de Ré, a 19-mile-long island just off France’s Atlantic coast in the west. This flat, peaceful island is where France’s upper-crust tend to summer. It’s a place for relaxed bike rides down coastal paths, past quaint green-shuttered whitewashed homes. There are also places to stop for meals of shellfish cooked over pine-needle fires at unpretentious waterfront restaurants. Like any beach area, its population does swell in the summer, but never overwhelmingly so. Visit in May or September for an even more relaxed experience. Île de Ré is connected by a bridge to the mainland, so it isn’t difficult to reach.
Olomouc instead of Prague. Prague is among the most popular tourist cities in all of Eastern Europe for reasons ranging from its castles and cathedrals to its beer and nightlife. The off-the-tourist-radar Czech city of Olomouc, three hours to the east, can provide most of what visitors love about Prague without the Prague crowds—it’s truly an overlooked gem. Olomouc’s beautiful Old Town features narrow cobblestone streets, grand fountains, ancient churches and a mix of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture—similar to Prague’s architectural mix. This is a college town, full of pubs, cafés, culture and history, but with a laid-back vibe you won’t find in busy, bustling Prague.
Aarhus instead of Copenhagen. Aarhus is Denmark’s second-largest city, but it’s so far off the tourist radar that most people outside Scandinavia have never even heard of it. Don’t let the lack of international acclaim throw you. This city’s culture and architecture—including the medieval city center as well as more modern styles—are on par with Copenhagen’s. Among the attractions, the ARoS art museum is one of the biggest and best museums in all of northern Europe, and Den Gamle By (“The Old Town”), a unique open-air museum of 75 traditional Danish houses shipped in from around the country. But the best reason to visit Aarhus is to experience Denmark in a calmer, less touristy way than is possible in Copenhagen. You can stroll casually down leafy streets and stop for drinks or meals at outdoor bars and cafés along the Aarhus River without battling crowds.
Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland National Park instead of Bath. The Roman baths in Bath are among England’s most visited classical ruins. If you’d like to explore Roman ruins without braving city crowds during a trip to England, head instead to the remains of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland National Park. It was built nearly 2,000 years ago to protect the northern edge of the Roman empire. It’s possible to hike the entire 73-mile length of the wall ruins along the Hadrian’s Wall Path (or bike it along Hadrian’s Cycleway), stopping at pleasant, historic villages along the way. But if that’s more classical ruins than you had in mind, just visit one of the best-preserved stretches of the wall, which is near the Roman fort ruins called Housesteads near the southern edge of Northumberland National Park.
County Donegal instead of The Ring of Kerry. The Ring of Kerry, a 110-mile road along the edge of Ireland’s Iveragh Peninsula, delivers stunning views of the Irish coast. But that route and the towns along it are chronically choked with tourists. County Donegal in Ireland’s northwest corner offers equally breathtaking coastal views and pleasant Irish villages without the crowds—this part of Ireland feels more undiscovered than overrun. The Inishowen 100, a 100-mile driving route in County Donegal that extends up to the country’s northernmost point, feels like a drive along the edge of the world. The Kilclooney Dolmen tombs, a monument built around 3,500 BC, is one of the few ancient sites in Ireland not frequented by tour buses.