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 island called Nisyro 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 20 unique places in Europe worth adding to your travel list in 2021…
1. Mantua, Italy Hidden Europe Gems
After five trips to Italy in 2019. From the Dolomites in the far-north region of Trentino to the epic coasts in the heel of Puglia. I think it was going to be a given I’d discover a few of Europe’s hidden gems while here. And Mantua was one of the most surprising, earning it top spot on this years Europe hidden gems list – especially given so many of Italy’s top tourist attractions are quite simply put, overflowing with tourists.
To be honest, I’m shocked this city isn’t all over everyone’s bucket lists. And while it seems like local Italian tourists adore visiting, and those in the know head here, for most of us, we are sadly unaware of what an extraordinary city this is.
Located in the Lombardia region of Italy. It’s easiest accessed by car, although train connections from Verona, Venice and Milan can bring you here. Its best calling is the art and architecture that bring so many of us to Italy’s most famous cities. And here there is an abundance.
Perfect for? Lovers of Italian architecture and art, escaping the crowds in Italy.
Home to the largest residential building in Europe, after the Vatican, Mantua (or Mantova) is surrounded by three artificial lakes. One coated in lilypads which call out for a sunset boat cruise. We have to thank the Gonzaga rulers for most of the grand architecture in Mantua, whose Ducal Palace presents some 600 odd rooms. While only some are open to the public, they are an architectural feast, with grand frescos and beautiful art and you can spend hours exploring them all.
Also impressive and worth a visit is the Te Palace (which has nothing to do with the drink). Which also offers some rather grand halls, and perhaps my favourite spot. The Teatro Bibiena, a real Italy hidden gem if ever there was one – and I couldn’t believe that for less than a price of coffee we could tour it, and be the only visitors.
Combining this incredible architecture, indescribable art, the call of northern-Italian cuisine and wine, and the chance to take epic day trips across the Lombardia region from Mantua makes this city for me an absolute joy to discover, and I do hope to make it back one day.
How long in Mantua?
A two day city break, or use it as a base for longer to take day trips from.
Why visit Mantua in 2021? The Mantova Music Festival promises another heavy-hitting list of performances in 2021 including Lenny Kravitz. A monh long Jazz Festival and the bloved Medieval festival.
How to get to Mantua? The nearest airport to Mantua is Verona, but trains from Verona, Milan and Bologna are the best connections if you are without a car between 1.5 – 2hours. Venice can connect to these stations and FlixBus offers various connections.
2. Bosnia and Herzegovina
Perfect for? Adventure activities, fascinating history, Ottoman architecture.
Can I get away with calling a whole county a Europe hidden gem? Well, I’m sure going to try! For the most part, exploring Bosnia and Herzegovina is still a relatively off the beaten path experience in Europe. I’ve been here twice now, and the second visit firmly cemented my love for the country. On both visits, i was on a road trip. As it’s the best way to get to some of the lesser-visited spots.
Sure, beautiful Mostar is rightly famed, and now getting very popular with daytrippers from Dubrovnik, and Sarajevo. The capital city, is starting to attract more and more visitors thanks to its affordable pricing, fantastic cultural mix, and historically significant, especially in relation to WWI, but the country offers so much more to experience.
For adventure lovers, the rafting around Konjic is fantastic. With the water so clear and illuminated it looks photoshopped, a common theme of all lakes you’ll find around the country. The water-based magic extends to the postcard-perfect Kravica Waterfalls and the monastery in a lake at Rama in Scit. For cultural adventures and hiking, head to Lukimor, one of the last remaining mountains villages. Or if you are in the area in the winter months, Skiing is available.
Perfect for? Adventure activities, fascinating history, Ottoman architecture.
But the real magic for me in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the little moments, whether it’s staying in a converted railway station in Zavala, a town with a population of two where you are serenaded by guitar playing owner pouring you their homemade wine before whisking you into epic caves or enjoying a chilled lemonade or Arabic coffee looking out on the Ottoman wonder village of Počitelj.
It feels like around every corner there is a new experience. Place or person to bring a smile to your face, and I wholeheartedly believe if you want a real adventure, and to enjoy Europe off the beaten path, Bosnia and Herzegovina will bring you sheer joy.
How long to spend in Bosnia and Herzegovina? One to two weeks.
Why visit in 2021? A new national airline, Fly Bosnia, has recenly launched which mean easier and cheaper flights into the country. Alongside new routes from more established airlines. Also, any year is the perfect time to visit one of my favourite countries in the world!
How to get to Bosnia and Herzegovina? Flights into the country are still relatively low, and mainly go to Sarajevo. Tuzla also has some budget flight options (I’ve flown here before and then taken a bus). And Dubrovnik, Croatia, provides a strong international arrival point to then cross the border by bus.
3. Vipava Valley, Slovenia Hidden Europe Gems
Perfect for? Food and wine, sustainable travel, outside activities.
I’m so glad to see Slovenia getting the attention it deserves. With the green capital of Ljubljana and the mystical-magic of Lake Bled becoming firm traveller favourites.
But much of the country remains blissfully off the beaten path, and Vipava Valley is undoubtedly one of Europes best-hidden gems… for now!
Slow-travel and sustainability aren’t buzz words in Slovenia; they are a way of life, and nowhere is this truer than in Vipava Valley. A gorgeous set of greenery, hills and vineyards, you could easily mistake this for Tuscany at first glance.
The joy of visiting Vipava is in cycling or hiking between little villages. Heading into the mountains, enjoying Paragliding with their famous winds. And sampling everything that is put in front of you. There is an unknown number of wine cellars here, as everyone seems to have on under their house. The most inauspicious home doubles up as a restaurant serving local delights and home-made wine. And the whole place is pretty as a postcard. Whether you want a couple of days of downtime with a foodie focus, or a week escaping modern life in favour for local flavours. This small part of Slovenia will deliver you back home feeling totally refreshed.
How long to spend in Vipava Valley? A long weekend to one week – this is a total slow travel destination.
Why visit Vipava Valley in 2021? For fitness fanatics who love running in nature, the successful Ultra-Trail returns here in 2021.
How to get to Vipava Valley? You can either fly into the Slovenian capital of Lljubljana. Or the Italian city of Trieste and then drive or book a transfer.
4. Cuenca, Spain Hidden Europe Gems
Perfect for? Impressive architecture, city-side hiking.
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?
I’d suggest two days here, a daytrip from Madrid as often reccomended is rushed and I’d avoid it.
Why visit Cuenca in 2021? Head here for the huge planned Easter Week celebrations!
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.
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