There’s no denying that Europe is the tourism capital of the world, offering up some of the most visited cities on Earth. Cities like London, Paris, Rome, and Venice attract every type of traveller from the backpacker to those that wish to indulge in a luxury holiday.
With a wide variety of cultures and cuisine, mixed with centuries of intriguing history you can see and touch, Europe is home to some of the world’s most cherished monuments, historic landmarks and architectural wonders, and many of the world’s most famous museums.
Although Europe’s world-famous destinations are all well worth a visit, there are also many rather undiscovered destinations to experience if you’re looking to avoid the crowds while also promoting sustainable tourism.
Let us reveal five of our best European hidden gems you should consider while they still offer authentic atmosphere, having not been subject to mass tourism yet. If you’re planning to visit one of these hidden gems then don’t forget to consider purchasing travel insurance as it can offer coverage for unlimited overseas medical expenses, travel delay expenses, pregnancy cover, and much more.
You’ve likely never heard of Matera, but it’s one of the world’s oldest cities and there is nowhere else in Europe quite like it. Located in Southern Italy, Matera is made up of unique cave dwellings that can be found in two districts known as Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano. These cliffside abodes have been home to people since Palaeolithic times and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a European Capital of Culture.
Once a city of poverty and disease not too long ago, the cave dwellings of the Old Town have since seen a dramatic refurbishment and are now beginning to lure travellers. The cave dwellings now house fancy restaurants, unique accommodations, shops, and even museums. One museum worth a visit is MUSMA which dedicates its cave exhibition spaces to sculpture and is housed beneath the 17th Century Palazzo Pomarici.
Matera is known for its abundance of churches and monasteries such as the 13th century Matera Cathedral. There are also more than 150 so-called rock churches within the beautiful countryside and nature area known as Parco della Murgia Materana which can best be experienced on a guided tour.
You can also tour the ancient water cistern known as Palombaro Lungo, which is somewhat reminiscent of Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern.
When travellers think of France, they likely envision Paris, Marseille, or Nice. However, head to the southern edge of France near the Spanish border and you’ll discover a beautiful town with a medieval historic town centre.
Foix is a charming town which is guarded by a stunning 11th-century castle that looks down upon the old town with its medieval narrow streets and half-timbered houses. The castle has a long and intriguing history and you can easily arrange a self-guided visit inside its high walls and three towers that overlooks the town below.
The castle is said to have once housed a famous witch, later became a prison during the French Revolution, and acted as a WWII hospital. Explore the castle’s ramparts and dungeons before exploring the town’s vibrant markets and tasting its local cuisine such as their famous local cheeses and charcuterie boards.
Just outside the city is the Parc de la Préhistoire which offers an interactive experience that explores the prehistoric era through a range of life-size recreations of prehistoric animals such as mammoths and saber-toothed cats along with recreated prehistoric habitats, exhibits, workshops, and demonstrations.
Palaeolithic cave art can also be observed in the nearby Grotte de Niaux cave system via a guided tour. There are also several park systems to enjoy nature including Parc Naturel Régional des Pyrénées Ariégeoises.
If the castle in Foix wasn’t enough, you can also visit the nearby Montségur Castle which requires a steep hike to reach but you will be rewarded with 360-degree views of stunning natural beauty.
While Porto is one of Portugal’s largest and most popular cities, about 90 minutes away in the country’s north is the little-known mountain village Sistelo where you can enjoy a greater sense of authentic atmosphere. It’s one of the country’s most charming villages and often referred to as Portuguese Tibet. This scenic and tranquil town is surrounded by farming terraces that resemble those of Southeast Asia like the rice terraces of Vietnam or Bali. They mainly harvest grains such as corn in Sistelo’s terraces.
A trip to Sistelo is like travelling back to a simpler time. There are stone paved streets, granite houses, stone granaries known as espigueiros , and stone shepherd huts. You can also explore the natural beauty of Penada Geres National Park which is home to wild boar, deer, ibex, and even elusive Iberian wolves.
In addition to learning about the region’s traditional agricultural practices through viewing the espigueiros, there is also a small traditional house that has been converted into a museum that showcases the local customs and history of the village.
There are many scenic viewpoints that overlook the valley and there is even an old Roman Bridge that dates back to the 1st century AD. When it comes to local cuisine, be sure to try some roasted goat or delicious Cachena steak.
The UK is home to countless popular cities with tourists including London, Edinburgh, and Manchester, but there are also endless hidden towns worthy of a visit. And while the UK may not be the first thought you think of when planning a beach getaway, Torquay is a hidden gem on the English Riviera that offers up its own mild micro-climate and is surrounded by relaxing beaches and countryside.
Known as a Global Geopark, Torquay is also recognised as a lovely seaside resort by UK standards and not as well known as other UK seaside towns like St. Ives, Falmouth, or Saltburn-by-the-Sea. You’ll find it in Devon and there are a number of beaches to relax on such as Torre Abbey Sands, Meadfoot Beach, and Anstey’s Cove. After hitting up the beaches, walk the town’s historic harbour and grab some seafood to regain your energy. You can then take a guided tour of the Kents Cavern prehistoric cave system.
Visit Torre Abbey, a 12th-century monastery that now acts as an art museum/gallery. Also worth checking out is Babbacombe Model Village which is said to be one of Europe’s finest model villages. Set on over 4 acres, the village is home to beautiful gardens and miniature versions of famous British landmarks and recreated locales.
Princess Theatre hosts touring productions that include concerts, opera, and West End musicals. If you’re into sports, consider catching a Torquay United Football Club match at Plainmoor Stadium. There are also a number of fine coastal golf courses.
Also worth mentioning is Cockington Village with its thatched cottages and traditional crafts where you can watch various craftspeople hard at work showcasing their talents.
While Barcelona may be well known to world travellers, you’ll find a more secretive destination just an hour and a half away in Catalonia along the Costa Brava. Tossa de Mar is a coastal city whose historic old town centre dates back to the Romans.
While there are many great beaches along Spain’s Costa Brava, not many allow you the opportunity to stare up at an impressive medieval fortress from your beach towel. The town’s main beach is Platja Gran but El Codolar is impressive as well and there are several more less-crowded beaches located in secluded bays. The beaches offer up fine golden sand, great snorkelling, and a delightful hiking trail that connects many of them.
The old town is known as Vila Vella and it’s said to be the only remaining fortified medieval town along Catalonia’s coastline. The fortress with its stone walls, parapets, and turrets once kept pirates out but now welcome tourists who come to walk the narrow cobblestone streets of the old town where you can find a range of shops and restaurants serving up local cuisine like fresh seafood paella.
There are several churches worth paying a visit as well as a historic lighthouse. The town also hosts a wide range of traditional festivals throughout the year including music festivals and the Summer Carnival so be sure to check dates of events if you plan to visit.
While Tossa de Mar can get a bit busier than some of our other recommendations on our list, especially with domestic tourism during the summer months, you can enjoy a more peaceful experience outside of high season to avoid the large crowds of Barcelona whether simply for a day trip or a longer dedicated trip to this gem along the Costa Brava.