Looking to explore Europe? Ready for experiences less touched by tourism? Get to know Europe’s beating heart by heading off the beaten track to some of the continent’s lesser-known places. Find beauty in the French countryside, drama in Denmark, and culture in Kosovo. Experience natural wonders in Finland, discover history in Montenegro, and taste the wines of Malta — adventure is out there waiting for you!
Pristina, located in the heart of the Balkans, is the capital city of Kosovo and is officially the youngest capital city in Europe. The city is small by capital city standards, so it’s easy to get around on foot and see the sights. As it’s such an “off the beaten track” destination, you can easily spend all day exploring the center without seeing a single tourist!
Pristina is the perfect place to escape the crowds. There aren’t masses of attractions to visit in Pristina, but there’s definitely enough for a day or two, and most tourist sites are conveniently located within walking distance of one another.
When it comes to the top things to see in Pristina, the most notable landmark is the Newborn Monument, representing Kosovo’s freedom from Serbia in 2008. Also in the center of town is the National Library of Kosovo, which is often referred to as one of the world’s ugliest buildings. Completed in 1982, the building supposedly blends Islamic and Byzantine architecture. Its style was “controversial” in the 80s and still is today. Nevertheless, with a collection of over 1.8 million books, journals, pictures, and digital resources, this is definitely worth a visit.
The city’s various Ottoman mosques should definitely be on your Pristina itinerary. Arguably the best ones are the Imperial Mosque (built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1461), as well as Jashar Pasha’s Mosque and Xhamia e Llapit. Most of the mosques are in the small Old Town area near the Kosovo Museum.
If you are visiting during summer, I’d recommend the Pristina Bear Sanctuary, which was established to house rescued “restaurant bears” — brown bears that had been kept in tiny cages next to restaurants to attract customers. Rehomed, they now have space to freely roam the sanctuary grounds and are undoubtedly happier!
Pro Tip: Pristina is a good choice for budget travelers too as it’s considerably cheaper than most other European capital cities. If you are looking for a place to stay, try the Hotel Sirius, which is not the cheapest option in town but is within walking distance of most attractions.
Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, is one of the most often overlooked capital cities of Europe. A 40-minute train ride north of the city at the northern end of the island of Zealand lies an even less-known destination, Helsingør, long stuck in Copenhagen’s shadow.
The town was the setting for Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, and real-life Helsingør’s Kronborg Castle is the play’s Elsinore Castle. There are free guided tours included with the price of admission to the castle, and in the summer months, actors portray famous scenes from the play and visitors can tour the royal apartments, chapel, dungeon, and cannon towers. Make sure to spend some time in the underground dungeon and climb the cannon tower, from where there’s an amazing view of the picturesque town below and across the strait to Sweden.
Aside from its castle, the town has about 60,000 residents and several attractions to keep you busy. See the city museum, Oresund Aquarium, and the Danish Maritime Museum. On weekends there is a vibrant street food market in Helsingør.
The best time to visit is a weekend in summer when the weather is pleasant — though even in peak season Helsingør is far from crowded.
Pro Tip: Helsingør has a sister city, just a short ferry ride across the Oresund Sound in Sweden, which makes for a great half-day trip.
3. Herceg Novi
The Balkans are gaining popularity as a travel destination, but there are still plenty of fantastic hidden gems to be found, and Herceg Novi is one of them! Herceg Novi is a beautiful coastal town in Montenegro, at the mouth of Kotor Bay and right under the majestic Mount Orjen.
Famous for its healing sea mud, and various spa and wellness facilities, the town is situated only an hour’s drive from Kotor (Montenegro’s most popular city) or a 1.5-hour drive from Dubrovnik in Croatia. The Old Town of Herceg Novi is surrounded by fortification walls, built over five centuries, and inside the walls there are churches, squares, at least half a dozen imposing forts and palaces, and so many steps that the town is affectionately known as the “Town of 100,001 Steps.” Visit the most famous fort, Forte Mare, or take a boat trip to the mysterious Mamula Fortress.
Pro Tip: If you are looking for somewhere luxurious to stay, check out the luxurious 5-star boutique hotel Lazure Hotel & Marina, located at the Bay of Kotor.
Malta is a tiny archipelago of 21 islands in the Mediterranean Sea with three main islands, two of which are inhabited: Malta and Gozo. Gozo is the smaller of the two and you’ll need a ferry to get there. Stunning beaches, little picturesque fishing villages tucked into sandy coves between the rocky seaside cliffs, wonderful hiking, delicious cuisine, ancient architecture, and an all-around laid-back attitude mean this is the perfect destination for a tranquil and peaceful holiday.
Gozo comes from the Catalan word for “Joy,” and its population of 30,000 are centered around the hilltop citadel of the capital, Victoria, from where you can see the Mediterranean on all sides. There are also a number of churches and museums located within and just outside the Citadel’s walls, and it’s worth spending a few hours exploring this area of Gozo. The Citadel is also a great spot to come for sunset!
Malta’s wine scene is growing in popularity at a rapid rate and one of the best things to do in Gozo is to learn more about the wine and try some varieties by spending an afternoon at a winery. Visit Tal-Massar, a local boutique winery, and spend a couple of hours here sampling their delicious wines.
Pro Tip: For a great meal explore the back streets and find Maldonado Bistro for fine-dining quality food without the expensive price tags. It’s located in a cellar with an impressive wine collection to accompany the delicious seafood and meat dishes.
5. The Sault Plateau Lavender Fields
Most people have heard about the beautiful lavender fields of Provence, and most people flock to the Valensole plateau and the Luberon Valley to get their flower fix. Both areas are stunning for their lavender fields, local villages, and breathtaking natural scenery, but there’s another secret spot that’s home to lavender fields that are just as stunning.
The Sault plateau, an area north of the Luberon, is known to locals but has somehow flown under the radar for outsiders. Sitting high above the Luberon mountains, you’ll find an untouched area of Provence, an area of natural beauty, rich agricultural heritage, and incredible gastronomy — and, in summer, you’ll also discover a lavender-laced landscape.
The charming village of Sault is a great place to experience local farmers markets, shop in colorful boutiques, and enjoy lunch with a view. In August, don’t miss the annual lavender festival that celebrates the season’s crop. The lavender in and around Sault flowers later than most in Provence because it’s grown at a higher altitude, so the best time to visit is late July or early August when it’s in full bloom.
Set between Mediterranean scrubland and rolling hills in the middle of a vast plain covered in lavender, crops, and truffle oaks, Sault may not be quite as “manicured” as elsewhere in Provence. It has a bit more of a rugged and rural feel, but this doesn’t detract from its beauty. For a real taste of Provence and village life, try La Bastide des Bourguets, a lovely little bed and breakfast situated right on a lavender farm.
Helsinki might be the best-known city in Finland, but Turku, the country’s oldest city and its former capital, is the one with the most soul. Turku has a long history stretching back to the Middle Ages and was once the most important city in the country — many of the locals will tell you it still is!
Turku’s main attractions are the 700-year-old fairytale Turku Castle — the largest surviving medieval castle in all of Scandinavia, originally built for the local Swedish governor when Finland was ruled by Sweden — and Turku Cathedral. The city has almost 20 museums, including the Kylämäki Village of Living History and The Sibelius Museum, which is totally devoted to music and the only one of its kind in Finland. Definitely don’t miss the Turku Market Hall, which dates back to 1896 and is full of food stalls, restaurants, and shops selling fresh local produce. This is a foodie must visit, and is a particularly good place to come at lunchtime!
For something a little different, get your hands on a Food Walk Card. For around $50, the card gives you ten tantalizing Turku restaurant options to choose from. The route along the banks of the Aura River, which runs through the city center, takes you to local restaurants that offer some of the most delicious and authentic tastes in Turku. You can choose five altogether, and once you narrow down to your five favorites you simply visit your first restaurant.
From that point on your card is valid for 3 days, so you have 72 hours to work your way through your remaining four chosen restaurants. Once you’ve used your card, your dining discounts aren’t done, you’ll still get a 15 percent discount on a meal at any of the 10 Food Walk restaurants (this discount is only valid for 2022).
Turku is the gateway to the incredible Finnish archipelago, a network of thousands of islands that stretch along the southern Finnish coast, many of which are interlinked by a network of bridges and roads. You might like to consider a 3-hour sunset or a 6-hour daytime kayaking tour around the archipelago. The vintage SS Ukkopekka, the last passenger steamship in the Finnish sea area, offers daytime tours to the pretty seaside town of Naantali and evening cruises to Loistokari, a tiny island in the Turku Archipelago.
Pro Tip: Hotel Sokos Hamburger Bors is located right in the center of town by the market square. You can wake up and watch the market sellers setting up their stalls with fruit, vegetables, and colorful flowers right from your room.
Although the better-known cities of Europe are certainly full of iconic landmarks and rich history, getting off the beaten path to less visited destinations provides a glimpse of a different side of European life — so consider adding some of my suggestions to your next European vacation.