5 Hidden Gems of European Travel
While Americans, sadly, cannot travel to much of Europe right now, we are dreaming of visiting these places as soon as we can! This is also a good reminder about why it is so important to stay safe, so we can all get back to visiting the places we love. As you envision your next trip, consider these hidden gems of European travel.
Annecy is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. This quaint little town is located right over the border of Switzerland, and appears to be straight out of a fairy tale. I could not believe my eyes when I saw the mountain views, the clearest blue water, and the tiny narrow streets.
It felt like a perfect combination of Venice and Amsterdam with classic French charm. I visited Annecy on a day trip coming from Geneva. It was so easy to take the bus. We arrived on a Sunday morning and spent the day wandering through the market, drinking mulled wine and snacking on the boardwalk. I visited in April, but if you can get to France in the summer, head down to Annecy to swim in Lake Annecy, enjoy the beach and water sports, and take in the majesty of the Alps. It would be the perfect place to unwind and relax after touring Paris.
While studying abroad in Madrid, Spain, I got to travel all over the country. There are so many fantastic cities to visit in Spain. You can hit the islands in Ibiza, go north to Bilboa, south to Granada and Sevilla, east to Barcelona and Valencia, or stay central and visit the capital, Madrid.
Toledo is a 30-minute train ride from Madrid as it is a common commuter route. Toledo is a medieval city that was once surrounded by walls. It is so rich in history and known for having a strong religious presence. While there for the day, we toured cathedrals, synagogues and mosques. The Toledo Cathedral is truly awe-inspiring, and my father said he enjoyed it more than the Vatican, which is a major compliment.
Toledo is also unique because it is nestled right on a river. We crossed the river on one of the few bridges and hiked up the hills for an aerial view of the city, which I highly recommend. As much as I love Madrid, I urge you to take a day to explore the totally contrasting architecture of Toledo. This trip will really force you to slow your pace and enjoy a city steeped in history.
Last January I went to Scotland and Ireland with my best friend from school. We spent most of our time in Dublin visiting a friend studying at university there. We loved Dublin but quickly realized we had more time there than we needed.
We took the DART about 30 minutes outside of Dublin to Bray in Wicklow County (tickets do not need to be reserved in advance). The train ride is gorgeous as you follow the coast the entire way there. Bray is definitely a summer town — it has a long beach with a super cute boardwalk, San Francisco-style houses and quaint hotels along the coast. When we visited in January, it was sleepy but we used the day to hike and meet local people.
Bray Head Cross is an awesome trail (it is a smaller section of a larger trail that travels along the coast) and fit for people of all ages/skill levels. It has a large payoff as it provides a 360-degree view: from the top, you can spin in a circle and see the town of Bray, look out over the Irish Sea, and enjoy views of rolling hills and mountains. The cross statue in the image above is the summit of the Bray Head trail. During the summer you can enjoy the beach, hike, swim, and dine all on the shore! I highly recommend this day trip to get a more realistic understanding of the Irish culture and countryside without having to stray too far from Dublin.
Here I am descending down the back of the mountain. The trail takes you between sheep farms, horse pastures and, at points, you walk parallel to a golf course.
When most people think of traveling in Europe, they probably do not think of Iceland. It’s such a unique and magical place, especially if you enjoy nature! While my family and I visited Iceland for just over a week, the city of Reykjavik is small and you could definitely get the vibe in a few days if you do not plan to see the countryside.
One of the biggest life hacks I have learned in my travels is that if you fly Icelandair to the mainland of Europe, you can take a “stopover” in Iceland. This appears on your ticket like a long layover but it allows you to have a few days in Iceland on your way to or from your final destination. What better place to get over your jet lag?
I loved Reykjavik, and after a week I felt so comfortable navigating the city. I loved all the colorful buildings and how cozy the city felt. We spent a lot of time going to local city baths, which are authentic and not commercial like Blue Lagoon. I highly recommend renting a car to see geysers, Gullfoss waterfall and the Northern Lights. If you do not have time for all of that, I recommend using your stopover time to climb the cathedral (awesome views), visit the opera house and The Settlement Exhibition, which showcases the Viking history of Iceland.
The last place I want to highlight is Bern! As someone who has had the opportunity to really explore many breathtaking parts of Switzerland–Geneva, Zürich, and the Alps–the capital city of Bern was surprisingly lovely. I absolutely loved the feel of it. The city is long and skinny and cradled on three sides by a winding river. It felt like a small town yet it had so much going on.
There are long gorgeous cobblestone streets with restaurants, vintage stores, and other small shops. We relaxed and sat in the sun at the Münsterplattform beer garden outside the Cathedral, heard an authentic alphorn player, and crossed the river and climbed up to the Rose Garden for drinks with an aerial view. The image on the left is taken from the vantage point of the Rose Garden.
We took the train to Bern from Geneva, which was super convenient and allowed us to enjoy great mountain scenery. Bern was so charming and it felt like a classic Swiss town. It was easy to imagine how Bern may have looked way back when, as it has keenly preserved a traditional aesthetic, leaving the modern feel to Geneva and Zürich.
If you enjoyed this post on gems of European travel, you might also like these other travel posts:
One Year Ago Today: My Life in Spain
Our Favorite Books to Inspire Wanderlust
Six Movies to Feed Your Travel Bug
The Best Views in Italy
Mastering the Art of the Staycation
Packing Tips for Travel
Pro Tips for Flying