19 unexpected European holiday hotspots hiding in plain sight

The adage about familiarity breeding contempt has always had a certain inaccuracy. Although the same routine might cause a calcification of feeling, it can also produce something softer: a warm comfort; a cosy settling into an unchallenging space; a satisfied reliance on the tried and tested, on the weighed and measured.

This can definitely be true of travel. It can be easy to return, year after year, to the well-trodden and the widely documented; to destinations of known qualities and guaranteed enjoyment. And there is nothing wrong with that. A holiday is about relaxation; about recharging. That was the case in 2019. It is, all the more so, here in 2021.

If anything, the pandemic has exacerbated our instinct to retrace our steps to old favourites – particularly while the traffic-light system is in force and options are limited.

But this caution does not need to define our thinking forever. For all its resemblance to a much-thumbed guidebook – with corners of pages folded over for Paris and its boulevards, for the beaches of the Aegean, for the resorts of the Costa del Sol – Europe is a wonderland of remarkable depth and diversity. And it is still, in these young days of the 21st century, capable of surprising the traveller who looks beyond the obvious – even in France, Greece, Spain, and other classic segments of the continent. This is even truer in the likes of Croatia, the Czech Republic and Poland.

The 20 getaway suggestions here are alternative takes on all-time greats – locations that, though firmly on the map in countries we love, have long been overlooked. None is too far away, but all are places you might not normally consider for a holiday or a long weekend.

Moreover, they should all – from unheralded French departments to Balkan canyons and islands “hidden” in the Danish archipelago – offer something refreshingly different, even as green and amber continue to flicker. After a year of lockdowns, restrictions and fear, we could all use some of that.

Portugal

The Alentejo

A fabulous filling to a sandwich shaped by the Algarve on one side and Lisbon on the other, the Alentejo should really be a staple part of British holiday diets. That it is not, though it has over 100 miles of Atlantic coastline, says much about its placid demeanour – agricultural, sleepy, and unimpressed by either the big beach resorts of its southern neighbour, or the urban delights of the capital above (its own key city, Evora, is home to fewer than 60,000 people, and is still partially enclosed by its medieval walls). But as a window on the Portuguese soul, assuming you are in no rush to get anywhere, it’s perfect.

Wexas (020 8125 4213; wexas.com) offers an eight-day Alentejo & The Algarve road trip that rolls south, staying in historic pousadas. From £665pp, including flights.





Tucked between Lisbon and the Algarve, the Alentejo is often overlooked by British visitors


Credit: Getty

The Azores

Were it not for its inconsistent weather (and comparative lack of air links), Portugal’s way-out-west archipelago would surely be hailed as the Hawaii of Europe. True, it does not boast postcard sandy beaches, but its volcanic scenery is arguably unsurpassed anywhere on the continent. Sao Miguel, the biggest island, throws out the spectacle of the two-coloured Sete Cidades “double lagoon”; Pico is little more than a volcano in its purest form, conical and majestic. Faial, meanwhile, offers a reminder of the islands’ fractious genesis – the ash-shrouded Capelinhos lighthouse is a Pompeii for the Atlantic.

Regent Holidays (0117 453 0584; regent-holidays.co.uk) offers an 11-day Four Island Tour of the Azores (pretty Terceira is the fourth) from £2,145pp, including flights. 

Greece

Attica

Athens needs no introduction. The region around it does. The British gaze is not prone to looking beyond the Parthenon – to the peninsula that hangs down into the Aegean below the city. The Athenian gaze is more discerning – taking in the beaches that litter the shore at Vouliagmeni, Legrena, Schinias and Varkiza. Inevitably, the region’s ancient sites are rather special. The fifth-century BC Temple of Poseidon that supplies a classical full-stop to the headland at Cape Sounion is a landmark to make any ancient god of the sea proud.

A week at the Four Seasons Astir Palace at Vouliagmeni, flying from Heathrow on September 25, costs from £2,956pp with British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com/holidays).

The Pelion

Were you to wander (about 150 miles) north of Athens, up the Aegean coast, you would encounter another peninsula that seems to be a mystery to all but those who have Greek passports. The Pelion juts from the side of the Thessaly region, reaching out for Skiathos and Skopelos, but is a destination in its own right – a place for quiet amblings across a forested landscape, or along the slopes of Mount Pelion, which hits an altitude of 5,328ft (1,624m) on its highest summit, Pourianos Stavros. Ancient mythology held the mountain as the home of the centaur Chiron. You might still believe this some three millennia later.

HF Holidays (020 3974 8865; hfholidays.co.uk) runs a regular Pelion Guided Walking Holiday from £1.024pp, including flights.





The Pelion peninsula is popular with holidaying Greeks, but few foreign tourists know about its charms


Credit: Getty

Central Macedonia

It would be wrong to say that no British tourist has ever heard of Greek Macedonia or the eastern reaches of the mainland – the resorts of the Halkidiki peninsulas are a fine setting for a beach holiday. But they can be much more for those prepared to explore the region. Think Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, with its nest of cool restaurants and bars in Ladadika; the archaeological remains of Pella, birthplace of Alexander the Great; the shore of Lake Kerkini, where flamingos swoop in the shadow of the Belasica mountains.

A seven-night stay at the five-star Kassandra Palace Hotel – at Kriopigi on Kassandra – flying from Gatwick on September 18 costs from £514pp via Expedia (020 3788 0445; expedia.co.uk), including hire car for the week.

Epirus

The last decade has brought more recognition of the region that forms the north-west corner of the Greek mainland, meeting the Albanian border and a silhouetted Corfu in the Ionian sunset. But you could never say that Epirus suffers from overtourism. Not in the seafront town of Parga, which hugs the water in a haze of tavernas, shops and Venetian fortifications. Nor in the (possible) remains of the Necromanteion – the ancient temple (at Mesopotamos) that was believed to be the gate to Hades. Nor on the side of the Acheron – one of the five traditional rivers of the Greek Underworld, which flows languidly nearby.

A week at the four-star Parga Beach Resort, flying from Birmingham on September 19, costs from £837pp with Olympic Holidays (020 8492 6868; olympicholidays.com).

France

Gironde

The British travelling public has a strange relationship with the French seafront. The Brittany and Normandy peninsulas are for family camping breaks; the south coast is one unbroken sweep of café-table glamour and off-duty Hollywood starlets. But the long arc along the Bay of Biscay is frequently overlooked. And while the Gironde department is rightly feted for the vineyards and wineries of Bordeaux, its 90 miles of Atlantic edge are no less alluring. Not least around Arcachon Bay, where the resort-town of the same name is a happy hive of seafood restaurants – and the beach at Dune du Pilat piles its sand high.

Le Cros – a five-bedroom gîte in Frontenac – can be rented in the week of September 25 for £2,000 through Holiday France Direct (0330 159 6868; holidayfrancedirect.co.uk).





The Dune du Pilat at Arcachon Bay is the tallest sand dune in Europe


Credit: Getty

The Jura

It doesn’t have the celebrity of the snowy Alpine regions to the south, or the champagne-crémant-flavoured flatlands further north, but this far-easterly pocket of the Gallic world (it rubs against the Swiss border for 11 miles) has a little of the soul of both. The Jura Mountains do a solid job of separating the Rhône and Rhine basins; their lower flanks are laced with vineyards where chardonnay grapes ripen and the department’s own sparkling wine, Cremant du Jura, is produced. This is France without fame or flamboyance, praying in the pews at the ninth-century Baume Abbey – and all the more wonderful for it.

Rent In France (020 8144 3950; rent-in-france.co.uk) offers a two-bedroom barn conversion in Blois-sur-Seille, near Baume-les-Messieurs (ref: 7026), from £399 a week.

Italy

The Maremma

Considering the affection in which Tuscany is held, it is remarkable that “Maremma” is not a basic part of the British vocabulary. It is, after all, the shoreline of the region where Siena sings with medieval charm and Florence keeps the cultural heart of the Renaissance beating. Perhaps its relative anonymity is because it is as much a romantic idea – a swathe of former marshland, drained by the Medicis – as a strictly defined area (it is usually said to encompass the province of Grosseto, yet also slips south into Lazio). But somehow, it offers a less eulogised take on the Tyrrhenian seafront. Monte Argentario, a peninsula that is almost an island, 80 miles south of Siena, is as idyllic as anything on the Amalfi Coast.

A week at Il Pellicano, a five-star oasis on Monte Argentario, costs from £1,820pp, including flights, through Expressions Holidays (01392 441245; expressionsholidays.co.uk).

Basilicata

If Puglia is the heel of the boot, and Calabria the toe, Basilicata is the instep, shielding the arch of the Italian foot above the Gulf of Taranto. With this, it can seem suitably scuffed and scratched; a rocky hinterland where the Apennine Mountains throw shapes – some of them protected by Pollino National Park, the country’s largest. Its capital Potenza is a question mark to all but the most devoted Italophiles; its Unesco-listed hilltop jewel Matera is not much better known, despite spending 2019 as a European Capital of Culture. But it rewards explorers, while Maratea is an underrated spot for a seaside break.

A week at La Locanda delle Donne Monache, a former convent in Maratea, costs from £869pp – including flights from Manchester – via Sunvil (020 8758 4722; sunvil.co.uk).





Despite its Unesco World Heritage status, Matera (as well as the rest of Basilicata) flies under the radar

Croatia

The Croatian Littoral

It is impossible to argue that Croatia is still an unknown package – its islands and seafront cities have become a playground for British tourists. But there is a 100-mile sliver of its shoreline that remains a half-secret. The Littoral sits squished between Istria to the west and the Dalmatian Coast to the south, laying out its jewels on the edge of Kvarner Bay. It offers urban life in its capital Rijeka (with its food markets and hilltop castle), the resort sophistication of Opatija (where the villas of 19th-century Austrian aristocrats still gleam) – and the semi-isolation of Krk, the bay’s biggest island, where vineyards flutter.

Tui Villas (020 3529 8455; tuivillas.com) offers a four-bedroom property (ref 1426233), with pool, near Garica, at the heart of Krk. It can be rented in the week starting September 18 from £1,446 (excluding flights).

Spain

Galicia

High up at the north-west corner of the country, 600 miles from the Costa del Sol, Galicia is a different Spain; wild where the Atlantic lashes its sides, remote enough in geography that the name of Cape Finisterre is a legacy – of the Romans, who considered it the end of the world. Not, of course, that it has no beaches. Its biggest city, La Coruna, has two fine examples in Playa de Riazor and Playa del Orzan, while its tapas bars – though neither as numerous nor as revered as those in San Sebastian – will fill both stomachs and evenings.

Railbookers (020 3780 2222; railbookers.co.uk) splices La Coruna to its Galician colleagues Pontevedra, Santiago de Compostela and Vigo, plus the titular Portuguese city, on its 10-day Galicia and Porto train odyssey – from £809pp, excluding flights.





The Romans considered Galicia’s Atlantic coast to be edge of the earth


Credit: Getty

Extremadura

Pressed between the sunny splendour of Andalusia and the boy-next-door friendliness of Portugal, Extremadura is arguably the Spanish region with the least international profile. It rather likes it that way. Rustic, rugged and notably short on urban trappings (its capital, Mérida is home to barely 60,000 souls), here is a patch of the Iberian quilt where wildlife thrives – including the vultures and eagles that soar above Monfragüe National Park, where the River Tagus finds a path around dramatic rock formations on its way to Lisbon.

Naturetrek (01962 733 051; naturetrek.co.uk) runs regular group trips to the region – such as an eight-day Extremadura & Gredos Mountains tour that takes in Monfragüe (as well as the mentioned peaks, in Castile and Leon). From £1,695pp, including flights.

Austria

Styria

Considering its size – it is the second largest of the country’s nine states – Styria should be better known. That it is not leaves much for the inquisitive traveller to uncover. Here is a version of Austria which – to an extent – moves away from the High Alpine stereotype, descending towards Slovenia. With this, its capital Graz is one of Europe’s loveliest small cities – almost Italian in the cocktails-and-chatter ambience of the bars on Hauptplatz and Freiheitzplatz; distinctly picturesque where its Schlossberg hill towers above its old town.

Cycle Breaks (01449 721 555; cyclebreaks.com) serves up a nine-day self-guided Mur Cycle Path itinerary that follows Styria’s key river towards Graz (and beyond) from the forested peaks of Lungau. From £948pp including bikes, but not flights.

Switzerland

Appenzell

If Austria’s image is often set in stone, Switzerland’s can be distilled into one long ridge-line in the shadow of the Matterhorn. Appenzell does not wander far from the template, but it tends to be a leafier version of Switzerland, where comely villages sit amid green hills. Slotted into the north-east of the country, almost on the borders with Austria and Liechtenstein (neighbouring canton St Gallen does the actual frontier stuff), it also tends to exist well below the British travel radar. Those who know of it would scarcely describe it as noisy or excitable, but if you’re looking for fresh air and gentle hikes, it will meet your needs.

A five-night half-board summer holiday at the four-star Romantic Hotel Santis in (the town of) Appenzell costs from £1,122pp (including flights from Heathrow to Zurich and train transfers), with The Swiss Holiday Company (0800 619 1200; swissholidayco.com).





Appenzell offers a leafier, gentler take on popular notions of the Swiss landscape


Credit: Getty

Czech Republic

Moravia

British perspective on Czech Republic has rarely looked beyond the centre of Prague – and even the region that frames it, Bohemia, is only understood as an evocative name from European history. Moravia, meanwhile, is a blank canvas. This, effectively, is the eastern half of the country, where it drifts down towards its divorced ex-partner Slovakia. That it does so through grassy pastures and river valleys – plus photogenic towns such as Znojmo, Telc and Mikulov – makes it a splendid context for an unhurried cycling holiday.

Responsible Travel (01273 823700; responsibletravel.com) runs a regular Prague to Budapest group cycle break which charts the region. From £2,599pp including flights.

Germany

Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

Germany illuminates the imagination for many reasons – the museums and beer halls of Munich; the vibrancy and history of Berlin; the glory of the Rhine Gorge – but rarely is it remembered that it has a coast. And yet, there it is at the top of the land mass, including 200 miles of seafront where its north-easternmost state meets the Baltic. Here is a region where the former East Germany used to go to the beach, and where the modern country still does – in resorts like Binz and Sellin (on the sandy island of Ruegen) and Ahlbeck (with its 19th-century pier). Breezy and fun, this is Germany beyond preconceptions.

The two-bedroom Apartment Prora (ref 2739420) in Binz is available in the week September 25 for £1,736 through Vrbo (020 88271971; vrbo.com). Flights (to Hamburg) cost extra.

Denmark

Funen

Run your eye across the Danish map, and you might miss the island at the heart of the country, between Zealand (and Copenhagen) and the Jutland peninsula. Funen doesn’t mind being underappreciated. At times, it seems to live outside the 21st century, whether in a main city, Odense (home of the fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen) or in seaside towns such as Kerteminde and Lundeborg, grazed by the Great Belt strait.

Nordic Experience (01206 708 888; nordicexperience.co.uk) offers The Marguerite Route – a week-long road trip that spends two days in Odense as part of a westbound journey between Copenhagen and Aarhus. From £1,040 per person, including flights and car hire.





Funen is consistently overlooked by visitors to Denmark – not that the locals are complaining


Credit: Alamy

Poland

Masurian Lake District

Perception of Poland as a destination rarely strays far beyond the urban joys of Krakow and Warsaw. But there is nothing of the city about this expanse of water and tranquillity, high in the north-east, where the Polish realm pushes towards the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Here is a region of 2,000 lakes – of which the largest, Sniardwy, is almost eight times the size of its Cumbrian counterpart, Windermere. Plenty of space for holidaymakers, in other words. Sailors, anglers and cyclists flock here every year.

Freewheel Holidays (0161 703 8161; freewheelholidays.co.uk) offers Warsaw and the Masurian Lakelands – an eight-day self-guided cycle tour linking the two via Borecka forest and lakeside Mikolajki. From £575pp, with bikes, excluding flights.