20 Affordable Crowd-Free Places in Europe

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In the Scottish Highlands, endless heather-covered moors undulate under misty skies and men and women with thick brogues share a laugh between drams of whiskey. Explore the southern edge of Cairngorms National Park, Britain's largest national park, using Blair Castle as your jumping-off point. The traditional seat of the Dukes of Atholl, this classic, stark white castle set amid the lush green rolling hills has hosted a variety of important guests throughout history, including Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Victoria. Tour this 13th-century castle, which boasts the last remaining private army in Europe. Next, enjoy the outdoors as the Scots do through country sports. Saunter along rugged tracks on sturdy Highland ponies or fish for salmon or wild brown trout along a peaceful Scottish hill loch or rushing river. Modern adventurers may also choose to travel by mountain bike or Land Rover. Just down the road, Scotland's smallest traditional distillery, Edradour, beckons adult guests for a tour and tasting to soothe muscles and warm up after a day outdoors.
One of the oldest villages in the Czech Republic, Cesky Krumlov, a three-hour bus ride from Prague, is set in a valley in Bohemia south of the Blansko Forest and circled by the Vltava River. The village grew up around the 13th-century Gothic castle of the Lords of Krumlov, which has 40 buildings and palaces, gardens, and turrets and today is a major performing arts location. The cobblestone streets of Cesky Krumlov's Old Town are lined with Gothic, Baroque, and Renaissance buildings housing art galleries, cafes, and quaint B&Bs. One of the best ways to experience the town is to take a ride down the Vltava on a wooden raft.
Antwerp, Belgium, is an inland port, a 40-minute drive north of Brussels, with a world-class sense of style. Whether you're looking for imaginative architecture, the most inspiring new art galleries, or a great selection of vintage and second-hand clothing, Antwerp will likely send you home with something surprising. The Zuid ("south") district is the place for art lovers; here, you'll find the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (featuring an exquisite collection of paintings by Baroque-era Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, such as "The Adoration of the Magi"), galleries of contemporary art, and a thriving cafe culture. Running north from the square in front of the museum, Kloosterstraat offers a stretch of cool antique shops that often boast mid-century design finds alongside older pieces. Het Steen ("old fort") was originally built in the early Middle Ages to defend against marauding Vikings.
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On the banks of the Danube, in the shadow of a castle from the Middle Ages, Dürnstein, Austria (an hour's drive from Vienna), is one of those impossibly quaint towns where everything, from the red-tiled roofs to the baroque clock tower to the winding cobblestoned alleys, seems lifted straight from the Brothers Grimm. Just an hour downriver from Vienna, Dürnstein is an under-explored retreat and a gateway to the surrounding Wachau valley, a grape region prized for crisp, dry Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners. To experience the area like a local, take a seat inside a Heuriger, a cozy tavern that sells only indigenous wines, namely those from the most recent harvest. Authentic establishments hang fir branches above their doorways to welcome the thirsty, while Schrammelmusik (traditional fiddle-and-accordion folk music) plays from within. Although the Wachau is known for its grapes, it is the Marille (apricot) that sets the region apart. In early April, the valley erupts in pale-pink blossoms, and the fruit begins showing up in strudels, pork dishes, and Marillenknödel (apricot dumplings rolled in butter-toasted bread crumbs). Wieser Wachau Shop & Café, with locations throughout the valley, sells apricot soap, schnapps, and marmalade.
Birmingham, U.K., is a foodie hot spot in England's heartland, a two-hour drive northwest of London. These days, this city is all about innovative cuisine and locally sourced ingredients. The Balti style of cooking Kashmiri curries-in small, artisanal batches rather than in one enormous pot-was developed here in the 1970s, and an entire district, the Balti Triangle, serves up tasty varieties at bargain prices at restaurants such as Al Frash. Celeb chef Jamie Oliver's Jamie's Italian dishes out heaping plates of wild-rabbit tagliolini and crab spaghettini. And for contemporary riffs on classic English dishes, there's a lot to love about, well, Loves; Steve and Claire Love's waterfront restaurant has been wowing U.K. food critics with dishes like (vegetarians, avert your eyes) Warwickshire venison and Gloucestershire pig's head.
Located on the River Coln in hilly west-central England, Bibury, U.K. (about 80 minutes by train from London), was described by 19th-century artist-writer William Morris as "the most beautiful village in England"-which is saying something in a country known for its watercolor views. Honey-colored 17th-century stone cottages, the Saxon Church of St. Mary, and a still-working 1902 trout farm are some of the ancient village's must-sees. The most photographed spot is Arlington Row, a collection of 14th-century stone buildings that were converted into weavers' cottages in the 1600s.
Connemara, Ireland, is on Europe's edge, as far west in Ireland as you can travel. It is a weathered, mythical and wild region, where travelers can immerse themselves in nature and Irish culture, history, and traditions. Rent a car for your own Irish road trip. Start in colorful, bustling Galway City, then drive west along the north shore of Galway Bay. Road signs in Gaelic, one-pub towns, and Blue Flag beaches are just some of the signals that you've hit Ireland's wild west. Explore the impressive and winding Sky Road, which you can drive or cycle for quintessentially Irish vistas of offshore islands and the Twelve Bens mountains. Stretch your legs in Connemara National Park, where hiking a few of the steeper trails of the Twelve Bens will earn you bragging rights and unfettered views of scenic mountain expanses and distant islands. Next, make a stop at legendary Kylemore Abbey, located northeast of Clifden on a private lake. Meander through the Victorian gardens before feasting on scones, made with the Benedictine nuns' special recipe, and hot tea. For a special treat, time your visit to coincide with a choral performance in the abbey's church.
In Split, Croatia, a three-hour drive northwest of capital Dubrovnik, history comes alive on the Mediterranean. Roman emperor Diocletian built an amazing palace here, completed in A.D. 305, and to this day the city has one of Europe's finest collections of Roman ruins. From Diocletian's day to the present, Split has done an exceptional job of preserving its past, making it a first-rate destination for immersing yourself in living history-even in the face of the civil war that rocked Croatia in the 1990s. This UNESCO World Heritage Site invites you to balance your beach-going and nightlife with visits to its Roman ruins, medieval forts, Romanesque churches dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries, plus Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque palaces and other noteworthy buildings; a historic district, archeological museum, and of course the ruins of Diocletian's palace round out the historical offerings.
Life moves slowly in the village of Binn, Switzerland, and that's by design. Years ago, the residents of this tiny Alpine town (pop. 150, two and a half hours from Bern) decided to stave off development by preserving the surrounding valley as a park. Today, instead of the posh ski resorts and multilane highways in much of southwestern Switzerland, Binn remains a time capsule of village life. Gravel lanes wind between neat pine chalets. Flower boxes filled with geraniums hang from every window. The town's 16th-century bridge is traversed by hikers and goats instead of cars. Up the Binna River, visitors will find even smaller hamlets and picture-perfect meadows, where they can spread out a picnic of local wine and raclette cheese and listen to the cowbells ring down from the high pastures. About a mile from Binn along mountain trails, the riverside Restaurant Imfeld is a timber chalet at 4,983 feet with a terrace overlooking the Alps. Hikers can stop in for fresh trout and Valais air-dried beef-prepared by rubbing salt, herbs, and spices into raw beef and leaving it to dry in a wooden barn for at least six weeks.
Hamburg, Germany, a three-hour drive northwest of Berlin, is Europe's greenest city. Half of the city is given over to parks, woodlands, gardens, and water. Devote a day to a park such as Planten un Blomen ("plants and flowers"), in the center of the city, or check out HafenCity, a 388-acre redevelopment on the harbor that has created an entirely new residential and business district, featuring bold new buildings by some of the world's "starchitects." While we don't recommend the Reeperbahn (the city's red-light district) in general, Beatles fans should consider taking a guided tour devoted to the band's history and its early-'60s performances here. Check out the Rathaus, or city hall, located on gorgeous Binnenalster lake, and the Kunsthalle museum's collection ranging from Old Masters to modern art.
Germany's so-called Romantic Road, which slices north to south through the southern German state of Bavaria, earned its name for its string of stunning castles. But most of the region's bastions are stand-alone tourist attractions, not thriving municipalities. A charming exception is Rothenburg ob der Tauber (a three-hour train ride from Munich), a red-walled town set up on a hill above the Tauber River. It has all the pastoral views and scenery of the Romantic Road's other castle stops yet has a strong civic pulse, too. Walt Disney was so taken by the town, in fact, that he used it as inspiration for the village in the movie Pinocchio. An earthquake destroyed the castle's main tower in 1356, but the town's red-roofed medieval and Renaissance houses have endured for centuries and were fully restored after World War II. Visitors can tour the castle's stone towers-protected beneath covered walkways-and stop by its base, where crafts shops sell everything from antique clocks to handmade garden gnomes. Cuisine is celebrated here in a way it isn't in larger German cities like Frankfurt or Berlin, let alone in castle canteens elsewhere. You may come here for the shining armor, but you'll return for the delicious renditions of Bavarian comfort foods (more spätzle, anyone?).
Munich, Germany, is certainly not a "secret" destination, but it is often overshadowed by its better-known neighbors in Germany and Austria. The city's motto is München mag dich ("Munich loves you") and indeed it does. There's something for everyone in this Bavarian capital where handcrafted toys are as plentiful as hand-crafted beers. Start your day at Marienplatz, the central square in Munich's Old Town. Secure a spot in front of Neues Rathaus, the New Town Hall, to see the 100+ year-old Glockenspiel chime daily at 11:00 and 12:00. After that, visit the Toy Museum in the other clock tower, the Old Town Hall. For a more hands-on experience, walk over to Munich's biggest toy store, Obletter Spielwarne in Karlsplatz square or visit Kids Kingdom in Deutsches Museum; one of the biggest, oldest science and technology museums in the world, it offers over 1,000 kid-friendly activities. The Munich Zoo, Tierpark Hellabrunn, is spread over 89 sprawling acres and offers kid-pleasing pony and camel rides in the summer and a penguin parade in winter. If you believe in "happily ever after," don't miss the German "fairy tale route", especially Neuschwanstein Castle, said to be the inspiration for Disney's Sleeping Beauty. For a true beer garden experience, head to Hirschgarten for the best of Bavarian beers, sausages, potato salad, pretzels, and strudel.
Porto, Portugal, a three-hour drive north of Lisbon, may be the world's next great wine region. It's about more than just Port, the rich red digestif that bears the city's name. You might say the town is a bit vino-crazed at the moment, with the Douro River region finally getting its due as a world-class wine producer. Here, you will find not only delicious Ports (start with a tour-and tasting!-of the classic Sandeman winery, or a tasting at Vinologia) but also excellent red table wines. And you'll also be delighted by Porto's sense of humor, with wine- and cork-inspired designs and products popping up all over town. Porto's Casa da Musica concert hall was designed by Rem Koolhaas. If the Casa's quirky design inspires your inner hipster, head down to Porto's Ribeira neighborhood, with its popular cafe and bar scene. If you lose your way on the winding medieval streets leading to the harbor, ask for directions to the statue of Porto native Henry the Navigator.
With its cobblestoned streets and tiled buildings, Ericeira, Portugal (a 40-minute drive northwest of Lisbon), looks like a quintessential Portuguese fishing village. But north and south of the village center, scalloped cliffs give way to white-sand beaches and-much to surfers' delight-consistent right-hand reef breaks. Thanks to its seaside location, Ericeira is also well-known for its seafood. Though the town's name is said to come from the Portuguese word for sea urchins, the regional specialty here is lobster, which are bred in nurseries along the rocky coast.
Stretching across Central and Eastern Europe, the Carpathian Mountains encompass some of the wildest terrain in Europe, with dense forests, picturesque castles, alpine meadows, cavernous gorges, curious rock formations, and traditional Romanian villages. This part of Europe is truly for those with a keen sense of adventure and love of history. Take a hike in Piatra Craiului National Park, home to a variety of caves, gorges and the longest and tallest limestone ridge in Romania. Keep a lookout for brown bears, wolves, and lynxes. Stop in unique villages, where the locals hold fast to a traditional way of life. Visit imposing Bran Castle, also known as "Dracula's Castle" after Bram Stoker's famous (fictional) vampire, and take in the legends surrounding this centuries-old fortress. Continue your hike in the Bucegi Mountains, where shepherds make Branza de Burduf cheese, which gets its distinctive taste from aging in fir tree bark.
The city walls of the seaside resort town of Tenby, Wales (a five-hour train ride from London), might have kept attackers out during the Middle Ages, but today they can't quite contain the pastel Georgian buildings spilling right out onto the sand. The view from the harbor is rightfully renowned, but you can get an even better taste of Tenby's medieval past by taking a ramble down one of its narrow, winding alleys-like the quirkily named Lower Frog Street, a canyon of color. (No amphibian greens, though-Tenby's hues skew lighter.) The town is always popular with holidaymakers, but it's getting an extra boost this year with the recent opening of the Wales Coast Path, an 870-mile meander along the country's edge that includes Tenby on its route. Trekkers can enjoy shades as sweet as the seaside treats sold by candymaker Lollies.
Located at the tail end of Europe along Southern Spain's coast, Doñana National Park is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that welcomes a limited number of travelers to enjoy a European safari complete with beaches, pine forests, flamingos, and the endangered Iberian lynx. Once a favorite hunting reserve of Spanish kings, Doñana Nis one of Europe's largest parks, encompassing beaches, marshland, lagoons, pine forests, and massive sand dunes. From the principal visitor center at El Acebuche, close to Matalascañas, travelers may easily hike along several boardwalks through the wetlands to observe flamingo, red-crested pochard, azure-winged magpie, or the glorious hoopoe. In marshes, scrubland, grassland, and pine forests, keep a lookout for wild boar, fallow deer, and the rare Retuerta horse. While much of the park is restricted to guided tours in order to protect the fragile environment, travelers may also trek along footpaths at the visitor center at La Rocina and also at El Palacio del Acebrón. Housed in an old palace, this visitors center showcases special exhibits on the park's history and natural environment.
Hiking from village to village amid Cappadocia, Turkey's enigmatic, pastel rock formations called "Fairy Chimneys" is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. These rock formations, also known as hoodoos, have fueled visitors' imaginations and local legends for centuries. Set off by yourself to hike one of the many trails through Cappadocia's valleys or take a guided tour by foot, bus, or horseback. The trails run from village to village past vineyards and apricot groves along the old Silk Road, with many villages carved out of the area's volcanic rock centuries ago. Keep a lookout for rock-carved churches and the entrances to centuries-old underground cities where early Christians sought refuge from aggressors. Step inside to cool off and get stunned by well-preserved, ornate Byzantine frescoes. For a special treat, take a hot air balloon ride to enjoy Cappadocia's surreal landscapes at dawn.
One of the quaintest towns in Europe, Trémolat, France, sits on a horseshoe-shaped bend in the Dordogne River and is dominated by a fortresslike Romanesque church that dates back to the 11th century. But the highlight of the town is farm-to-table restaurant Les Truffières. Yanick Le Goff oversees a classic ferme auberge, a working farm that serves the food it grows. Plates like barbecued duck, garlic-and-goose-fat soup, and house made foie gras are paired with local wines like a lavender-tinged aperitif or a rosé. The surrounding area is best known for its dark oak forests, hillside vineyards, medieval châteaux, Stonehenge-like megaliths, and, of course, the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux with haunting images of bison, horses, and traced human hands estimated to be an astounding 17,000 years old.
Founded in 1593 as a stronghold of the Venetian Republic, Palmanova, Italy (between Venice and Trieste), this UNESCO World Heritage town was built in a unique, 18-sided octadecagon shape. When viewed from above, the fortress community looks like a delicately made paper snowflake, with streets radiating out of the structure like sunbeams. Tucked into a valley with a lagoon running into the Adriatic Sea, the land surrounding Palmanova yields high-quality Chardonnay, while the local waters are stocked with mullet, sea bass, and other delicious fish. In town, look out for the symbol of a leafy bough, or a frasca, hanging outside of restaurants to pinpoint ones serving regionally sourced food, such as the classic Venetian dish baccalà, made with dry-salted cod. At night, the city's earth-and-stone defensive works are lit up like a movie set.

Ready to go a little off the beaten path on the continent? We love Europe's smaller cities, national parks, small towns, and wild places, where you'll find fewer crowds, good deals, and bucket-list sights you didn't even know you were missing!

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