15 Beautiful Cities in Europe & Other European Destinations to Visit.
In recent years, summer in Europe has brought the increasingly negative impacts of mass tourism. Every peak European travel season seems to bring more unfortunate issues, increasing the rift between locals and visitors and prompting calls to curb tourist numbers.
The recent Venice cruise ship crash was just the latest in a long list of incidents. But over-tourism has long-lasting consequences, increasing the property and rental prices, driving locals away from their hometowns and turning historic centers into living museums. In the process, the cultural heart of these destinations all too often seems to get lost.
If your dream European vacation includes sailing the canals of Venice or wandering the streets of Florence in solitude, you’ll likely find the reality pales in comparison to the fantasy. Unless you visit during the offseason, you may find yourself among hordes of tourists attracted by cheap European travel packages.
But while visitor numbers to these crowded hotspots seem to increase every year, there are still many European destinations that remain off the beaten path. There are countless beautiful cities in Europe where few travelers know to venture, with ample natural, cultural, and historical attractions and a fraction of the crowds you’ll find in European cities like Barcelona, Rome, and Paris.
From the Arctic to the Mediterranean, we’ve pored over the map and come up with our 15 favorite uncrowded places in Europe, many of which you can visit on one of our upcoming Zegrahm expeditions.
NORDIC EUROPE DESTINATIONS
There are approximately 90,000 annual visitors to Greenland—a far cry from the 20 million tourists who travel to Venice every year. Considering the fact that Greenland is the world’s largest island, your chances of being stuck in selfie-stick-brandishing crowds there are slim to none. Yet Greenland is a must-visit for lovers of nature and of the Arctic.
It’s worth a visit in winter to experience the Polar darkness, and for the high likelihood to see Northern Lights in Kangerlussaq (where they appear approximately 300 nights each year). In summer you can have fun round-the-clock under the midnight sun, enjoying adventure activities including kayaking in iceberg-filled lagoons and exploring the Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (and one of the world’s few growing glaciers).
Greenland is also unique in Europe because it’s the only place where you can learn about Inuit culture. Qaanaaq, formerly known as Thule, is an Inuit town located at 77.4° north, making it one of the northernmost inhabited places in the world. It’s home to around 700 people of Inuit descent, and visiting gives tourists a chance to learn about their culture and traditions.
Iceland is another place that’s often mentioned when talking about over-tourism. Its problems range from visitors flocking to a canyon once featured in a Justin Bieber video to locals enraged after seeing tourists using their gardens and fields as toilets.
But most Iceland tourism is concentrated in the southern part of the country, in the vicinity of Reykjavik and the famous “Golden Circle.” If you want to avoid throngs of tourists, head to the northwestern peninsula known as the Westfjords, which Zegrahm visits on their Circumnavigation of Iceland cruise.
Reaching the region from the capital can take close to half a day, and the roads to get there aren’t great. But you’ll be rewarded with roaring waterfalls like Dynjandi, thousands of puffins in Latrabjarg, and many incredible natural pools and hot springs.
Do you have a knack for remote places? No other European destination will make you feel on the edge of the map quite as much as Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago that lies halfway between the North Pole and continental Norway.
In summer, Svalbard is full of wildlife. Polar bears outnumber residents two to one, and you may also come across seals, walruses, whales, arctic foxes, and more.
Nature is Svalbard’s main draw: there are endless glaciers, mountains, large expanses of tundra and sea cliffs, which are inhabited by a number of migratory birds. Yet it’s also a place for history lovers, where it’s possible to visit a 17th-century whaling station and recently abandoned coal mines, like the Soviet settlement of Pyramiden.
Touring Svalbard on your own is very dangerous. At these latitudes, nature is wild and the danger of a polar bear attack is very real. But Zegrahm frequently runs an expedition cruise to Svalbard during the summer months, with a focus on wildlife and finding polar bears.
Located in the Swedish part of the Baltic Sea, Gotland was beloved by famous film director Ingmar Bergman, who spent the last 40 years of his life in Fårö, a tiny island located just north of Gotland.
It’s a popular destination for vacationing Swedes, but it’s all but unknown among other nationalities. Gotland is a place for people who wish to unplug completely, spending days in a secluded cabin in the forest and occasionally walking to the beach for a refreshing dip in the sea.
Those who wish to go sightseeing will also find plenty to do in Gotland. Visby, the largest town, is UNESCO-protected because it’s the best-preserved medieval town in Nordic Europe. You can also visit the unique raukar (limestone sea stacks found on beaches all over the island), see wooden churches and medieval windmills, or even try to spot the endemic Gotland Pony.
WESTERN EUROPE DESTINATIONS
Shetland Islands (Scotland)
You’ll find the enchanting Shetland Archipelago on the remote edge of the United Kingdom’s map, 12 hours by ferry from the northern tip of Scotland.
Not many people brave the stormy seas to reach this archipelago made up of 100 islands, only 16 of which are inhabited.
Popular sites include St. Ninian’s Isle, where you can visit the largest tombolo (two-sided beach) in the UK; the Sumburgh Lighthouse, with its colonies of migrating birds (including puffins!); the sea cliffs of Eshaness; and the ruins of croft houses, where local Shetlanders used to live before famine caused massive migrations in the 19th century.
The remote feeling of being “in the middle of nowhere” is one of the main draws that lead intrepid travelers to the Shetland Islands, and you’ll have few others to share this fascinating place with.
Jersey (Channel Islands)
The island of Jersey may be diminutive in size (just 5 by 9 miles), but it includes a large variety of sights, both natural and historic. If you’ve planned a short stay in the Channel Islands, you may quickly find yourself planning a return visit.
The northern coast is famous for its dramatic sea cliffs, which are surrounded by fields covered with fern and heather. The southern part of the island feels more genteel, with long, sandy beaches and sheltered bays where you can appreciate the extent of the Channel Islands’ extreme tides. For a fun, unique experience, take a walk on the seabed at low tide, when the island doubles in size.
Jersey offers several castles to visit, as well as La Hougue Bie, a passage grave dating back to Neolithic times. It’s also possible to visit bunkers and museums dating back to the time of German Occupation during World War II, including the Jersey War Tunnels, a museum in a partially built underground hospital.
Far away from the chaos and crowds of Southern France in summer, Brittany is another great place in Europe to explore.
Located in northwest France, this region still retains a strong Celtic culture and way of life. It’s home to delicious seafood and around 1,740 miles of coastline, so you won’t ever have to worry about overcrowding. The town of Saint Malo is one of Europe’s best-preserved fortified cities, or you can visit quaint villages like Dinan or Rochefort.
The area’s windswept beaches are perfect for taking long coastal walks or bike rides, or you can head inland to visit castles or megalithic sites. Another fun reason to visit Brittany is to go island-hopping in the Gulf of Morbihan, where you can find 40 islands, many of which are excellent birdwatching destinations.
Oberammergau is a sleepy town in Germany’s Bavarian Alps that really springs to life once every decade. In 1633, the inhabitants made a vow: if they were spared from the plague that was ravaging Europe at the time, they would write and produce a play about the life and death of Jesus Christ, and repeat it once every 10 years.
Over 300 years later, the tradition of the Oberammergau Passion Play still continues. The 2020 edition will take place from May to October, with over 100 repeats of the Passion Play taking place in an outdoor theatre, and its running time is five hours.
Zegrahm organizes a tour of Switzerland, Austria, and Germany that includes the Passion Play in Oberammergau, plus unmissable European destinations such as Zermatt, a pedestrian-only town with views over the mighty Matterhorn.
SOUTHERN EUROPE DESTINATIONS
Imagine green, rolling hills, mist, and low clouds, fluffy sheep grazing in the fields, wild sea cliffs, and the sound of bagpipes in the air. Now guess, what place I’m talking about?
You might be thinking of Ireland of Scotland, but the place I’m referring to is Galicia, a region in northwestern Spain overlooking the Atlantic Sea.
The best-known place in Galicia is undoubtedly Santiago de Compostela, the endpoint of the famous Camino de Santiago trail. You can take a day trip from Santiago to Fisterra, where pilgrims of yesteryear finally saw the ocean after their endless pilgrimage across Europe. Or head further off the beaten track to charming Muxia to visit its stunning cliffside chapel.
Galicia is also known for its scenic wild beaches. One of the best-known beaches is As Catedrais, or The Cathedrals. When you visit, you’ll immediately see why!
Sardinia is one of Italy’s two main islands, located about 186 miles from the mainland. Its remote location means that most international travelers to Italy don’t bother visiting, and they truly don’t know what they’re missing.
Sardinia is home to an array of spectacular beaches—some sandy, some rocky, some with unique quartz micro-pebbles, and all with pristine waters that are perfect for diving or snorkeling.
Cagliari, the largest town on the island, is a pleasant place to discover, with a charming historic center. The interior of the island is where you can still find remains of the mysterious Nuragic population, which predated Roman times. If you’re into hiking, you can attempt to cover Selvaggio Blu, a week-long trek along a truly stunning stretch of coast, spending the nights on deserted beaches.
Sicily is Italy’s largest and southernmost island. Unlike Sardinia, where culture survived largely untouched for centuries thanks to its isolation, Sicily was very much a cultural crossroads. What you see there today is the result of centuries of changing hands, from the Phoenicians to the Greeks, from the Arabs to the Normans, the Swabians, and the Spanish.
Lovers of art and history will be spoiled in Sicily. Western Sicily, especially around Agrigento, is home to Greek ruins that rival the Parthenon in terms of beauty. In eastern Sicily you can tour the stunning Baroque towns of Siracusa and Noto.
Naturally, you can’t miss visiting Mount Etna, the largest volcano in Europe. And if one volcano is not enough for you, take a trip to the Aeolian archipelago to see two more—Vulcano, with its bubbling sulphur pools, and Stromboli, which erupts every hour.
The Azores are technically part of Portugal, but they’re located over 620 miles away from the European mainland.
The archipelago is made up of nine volcanic islands, each with something unique to offer. For instance, Corvo (the smallest island) is actually an extinct volcano, while Terceira is known for its colorful capital and Pico is dominated by the mountain of the same name (which is the highest in Portugal).
A trip to the Azores is ideal for those who love nature and hiking, but not so much if you’re looking for steady sunshine, as the weather fluctuates considerably and there’s lots of rain. Bonus point: The Azores are a great whale-watching destination!
CENTRAL & EASTERN EUROPE DESTINATIONS
The Black Sea
In Europe, cruising is pretty much synonymous with the Mediterranean Sea. But whether it’s island-hopping in Greece or sailing the Dalmatian coast, the Mediterranean in summer comes with lots of neighbors and a lot less elbow room than we’d like.
Luckily, there’s another incredible European destination that lends itself to cruising without all the crowds. Straddling Eastern Europe and Western Asia, the Black Sea borders six countries—Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, and Turkey.
Cruising on a voyage such as Zegrahm’s Circumnavigation of the Black Sea offers travelers an opportunity to explore timeless cities like Istanbul and Odessa, as well as natural beauties like the Danube River Delta.
There are also historic sites such as the Ottoman houses of Safranbolu and Sumela Monastery (near Trabzon), as well as the seaside resorts of Sochi in Russia and Batumi in Georgia. This is a part of the world where few Western tourists ever venture, but it’s riddled with riches for intrepid travelers to discover.
The historic region of Transylvania spans part of Central Romania, where it’s bordered by the Carpathian Mountains on the east and south and the Apuseni Mountains in the west.
Of course, Transylvania is primarily known as the home of Vlad the Impaler, who is better known as Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s classic horror novel. You can still visit Bran Castle, the home of the mysterious Vlad, but Transylvania also has a lot more to offer.
You can stroll the historic towns of Brasov and Sibiu to discover that Old World atmosphere of narrow cobblestone streets and steeples piercing the skies (minus the tourists). Then head to the mountainous Maramures to visit the UNESCO-protected painted churches, and Voronet Monastery, the best-known painted church in the region of Bucovina.
Located in Croatia, but far away from bustling Dubrovnik (another well-known victim of mass tourism), you’ll find Istria. This charming, heart-shaped peninsula sits at the crossroads between Italy and the Balkans, where you can breathe the Venetian influence in cuisine and architecture and explore wild Mediterranean nature.
Istria was part of the Venetian republic for over 500 years before it was taken over by the Habsburg Empire. Wandering around towns like Labin and Rovinj today, you may think you’ve suddenly been transported to Venice.
But the real marvels of Istria are found in the countryside, where there are opportunities to go hiking and cycling, explore vineyards and olive groves, and enjoy adventure activities like paragliding. Only one thing will be missing…. other tourists! –Margherita Ragg
BIO: Margherita Ragg is a freelance writer from Milan, Italy. She is passionate about wildlife, ecotourism, and outdoor adventure activities. She runs the popular nature and adventure travel blog The Crowded Planet with her husband Nick Burns, an Australian travel and wildlife photographer.