Crowds Got You Down? Go Someplace You’ve Never Heard Of

I just returned from my fall trip to Europe, wrapping up a busy year of travel. And in 2018, two big themes emerged: Europe is more crowded than ever. And yet, for much of the last few weeks…I was the only traveler around. How? Because I was off the beaten path, in lesser-known corners of Poland and Hungary.

It’s clear that popular places like Salzburg, Amsterdam, Prague, and basically all of mainland Italy are reaching a saturation point. Famous landmarks and piazzas are a 24-7 human traffic jam. Major sights are impossible to visit without reserving well ahead and, once inside, are so congested you wish you’d skipped them. Increasingly, traveling to Europe’s too-famous-for-their-own-good biggies is becoming more trying than fun.

Here’s an elegantly simple solution: Break out of that tourist rut and travel somewhere new. Go to a city you’ve never heard of…or, at least, couldn’t place on a map. The destinations I’m talking about are far less crowded (and, typically, far less expensive). Even better, they feel more like real travel…a welcome throwback to a time when travel was about the pure joy of discovery, rather than a sheep-in-a-turnstile bucket list.

While you can find these unheralded gems all over Europe, my favorites are in Central and Eastern Europe. A decade or two ago, you could have made a case that these countries still had rough edges to keep travelers away. But these days, places like Poland and Hungary are definitively ready for prime time…yet still refreshingly untrampled.

Kraków is, deservedly, Poland’s most popular destination. With a spectacular square and an excellent food scene, it’s well worth visiting. But on this trip, I found that even Kraków is becoming noticeably more crowded. Don’t miss Kraków — but after you see it, continue deeper into Poland, to explore its equally appealing, completely undiscovered destinations farther north. Go to a city with a name you can’t pronounce.

Toruń is a historic, red-brick town deep in the heart of Poland. The hometown of Copernicus (ahem, Mikołaj Kopernik) and famous for its gingerbread (which scents its streets with a heavenly aroma), it’s an utter delight.

Just a few weeks ago — in the heart of prime tourist season — I was in Toruń on a balmy, late-summer Friday night…and spotted zero American tourists. The floodlit, generously pedestrian-friendly streets had just the right number of people, and most of them were Polish. Buying a big bag of gingerbread cookies (intended to last me a week…but gone by the end of the night), I strolled between Gothic brick towers, nursed a drink at an al fresco café on a cobbled square, and simply enjoyed the sensation of being the only Yankee around.

A short train ride took me to majestic Malbork Castle — the former headquarters of the Teutonic Knights, and the largest brick castle on earth. It’s the most important, most impressive European castle that you’ve never heard of. When I asked the ticket-seller if he had any crowd-beating tips for my book, he stared at me blankly for a few seconds, then said, “Well, I guess on summer weekends you might have to wait, like, 10 minutes. Maybe.”

Once inside, I enjoyed going from room to room, squeezing through tiny brick doorways, ogling delicate fan vaulting — in a haze of medieval castle fantasies — and never once got stuck behind a tour guide with a numbered paddle and 50 pooped tourists in tow. The gigantic castle is a bit exhausting to tour…but not because of crowds.

Just 30 minutes farther north is perhaps the best example anywhere of an underrated city that simply blows away anyone willing to give it a chance. You may know it by its old German name, Danzig — but to locals, it’s Gdańsk.

Gdańsk is intrinsically fascinating. Located on Poland’s Baltic coast, at the mouth of its main river, Gdańsk has been the primary crossroads of Polish history. There’s a spot in Gdańsk where you can look in one direction, and see Westerplatte — the exact location where World War II began (when Hitler invaded in 1939). And then, with a swivel of the head, from that same place you can see the shipyards where Lech Wałęsa staged his Solidarity protests in 1980 — sparking the beginning of the end of Soviet domination and the Cold War. The city is literally bookended by 20th-century history.

If history’s not your thing, then what about gorgeous old towns? If there’s a more stunning main drag in any city in Europe, I can’t think of it. I find myself fabricating excuses just to walk up and down Gdańsk’s “Wide Street” as frequently as possible. And behind those skinny, pastel, ornately gabled facades are endearing and unexpectedly fascinating little museums that bring to life the golden age of this maritime burg.

For sightseers, the Gdańsk area also has several new, cutting-edge museums that are among the very best I’ve seen in Europe. There’s one commemorating Lech Wałęsa and those Solidarity strikes (in the actual shipyards where the strikes took place); one telling the story of Polish emigration to the New World (in the neighboring port city of Gdynia); and the state-of-the-art Museum of the Second World War, with an exceptional exhibit that, unfortunately, has been compromised by political meddling (more on that in an upcoming post).

Exploring Gdańsk for the first time in a few years, I was floored by how drastically the place is upgrading. I’ve loved Gdańsk since my first visit in 2005 — when it was, I’ll admit, something of a diamond in the rough. But today it’s simply breathtaking…without qualifications or reservations.

Granary Island, in the middle of the river that cuts through the middle of Gdańsk, was historically filled with handsome red-brick granaries. Bombed flat in World War II, it was left in ruins for generations. Like an ugly scar ripped through the heart of the city, the island was an off-limits eyesore. With each visit to Gdańsk, I was assured that the island would soon be renovated and re-integrated into the fabric of the city. I never quite believed it.

But on this visit, I literally did a double-take when I spotted the sea of construction cranes, turning this prime real estate into a futuristic new housing, dining, and entertainment district. Glassy, modern buildings — with rooflines echoing those historic granaries — will soon face the city’s classic old riverfront strip. Suddenly, humble Gdańsk looks like Oslo.

And the best thing about Gdańsk may be how undiscovered it feels. There are just the right numbers of tourists…but most of them are Polish, German, or Scandinavian. Norwegians and Danes flock here on cheap flights for cheap food and drink, ensconced in a dazzling historic city. Waiting for my flight at the brand-new Lech Wałęsa Airport, I noticed the names flicking across the departure boards: Trondheim. Oslo. Copenhagen, Stavanger. Helsinki. Stockholm. When Scandinavians are on board, you know you’re on to something good.

There is one big risk with going to Gdańsk, and it is this: You’ll come home evangelizing about the place with such fervor, your friends might start to think you’re a little unbalanced. (But then, one day, they’ll finally go there…and you’ll get a text that says, “OK, I GET IT NOW.”)

Poland alone has at least a half-dozen other cities where being able to pronounce the name is not a prerequisite for enjoyment: Poznań, Wrocław, Zamość — and even the capital. My recent visit to Warsaw was a revelation. It was amazing to see how fully realized a destination that city has become. It’s an absolute delight that goes toe-to-toe with more “known” capitals like Prague or Berlin.

But Poland is just one example of a country that’s easy and rewarding to travel in, but gets overlooked by whistle-stop tourists. My latest trip also took me to Hungary, where I reacquainted myself with Pécs (pronounced “paych”) — a small city at the southern edge of the country, close to nothing, but packed with more than its share of top-notch museums.

Pécs’ strollable core is congested not with tourists, but with local students. And the whole thing is slathered in bright, colorful Zsolnay porcelain — decorative tilework (invented right here) that’s a defining feature of Hungarian architecture.

I happened to be in Pécs on the evening of their wine harvest festival. A grandstand was set up on the main square, which was filled with locals grazing at a dozen different food stalls and sipping wine from another dozen little kiosks showing off local vintners’ products. Since it’s close to Croatia, Pécs menus come with Balkan accents. Settling into a bench with my paper plate of grilled meat and spicy ajvar sauce, listening to Britney Spears and Katy Perry hits thundering out of the loudspeakers, watching local kids play while their parents chatted and sipped new wine, I felt not like a gawking tourist — but like an invited guest at the banquet.

Up in the north of Hungary, I settled in for a couple of nights in my sentimental-favorite Hungarian small town, Eger. I got to know Eger over many years of tour guiding, bringing our Rick Steves Best of Eastern Europe groups here.  And every time I step into its tranquil main square, under the spires of a gorgeous Baroque church, I savor the small-town authenticity of the place.

Eger has sumptuous architecture, fine wine, a historic castle, and some endearing little museums just right for enjoyably killing a few hours. It had been years since I’d been to Eger’s thermal bath complex, a 10-minute riverside stroll from the main square, so I went for a soak an hour before closing time. A few days before, I had visited Széchenyi Baths — my favorite thermal spa in Budapest — and found it, for the first time ever, uncomfortably crowded. Until very recently, Széchenyi was mostly locals, with a few curious tourists. But on this visit, it was packed with little clumps of borderline-obnoxious international travelers, with a few irritated Hungarians mixed in.

However, Eger’s thermal bath complex was all mine. It was enjoyably bustling, with small-town Hungarians. Floating in the hundred-degree water, I heard not one word of English. And it was a delight to explore the freshly renovated complex, from its tranquil, old-fashioned Turkish bath under a stately dome, to its giddy indoor-outdoor whirlpool. On a trip where I took a dip in no fewer than five different thermal baths (I am an aficionado)…Eger’s small-town spa was the surprise favorite. And that was mostly because I had it all to myself.

Serendipity is more poignant off the beaten path, and when I returned to Eger one evening after a side-trip to some different thermal baths in the countryside, I found that a hot-air balloon had just set down right in the middle of the square. Watching the wranglers pull on sturdy ropes to expertly maneuver the bulging, precarious bag of hot gas as they slowly drained it of air, then gently tipped it over, I felt like a giddy backpacker on my first trip.

Hiking up to Eger’s stout castle, gazing out over its sweet square and skyline prickly with fanciful church towers, I thought for the umpteenth time on this trip how satisfying it is to travel to places like this one.

Eger, Pécs, Gdańsk, Toruń, and so many other gems are just now hitting that perfect “sweet spot” for travelers: Easy and accessible for anyone, but still largely undiscovered and crowd-free.

I love our Rick Steves Best of Eastern Europe in 15 Days Tour itinerary, which efficiently visits the “greatest hits” of this region: Prague, Kraków, Budapest, Rovinj, Lake Bled, and more. Returning from this trip, I was inspired to brainstorm a (totally hypothetical) “sequel tour” to that itinerary. What if you could link up the lesser-known gems of Central and Eastern Europe? Warsaw, Bratislava, Pécs, Zagreb, Slovenia’s coast and Karst, Sarajevo, Montenegro. You’d wind up with a tour every bit as rewarding as the original…but with a tiny fraction of the crowds.

When planning your next trip, consider skipping the predictable biggies. Instead, take a leap of faith and go to places like these…and let yourself be enchanted.

What’s your favorite uncrowded, undiscovered gem in Europe?


I was traveling in these places to update the upcoming new editions of our Rick Steves Eastern Europe and Rick Steves Budapest guidebooks. That’s where you’ll find all of the practical details for everything mentioned here. (In fact, these are probably the most lovingly updated but least used chapters in any Rick Steves guidebook.)

Europe’s off-the-beaten-path gems are a theme on my blog. For example, while mainland Italy is spectacular, Sicily has a few more rough edges…and far fewer crowds.

Slovenia is Europe’s ultimate undiscovered destination. I could write a book about the charms of Slovenia. (Oh, wait…I did.) Whether you’re exploring high-mountain pastures, sampling the local budget foodie scene, or browsing through wonderful Ljubljana, Slovenia earns a place in any itinerary seeking something new and uncrowded.

That said, even in super-popular places, you can (with a little effort) find your way to untrampled corners. For example, in Iceland, bust out of the “Reykjavik and Day Trips” rut and drive the entire Ring Road around the island. Linger at Lake Mývatn, a geothermal wonderland that still feels yours alone.

48 Replies to “Crowds Got You Down? Go Someplace You’ve Never Heard Of”

  1. Gyor, Hungary. I took a side trip there from Budapest. Small city, Gorgeous churches, quaint side streets, nice shopkeepers, and a huge central square. And I was definitely the only American there!

  2. I await inclusion of Ukraine, Moldova and Albania – and expanded chapters on Bulgaria and Romania in future RS “Best of Eastern Europe” guidebooks.

    1. Hi Douglas. I’ll be blogging about my recent visit to Ukraine in the coming weeks–stay tuned! We don’t plan to expand the guidebook coverage of Bulgaria and Romania at this point, but did you see the TV shows we did on each country? Here’s Bulgaria, and Romania.I haven’t yet been to Albania or Moldova, but they’re next on my list…

    2. We have enjoyed three weeks in Romania, three weeks in Croatia, a recent Rick Steves Bulgarian tour (BTW Stefan is an *outstanding* guide) with a week on our own after in the town of Koprivshtitsa . . . and are just beginning our eyeing of Albania and/or time on Lake Orid on the Macedonia side. Anybody have words of feedback?? Small group tours of Albania (with some focus on the lovely scenery and not only cities and beaches)? Just how effortful is getting around without a rental car?

  3. We made Sarlat in the Dordogne in France our headquarters for 10 days. Stayed right off the market square in a lovely B and B. Crowded on market days but it was locals in the morning and evening. We got to know the shop keepers and traveled backroads to small villages. It was incredibly relaxing. And more interesting than Paris or Lyon plus mostly French tourists.

      1. Collonge la rouge is the most fabulous French town, in the Dordogne region. As a matter of face all the town and sights in that region are beyond beautiful and uncrowded..

      2. We did a similar trip to St. Rémy en Provence. What a relaxing place. Rented a flat and used it as home base to visit mostly small villages throughout Provence. Stayed away from the larger towns and enjoyed a wonderful experience with few tourists. Even in a popular destination like Provence you can enjoy a quiet yet beautiful trip

  4. Hi Cameron,
    Thank you for continuing to scout authentic, back door experiences. Great ideas!
    Is Vilna, Lithuania choked with tourists yet? Is it a good food town?

    1. Hi Dana. Vilnius is one of the only European capitals I haven’t made it to–but I hear it’s wonderful. My guess is it’s far from crowded. It’s high on my list!

      1. Why is it that no one talks about Lithuania? Latvia and Estonia, yes. My grandparents came to the US in 1903 from Lithuania and so I’ve always wanted to go. Guess I better go soon!

        1. Riga has some of the most beautiful architecture in the world. Visited in 2005. There were still areas with buildings that needed to be refurbished after they gained their freedom, but I would still highly recommend it. I’m guessing a lot of work has been done since then.

      2. You absolutely should visit Vilnius! I spent a month there this past summer and really enjoyed it. It’s a very mellow place but with lots to do. And as far as I can tell everyone under the age of about 35 speaks English. Even though it’s on the Euro, it’s also a good value. Do check it out!

      3. Several years ago a friend and I visited Kaunas Lithuania and fully enjoyed our walking tour led by a professor at the university there.

  5. We did the Rick Steves Scandinavia tour this past August. The big cities were busy, but I never felt overcrowded except for: getting off and on the ferry, and the ferry itself, to Oslo and Bergen seemed crowded at times. We returned to Oslo on the Norway in a Nutshell tour and that seemed a bit hectic and crowded for the first half. Many returned to Bergen and it was much less crowded. Loved Scandinavia.

  6. Great article with lots of tips for my next visit to Poland! My son and I visited Warsaw by train from Germany in 2016. We were wowed by the absolutely delicious food at incredible prices and the free Sunday outdoor Chopin concert. We loved the Kahlo Mexican Restaurant. Gdansk was lively, with lots of small cafés and friendly people. I’m eagerly awaiting the updated Eastern European guide in 2019.

  7. With the exception of Rome/Florence, much of Europe can be visited w/o much fuss in the off months. Oct-Mid December and January through late April. All of France including Paris was a breeze in January. Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, Stutgart, Nurember and Munich were no problem at all in October (even at the height of the Oktoberfest celebrations in Munich). Spain: Madrid, Barcelona and Bilbao zero issues in mid April. And many other places we’ve visited off season. If the only time of the year you can travel is summer, then, yes, definitely go for the least trodden path, but if you have the flexibility of traveling off season, don’t be crowd-scared and visit these places you’ve always wanted to visit.

  8. I absolutely love your blog Cameron! It is so informative and fun to read. I am thinking more about some of these less tourist bound locations as little gems to be explored. It is wonderful to be enlightened to such opportunities! Thanks so much for sharing! Also, your blog photo is very nice, especially that great looking haircut! Who cuts your hair? Haha! Cheers!

  9. Inspiring! I am going to Eger for a day trip from Budapest tomorrow. At the end of my business here next week I have a couple of days and was going to try to squeeze in Bratislava and Vienna, but now I’m not so sure.

  10. It is good to get advice before you go. I took a bus to a fairly well known Slovenian historic town, and then found that the only way to get to the capital was to take the same bus back to where I’d come from. Also, NOONE at the bus station spoke English. The only person in town who did was the chinese shop owner, and the castle ticket seller, a long way from where the bus dropped me off. I just used my instincts and walked into town dragging suitcase on a very hot day.

    And in Rovinj, Croatia noone at the bus station or post office spoke English. It’s a big tourist town. And discovered that there are no public phones. I guess everyone has iphones these days & buys a sim card at the airport.

  11. Malta is a fantastic destination dead center in the middle of the Mediterranean, fascinating history, Valetta (and other towns) are beautiful. When we were last there three years ago, there were very few American tourists. Worth spending several days.
    Still waiting for a RSE Romania tour to show up.

    1. Big thumbs up for Malta. Don’t know why RSE does not cover it when it has a very similar history to Sicily but not nearly as crowded. I’ve been to all three islands, scuba dived off of its shores, and extended my stay as it was so throughly enjoyable. Will be going back.

      1. So how was the scuba diving?
        My wife and I are considering a sailing trip in Malta next Fall? I assume the coastline is nice? ( we’ve visited Sicily and sailed the Aeolian Islands and Loved them both, which is why we are looking into Malta. And have yet to dive in the Med, but I’ve heard that Malta has some of the best Med diving?)

  12. We found Pluzine on the river Piva in Montenegro by getting lost. We were traveling from Sarajevo to Dubrovnik but went off the beaten path to see a dervish monestary then got lost in the Durmitor mountains. We drove up a sheep path by accident and came down to a lovely village on the river with only one guest house that looked like an Alpine hut. We decided to stay there and swim the turquoise river instead of continuing our trip. Thank you Cameron for asking!

  13. My husband and I just returned from a month in the Baltics and it was fantastic. We flew into Tallin, spent 4 days in a very easy to get around wonderful place and then rented a car and drove through Estonia, Latvia and finished in Vilnius. Riga is a gem and Vilnius, even in the rain and wind, was fabulous. We saw so many quaint villages and met wonderful, helpful people. Very easy driving and easy to stay in five star inns for reasonable prices with excellent food and service. Would highly recommend this area.

  14. Don’t forget about beautiful Slovakia. From the charming and walkable capital of Bratislava, on the Danube, to the wine country just north of it, to the little-changed Hron valley in central Slovakia, caves in the karst area, castles, castles and more castles, the Tatra mountains, hot springs and wellness spas, midieval towns like Levoca, delicious foods, folk traditions going back hundreds of years – its a fascinating place. I visited in 2015 and barely scratched the surface, and plan to return in 2019.

  15. Piran, Slovenia and Pula, Croatia are two gems . . . Piran has great beaches, stunning Adriatic scenery, fabulous fresh fish restaurants, friendly people and Pula . . . wow! A coliseum you can actually immerse yourself in and enjoy plus other Roman ruins, including a beautiful mosaic carefully hidden in the corner of a gravel parking lot. We also enjoyed Rovinj, Split, and Dubrovnik on this trip, but Piran and Pula were our favorites because they were so open, accessible. and stress-free.

  16. 3 weeks ago today we were in Pecs and absolutely loved it! A wonderful place as our last stop of a 5 week trip around Central Europe: Kraków, Olomouc, Prague, Cesky Krumlov, Vienna, Brataslavia, Budapest (think we missed seeing you Cameron when you reviewed Katona Apartments) Pecs then home to Vancouver via Amsterdam. Used our Central Europe guide extensively ( thanks) and found tips and info invaluable in booking trains and using local transportation and of course visiting the sight!
    Already bought our Italy guide for our trip there next year!

    1. We spent a very enjoyable few days in Visby and at a horse farm on the island of Gotland, in the middle of the Baltic, two or three years ago. Would definitely recommend to get away from the tourist crowds.

      HOPEFULLY, doing a month long trip Lviv-Tarnow-Cracow-Eger-Budapest-Vienna-Halstatt-Salzburg-Lake Como-Milan this May.

  17. In Ireland, skip Killarney unless you love really enjoy being surrounded by Americans! Instead, go straight south to Bantry or Skibbereen in Co Cork. Beautiful towns, Bantry on the water; Skibbereen a wonderfully busy market town. Both rarely see Americans. Both have excellent, reasonably priced hotels and both are gateways to the exciting scenery of West Cork, the equal to beautiful Co Kerry.

  18. Cameron, you were talking about flights out of Gdansk and forgot the Wizz Air non-stop to Turku. Finland, a true back door, even if the Asian tourists have already found it. Turku is the old, original capital of Finland with its medieval castle and cathedral, and is a delightful gateway to Stockholm by boat.

  19. I have recently moved to a small town in Bavaria. I live in Neuburg on der Donau. There is a Historic Old Town with Renassaince Castle overlooking the Danuabe. The castle has three floors of exhibits, including Grand Masters. Accomadations are reasonably priced and there are some very good restaurants. Very inexpensive and the town has a wonderful charm. I believe it is an undiscovered gem. They are also home to the Audi Test track.

  20. Hi Cameron, frankly Eastern Europe has no real appeal to me. But…that said….what about Normandy and Mont St Michel in off season? Western France is not always reviewed. However, I think Rick’s episode covering this area was his best ever.

  21. Curious, Rick, if you ever feel personally responsible for all this overcrowding? Does it keep you awake at night? Sort of a conundrum–you have brought the beauties of the world to us but then we went everywhere and basically have ruined going there. I have managed to find out of the way places over the years. Several years ago I did NOT go the Greek islands because you said even then that they were “bowing under the weight of tourists.” I thank you for saving me that. I went instead elsewhere in Greece and had a wonderful other Americans-free time.

  22. I was interested to hear how crowded you found the Széchenyi Baths in Budapest. My daughter, son-in-law and I will be in Budapest in August and I would love your opinion as to which thermal baths you would recommend we visit.
    Thanks!

  23. Funny Rick. Don’t you know that many European sites are so crowded because of your many recommendations? Example: the Cinque Terre in Italy. Way overrun these days with tour buses disgorging their siteseers. Oh well. Keep up the good work anyway.

  24. Rick Steves Tours has ruined independent travel for me to unknown spots and and I say that with love! I love Rick’s tours and would rather let them handle the logistics now.

    Eastern Europe was our first RS tour and we thought it was fantastic. Cameron’s “brainstorm” in this story about a “sequel tour” to less explored cities in Poland would be great! I wouldn’t want to try to get from Gdańsk to Slovenia in a week and I probably wouldn’t want to go on my on since I don’t speak a work of Polish but a week or ten days exploring the “Best of Poland” would be fantastic! My wife & I would very enthusiastically sign up. Start putting it together!

  25. A great blog but I think saying that all of mainland Italy has reached saturation point is a bit of an overstatement. All of mainland Italy that’s in Rick Steves’ Italy, yes (at least during peak seasons and at the main attractions), but Italy has so much more. For example, Bologna, which gets short shrift because it’s beautiful but not as uniquely beautiful as Venice, has plenty of art but not world class masterpieces like Florence, and has lovely churches but not as special as Rome’s. But its food is second to none, and it has plenty of just about everything one seeks in a visit to Italy, with far fewer tourists. Give it a try, especially if you’ve already been to the big 3 (or instead of Venice and Florence, combine Venice and Bologna as we did, a great mix of super touristy and much less so).

  26. Since I am a female traveler who goes it alone, the Rick Steves Tours are exactly what I need and enjoy. Do you think there are any plans to include Poland in a future tour? Sounds great but I don’t want to go alone. Thanks.

  27. your blog post brought back happy memories of my trip to Poland with my daughter 3 years ago, Gdansk, Torun, Warsaw, Krakow…. Poznan is another lovely place to visit as well. The only place we found busy was Jasna Gora. Malbork was recommended by a friend to visit and it did not disappoint. When I returned home and shared our trip friends were amazed at how beautiful Poland was. A friend told me ” I thought it would be dull looking since those were the pictures I had in my mind… I was mistaken it is a jewel”

  28. Great article, nice coverage of less-well known sites to see. BTW, what’s wrong with “American tourist?” I am supposing that is the largest clientele for Rick Steves’ tours. I get that a traveler doesn’t want to be inundated with people of their own nationality while traveling to a different country – but YOU’RE there as a tourist, aren’t you? Not trying to argue – lovely article. (from an American living in France, happy to be culturally-submerged, and happy to tell people, “Je suis américaine” when they ask.)

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