Done Venice, Paris and? Ticked off Prague, Budapest and Dubrovnik? Well it may be time to delve a little deeper on your next European trip – and here are ten of the best off-the-radar towns and cities to visit.
Lake Ohrid is sandwiched between Macedonia and Albania, almost forming a bowl in the middle of the surrounding mountains. It is surrounded by pretty holiday villages and monasteries (noticeably more so on the Macedonian side than the Albanian), but the major town of Ohrid itself is the real treat.
It has always been popular as a resort amongst Eastern Europeans, but the rest of the world is just cottoning on. It’d be easy enough to just enjoy the boat trips and beaches, but head up into the forests and along the clifftops and you find numerous photogenic forts and churches.
ENJOYED THIS POST?Then you may be interested in my book. Sharing the stories via Twitter (I'm @GrumpyTrav) or Facebook is always appreciated too. You can also 'like' the Grumpy Traveller Facebook page to get new story updates.
BOOK YOUR OWN ADVENTUREThe following sites are usually my first port of call when booking a trip - so I recommend them as somewhere to start when booking your own holiday.
HOTELS: Hotels.com (£) or Agoda (£)
FLIGHTS: Skyscanner (£) Kayak or Roundtheworldflights.com
CAR HIRE: Car Rentals (£)
GUIDE BOOKS: Amazon (£)
TOURS AND ACTIVITIES: Viator (£)
Ohrid is also fairly lively in the evening, as twilight promenades morph into a café terrace eating and drinking culture where the volume inevitably ramps up.
Oh yes, and it is dirt cheap as well – don’t expect to pay much more than AU$2 for a beer.
LOCAL SECRET: The beaches closest to Ohrid can get rather crowded – and many locals prefer to head to those outside the Sveti Naum monastery on the south-western side of the lake, just across the Albanian border. It’s quieter, and has fabulous views of the town over the lake.
Where? Czech Republic
Often done as a day trip from Prague (it’s only an hour away), Kutna Hora is worth a bit more time. It’s a whole lot more laid back than the Czech capital – and delightful to stroll around once when the sun comes out.
You could happily spend a couple of days ambling around by the river and through the squares, stopping every few hours for a hearty meal and a giant beer in pub garden.
But it’s the quirky attractions that give Kutna Hora an appeal beyond being pretty and having a cool Gothic cathedral.
The most famous of these is the Sedlec Ossuary – a chapel made almost entirely from the bones and skulls of dead monks. But there’s also the Alchemy Museum inside the visitor information centre and an old silver mine to have a good look round. Both are odd, but fascinating.
TOP TIP: The train station is near the Sedlec Ossuary – four kilometres out of town – while the bus station is central. If visiting Kutna Hora as a day trip from Prague, you’re better off taking the train in and the bus back or vice versa.
Estonia’s Baltic Sea islands have long since been discovered by the Finns and Swedes who pile over on the ferries, but the rest of the world hasn’t cottoned on yet.
The biggest island – Saaremaa – mostly feels like it is stuck in a timewarp. It’s an island with an independent character, where forests and windmills predominate.
Kuressaare, the main town on Saaremaa, is a bit livelier and with good reason. It’s a gloriously picturesque town dominated by a large, well-preserved castle dating from the 13th century. It’s possible to hire out a rowboat and go splashing around in the lake/ moat around the castle.
But Kuressaare is also a big spa town, and sleek, modern resorts are gradually replacing the grim Eastern Bloc sanatoriums.
DON’T MISS: Turn up in July for the Castle Days festival –it’s full of medieval pageantry, jousting tournaments and old-style feasting.
Montenegro’s current capital city, Podgorica, is an enormous blemish on the face of an otherwise beautiful country. Most visitors stay on the coast, but a day trip from there to Montenegro’s former capital makes for a fabulous alternative to sunbathing.
Cetinje can be found high up in the mountains, and the views on the drive up through them on the way from coastal Kotor are spellbinding at almost every turn.
Once there, you’ve got a small town crammed with palaces and mansions. Most of these have been turned into houses, embassies or schools, but one particularly grand building houses the National and State Museums plus an art gallery.
The Cetinje Monastery is also highly popular, even if its True Cross and John the Baptist relics are of dubious origin.
TOP TIP: Cetinje is a bit of a ghost town at night – accommodation and eating out options are scarce. It’s much better, therefore, to base yourself at Kotor and make the drive up through the mountains as a day trip.
Outside of the Nordic countries, Lake Balaton is Europe’s biggest lake. It has always been a popular holiday spot for Central European tourists, and is known colloquially as the Hungarian Sea.
Balaton is one of Europe’s great bargain holiday spots – bed and breakfast accommodation for a whole family can cost a pittance outside the absolute peak of mid-August – and Kezsthely is the best base.
It’s the only town around the lake sizable enough to have a life of its own outside the tourism sector and thus has most life to it. Highlights include the vast Festetics Palace and the Marzipan Museum, depending upon your tastes.
It’s a good spot for a family holiday, as the water is fairly shallow for swimming in, and all manner of playgrounds and pedalo-hire outfits surround the shoreline.
DON’T MISS: Lake Hevíz. Balaton isn’t the only lake in the area, and Hevíz is rather unique – it’s the largest thermal lake in Europe and a rather odd natural spa. It’s only 7km away – a flat cycle along a protected track if you hire a bike.
Perhaps most famous as the birthplace of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, TorUn has had a tourism boost in recent years with numerous budget airline flights arriving in nearby Bydgoszcz.
The locals in this handsome port on the Vistula River like to play the Copernicus links to the hilt, but it’s the World Heritage-listed Old Town that really holds the appeal.
Unlike much of the rest of Poland, Torun survived World War II unscathed – and that means plenty of red-brick churches and Gothic buildings to feast your eyes upon. The Old Town Market Square is one of the finest focal points in Central Europe
There are also plenty of quirky museums inside grandly decorated former merchant houses. Topics covered include gingerbread and ‘Exploring’.
DON’T MISS: The reason there’s a Gingerbread Museum is that Torun is famous for making the stuff. There is no shortage of shops and cafés wanting to sell you some, and it makes for a handy – and tasty – souvenir.
Just under an hour away from Paris by bus or train, Compiègne has a strong claim to being France’s most historic city. Joan of Arc was captured here in 1430 – two statues and a monument are devoted to her. Meanwhile, the forest to the north-east of the town centre is home to a railway clearing that, in 1918, became the top secret site for the signing of the armistice at the end of World War I.
In June 1940, Adolf Hitler decided he wanted payback and made France surrender in exactly the same spot. The armistice carriage was dragged out of a museum and set up in the same way – albeit with the Germans in the victors’ seats.
The carriage was later burned in, but a replica now sits in the clearing, along with a fascinating museum and major war memorial.
The town also boasts one of France’s most lavish palaces – the Château de Compiègne. It was one of three royal seats (along with the better known Versailles and Fontainebleau. Its heyday was in the 19th century under Napoleon III, who used to host lavish parties there. The opulently-decorated Château is open to the public, while the enormous park next to it is a great spot for walks, picnics and even horse trials.
LOCAL SECRET: There are no official tours of the Haras National – the National Stud – but it’s often possible to just stroll in through the gates on Rue de la Procession and watch thoroughbreds being put through their paces.
Cluj-Napoca (or just Cluj to its friends), is another city that has reaped the benefits of the budget airline flights.
It’s as good a base as any for exploring the surrounding Transylvanian countryside, but Cluj is best known as a party town. It has a large student population and one that doesn’t place much stock on sleeping by all accounts.
Once you’ve emerged bleary-eyed from one of the numerous underground nightclubs, there are plenty of museums in which to get a cultural fix. The Ethnographic Museum and National History Museum of Transylvania are amongst the most worthy, while the Pharmaceutical Museum and the Emil Racovita Institute of Speleology Museum are arguably the most intriguing.
The latter gives a clue as to the key attraction for those who want more activity than dancing to blaring Europop all night – the nearby Apuseni mountains are riddled with caves. Caving trips of varying degrees of difficulty are thus hugely popular – as is good, old-fashioned walking for adventurers who prefer to stay above ground.
TOP TIP: Turn up in May for the Festivinum Wine Festival, and the whole party atmosphere ramps up a notch. And, of course, you get to taste many of Romania’s somewhat underrated wines.
This former industrial town has undergone something of a makeover in recent years. A textbook example of this is the Finlayson Centre, formerly a giant cotton mill complex and now an engaging home to cafés, bars and arts organisations.
The Finlayson Centre has always been somewhat ahead of its time – back in the 19th century it was the first building in Northern Europe to get electric lighting – and now it’s a poster child for urban regeneration.
Down in the basement is the highlight, however – this is where the Spy Museum can be found. Visitors are presented with enormous dossiers on the history of spying and then let loose to fire laser guns at enemies, look for secret passageways behind maps and indulge in a bit of electronic espionage.
Tampere has a bit of a thing for odd museums, incidentally. Other attractions are devoted to Finnish ice hockey players, and characters from the Moomins children’s books.
DON’T MISS: The Lenin Museum borders on the obsessive, but gives a great overview of the Soviet revolutionary’s life, and focuses on the time he spent in Tampere working up support. You can even see the couch he slept on.
Slovenia’s second city has lovely old town, packed with the requisite number of galleries, churches, cathedrals and engaging squares. But the real reason to pay a visit is that it is at the heart of Slovenia’s wine industry.
Nearby wineries can be visited (expect an emphasis on whites – particularly Rieslings – rather than reds) but the most staggering attraction for wine tourists can be found in the town itself.
The Vinag wine cellar under Svobode Square is often known as the Wine Tabernacle. It covers an area of 20,000 square metres and can hold up to 5.5 million litres of wine. Visits must be organised in advance, but it sure beats the rack you’ve got in your living room.
The Wine Industry also gives Maribor its oddest event. Every spring the Old Vine, which is recognised as the oldest on the planet by Guinness World Records, is ceremonially by the town’s official Vinedresser.
There’s plenty of pomp when this takes place every March, but it can be visited at other times as part of the viticulture tour at Old Vine House.
LOCAL SECRET: Fontana Terme Maribor is an impressive spa complex, just 2km out of the city. The thermal pools are particularly popular with the locals, although a sauna, solarium and massage centre are all on site.
This story was originally written for the Sun-Herald in.
If you liked this story, there are plenty more in my book.