Top Ten European Hideaways

A European vacation can be fraught with tourist traps, leading to a less authentic experience. Yes, you want to see the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but once you've done the "must-see" places, explore these ten spots, our favorite hidden gems of Europe.
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Cathair Deargain Fort ruins on the Dingle Peninsula, Ireland
Cathair Deargain Fort ruins on the Dingle Peninsula, Ireland  (Chris Hill/National Geographic/Getty)

Have you seen one too many Eiffel Tower paperweights? Is sunny Italy a little too warm while waiting in line outside a museum? How about finding fish 'n chips shops on the beach in Spain?

If Europe's beaten paths lead you to frustration, boredom, and claustrophobia, don't swap that Eurail pass for coupons to Disneyland. Europe still has unabashed, unspoiled pockets of culture to absorb. I've been traveling to Europe for 32 years and lived in Rome for a year and a half. Through research, word of mouth, and blind luck, I've found spots where you can still see places that haven't changed since the creation of frequent-flyer miles. Here, my ten favorite.

10. Troyes, France
You don't have to look at a map to see Troyes is the capital of France's Champagne region. Stroll the cobblestone old town and see couples at outdoor cafes sipping champagne from bottles in tall buckets. This town of 60,000, a 90-minute train ride southeast from Paris, gets overlooked among France's kaleidoscope of destinations. Yet one of the country's best collections of Gothic churches, millennium-old civic buildings, and quiet narrow streets radiates an air of the French Renaissance. Check out the 375-foot-long Cathedrale St. Pierre et St. Paul. Better yet, see where the champagne you drank the night before came from by renting a bike and cruising the vineyards of the glorious Champagne region.

9. Wroclaw, Poland
Name a Polish city besides Warsaw and Krakow and you're on the next episode of "Jeopardy." Pronounce Wroclaw correctly and you're hosting the show (it's VROT-slaf). Probably fewer know that this 1,000-year-old city has one of the largest squares in Europe. Rynek Square stretches the length of two football fields and the width of another field and a half. The square is lined with Renaissance-style buildings in yellows, reds, golds, and greens. It surrounds the Rynek Ratusz (Town Hall), a magnificent yellow palace sporting its own brew pub. In 1989, about when Poland's communist regime fell to Lech Walesa's Solidarity, Rynek Square had two bars and two restaurants. Today there are 120. During the twilight hours in summer, the square fills with Polish salsa bands and musicians playing Bach.

8. Regensburg, Germany
You want Bavaria without the waiters in lederhosen? Regensburg is Bavaria's original capital and remains one of Europe's best preserved medieval towns. Splitting the town is the pretty Danube River, which you can view from the romantic Steinerne Brucke (Stone Bridge), the river's first fortified crossing. Regensburg, once home to Oskar Schindler of "Schindler's List" fame, is home to 130,000 people but still has a sleepy small-town feel to it. The tourists flock to Munich 60 miles to the south, leaving the beer gardens to the locals and a festive summer atmosphere void of stein-filled souvenir stands. In 2006, UNESCO recognized Regensburg for its architecture, including Dom St. Peter, Bavaria's best Gothic cathedral.

7. Ebensee, Austria
Location. Location. Location. This is what makes Ebensee shine in the shadows of the Salzburg-Vienna trail. Located about 20 miles east of Salzburg, this town of 8,700 sits on the south shore of Lake Traunsee and next to lakes Offensee and Langbathsee, all at the foot of the snow-capped Salzkammergut Mountains. A cable car takes you to 5,250-foot Fauerkogel, where you can walk along green plateaus and look down at the lakes. Swimming, fishing, windsurfing, boating, and even scuba diving are available on lakes that rarely get crowded. The Langbathsee features an 18th-century hunting lodge started by Emperor Franz Joseph I.

6. Isola della Maddalena, Italy
When in Sardinia, go ahead and drive up smarmy Costa Smeralda, gaze at the yachts and Italy's beautiful people sipping Campari on deck. Then continue to the port town of Palau for a 20-minute ferry ride to Maddalena. It's without question the most gorgeous island I've seen in Southern Europe outside Santorini. Each turn of the road has a car park where you can pull over and take pictures of tiny bays, individually carved by wind-washed rock. The water is so clear you can see the ocean floor 50 feet down and four shades of blue: cobalt, royal, turquoise, and blue-green. Walk down a couple of sandy trails and feel the fine, grainy sand of perfect granules as you settle onto beaches no more than 70 yards long. However, as you get closer on the ferry, a blanket of orange-roofed houses gives way to a 30-foot anchor greeting you at the harbor. Maddalena is also home to a U.S. Naval base. Don't worry. The sailors are at peace here, too.

Published: 28 Dec 2010 | Last Updated: 31 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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