Sure, you could be like everyone else and hop on the train to visit Paris, Rome, Barcelona, and Munich. But why not avoid the crowds and explore these lesser-known, breathtaking cities?
Europe is one of the easiest continents to explore by rail, since so many of its countries are connected by train tracks. Each summer, recent college grads set out with Eurail passes, families hunker down in sleeper cabins between Paris and Rome, and backpackers clamor for seats on the most popular routes. The problem is, too often people think that the only places in Europe worth seeing are the big cities, such as Madrid, Amsterdam, and Munich, where you usually have to battle huge crowds and long lines. But there are plenty of surprisingly cool destinations around the continent that are just as easily accessible by rail. On your next Euro adventure, check out these six must-see locations that are off-the-beaten path.
1. Bled, Slovenia
Bled offers access to some of Slovenia’s most stunning natural sights, including mountains, caves, and waterfalls. This small city lies on the edge of the turquoise blue lake of the same name, which serves as the starting point for many hikes. While you’re in Bled, don’t forget to explore the 17th-century Bled Castle for spectacular views of the lake. Due to the location’s moderate climate and the lake’s tranquil, thermal water, Bled became famous in the beginning of the 20th century for being a center for wellness—and people continue to visit the city to relax and soak up the beautiful surroundings.
Best time to visit: June – August
2. Aveiro, Portugal
Aveiro, a small city south of the larger city of Porto, is home to one of Portugal’s most important universities, the University of Aveiro. The city is sometimes called the “Venice of Portugal,” since it contains canals, boats, and bridges. There is also a free bike-share program that makes touring the city’s historical center easy and fun. But the highlight of Aveiro is its proximity to Portugal’s “Silver Coast”, a strip of pristine beaches where you can go kite-surfing and sailing.
Best time to visit: July – September
3. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Sarajevo may invoke war-torn memories, but the city is far-removed from its tenuous past. Sarajevo is an incredibly diverse city—in fact, mosques, churches, and synagogues can all be found in the cobblestone city center. History buffs should check out the city’s Latin Bridge, which was the site of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an event that spurred World War I.
Best time to visit: April – June
4. Turin, Italy
Despite being home to the 2006 Winter Olympics, Turin is not a tourist destination, but it should be. The city is the headquarters for FIAT, the acclaimed Italian automobile company, and it’s known for its world-class art galleries, piazzas, opera houses, and restaurants. Surrounded by the Alps and filled with green parks, Turin is picturesque. While you’re there, go watch one of the city’s two soccer teams play: Juventus F.C. (Italy’s most successful team) and Torino F.C. And you might just want to try to schedule your trip around the annual, two-week chocolate festival called CioccolaTO, which features the region’s major chocolate producers.
Best time to visit: May– July
5. Tartu, Estonia
The oldest and second-largest city in Estonia, Tartu, is located on the Emajogi River, southeast of Tallinn. While many travelers head to the aforementioned capital city, Tartu is less crowded, but just as interesting. One major attraction is the University of Tartu and the student vibe of the city. There are also a handful of historical sites, including churches, bridges, and a museum dedicated to the KGB of Estonia’s Communist days.
Best time to visit: August – October
6. Sofia, Bulgaria
With its Orthodox Christian cathedrals, Communist architecture, ruins, and hot springs, Sofia is certainly a city worth exploring. Bulgaria is not currently in the “Eurozone” (meaning, it doesn’t use the Euro as currency), so as a result, Sofia is one of the more inexpensive European capitals to visit. On the banks of Ariana Lake, you’ll find the National Sports Museum, which recognizes the country’s greatest athletes. Though Bulgaria is small, the country has won 218 medals since the inaugural 1896 Olympic Games, many of which were for wrestling and weightlifting.
Best time to visit: April – June
Where’s you’re favorite off-the-beaten-path destination?
Amanda Slavinsky is a freelance writer and serial expat who is currently traveling around Asia. She blogs about life abroad at http://www.farsicknessblog.com.