Europe's Secret Hot Spots
Americans can’t get enough of Paris, as becomes painfully clear each summer, when it swarms with tourists. Relief waits a train ride away in Île de Noirmoutier: You’ll be greeted by the scent of mimosa and the sight of bobbing yachts and families picnicking on the beach.
Thankfully, Europe is still full of under-the-radar gems like this French retreat. And we can’t resist spreading the word about the latest emerging hot spots, from Eastern Europe’s hippest art scene to a sleepy district of lakes and castles.
Related: 25 Secret European Villages
The continent is so varied that even with 17 countries sharing the euro currency, it can barely keep from splintering back into thousands of microcultures. While this complicates the financial markets, it has an upside for travelers: continued opportunities for discovery. You’ll never walk into a beach bar in Bergen, Holland, and one on the Aegean Islands and have the same experience.
So while the hunt is always on for the next Tuscany, you’ll find that Spain’s answer—the little-touristed northeast Matarranya region—has its own distinctive accent. Its patchwork of vineyards, rivers, and olive groves lies at the confluence of the ancient Aragon, Valencia, and Catalonia kingdoms. The feeling is still a bit regal, especially at the Hotel Torre del Visco, a surprisingly affordable 15th-century palace in Fuentespalda (population: 368).
Further afield, in Estonia, there’s a secret island of juniper forests, fishing villages, and small farms that was the last stronghold of Estonian pagans until the 13th century. Looking for a windmill? You’ll get your photo-op with the country’s last working wooden version here.
For more of a scene, look to the Netherlands and a beach town that’s recently made waves. Like the Hamptons, but with clogs, Bergen is becoming a second-home haven for newly monied Germans and Dutch who prefer bike rides and outdoor cafés to power lunches.
It takes extra effort, sure, to reach these European spots, but the reward comes with that sense of being let in on a fantastic secret—and the opportunity to experience a place rooted in local tradition before it’s really discovered and altered.
And if you just can’t forget Paris, consider you’ll probably get to transit through one such glittering European hub along the way.
Tourists are taking their sweet time to get the message about this starkly beautiful, monochromatic town of ancient architecture. Yet Matera has been a favorite of film directors (Pier Paolo Pasolini, Mel Gibson) for decades, and Francis Ford Coppola is opening his sixth hotel in nearby Bernalda, where his grandfather was born. Carved out of a limestone gorge, the millennia-old town in the southern region of Basilicata—the arch of Italy’s boot—was abandoned for decades, until artists and hippies began repopulating it in the 1950s and UNESCO declared the old town a World Heritage Site in 1993. From the natural-rock pool at the Locanda di San Martino, you can float while surveying the sassi (ancient cave dwellings) and hundreds of rock churches that date back to the Byzantine era.
Fermanagh Lakelands, Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland’s self-styled lake district isn’t as dramatic as its English sister, which has given it reprieve from the millions of visitors who come to the region’s shores. Here, instead of membership-only clubs and helipads, you get crenellated castles from the 17th and 18th centuries, misty loughs (lakes), and views of the distant Donegal Mountains. For a truly Irish experience, stay in the west wing of Crom Castle, the historic seat of the earls of Erne for more than 350 years. Its 1,900 rolling acres are filled with every possible amenity to fulfill your outdoor Gaelic fantasies—and reachable within a two-hour drive from Belfast or Dublin.
Muhu Island, Estonia
On the tiny island of Muhu—accessed by an ice road in winter—you’ll find working windmills, thatched cottages, and a 13th-century pagan church. The population is only around 2,000, but this island 100 miles from Tallinn is rich with tradition, dating back to 1227 when an army of Christians crossed the ice and ended the Estonian Crusade. Padaste Manor may not be that old, but it still has some 700 years of history under its Danish-style eaves. Experience what a descendant of one of those crusaders (the last private owner, Baron Axel von Buxhoeveden) thought of as impeccable taste in the hotel, whose outbuildings merge the old world styles of St. Petersburg (to the east) and Denmark (to the west).
Matarranya Region, Southern Aragon, Spain
Spain’s answer to Tuscany is striped with vineyards and rivers, then dotted with olive groves and tree-lined peaks. It rests at the confluence of the ancient Aragon, Valencia, and Catalonia kingdoms, and the feeling is still a bit regal (one can imagine a king, on horseback, hunting for buck). The pace of life is typically slow, leaving plenty of time for long walks in the hills, mountain-bike rides, and visits to vineyards. The center of it all is at Hotel Torre del Visco, a 15th-century palace in Fuentespalda (population: 368) that is often host to Europe’s remaining royalty; its remoteness is hard to match elsewhere. And it’s surprisingly affordable—about $200 per night including breakfast; seems even landed gentry like a good deal. Wander the labyrinthine fortress and pretend you’re on the set of the Spanish version of Game of Thrones.
Lewis Island, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
Thrown into the North Sea, out past Skye, is a tiny island that only the hearty Scottish could conjure. Lewis is part of the Outer Hebrides, but it’s also a world of its own. Its beaches look straight out of the Caribbean—careful, that water is cold. The language is still Gaelic, and Harris Tweed (from the island adjacent) is worn even in summer. You can breathe in the smell of peat being cut and head out for a fishing jaunt in the choppy waters. For a little socializing, there’s Auberge Carnish, a five-room farm retreat with a restaurant overlooking the rocky bay. Owners Richard and Jo Leparoux grow their own produce and breed chicken and lamb to create the best meals this side of Skibo Castle.
Île de Noirmoutier, France
Lovingly called the Poor Man’s Île de Ré, this nature destination on the Vendée coast is rife with wildlife: on the beaches, in the marshes and dunes, and in the forest. Take the TGV from Paris, and four hours later you’ll be greeted by the scent of mimosa blossoms, even in winter, and the sight of yachts grabbing the wind for white-knuckle races. For families, this is French paradise—picture your kids harvesting oysters and their own salt for a beach picnic, exploring the aquarium and the nature reserve teeming with birds, then curling up with a good book back in the villa. As if they’d even think of cracking open that iPad here.
The third biggest town in Poland comes from industrial roots (it was called the Manchester of the East), but lately, for culture, few evolving Eastern European cities can compare. Art in all forms is everywhere—from Hollylodz, the center of Polish cinematography (its film school has three Oscar-winning alumni, including Roman Polanski) to the Lodz Atlas Arena, where Elton John will perform in Summer 2012. Along Piotrkowska Street, one of the longest in Europe, there are more than 100 bars, often heaving with live music, and restaurants serving fantastic Polish and Jewish dishes (try Anatewka, where a violinist serenades guests). All roads eventually lead to Manufaktura, a 74-acre 19th-century industrial campus now filled with shops, museums, a carousel, cinemas, party spaces, and everyone you need to meet in Lodz.
Historically, artists and writers came here to be inspired by the coastline, just a 45-minute ride from Amsterdam, but Bergen has seen a recent influx of the newly monied, creating a scene that suggests the Hamptons with clogs. The good news is that if you’re not lucky enough to own a local vacation home, you can rent one of the funky, if basic, villas scattered around for a few hundred dollars a week (try holiday-rentals.co.uk). The luncheon spot SB Noord, whose weatherworn wooden terrace is strewn with chairs, overlooks the sunniest spot in the Netherlands. Rent a bike to cycle to the beach (three miles from town) and the pine forest, then head for microbrews and calamari at Fabel’s, all done up in oak and bluestone and set beside a ruined church and cobblestoned streets.
Thanks to its remote placement six hours by ferry from Athens, the island of Ikaria has all the beauty of the Aegean Islands, without the crowds. Perhaps it’s the fresh air, crystal waters, and abundant food, but Ikarians mysteriously live long (and full) lives. They are four times more likely to pass their 90th birthdays than Americans, despite eating heaps of fried fish and rich dips, not to mention smoking and drinking wine by the carafe-load. Check into the six-level Cavos Bay Hotel, where every pared-down room overlooks the sea. Don’t bother bringing a watch; nothing happens “on time” here. So go for a leisurely swim at Seychelles Beach and stroll along the ancient stone walls that date back to the 5th century B.C.
East Anglia, United Kingdom
Built up by the wool trade centuries ago, East Anglia fell off most travelers’ maps when that industry declined. Cambridge, at the heart of the region, has been one exception, but if you can look beyond the university town’s ivy-strewn stone buildings, you’ll be rewarded with thatch villages; Holkham Hall, the first Earl of Leicester’s Palladian mansion; and Sandringham, where the queen and her ancestors have holidayed for generations. Along winding roads dotted with sheep, you’ll also find the antiques’-lovers towns of Lavenham and Long Melford, the 640 medieval churches of Norfolk, and the only two-Michelin-starred restaurant around, Midsummer House. Unless twee B&B owners and their cats are your cup of tea, explore by day and return at night to Cambridge’s Varsity Hotel & Spa, where Londoners come for weekend breaks to row along the River Cam and relive their glory days at “uni.”
The Istrian Peninsula is the best of Tuscany and Venice rolled into one languid destination. Hillsides nurture vineyards, preservation-minded towns lie just steps from the beach, and Croatians live off the same land their great-great-grandparents did. Though some towns are overhyped (see Porec and Pula), the most built-up of Istrian tourist destinations can actually be its most atmospheric—if you time it right. During the off-season, the crenellated town of Rovinj feels like a quiet Siena writ small, its 18th-century bell tower of the Church of St. Euphemy standing guard above the spartan cobblestoned streets below. Try the local vintages at the romantic Wine Vault restaurant, then spend the night in the region’s first design hotel, The Lone, whose swooping nautical shape commands prime real estate in a deep forest beside the Adriatic.
The capital city of Lugano is also the spiritual home of Italians in Switzerland, which adds a sexy slouch to an otherwise buttoned-up country. True, there is a Michelin-starred restaurant (the Galleria Arté al Lago), and Ticino is only a motorboat ride from the paparazzi-happy Lake Como region, but because this is technically Switzerland, the trains always run on time (to the ticking of Patek Philippe watches), and a politeness and white-glove service perseveres. Spend your nights in the Villa Castagnola, the former residence of the czars on the shores of Lake Lugano, and you’ll be instantly initiated into the lifestyle of long lunches, boat trips to the lake, and perfectly toned guests sunning themselves in the private gardens. Hiking and biking are popular activities, and there just happens to be Alpine skiing up the hill.
True, Kate Moss and Jade Jagger have been spotted on Formentera, but this Balearic Island is still far removed from the tabloid headlines and flash of its sister, Ibiza. A ban on beachfront building has kept the thumping clubs and flophouses that serve them from coming ashore, leaving the unspoiled beaches and the rustle of palm trees as backdrop and soundscape to a holiday of sunset cocktails and afternoon siestas. Still, if you’re looking to sunbathe with Leo and his ilk, you’ll find them at Gecko Beach Club; just avoid August, when the Spaniards somehow manage to bring the party to this bohemian haven on earth.