In 2020, Europe will be more crowded than ever. Fortunately, there are still plenty of undiscovered alternatives: A sweet little beach town in Portugal. The quieter sides of London and Tuscany. The thriving tapas scene in an underrated Basque city. Street markets in Ljubljana and Provence. Switzerland’s capital and Bulgaria’s cultural capital. The wilds of northwest Iceland. The Tuscan island where Napoleon rallied for his final stand. And even a pilgrimage to a newly trendy nuclear meltdown site. These are my 10 European discoveries for 2020.
In 2019, my travels took me to London, Paris, and Rome; to Tuscany, Provence, and the Swiss Alps; and to the fjords of Iceland, the Julian Alps of Slovenia, and the white cliffs of England’s South Coast. And yet, reflecting on a very busy year, I’m struck by how many of my fondest memories were forged not in the big-name destinations, but in out-of-the-way places. Continuing my annual tradition (check out my discoveries for 2018 and 2019), I’ve collected this list of Europe’s lesser-known highlights. You’ll notice a theme: Most of these are close to extremely famous — and extremely overrun — European biggies. It’s striking how, with a little effort, you can discover a little corner of Europe all to yourself.
The Westfjords, Iceland
About nine in ten visitors to Iceland hew close to the capital, Reykjavík, making speedy day trips to the Golden Circle, South Coast, and Blue Lagoon. That’s efficient and satisfying, if time is short. But to strike out on your own, head north — way north — to the Westfjords. Up here, just shy of the Arctic Circle, you’ll find boundless fjordland vistas, thundering bridal-veil waterfalls (including one of Iceland’s best, Dynjandi), plucky and kind locals, and one of the world’s top bird cliffs, a magical place called Látrabjarg. If you’ve made brief “layover” forays into Iceland and are ready to invest a few days in getting way off the beaten path…the Westfjords are for you. My trip to the Westfjords in September of 2019 — to write a brand-new chapter for the second edition of our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook (coming soon) — ranks as one of my all-time favorite road trips.
London is a world in itself — endlessly, relentlessly, exhaustingly engaging. For some, it can be too much. When visiting London, hit the big sights, sure. (Ideally equipped with some smart crowd-beating tips.) But make a point to also break out of the tourist rut and become a temporary Londoner. During my two weeks in London in 2019, I cycled through “Little Venice” along the Regent’s Canal, explored hipster street markets (my favorite is Maltby Street Rope Walk Market), hiked across the urban wilderness of Hampstead Heath, explored the Shoreditch street-art-and-foodie neighborhood, checked out the food halls of Brixton, and rode a commuter train to the lovely suburban neighborhood of Dullwich. London is one of Europe’s most satisfying cities to explore. So…explore.
By the way, this approach also works like a charm in other overcrowded cities. For example, in Rome, consider skipping the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum and heading to some exponentially less overrun alternatives. (I love Rome’s Monti neighborhood, across the street from the Ancient Forum.)
Switzerland’s seat of government is also its most appealing urban playground. Livable Bern is tucked quietly between some of Switzerland’s most heavily trafficked destinations — namely, the Berner Oberland and Lake Luzern. And yet, it’s one of the only European capitals where locals complain about how few tourists visit, rather than how many. Updating our Rick Steves Switzerland guidebook in Bern this fall, I enjoyed the city’s pristine arcaded streets, playful fountains, engaging museums, super-scenic bridges, warm sandstone townhouses, low-key students-and-politicians pace of life, and convivial park huddled under its towering church steeple. One Friday evening at sunset, I hiked up to a tranquil rose garden where everyone was just hanging out, peering out over the handsome cityscape, and waiting for the sun to go down. It was — in a most unexpected place — one of my favorite travel memories of 2019. (Our Best of Switzerland Tour ends with a night in this fine little city.)
Ljubljana’s “Open Kitchen,” Slovenia
Speaking of underrated capitals, Ljubljana has long been my favorite little city in Europe. And it just keeps getting better. While Ljubljana is inviting anytime, do your best to visit on a Friday (from mid-March through mid-October, weather permitting). That’s when the market square plays host to the wonderful Open Kitchen, one of my favorite food events in Europe. Each of the several dozen stalls is operated by a brick-and-mortar restaurant, from internationally recognized chefs to hole-in-the-wall dives. And the variety is bewildering: During my visit in early October, I saw vegan burgers, huge simmering pans of paella, Argentinian steaks, ribs and pulled pork, Indian dosas, Belgian waffles, poke bowls, Slovenian microbrews, Chinese noodles, hearty sausages and čevapčići, delicate macarons, and an entire roast pig on a spit. People settle into big shared tables or grab a seat on the cathedral steps to graze and socialize. It’s a melting pot of culinary Slovenia — home to one of Europe’s most underappreciated food scenes.
Of the many things that Rick and I agree on, this tops the list: Salema — a tiny town on Portugal’s Algarve Coast — may be the best beach town in Europe. It’s just down the coast from big, glitzy resorts (like Lagos, Abufeira, and Portimão). But Salema feels like an idyllic, Old World hideaway. Visiting recently to update the Algarve chapter for our Rick Steves Portugal guidebook, I was utterly charmed by Salema. It doesn’t have enough hotels, and the ones it has are past their prime (or humble-by-design). Sunbathers share the beach with fishing boats, pulled just beyond the reach of the tide. Grizzled fisherfolk grab the shade at a beachfront café near the communal tractor they use to hoist those boats up onto the sand. The cobbled main drag climbs up through a whitewashed world of simple homes. And Salema’s beach — with powdery yellow sand, just the right amount of surf, vivid-yellow cliffs, and beach bars happy to rent you a thatched umbrella and a lounger — is made to order for a day of sunbathing and splashing.
Yes, really. Chernobyl — a two-hour drive north of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev — is a compelling, moving, and (if science is to be believed) safe place to visit. I went to Chernobyl in late 2018 (before it was “cool”) and found the experience captivating. With the smash success of HBO’s award-winning Chernobyl miniseries in 2019, the site of humankind’s worst nuclear accident is becoming known as a travel destination. Why visit? Touring Chernobyl offers an unforgettable lesson in radiation, and its capacity for both technological achievement and destruction. It lets you walk through a trapped-in-time, Cold War-era Soviet workers’ town, and witness the power of nature to reclaim abandoned civilization. And, most importantly, it shares the poignant stories of the brave men and women who sacrificed their lives to contain the meltdown, saving Ukraine — and, likely, much of Europe — from a horrifying fate. It’s hard to imagine a more memorable day out, anywhere in Europe, than Chernobyl.
Lesser-Known Markets of Provence, France
In the fall of 2019, my wife and I spent a week in Provence, making a point to visit a different market each day. We enjoyed the biggies (like the ones in l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Aix-en-Provence, and Uzès). But our favorites were the lesser-known alternatives. On Tuesday in Vaison-la-Romaine, we browsed the floral soaps and lavender sachets that were piled on rickety tables between Roman ruins. On Friday in Lourmarin, we strolled into town along a plane tree-shaded boulevard, lined on both sides with stacks of colorful, plump produce and mounds of glistening olives. And on Sunday in Coustellet, at a lowbrow market filling the crossroad village’s dusty parking lot, we picked up a droopy bouquet of sunflowers, plus some smoked meats and mountain cheese for a picnic. The fact is, every day of the week, a variety of markets enliven no-name towns all over Provence. Figure out which one’s nearest to you (listed in our Rick Steves Provence & the French Riviera guidebook)… and check it out.
Bulgaria remains one of Europe’s most underrated destinations. And if I had to pick one place to visit in Bulgaria, it’d be Plovdiv. This small city of 340,000 has a modern bustle, with a pedestrian-friendly shopping boulevard slathered in vivid street art. It has a funky hipster zone — nicknamed “The Mousetrap” — where communist-kitsch posters laugh down over diners feasting on upmarket Bulgarian fare. And draped over a hillside above the modern city, the atmospheric old town has a remarkably well-preserved Roman amphitheater, colorful traditional homes in the Bulgarian National Revival style, and one of Europe’s very best “hidden gem” art museums, featuring the works of Zlatyu Boyadzhiev — the “Bulgarian Van Gogh,” who taught himself to paint left-handed after a stroke. If more people knew about Plovdiv, it’d be a tourist mecca. But they don’t…so for now, it’s all yours.
Bilbao Tapas Scene, Spain
The Basque Country is one of Spain’s culinary hotspots, and the genteel beach town of San Sebastián hogs much of the attention. But don’t overlook the bigger urban center of Bilbao, just an hour’s drive to the west. On a recent visit to Bilbao, I arrived late on a Friday evening. From my little B&B in the heart of the old town, I stepped out into a commotion of thriving bars and restaurants, each one with a creative array of tapas proudly lined up on the counter. Facing the Atlantic, Bilbao’s tapas bars come with more than their share of mysterious seafood — mounted on a crunchy little disc of baguette or skewered with a toothpick. As a bonus, you can go for an after-dinner stroll along the serene embankment, culminating in a floodlit view of Frank Gehry’s iconic Guggenheim Bilbao. (Our Basque Country Tour ends with two nights in Bilbao.)
If you’re headed out on a tapas crawl, and want to increase your odds of getting ostras (oysters) instead of orejas (pig’s ears), consider these tapas tips.
The Isle of Elba, Tuscany, Italy
This island is best known as the place where Napoleon was sent into exile. Turns out, it’s also ideal for a beach break from a busy Tuscan itinerary. Connected to mainland Tuscany by an easy one-hour ferry ride, Elba comes with a textbook “salty Mediterranean harbor,” a couple of evocatively faded Napoleonic palaces, scenic drives to secluded beaches, and an unforgettable gondola ride to the island’s rocky summit in an open-air cage that had me feeling like a parakeet going for the ride of its life. The designers of our brand-new Best of Tuscany Tour deserve the credit for this one: After they included Elba on the tour route, I went there to add it to the newly released 19th edition of our Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook… and I was hooked. (Check out my full report on Elba.) In fact, I’ll be returning to Elba in 2020 as a tour member on that new Tuscany tour. And I can’t wait.
How about you? What are your favorite European discoveries? Where are you most excited to visit in 2020?
I’ll be posting more about several of these discoveries — including Iceland’s Westfjords, the markets of Provence, and Switzerland’s underrated cities — in the next few weeks. To make sure you don’t miss anything, “like” me on Facebook.
Wherever you’re going in 2020…happy travels!