Ten of the best places to escape the tourists in Europe…
*This article appears on Youtravel.co.nz
When one thinks of Greece, one tends to imagine the white-washed buildings, blue domes and jaw-dropping scenery of the Greek Islands. But one tends to assume these scenes stop at Santorini and Mykonos. Thankfully, one would be very wrong.
Naxos is the largest island in the Cyclades (which includes the aforementioned islands), and it is also home to the same celebrated white-washed architecture and scenery that largely put this part of the world on the map. However, it’s also an island that exists without relying solely on tourism, and one where you can still watch from your window as the 94-year-old man on his donkey goes past on his daily trip to town from the mountain villages.
The beaches here blow both Santorini and Mykonos out of the water, and there’s plenty to see from top to bottom. Mount Zeus is the highest point in the Cyclades, and provides a pleasant hike to the top with a knockout view over the surrounding islands, hidden coves along both the east and west shelter white, sandy beaches framed with turquoise waters, and the food is beyond compare. Tavernas in the tiny mountain village of Melanes house the best fare you’ll encounter in the whole of Greece, while hiring an Airbnb will help you interact with the (extremely generous and intent-on-feeding-you) locals.
Read more about Naxos here.
It’s not exactly a hidden gem, but Oxford definitely deserves more airtime than it gets – and it’s certainly one to rivals the Baths, the Brightons and the Stonehenges that dominate English social media. The university town’s beautiful architecture is just a 60 mile drive from central London, and is a perfect day trip for rural lovers.
A walk around the university, the impressive Christ Church Cathedral and the surrounding township is almost like taking a time machine back to medieval times (ignoring all the double-decker buses and smartphones about). Sitting roadside in a quaint cafe with a pot of English Breakfast and a scone while taking in the towering stone buildings is what all stereotypical British dreams are made of.
Chianni, Tuscany, Italy
The rolling hills of Tuscany don’t need their virtues touted, but it should be noted that there are plenty of places in the tourist-friendly region that have yet to be invaded by selfie stick-wielders and tour buses. One of these sub-regions is the picturesque area of Chianni, and villages such as Terricciola (which is technically part of the Pisa province, not Chianni. But close enough, nonetheless).
After a hard day traipsing the ancient streets of San Gimignano and its surrounds, and eating your own body weight in cheese, bread, pasta and wine at the agriturismos, take a short drive into one of the surrounding villages. Terricciola, for example, is set on the top of a hill overlooking the undulating, lush green hills below. It’s a spot frequented only by the locals, and life just does not get any better than cracking open a bottle of Chianti in a spa on the balcony.
Parc National des Calanques, Marseilles, France
Many people haven’t heard of this huge, geographically amazing national park – and we’re here to tell you why you absolutely should listen up. The calanques of Marseille are some of the most stunning scenery of the south of France, far removed form the tourist hordes of the French Riviera.
Essentially, they’re craggy valleys that jut out of the sea at regular intervals, spanning the distance of about 20km of the coast. The rocky promontories take a short hike to get to, but just wandering around them and taking them in either from above, or below along the waterline, is a social media post to wow the masses.
Clignancourt, Paris, France
When most people think of Paris, their eyes glaze over with the romanticism a trip there evokes: a picnic under the Eiffel Tower, hours gazing at famous portraits in The Louvre, gazing over the city from beside the gargoyles of Notre Dame. It’s probably not high on people’s priority lists to spend hours wandering endless rows of second-hand goods and haggle with hawkers, but here’s why it should be.
The indomitable Clignancourt, also known as Le Marche aux Puces de Saint-Ouen, is as sprawling as a flea market can get – encompassing streets upon streets in a quieter, less tourist-crowded corner of the famous French capital. Here you’ll witness every stall you’ve ever thought imaginable, from household goods to marble garden sculptures. Look out for the antique book shop, and the chandelier shops. It is still Paris after all.
While more prominently associated with tragedy, disaster and war in our neck of the woods – Normandy is actually a pretty incredible holiday destination. In summer, flocks of French descend on the sandy beaches, rolling green hills and tiny seaside villages to escape the hustle and bustle of city life.
Normandy is home to Port Racine, whose tiny stony enclosure lays a dubious claim to the ‘smallest port in the world’ title, but is nonetheless a sight to behold – and it’s certainly the smallest in France if nothing else. After sunning yourself for a week or two as a complete recluse, the D-Day landing beaches provide an unmissable insight into the Second World War, and the museums and cemeteries are an amazing testament to the history of the area.
Rethimno, Crete, Greece.
Another island that needs no introduction, but is still dwarfed by its more famous and Instagram-popular neighbours – Crete has long been a destination for history-lovers and beach-lovers alike. However, while the hubs of Heraklion and Chania are where most people head, we think you should head for somewhere in the middle of the two and take a look around Rethimno.
An unassuming beach town complete with historic Venetian fort, Old Town with cobblestone streets and an impressive beach with warmer waters than you’ll experience elsewhere, it’s a drawcard more for the Greeks on holiday than international tourists, which means you’ll also get more of an authentic experience than you might elsewhere. Better yet – it’s the perfect base for exploring the east of the island, like the isolated beaches of Ammoudi or Plakias, the well-known Mediterranean strip of white beach at Elafonisi, and the wondrous Samaria Gorge.
Setting foot in the capital of the eastern German state of Saxony is like stepping into an open air Baroque architecture museum – or returning to the days of Sherlock Holmes or Jane Austen. While most people associate Germany with the rowdy parties of Oktoberfest, the industrial powerhouses of Frankfurt and Berlin, or the rolling hills of the south in Bavaria – there’s a plethora of reasons you should take a sidestep to the east.
For starters, Dresden is defined by some of Europe’s most celebrated art museums and Baroque architecture, largely concentrated in its reconstructed old town. The controversial bombing of Dresden in the Second World War killed over 25,000 people, and meant its people had to build many of its celebrated sights and buildings from the ground up.
Today, its Versailles-esque Zwinger palace house museums exhibit cultural masterpieces such as Raphael’s ‘Sistine Madonna’, and the city’s spires reflect in the Elbe River – akin to a mini Budapest. Nearby, the National Park of Saxon Switzerland, the Ore Mountains and the Elbe Valley countryside (including Moritzburg Castle) should be reason enough for a stay in Saxony.
Bloemenmarkt, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
There’s more to Amsterdam than debauchery and coffee shops. Its canal-lined streets, cultural and artistic legacies, and fairy tale-like narrow houses seem akin to a Little Venice – one where, admittedly you might stay out a lot later than in Italy.
But the capital of the Netherlands is also home to the only floating flower market in the world. Away from the busy tourists, you’ll find a tranquil oasis of floating houseboats lining the canals, offering freshly bloomed flowers for sale. Over a dozen local florists regroup every day of the week to sell their picks of the day, and a number of small souvenirs. It’s a beautiful corner and a tourist favourite.
The hidden gems of Soho, London
The hipster magnet that is Soho needs no introduction – but while you’re in the area, probably hunting for a hidden doorway to knock three times on before it swings forth and divulges a buzzing speakeasy bar, why not look out for these unknown treasures. The Seven Noses of Soho are the legacy of artist Rick Buckley in 1997, and involve exactly that: seven pairs of nostrils stuck haphazardly around the trendy suburb. Legend says he originally hid 35, but only seven have survived, and there’s plenty of myths to accompany them.
One good one is if you find all seven, you’ll have good luck forever bestowed upon you. On nearby Broadwick street, you’ll find John Snow’s water pump. A physician, Snow, not to be confused with his Game of Thrones counterpart) had the handle of the pump removed in the 1854 cholera epidemic, ending the outbreak and saving hundreds of lives.
By all means, then get back to searching for your secret speakeasy – or stop in to the overwhelmingly popular Burger and Lobster for, erm, burgers and lobsters.
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