10 European Discoveries for 2020

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.

 

Untouristy London

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.)

 

Bern, Switzerland

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.

 

Salema, Portugal

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.

 

Chernobyl, Ukraine

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.

 

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

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.

Plovdiv is one of the highlights on our Best of Bulgaria Tour; for a sneak preview, check out this segment from our Bulgaria TV show.

 

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?


Need more inspiration? My “discoveries” lists for both 2018 and 2019 are still great choices 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!

40 Replies to “10 European Discoveries for 2020”

  1. We love making Sarlat our headquarters in the Dordogne. The market square is a wonderful place to people watch. The second time you visit a cafe you are an old friend.

      1. We love La Miranda’s. Excellent food, marvelous ambience. Sarlat is one of my favorite towns in all of France, and I’ve spent time in dozens of them.

      2. We went to Iceland in December a few years ago, and flew to Akureyri, one of the northern-most towns. It is on the Arctic Circle, where we spent 3 days touring, and hoping to see the Aurora Borealis. It was too foggy and cloudy to see them, but with a fantastic local guide, we got out on the tundra, saw huge frozen waterfalls, and bathed in one of the hot springs pools out in the middle of nowhere. That part of our trip is one of the authentic and memorable we’ve ever made.

  2. Another lovely area that a lot of people pass by is the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in Iceland.

    We started a tour of the Dordogne in Toulouse and I was pleasantly surprised with the city. I originally thought is was a “backwater” of French cities and loved it.

    I also was in the buckets in Elba. Try it in a thunderstorm and torrential rain. I thought we would be electrocuted. We got off the “gondola'” looking like we took a bath. Elba wa lovely.

    1. Hi Jean. Agree about Snæfellsnes. I was there on the same trip that took me to the Westfjords; we’re also adding a chapter about Snæfellsnes to our second edition. Dordogne is another one of my favorites.

    2. Definitely “yes” for Snaefellsnes. We stayed there for 2 days on our ring road drive in 2017 and liked it so much we went back for a week last October. We stayed in a rental house at the extreme western tip (Arnarstapi in Snaefellsjokull National Park) next to amazing ocean cliffs, bird nests, volcano hikes, waterfalls, and solitude. Stock up groceries in Borgarnes and eat in for most of your meals (much cheaper than Icelandic restaurants).

  3. How about Poland? It might just be one of the best kept secrets in Europe. I did a 10 day tour there last August! It’s beautiful and so much history. The salt mine near Krakow is amazing, they have ski hills, beaches, farmland and of course bustling Warsaw! And Auschwitz. Heartbreaking but a place that everyone should visit.

    1. I’m traveling to Poland in May On 11 day escorted tour I am looking forward to it did you travel with a group and which group was it if you care to share

    2. Marian–YES. Absolutely. In fact, Poland will have a big year at Rick Steves’ Europe in 2020. We’re planning on filming some new TV shows there, and this fall we’re doing a pilot test of our upcoming Best of Poland in 10 Days Tour! Stay tuned for details on both…

      1. While you are in Poland, hop over to Lithuania. I don’t understand why Rick and company have not promoted either Lithuania or Latvia. Both are very interesting and beautiful countries. Also very affordable. These days most younger people (those under 40 or so) speak English.

        1. Yes! My grandfather came from Latvia, and it’s on my bucket list of countries to visit. People who have been there say that it’s a great destination. Since it’s right next door to Estonia, which Rick’s TV series has featured, why not a new country or two to explore?

      2. Poland is a fabulous place to visit. The food is amazing, the people are friendly and from Krakow to Gdanst it is a wonderful trip. Try to go to Torun, where you can make the famous gingerbread. Zakopan is a great and interesting small charming city in the south.

      3. I think your Best of Poland in 10 Days Tour will be extremely well received. Krakow is awesome. The market square, the Wawel Royal Castle, the Trumpeter in the Church of St. Mary, St. Florian’s Gate not to mention side trips to the Wieliczka Salt Mine and Zakopane. You could do 10 days in just southern Poland. We visited there in 2014. Spent 7 days in Krakow and then 7 days in the villages near Kolbuszowa where my grandparents were born. I refer to the villages as the “hinterlands”. A wonderful step back in time. Attended Sunday mass in the old wooden church where my grandmother was baptized. Great food and very friendly people. There’s a very interesting 1930ish film about Kolbuszowa that I believe Steven Spielberg has preserved.

    3. Do NOT miss the National Gallery in Warsaw. You will be amazed and impressed with the vast collection – especially considering the town was obliterated during WW11.

  4. Walking tours of Cornwall and Jersey might be interesting discovering cliffs and trails throughout. Enjoying the small villages away from the crowds.

    1. Agree–Cornwall is fantastic. I also adore Dartmoor National Park in adjacent Devon…one of my favorite spots in the UK.

  5. Looking forward to visiting a small Czech village about an hour from Prague where my great grandparents lived and where my grandfather was born.

    1. Hello, my grandmother Emilie Hackel (maiden name) was born in Bohemia in the village Meistersdorf, north of Prague and south of Germany. Ancestors worked in the glass blowing industry in the village Steinschoenau ( German name and Kamenicky Senov in Czech). Emilie was married to my grandfather Carl Haenel in Leipzig, Germany.

    2. We visited Ljubljana in September 2019 and it was definitely one of our best discoveries that I would love to go back to. We drove through Lake Bled on our way back to Austria but didn’t have stay and explore so definitely a must next time!

  6. I brought my family to stay for a week in Vaison la Romaine and loved it. We enjoyed the market and local vineyards, and we also took day trips to Aix, Arles, Orange, and Avignon. Truly a charming, beautiful, and friendly town!

  7. Asturias Spain is a gem. The beautiful beaches, green pasture land, and dramatic cliffs remind me of Ireland. But the small villages and midsize towns remind me of Italy.

    1. Agree to this one, too! Asturias is a delight and almost entirely untouristy. I slightly prefer Galicia, next door, but Asturias has a lot to offer. Both are a great place to discover a green, Atlantic side of Spain that doesn’t match up with what many travelers expect.

  8. We were in Ljubljana in October and out of 11 countries we visited we LOVED IT! Friendly people, good food, beautiful city. Stayed in the Grand Union Hotel where our balcony overlooked the castle. We drove up to Lake Bled then back through the Julian Alps to Venice – beautiful drive, 50 hairpin turns no problem, lots of bending tunnels after but easy drive.

  9. My husband and I were in Sarlat in spring 2007. Loved the town, the incredible prehistoric cave art…the whole area. And guess who we saw??? Rick himself!! My husband took my picture with him. The next day in the market we watched some of the filming for the tv show Rick was shooting.

  10. Cameron I traveled with you in Italy’s Cinque Terra a few years back (you had broken up with your girlfriend and now I thought I read that you and your wife traveled to Provence? If so, Congratulations! And, please enlighten me.
    Good to know you are still working with Rick Steves.
    Thank you,
    Maria Conte

    1. Hi Maria…I believe you’re thinking of another guide. I don’t lead tours in Cinque Terre, and I’ve been married for over 15 years! But I’m glad you had a great trip!

  11. My family stayed in the Clerkenwell neighborhood (south of King’s Cross station) in London last summer and happened upon a lovely little area called Exmouth Market, with lots of restaurants and coffee shops but very few tourists. We ate breakfast at a different place there almost every morning, then took a bus that had us at Trafalgar Square in about 15 minutes. It was a nice relaxing way to start our days.

  12. The Lake Constance area in Germany was amazing. We stayed in Uberlingen and found the wine festival in Meersburg while we were in the area. Lindau was beautiful….being on the lake and seeing the majestic mountains of Austria and Switzerland was wonderful. This area is stunning with gorgeous buildings and really good food everywhere!

    1. Meersburg is a cute little town right on northeastern Lake Constance. If you are in the area, be sure to visit the Pile Dwelling Museum in Unteruhldingen, just north of Meersburg [Pfahlbauten Unteruhldingen] It is a recreated village on stilts over the water and dates back to the Stone and Bronze age.

  13. We visited Ljubljana in September 2019 and it was definitely one of our best discoveries that I would love to go back to. We drove through Lake Bled on our way back to Austria but didn’t have stay and explore so definitely a must next time!

  14. I am most interested in visiting the Baltic countries, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. I am not interested in seeing them along with other countries, such as Russia or Finland. To view them with other countries diminishes the time and attention they deserve. The Baltic countries have a unique history, being taken over in 1940 (?) by Russia and being under their dominance until the fall of the Soviet Union.

  15. I made several extended visits to both Latvia and Lithuania courtesy of my job at the Department of Justice. Both were really wonderful, and, as Jeannette and Karen point out above, they’re great to visit, inexpensive, friendly and English is common esp among the younger people. DOJ also sent me to Ljubljana, another untouristed place that’s lovely with great architecture and spectacular mountain scenery. Lastly I stayed in Vaison-la-Romaine and in Sarlet with Rick Steves tours and they are so typical of the charming, somewhat off the beaten tracks towns that Rick’s French tours find.

  16. In Slovenia we stayed past Lake Bled in the Lake Bohinj area. Made good friends there! Beautiful little villages, beautiful lake, easy access to Bled & it’s attractions.
    We had hoped to spend a few days in Ljlubiana but our trip was cut short.
    We hope to go back and spend at least a week or more enjoying this paradise of Slovenia!

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