What are some of the best hidden gems in Europe?
Forget Paris, London or Rome and head instead to some of the best hidden gems in Europe. These places offer everything from modern cities with world-class cuisine to hiking far from the rest of civilization and everything in between.
So, in no particular order, let’s have a look at some of Europe’s hidden gems.
Hidden Gems in Europe
Why visit: This hidden gem of Europe is straight out of a Brothers Grim fairy tale. The charming medieval old town of brightly coloured houses and gothic church spires sits nestled beneath the rolling forested hills and mountains of Transylvania.
Sighisoara is famous as the birthplace of Vlad “Dracul” Tepes; the bloodthirsty warlord and inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There are many wonderful street-side cafes and restaurants serving hearty European fare for a very reasonable price.
Things to see/do: Old town, clock tower, old home of Vlad Tepes
How to get there: Daily trains from Brasov and Bran, however I would recommend taking the bus to avoid beggars and pickpockets.
Where to stay: I stayed at the Green Tree by Hilton which was an excellent hotel in the centre of town with an indoor pool.
Why visit: The beautiful small town of Bled is a true hidden gem of Europe. The town sits on the shores of picturesque Lake Bled in northern Slovenia. The town is famed for Bled Castle which sits perched on a rocky outcrop high above the lake.
Another major attraction is the Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage church which is sited on a small island in the middle of the lake. There is plenty to do in the small town from walking or cycling around the lake to enjoying the many cafes, bars and restaurants on the lakeside.
Things to see/do: Bled Castle, Assumption Church, swimming, bike hire, hiking, paragliding.
How to get there: There are hourly buses from the capital Ljubljana that go via the airport. From Ljubljana the journey is 75 minutes and from the airport it takes under around 45 minutes. Cost is around 15 Euros. Hourly trains go from Ljubljana to Lesce-Bled Station which is from 4km from the town (there is a shuttle bus every 30 minutes).
Tiraspol, Transnistria (Of the most unique hidden gems in Europe)
Why visit: One of the most unique hidden gems in Europe, Tiraspol is a laid back city with pleasant leafy streets. There are parks, river beaches, nice bars and restaurants and an intriguing history. It is also like a time warp of the Soviet Union complete with hammers and sickles and posters of Lenin hanging from lamp posts.
The KGB is even still active here, but don’t let that put you off! The breakaway republic of Transnistria is unique in that it is not recognized by a single member of the United Nations, so you can visit a country that some might say doesn’t exist!
Things to see/do: Soviet monuments, orthodox churches, river cruises and swimming at the city beach.
How to get there: You can reach Tiraspol by train from Chisinau in Moldova and Odessa in Ukraine. From Chisinau buses are frequent and take just over 2 hours.
Where to stay: You can visit Tiraspol as a day trip from Moldova, but to get the most out of the city spend a couple of days there. Mars Hostel is run by a knowledgeable expat who can also arrange tours and other activities. See the Mars Hostel website for more info.
Why visit: The charming town of Ohrid sits perched on a large lake of the same name. The town itself is built on the hillside that leads up from Lake Ohrid culminating at an impressive fortress that overlooks the lake towards Albania on the far shore.
After getting lost and exploring the cobbled streets and ancient churches you can make your way along the lakeside path (some of which is on a wooden walkway above the water) to the impressive St John the Theologian orthodox church, a real hidden gem in Europe, sitting on the cliff-side above the lake. You can continue further to some hidden beaches with pristine cool waters.
Things to see/do: Samoil Fortress, St John the Theologian Church, Hellenistic (pre-Roman) amphitheater, beaches, churches and chapels, ancient architecture, lakeside restaurants.
How to get there: Ohrid has a small airport with some international flights in summer. Buses connect the capital Skopje and the journey time is around 4 hours. It’s also possible to reach Tirana in Albania (7 hours) by bus (you will need to take a taxi/shared taxi to nearby Struga first).
Where to stay: I stayed at the Sunny Lake Hostel which was less than 5 minutes’ walk to the centre of town and the lake. The owner was very helpful with onward travel plans and there are nice common areas (lounge, garden and balcony).
Why visit: Until not long ago, Albania was a closed and reclusive state similar in many ways to North Korea. Although Dictator Enver Hoxha loved brutalist concrete architecture and bunkers, much of the concrete has been painted in warm, welcoming colours that radiate under the southern European sunshine.
Tirana has many interesting museums, churches, mosques and great places to eat and drink. If the summer heat of the city is getting to you, then you can reach the Adriatic seaside resort of Durres in under an hour or alternatively head up Mount Dajti (1,613m/5,292ft) in the cable car for stunning views of the city.
Things to see/do: Skanderbeg Square, BunkArt museum, The Tirana Pyramid (Piramida) Mount Dajti, Durres Resort.
How to get there: You can reach Tirana by air via the international airport. You can also arrive by bus from Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo, Greece and even Turkey.
Why visit: Nestled beneath the imposing Caucasus Mountains that divide Europe from Asia, Tbilisi is a vibrant city of orthodox churches, soviet monuments (Stalin was born in nearby Gori), stone fortress and cobbled streets. Georgia is also famous for its cuisine and wine, and while in Tbilisi you will eat (and drink) like a king but paying no more than a pauper.
Tbilisi makes a fantastic jumping off point to head off into the wild Caucasus mountains where old monasteries perch atop mountain peaks and shepherds tend their flocks as they have for centuries. Tbilisi is definitely one of the hidden gems in Europe!
Things to see/do: Walk around the Old Town, Visits the folk music museum, climb up to Narikala Fortress (or take a cable car if you are feeling lazy), wander the enchanted Botanical Gardens and find somewhere to taste Georgia’s unique cuisine washed down with plenty of Georgian wine.
How to get there: Tbilisi International Airport has flights to and from most major European cities. You can reach Tbilisi by bus from Istanbul in Turkey and by train from Yerevan in Armenia and Baku in Azerbaijan.
Why visit: At the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Azerbaijan makes an excellent destination for the curious traveller. The capital Baku has a charming old town which incorporates styles from East and West. Ancient architecture and ruins give way to small cobbled side streets.
Beyond the old town is a bustling metropolis complete with shiny new skyscrapers thanks to oil wealth from the nearby Caspian Sea. The Caspian itself laps at Baku and a little further afield you can visit some nice beaches which are great for swimming in the heat of summer.
Things to see/do: Maidens Tower, Palace of the Shivran Shahs, Old Town, Ruins, Yanar Dag (Fire Mountain), James Bond Oil Fields, Tower, Waterfront, Caspian beaches. See my Baku guide for more information.
How to get there: Heydar Aliyev International Airport is 25km from the city centre. You can travel by train between Baku and Tbilisi in Georgia, Kiev in Ukraine and Moscow in Russia. Baku has a large port and it’s possible to buy a ticket for gargo vessels that go to Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan (you will need a VISA) and Aktau in Kazakhstan.
Where to stay: I stayed at the Old Town Hostel which was perfectly located very close to the tower.
Zabljak, Montenegro (one of the most picturesque hidden gems in Europe)
Why visit: For fans of the outdoors, Montenegro’s Durmitor National Park is a fantastic destination, with access to hiking, mountain biking, rafting and mountain climbing. Zabljak is a small town a few kilometres from the stunning Crno Jezero, or Black Lake.
Although small, Zabljak has all the facilities you need to make it a base for exploring the national park. Montenegro is one of the true hidden gems in Europe!
Things to see/do: Hike around Black Lake, raft in the deepest canyon in Europe, cycle through the mountains, climb Durmitor Peak.
How to get there: Zabljak is easily reachable from Kotor and Podgorica within Montenegro with bus links to Croatia and Serbia beyond.
Where to stay: I stayed at Hostel Hikers Den in the centre of the town. The owners were helpful and friendly and the hostel clean with nice chalet style rooms.
Why visit: With budget airlines flying from all over Europe to Zadar Airport, this beautiful ancient city on the Adriatic is a perfect weekend getaway. With architecture, history, food and drink to rival nearby Italy, Zadar will give you a fine taste of antiquity at a fraction of the price.
It also makes a great starting point for exploring the stunning coastline all the way down to Split or Dubrovnik and onwards to Bosnia, Montenegro and beyond.
Things to see/do: The Sea Organ (an instrument built into the promenade that makes music as the waves lap underneath), old town, roman ruins, cafes, beaches.
How to get there: Zadar Airport is about 25 minutes from the centre of town by shuttle bus. Buses link Zadar to Zagreb, Split and Dubrovnik. The bus journey from Zadar to Dubrovnik is one of the most scenic in the world. On one side you have mountains and the other drops down into the translucent waters of the Adriatic as you pass small fishing villages.
Where to stay: Zadar has a huge selection of hostels and hotels to cater for every budget. See Hostelworld for more details.
Why visit: Forget grubby Costa Del Sol hell-holes, Cadiz offers the visitor that real Andalus flavour. Explore the tiny backstreets as wafts of seafood and garlic carry through the air. Stroll around the botanical gardens or even go for a dip at the small but quiet beach in the city centre.
Cadiz makes a great base to explore the rest of the Costa del Luz (Coast of Light) and nearby scenic spots such as Cape Trafalgar (of Nelson fame) and Bologna with the ancient Roman fish processing plant. Visit the incredible Camera Obscura for panoramic views of the city and coastline. One of Europe’s real hidden gems!
Things to see/do: Visit the city beaches for a swim, view the city through the eye of the Camera Obscura, sample the best seafood and tapas around.
How to get there: The closest airport is Jerez (famous for its Sherry bodegas) and the journey is around 30 minutes by taxi or car (buses and trains are few and far between).
Where to stay: Cadiz has a huge selection of hostels and hotels to cater for every budget. See Hostelworld for more details.
Mostar , Bosnia & Herzegovina (One of my favourite hidden gems in Europe)
Why visit: With its quaint old town, amazing food and stunning architecture, Mostar is one of the real hidden gems of Europe. Walk the narrow streets of the old town along the fast flowing Naretva River where some brave souls dive off the famous Stari Most (Old Bridge) in to the greeny-blue waters below. Sit and eat cevapcici or burek at one of the many restaurants and cafes that line the river or take a hike into the nearby mountains (heed the signs and be careful of landmines and other unexploded ordnance).
Things to see/do: Visit the famous Stari Most bridge that was shelled and painstakingly rebuilt. Walk the beautiful old town and visit the war museum. Nearby attractions include Kravice Waterfalls where you can swim, the stunning whitewashed hilltop village of Pocitelji.
How to get there: Trains and buses link Mostar from the capital Sarajevo and you can also reach Dubrovnik in Croatia by bus (4 hours).
Where to stay: I stayed at Hostel Miran which has a great central location and cheap dorm beds. The owner Miran is an excellent and knowledgeable host who can also arrange tours to nearby sites like Kravice Waterfalls and Pocitelji.
Why visit: This fairy-tale city which serves as the capital of Lithuania is packed with street-side cafes that give the town a French feel, while the hilltop castle affords panoramic views across the city. The old town is one of the most charming hidden gems of Europe and has a cosy feel to it. There are plenty of museums, churches and parks to explore before sitting at one of the many cafes for a bit of relaxing and people watching.
Things to do: Visit Gediminas Castle, Vilnius Cathedral, Hill Park.
How to get there: Vilnius International Airport is only 6km from the centre of town. The city is easily reachable from other Baltic destinations such as Tallinn and beyond with Lux Express buses.
Note: All photographs except for those of Cadiz and Zadar are copyrighted to Stephen Anthony Rohan.