Many years ago, over a glass of red wine and stone oven-baked pizza, an Italian chef once told me that you don’t fully experience Italy with your eyes alone. You experience it with your taste buds (through the food), your ears (through the music) and most of all, your heart. Over the years, in my quest to find offbeat places in Europe, I’ve realised how right he was. Not just about Italy, but also about Europe in general.
Unfortunately, travelling in Europe has changed significantly over the past decade. Locals in popular places like Barcelona, Venice and Rome are rebelling against overtourism. The streets of Central Amsterdam and Vienna’s main square are overrun with tourist groups.
Does that mean we should stop travelling to Europe? Or that it’s impossible to experience Europe with your heart anymore? If you ask me, it just means that we need to look away from the list of “must do” sights, seek offbeat places in Europe and travel more responsibly.
While the Indian passport currently makes it impossible to travel over land from India to Europe, we can pick an airline that is serious about sustainability. While travelling on invitation from KLM, I was impressed with their use of biojet fuel and research in sustainable aviation fuel, which can drastically cut down the carbon footprint of air travel. Next week, KLM will introduce Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner flights – with 25% better fuel efficiency than other similar aircrafts – from Bangalore (it already flies from Delhi and Mumbai) to its hub Amsterdam.
Within Europe, travelling by train is an experience in itself (it’s worth getting the Eurail pass if you plan to take multiple trains), as is staying with locals in eco-conscious accommodations, choosing public transport over renting a car, eating local and plant-based food, hiking responsibly and delving deeper into the history, culture and way of life of the region you’re in. If we make these conscious choices, overtourism in Europe will be easier to tackle in the near future.
As for offbeat places in Europe, I’ve got you covered! Based on my explorations over the years, these are some of my favorite alternative destinations in Europe to get away from the crowds:
1. Spain: Segura de la Sierra
Unless you happen to be a paragliding enthusiast, it’s unlikely that you’ve heard of Segura de la Sierra – a breathtaking little town in eastern Andalusia. Cobblestoned streets wind along colorful houses with panoramic views on the rugged Sierra Moena mountains; olive trees dominate the landscape (and the cuisine, with fine olive oil); the Arab influence lives on in the form of restored 11th century steam baths and a Moorish castle adorns the hill. Although I enjoyed the unique charms of Cordoba and Granada, it was in this small Andalusian village that I finally felt far from the beaten path. Chatting with a local in broken Spanish about a revered local poet, the long afternoon siestas and the stunning hikes still makes me dreamy-eyed about my time in Spain.
Stay at a casa rural – a room or studio where you’re hosted by a local family. Los Huertos de Segura and Apartamentos Sierra de Segura are both lovely self-catering options, while El Rincon de Paco is geared towards budget travel.
2. Slovakia: The High Tatras
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While the Swiss and French Alps steal all the attention of hikers and tourists in Europe (and have started getting affected by overtourism in Europe), the High Tatras of Slovakia offer relative solitude amid craggy snow-capped peaks, fields of wildflowers in spring, gushing rivers and trails for all fitness levels. I spent a few days hiking, cycling, journeying on the electric train, chilling by glacial lakes and even spotted a wild fox while hiking alone!
To really experience offbeat places in Europe’s High Tatras, stay at Penzion Tri Klasy in Nova Lesna (a charming wood and stone family-run guesthouse) or Pension Barborka if you want to be based in Poprad. For a high end luxury experience, pick Grand Hotel Kempinski High Tatras.
3. The Netherlands: Noord Holland villages
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When KLM first reached out to me about a collaboration involving a trip to the Netherlands, I felt conflicted. On the one hand, I wanted to learn more about their sustainability initiatives. On the other, I didn’t want to contribute to overtourism in Europe, of which Amsterdam is a victim. But when I began to research my trip, I realised that I could choose to stay away from the main city in Purmerend, pick meaningful experiences and discover a unique side of the country.
While in Amsterdam, I sailed on a small, wooden boat that had once ferried 76 refugees across the Mediterranean – with a Syrian ex-refugee guide who put our privileged lives in perspective. A friend invited me to join him on a bicycle ride in a small Dutch village not far from Amsterdam Central – with eclectic houses, cosy cafes and typical Dutch landscapes with windmills and sheep! Further north, I rode for days on the bicycle-only trails of Noord Holland, amid the swaying grasslands, old canal houses, green meadows and flowing streams, often the only cyclist on the trail, discovering little Dutch villages along the way (of which my favorite was Broek in Waterland).
Starting next week, KLM will fly the Mumbai – Amsterdam route daily, making the Netherlands and the rest of Europe even more accessible from India.
4. Germany: Berchtesgaden National Park
Even though there’s a lot to explore and experience in Germany, I’m so in love with the alpine Bertesgaden National Park – just 3 hours from Munich by train but a world away – that I’ve already been back twice! Hiking amid the magnificent Bavarian Alps, discovering turquoise Alpine lakes, trying your hand at cross-country skiing, strolling along picturesque Alpine villages and spending warm afternoons with a glass of chilled beer at a cosy cafe, watching pro skiers tackle the slopes – it’s a side of Germany that not many people end up experiencing.
I loved staying at Burmesterhaus (pick the top floor penthouse), originally built in the 1860s, overlooking the stunning Mount Watzman, hosted by a Finnish family. If it’s your first time using Airbnb, sign up with my referral to get 40$ off your first stay.
5. Romania: Maramures
Most people think Transylvania and the legend of the Dracula when they hear Romania. And while the region has its charm, it also draws the crowds. But further north, it was the rural countryside of Maramures that stole my heart. We spent our days hitchhiking with locals, in their ancient cars, trucks, even tractors, and journeyed on a rickety logging train with loggers, shepherds, sheep, axes and a lot of palinka (traditional brandy) into remote settlements high up in the Carpathian mountains. One Sunday morning, we found ourselves standing amidst the tombstones in the cemetery of a 14th century church to attend Sunday mass. Absolutely surreal.
6. Croatia: The Istrian Peninsula
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I felt like I was too late in visiting Croatia, with the explosion of Game of Thrones-inspired overtourism taking over Dubrovnik and Split, and spilling over to other stunning locales. Luckily, the Istrian Peninsula still somewhat qualifies among offbeat places in Europe, especially in off season. Living with a sweet couple in their 400-year-old stone house, I met olive farmers, heard local tales of foraging for wild mushrooms and asparagus in the nearby forests and watched some delightful sunrises and sunsets from the (relatively popular) village of Motovun.
7. Wales: Lake Vrynwy
While in North Wales, I remember turning off the lights one night and peeping out into the balcony, to see the dark night sky shimmering with stars. In the moonlight below, Lake Vrywy glowed softly, forever etching itself in my heart. Although all of North Wales – with its dramatic hills and vast sheep-filled rolling meadows – blew my mind, nothing compared to the raw beauty of the lake. Go while it’s still under the radar!
I was lucky enough to stay at the gorgeous Lake Vyrnwy Hotel & Spa with a bird’s eye view over Lake Vyrnwy and the dark night skies. The next time I go back, I’d also love to try out the little B&Bs along the Welsh countryside.
Also read: Why North Wales Blew My Mind
8. Switzerland: Ebnat-Keppel
The Bollywood phenomenon is still very visible in the Swiss Alps – so much so that the Swiss have even named a train after Yash Chopra for all the tourism he’s brought to the Jungfrau region (unfortunately this part of overtourism in Europe is largely driven by Indian travellers). To beat the crowds, it only took a 1.5 hour train journey from Zurich, to the little-known region of Ebnat-Keppel at the foothills of the Alps in eastern Switzerland. Surrounded by spectacular snow-clad peaks, hiking trails, blazing sunsets and virtually no tourists, this felt like the real Switzerland. One worth adding to any secret list of offbeat places in Europe!
I was smitten by Sonnmatt Bergpension & Gesundheitszentrum – a family-run, vegan / vegetarian B&B in Ebnat-Keppel; highly recommended!
9. Denmark: Bornholm
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Getting to Bornholm – Denmark’s easternmost island in the Baltic Sea – is an expensive affair that takes you through Sweden and on a ferry, but that’s perhaps why it continues to remain under the radar. After cycling and eating our way through the urbanscapes of Copenhagen, we were delighted to ride along the wild beauty of the Baltic Sea, catching fiery sunsets, chatting with friendly locals, getting a taste of slow-paced island living in remote Scandinavia.
Like much of Scandinavia, accommodation in Bornholm is expensive. Griffen Spa Hotel offers good value for money and is close to the ferry and bus terminal.
10. Bosnia and Herzegovina: Una
My original plan was to make a quick trip to the famous Plitvice Lakes of Croatia, but I was worried it might be too touristy and disappointing like Lake Bled in Slovenia. A local tipped me off to take a bus to Una National Park – one of the most offbeat places in Europe – on the other side of the border instead. As I walked across the border from Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was love at first sight. Much of the country is still under the radar – with 50% still covered in forests, pristine landscapes, friendly locals and heartbreaking stories of war in everyone you talk to. And I’m pretty sure I was the only outsider in Una village, exploring the unique ecosystem of Una River, with greenish-blue waters full of river islands connected by manmade wooden bridges, wildflowers and emerald blue tributaries.
I recommend staying with a local family in the self-catering Airbnb Pile Dwelling – a traditional, hand-built wooden hut on stilts.
11. Italy: Umbria
I took to heart the words of the Italian chef and ditched popular cities like Rome and Venice – victims of overtourism for years now – for a slice of life in the Italian countryside. In the relatively less-trodden region of Umbria, I cycled along the rolling hills to the walled city of Todi and ended up meeting some rather eclectic Italian artists and poets. Those delightful afternoons of crispy focaccia (baked in a 500 year old stone oven) and conversation continue to live on in my memory… as though I really did experience Italy with my taste buds, feet and heart.
Depending on which part of the Umbrian region you prefer to stay in and whether you have access to a car, there are plenty of charming accommodations to choose from.
What offbeat places in Europe have you discovered on your travels, and where would you most like to go?
*Note: I wrote this post as part of my collaboration with KLM. As you know, opinions on this blog are always mine.
Cover photo: La So (Unsplash)
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