10 European Discoveries for 2019

Looking back on my recent travels in Europe, two big themes stand out: Popular places just keep getting more popular (and more crowded) — and some of the most rewarding places to travel are neither popular nor crowded.

As your travel dreams take shape for 2019, consider mixing things up with a few underappreciated gems. For starters, consider this list of alternatives to the super-famous, super-crowded tourist biggies. My New Year’s resolution in 2019 is to remember that just a little more effort to get off the beaten path can reap huge rewards.

 

Gdańsk, Poland

For years, Gdańsk has had my vote for Europe’s best-kept secret. But its time has arrived — and I’m determined to let the cat out of the bag. Gdańsk has always been a historic diamond-in-the-rough. But now it’s also stunning and fun. Glittering gables have been scrubbed clean, the exuberantly colorful streets bustle with hip microbreweries and third-wave coffee shops, and Oslo-style high-rises and sleek embankments are sprouting all along the long-deserted, WWII-scarred Granary Island — creating a brand-new waterfront people zone in the heart of the city. Today’s Gdańsk is hitting that perfect sweet spot: fascinating and entertaining, but without all of the crowds of more famous places like Kraków and Prague. In short, Gdańsk embodies everything I love about travel. Find out more about Gdańsk here.

 

Palermo Street Markets, Sicily

Among Italians (and other foodies), Palermo is synonymous with street food. And its three sprawling street markets — Ballarò, Capo, and Vucciria — let you delve into gritty Sicilian culture in a way that engages all the senses. Taste something adventurous — like pani ca’ meusa, a pillowy bun stuffed with spleen, lung, and other organ meat — or stick to an arancina, a deep-fried ball of saffron rice and meat sauce. Best of all, the whole time you’re browsing these gut-bombs, you’re fully immersed in the energetic hubbub of Sicilian urban life — watching the Palermitani greet old friends, listening to the urgent musicality of the vendors’ sales pitches, and smelling all that sizzling and frying goodness (plus a full spectrum of other odors). Find out more about Palermo street markets here.

 

Collioure, France

My favorite place to hit the beach in Europe is this little French Mediterranean town hemmed in by green hillsides and rocky cliffs, just a stone’s throw from the Spanish border. In Collioure, beefy bastions protect five separate beaches, each with its own personality — swimming, sunbathing, windsurfing, kiddie beach, and so on. The historic town center is a Crayola stage set of pastel houses, gnarled plane trees, climbing vines bursting with flowers, and just enough quality restaurants to keep you well-fed on vacation. This is the kind of place where in-the-know French sophisticates on a budget — seeking relaxation rather than glitz — head for an unpretentious break. Find out more about Collioure here.

 

Glacier Lagoons and Diamond Beach, Iceland

Beyond the touristy sights of Iceland’s well-trod South Coast, about four hours from Reykjavík, sit two dramatic glacier lagoons: Jökulsárlón and Fjallsárlón. Formed where tongues of great glaciers lap at serene pools, the lagoons bob with giant chunks of centuries-old ice. And just downriver from Jökulsárlón is “Diamond Beach,” where those icebergs wash up on a black-sand beach in the last stage of their slow-motion journey to the open Atlantic. While there are plenty of reasons to invest an entire week in doing the full “Ring Road” drive around the perimeter of Iceland, these glacier lagoons may just be reason enough to extend your Icelandic layover. Find out more about Iceland’s glacier lagoons and Diamond Beach here.

 

Lisbon’s Chiado District, Portugal

Exploring Lisbon recently to beef up the coverage in our Rick Steves Portugal guidebook, my favorite area was the steep, upscale residential zone called the Chiado, which swirls like a peaceful eddy, surrounded on all sides by the churn of tourism. The Chiado has diamond-in-the-rough Art Nouveau storefronts; breezy, tree-shaded squares with inviting al fresco kiosk cafés (a Lisbon specialty); some of Lisbon’s most enticing foodie finds; and Lisbon’s most appealing shopping zone, around the Príncipe Real Garden. The next time I go to Lisbon, there’s no doubt I’ll hang my hat in the Chiado. Find out more about the Chiado District here.

 

Ukraine

I visited Ukraine this year for the first time…and it was a revelation. Lovely Lviv — with its cobbled old town, Baroque churches, thriving coffee culture, kitschy theme restaurants, and cozy main square — is a time capsule from a simpler age of tourism. The capital, Kiev, feels like a more manageable, more colorful Moscow on a human scale — a mix of stately Soviet Gothic architecture, vibrant Art Nouveau townhouses, lush parks with stirring views, and gold-domed Orthodox churches on every corner. From Kiev, it’s an easy day trip to one of the most powerful and thought-provoking sites anywhere in Europe: Chernobyl. And prices are shockingly low: A high-end dinner for two for $25, an Uber ride across town for $4. How can such a huge country (Europe’s second-biggest) be so overlooked by travelers? Beats me. But for now, I am more than happy to be in on this particular secret. Find out more about Ukraine here.

 

The “Dutch Corridor”: Leiden, Delft, and Rotterdam, Netherlands

I love Amsterdam. But in recent years, it has become the poster child for “overtourism.” Sure, visit Amsterdam — but then hop on the train to a trio of towns that line up just to the south. In about half an hour, you can hop off in Leiden — a charming, sleepy, historic university town that feels like Amsterdam without the tourist-baiting sleaze. Back on the train, and just 20 minutes later, you’re pulling into Delft — the hometown of Vermeer, exquisite blue pottery, and one of the biggest, stateliest squares in the Netherlands, crowned by the burial church of the Orange dynasty. And finally, just 10 minutes farther is Rotterdam — the urban, modernist counterpoint to time-passed Leiden and Delft. For a day — or several days — of Dutch contrasts, invest just one hour in riding this train from downtown Amsterdam. Find out more about the “Dutch Corridor” here.

 

Isle of Skye, Scotland

If you’re visiting the Scottish Highlands, break out of the Inverness-Loch Ness-Oban rut and add a couple of days for the dramatically scenic, fun-to-explore Isle of Skye. Settle into the village of Portree, with its rainbow-painted harbor, and road-trip across the isle: the Trotternish Peninsula, with dragon’s-tooth mossy mountains; Talisker Distillery, dispensing peaty drams of whisky; Dunvegan Castle, providing an intimate peek inside the lived-in home of an aristocratic clan that’s seen better days; hiking areas with names like “The Fairy Glen” and “The Fairy Pools”; and much more. If I had to choose just one place to get an idyllic taste of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, Skye would win by a mile. Find out more about the Isle of Skye here.

 

Berlin’s Kreuzberg, Germany

Kreuzberg has long been known as Berlin’s “Turkish immigrant neighborhood.” But it’s also so much more. Once surrounded on three sides by the Berlin Wall — ground zero for squatters, draft dodgers, punks, and protesters — Kreuzberg is now at the vanguard of Berlin gentrification. Chasing down leads for our Rick Steves Berlin guidebook, I discovered that Kreuzberg is made up of many micro-neighborhoods called Kieze, each with its own distinct personality: Kottbusser Tor, with its vibrant Turkish Market; the Graefekiez, at the intersection of foodie, yuppie, and affordable; Markthalle Neun, Berlin’s super-trendy food hall; and the Bergmannkiez, with a swanky shopping zone, a lively market hall, and famous food stands with lines around the block. You could have a fun and varied visit to Berlin without ever leaving Kreuzberg. Find out more about Kreuzberg here.

 

Salamanca, Spain

OK, call this one a sentimental favorite. I spent a semester abroad in this Spanish university city, twenty-some years ago. Returning for the first time in 2018, I finally figured out why Salmantinos are considered a bit snobby: because they live in one of Spain’s nicest towns. Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor is the undisputed best square in Spain — slathered with reliefs of kings, queens, professors, and poets, ringed by cafés, and infused with an ambience that delicately mingles both European elegance and local character. From the square, Salamanca’s pedestrian zone cuts through the heart of town to the university district, where lemony sandstone buildings are carved with imagination-stoking details. Perhaps best of all, Salamanca sits just beyond easy day-tripping reach of Madrid. That means that, unlike slammed Segovia and touristy Toledo, Salamanca feels like you’re in on a Spanish secret. Find out more about Salamanca here.

 

What are your favorite European discoveries?

60 Replies to “10 European Discoveries for 2019”

    1. Villa Cimbrone in tiny perfect Ravello Italy along the Amalfi Coast. Villa Balbianello a gardener’s delight on romantic Lake Como.

  1. My favorite corner of Europe is Brasov, in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains. Beautiful scenery, city center dates to the 1200’s, the people are friendly and the food is amazing.

    1. Hi Nick
      you are so right !!!
      Saint-Paul-de-Vence is so unique preferred when not crowded .
      its also a chance to visit Shagal’s grave to leave a flower recommend also to visit his museum in Nice .
      best regards
      Aizenman

  2. Glasgow felt comfortable yet exciting. Fascinating museums, art galleries and all things ‘Mackintosh’. Charles Rennie Mackintosh defined the Glasgow Style, a subdued take on Art Nouveau architecture. Drawing from the natural world as well as Japanese, Celtic and Scottish influences. Mackintosh’s Glasgow Style would eventually influence early schools of modernism. Glasgow is edgy and contemporary – and I’m heading back for another visit.

    1. I liked Glasgow, too, and actually preferred it to busy Edinburgh, which surprised me. It’s a city that unfolds slowly to the visitor, but worth the exploration.

  3. South Piemonte with it’s truffles, Barolo and Barbaresco wines, gorgeous small cities like Alba and Acqui Terme, unspoiled valleys like the Bormida Valley, rivers to swim in like the Erro river …

  4. We did a “Luthansa Surprise” trip and ended up in Gdansk. What a pleasantly surprising gem it was! We absolutely loved it and the feel of the city. We would love to go back and spend more time exploring!

  5. Maastricht, Netherlands. Small lovely town in the southern part of the country that celebrates “Carnival” for many weekend prior to Ash Wed. The local neighborhood form small groups with a certain theme. Each weekend, they bar hop into the local taverns….sing a song or two….have a beer….then move onto the next local. Fifteen minutes later, the next group will come in. It is such fun to see towns folks enjoy themselves. It is also nestled between Belguim and Germany for a quick drive either east or west.

  6. Brno, Czech Republic. We arrived by train, stayed in the lovely Grand Hotel across the street from the station, and walked the quaint Medieval streets in this vibrant university town. Brno is the second largest Czech city but feels intimate.

  7. We drove around Germany this year in November/December. We stayed in a family run hotel in Rhens. Great little town with a hotel called rot oster. (Red ox) wonderful food (very local) and great fun. We visited Koblenz and the Marksburg Castle. Beautiful drive one day to Rüdesheim for Christmas Market. Great fun!

  8. One of the best meals I ever had in my life was in Kreuzberg at an Italian place called Der Goldene Hahn. I was in a group of four and all of us raved through every course. Really special.

  9. Chappell’s du Rosaire of the Dominican Nuns of Vence. This is a chapel designed from top to bottom by Henri Matisse.Vence is a little Village just above Nice, on the French Riviera. The chapel was breathtakingly beautiful!

  10. Been all over Europe and one of my favorite places was Montepulciano in Italy. Poised on top of the hill with all cobblestone tiny streets.

  11. Znojmo in Czech Republic stole my heart . It reminded me of Cesky Krumlov but on a hill. Another favorite is Bratislava in Slovakia.

  12. West Cork, Ireland, beginning in Bantry or Skibbereen. Tourists visit Co Kerry. Travel explorers visit West Cork…great scenery, foodie capital of Ireland and far less American accents than Killarney!

  13. I love Bolzano, tucked in the Dolomites of northern Italy. The scenery is breathtaking… and Otzi the “Ice Man” is there waiting for you in his very own museum. It’s a must-see !

  14. Other single day-trip public transport destinations from Amsterdam are Marken, Volendam, and Edam, in that order. However start early as Marken and Volendam can get tourist hordes. Edam, despite its famous name, is a lot less crowded and just as delightful as the other two. You can easily fit these three stops into one day using the public buses.
    Zans Schaans, the multiple-windmill town is a short train ride from Amsterdam. Again, arrive early to avoid the tourist hordes. This return trip can easily be completed in a morning.

  15. My first trip ever across the pond was to Portugal. Agree with the Chiado. We visited the very spot in your photo. Incredible food and people. Best family restaurant just down a street off that square. Azores was the other leg of our trip that I would recommend visiting.

  16. Turku, Finland. After 45 tears in the U.S., and now 5 years in Turku, life is good and I am glad I made this bold move into retirement here.

  17. Nerja in Andalusia is beautiful. It’s on the Med surrounded by the beautiful Sierra Tejada Natural Park mountains. The Nerja Caves are spectacular and are visited by hundreds of thousands each year. It Hasán great selection of cozy places for wine and tapas or upscale eating! A joy to visit!

  18. We took a self tour of Spanish UNESCO World Heritage cities, and fell in love with Avila. Beautifully maintained walls around a quintessential Spanish old town. It’s also an easy day trip to Segovia, and Madrid. Toledo is just a little further unless you don’t mind getting up early on vacation .

  19. I love, love, loved Tallinn, Estonia– the walking tour of Old Town (amazing), the fabulous outdoor markets, the delightful Restauran Troika where we ate bear dumplings and the most delicious stroganoff I’ve ever tasted, and a charming little bar called Wine Library where we drank wine outdoors at midnight when it was still daylight (we were there in early July). It’s been 3 years, and I can’t wait to go back.

  20. Bateau, France is a love of mine. The proximity to the Normandy Beaches, the food, and friendliness of our B&B hostess makes it a place I want to return to for the 4th time.

  21. Crete… The small mountain towns of the interior, like Gavalochori are beautiful and ful of real Greeks. Go at Easter.

  22. My first visit to Gdansk was in the summer of 1989. Had a wonderful time and meet incredible Poles and Americans. I have returned several times and have always enjoyed myself. My last time there was five years ago with my sister and some friends. We stayed at the Hilton, excellent experience, great roof top bar and pool in the heart of Old Town. Don’t forget to visit nearby Sopot as well as Hel, great beaches.

  23. I’m headed to the northern isles of Scotland in May (Orkneys and Shetlands) and can’t wait! I’m doing all my research now, and chomping at the bit to visit these stunning islands on the northernmost tip of the UK. I’ve seen documentaries on these two places for years on the BBC, and I’m finally taking the plunge and visiting. After seeing 36 countries in Europe, I’m ready for a quiet, more remote location, that’s not touristy, where I can just enjoy the scenery, culture, history, architecture, and food, without having to share it with thousands of other tourists. Keep on Travelin’!

  24. Thank You to Rick Steeves for posting this blog which I am devouring each location. Could I please ask for all you seasoned-travellers advice? My daughter (aged 20) and myself Mom (aged 60) are looking for a city(s) to spend Christmas 2019 in. I will be travelling from Vancouver, Canada and she will be travelling from Geneva, Switzerland. We will have about 2 weeks or so together starting around December 22nd. We do not wish to go somewhere with snow and we are not expecting high temperatures, and happy with mid to high teens. We love culture, music, foodies, walking and love to learn about local history. We are on a bit of a budget and would prefer to have a place to stay with a fridge and some kind of cooking facilities and access to public transport vs renting a car if possible but are willing to rent a car as long as we can drive on the right hand side of the road!LOL!. Does anyone have suggestions of cities to go and any accommodation suggestions? Your advice is greatly appreciated!

    1. Join Hostelling international. Most hostels have great kitchens and huge fridges. Double rooms are available if you do not want a dorm- type room.
      All ages are welcome.

  25. Loved Ravenna, Italy
    The mosaics of the ancient buildings were beautiful. We rented
    bicycles and all the sights in the small city were in biking distance.
    If you are willing to travel in the off season, the popular areas are never crowded. We spent an awesome week in Paris in February, and October is a great time to travel!

  26. We first visited Ukraine in 2008. Our primary interest was seeing the site of the Yalta Conference in Crimea. We soon discovered Ukraine was much more than just the peninsula. Kiev was very interesting, especially the Great Patriotic War and Chernobyl Museums. And, of course, Kiev boasts having one of the longest escalators in the world (to the subway beneath the city). It is so sad to see what has happened to the country since that time. I can only wish them well in the future…..

  27. Agree with an earlier post about Lucca, Italy, so refreshing and real after the Disneyworld atmosphere of Florence (ick). Also, we love Oberammergau, Germany. Perfect scenery, perfect town for walking, yummy food and close to other wonderful sites.

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