10 Hidden Vacation Gems in Europe

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So, are you a tripper, tourist, or traveler? At first glance, there’s no difference. Trippers, tourists, and travelers all go to places to do things; they all board planes or drive rental cars or eat improbable food with exotic names from a menu that they couldn’t fathom. The Cambridge English dictionary says that a tripper “is someone who visits a place for leisure, often for a short period of time,” but the widest gap lies between the tourist and the traveler.

Tourism is predictable and objective. You go to that place, take that picture, see that sight. Traveling is an interpretation and highly subjective. Tourism in Europe has always been about the “sure things,” the places you already know before you even go. Places like Paris, London, Rome, and Barcelona. However, Europe has been sculpted by a millennia of wonderful endeavors and horrible mistakes. The result is that there is so much more beyond the places to where your local travel agency would have you book a flight.

10. Ulm, Germany

ulm

To make sense of Ulm you need to understand the Danube first. The Donau, Duna, Dunav, Dunaj. The most important river in Europe and the longest outside Russia. It goes on for nearly three thousand kilometers and it belongs to no country, but waters ten. It begins in the Black Forest, in Germany, flows through Wien, Budapest, Belgrade, and then into the Black Sea. Ulm, the first symbolical stop, the start of the river actually, is a German town with the German factor taken out of it.

It was founded in 850, and it’s Teutonically imposing without being kitsch. Dark, without being gray. Aside from its medieval origins and the heraldic symbol of the city, the Sparrow (Der Spatz – they have a holiday and a soccer team dedicated to it), Ulm is famous for having the tallest church tower in the world. They started building it in 1377 and didn’t finish until 1890, with unusual Germanic inefficiency. It was the tallest building in the world before the Eiffel Tower was built. That alone, frankly, is worth the ticket.

9. Budapest, Hungary

budapest

When the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in 1918 after World War I, it was as if the two parties, Austria and Hungary, had signed an unfair divorce settlement agreement. Austria can keep the children, the house, and the car while Hungary gets to use their holiday home. Occasionally.

Budapest is probably the most underrated capital city in Europe, and arguably one of the most beautiful. The Danube runs right across it, dividing it into residential and quiet Buda and spicy and vibrant Pest. Pest is famous for the ruin pubs, St. Stephen’s Basilica, and the Parliament building. The Hungarians started building it in 1885, and while it should have resembled the London parliament, it ended up looking bigger and grander than that. The bombast and the hubris of the empire is gone, and what remains is a more mature, more modest, and welcoming version of the city. Budapest is thrilling. It’s very musical, an orchestra of buskers, pubs, chatters, and as often as not raindrops. Hats off.

8. Koper & Portoroz, Slovenia

portoroz

Koper and Portoroz (Capo d’Istria and Portorose in Italian) are technically not the same city. They are two different versions of the same location in the municipality of Piran, Istria, in Southwestern Slovenia. Istria is one of the most complex and discussed regions in Southern Europe. It has forever suffered from a slight identity crisis. Geographically located in (and for a long time annexed to) Italy but undisputedly Slavic, Istria has everything you want and nothing you don’t. Koper is quieter and humbler.

The promenade and the beach, the fish restaurants, and the incredibly nice town center are simple and beautiful. Portoroz, with its naked saunas, the nightlife, the mojitos, the casinos, and the supercars is more luxurious; more pretentious, even. Your best bet? Settle down in Koper for the day, enjoy the night in Portoroz.

7. Bergamo, Italy

bergamo

From a traveler’s point of view, Bèrghem, as the locals call it, is Ryanair’s busiest and most important base in Italy and its third biggest overall (after London Stansted and Dublin). This means that getting there is easy. Bergamo has often played second fiddle as Lombardy’s Queen to its bigger and more famous cousin Milan. That is, if nothing else, slightly inaccurate. Bergamo is, and always has been even during the recession, one of Italy’s wealthiest cities.

Organized and tidy, Bergamo is split into two: hard working, structured, and business oriented Bergamo Bassa (Lower) and touristy, high flying, and gorgeous Bergamo Alta (Upper). Bergamo is also interesting because it feels unusually serious and quiet in Europe’s loudest and craziest country – with just one big exception. The whole town goes crazy for Atalanta B.C. (nicknamed the Goddess), the local soccer team. Have a go, enjoy the game, and have an aperitivo. Where the food is always free with your prosecco.

6. Marseille, France

marseille

Europeans have often named it the “French version of Naples,” and no one really ever understands whether that’s a compliment or a criticism. Tourists flock to France every year to see Paris and once they’ve seen Paris, the Côte d’Azur and Champagne country are very popular. Both of which are beautiful, but neither can offer that pure, gritty, raw charm of Marseille. Marseille is France’s second largest city and Europe’s fourth largest port and it is emphatically gorgeous. Few other places in France give you that feeling of authenticity. Perhaps this is because, unlike the French Riviera, Marseille has never been taken over by Russian oligarchs and Arab sheiks. It managed to retain its soul.

The South of France, from Côte d’Azur to Aix-en Provence, is a parable of what money is capable of when it serves no other purpose other than its own self-accumulation. Because while Nice and Cannes are gorgeous, no doubt, they’re mostly frequented by people who, as they say, “have nothing but money.” Marseille is the other way around. It may have been struck by the financial crisis but on a sunny day (which is most days in Marseille) you just can smell the fish, the seaside, the salt, the port and, most importantly, an incredibly large amount of stubborn, relentless dignity.

5. Tallinn, Estonia

tallinn

After the political dismemberment of the U.S.S.R, Estonia (along with Lithuania and Latvia, the Baltic States) was left in a sort of glorified and isolated limbo. Not red and grumpy enough for Russia, not blue and liberal enough for Europe. Now, Estonia has been long part of the EU and is here to stay.

Old generations speak Russian but young people are studying English (along with native language Estonian, of course) and they often forget the little Russian they learned from their grandparents. Tallinn is small and pretty. Wander around in the little old town center, walk on the cobblestone, and have yourself a shot of Vana Tallinn (vana is Estonian for old, ancient). It’s amazing.

4. Liverpool, England

liverpool

There are three religions in Liverpool: the Beatles, Liverpool Football Club, and Everton Football Club. Walking around the port area or in the pubs you know it, you breathe it, you feel it. The only thing the city loves more than the Beatles and snooker (they adore it around here) is soccer. Everything and everyone in Liverpool is a helter-skelter of either blue (Everton) or red (Liverpool). You can’t have (or support) both. There’s no other city in England (only Manchester comes close with United and City) where sport clubs are the definition of the people.

Liverpudlians live their life just like they support their team, and just like their teams play. Firm, but fair. Tough, but honest. Liverpool is located in the metropolitan county of Merseyside, North-West England. It’s been destroyed during WWII and then completely rebuilt. The new port is an absolute gem. Absolute class. Brilliant. Sterling, mate. As they say. Just trying to get you warmed up with the local vernacular.

3. Estoril, Portugal

estoril

Those who happen to be fans of Moto GP, the premier class of motorcycle racing, know that Estoril has held an annual Grand Prix for 13 years, from 2000 to 2012. Poker and James Bond fans probably know that Casino Estoril was the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s 007 novel Casino Royale. Other than that, Estoril is hardly popular with international tourists, but loved by the locals.

A short, 11-mile train ride from Portugal’s capital Lisbon, Estoril is hot, sunny, and garnished with palm trees, beach bars, and marine beauty. Away from the chaos and flocks of vacationers, you can enjoy swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, which is fantastically cold even in July, and a $3 mojito, which is fantastically fresh and good. Have at it, hoss.

2. Warsaw, Poland

warsaw

Warszawa Centralna, Warsaw central station, is striking and steely. It was hastily put together and completed in 1975, which means it’s newer than almost any other major train station in the capital cities of Europe. Warsaw is Berlin’s colder and tougher step-cousin, with modern frameworks made of glass standing tall in the forest of old commie cement they’re in. It’s been destroyed and rebuilt many times, and maybe that’s why the Poles seem so friendly, yet insecure. Ask them about sightseeing and they’ll tell you there’s nothing much to see. Tell them you think there’s nothing much and they’ll start telling you about all the great sights you can’t miss.

The Poles make do with what they have. Poland is a big and slightly barren country that still needs to recover from vexations of the past. They’re quite honest about it, and make the most of it. Warsaw is big, broad, and pleasant, but it isn’t delusional. Then again, there’s a saying in their fantastic language with far too many consonants, Kozia doic prózno. Roughly translated, “you can’t milk a bull.”

1. Galway, Ireland

galway

If you’ve just landed in London, or if you’re thinking of going, may we suggest you hop on a plane and go to Dublin, the capital of Ireland? Once in Eire, though, leave Dublin, and go to Galway. Ireland is rural and vivid, the colors are intense, the people are so friendly it’s uncanny. Galway, is everything you’ve come to expect from Ireland. The little old port is full of local and old taverns, which will make time wind back and stop still.

Forty-five minutes away from Galway, in Liscannor, there are the Cliffs of Moher. If you haven’t seen them yet, drop whatever you’re doing and go now, because that is arguably one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. Jaw dropping. Jutting out of the coastline with a clear view of the Galway bay and Aran Island, the Cliffs of Moher are incredible. On your way back to the hotel, stop off for a pint at historic Gus O’Connor’s Pub. Cheers! Or as they say in Irish Gaelic, Sláinte!

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Alessandro is a motoring and travel writer from Italy.


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1 Comment

  1. noone important on

    Warsaw is a relatively new city (before the Vasa dynasty it was just a village) and as such it wasn’t destroyed “many times”. The only actual destruction of the city (ca. 90% which means that practically the whole city was just a largest ruin in the world) was done by the nazis after the fall of the upprising in 1944. And the only time it was truely rebuilt was after the WW2. On one hand – this has made the overcrowded, dark and dirty pre-war capital into a livable place, on the other hand – technically every single building You will see there either was not there or was a pile of rubble just 70 years ago.

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