Europe: Ten Must See Destinations Off the Beaten Path
1. Aegina, Greece. Just a stone’s throw from Athens, Aegina is an island in the Saronic Gulf about 25 kilometers from the mainland. Its sleepy character shelters hillside Orthodox monasteries, olive and pistachio groves, quiet villages, beaches, and ruins from Greece’s Golden Age. The most famous of these ruins is that which overlooks the tourist town of Agia Marina, the Temple of Aphaea. The Temple highlights Aegina’s glory as a rival to Athens. Dedicated to the Goddess Aphaia, the sanctuary dates from approximately 500 BC built atop the ruins of an older one from 570 BC. Known for its transitional elements among its plan and pedimental structures, the Temple represents an Early Classical style. The island’s largest town, Aegina, also has interesting ruins and the Cathedral of St. Nectarios of Aegina.
2. Aeolian Islands, Italy. Between Naples and Sicily are group of volcanic islands that are often by-passed or overlooked among the crush of sites to visit in Italy. A ferry ride of ten hours from Naples will get you here and the main attraction is the volcanic activity that wells up to the earth’s surface. Mud pots, hot springs, bizarre rock formations, and a volcano that erupts every twenty minutes on Stromboli are sure to keep you intrigued. It’s pretty a steep volcano rising from the sea floor and the cratered and cinder summit erupts continuously, at predictable intervals. A steep hike to the top will allow you to view this wonder. Try to time your hike at night where the hot pyroclasts illuminate the night sky. Lipari is the main island, with a quaint and historic town complete with a baroque quarter. It has quiet beaches and small villages, but not much else. It’s great for solitude. Vulcano, named for the festering crater on the island, has hot pots and steaming fissures. For a close-up look, hike up to the main crater which is steaming with sulphuric vents. Transportation to and between the various islands is by scheduled ferry service. The Aeolian Islands are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the active volcanic features.
3. Plitvice, Croatia. Plitvice is at the heart of Europe’s karst region, famous for its limestone and dolomite formations that include caves, sinkholes, and travertine dams. Located in central Croatia’s Dinaric Alps, Plitvice Lakes National Park is internationally recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unique natural qualities and biodiversity. Travertine dams have been formed by water flowing over limestone. Today a series of beautiful lakes and waterfalls are the park’s centerpiece. The adjacent beech forest is home to bear, wolf, lynx, and wild boar.
4. National Park Berchtesgaden, Germany. This is a very popular tourist destination but still off the beaten path. Virtually across the border from Salzburg, Austria, Berchtesgaden is an idyllic mountain town in the Bavarian Alps in the extreme southeast corner of Germany. Berchtesgaden’s mix of Romanesque and Gothic buildings date from the 12th century. Founded in the late Middle Ages for its famed salt mines (since 1517), still a draw to tourists, the highlight of the area is the massive of Watzmann (2713 meters, 8,900’), Germany’s third tallest mountain, and the deep, green Koenigssee at its base. The St. Bartholomea Chapel, on the west bank of the lake, should not be missed. Its red onion domes and white washed walls sharply contrast against the 6000 foot east face of Watzmann and the chapel is accessible by boat or foot only. Head to the picturesque village of Ramsau and its dramatic alpine backdrop. Another notably impressive mountain in the park is the Hochkalter (2607 meters, 8,553’) with its Blaueis Gletscher, the most northerly glacier in the Alps, although rapidly disappearing.
5. Gross Glockner Hochalpenstrasse, Austria. The Grossglockner Alpenstrasse is one of Europe’s premier mountain roads. Located in the Eastern Alps of Austria, it sees heavy traffic during the summer months but is off the beaten path of more popular alpine destinations in Switzerland. The highlights of the road include the panorama at Edelweiss Spitze (2576 meters, 8451’) and the Franz-Josef Hoehe (2369 meters, 7772’) which looks out over the Pasterze Glacier towards the summit pyramid of Gross Glockner (3798 meters, 12461’). No less impressive along the northern part of the route are the views of the Grosse Wiesbachhorn (3574 meters) around the village of Piffkar. Construction of the road seemed a boondoggle at the time and commenced in 1930. It was finally opened for tourism in 1935. The Alpenstrasse is one of the must-see sites in Austria. It is opened from May until early October and there is a toll fee. The charming village of Heligenblut, the southern access point to the toll road, has impressive views of Gross Glockner as well.
6. Elba, Italy. Elba’s significance rests with having “hosted” Napoleon during his first exile beginning in May 1814. There for 300 days with a staff and force of more than 600 before returning, Napoleon’s last Hundred Days were followed by the defeat at Waterloo. Subsequently he was given a much more austere exile on St. Helena in the middle of the Atlantic. The largest island of the Tuscan archipelago off Italy’s northwest coast, Elba sits about 15 kilometers from mainland Italy at the closest point and about 100 kilometers south of Livorno. This east-west trending island is a beautiful place with sleepy villages, fortified towns, sea cliffs, mountains, and tantalizing clear waters. To the west of Elba, in the same archipelago, is Monte Cristo, smaller, but just as famous for its inspiration behind Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo. Napoleon’s legacy can be seen with a visit to the sumptuous palace that he occupied.
7. Zakopane, Poland. Situated in a cul-de-sac in the High Tatra in southern Poland, Zakopane is Poland’s answer to Chamonix and St. Moritz. The high mountain wall towers close to 6000 feet above the resort town which includes beautiful alpine lakes and Poland’s highest peak, Rysy (2,499 meters, 8,199’). In summer the mountains are teeming with hikers and in winter with skiers. Miles of hiking trails criss-cross the mountains and the most popular mountain among hikers, Giewont (1894 meters, 6214’) meters), is said to resemble a sleeping knight. The town’s secret may not last long as it has made a bid to host the Winter Olympic Games.
8. Triglav National Park, Slovenia. Slovenia’s only national park is an alpine jewel. It contains the small alpine country’s highest mountain, Triglav (2863 meters), with dizzying verticals and beautiful glacially-carved scenery. Tucked in the southeast corner of the Alps, just across the borders from Austria and Italy, the national park is overlooked in favor of the nearby Italian Dolomites and LakeBled just outside the park’s eastern boundary. The north face of Triglav has some of the highest rock walls in the Eastern Alps and is a rock-climber’s paradise.
9. Cliffs of Moen, Denmark. The Cliffs of Moen, or Mons Klint, are perhaps Denmark’s most prominent physical feature. Plunging more than 300 feet into the Baltic, the cliffs are a bleached chalky white and are typical of the vast chalk beds that lie underneath northern Europe. Similar cliffs are found in Ruegen, Germany and Dover, England. The park also preserves beautiful beech forests which are great for walking. Trail access also leads to the base of the cliffs. The Cliffs are located in eastern Denmark along the Baltic Sea.
10. Glencoe, Scotland. Glencoe is set pristinely amidst the rugged peaks of the Scottish Highlands. But the beauty also hides a tragic violence that occurred in this valley. In 1692 a bloody massacre was carried out against Jacobite sympathizers in this peaceful valley. Thirty-eight members of the MacDonald clan were simultaneously murdered in different locations across the Glen because of their tentative allegiance to William and Mary (William and Mary overthrew James II during the Glorious Revolution). Forty woman and children of the MacDonald clan also died of exposure because their dwellings were burned. Today it is easy to forget the tragedy that occurred here because of the scenery. Part of the Scottish Trust, Glencoe is a beautiful cleft through the Scottish Highlands that typifies the scenery of northern Scotland. Rugged mountains tower overhead and steep U-shaped valley branch out from the main glen. There are scores of Munros, or peaks above three-thousand feet, along the glen, which is very popular with hill-walkers; the most famous are Buachaille Etive Mor (3353’), and Bidean Nam Bian (3,773’). Glencoe is located about three hours north of Glasgow along A82.
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