Some people call that inconvenient. I call it winning.
I love hunting out the hidden gems of Europe, the places still waiting for the crowds to descend and those destinations that unexpectedly capture your heart. If you are like me and would rather point to a random village called Arisaig on a map and head there on a whim, then this list, my friends, is for you.
The other magical thing about exploring Europe is how easy it is to get between the smaller destinations thanks to the extensive bus and rail connections available, especially given buses can sometimes be the best way to reach the hidden gems of Europe.
Here are 18 unique places in Europe worth adding to your travel list…
1. Lagoa & Silves, Portugal
While the Algarve is now famed for its sun-kissed beaches and pristine golf courses, you don’t have to stray far to find some of the Algarves best-hidden gems.
The two municipalities of Lagoa and Silves sit alongside each other and provide the perfect mix of history, culture, cuisine and those sunny all year round beaches that gained the coast its fame.
Silves was once the capital of the Arab kingdom here in the Algarve, and its well preserved red castle, perched above the colourful streets and squares below, is still the largest in the region. Surrounded by green hills and orange trees, Silves town has an impressive local market, an ancient Mosque (converted to a church) which boast both Gothic and Baroque features and plenty of traditional coffee shops lining its small cobbled streets. It feels a world away from the bar filled roads at the beach resorts.
Lagoa has grown hugely in the past 30 years and has become one of the most respected wine regions in Portugal (read: vineyard tasting/drinking is compulsory). The postcard-perfect village of Carvoeiro sits alongside that of Ferragudo, still very much a local fishing village. With a clifftop boardwalk, plenty of beaches and the famous Benagil caves, these two destinations provide the perfect mix of culture and relaxation in the Algarve.
Why visit in 2018
The Silves Medival Festival, from the 10th to 19th August will take the town back in time while a new craft beer/winery/restaurant/accommodation combo, Quinta Dos Santos, in Lagoa has just opened and the old Adega cooperative barn has converted into a funky gallery come wine sample venue.
How to get to Lagoa and Silves
Silves is around one hours drive from Faro airport. It’s also served by an out of town train station connecting to Lisbon and the local lines, whilst busses offer access to Lagoa from the capital and across the coast.
2. Piran, Slovenia
One of the best spots in Europe, Piran is sometimes called the Venice of Slovenia, partly due to its enviable position on the Adriatic coast.
The city itself is a mix of red rooftops and white houses, and it provides a more relaxed alternative to other Adriatic destinations such as Dubrovnik. Being part of the small Slovenian coastline the beaches are popular, and with the outstanding Portorož beach not far away, its another great mix of history and sun loungers. The countryside around the city feels completely different, with vineyards, olive groves and an old-world vibe, day trips are accessible from this base in small, but perfectly formed Slovenia.
Why visit in 2018
Slovenia is not going to be a Europe hidden gem for long; Lake Bled has already become a star. A new mobile app in the city, Nexto, uncovers the Legends of Piran and allows you to explore the city uniquely and see its history through pictures and text by pointing your camera at buildings around the city.
How to get to Piran
You can drive from the capital Ljubljana in 1.5 hours. Alternatively, fly into Trieste in nearby Italy and take the scenic 30-minute ferry or drive.
3. Lake Komani, Albania
In the north of Albania, you can find a hikers and nature lovers paradise. The one day hike from Valbona to Thethi in the Accused Mountains is just breathtaking and for now remains a pretty secret spot in Europe. Lake Komani shouldn’t be missed before or after your outside adventures, depending on which direction you come from.
This relatively flat lake made me think of Norway, cutting through the valley with the rising green cliffs on each side. You can directly take the passenger ferry to go across to the other side but for some real R&R book a stay at the stone house in the middle of the lake, free from electricity but complete with homemade cheese, honey and liquor. The day tours provided by Molla Molla also arrange excursions and stays at the farmhouse, you can read more about Lake Komani here.
Why visit in 2018
Albania has been billed as Europes next big beach destination, so get in quick before the norths secrets get discovered too. The International Airport of Shkodra is also due to open soon which will increase visitors to this currently tranquil destination.
How to get to Lake Komani
Lake Komani is around a 4-hour drive from both Tirana airport and also Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro.
4. Cuenca, Spain
This seriously underrated hidden gem in Spain was my final trip of 2018, and what a place it was to discover.
While most online discussion around this medieval city is on the Casa Colgados, the hanging houses which seem to dangle off the side of the rock, the whole old city is magical and deserving of its UNESCO world heritage status.
Perched upon a rock and with a history that can be traced back around 1300-years, the colourful houses, castle ruins, and cathedral packed with architecture spanning through various time periods come together to provide another world like feel. Stepping into Cuenca is like stepping back in town, and the surrounding nature of the karst mountains, coupled with the crystal blue river provides an awesome adventure playground alongside your city break.
How long to spend in Cuenca?
While most people would visit Cuenca as a day trip from Madrid, this hidden gem in Europe is best enjoyed at sunrise or sunset in my opinion. Make it a two-day trip and you can also see the enchanted forest made naturally of the limestone rocks.
How to get to Cuenca?
You can quickly get to the out of town station of Cuenca AVE (Fernando Zobel) in under an hour by high-speed rail from Madrid. A slower train service goes directly to the new part of the city.
5. Camogli, Italy
If you want to know just how much I fell in love with Camogli, then read this.
The smaller and lesser known neighbour to Portofino and not far from the rugged landscape of Cinque Terre, Camogli has it all and in the off-season, it is still a relatively undiscovered gem compared to the more famous destinations around it.
This traditional fisherman town with its colourful houses, long history, impressive hotels, small bakeries and laid-back vibe is perhaps my favourite place in Italy and given what an amazing country it is, that is no mean feat! If you do visit Camogli then be sure to check out the historic and impressive Cenobio Dei Dogi hotel.
Why visit in 2018
Famous for its 28-ton pan, the Fish Festival in Camogli will be serving up 30.000 dishes, and although it happens every year, it’s still a great time to visit and see the fishing village in full swing. (13th May: Info)
How to get to Camogli
From Genoa airport it’s around 45 minutes by car or train.
Skadar Lake National Park, Montenegro
From Kotor to Durmitor National Park, Montenegro has been wowing the international tourism stage more and more each year. In the south of the country, and shared with neighbouring Albania, Skadar Lake National Park is one of my favourite lesser-known gems in Europe.
Designated on the Ramsar Convention list of Wetlands of International Importance this sprawling park is home to around 300 bird species, 40+ fish species and whats more, many of those are found nowhere else. Put on some hiking shoes, admire the views and take a small wooden boat across the lake. This is mother nature doing her finest work.
Why visit in 2018
Some say it’s great news, others are crying out at the build. A new, and rather large eco-resort, Porto,is being constructed on the lake and local experts are concerned it will harm/scare off much of the local wildlife, so get in a visit now. I personally think it’s a shame to build within the park, there are some adorable little local homes for rent on AirBnB if you want to stay amongst nature on the edge of the lake.
How to get to Skadar National Park
From the capital airport in Podgorica, it’s around a 30-minute drive to the edge of the park.